About this content: What follows are notes taken from previously recorded audio lectures given by Father Thomas Hopko to seminarians. The recording audio quality was poor at times since they were converted from cassette tapes to mp3. The date of the recordings is uncertain. It seems Father Thomas named this series of lectures “The Practice of Personal Prayer and its relation to the Spiritual Life in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition”. With God’s help, this series of posts simply aims to share some of the main points of this teaching with other people who have a sincere longing for God.
The Goal of Prayer
- Prayer within this Tradition is conscious, aware, and purposefully done.
- Prayer is the conscious act of uniting one’s self with the true God.
- According to this Tradition, the true God is:
- The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses
- The God of Israel
- The God of Jesus Christ, the One whom Jesus Himself calls My God, and very particularly, My Father.
- The Father of Jesus Christ
- The God Whom, the knowledge of Whom is life itself and the knowledge of Whom is given in Jesus Christ by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
It is a dogma of the Orthodox Church that God acts outside the canonical bounds of the Church and God does not leave people without comfort when they authentically seek Him even outside the Tradition of the Church, but the focus of these lectures is prayer within the Tradition of the Orthodox Church.
- When prayer is practiced according to the Tradition of the Orthodox Church, a person is actually able to have communion with the One, true and living God by grace in the same way that the eternal Son of God has with the Father in the Holy Spirit.
Prayer and Sin
- We are created to have this communion with God, but we don’t have it because of sin and our evil. It is our choice not to have such union with God that breaks it.
- Very simply put – we don’t want it. People don’t want to seek the true God. According to the biblical story, Adam didn’t want the true God even when He was right there.
- God was walking with Adam as a friend it says, in the garden, in the cool of the day, but even that kind of communion with God can be rejected.
- No “degree” of prayer and/or communion with God ever guarantees anything. You can always, to the last minute, fall away.
- Study the famous icon in the front manuscript of The Ladder (by St. John Climacus), that shows even the monk, not to speak about the rest of us, but even the monk falling off the ladder at the top!
- According to the sixth chapter of Hebrews, …once having tasted, once having been illumined, once having been washed…that God forbid, but it is possible that having once been illumined to fall back into the darkness by choice.
- It is possible that having been washed, as it says in the letter of Peter, to only wallow again like a pig in the mire or to be like a dog who returns to his own vomit.
- Human beings had the full opportunity and the full consciousness to grow in a life of communion with God, but humans have decided by choice not to do that and have destroyed both themselves and their world.
- In a sense, Adam’s sin is his refusal to pray.
- In a sense Adam’s sin was his refusal of God’s gift of prayer.
- In his Letters to Malcolm, C.S. Lewis wrote that “prayer is not something that we give God, prayer is something that God gives us”.
- The Tradition would claim that in prayer, in worship, in adoration, in communion with God, in the seeking of God and therefore the finding of Him – because God allows himself to be known – we grow, we progress, we develop because the perfection to which we are called as made in the image and likeness of God is literally boundless; it is literally inexhaustible.
- The divine nature is inexhaustible and we are the images of the uncreated inexhaustible archetype, therefore our life is a constant growth.
- However, the reverse of that is also true. You can not only grow more and more God-like, you can grow more and more un-God- like. You can have not only theosis, divinization or deification, but you can have growth in nihilization, you can grow more and more into “nothing”, more and more communing with the foolishness and stupidity of what life is when it is not in fact reflecting and communing with God.
- The Tradition does not teach an inherited guilt as in the West and it certainly does not connect original sin to sexuality or sexual reproduction.
- The Tradition does teach that there is an inheritance of foolishness, an inheritance of derailment and if you are born into a derailed situation, you are more derailed than if you are born from a saint, so the original sin is a dynamic thing.
- There is a tradition of life and a tradition of death.
- There is a tradition of blessing and a tradition of curse.
- There is a tradition that hits the mark, that is moving toward the greater and greater communion with God and then there is a sinful tradition that misses the mark.
The Orthodox Christian Tradition teaches that God Almighty has acted to restore Creation to its proper direction and its proper wholeness and as a matter of fact has done so in the person of Jesus Christ.
- Salvation in the Orthodox Christian Tradition is a re-creation of Creation.
- Salvation is the restoration of fallen Adam’s image.
- Salvation is being put again on the narrow path that leads to life.
- Salvation is being called back from deviation to be put on the one Way that leads to life.
- The gift of God in Christ and the Holy Spirit is the re-giving of the gift of prayer.
- Christ allows us to have again the fullest, deepest, most perfect possible relationship with God that exists.
- Only in Christ is the most perfect possible condition for the most perfect possible prayer.
- It might very well be the case that someone is within the Orthodox Church and is way off the track, even though they might be using the right words, they may even have chotki (a prayer rope) and do the Jesus Prayer but as St. Theophan the Recluse says, “the only thing that they’re accomplishing is that they are ruining their lungs”.
- It is possible to be using the Jesus Prayer with chotki but be deviated, completely in delusion, while someone who has never even heard of Jesus Christ and searches with authenticity may be closer to the real God, actualizing their humanity according to the Uncreated Word and more in fact cooperating with the Holy Spirit.
- The Orthodox Christian Church teaches that if you enter into this Tradition with good will, good faith and that you struggle to follow it, then you have the total access to the Father.
- In the letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul teaches that in Christ we have access to the Father in the Holy Spirit and the access is complete.
- Jesus calls Himself the Door.
- Jesus is the Way.
- Jesus is of course the Life and the Truth, so being the Way, the Truth the Life and the Door – it is the Christian claim that in Him access to the Father is absolutely totally complete.
What is Prayer?
- Prayer is not just curiosity. It is wanting to know the Truth of things in order to live according to it.
Within the heart of the Church, prayer is the conscious and purposeful act of uniting one’s self with the one God and Father in and through the person of Jesus Christ by the inspiration and power of the Holy Spirit in order to know and come to know the will of God in order to do it.
- Prayer is the uniting of your whole being – not only your mind and hearts, but your body, soul, and your emotions and your passions [to God].
- Passions aren’t all bad, there are good passions and bad passions. Bad passions are just good passions used wrongly, but passions by definition are good.
- In the Liturgy we proclaim “let us commend ourselves and each other and all our lives unto Christ our God” – prayer is to commend and offer everything purposefully into union with God.
- Again, the Christian God in whom we believe in and to whom we pray is God the Father in and through Christ – this means Christ is the Way [to the Father].
- Our main Teacher in the practice of prayer is Jesus Christ, obviously if we unite ourselves to God through Jesus, then we do it the way Jesus told us.
- Jesus gave very specific teachings about how to pray.
- Prayer must also be an activity of the Holy Spirit because that’s the way it’s done for the purpose of knowing God and knowing God’s will in order to do it.
The whole purpose of prayer is to know and to do God’s will. The ultimate proof of whether or not a person is really praying is whether or not they are following God’s will in their behavior.
Prayer and Reverence
- If you persevere in prayer, you only come to the blessing or the curse, one or the other and any Christian who takes it seriously and goes into it will find this is what happens.
- St. Theophan the Recluse explained why some people actually become worse the more they do things like practice the Jesus Prayer, go to Church, participate in the Sacraments, kiss the icons and light the candles. Some manifestations of this “cursedness” instead of blessedness include:
- Instead of being more at peace, they’re more irritated.
- Instead of being more merciful, they’re more judgmental.
- Instead of being happier, they’re more miserable.
- Instead of being more generous, they’re more suspicious,
- Instead of being kinder, and willing to go the extra mile with other people, they become more picky.
- To explain this, St. Theophan simply quotes from the letter to the Hebrews, “it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God“…
- The “hands” of God are His Word and His Spirit according to the Tradition and prayer is the conscious act of putting yourself in the hands of God.
- When you go to Church, you put yourself into the hands of God, the Spirit is there, the Spirit is invoked, whether you like it or not, the service begins “Oh Heavenly King the Comforter… come and abide in us” and you are saying it if you are there, somehow there, “come and abide in us, be in us, the Spirit of Truth, the Spirit of Life”.
- St. Theophan explains a person can’t go through that and receive the body and blood of Christ and receive the icons and say “Lord Jesus have mercy on me” all the time, when in fact they don’t want the will of God, in fact they’re not interested in God at all – they’re interested in something else. Maybe their interested in being religious or spiritual or how much holier they are than the next guy, or checkin’ out who’s not Orthodox, or who’s not Orthodox enough… but they’re not in it to know God in order to do his will.
- Fr. Cyprian Kern said some people think that “prayer is informing God what He already knows and then telling Him what He ought to do about it.“
- Prayer, if it is not done for the purpose of knowing the will of God, destroys you.
- Prayer, religion, meditation and theology are not neutral things at all, there’s a right and there’s a wrong, there’s a sane and there’s an insane.
- According to the Tradition, there is a right way to pray and a wrong way to pray and if you pray the wrong way, you make yourself crazy, if you pray to the wrong things you put yourself in trouble.
The goal of prayer is to know God, the real God as He really is, not to make Him up, but to know God as He really is so that you can say in all purity of heart, “Thy will be done” and then when it’s shown, you are ready to do it.
- According to the Tradition sometimes people don’t find the will of God because they don’t really want to, or because God is telling it to them, but they don’t want to hear it or because God’s telling it to them and they see very well what it is but they don’t want to do it.
It is a terrible, awesome, terrifying, fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God, St. Theophan also quoted that last verse of the twelfth chapter of the letter to the Hebrews, “for our God is a consuming fire” and you don’t play with fire. Praying is playing with fire and if you play with fire, you are liable to get burned…