The below is an excerpt from the book, The Way of a Pilgrim. The passage that is the source of this material is much longer. To make it more accessible and suitable to a blog post, I have re-written and condensed it as well as I am able. Hopefully my audacity is not excessive and the full message remains intact and decipherable.
This book is a classic of Eastern Orthodox spirituality. Its purpose is to teach The Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me, a Sinner”) as a method for learning to pray unceasingly in accord with the instruction of St. Paul. Although the source is Orthodox, I believe it has something to say about our Franciscan life and Rule.
I first read this passage a little more than a week ago. Since then, I have felt compelled to return to it repeatedly. Hopefully, you will be inspired to read and reread it just as I have. As you do so, try to keep in mind Article 8 of our OFS Rule, which says in part:
“let prayer and contemplation be the soul of all they are and do.”
Perhaps this passage has something to say about how this requirement of our Rule can be fulfilled?
“How am I to be saved?”
This godly question naturally arises in the mind of every Christian who realizes the enfeebled nature of man. Everyone with faith in immortality is involuntarily faced with this thought.
In seeking a solution, inquiries are made of the wise. Edifying books by spiritual writers are read and one sets out to follow the truths discovered. A devout life and heroic struggles that result in a decisive denial of self are presented as necessary conditions of salvation. These are to lead to the performance of good works that witness to one’s unshakable firmness of faith and these conditions of salvation must be fulfilled with the deepest humility. Just as the rays of the sun only kindle a flame when magnified to a single point, all good works should support, complete, and encourage one another. Otherwise, “He that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.”
In addition to this, one hears the highest praise bestowed upon the beauty of virtue and censure assigned to the misery of vice. Truthful promises are made of either majestic rewards or tormenting punishment in the life to come.
Guided in this way, one who ardently wishes for salvation sets off in all joy to carry out what he has learned. But alas! At the first step one finds it impossible to achieve this purpose. Enfeebled nature has the upper hand against the convictions of the mind, free will is bound, and spiritual strength dissipates in weakness.
This thought naturally occurs: Those who have found salvation and holiness must know how to fulfill what God requires. To reconcile the demands of conscience and one’s inadequate capacity to fulfill them, application is made once more to the preachers of salvation.
The question is repeated: “How am I to be saved?”
How will my inability to carry out the conditions of salvation be rectified?
The answer comes back as:
Ask God. Pray to God. Pray for His help.
“Would it not have been more fruitful,” the inquirer concludes, “if I had begun with a study of prayer as the power by which salvation is attained?” One reads and meditates and studies the teaching of those who have written about prayer. Many luminous thoughts are revealed. Some reason beautifully about the necessity of prayer and others write of its beneficial effect. Prayer is revealed as a happy duty. It calls for zeal, attention, warmth of heart, purity of mind, reconciliation with one’s enemies, humility, and contrition.
But what is prayer in itself? How does one actually pray? A precise, easily understood answer is rarely found. The ardent inquirer is again left before a veil of mystery. His general reading roots in his memory an aspect of prayer which, although devout, is only external. He arrives at the conclusion that prayer is going to church, crossing oneself, repeating rote formulas, etc.
This is the view of prayer taken by those who do not know the teachings of the Holy Fathers about inward prayer and contemplative action. At length, the seeker comes across the Philokalia, in which twenty-five Holy Fathers set forth in an understandable way the scientific knowledge of the truth and essence of prayer of the heart. This begins to draw aside the veil hiding the link between prayer and the secret of salvation. One sees that true prayer directs the thought and memory, without relaxing, to the recollection of God. In true prayer, one walks continuously in His divine presence and is awakened to His love by thoughts of Him.
The name of God is linked with one’s breathing and the beating of one’s heart. The Jesus Prayer, said continuously, in all places, during every occupation, unceasingly, becomes a guide. These luminous truths, by opening the way to the study and achievement of prayer, encourage us to put these wise teachings into practice at once.
Nevertheless, when one attempts this prayer, difficulty is still encountered. Until the whole truth is fully accepted, that incessant prayer is the only effective means for perfecting interior prayer and for saving of the soul, struggles continue.
One must accept that frequent prayer is the basis that holds the whole system of saving activity together. As Simeon the New Theologian says, “He who prays without ceasing unites all good in this one thing.”
For the salvation of the soul, true faith is necessary. Holy Scripture says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” A man without faith will be judged. But from the same Holy Scriptures we learn that faith does not come from man. It is a gift of God given by the Holy Spirit. How do we reconcile man’s need of faith with the impossibility of producing it solely by human effort? Again, Holy Scripture is consulted: “Ask, and it shall be given you.” The Apostles could not arouse the perfection of faith within themselves, but they prayed to Jesus Christ, “Lord, increase our faith.”
This example shows that faith is attained by prayer.
For the salvation of the soul, besides true faith, good works are also required. Man is judged not by faith alone, but also by his works:
- “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments: Do not kill; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness; honor thy father and mother; love thy neighbor as thyself.”
- “Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, is guilty of all.”
- “For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin…. To will is present within me, but how to perform that which is good I find not…. The evil which I would not do, I do…. With the mind I serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.”
The third quote is from St. Paul. If he was unable to will himself to good works, how shall we? If man is without the strength to keep the commandments, how are the required works of God to be fulfilled?
Again, “you have not because you ask not.” One has no possibility of doing this until one prays for it. Jesus Christ Himself says:
- “Without Me you can do nothing.”
- “Abide in Me and I in you. He that abides in Me and I in him brings forth much fruit.”
- “If you shall ask anything in My name, that I will do.”
To be in Him means to continually feel His presence, to continually pray in His name. Thus, the possibility of doing good works is also reached by prayer.
Recall that the Apostle Paul prayed for victory over temptation three times, bowing the knee before God the Father, that He would give him inner strength. In response he was bidden above all things to pray unceasingly.
It follows that the whole salvation of man depends upon prayer. By prayer faith is quickened and through prayer all good works are performed. Everything goes forward successfully with prayer; without it, no act of Christian piety can be done.
From this we deduce that prayer should be continuous. “Pray without ceasing.” Pray always and pray everywhere with a pure mind and heart, with burning zeal, with close attention, with fear and reverence, and with the deepest humility.
But then the conscientious person reflects and must admit to being far from fulfilling this instruction. Too often prayer is offered more from necessity than by inclination, enjoyment, or love. About this Holy Scripture says that it is not in the power of man to keep his mind steadfast:
- “The thoughts of man are evil from his youth.”
- “My spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful.”
- “We know not what we should pray for.”
We surmise that human beings are unable to offer true prayer.
Given this powerlessness, what remains possible for the salvation of the soul from the side of human will and effort? Man cannot acquire faith without prayer; the same applies to good works. And finally, even to pray purely is not within our power. What, then, is left for us to do?
What scope remains for the exercise of our freedom and strength, so that we may not perish but be saved?
God reserves to His Own Will and Gift the quality of every action, including prayer. In order that the dependence of man upon the Will of God be shown clearly, and that man be plunged more deeply into humility, God has assigned to the will and strength of man only quantity when it comes to prayer. He commands unceasing prayer. By this the secret, the method of achieving true prayer, and at the same time faith, good works, and salvation, is revealed. Quantity of prayer is assigned to us as our share.
Frequency of prayer is our own and all that is within the province of our human will.
St. Macarius the Great says truly to pray is the gift of grace. Isaiah the Solitary says that frequency of prayer turns into second nature, and without frequent calling upon the name of Jesus Christ it is impossible to cleanse the heart. The venerable Callistus and Ignatius counsel that frequency will bring even imperfect prayer to perfection. Blessed Diadochos asserts that if a man calls upon the name of God as often as possible, then he will not fall into sin.
What experience and wisdom are here! In their experience and simplicity, these Fathers throw much light on how to bring the soul to perfection!
Reason urges us to perform good actions, be armed with our courage, employ the strength of our wills, cleanse our minds and hearts from worldly dreams, fill their place with instructive meditations, and live in the way that conscience requires. But alas! All that cannot attain its purpose without the frequent prayer that summons the help of God.
What a contrast between the teaching of the Fathers and the counsel of theoretical reason, which presumptuously strives to attain purity by only its own efforts!
We conclude that the principal method of reaching the goal of salvation and spiritual perfection is the frequency and uninterruptedness of prayer, however feeble it may be.
Christian soul, if you do not find within yourself the power to worship God in spirit and in truth, if your heart still feels no warmth in mental and interior prayer, then bring to the sacrifice of prayer what you can in your current state.
Let the humble instrument of your lips grow familiar with persistent prayerful invocation. Let them call upon the mighty name of Jesus Christ often and without interruption. This is not a great labor and is within the power of everyone.
- “By Him, therefore, let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name.”
Ceaseless prayer forms a habit and becomes second nature. It brings the mind and the heart into a proper state. If a man fulfills this one commandment of God, then in that one thing all is fulfilled. Always offer prayer, calling upon the most holy name of Jesus (even if at first you do so without spiritual ardor or zeal), and by this avoid wasting time in pursuit of sinful pleasures of the senses.
Every evil thought will meet opposition to its growth. Sinful acts will not come to fruition so readily as when your mind is empty. Vain talking will be checked and every fault at once cleansed from the soul by the gracious power of His divine name. The frequent exercise of prayer will recall the soul from sinful action and summon it to its essential exercise, to union with God.
Now do you see how important and necessary quantity is in prayer? Frequency in prayer is the one method of attaining pure and true prayer. It is the surest way of reaching the goal of salvation.
To convince yourself finally about the necessity and fruitfulness of frequent prayer, note that every thought of prayer is the work of the Holy Spirit. Remember that the name of Jesus Christ invoked in prayer contains self-acting salutary power. Do not be disturbed by imperfection in your prayer. Await with patience the fruit of frequently calling upon the divine name. Do not listen to the thoughtless insinuation of the vain world that lukewarm invocation, even if it be persistent, is useless repetition. Believe that frequent calling upon the power of the divine name will reveal its fruit in its season.
A spiritual writer has spoken beautifully about this:
- “I know that to many so-called wise philosophers, who search everywhere for practices that are noble in the eyes of reason and pride, the simple but frequent exercise of prayer appears of little significance. But they deceive themselves. They forget the teaching of Jesus Christ: ‘Unless you become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’ They establish for themselves a science of prayer on the unstable foundations of natural reason. Do we require learning to say with a pure heart, ‘Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me’? Does not our divine teacher Himself praise such frequent prayer? Have not wonderful answers been received and wonderful works been done by this brief but frequent prayer? Ah, Christian soul, pluck up your courage and do not silence the unbroken invocations of your prayer, although it may be that this cry of yours comes from a heart which is still at war with itself and half filled by the world. Never mind! Go on with it and do not let it be silenced! It will purify itself by repetition. Never let your memory lose hold of this: ‘Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.’”
Be convinced that frequent prayer, powerful against all human weakness, is attainable by man.
Make up your mind to try! Start with a single day!
Maintain a watch over yourself for twenty-four hours and see that the frequent calling upon the name of Jesus Christ prevails over other matters. This triumph of prayer over worldly affairs will show you that this day has not been lost but has been secured for salvation. In the scales of the divine judgment frequent prayer outweighs your weaknesses and blots out the sins of the day in the memorial book of conscience. It sets your feet upon the ladder of righteousness and gives you hope of sanctification in the life to come.
Remember always, “God is greater than our heart, and He knows all things.”