“Prayer is the primary work of the moral and religious life,”
wrote St. Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894). Theophan, once a bishop who retreated
into the Russian wilderness to live as a hermit, spent hours each day giving
spiritual advice in letters. This spiritual “Dear Abby” was particularly
known for his writings on prayer.
“The root of this life is a free and conscious relationship
with God, which then directs everything,” he continued. “It is
the practice of prayer that expresses this free and conscious attitude towards
God, just as the social contacts of daily life express our moral attitude
towards our neighbor, and our ascetic struggles and spiritual efforts express
our moral attitude towards ourselves. Our prayer reflects our attitude towards
God, and our attitude to God is reflected in prayer.”
Theophan argues that prayer is a barometer of our relationship with God.
It is the essence of our spiritual life. Communication with God, just like
communication with others, forms the foundation of our relationships.
“And since this attitude is not identical in different
people, so the kind of prayer is not identical either. He who is careless
of salvation has a different attitude to God from him who has abandoned sin
and is zealous for virtue, but has not yet entered within himself, and works
for the Lord only outwardly. Finally, he who has entered within and carries
the Lord in himself, standing before him, has yet another attitude. The first
man is negligent in prayer just as he is negligent in life; and he prays in
church and at home merely according to the established custom, without attention
or feeling. The second man reads many prayers and goes often to church, trying
at the same time to keep his attention from wandering and to experience feelings
in accordance with the prayers which are read, although he is very seldom
successful. The third man, wholly concentrated within, stands with his mind
before God, and prays to him in his heart without distraction, without long
verbal prayers, even when standing for a long time at prayer in his home or
The first of these three people is too preoccupied with himself to allow
his faith to take hold of his life. The second tries hard, probably appears
to be pious, but falls short. The third succeeds.
“Take away oral prayer from the second, and you will
take away all prayer from him; impose oral prayer on the third and you will
extinguish prayer in him by the wind of many words. For every rank of person,
and every degree of drawing near to God, has its own prayer and its own rules.”
Of what rank are our prayers?
“The root of this life is a free and conscious relationship with
God, which then directs everything.”
Quotes from The Art of Prayer—An Orthodox Anthology by
Igumen Chariton of Valamo, translated by E. Kadoubovsky & E. M. Palmer,
London: Faber & Faber, 1966, pp. 61-62.
Thomas S. Buchanan is a member of the Orthodox Church and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children.
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