A Letter to a Priest about Prayer
by Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky
FATHER AND FRIEND! I should have answered you long about the growing winter of faith and prayer and the means of struggle against this. But the same vanity which, as you acknowledge, disperses reverent feelings, has also deprived me of the opportunity to write to you for a month and a half. Today is the first Monday of Great Lent; I have just returned from the cathedral, where I read the Great Canon and, praying with the whole congregation, showered the reproaches of St. Andrew upon myself for my neglect of the eternal and my preference for the temporary. True, our hierarchical vanity is more involuntary than voluntary: There is the incessant reception of petitioners, clergy requesting transfer, those involved in legal cases, those applying for the front or wishing to take an examination; and papers upon papers without end. With all of this, however, I have still been able to make notes from memory for a major public lecture on a philosophical question and to write two long articles on contemporary church topics, but for that “one thing which is needful,” I have not found time until today. Our misguided education is the cause of this. I am not an enemy of what is called science, but it is personally annoying when I catch myself giving precedence to topics, even though they deal with theology, before those concerning the study of the spiritual life, which contemporary theologians view with a certain disdain, partly because very few understand these matters, but partly because these are better and more deeply spoken of by self-taught theologians, or even by those who are academic theologians, but who have, by their lives and their confession, renounced the theological “school.” There should be no such divisions and preferences; good Christians live according to the words of the Apostle, “Let each esteem others better than themselves” (Phil. 2:3), but competition and envy are particularly inappropriate where the heritage which we have received, i.e. the heritage of experience and study, is not the property of the author alone, but of all the readers as well, that is, a universal possession.
You write: “I am experiencing an involuntary hardening of the heart; my former compunction has disappeared; even more, against my wishes, there are moments of complete absence of faith at the most important moments of the Liturgy. I write to you, my spiritual father: Heal me! I want to pray but it eludes me. Can it really be that the Lord is depriving me of His grace?”
No, my friend: if, God forbid, this happened, it would be shown first of all by the fact that the person would not regret being in such a state; but if he dreads falling into such alienation, it means that divine grace is dear to him; and if it is dear, then it is not far from him. No one on earth responds to a person who calls to him with such readiness as our Heavenly Father, but we must know how to hear His response. Sometimes it is beneficial for us to perceive His chastisement (lest we think highly of ourselves), and through this to come to know our sins and to learn humility: in this schooling which is the most valuable of all, recognize His paternal response to our cry. No doubt you have read the paternal parable of Bishop Theophan the Recluse. If you heat a bucket containing water and pieces of ice, the water will not begin to heat up until every piece of ice, down to the last one, has melted; then the heating proceeds very quickly. Therefore, never think that the Lord has abandoned you if you have not felt compunction and living, joyful faith for a long time, even though you wish to experience these; the working of grace is shown in you, but for the time being in brokenness of spirit, and not in compunction.
Now let us consider those circumstances in which the Lord allows a person to fall into a depressed state of mind and to suspect himself of loss of faith. The first and least dangerous condition of struggle and doubt proceeds directly from spiritual inexperience and the absence of guidance from older persons. It sometimes happens that a young priest, or a young ascetic, makes it his practice, as it were to probe around in his mind, or putting it into bookish language, to analyze attentively his emotional state.
To begin with, he wept when he read the prayers in church on Pentecost Sunday; tears even came to his eyes when, in a moment of solitude, he recalled these mystical prayers. But then the idea comes to his mind to examine with his attention: how does this feeling differ from the feeling he gets when he communicates the Holy Mysteries? What exactly moves him in the words of these prayers: is this feeling of compunction repeated, if he calls these words to mind for the third time, for the fourth time, and so on? . . . . It is natural that tears would soon stop coming to your eyes; at these times, you are not praying, but doing research. Does this mean that your heart is indeed torn from God and that your soul has become alien to those repentant and all-embracing compassionate states of mind which were so characteristic of you in the past?
Of course not; but every feeling, even bodily sensation, weakens and, as it were, completely evaporates when we begin to make it a subject of our constant attention. Pinch yourself on the arm and, suffering pain, begin to reflect on how this pain differs from a pain in a tooth, in the head or in the chest; you will soon lose the very sensation of pain. About seventy years ago, a certain German scholar used a similar method to overcome a very painful toothache, which had been tormenting him almost to the point of fainting.
It is quite natural that the more spiritual feelings which fan our soul, as it were, with a “still, small voice”, become completely insensible if subjected to idle examination or reflection.
Such also is the feeling of faith, that is, the living sensation of the divine presence and the participation of God in your personal life, if, even in secular life, teachers and parents constantly say to young people who are senselessly given to reverie: “Don’t go rummaging around in yourself; you won’t be good for anything,” then such a condition is even more appropriate to spiritual life. When serene compunction comes to you, when the ray of divine grace reveals the face of God to you, and sacred awe, along with blessed joy, illumines your heart, do not ponder over your feelings, but surrender yourself to the flood of thoughts which are flowing into your soul, and put your actions and your life under examination, as Zacchaeus did when the Savior came to him, in order to advance in the correction of your life and in the service of virtue.
“Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken anything from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold” (Luke 19:8). One must strengthen the good feeling and spiritual delight in one’s soul either by the podvig of struggle with one’s sins or by works of love. If those two blessed travelers on the evening after the Resurrection had not gone beyond “the burning of the heart” at the explanation of the prophecies, they would not have recognized Him with Whom they conversed; but they fulfilled the precept of hospitality: “they constrained Him, saying, Abide with us: for it is toward evening and the day is far spent” (Luke 24:29). Only then were “their eyes . . . opened, and they knew Him.”
Such advice from the Gospel on how we must stabilize holy, prayerful and other grace-filled attitudes in our souls is pertinent also in other difficult situations in our spiritual life. Well, perhaps you will say: “I did not make it my habit to probe the state of my mind and ask myself, ‘What and how do I feel?’ This delving into myself has always been foreign to me, and all the same the tender feelings which visited me previously have abandoned me; grieved by this, perhaps, I even asked myself needlessly – ‘Do I even believe in God?’ – and I did not find a definite answer in my soul. I realize that I should not have done this, for I could not have lost faith in God; since I have not wavered in my convictions, nor have I yielded to any false teachings, I can be certain that faith remains with me, but where has that radiant feeling gone, which envelopes a believer when he thinks of God: I should not have begun to delve into this, but I am conscious of the fact that I have not had this feeling lately. What is the cause of this?”
We will now say something about the causes, but first I will remind you of the advice of the holy Fathers on how to behave during this kind of impoverishment. The Fathers speak thus: “The feeling of compunction is not your own, but a gift of God: what must be yours is the labor to receive it.” What kind of labor? Above all else, the labor of a virtuous life in general, and that in relation to the podvig of prayer itself in particular. The fathers strictly forbid us to wring feelings from ourselves, to strain our breathing, or to squeeze our tears. But what must the laborer in prayer strain? His attention! He must reflect on the words of the prayer, not just go through them with his eyes or voice, but represent in his mind what he is saying to God. Very often this happens to such an extent that prayerful compunction soon penetrates the soul and the fullness of contact with the Deity accessible to you will again be opened to you. If this, however, does not happen, do not be despondent: you tried to fulfill before the Lord that which was in your will, but now reflect on why the Lord, undoubtedly looking with love on your labor of prayer, has not granted you to hear His response.
I have said that there are various reasons for this; you mention distraction by worldly vanity. Simple distraction is eliminated by performing a set rule of prayer; but if the insensibility continues, it means that the snag was not in simple distraction, but in depression of the soul, caused by one or more anxieties. This is even spoken of in the Sermon on the Mount, at the end of the sixth chapter of Matthew. The Lord does not condemn prudence concerning our family and personal needs, but rather the oppression of our soul by them, when anxieties take hold of it to such an extent that it becomes almost indifferent “to the kingdom of heaven and its righteousness”. It is proper to imagine calmly the possibility, ever close at hand, of ruin, serious family needs, sickness, mutilation, and the death of those close to us, and at the same time to remember that if you did everything in your power to provide for your loved ones, then should God nevertheless see fit to subject you or your family to severe misfortune, it means that this is needed for salvation; for everything that happens to us not of our own evil will is done with God’s permission and, therefore, for our benefit, for the Lord neither does nor allows anything for us but good.
If you have reassured your heart in this way, following the example of the Church, you will conclude your petitions to the Lord with the surrender of yourself and of that which is yours to His holy will (“. . . let us commit ourselves . . . unto Christ our God”), and that sinful distraction, that is, depression of the soul due to cares and fears, will leave you, and you will again glorify God with all your heart and with all your soul.
Condescending to our weakness, the Lord does not forbid us to wish even external prosperity for ourselves and especially for others; He permits us even to pray for this, but He commands us to leave the fulfillment of such a prayer to the will of God, and not to grumble or even fall into despair if it does not turn out according to our wish, for we ourselves do not know what is more beneficial for our own souls and for the souls of those close to us. But of course, those who desire only happiness and more happiness for their children are far from Christian righteousness. In our insane times, such people are in the majority even in a believing society, and they do not understand that, believing in the Christian God, they look upon Him and upon their lives in a purely heathen way; “for after all these things do the Gentiles seek” (Matt 6:32).
One of the best means of struggling with the impoverishment of prayer which comes from depression of soul (although we must admit that it also comes from other sources) is a temporary withdrawal from the world and from one’s own people, that is, a journey either on a pilgrimage or to a monastery in order to prepare to receive the Holy Mysteries, and finally – confession, even if it is in the usual circumstances of one’s life, should it not be possible to leave them for even a short time.
Everyone already knows what irreplaceably valuable significance a spiritual talk with an experienced monastic elder has. This is known even from worldly stories, if not from experience. But the monastery is edifying in itself. And the monks or nuns, as well as the lay pilgrims, by their conduct and their standing in church, by the reading, singing, and prostrations are a living witness for us of that one thing which is needful. Earthly vanity, its passing importance, and the value of the eternal; the value of the soul and conscience – this is the lesson which no one spending as little as three days at a monastery as a pilgrim can avoid. It is impossible to see people who are praying fervently, having forgotten about earthly matters, and not experience a lifting up of one’s own soul. Sometimes, standing in the altar at the Kiev-Caves Lavra, I would cast a glance through the royal doors at the simple pilgrims standing in the front. On their faces shone that spiritual delight which is expressed in the short prayer “Standing in the temple of thy glory, we think we are standing in the heavens, O Theotokos, Portal of Heaven.” Try to be among such people and you will be filled with their spirit like Saul, who met the sons of the prophets on his journey (I Kings 10;10, 13).
Sinful distractions or “the sorrows of this life,” by which people “choke” the Word in themselves (Luke 8:14), are not the sole cause of temporary loss of the gift of prayer. Such a loss happens also as a natural retribution for: 1) sin not covered by repentance and 2) an evil intention, and even more so, a sinful passion which has crept into the soul.
A certain monk, after falling into a serious sin and terrified by the approaching anger of God, exclaimed: “O Lord, punish me however Thou wishest, only deprive me not of faith and repentance.” Sin covered by repentance will not drive the warmth of prayer from the heart unless we have become enamored of this sin to the degree of complete impenitence. The parables of the publican and of the prodigal son and of the good thief who obtained mercy, assure us of this. Hence, we learn that sin is not as terrible as impenitence. On the other hand, sin frivolously committed to oblivion, offences to one’s neighbor which are not covered by reconciliation, dreadful blasphemy (but of course, not simply “blasphemous thoughts” that attack one without guilt on his part), malicious threats, for instance, the threat of suicide, renunciation of the priesthood or apostasy from the Orthodox faith --- these all can be reasons that “my prayer shall be returned to my bosom,” as it says in the psalm (34:13). Similar offences against God’s commandments, although they were isolated occurrences and were committed to oblivion through human frivolity, still leave a dark, sinful stain on the heart and hinder the grace of the Holy Spirit from gaining access to it. But most of all, our heart is blocked from receiving this grace through a conscious concealment of sins in confession. Alas, monks and priests committing the latter often end their lives by suicide. May the Lord preserve everyone from such a lot as Judas’!
Therefore, until you understand why the spirit of prayer has with-drawn from you, try to remember whether you forgot about some serious sin that you committed, such as those just mentioned, and if you remember such a sin, make haste to mourn over it, and offer repentance before God and before your neighbor, if you have offended him.
Sin often occurs, however, not in the acts that you have committed, but in intentions and the inclinations of your heart. Sometimes this occurs through an already acquired malicious disposition, as with Amnon and Absolom; sometimes, simply born of lust or passion. Here especially, it is necessary to fear the passions of fornication, envy, ambition, and greed. The words of the Lord about the impossibility of serving two masters, God and mammon, pertain to this condition of the soul. The subjugation of the heart to one of the passions mentioned, even before its possession is expressed in any actions or undertakings, is shown immediately by the impoverishment of the gift of prayer. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:21). If the treasure after which you strive is high rank, or money, or sinful love, then your heart will not be delighted by intercourse with God, but standing at prayer, you will think only of how to finish it more quickly. And conversely, if such an impatient thought visits you during prayer, then the Fathers say: know that your heart is in the control of some subtle passion that is forcing out the joy of glorifying God and the thirst for knowledge of God through spiritual reading, which is beginning to seem boring to you. But you will say: “I have tested my heart, and I am guilty in none of the ways mentioned; not meaning, of course, that I consider myself passionless or sinless, but I hate my sinful habits or embryonic passions. I offer sincere repentance for my sins, but all the same, I have not found healing for my ‘stony insensibility’.”
Good for you, if this is so, I reply, for righteous anger is that which the ascetic directs not at people, but at his own passions, and if he behaves in this way, then although it still has not completely been driven from his heart, the passion, being lashed by holy anger, cannot drive the spirit of prayer out of your soul. “But all the same, this spirit of prayer has abandoned me: I do not pray to God for health, for family happiness, for wealth and length of years; I ask of Him only those gifts which are numbered in the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, which today, the first day of the Fast, is read sixteen times with prostrations to the ground. But the Lord denies me these gifts, for I feel this by my despondent state of mind, and this despondency persistently attempts to enter my soul.”
My friend! If it is like that, know that you are not alone, for Paul, who cannot be compared with us sinners, prayed thrice that the angel of Satan would withdraw from him, but he was not heard by God in this request (1 Cor. 12:7). “Lest I should be exalted” is the way the Apostle himself explains it. The impetuosity of a young soul, prospering in the knowledge of God, at times undergoes testing in patience and humility, as with the Old Testament Job or the New Testament Paul or, more ancient than either, Abraham. Do not give in to the spirit of despondency: best it with itself. What does this mean? This: the holy Fathers say that such a groundless attack of despondency is a direct action of the devil. Realizing from whence it comes, you have practically defeated it already, have conquered the spirit of despondency, for you will not want to accept a clearly demonic suggestion. The demon assaults us with despondency when he sees that our soul cannot be overcome by other passions. Thus say the Fathers. Therefore, answer the spirit of despondency in this way: “You wish to confuse me by the thought that God is far from me; but I know that He, by not revealing Himself to me, is testing my patience and teaching me humility. The very fact that you, and not some other spirit, have fallen upon me should rejoice and comfort me, since your approach signifies (in the absence of other reasons) that the other passions have not taken control of me, and you have seized on the passion of despondency as the last weapon available to you. Therefore, I will accept God’s testing patiently and repeat the words of the Apostle, which were read on Forgiveness Sunday: “For now is our salvation nearer than we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand” (Rom. 13:11-12).
Of course, all this concerns those who, after testing their consciences with prayer, do not find in themselves other causes for the impoverishment of the gift of prayer. They can expect with hope to receive within a short time the joyful explanation of their trial with which God comforted the Apostle Paul: “My grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perfect in weakness” (II Cor. 12:9).
Of course, this does not mean some kind of miraculous revelation, for to solicit such a thing is an act of pernicious prelest; but we predict for the struggler an exposition of his internal perplexities through his subsequent compunctionate cast of soul, through the unexpected finding of a direct answer to its inquiry in the Sacred Canons, in edifying talks, or in the events of one’s life. And it is not necessary to consider oneself to have attained a high degree of spirituality (Phil. 3:13) in order to discern the response of Divine Providence to one’s search in the events of one’s life or in the replacement of painful perplexity by joyful glorification.
There! I have written you of the various hindrances in the way of drawing near to God, and informed you of the various circumstances when the rays of divine illumination do not immediately penetrate our soul. This sometimes happens with God’s ministers, but these trials grasp them when they are already able to understand and bear them with zeal. The Lord does not tempt anyone, that is, does not test anyone beyond that person’s strength, as the Apostle Paul assures us (I Cor. 10:13). “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation, for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love Him” (James (1:12).
I repeat: only those are rejected by God that have themselves rejected Him. But he that struggles, even though with torment of the heart, is being taught by God, so that, “having himself been tempted,” he may be able to “help those being tempted.” Give thanks to God, my friend, that you are working out a problem not about earthly needs, but about the gift of prayer, for the very desire to know all this has been impressed on your soul not without His grace-filled help.
“My soul, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of Him: For whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth. If you endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons” (Heb. 12:5-7).
Translated by S. F. Englehardt from: The St. Vladimir Russian Orthodox Calendar for 1977, pp. 93-100, publ. Jackson, N.M., 1976.
Taken from Orthodox Life, Volume 27, No. 5, September-October 1977, Published by Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, New York.
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