It is common among Orthodox teachers to identify prayer with the “one thing necessary” that Christ speaks of in John 11. This emphasizes prayer as communion with God – for communion with God is the very source of our life. I will expand this meaning of the “one thing necessary” to include the very “mind” required for its practice. And, as we shall see, it is strikingly at odds with the habits of our culture. Prayer has become perhaps the most difficult of all spiritual activities.
There is a very popular strain of teaching about prayer that resonates well with contemporary culture. This is prayer that “gets results.” Every few years, a new book will hit the market, offering a new prayer and promising wonderful outcomes. The Prayer of Jabez is a recent example. But even within Catholic Tradition, various groups advocate certain prayers or spiritual practices with promises of great results. Within Orthodoxy, certain saints gain great popularity because of their association with successful prayer. I note these latter examples only to say that “getting results” has always had an attraction for people of every mind.
Almost humorous have been the occasional experiments to find out if people praying as a group, or praying in a particular way, would have a statistical effect on outcomes. The headlines will ask, “Does Prayer Work?” And, of course, there are the frequent calls for prayer across a wide-spectrum with the implied message that the more people who are praying, the more a thing is likely to happen. This is prayer by democracy.
Experience tells me that this is simply not true. Such prayers are often little more than “well wishes.” “We’re sending out prayers to you!” the message reads. What does that possibly mean?
St. Paul often includes requests for prayer in his letters. Years ago, a Jesus freak buddy told me that he was praying for St. Paul —–. Startled, I asked him why? “Well, it’s in the Bible, so I thought I’d do what he asked.” I actually liked his answer. But missing in the Scriptures are any indication that prayer “works” in a manner that is more effective when undertaken by large groups. “Two or three” is pretty much the upper limit.
The mystery of “answered” prayer is indeed great. What seems most true, in the experience of the Church through the centuries, is that the prayers of some individuals seem quite effective, and that this mystery is also bound up with what we mean when we call someone a “saint.” And it is the mind of such saints that holds my interest at this point.
St. Paul says, “Have this mind among yourselves,” and then describes the self-emptying of Christ on the Cross (Philippians 2:5-11). This “self-emptying” mind is the hallmark of sanctity and is at the heart of what we describe as “humility.” It is the humble heart that pleases God, we are told, whereas, God “resists the proud” (James 4:6). And it is at this particular juncture that modernity and its drive for progress are unmasked.
“I want to be a better man,” sounds like the words of a saint’s heart. But the opposite is true. St. Paul was such a “better man” when he was a Pharisee that he later described himself as “blameless.” That blameless Pharisee, strangely, had made himself the enemy of God.
It is the same St. Paul who writes with such eloquence and care about our weakness and sin. I have written previously that we are only saved “in our weakness.” Christ has not come to save the righteous – only sinners. By the same token, we are not saved through our excellence, nor our mastery of life. Those who imagine their life as a striving for progress and excellence risk making themselves the enemies of God. Fortunately, most of us are unable to be excellent, though our failure often only leads to despair rather than God.
There are recorded a number of examples in the gospels of those who came to Jesus and were refused. The man who came to Christ and wanted Him to make his brother divide the inheritance with him is simply rebuffed (Luke 12:13). In a similar fashion, Christ refuses to answer the questions of those who only seek to trap Him with His own words.
St. James offers a brief commentary on such refusals:
You desire and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask badly, that you may spend it on your pleasures. (Jam 4:2-3)
All of us can think of many egregious examples from our own lives and those of others when our desires overwhelm us and our prayers. I can think of any number of times in my life that I prayed with great fervor for something that, in hindsight, was simply born of my desire to avoid the anxiety I suffered by not having it. And this is very much to the point.
St. James’ observation could easily be limited to those examples that seem obvious: greedy prayer gets nowhere. But his principle runs much more deeply. We will not be saved by getting what we want. The only creatures in the universe who get what they want are demons – indeed, they have largely become nothing more than a “wanting”: their rationality has almost completely disappeared.
True prayer is a movement into ever greater self-emptying. It is the normative means of our daily union with Christ. Like Christ, it broods over the lost and those who are in bondage. True prayer willingly enters with Him into Hades (both literally and figuratively) to intercede for those who are held captive. St. Paul even willed that he himself be damned if it would mean the salvation of Israel. That is the heart of Christ.
No doubt, our modern world will continue to “make progress,” at least in its own mind. But those who adopt that mind for their Christian worldview will find themselves frustrated at every turn. The caricature that is the so-called “prosperity gospel,” with its boastful and begging TV preachers, is modernity at prayer. It builds empires on the sandy soil of people’s desire for progress and the promise of the next new formula. Such prayer does not make us holy but draws us deeper into delusion.
From earliest times it has been clear that religion exists to serve the desires of people. Whether averting disaster or procuring success in agriculture, fertility, or war, every religion attends to those things that fill our human desires. It comforts those whose desires have been thwarted and assures them that everything will someday be well.
I have termed this “religion.” As such, the Christian faith is not a religion, except when it has been hijacked. It is worth noting that this hijacking is a constant threat and is universal. No group of Christians is immune from the lure of religion. [I will note here that both A. Schmemann and John Romanides, and others, have used the word, “religion,” to describe this deformation. Obviously, the word can be used with other meanings.]
Christianity is not a religion. It is a spiritual path towards union with God. Jesus did not come to usher in a new system of how to get what we want. He “emptied Himself,” and repeatedly invited us to do the same. That emptying is the path of union, and the very definition of love. If unfulfilled desires can be of use to us, then this world becomes the perfect arena of our salvation. For, in truth, we generally do not have to become weak or incompetent in order to be saved. We already are. Those who are on the path know this and reveal it in their prayers.