Prayer as the Alpha and Omega of Discipleship

The first and last motivation and action of the disciple is prayer. You might say, “I thought the first and last action was ‘love.’ Isn’t that the greatest commandment? Of course you are right. It is. And the way to authentic love as an action is prayer in its essential form and content.

“What is prayer? What is its essence? How can we learn to pray? What does the spirit of the Christian experience as he prays in humility of heart?

All such questions should constantly occupy the mind and heart of the believer, for in prayer man converses with God, he enters, through grace, into communion with Him, and lives in God. And the Holy Fathers and teachers of the Church give answers to all these questions, based on the grace-given enlightenment which is acquired through the experience of practicing prayer – experience equally accessible to the simple and to the wise.

Prayer is the test of everything; prayer is also the source of everything; prayer is the driving force of everything; prayer is also the director of everything. If prayer is right, everything is right. For prayer will not allow anything to go wrong…

What then is prayer? Prayer is the raising of the mind and heart to God in praise and thanksgiving to Him and in supplication for the good things that we need, both spiritual and physical. The essence of prayer is therefore the spiritual lifting of the heart towards God. Th mind in the heart stands consciously before the face of God, filled with due reverence, and begins to our itself out before Him. This is spiritual prayer, and all prayer should be of this nature.” St. Theophan the Recluse, The Art of Prayer, p. 51 & 53

We have a snapshot of prayer as St. Theophan is describing it displayed for us in the Old Testament.

[1] In the year that King Uzzi’ah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple.
[2] Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.
[3] And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
[4] And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.
[5] And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
[6] Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar.
[7] And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.”
[8] And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.” (Isaiah 6.1-8)

What is more, we have an interpretive presentation of both of these descriptions in the classic, The Way of the Pilgrim.

“…St. Paul clearly states that prayer should precede all actions. ‘First of all, thee should be prayers offered’ (1 Tim. 2:1). The Apostle’s directive indicates that the act of prayer comes first; it comes before everything else. The Christian is expected to perform many good works, but the act of prayer is fundamental because without prayer it is not possible to do good. Without frequent prayer it is not possible to find one’s way to God, to understand truth, and to crucify the lusts of the flesh. Only fidelity to prayer will lead a person to enlightenment and union with Christ… The Spirit comes to help us in our weakness when we do not know how to pray (Rom. 8:26). Consequently, our only contribution toward perfection in prayer, the mother of all spiritual good, is regularity and constancy.” (pg.8)

What then could the Lord be saying in all of this? If prayer is the first thing and love is its fruit, then the event/reality in experience that is prayer is the life-creating and offering encounter of God and man. It is the intersection and dynamic union of revelation and repentance the fruit of which is love in all of its various forms and effects — purification, illumination, and deification. Is this not, in essence, to borrow other words, “the fear of the Lord”?! Truly, the fear of the Lord is the beginning, end, and essence of all prayer, and the beginning and end of all things that concern the life of the disciple — love.

Fr. Thomas

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Reconciliation – The True Way that Offers Life in Fullness

When there is a situation of conflict, what is the disciple of Christ Jesus to do? There are three extreme options:

  • Fight-force the enemy to relent or destroy the enemy
  • Flight-avoid addressing the circumstance and the enemy
  • Surrender-submit to the slavery the enemy commands

In all of these extreme responses, there is aggression and resistance. Even the surrender option is a form of passive resistance. It too, is a form of aggression. All of these options really do not address the dilemma. Rather, they attempt to solve it by making a very big assumption. The other person is the “enemy.” They are wrong and I am right. I am wrong and they are right. Very much of an either/or situation.

What is missing is, at least the opportunity for a meeting or encounter to occur that has the possibility of a new future. All three responses issue forth from a set of givens that will, as a result of the response, continue to be the given.

The Lord teaches us another way. Not one among many ways, but The Way. It is love. The Lord commissioned His Apostles:

“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.’” (Matthew 28.18-20)

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13.34-35)

“For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.” (Ephesians 2.14-16)

Love is the Truth that has the power to potentially transform all situations. It is the option that offers a new future – Life – in the face of a set of circumstances that seem to only offer slavery and death in some form or another.

Now, it needs to be said that the option of Love/Loving that Jesus is describing and embodying, is not rigid legalism, nor is it yielding to whatever the other or the circumstance commands. This is the heart of true reconciliation. Reconciliation is not an attempt to create peace between right and wrong, good and evil. Reconciliation is intended to destroy evil so that good may reign. Now, of course that sounds like one of the options mentioned previously that I said didn’t lead to a life-creating result. Herein lives the delusion. The delusion is that reconciliation is the desire to preserve and honor the right of the other to believe whatever “works for them.” This is not the case. The heart of reconciliation is the realization of and commitment to the Truth by both parties. The heart of reconciliation is the destruction of what divides us and the embrace of what unites us – we become the “one new man.” 1+1=1 in Christ ! ! !

Our responsibility is to allow the Holy Spirit to unite us with Christ Jesus and transform our every motivation, word, and action to the likeness of Christ Jesus that we don’t just offer the option of a loving resolution but actually become the very offer we make – reconciliation.

Practically speaking this involves several things:

  1. Submitting to the discipline of the Holy Spirit consistently and regularly to develop the ability to perceive others “in truth” and to respond to them with clear and appropriate intent and action. This means being honest about the fact that falsehood and death still reign in areas of my life too. I am not the innocent victim nor am I superior to the other person. No room for pious triumphalism. I am dedicating myself to going forward in a way that will change me too!
  2. Letting go of the conviction that the other person is the “enemy,” and realizing that falsehood and death are the enemy that must be defeated. The true enemy wants us to fight among ourselves so he can reign unchallenged!
  3. A form of resistance that is aimed at the true enemy that is not simply “fighting fire with fire.” Okay so I need to take a little space on this one… Not aggression but assertion. Death dealing resistance is a shoving match not a way of opposing that offers New Life in Christ. The shoving match triggers a “power up” in the other person and sets the agenda for greater death. When we “turn the other cheek” we are powerfully resisting in a way that does not go the way of death-dealing “power ups”! When we think of “turning the other cheek” as doing nothing, we are, I believe, completely misunderstanding what the Lord’s exhortation means. “Turning the other cheek” is the invitation to another trajectory not simple giving up!
  4. Offering, on the occasions when conflict occurs, a practical way forward – The Way of love – filled with the Truth not with spin or fear or hidden agendas to destroy the person who is not the real opponent. This offering needs to be so clear and honest that it becomes the compelling focus and sets the destination for the encounter. This “offering” has some very specific characteristics. They are: “…joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…” (Galatians 5.23-24)
  5. The hard and yet unavoidable possibility that even though love with its reconciling power and hope of a new future cannot and should never overpower the right of the other to make their own decision. The other person may just choose to not cooperate. That calls for us to apply more of the powerful pressure of Love which may mean continuing to do the same things or not. That is God’s call not ours. This calls for flexibility and agility.
  6. In the face of the refusal of the other to make the life-giving choice we must, for the sake of Love, continue to Love by simultaneously valuing the other and yet setting appropriate boundaries and taking appropriate actions that neutralize the threat of falsehood and death and therefore preserve and promote Life.

I didn’t say this Way was an easy Way. In fact, it is impossible for you and me – “who can be saved?” To which the Lord doesn’t respond with, “Try harder,” but with, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” You might want to read Luke 18. I don’t say I am very far along in all of this, but I do believe, as far as I can discern, that it is The Way. All things are possible by means of the grace God supplies. It is the Lord. To paraphrase the words of the blind man encountered by Jesus on the road to Jericho later in the same chapter of Luke’s gospel, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!”

Fr. Thomas