The Hermit as Non-Conformist Monk

Posted in Uncategorized on December 8, 2016 by citydesert

“In the 19th century, St. Seraphim of Sarov shines brightly, a true “seraph.” For him, the Spirit was warmth in a world grown cold. Looking back on him in historical context, despite the popular pictures of him feeding his black bear, hunchbacked, walking with an axe handle, and kneeling in prayer on the rock for a thousand days and nights, he refuses to be imprisoned by popular piety just as he refused to be captured by all the roles he filled in his life. He was a light in the midst of the forest, in a Church deeply in need of renewal, in a time of great cultural stirring, in a society of political questioning. Donald Nicholl recounts how a century after his death, around his feast day people would bring fir branches into the anti-religious museum set up in the Kazan Cathedral in Leningrad. They sensed his relics were there. When the end of the Soviet era finally came, those relics were rediscovered and returned to Sarov.


St. Seraphim seems to have embodied many traditional elements, not just of Church life and piety but of Russian culture. Yet Paul Evdokimov and other biographers observe that in his person, actions and words he steps out of the usual, expected forms, overturning stereotypes and myths that have accrued to “spirituality.” It is no surprise that he was so beloved to many of the leading Paris migrs. St. Seraphim surfaces in Sergius Bulgakov’s The Bride of the Lamb as an example of the divine humanity at work in a person. He plays a major role in Evdokimov’s Ages of the Spiritual Life, a study of holiness in the Eastern Church. Seraphim stands out by his willingness to follow the Spirit through regular cenobitic life to a hermit’s vocation, to years as a virtual recluse, to an intensely active ministry of healing the distressed and organizing the Diveyevo women’s communities.

There was persistent criticism of his character and activities by local bishops, by his abbot Niphon, and by other members of the Sarov monastic community. Metropolitan Filaret’s editing of Seraphim’s words, very likely the smoothing out of details of his life, suggest the unease with which Seraphim was regarded. Despite an overwhelming popular cult, many icons, pilgrimages to his tomb, healings and prayers, it took the pressure of the Romanovs, Nicholas and Alexandra, to push through the decision for Seraphim’s canonization in 1903.

Numerous events attest to his unusual personality and spiritual activity. His early invisibility in the Sarov community gave way to notoriety for his reclusive behavior, his unusual dress, his detailed instructions for the construction of churches, the mill and the Virgin’s walkway at Diveyevo, not to mention the healings of both Michael Manturov and Motovilov of clearly psychosomatic afflictions, and the subsequent relationship between him and these two associates. There is Seraphim’s warm – but to some, scandalous – relationship with the Diveyevo nuns, his direction of their physical and spiritual existence down to details of prayer, dress and work.


The famous incident, recorded by Motovilov, richly illustrates both Seraphim’s personality and position. On a snowy winter afternoon, in a field outside his hermitage in the Sarov forest, Seraphim allowed Motovilov not only to see the luminous results of being in the presence of God, in communion with Him, he also enabled Motovilov to share in this experience himself. Motovilov described an almost blinding light, the warmth he experienced despite the winter cold, the beautiful fragrance, and, above all, the indescribable joy and peace – exactly what the New Testament indicates the real presence of the Spirit to be.

The most unusual nature of this “encounter” and the even more radical content of what Seraphim had to say is often overlooked. Seraphim stressed the absolutely universal character of holiness. Everyone can acquire the Holy Spirit. This is not the result of saying many prayers, lighting candles, keeping the fasts, attending numerous services. All this activity has but one purpose – allowing the Spirit to make his dwelling in us. God deeply desires the holiness of every person. Whether one is a monastic, ordained, a lay person, rich or poor, single or married – none of this matters.

Healed miraculously by the Mother of God in his childhood as well as in later life after a brutal attack by robbers, the recipient of numerous visits by her and other saints who constantly said, “He is one of us,” the seer of visions of Christ at the Liturgy, Seraphim’s biography appears to be hagiography. To be sure, many details conform to the classical models of a monastic saint. But there are important differences.


Though a monk and priest, Seraphim chose to dress as the peasants of the surrounding area, in an unbleached smock, birch-bark sandals in summer, boots and coat in winter. To be sure, he would don the riassa, cowl, the stole and cuffs when going to communion at the Liturgy in the monastery church. He lit thousands of candles in his cell for those who came for healing, yet he also rubbed holy oil on their arms and legs, gave out bread, wine and water to everyone, an extension of the Eucharist, even an image of the feeding of the multitudes by Christ in the wilderness. He raised his own vegetables, cut wood, cleared the brush, just as local farmers and early monastics did. He kept a prayer rule, read the Hours, and almost literally lived in the pages of the Bible. Visitors – from small children to troubled young adults – were urged to read the Gospels along with him. Accounts tell of the monastic community’s resentment at the hundreds of visitors lined up daily to see him, crowding the corridor outside his cell. Memoirs report that all kinds of people came: not only Orthodox but Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims and nonbelievers.

In the end, he does not conform neatly to the category of monastic saint. In St. Seraphim the categories of priest, monastic ascetic, even of staretz, are never rejected, yet he transcends them all. He flees even from routine monastic life to his hermitage, and both there and back in his monastery cell, the door is shut to all, even his confreres. But then the door is opened to all, and never closes again. After “fleeing the world,” he embraced the world. Through him, very reluctantly at first, the monastery too was opened to the world, a prefiguring of the wonderful openness of the elders of Optina, of St. Elizabeth and the Mary-Martha monastery, of St. Maria of Paris, and of Paul Evdokimov.


St. Seraphim extends the possibility of life in the Spirit to every person, in every situation in society. Any prestige due to status, ordained or monastic, is obliterated. Gone too are any stereotypes of what holiness looks like, of what ascetic practices are necessary. He keeps all the monastic rules and churchly traditions, yet his life and his words make it clear that these are but means to an end and never an end in themselves. When one has recognized the Holy Spirit, prayers cease, for the Spirit takes over, praying in one’s life, making all of one’s life prayer. “Acquiring the Holy Spirit,” he said, “is the whole point of the Christian life.” Still better known is this related saying: “My joy, acquire the Spirit of Peace and thousands around you will be saved.” Each person was his “joy,” every person, no matter how desperate, was being illumined by the Spirit. No wonder his greeting all year round was “Christ is risen.””

From: Fr. Michael Plekon “Becoming the Jesus Prayer” Source: In Communion: Website of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship Full-text available at:

See further on St Seraphim:

Valentine Zander St Seraphim of Sarov St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1975


“Orthodox spirituality has produced many holy and famous men, but none in recent centuries to compare with St Seraphim, starets of the monastery of Sarov, in Russia. After an initial period as a monk working within the community, he became a hermit, living deep in the forests in a world of solitude which was destroyed only when he was attacked by brigands, and returned to the community. In 1825, after fifteen years of living in silence, Seraphim began to receive visitors and to spend his energies for their spiritual direction. By means of his faith and asceticism he performed a number of miracles. His fame and humility brought to him for advice a steady stream of visitors, including religious and royalty. His humility and his concern for people made Sarov a center of pilgrimage until the events of the 1917 revolution.

Mme Zander has constructed his biography from the notebooks of people who knew him, the nuns whose spiritual director he became, the people whose lives he influenced, and the clergy who sought his advice. She adds to this information her own recollections of pilgrimages to Sarov before 1917. The life of the starets is told with a touching simplicity that allows his life and work to be their own witness.”

Ages of the Spiritual Life

Posted in Uncategorized on December 8, 2016 by citydesert

Paul Evdokimov Ages of the Spiritual Life St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press (March 10, 1998)


“Evdokimov draws from the great current of Christian spiritual life in the West and in particular the Eastern tradition, revealing how modern mankind may recover the voices of silence, prayer and contemplation. Ages of the Spiritual Life presents a different view of the spiritual life.

Paul Evdokimov’s spirituality is open to God, the world and to the neighbor. It is the spirituality of the Great Tradition of the Church, but refreshingly new, rooted in the Bible and liturgy but entwined with the everyday life of home, school and work, a spirituality that is truly “for the life of the world.” Models and teachers are the desert fathers and mothers and the monastics. Evdokimov’s gift is the idea of an “interiorized monasticism” for all. The true pattern of the spiritual life for us in our time means incorporating into our lives the basics of the monastics’ life: prayers, liturgy, scripture, work, love and care for the neighbor.

Our “fasting” then becomes fasting from obsessive acquiring, from addiction to work and productivity, from the frenetic pace of our lives. Our solitude is to be found in quiet, prayer, simplicity, and small acts of loving kindness. The spiritual life, we learn more, needs to find its particular shape in the demands and context of our time, our lives, not those of another century. Thus, Christ transforms us and our age. Evdokimov offers the spirituality of the whole Church, of the past and of the present, and the life of the saints, a gift from Orthodoxy to all truly seeking God.”


Paul Evdokimov (1902-1970) was a professor at St Sergius Theological Institute in Paris, Director of the Center of Orthodox Studies and served as the Director of the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey, Geneva. He has been appropriately called a theological bridge between East and West because he brings patristic insights to bear upon modern situations.

See further: Andrew Louth Modern Orthodox Thinkers: From the Philokalia to the Present InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove IL, 2015 – chapter 11

From the Philokalia to the Present

Posted in Uncategorized on December 8, 2016 by citydesert

Andrew Louth Modern Orthodox Thinkers: From the Philokalia to the Present InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove IL, 2015


“Andrew Louth, one of the most respected authorities on Orthodoxy, introduces us to twenty key thinkers from the last two centuries. He begins with the Philokalia, the influential Orthodox collection published in 1782 which marked so many subsequent writers.

The colorful characters, poets and thinkers who populate this book range from Romania, Serbia, Greece, England, France and also include exiles from Communist Russia. Louth offers historical and biographical sketches that help us understand the thought and impact of these men and women. Only some of them belong to the ranks of professional theologians. Many were neither priests nor bishops, but influential laymen. The book concludes with an illuminating chapter on Metropolitan Kallistos and the theological vision of the Philokalia.”

“Contemporary Orthodox theology is like a spring flower that has budded after a harsh winter’s thaw. This book signals the blossoming of Orthodox theology in the English-speaking world after centuries of inhospitable historical conditions under Islam and Communism. Previously confined to traditional Orthodox countries such as Russia, Romania, Greece and Serbia, Orthodox theology today is emerging with striking advances in Western Europe and North America. With vast erudition, this stunningly well-conceived book traces the influence of the spiritual classic, the Philokalia, on leading Orthodox thinkers, lay theologians and monastics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This original work provides an unparalleled resource for understanding the theological vision of Orthodox thinkers over the last two centuries. It is a landmark achievement that validates the thesis that the Orthodox Church is on the cusp of a major theological renaissance in the twenty-first century.” Bradley Nassif, professor of biblical and theological studies, North Park University, co-editor of The Philokalia: A Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality

“This is a brilliant introduction to the living theology of the Orthodox Church since the publication of the Philokalia in 1782, revealing the amazing diversity and fecundity of the Orthodox theological tradition. This is sure to become the standard handbook on the ways of Orthodox theology in the nineteenth and twentieth century inspired by, and inspiring, the love of the good and beautiful.” John Behr, Dean, St. Vladimir’s Seminary, New York

1.The Philokalia and its influence
2. Vladimir Solov´ev and Sophia
3. Fr Pavel Florensky and the nature of reason
4. Fr Sergii Bulgakov and the nature of theology
5. Nicolas Berdyaev—creativity, freedom and the person
6. Fr Georges Florovsky and the neo-patristic synthesis
7. Apophatic theology and deification: Myrrha Lot-Borodine and Vladimir Lossky
8. St Maria of Paris (Mother Maria Skobtsova) and Orthodoxy in the modern world
9. Modern Orthodox dogmatic theology: 1. Fr Dumitru Staniloae
10. Modern Orthodox dogmatic theology: 2. St Justin Popovic
11. Paul Evdokimov and the love and beauty of god
12. Neo-Palamism: Fr John Meyendorff and the Greek neo-Palamites
13. Liturgical Theology: Fr Alexander Schmemann and the Greeks, Ioannis Foundoulis and Fr Vasileios
14. Theology of patristic renewal: Metropolitan John of Pergamon (Zizioulas) and Fr John Romanides
15. Lay theologians: 1. Philip Sherrard
16. Lay theologians: 2. Dimitris Koutroubis, Christos Yannaras, Stelios Ramfos
17. Lay theologians: 3. Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, Olivier Clément
18. Spiritual Elders: 1. Mother Thekla (Sharf) and the English acculturation of Orthodoxy
19. Spiritual Elders: 2. St Silouan and Fr Sophrony: seeing god as he is
20. Theology in Russia under communism: Fr Aleksandr Men´
21. Metropolitan Kallistos and the theological vision of the Philokalia

Tracing the Jesus Prayer Westward

Posted in Uncategorized on December 8, 2016 by citydesert

“Tracing the Jesus Prayer Westward: Reaffirming Egyptian Influence on Western Monasticism in Late Antiquity”

by Patricia Ann Eshagh, Ph.D., THE CLAREMONT GRADUATE UNIVERSITY, 2016, 138 pages; 10046738



“In the ancient world, Egyptian monasticism became the standard model for exemplary asceticism. Its influence continued on to Europe in late antiquity and informed the development of western monasticism. Spiritual seekers learned the ways of the Egyptian monk by either reading authoritative texts such as the Life of Antony (Vita Antonii) or by hearing stories from people who visited monasteries in Egypt. Monastic texts documented the oral tradition of Egyptian monasticism, the experiences of visitors to its monastic communities and the lives of its spiritual leaders. These valued texts transformed people’s lives and shaped the way in which later generations approached their commitment to monastic life.

In the nineteenth century, scholars initiated a line of inquiry into monastic origins that resulted in damaging allegations against the legacy of Egyptian monasticism and its foundational texts. That investigation sparked an international debate between scholars who accepted the established Egyptian monastic tradition and the nontraditionalists, who set out to redefine its historic truth—a circuitous debate that continues to the present day.

This dissertation engages the scholarly debate on behalf of the traditionalists by reaffirming the value of the monastic texts as credible transmitters of the spirituality of Egyptian monasticism. That spirituality consisted of a unique prayer culture that combined work with unceasing prayer. The Desert Fathers and Mothers of fourth-century Egypt utilized a short supplication of remorse as their unceasing prayer formula—known today as the Jesus Prayer. This dissertation discusses the origin of the Jesus Prayer within the prayer culture of early Egyptian monasticism. It then traces the transmission of the Egyptian monastic prayer culture through the Jesus Prayer from its origin in Egypt to the West in the fifth century through the facility of discipleship and the treatises of John Cassian. Finally, it demonstrates how the Jesus Prayer and the essence of the Egyptian monastic prayer culture were absorbed into the western monastic rules of Benedict and Caesarius as an essential element in the inner contemplative prayer life of western monasticism.”


A very interesting dissertation, accessible to those with access to electronic resources via, for example, University libraries.

Going It Alone

Posted in Uncategorized on December 7, 2016 by citydesert

“Go to any bookstore and you’ll find shelves of books written about living in a relationship — how to find a relationship, how to hold one together once it’s found, how to survive its falling apart, how to find one again. Churches offer classes, preachers preach, teachers teach, therapists counsel about how to get and stay coupled.

Then try looking for lessons in solitude. You will search for a long while, even though more and more of us are living alone, whether by choice or circumstance….

To define a solitary as someone who is not married — to define solitude as the absence of coupling — is like defining silence as the absence of noise. Solitude and silence are positive gestures. This is why Buddhists say that we can learn what we need to know by sitting on a cushion. This is why I say that you can learn what you need to know from the silent, solitary discipline of writing, the discipline of art. This is why I say that solitaries possess the key to saving us from ourselves…..

I am not interested in the possibility that solitaries might lead more carefree lives. My ideal solitary carries not less but more responsibility toward the self and the universe than those who couple. The solitary hasn’t the luxury of what Ross Douthat, a columnist for the New York Times, recently called “deep familial selfishness.” Solitude imposes on its practitioners a choice between emotional atrophy and openness to the world, with all the reward and heartbreak that generosity implies.

But now we come to the nub of the question, the hub of the turning wheel of the teachings: What figure does the solitary cut in the human tapestry? What is the usefulness of sitting alone at one’s desk and writing, especially writing those vast seas of pages that will see only the recycling bin? What is the usefulness of meditation, or of prayer? What is the usefulness of the solitary?

Fate suggests submission to the circumstances of life; destiny suggests active engagement. The former implies some all-powerful force or figure to whose will we must submit. The latter implies that each of us is a manifestation of one of the infinite aspects of creation, whose fullest expression depends in some small but necessary way on our day-to-day, moment-to-moment decisions. We are caught — trapped, some might say — in the web of fate, but we are each just as surely among its multitude of spinners. In our spinning lies our hope; in our spinning lies our destiny. In this way, just as marriages or partnerships are not given but made, solitaries can consciously embrace and inhabit their solitude.

The solitaries who achieved destinies worthy of the name formed and cultivated special relationships with the great silence, the great Alone. I sense that relationship in their work. I read it in their poetry, in their stories, in their novels; I see it in their painting; I hear it in their music. Again and again the bachelor Giorgio Morandi painted vessels that float outside time and space in a world without surface or shadow, portraits of infinity. Erik Satie composed music in which the silences are as important as the notes.


Giorgio Morandi “Still Life” (1957)

I do not wish to say that being solitary is superior or inferior to being coupled, nor that the full experience of solitude requires living alone, though doing so may create a greater silence in which to hear an inner voice. Bachelorhood is a legitimate vocation. Spinsterhood is a calling, a destiny. I am seeking to understand more deeply this peculiar vocation, to which, evidently, I have been called, and which, evidently, more and more people are undertaking…..

The multiplication of our society’s demons has been accompanied by a ratcheting up of the sources and volume of its background noise. What is the point of the chatter and diversions of our lives, except to keep the demons at bay? Meanwhile, we are creating demons faster than we can create noise to drown them out — environmental devastation, global warming, the growing gap between the rich and the poor, uncontrolled population growth, uncontrolled consumption held up by the media as the glittering purpose of life.

The appropriate response is not more noise. The appropriate response is more silence.

To choose to be alone is to bait the trap, to create a space the demons cannot resist entering. And that’s the good news: The demons that enter can be named, written about, and tamed through the miracle of the healing word, the miracle of art, the miracle of silence….

Merton writes of solitaries that we are “a mute witness, a secret and even invisible expression of love which takes the form of [our] own option for solitude in preference to the acceptance of social fictions.” And what love are we solitaries mute witnesses to? The omnipresence of great aloneness, the infinite possibilities of no duality, no separation between you and me, between the speaker and the spoken to, the dancer and his dance, the writer and her reader, the people and our earth.”

From Fenton Johnson “Going It Alone. The dignity and challenge of solitude” Harper’s Magazine April 2015 Full text available on-line at:


John Fenton Johnson is an American writer. His work, Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey [Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004], draws on time spent living as a member of the monastic communities of the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky and the San Francisco Zen Center as a means to examining what it means to a skeptic to have and keep faith. Keeping Faith weaves frank conversations with Trappist and Buddhist monks with a history of the contemplative life and meditations from Johnson’s experience of the virtue we call faith.

Fenton Johnson’s website is at:



Posted in Uncategorized on December 7, 2016 by citydesert

I am becoming increasing nauseated and depressed by the excessive use of the adjective “spiritual”! On blogs, on Facebook postings, on web sites and in correspondence, people seem to insist on defining things as “spiritual”. As opposed to what?

I note, recently, writers declaring that they had a “spiritual conversation” with someone; or gave a “spiritual talk”; or wrote a “spiritual article” or a “spiritual paper”; or attended or spoke at a “spiritual meeting”; or read a “spiritual book”; or engaged in “spiritual practices”. Or gave “spiritual guidance”, or sought “spiritual advice”. Or, as is bizarrely common in the Coptic Orthodox tradition, sought or obtained a “spiritual word”.

So, let me consider some examples:

This afternoon I undertook some work in and watering of The Hermitage garden. Was that “spiritual”?

One of my neighbours, who holds to no religious beliefs, was doing likewise. Was his activity “spiritual”?

I subsequently undertook some housework, cleaning cupboards under the kitchen sink, after major plumbing repairs. Was that “spiritual”?

Last evening, I spent several hours talking with a young, recent immigrant to Australia, who was finding difficulty finding employment (despite his professional qualifications), and sought advice on how he wrote his job applications. Was that a “spiritual conversation”? The young man was a Moslem: does that make the conversation less “spiritual”? Can I have a “spiritual conversation” with a Moslem that is not intended to bring about his conversion to Christianity?

This afternoon, I spoke by telephone with a young woman seeking legal advice regarding separating from her violently abusive (but “devoutly Orthodox”) husband. Was that a “spiritual conversation”?

The use of “spiritual” by individuals seems to me to be indicative of pomposity, self-righteousness, and spiritual (sorry to have to use that descriptor!) arrogance.

The idea of distinguishing the “spiritual” from the….well, something else, seems to me to be essentially founded in the ancient heresy of Manichaeism, based in a dualistic cosmology, in direct conflict with the Incarnational Theology of Christianity.

If I seek – however inadequately, incompetently and incompletely – to live as a Christian, there can be nothing that I do or say – watering the garden, giving career advice, counselling victims of violence – that cannot be, and must not be, “spiritual”. As the great Anglican divine, George Herbert (1593-1633), declared in his poem, “The Elixir”, found in his collection, “The Temple” (1633):

“Teach me, my God and King,

In all things thee to see,

And what I do in any thing,

To do it as for thee:

Not rudely, as a beast,

To runne into an action;

But still to make thee prepossest,

And give it his perfection.

A man that looks on glasse,

On it may stay his eye;

Or if he pleaseth, through it passe,

And then the heav’n espie.

All may of thee partake:

Nothing can be so mean,

Which with his tincture (for thy sake)

Will not grow bright and clean.

A servant with this clause

Makes drudgerie divine:

Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,

Makes that and th’ action fine.

This is the famous stone

That turneth all to gold:

For that which God doth touch and own

Cannot for lesse be told.”

There is nothing of such “drudgerie”, nothing “so mean”, that it cannot, and will not “turneth all to gold”. Nor is there anything that is so “pious”, “self-promoting” or Pharisaical that cannot, for all the characteristics of its outer forms, be truly – and sadly – non-spiritual.

The Way of Prayer

Posted in Uncategorized on December 6, 2016 by citydesert

“Prayer is the touchstone of a person’s spiritual life. It discloses the true stature and authentic condition of one’s life. Prayer is what ultimately reveals who we are in relation to God and other people. If we can pray, then we can talk to others; if we know how to pray, then we also know how to relate to others. Prayer is a mirror of the inner life. This applies equally to those who have chosen to consume their lives entirely in prayer and to laypersons, both men and women, whose life ought to be infused with prayer. Prayer is not the privilege of the few but the vocation of all. Prayer may be what monastics are pre-eminently designed to do, but it also constitutes the fundamental expression of the human relationship to God and to other people as well as to God’s natural creation. As such, prayer is truly universal.


There are many different ways of praying. Yet prayer cannot be experienced by means of a detached perception or external connection, in the way that objects are experienced. Prayer must be personally lived or “touched,” as Saint John Climacus (579-649) would prefer to say in his Ladder of Divine Ascent.


We do not learn to pray from manuals or prayer books. Prayer cannot even exist in itself: it exists––as the English term denotes––only as the activity of someone at prayer. Simply put, a “pray-er” is a praying person. It is not a text, but a living human being; not a book, but a burning heart. “Prayer” is a relationship word; it can never be thought of in abstraction, isolated from others or from God. Prayer presupposes and aims at mystical connection or sacramental encounter. Unless this is clearly understood, all talk about prayer tends to falsify what is at stake.

This means that prayer must be inclusive of others, of all, and of the entire world. However, it is especially inclusive of God as the divine “Other.” Saint John Climacus observes that faith in God is prayer’s wing, proof, and self-verification. It is this openness to others that informs prayer at all times. Prayer is always a dialogue. When it involves silence, it is not a mute or sterile silence, but rather one that begets God. “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 45:11). Silence implies a keen sense of listening, of expectancy, of anticipation. Prayer implies concern for what is going on inside us and around us. To quote once again from Saint John of the Ladder (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 28, 6), “Silence exposes those who are truly able to love.”

The dialogical character of prayer means that God is able to speak, and the human heart is able to hear, through everyone and in everything. Prayer can never presume; prayer can never demonstrate or result in prejudice. To presume or exclude is the denial of prayer. On the one hand, God speaks unpredictably inasmuch as He surprises us with what matters in life, things that normally lie far beyond our petty interests and needs. On the other hand, God’s voice is quite predictable, as we know well that responding “to the least of our brothers and sisters” (Matt. 25:40) is tantamount to responding to God,

How unfortunate it is that we have reduced prayer to a private act, an occasion for selfish complaint. In prayer, our concerns ought to be the concerns of others, of the world, and especially of those who cannot protect themselves. Otherwise, prayer becomes more than exclusive; it becomes divisive, which is the literal meaning of the term “diabolical.” Authentic prayer reveals a sense of togetherness, not as a comfortable feeling of self-complacency but rather as an experience of at-one-ment or reconciliation with all humanity and all of God’s creation.


The Macarian Homilies, a late fourth-century spiritual classic, states that “those who pray truly and in silence, edify everybody everywhere. ” The cosmic significance of prayer and its universal force in the world have important qualifications, not least for the understanding of the role of believers in our age. For there can never be love for one person or group of people and not another. As the Christian Gospel puts it, to say that we love God when we do not love our neighbor is to be proved liars (cf. 1 John 4:20). This mutual interdependence of all humankind, as of all creation, is crucial in appreciating the wide-reaching effects of our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and actions.


The foremost purpose of prayer is self-purification. “First of all,” claims Evagrius of Pontus (346-99) in his masterpiece On Prayer, “pray to be purified from your passions.” Unpurified, prayer becomes false piety, or quite simply false prayer. Self-regarding prayer is sinful prayer; or, more precisely, it is not prayer at all. In fact, the Desert Fathers and Mothers insist that not only is purity a prerequisite for prayer; purity actually is prayer. They speak of stripping ourselves of all that is unnecessary or superfluous, of all that prevents or delays us from connecting with our Creator, with our inner world, and with the rest of the world.

This is why the sequence of prayer recommended by the Church Fathers is: thanksgiving, confession, and petition. It is a suggestion that serves to underline the priority of looking outward toward others rather than focusing inwardly on ourselves:

Before all else, let us first list sincere thanksgiving on the scroll of our prayer. On the second line, we should place confession and heartfelt contrition of the soul. Finally, let us present our petition to God. This has been shown to be the best way of prayer, revealed to someone by an angel. St John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 28, 6

Although the author of The Ladder of Divine Ascent refers to this sequence as being revealed “by an angel,” in fact it is not unprecedented in the spiritual classics, including Evagrius of Pontus in the fourth century, Abba Isaiah of Scetis in the fifth century, Barsanuphius and John in the sixth century, and Isaac the Syrian in the seventh century. Our concerns and preoccupations should not take center stage at the time of prayer. We should first allow a period of silence, when our personal interests and anxieties settle somewhat from the intensity of our daily routine, and then allow space for the needs of the world to rise to the surface of our hearts. Just as love arises from prayer, so, too, does prayer derive from silence.

Moreover, in the Orthodox tradition, prayer does not constitute a stage––whether preliminary or ultimate––in the spiritual life; rather, it is a pervasive activity that permeates all stages and all aspects of life. Prayer presupposes a life that is fully integrated with the life of the world rather than something that happens at a particular point in our daily or weekly routine. Our aim in reciting prayers on given occasions, and retiring for prayers at particular moments, is to advance from the stage of saying prayers to the point of becoming prayer. To adopt the words of an early theologian, Origen of Alexandria (175-254), “The entire life of a saint is one great, unbroken prayer.” Our goal is to become fiery flames of prayer, living prayers, comforting those in despair and warming those in need.

The whole teaching about prayer and the entire discipline of prayer may be condensed into a short formula, commonly known as the Jesus Prayer.

philokalia-volume-1-cavarnos-h      way-of-a-pilgrim

It is a prayer that was solemnized in the classic writings of The Philokalia and popularized through more contemporary works, such as The Way of a Pilgrim, the anonymous nineteenth-century story of a Russian wanderer in search of “unceasing prayer,” and J. D. Salinger’s 1955 and 1957 stories from the New Yorker, published separately under the title Franny and Zooey, where members of the Glass family discuss the importance of education and the role of contemplative prayer.

The words of this brief prayer––”Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”––are sometimes simply reduced to “Lord, have mercy.” It is a perfectly simple prayer and should not be turned into an unduly complicated exercise. In this respect, the Jesus Prayer can be used by anyone inasmuch as it is a concise arrow-prayer that leads directly from our heart to the heart of God via the heart of the world. Due to its brevity, it provides a practical means of concentration and freedom from distraction. Consequently, it enables one to repeat the name of God spontaneously at all times and in all places, thereby actualizing the living presence of the divine person, who is named and thereby invoked. It is a way of taking seriously Saint Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing” (I Thess. 5:17).

While the roots of the Jesus Prayer may be traced back to Scripture (Exod. 3:14 and Phil. 2:9-11), its sources are already adumbrated in the fourth-century desert tradition. However, it assumes particular importance in the sixth and seventh centuries with the Palestinian and Sinaite schools of spirituality. The formula itself is first found in the tenth century but is established in the fourteenth century with the tradition of Hesychasm; at that time, it is brought from Mount Sinai by Saint Gregory of Sinai (ca. 1255-ca. 1337) to Mount Athos, where it is symbolically preserved to this day for the whole world. Nevertheless, while the Jesus Prayer has been nurtured and cradled in monastic circles through the centuries, it has always been regarded not as a privilege of the monks but rather as the treasure of all those who wish to experience the fruit of prayer.

The Jesus Prayer is one way––albeit a powerful and tested way––of preserving the power of silence in prayer. Learning to be silent is far more difficult and far more important than learning to recite prayers. Silence is not the absence of noise but the gift or skill to discern between quiet and stillness. It is the power of learning to listen and the wisdom of learning to know. Silence is a way of being fully involved and active, of being fully alive and compassionate. In prayer, when words end in silence, we awaken to a new awareness and watchfulness. Silence shocks us out of numbness to the world and its needs; it sharpens our vision from the dullness of complacency and selfishness by focusing on the heart of all that matters. Silence is a way of noticing more clearly, of paying attention, and of responding more effectively.

Then, through silence and prayer, we no longer ignore what is going on around us; and we are no longer stuck in what merely concerns us. Then we can commit to a countercultural way, whereby we are no longer victims of our society’s ways and norms, passively accepting or obsessively pursuing what is either fashionable or acceptable. This is because we recognize that we are all intimately interconnected and mutually interdependent. We come to know that nothing is self-contained, that there is no autonomy in our world. We appreciate that there can only be a distinction between a sense of responsibility and a lack thereof. Through the Jesus Prayer, one develops a greater sense of awareness and attentiveness to the world within and around.”

From:  His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew Encountering The Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today Doubleday, 2008, pp.73-81


The full text of “The Way of Prayer” is available on-line at:

For The Ladder of Divine Ascent, see further:

For The Philokalia, see further:

For The Way of the Pilgrim, see further: