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.
- In this Tradition, it is claimed that if a person tries to pray unceasingly but doesn’t have particular times when they specifically pray, chances are their unceasing prayer isn’t going to work well if at all.
- The key text [about how to pray] is from the Gospel of Matthew, during the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus teaches about prayer, fasting and almsgiving and the general principle that covers them all is in the first line of the sixth chapter – beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
All acts of piety, in order to be done properly, must be done in secret. That is the Christian principle.
- Anything that we do of a pious nature should be done in secret.
- Anything that we do that would be good and holy and laudable should be done in secret.
- Jesus says very clearly:
- When you pray don’t appear to men to be praying.
- When you fast don’t appear to be fasting.
- When you give alms don’t sound the trumpet, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.
- A very conscious effort should be made to appear to not be doing these things. For example, the text about fasting which claims that you should actually wash your face and anoint your face (Matthew 6:17-18).
Secret Piety: St. Macarius the Great
A nice example of secret piety is found in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, where it was said of Macarius the Great that whenever anyone went to visit him, if they were coming with good intentions, he would talk with them, and he would say “Ah, there is no need to pray, you’re here the Bridegroom is here”…or he would pray very perfunctorily, he would say, a couple of Psalms, but then when the person would be absent, he would double his intention, and the teaching is that he would do this with fasting, so the idea was that when you went with him, he had to feed you, and even if it was a fasting period, he would feed, because the Scripture says you cannot fast when the Bridegroom is present, when the Bridegroom is taken away then you fast. But since the Bridegroom is Christ and every person is Christ to us, whenever anyone comes, you must practice hospitality, and you must not fast. You must give them [something] to eat. So the saying goes that whenever anyone would come to eat with him, if they ate one bread, he ate two and if they had one cup of wine, he drank two. Because he did not want to appear, not only to be fasting in secret but he did not want to appear to be better than the person visiting. But then the story got out that for every bread that he ate with the Bridegroom, he fasted twice in private and for every cup of wine he drank, he denied himself privately two cups of water so the word got around the desert, when you visit him don’t eat too much! Because you’re gonna kill the old man!
- [In the Christian Tradition], the secrecy, the privacy of piety is very important and of course Jesus says a person who does these things in order to have the praise of men loses their reward – they’ve got it already.
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this:
Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our debts,
As we also have forgiven our debtors;
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.“
– Matthew 6:5-14
- Jesus is teaching when you pray, you are to do it in secret.
- You are not to do it publicly like the hypocrites who love to stand and pray in synagogues, which is after all the place of prayer, the place of gathering and in the street corners in order that they may be seen by men – “truly I say they have their reward”.
- First this is a warning about praying in order to be seen.
- Appearing as praying to people in public (e.g. in restaurants and other public venues) is not considered part of the historical Christian witness.
- The Liturgy should never be used as a public demonstration – never is the Eucharist taken on the street for a demonstration purpose.
- Never pray against anybody. St. John Chrysostom says beware of praying against anybody…not even the blasphemer, not even the heretic. You pray for them, because God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of Truth.
- The Stylite fathers did not get on a pillar to pray in front of people as a witness, they got on a pillar to point to heaven as a prophetic witness that the kingdom of God exists, but they didn’t say “come right up and watch me pray!”.
- If any of the Stylite ascetics were doing that to get the praise of men, then they were possessed by the demon on top of their pillar.
- Not every Stylite is canonized a saint.
- Not every “fool” is for Christ’s sake.
- Not every suffering is the “dark night of the soul” either, some of it is just plain from our own sins.
- There is that narrow path, but if a guy or a woman would climb a pillar in order to prove something to someone else relative to their own sanctity, then they are in the hands of the devil and not God.
- Did Jesus forbid praying in the synagogues or praying on the street corner? No, he didn’t because the Jews had to pray everywhere, be it the street corner or a house of prayer such as the synagogue or the the Temple.
- We know Jesus had great zeal for the Temple. It was even prophesied in the Old Testament and demonstrated in the cleansing of the Temple.
- The Gospel of John begins with the account of the cleansing of the Temple by the Savior and the Synoptic Gospels end with it; attesting that the Lord said “the Lord’s house will be a house of prayer for all people and you make it a den of thieves”.
- We know that Jesus went to the synagogue, we read in Luke that the Savior read the Isaiah chapter about Himself in the synagogue and that He went preaching in the synagogue.
- We know that Jesus kept the [Jewish] feasts, that He went up to the feast.
- We know it was at that Feast [of Booths] that Jesus went and transfigured on Mt. Tabor, and then His own body became the indwelling of the the glory of God and it was shown and that’s why Peter says let’s, build three booths (tabernacles) and stay here because it was a Feast of Booths.
- We know Jesus kept those feasts and He certainly kept the Pentecost (Shavuot) feast – a thanksgiving for the first fruits of the wheat harvest, which was later associated with the giving of the Law to Moses.
- The Savior’s first public appearance was at the Feast of Passover. He went to Jerusalem for that purpose, so Jesus kept it.
- Jesus is not against the synagogue but He is against using one’s presence in the synagogue in a wrong way.
- Jesus didn’t say when you pray, go into the Temple and do the liturgy, he said when you pray, go into your room and shut the door.
Although the [synagogue] liturgy was there and the gathering was there – prayer is still supposed to be something done personally in secret.
The most secret prayer of the heart is done privately, yet it is in communion with the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, all the angels, all the saints and all of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
- Prayer is done privately as opposed to publicly.
- Prayer is done secretly as opposed to openly.
- An attempt should be made to hide it rather than flaunt it.
- Prayer is done behind closed doors rather than with the doors open.
- This is the very definite teaching of Jesus Himself and of the entire Orthodox Christian Tradition [regarding prayer].
- The first interpretation of this text [from Matthew 6] is literally when you pray you set yourself apart as Jesus Himself very often did – He went to pray alone, He went to pray apart by Himself, and He prayed even through the whole night [at times], but He was completely alone without having anyone else directly involved.
- Therefore when you pray in that sense you should literally go apart in total privacy and do it by yourself in the secrecy of your own particular enclosure.
- There is also a “spiritual” interpretation of the text which is very common in the Cristian Tradition from the very beginning that Jesus’ words here also mean – go in your inner chamber and “shut the door” to commune with God in secret within within the door of the heart, the chamber of the heart, the inner room of your being.
- The “room” here is not necessarily a physical room, but rather a certain spiritually private space for communion with God which is constant, and consciously done in secret so that people wouldn’t know.
- Then within that spiritual “room” communing with the Lord directly without flaunting it to the outside world and without bringing in the cares of the world (in a bad way)… consciously attempting to be alone in this particular sense, with God in secret.
- St. John Chrysostom says that people can still go into their room and shut the door and they pray but the [spiritual] door isn’t shut – the intention has to be that one is communing with the Savior in secret within one’s own heart, not flaunting it to others, and still cutting off the activities of the world for this very particular activity of communing and uniting oneself with God.
- Then, when we are within that activity, [we should not] try to explain matters to God by piling up words thinking that God is impressed by the amount, or the quality or the rhetorical style of our prayers because the Savior reminds us “Your Father knows what you need before you ask”.
- The Savior teaches us to pray the “Our Father” which is not only the words that are given to us by the Lord, but this prayer is the paradigm of all prayer.
- In fact, every single prayer in the Church Tradition is either an abbreviation of or an elaboration upon the Lord’s Prayer (the “Our Father”).
- Prayer is used this way but what about liturgy ? One of the main activities in the liturgy is our prayers.
- Fr Alexander Schmemann said we are to pray without ceasing, so we definitely should pray during the liturgy, but the liturgy as such is not prayer.
- The liturgy is definitely a gathering for prayer but it is also much more than that and much different than that.
- It is true, we go to liturgy to pray – but this statement needs to be qualified – prayer in the liturgy is a very particular kind of prayer in a very particular context.