Saint Sophrony is a modern saint (glorified in 2019) who was born in Russia, eventually moving to Mount Athos to become a monk. He was the spiritual child of ascetic Saint Silouan and wrote about many of his teachings. On Prayer is a reflective memoir of his own spiritual journey.
What is prayer?
Prayer is infinite creation, far superior to any form of art or science. Through prayer we enter into communion with him that was before all worlds. Or, to put it in another way, the life of the Self-existing God flows into us through the channel of prayer. Prayer is an act of supreme wisdom, of all-surpassing beauty and virtue. Prayer is delight for the spirt.
Prayer is the highest activity of man. If you don’t pray then—to use secular language—you haven’t reached your “potential.” We are called by God to be like Him through grace. Without prayer this cannot be done.
Why is prayer so difficult?
…the act of prayer is too much for our earthly nature and so our mortal body, incapable of rising into the spiritual sphere, resists. The intellect resists because it is incapable of containing infinity, is shaken by doubts, and rejects everything that exceeds its understanding. The social environment in which I live in antagonistic to prayer—it has organized life with other aims diametrically opposed to prayer. Hostile spirits cannot endure prayer. But prayer alone can restore the created world from its fall, overcoming its stagnation and inertia, by means of a mighty effort of our spirit to follow Christ’s commandments.
If you don’t want to pray, force yourself. We force ourselves to do many other things in life that offer us practically no benefit to our soul, such as exercising or eating healthy, so there is no excuse to not call upon our willpower in moments when we want to do anything but pray.
The power of humility
The more we humble ourselves in painful repentance, the more rapidly our prayer reaches God. When, though, we lose humility, no ascetic striving will help us. The action in us of pride, criticism of our brethren, self-exalting, and hostility towards our neighbor, thrusts us away from the Lord.
Christ-like humility is an all-conquering force. It knows no degradation. It is divinely majestic. It is indescribable—what we portray in our words seems contradictory. Humility is an attribute of the God of Love, who in his openness to all creatures meekly accepts every blow, every wound, from the hands which he fashioned.
Pride, as the manifest or hidden tendency to self-divinization, has distorted the human heart: no sooner do we detect in ourselves some sign of spiritual ascension than this snake lifts its head and thereby clouds the mind, interrupts the vision, and drives us away from God.
Are you proud of your beauty or your body? It came from God. Are you proud of the color of your eyes? God made them. Are you proud of a good deed you accomplished? God inspired it. Are you proud of going to church every weekend? God motivated you. Everything good you do is from God, and so all credit must be given to him. You decided to serve God, to perform the good, and then He comes in to provide the necessary motivating energy.
Loving your enemies
Staretz Silouan described the state of our spirit when grace is given us from on high to love our enemies, as experience of divine eternity while we are still within the confines of this life. He both said and wrote, “The man who does not love his enemies has not yet come to know God as we ought to know him.”
We are all guilty
…it is we, and we only, who are guilty of all the evil throughout the history of mankind. God manifested himself in our flesh. Humility is a natural attribute of his love. Divine humility, we may adumbrate as a readiness to accept all and every wound at the hands of creatures created by him. And, of course, this humility is indescribable. But we did not just reject him—we put him to what was in our eyes a shameful death. And I saw in spirit that it was not absence of compassion on God’s part that was the case of human misery but, only and entirely, man’s abuse of the gift of freedom…
When Christ was on the Cross, all the sins of mankind poured into Him, including your sins. All the sufferings he endured were for you and all whom you love.
Moments of grace
For a brief instant he comforts the soul, touches the heart with his fire, delights the mind with a vision of his glory… and again withdraws, lest we should think that we have attained to the fullness of knowledge of him. Our lot on earth is to be “poor in spirit.” The moment we are invaded by a false feeling of self-satisfaction, the Spirit of Life proceeding from the Father forsakes us.
If you have a spiritual experience that is full of God’s grace, remember it! A long time may pass until you experience it again, if ever, because God doesn’t want you to build a faith based on spiritual experiences. He gives you what you need and no more, like a parent who takes away a child’s dinner plate when he has had enough.
Do you hate God?
Every creature having reason swings between two extremes—between love for God to the point of self-hatred, and love of self to the point of hatred for God. “Hate” for God means a falling away, a withdrawal from God. It is not necessarily inked with emotions of the heart, though this, too, may often happen. Hate can be a cool decision on the part of the intellect—the “enlightened” intellect, many would say, but reality is hide from them: their “light” may naturally evolve to a degree where all life is frozen out.
When for the sake of a “pottage of lentils” (Gen 25.33-34) people refuse the path indicated by Christ—divinization by the power of the Holy Spirit and the adoption of sons to the Eternal Father—the whole point of man’s appearance in the world vanishes.
You must suffer
We are called to eternal life in the Kingdom of our Father which is in heaven. But entry into the Kingdom for created beings inevitably entails great suffering. Many decline the Father’s gift of love precisely because the utmost effort is required to assimilate it.
It is imperative that we should experience both pain and horror, if the depths of being are to be disclosed to us, and for us to become capable of the love commanded of us. In the absence of suffering man remains spiritually lazy, half asleep, devoid of Christ.
This life is very short. The sufferings we endure, in the cosmic reality of eternity, is like stubbing your toe against the wall, and yet how we howl for our insignificant little toe! No, it’s better to suffer now, to take the lead of our Savior who showed us how to suffer (even though he did nothing wrong), rather than risk our salvation and suffer for eternity as a result of our spiritual laziness and desire for comfort.
Who is Jesus Christ?
Jesus Christ is the wisdom of God, the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world… which none of the princes and servants of this world knew (cf. 1 Cor 1.24; 2.7-8). Before him the whole world, all its peoples, walked in dark ignorance of the way leading to the kingdom of God and our Father. Now these hidden mysteries are revealed to us. We are given the surest knowledge of the ultimate meaning of our coming into this life The Lord spoke to us of the pre-eternal love of the Father for us, and in himself made manifest to us the Father as he is. But we in our mad folly crucified him; and when he was hanging on the cross we mocked him. And to this day we continue to scoff.
It was the Jews who crucified the body of Jesus Christ, but since He allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins, it was all of us who participated in His crucifixion. For every sin you perform, you crucify Him again, because only through the blood that was shed on the cross can that sin be remitted.
Modern Christians are weak
In France, having arrived from Greece, I met with the sort of people I had become unfamiliar with during my twenty-two years on the Holy Mountain—especially during the latter period when I was spiritual confessor to several hundred monks representing every aspects of the ascetic life on Mount Athos. I make no secret of the fact that I was completely disorientated. The psychology of the monks, their patience and stamina, so far excelled all and everything that I encountered in Europe that I simply could not find either words or outward forms for contact. What monks accept gratefully, in Europe shattered people. Many of them spurned me, considering me abnormally hard-hearted, a distortion, even, of the gospel spirit of love. And I concluded that the “norms” of monastic ascetics and those of people of Western culture differed profoundly. There can be no doubt that the most “abnormal” of all, both for the world of the “Great inquisitor” and of our own contemporaries, would be Christ. Who can hear Christ, or even more, follow him? What monks acquired after decades of weeping, our contemporaries think to receive after a brief interval—sometimes even in a few hours of pleasant “theological” discussion.
This passage is a strong hint to visit monasteries as often as we can to receive the fullness of what Christ taught. Parish priests, even in the Orthodox Church, often have to provide “baby food” for those parishioners whose faith is at a lower level, similar to how a school teacher has to account for the slower students in class before progressing to a more advanced lesson. Consider that many Orthodox Christians don’t know about the toll houses, and how upon their deaths, the demons will test their souls for sins. Parish life is critical, and we must be considerate to those who are cool in the faith, but nothing stops you from supplementing with more advanced teachings that come from experiencing the services in monasteries and receiving guidance from monks and nuns, who gave up everything in this world to serve God.
Secular knowledge will not lead you to God
Secular scholarship provides the means for expressing experience, but without the assistance of grace it cannot communicate really redemptive knowledge. Knowledge of God is existential, not abstract and intellectual. Countless number of professional theologians are awarded top diplomas, yet in actual fact they remain profoundly ignorant in the sphere of the Spirit. This is because they do not live according to Christ’s commandments, and so are deprived of the light of knowledge of God. God is love—but love acquired by torturous repentance and fear of God.
One could easily argue that the purpose of secular knowledge is to turn you away from God. Consider that young teenagers have been so imbued with the spirit of scientism and relativistic truth that it is a great challenge to even use spiritual language and vocabulary to teach them the truth of God. They reject it immediately without contemplation.
Just as in the life of each one of us God reveals himself gradually, so in the history of mankind as shown in the Bible “at sundry times and in divine manners” (Heb 1.1) he revealed himself to the Fathers and the Prophets with increasing power and depth.
Can a broken cup hold pristine water? So our damaged souls cannot handle the full revelation of God until it has been gradually repaired through faith and repentance. As your faith deepens, so will your knowledge of God.
The name of Jesus Christ
The name Jesus was given to us by a revelation from on High. It proceeds from the eternal divine sphere and is in no way the product of any earthly mind, although it is expressed by an everyday human word. Revelation is an act—the energy of Divinity—and as such belongs on another plane, and transcends cosmic energies. In its celestial glory the Name Jesus is meta-cosmic. When we pronounce the Name of Christ, calling upon him to communion with us, then he, all-fulfilling, hears us, and we enter into living contact with him.
Do not seek spiritual experiences
The truly repentant sinner does not seek after sublime contemplation: he is totally preoccupied with the battle against sin, against the passions. Only after being cleansed from the passions—still as yet incompletely—naturally and without constraint do hitherto unsuspected spiritual horizons, illumined by light, open before him, and mind and heart are raptured by divine love.
Learn More: On Prayer on Amazon