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
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.
- Prayer within this Tradition is conscious, aware, and purposeful.
- In this Tradition, the definition of prayer sometimes includes verbs of “lifting” (e.g. lifting the mind and heart to God).
- Typically the mind refers to the mental aspect, while the heart refers to the volitional aspect or the center of the being.
- However in many of these writers [referenced in these lectures], the “mind” is simply a catch word for the spiritual aspect of the person and the “heart” is the symbol for the entirety of the being including the body.
- Therefore “mind and heart” is just another way of saying the whole being.
- It is the idea that God is not simply part of this world which underlies all the verbs of “lifting” when describing prayer in this Tradition.
- Prayer is also uniting, communing with, being in union with God.
- Therefore, prayer is both the uniting of the mind and the heart with God, and lifting the mind and the heart to God.
- Often people describe prayer as talking with God, conversing with God, as in dialogue.
- The idea of prayer as dialogue is not common in this Tradition because it is prone to so much misunderstanding and abuse.
- Usually what happens in a dialogue – even in human terms is that we end up doing all the talking.
- Another reason is that the purer prayer becomes, the less words are used.
- When “pure prayer” is ultimately described by those who know, it is not only without words, but it is beyond the category of words. This is known as the prayer of silence, the prayer of union which everyone is called to [strive towards]. This is a glorious condition of intimacy with God, in Christ, in the Spirit where we don’t speak.
- Instead of using words, we become “living words”, to use the expression of the desert fathers, a person becomes prayer.
- “Becoming prayer” is becoming a conscious act of union with the Father in order to do His will. It is possible for you to become this.
- John of the Cross writes of a “living flame of love” – one can become love [through prayer], because the purpose of prayer is to become what God is, to do his will, and what God wants is for us to be what He is, and He is love.
Prayer is consciously, purposefully, uniting one’s whole being with God. Why? because this fulfills the human purpose as made in the image and likeness of God.
- Where do we pray? Everywhere.
- When do we pray? Always.
- How do we pray? Any way you know, but this doesn’t mean do your own thing. It means that every person will pray differently because every person is unique.
- Prayer is uniquely personal, but we are not “alone” with God.
- Communion with God is communion with everyone and everything because God Almighty is not alone, He has a Son and the Holy Spirit.
- God is divine and with everything and everyone, so we cannot be “alone” with God.
- In one sense, it is a delight and joy [to realize you are not alone with God in prayer] as you discover that you’re put into communion with everyone and everything, but in another sense this can cause pain because as long as the ego is still alive, we don’t like that.
The Man that wanted to see God
There’s a well-known story in the tradition about a man that came to the monastery and told the Abbott that he wanted to join the brotherhood, and when the Abbott asked him why, and he answered that he wanted to see God. He even asked the Abbott, “do you see God?” The Abbott answered, “yeah. I do”. The man said oh you mean if I join your community, I’ll see God too? The Abbott said “yeah, sure”. So the man said “let’s go, what do I have to do? How many prayers do I have to say? How many Psalms? How much fasting? How many prostrations? What do I have to do to see God?” The Abbott answered “you don’t have to do anything, just come with me and I’ll show you God and then you can just go about your business if you want.” So the Abbott took the man into the monastery and showed him the worst of all the brothers, the meanest, dirtiest, lowliest monk and the Abbott pointed at the lowly monk and said “God”! And the curious man said “you mean to tell me that’s God?” The Abbott said “yeah, if you don’t come to see God in him, you’re not going to see God anywhere.”
- The moral of the story is that if you’re trying to see God “alone” you are going to come to discover God in everyone and everything and certainly in everyone who is made in the image and likeness of God and you are certainly going to discover Christ in everyone.
God is not Alone
- Even St. Anthony the Great, who was the hermit par excel-lance, has a famous word, he who wins his brother wins his God. He who offends his brother sins against his God.
- As a hermit in a cave, St. Anthony claimed that he learned “we are members one of another”. He mentions this in every letter.
- St. Seraphim of Sarov was a recluse for 15 years not talking to anybody. He didn’t even look at the person who brought him Holy Communion, he covered his face with a cloth, he ate cabbage, he prayed for a thousand days and nights and when he finally came out of seclusion, he greeted everyone with the greeting “Christ is risen!” and called everyone “my treasure and my joy”.
- St. Silouan on Mount Athos said that he came to know the Lord and the Holy Spirit through his monastic way and he saw two things:
- 1.) the cross of Christ
- 2.) his brother
- He writes that the Lord said to him, “Your brother is your life”.
- Seeking God is not some kind of seeking of the alone.
- Seeking God is to find Him and then in the end we are never really alone.
- Seeking God must be in all purity for what He is and for His will.
- Seeking God must be constant
- Each person that seeks God will do it in his or her own way and that is what has to be discovered, because the Teacher is the Holy Spirit, the Teacher is Christ.
Traits of a Person Who Prays
- That person who is really in touch with the Lord demonstrates:
- Gifts of the Holy Spirit, what the Apostle Paul called the Fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, peace, joy, patience, kindness goodness, gentleness, fidelity, purity and self-control (Galatians 5).
- Most specifically love; and love in the the Christian sense means crucifixion for the enemy.
- Judges nobody
- Condemns no one
- Gives to the enemy
- Blesses those who curse
- Lives the blessed life that is described in the Sermon on the Mount. These are the proofs of one who prays.
- If none of those fruits are there then anything else is superfluous and may be even of the devil.
- It is fidelity in the little things and the love of the enemy even unto death that are signs of one who authentically prays to God.
- If you are not willing to literally have these things as your goal, you better not pray and you most specifically better not pray for other people because if you pray for other people that means you have to be willing to die for them if you could.
- Some say “the least I can do is pray” – actually that is the most you can do because if you do, then you’re going to be led to do things and if you’re NOT being led to do thing then your prayer is not only in vain, but it condemns you.
Prayer is rooted and grounded in the life of the Church
- A person that wants to pray must first be rooted and grounded in the life of the Church.
- That means there is dogma in the person’s act of faith.
- This faith must be [historically Christian] including one God, one Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit and the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church as a community that exists in space and time.
- The practice of prayer takes place within the Church in a dogmatically liturgical context because the liturgy of the Church is the expression of the Church’s dogma.
The Church is a praying community.
- The Church is:
- a praying community.
- a worshiping community.
- the setting where the Mystery of our communion with God through Christ in the Holy Spirit takes place.
- where the Mystery of God’s life becomes ours, and our lives become His through Christ and the Spirit.
- how the Great Mystery of creatures becoming the body and the bride of Christ takes place.
- The life of the Church is a life hidden with Christ in God already.
“The Church is not an organization that has mysteries, it is a Mystery that has organization.“
– Fr. Alexander Schmemann
- St. Paul said “don’t you know your life is hidden with Christ in God?” Also, you are already dead in baptism and risen with Him [Christ] in newness of life.
- You [Christian] belong to Christ.
- You [Christian] are not your own but are created to be the temple of the Holy Spirit.
- You [Christian] have access to the Father in Him and your body is the Temple of the Holy Spirit.
- The above are statements of fact or dogma for a person who believes in Christ and has been baptized and sealed with the Holy Spirit and eats and drinks from the Eucharistic table which is the only actualization of the Church in space and time.
- Lex orandi, lex credendi (latin): “the law of worship is the law of faith” and the rule of faith is shown in how the Church adores [worships].
- The Bible comes alive in the Church praying and worshiping and when the Church gathers, she does so with God present.
- God is a member of the Church in the sense that He is the Head of the Church.
- The Messiah is the Head of the Church.
- Therefore whenever the Church is gathered as “Church”, you have the activity of God, not just human activity or a little prayer service.
Prayer is an action of God.
- When the Divine Liturgy begins, the deacon comes to the priest and says “it’s time for the Lord to act” – he does NOT say it’s time to begin the service to the Lord.
- Liturgy is the action of the LORD.
- Liturgy is the prayer of Christ to the Father in the Spirit.
- Liturgy is the prayer of the Church too because the Church is the prayer of Christ and Christ is the Head of the Church.
- The Church is Christ’s body and is in communion with God through Christ in the Spirit.
- Liturgy, prayer, worship or communion is the entrance into Christ’s prayer, communion and worship of the Father, in the Spirit.
- We don’t constitute the prayer of the Church – we enter into it.
- The prayer of the Church is already happening – we enter into it.
- In a sense, the prayer of the Church is happening eternally because it is the relationship between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
- We are being allowed to enter into the covenant community in the Messiah.
- Jesus Christ came to Earth, incarnate as Logos to embrace us and to incorporate us into prayer between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
- The Liturgy is the objective reality of the communion of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit given to us for our experience.
- When a person is baptized, they are born into that community.
- When a person is sealed/chrismated/confirmed they are anointed to relate to the Father with the relation that Christ has [through the Holy Spirit].
- When they are brought to the Eucharistic table they simply fulfill themselves as Christ by adoring the Father, giving thanks to the Father and worshiping the Father.
- Through the Eucharist we are united to CHRIST. Specifically, we are united with His broken body and His spilled blood.
- Being in the Liturgy is the context for personal prayer by the eternal Spirit to the Father.
The first thing that must happen if a person is going to practice prayer in the Orthodox Tradition is they must be a member of the Church.
- The above means first a person must enter into the Church’s common act, in fact the term liturgy means “common activity”.
- This common action is of us in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
- This common action is also of man with God, which is also why it is called the Divine Liturgy, because it involves God.
- The Divine Liturgy is not just a human activity, it is God’s action with us and our action with God.
- Every prayer is an activity of God in us.
- The Holy Spirit is in us, praying with us, becoming one spirit with us to call God “the Father”.
- There is no such thing as an autonomous human action.
- According to the Bible, there’s two ways:
- the way of blessing & life
- or the way of curse & death
- Romans 8 teaches we are either under the law of the Holy Spirit or we are under the law of sin and death, but we are never a law unto ourselves.
- If we are not liberated by the Holy Spirit, then we are still enslaved by the devil.
- The Holy Spirit liberates us to be ourself.
- The devil destroys our true self.
- Saint Paul teaches that when we sin, it is not us, but the sin in us and when the Holy Spirit acts in us, it is not I who live, but Christ lives in me.
- Saint Paul also teaches “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me because when Christ is in me, then I am who I am [by the grace of God].
- If I am not inspired by the Holy Spirit to become like Christ and to have Christ in me to call God “Father” then my authentic self does not exist – rather it is a false, compulsively lying, fraudulent self created in synergia, or cooperation with the devil (Satan) because we are vessels and mirrors by definition. We will reflect either holiness or unrighteousness.
- We either mirror the uncreated GOD or we mirror “the nothing” out of which we are called, but we are always a mirror, a reflection of something.
- We are always an image or an icon too.
- One of the primary purposes of prayer is to become more and more authentic, which means acting more and more by the Holy Spirit…the more I am in Christ, the more I am the “authentic me” because the more we are Christ-like, the more we find our own self.
- When you enter into the [worship of God] through the Orthodox Church, you enter into Christ’s relationship with the Father in the Spirit.
- This activity of the Church is found in the Divine Liturgy – a divine activity that God gives to us, reveals in us and shares with us, allowing us to enter into His activity.
- Liturgy means hearing the Gospel, chanting the Psalms, going to Confession, having a priest, going to Communion, repentance and common action with other people.
“Unless you are willing to follow Christ, unless you are willing to take up your cross, unless you are willing to live as a son or daughter of the Holy Church, don’t read another word of this book.”
– The Cloud of Unknowing
Anonymous 14th century book about prayer, pg 1