Through the Prayers of Our Holy Fathers

silouanIt is a phrase that is heard frequently in Orthodox services: “Through the prayers of our holy fathers, have mercy on us and save us!” The meaning of that phrase is enlarged and enlightened in the writings of the Elder Sophrony. The following excerpt is from his book, St. Silouan the Athonite.

Prayer for the whole world, for all Adam, in many instances distracts the monk from putting himself at the service of individuals. One may question whether this withdrawing from individual service means refusal of the concrete for the sake of the abstract? Not at all, for the whole Adam is not an abstraction but the most concrete fullness of the human being.

The ontological unity of humanity is such that every separate individual overcoming evil in himself inflicts such a defeat on cosmic evil that its consequences have a beneficial effect on the destinies of the whole world. On the other hand, the nature of cosmic evil is such that, vanquished in certain human hypostases [persons] it suffers a defeat the significance and extent of which are quite disproportionate to the number of individuals concerned.

A single saint is an extraordinarily precious phenomenon for all mankind. By the mere fact of their existence – unknown, maybe, to the world but known to God – the saints draw down on the world, on all humanity, a great benediction from God. The Staretz [St. Silouan] writes:

‘Because of these people, I believe the Lord preserves the world, for they are precious in His sight, and God always listens to His humble servants and we are all of us all right because of their prayers.’

‘Prayer keeps the world alive and when prayer fails, the world will perish…”Nowadays,” perhaps you will say, “there are no more monks like that to pray for the whole world.” But I tell you that when there are no more men of prayer on earth, the world will come to an end and great disasters will befall. They have already started.’

The saints live by the love of Christ. This love is Divine strength, which created, and now upholds, the world, and this is why their prayer is so pregnant with meaning. St. Barsanuphius, for instance, records that in his time the prayers of three men preserved mankind from catastrophe. Thanks to these saints – whom the world does not know of – the course of historical, even of cosmic events, is changed. So then, every saint is a phenomenon of cosmic character, whose significance passes beyond the bounds of earthly history into the sphere of eternity. The saints are the salt of the earth, its raison d’etre.  They are the fruit that preserve the earth. But when the earth ceases to produce saints, the strength that safeguards it from catastrophe will fail.

Tonight, before you go to bed, pray: “O Lord, through the prayers of our holy fathers, have mercy on us and save us!” And be grateful.

26 comments:

  1. Very interesting!
    This has always been a firm favourite quote of Elder Sophrony for me…
    I also find it interesting that in another book he words it differently –commenting on St Isaac the Syrian’s famous (and ‘scandalous’) praises of stillness above all else. He explains that it is infinitely more important for one Saint that truly knows God, even for just one single person with this knowledge, to exist on the Earth, than for thousands upon thousands to be converted to faith.
    The first is the very reason for which we were created, the second, despite being obviously good, is little more than the first step on a road that can potentially, eventually lead to knowledge of God, yet without even a single person that possesses this knowledge, the very road has no markings and is completely indiscernible.

  2. So often as a stay at home mom with 4 small people (including two aged 4 and 3), I sense that the prayers of the monastics sustain me! I’m so grateful for them. <3

  3. Fr. Stephen,
    I thank you with a grateful heart for your words and the wisdom shared. I will say your prayers, but I do not know who all the holy fathers were. I hope it is Ok to say “ALL the Holy Ones” who have come before me…(God knows them and it includes God /Christ )
    Or it will create confusion to whom I pray. In my tradition there is only one Holy Father (God) and many Saints. But I think in your Tradition true Saints can still be found. This article reminds me a little of Jewish/Rabbi teaching. May the wisdom shared and spoken here create and encourage many Saints. God knows we need them to uphold the worlds. With a thankful heart.

  4. Maria,
    “All the Holy Ones,” is quite good.

    They pray for the whole world. I remind myself from time to time that, for a short time, as Abraham spoke to God on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, they were being spared through his holy prayers on their behalf. I often think of that story as being like a parable of the world as it nears the last days. We must be like Abraham and intercede as long as we can.

  5. Fr. Stephen,

    I have never understood why the Church does not ask women saints to pray for us, but only the men. The phrase only asks for the prayers of our “holy fathers”

  6. Ryan,

    I heard from one of Fr. Hopko’s podcasts about the Holy Liturgy (Worshiping God in Spirit and Truth) that the prayers of the Holy Father are the priestly and bishop prayer, the sacrificial prayers from Divine Liturgy. I think that is why at the end of the Morning or Evening prayer in the Jordanville Prayer Book, we ask for the prayers of the Holy Fathers and ALL the saints.

    Fr. Freeman, please correct me if I am wrong. I am only a newly converted Orthodox.

    Lord have mercy on me a sinner.

  7. Ryan,
    I think Benjamin is right. It refers to our clergy, priests and bishops and especially our spiritual Father in Christ.

  8. One of the reasons that I left the protestant church for the Orthodox Church was that I wanted to be part of a church that produces saints such as Elder Sophrony and St. Silouan. I firmly believe in their powers of prayer – those that are alive and those that are praying for us from beyond the grave. I had rather pray their prayers than the stumbling words from my lips as they encompass the whole of humanity and the state of my soul in ways that I could never comprehend on my own. May God continue to bless and have mercy on all the saints and all monks and nuns who have been set aside to pray for themselves and for us and the world. Teach us to pray and yourself pray in me.

  9. Fr.Stephen

    Thank you Fr. Stephen for your encouragement.
    It makes me also think of the need for/of good Discipleship in the making of Saints the individual. But as in Christ’s days, when the Jews no longer accepted the wisdoms brought down, and Jesus, Saint, Prophet, Teacher, Rabbi, bestowed with the Godhead, and Man, had to die for the sins of his people, so also we, the Christian, who no longer listen, or exclude the wisdom that does not fit in our packages created over centuries, just like the Jews in Roman times, Christians will die for the sins of the Church.
    I find it to be true that we can not reach or convince everyone, but like in Paul’s days, he went outside of his tribe and made disciples in order to save what could be saved, pending Roman/Jewish destruction. Will not God use what pleases him?
    And yes, why are woman excluded? Just like in Nature, they carry the womb, and with seed become impregnated with new life, they nurture and care for the young and raise them to their fullness in time to stand on their own, as did Mary, Jesus’s Mother. Without her no Jesus would exist, and without man no woman. Why has their been created such a masculinity or male dominance within all Churches and has excluded woman, or even banished, burned and prosecuted them for 2000 years.
    Can you give me some understanding, or what you think is God’s or the Churches reasoning behind it. The abuses abound in society against woman, because of this superiority created thru the male dominated traditions. There were civilizations and traditions who honored, respected, revered and never made the female lesser then the Male, or Adam. Thru all wisdoms ……what is her place in your tradition.

  10. Ryan,
    Per an older usage, “Fathers” is an inclusive term – I have heard it phrased, “Through the prayers of our holy fathers and mothers…” But the ancient texts use an older form of language.

  11. Fr. Hopko is correct. An example, would be if the Bishop was himself present, then the phrase changes in those services and we say, “Through the prayers of our holy Master, have mercy on us and save us.” The one place where I have heard “fathers and mothers” was in a women’s monastery.

  12. Maria,
    The place of women in Orthodox tradition is exalted, beginning with the Most Holy Mother of God (whose name you carry). It is not the priestly role, but the priestly role is only a form of servanthood, not lordship. Abuse through history has existed in many forms, not just male-female. It is produced by sin. But just as there is a proper role in the human order (men and husbands, women are wives, etc.) so there is also a spiritual order. But just as every marriage displays those roles in slightly different ways, so those roles are displayed with a great variety in the Church. There are many, many women saints in Orthodoxy, surely as many as men.

    I will add that we are highly sensitive to a perceived narrative of male-oppression in the modern world. That narrative is a political creation that serves certain political ends. One of those ends is the destruction of the Christian faith. It is a well to be drunk from very carefully. The same people who have pushed the more radical feminist narrative also push the destruction of unborn children and of marriage itself. Many of its myths have been accepted as mainstream facts. A number of the assertions in its narratives are, in fact, just lies.

  13. I too have wondered about women and the life of the Church. In my brief experience at one small church, the women seem so reverent, quietly faithful, a steady presence, easily unnoticed except, in some cases, for the children they embrace, or guide to the candle stands and the icons, or redirect when distracted. (The choir of course is noticeable, but the blend of persons and voices is more angelic than ordinarily human.)

    Perhaps, like Mary, all true mothers are holy; and, in a spiritual sense at least, all women are mothers: bringing God’s love into the world through their lives and actions. Perhaps their prayers are beyond words but always present, just as their thoughts are never far from the children God blesses the world with through them, or the adult children they are given to care for as wives, nurses, teachers, workers and managers in every field, including politics and (by praying, singing, hosting, serving, inspiring) communities of faith.

    When hearing or saying “Through the prayers of our holy fathers,” I think I shall add silently, “and through the lives of our holy women, mothers all.” This is not an attempt at theology or psycholgy or political correction–just a thought that seems good to me.

  14. Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for your kind response. It is not my intentions to destroy anything, least of all Christianity, and I am also not a woman’s lib type of person. I just had to learn, think, and stand on my own in this country, fighting trying to keep my faith at a very young and still tender age, or I would have sunk in despair and self destruction.

    My name is actually Maria Magdalena. My parents thought she was beloved, and so they also had me baptized Christmas day . I thought that was very sweet of them, until I grew up and learned she was a prostitute. The stigma associated with it in society I felt toward her, also always the negative teachings about her in the church, though I was never a prostitute, but learned about all the abuses unwillingly. It was a harsh contrast to what I was taught in Church-Life and what I found real life to be. I always felt that the Churches, and there were many in my Childhood raised in orphanages and Boarding schools, with Catholic nuns, Baptists with tent revivals, Methodists and Free Evangelicals, failed to teach me REAL LIFE, and as a result was blind to it. I felt I was thrown out to the wolfs. So trust no longer comes natural.
    I will have to read up more on Orthodoxy, which may be my souls persuasion, but added life will have a voice too.

    Thankful!

  15. I am deeply convinced that unless and until someone begins to experience and understand Orthodox devotion to the Mother of God, they will not understand the true nature of women. She reveals what it means to be a woman. She is the true and second Eve, the Mother of all living. She is not God and we do not worship her, but she is honored above all human beings, and is more honorable than all of the angels. This can be expressed in rational terms, but cannot truly be perceived in a rational manner.

    You have to “know” her, love her, and understand her place in creation and in relation to Christ God. Many people completely misconstrue the Church’s devotion to her – and think we’re saying women should all be “meek and mild.”

    We sing hymns to her as “Champion Leader of Triumphant Hosts.” She can be “fierce” spiritually – in the best sense of the word. She is what true strength and power look like. The false consciousness of modernity thinks that power is about the ability to coerce. The economics and jobs are what give identity and meaning to life. This is the voice of Mammon and the demons, destroying our souls. Women renounce child-bearing for the sake of a career. Men measure themselves by their jobs. Jobs and careers are nothing. They’re simply ways to put bread on the table. They are not the source of meaning and purpose. What emptiness!

    The world exists by love and relationship. Nothing is greater than laying down your life for someone. Parenthood is self-emptying when it is rightly done. It is one of the greatest paths to salvation. No one will be saved by their career. Many souls will be lost by their careers.

    Most Holy Theotokos, save us!

  16. Fr. Freeman…I believe a good commentary on how the Theotokos saves us is a comment you made recently in an article on Dostoevsky. “I cannot repent for someone such that they do not need to repent, but I can repent for them in such a way that their own repentance is made easier. We are never saved alone.”
    One of the greatest aspects of Orthodoxy to me is knowing that we are never alone, that we are always surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, preeminently through the prayers and intercessions of the most holy Theotokos and those of all the Saints, holy fathers and mothers.

  17. What is a good starter book or recommendation in learning about Orthodoxy, what it stands for and what it beliefs for someone that knows Christianity and History, I know of the divisions, but knows very little about how it is different than the rest of Christianity. Also how and what attempts have been made to Unify if any.

    Thank you and I appreciative all advise and response.

  18. Maria, I am not sure if these books are the best ones to start with, but you may give it a try:

    1 The Truth of Our Faith. A Discourse from Holy Scripture on the Teachings of True Christianity by Elder Cleopa of Romania

    http://orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/ec_bookinfo.aspx
    http://www.amazon.com/Truth-Faith-Elder-Cleopa-Romania/dp/9608677807

    2 Fr Peter E. Gillquist “Becoming Orthodox”

    http://www.amazon.com/Becoming-Orthodox-Journey-Ancient-Christian/dp/1936270005

    3 Fr James Bernstein “Surprised by Christ: My Journey From Judaism to Orthodox Christianity”

    http://www.amazon.com/Surprised-Christ-Journey-Orthodox-Christianity/dp/1888212950

    In Christ,
    Alex

  19. Maria, if you can attend an Orthodox service, I think that is the best introduction. I also treasure Way of the Ascetics by Tito Colliander.

  20. Thank you, Fr. Stephen, an excellent post. My husband and I hope to become catechumens soon and are soaking this up.

    Maria, I read Frederica Mathews-Green’s book “The Illumined Heart” when I was merely curious about what this Orthodoxy stuff was, and it is (I felt) a very gentle introduction to the thinking and thoughts of the Orthodox as well as what it means practically in daily life. It’s a short book, succinct, and rich. I would read a couple pages and then sit and think for a long time, it gave me a lot to process and consider.

  21. I would say that any book by Frederica Mathews-Green is an excellent place to start learning about Orthodoxy. She is very well spoken and explains things well without losing one in too much depth.

    I read her, “At the Corner of East and Now” which is very short but very informative. She has a new one out that much longer, “Welcome to the Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity”.

    Her website is here: http://frederica.com

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