Misfortune in the shape of
reduced circumstances, illness or the death of a loved one often
drives people to prayer. But if the situation alters for the better,
not only does their impulse to pray abate- prayer itself may seem
pointless. But there is a different kind of prayer, prayer of the
spirit, fastened on eternity, and here no external well-being can
heal the sufferings of the soul who sees herself falling short of
the sought-for eternal. Then prayer becomes the normal state for the
soul, and the grace of the Holy Spirit may visit her, suddenly,
inscrutably, bringing a foretaste of eternity. For this visitation
integrity and faithfulness are the essential prerequisites. I have
before me a remarkable document, a letter from a former rabbi.
‘Why did I, a former rabbi, become a Christian?’ he writes. ‘The
question sounds strange in my ears. Did I, of myself, become a
Christian, following a plan, a purpose, after due consideration? No,
the grace of God made me Christian. My conversion is a mystery to me
before which I bow my head in awe. It was the Holy Spirit, He alone
transfigured me. When I accepted Christ the laws of Deuteronomy
ceased to be a means of drawing near to God…I feel myself all the
time filled through and through with Divine love. Of a sudden,
unexpectedly, independently of any effort of mine, light shone upon
me- the light that in the old days when I was a devout Jew was only
a far-off glimmer. All at once I beheld in myself the Holy One, the
Mystery of Mysteries and yet the clearest of all that is clear… As
for religious ethics, they are much the same in Judaism as in
Christianity: the commandments concerning morals are often expressed
in identical terms. In practice, however, they differ vitally. The
Christian ethic is given from on High, by the Holy Spirit, Who came
to us only after Christ’s resurrection. It is the same Spirit that
pious Jews dream of to this day: they feel Him, see Him, but only
from afar. But the true Christian lives in the Holy Spirit through
faith in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit captivates even our body with
the sweetest love, liberating it from thraldom to the passions until
the body itself longs to dissolve in the Spirit. And so it was not I
of myself who became Christian- it was God Who sent down the grace
of the Holy Spirit and made me so…The Spirit reposes within the true
Christian and encircles him round about. And all this happens
through faith in Christ. This is the process: faith attracts the
Holy Spirit, while the Holy Spirit strengthens faith, cares for you,
sustains you, encourages your ardent desire for the Kingdom of
God…To those who have not yet savoured true grace, my words will be
unintelligible. The process of true conversion cannot be described
or explained: it is something that the eye cannot see, that the ear
cannot hear. Filled with Christian sentiments, I heard my soul
speaking within me, telling me of my new birth in Christ; but she
spoke in the language of silence which I cannot find words for. I do
know, though, that my soul sang a new song, a sweet song of love
which lifted the power of the past from me. And this song
transfigured me and gave birth in me to a new will, to new
yearnings. Now I am as it were in love with Christ, and, you know, a
man in love with Christ has no desire to philosophise. He only wants
one thing- to love for all eternity. Do you want to understand?
Would you like to experience the grace of Christ? Then seek this
grace from Him Who can bestow it. If it seems that it is not for
you, since you cannot believe, my advice is to set your heart on
believing and you will be able to believe. Through faith you arrive
at faith. Persist in wishing for faith and it will be granted to
you. When I was a Jew I, too, had God and knew it. But it was a God
Whose attitude changed according to man’s conduct. But through
Christ, through the Holy Messiah and Son of God, I was led into the
sphere of unconditional, steadfast Divine love. This can only be
understood if you already live in grace. Christianity is the richest
of treasures equal to satisfying each and every soul.
‘In Christ is Truth, to which the Holy Spirit bears witness. And all
who believe heed His testimony.’
I have quoted this triumphant cry of a soul who found the Christ-God
because, though many have had a similar experience, few find words
to express the well-nigh inexpressible.
The Holy Spirit comes when we are receptive. He does not compel. He
approaches so meekly that we may not even notice. If we would know
the Holy Spirit we need to examine ourselves in the light of the
Gospel teaching, to detect any other presence which may prevent the
Holy Spirit from entering into our souls. We must now wait for God
to force Himself on us without our consent. God respects and does
not constrain man. It is amazing how God humbles Himself before us.
He loves us with a tender love, not haughtily, not with
condescension. And when we open our hearts to Him we are overwhelmed
by the conviction that He is indeed our Father. The soul then
worships in love.
St Gregory of Sinai goes so far as to say that prayer is God Himself
acting in us. ‘Do Thou Thyself pray in me,’ was the constant appeal
of Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscow in the last century. We also
have the witness of St Paul: ‘And because ye are sons, God hath sent
forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father’
Fired by the vision of our high calling, we strain to accomplish our
purpose – our yearning for Divine Love to dwell in us for ever.
Without this preliminary rapture of faith, without this fervent
reaching towards the loving God Who continually inspires us, we
cannot help falling beneath the massive pressure of the contemporary
world which does not know prayer.
Life-giving faith consists in unquestioning belief in Christ as God.
Only when Christ is accepted as perfect God and perfect Man does the
plenitude of spiritual experience described by the apostles and
fathers become possible. Christ is now the cornerstone on which we
must construct our entire life, both temporal and eternal. The
nature of the gifts which such faith entrains declares their
The Lord said: ‘But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet
and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy Father which is in
secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee
openly’ (Matt. 6.6). True prayer operates in our innermost depths
which we learn to hide from outside eyes. If I now venture to touch
on matters sacred for each of us, I am urged to do so by the tragic
atmosphere of tension throughout the world, and, more especially, by
my consciousness that we belong together in Christ. Let us,
therefore, as true brethren, share what it has been given us to know
by a gift from on High. (I would ask you to pray as you read, as I
pray God to inspire me with words pleasing to Him.)
Christ gave us the word that He had received from the Father (cf.
John 17.14). He spoke of Himself as the stone which will break all
who fall on it and will grind to powder those on whom it falls (cf.
Matt. 21.44). What then? Is it we who have fallen on this great and
wondrous stone, or has the stone fallen on us? We do not know. But
however that may be, we are precipitated into a world of realities
whose existence we did not suspect before. In the old days when life
for the majority flowed in the broad channels of established
tradition, the word of Christ was so presented as not to disturb.
But now, with the whole earth full fraught with man’s despair, with
the protest of consciences outraged, with violence threatening to
wipe out all life, we must make our voices heard. In our present
peril decorous words which commit us to nothing are not enough. All
of us today are in vital need of a firm faith in Christ’s eternal
victory, that we, too, may become spiritually invincible. A very
great deal depends on ourselves – to remember, for instance, that at
the baptismal font we received new birth from on High, in the Name
of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Those who are
baptised ‘with the Holy Ghost and with fire’ (Luke 3.16) perceive in
their prayer that every given moment of our life is enveloped in
Divine eternity. At all times and in all places we are held in the
invisible Hand of our Heavenly Father.
It is usual for the Christian to be aware concurrently of the
presence of the never-fading celestial glory and of the brooding
cloud of death hanging over the world. Though the feeling of death
torments the soul, it cannot extinguish the fire of faith. The
prayer throbbing within us sets us on the frontier between two
worlds, the transient and the one to come (cf. Heb. 13.14). This
painful rending forces us into still more fervent entreaty. We
recognise our sickness- the mortal power of sin working in us- and
plead for a physician. Then He Who said that He was ‘not come to
call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’, adding that ‘they
that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick’ (Matt.
9.12,13), does indeed answer our appeal. He heals our souls from
every ill, giving new energy, enlightening with an undying light.
The age-old experience of life in the Church has proved irrefutably
that for prayer- that is, for God- no sickness of spirit is
incurable. We may be born into the most unfavourable circumstances.
We may grow up in ignorant, rough, even criminal surroundings, and
be attracted by the general example. We may suffer every kind of
deprivation, loss, injury. We may be deformed from birth, and know
what it is to be despised, wounded, rejected. All that is
unfortunate in the contemporary world may make its mark on us,
possess us, even; but from the moment we turn to God, resolved to
follow His commandments, a process of basic healing begins. And not
only are we healed of our wounds or passions- even our outward
appearance may alter. This happened often on the Holy Mountain. Men
would arrive broken and reduced to a pitiful state by many years of
depraved living, yet after a brief period of profound repentance
their faces were good to look upon, their voices changed, they moved
differently- and the spirit shone luminous within them. If any of my
readers is suffering from some psychological wound occasioned by
failure in life, he can attain to a regal freedom of spirit and
radically change his whole life if he turns to God every day with a
personal prayer such as this, for example:
Prayer at Daybreak
O Lord Eternal and Creator of all things,
Who of Thine inscrutable goodness didst call me to this life;
Who didst bestow on me the grace of Baptism
and the Seal of the Holy Spirit;
Who hast imbued me with the desire to seek Thee,
the one true God: hear my prayer.
I have no life, no light, no joy or wisdom;
no strength except in Thee, O God.
Because of my unrighteousness I dare not raise my eyes to Thee.
But Thou didst say to Thy disciples,
‘Whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer believing, ye shall receive’
and ‘Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do’.
Wherefore I dare to invoke Thee.
Purify me from all taint of flesh and spirit.
Teach me to pray aright.
Bless this day which Thou dost give unto me,
Thine unworthy servant. By the power of Thy blessing
enable me at all times to speak and act to Thy glory
with a pure spirit, with humility, patience, love,
gentleness, peace, courage and wisdom:
aware always of Thy presence.
Of Thine immense goodness, O Lord God, shew me the path
of Thy will,
and grant me to walk in Thy sight without sin.
O Lord, unto Whom all hearts be open,
Thou knowest what things I have need of.
Thou art acquainted with my blindness and my ignorance,
Thou knowest my infirmity and my soul’s corruption;
but neither are my pain and anguish hid from Thee.
Wherefore I beseech Thee, hear my prayer
and by Thy Holy Spirit teach me the way wherein I should
and when my perverted will would lead me down other paths
spare me not, O Lord, but force me back to Thee.
By the power of Thy love, grant me to hold fast to that which is
Preserve me from every word or deed that corrupts the soul;
from every impulse unpleasing in Thy sight
and hurtful to my brother-man.
Teach me what I should say and how I should speak.
If it be Thy will that I make no answer,
inspire me to keep silent in a spirit of peace
that causeth neither sorrow nor hurt to my fellow.
Establish me in the path of Thy commandments
and to my last breath let me not stray from the light of Thine
that Thy commandments may become the sole law of my being
on this earth and in all eternity.
Yea, Lord, I pray Thee, have pity on me.
Spare me in mine affliction and my misery
and hide not the way of salvation from me.
In my foolishness, O God, I plead with Thee for many and great
Yet am I ever mindful of my wickedness, my baseness, my vileness.
Have mercy upon me.
Cast me not away from Thy presence because of my presumption.
Do Thou rather increase in me this presumption,
and grant unto me, the worst of men,
to love Thee as Thou hast commanded,
with all my heart, and with all my soul,
and with all my mind, and with all my strength:
with my whole being.
Yea, O Lord, by thy Holy Spirit,
teach me good judgment and knowledge.
Grant me to know Thy truth before I go down into the grave.
Maintain my life in this world until I may offer unto Thee
Take me not away in the midst of my days,
nor while my mind is still blind.
When Thou shalt be pleased to bring my life to an end,
forewarn me that I may prepare my soul to come before Thee.
Be with me, O Lord, at that dread hour
and grant me the joy of salvation.
Cleanse Thou me from secret faults,
from all iniquity that is hid in me;
and give me a right answer before Thy judgment-seat.
Yea, Lord, of Thy great mercy
and immeasurable love for mankind,
Hear my prayer.
To pray like that every morning is not easy. But if we pray from our
heart, with all our attention, the day will be stamped by our prayer
and everything that happens will take on a different character. The
blessing that we have sought from the High God will beget a gentle
peace in our soul which will have a miraculous effect on the way we
see and interpret the world. The man of prayer beholds the
surrounding scene in another light. Concern is quickened and the
intrinsic quality of life enhanced. In time prayer will penetrate
our nature until gradually a new man is born of God. Love for God,
Who verily sends His blessings upon us, liberates the soul from
extraneous pressure. The one imperative is to preserve this loving
tie with God. We shall not care what people think of us, or how they
treat us. We shall cease to be afraid of falling out of favour. We
shall love our fellow men without thought of whether they love us.
Christ gave us the commandment to love others but did not make it a
condition of salvation that they should love us. Indeed, we may
positively be disliked for independence of spirit. It is essential
in these days to be able to protect ourselves from the influence of
those with whom we come in contact. Otherwise we risk losing both
faith and prayer. Let the whole world dismiss us as unworthy of
attention, trust or respect- it will not matter provided that the
Lord accepts us. And vice versa: it will profit us nothing if the
whole world thinks well of us and signs our praises, if the Lord
declines to abide with us. This is only a fragment of the freedom
Christ meant when He said, ‘Ye shall know the truth, and the truth
shall make you free’ (John 8.32). Our sole care will be to continue
in the word of Christ, to become His disciples and cease to be
servants of sin. For ‘whosoever committeth sin is the servant of
sin. And the servant abideth not in the house for ever: but the Son
abideth ever. If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be
free indeed’ (John 8.34-36). The end result of prayer is to make us
sons of God, and as sons we shall abide for ever in the house of our
Father. ‘Our Father which art in heaven…’.
Real prayer, of course, does not come readily. It is no simple
matter to preserve inspiration while surrounded by the icy waters of
the world that does not pray. Christ cast the Divine Fire on earth,
and we pray Him so to fire our hearts that we may not be overcome
even by cosmic cold, that no black cloud blot out the bright flame.
Of all approaches to God prayer is the best and in the last analysis
the only means. In the act of prayer the human mind finds its
noblest expression. The mental state of the scientist engaged in
research, of the artist creating a work of art, of the thinker
wrapped up in philosophy- even of professional theologians
propounding their doctrines- cannot be compared to that of the man
of prayer brought face to Face with the living God. Each and every
kind of mental activity presents less of a strain than prayer. We
may be capable of working for ten or twelve hours on end but a few
moments of prayer and we are exhausted.
Prayer can accomplish all things. It is possible for any of us
lacking in natural talent to obtain through prayer supranatural
gifts. Where we encounter a deficiency of rational knowledge we
should do well to remember that prayer, independently of man’s
intellectual capacity, can bring a higher form of cognition. There
is the province of reflex consciousness, of demonstrative argument;
and there is the province where prayer is the passageway to direct
contemplation of divine truth.
There is a pronounced tendency among scientists of the present
century to claim integral knowledge of the natural world. ‘The sum
total of all that is already known emphasises the unlimited capacity
of the human mind, and proves that every natural phenomenon is
cognizable’, declared a Russian scientist in 1958. We, Christians,
similarly aspire to integral knowledge of being, in the deepest and
widest sense. The world of matter does not yet encompass plenitude
of being. Without belittling the importance of experimental science,
of vital necessity, perhaps, in the struggle for existence, we still
cannot overlook its limitations. I once heard the following story of
a professor of astronomy who was enthusiastically discoursing in a
planetarium on the nebulae and like marvels. Noticing an
unpretentious priest who had joined his group of students, the
professor asked him:
‘What do your Scriptures say about cosmic space and its myriad
Instead of giving a direct answer the priest in turn posed a
‘Tell me, Professor,’ he said, ‘do you think that science will
invent still more powerful telescopes to see even farther into the
‘Of course progress is possible and science will always be
perfecting apparatus for exploring outer space,’ replied the
‘There is hope, then, that one day you will have telescopes that can
show all there is in the cosmos, down to the last detail?’
‘That would be impossible- the cosmos is infinite,’ replied the
‘So there is a limit to science?’
‘Yes, in that sense, there is.’
‘Well, Professor,’ said the priest, ‘where your science comes to a
full stop, ours begins, and that is what our Scriptures tell of.’
Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov (2001) (2nd ed.) His Life is
Mine. Chapter 6: Prayer of the Spirit. New York: St Vladimir’s