The One Thing Progress Cannot Do

0915-olsorrowIt 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.




  1. Fr. Freeman,
    A word from you on prayer I need to hear again and again! I once asked my spiritual father how he prayed for others. He replied, “Lord Jesus Christ, save (name) and have mercy on him/her.” I said, “And if they’re sick, how do you pray?” He answered with the same prayer above! He was one of the holiest priests I have ever known. He reposed last year in a monastery as a monk. I find that I need to simplify my own prayers. I think that many times, the more verbose I get, the more I am just worrying about a person/situation and not really praying, not really joining myself to Christ in true union, not praying for the person at all. Lord, teach me to pray. Lord Jesus, have mercy on me!

  2. Mr. Freeman,

    I am grateful for the time you take to write.
    This journey of becoming empty is years coming and still so very new.
    In all honesty, i have been one to make sure i “always get what i want” and after many many years i ended up totally broken at the feet of Jesus.
    I was aftaid of being empty. I did not understand what those words actually meant. It is a place of being oddly uncomfortable for one such as i.
    I have been “letting go” of all that i tried to understand prayer to be. I have had to let go because all the rules simply confused me. I had put God in a series of boxes that i could not sort out and so ran from God instead of to Him.
    I have just read Every Where Present. Recommended to me by an Orthodox priest i have recently gotten to know. I am not Orothodox, i am not anything for that matter. I left both church and synagogue years ago. But i just learned the Prayer of the Heart and for the very first time i feel like i can pray. That when these words come from my heart….they are real.
    I am grateful to both you and Father Michael for your words of guidance.
    Thank you

  3. My experience has been that even when prayers are answered they are not always answered in the way I expect.

    Is not the foundation for all prayer Jesus in the Garden: “Nevertheless, thy will not mine be done?”

    Yet even those words must be uttered not out of submission to power but joy at entering into communion I think. Like Mary’s “Let it be done to me according to your word.”

  4. How interesting that I was drawn this morning to Fr. Bloom’s book “Beginning to Pray”! My prayers have been empty of late and I am mired in the same delusions and sin as ever. Thank you for this word, Father. Pray for me that I may be able to pray.

  5. Thank you Father. I am reminded in this piece of some of the hype I have heard in relationship to prayer. The church I left to become Orthodox hosted a Pro Life group who came to town to teach us Pro Lifers “how to pray” properly. It involved a stance, a method of stating our prayer (both content and tone of voice) and how to read Scripture to release the “Power” to accomplish our ends. It struck me that I could have been listening to pagan priests tell me how to work the incantation properly in order that the spell work in controlling the god/s.

    Most everyone assumes paganism is about multiple gods (polytheism) without any understanding of its underlying principles and assumptions of its world views (yes, there are monotheistic pagans.) What strikes me most about the Prosperity Gospel preachers and adherents and modernity in general, is how many of these underlying assumptions/ world views of paganism they actually contain.

    As always, it is refreshing to read your posts and all the responses.

  6. Excellent, thank you, Father. I was just having a discussion in which one of the participants said something that points to a utilitarian view of hesychasm. Essentially the idea that “I have done this for years and haven’t attained Theosis”. I will send this link because I think it speaks to that viewpoint quite effectively.

  7. This is a great post. Thank you. It reminds me of those who boast that their prayers “got results”! I have mixed feelings on this. Glad that there is positive news, but then it raises the question as to whether boasting about the effectiveness of one’s prayers is a sin? As the Lord spoke to Jeremiah:

    Thus says the Lord:
    “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom,
    Let not the mighty man glory in his might,
    Nor let the rich man glory in his riches;
    But let him who glories glory in this,
    That he understands and knows Me,
    That I am the Lord, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth.
    For in these I delight,” says the Lord.” Jeremiah 9: 23-24 (NKJV)

  8. Thank you father for this article, it shed some light in my darkness and also I would like to ask if you can write something on the topic of “the broken and contrite hart with God does not despise ” mentioned in Psalm 50. What does it mean? I think that it has to do with what you said in this article regarding self emptying but, for me, it is a mystery. I know that it’s also synonymous with humility but I still don’t know what this actually is in an deap sense. We also have the example of the tax collector which went home justified before God because he humbled himself. What does it mean in a profound sense? Because I know that it’s not just about morality. It has to be something more. Thank you!

  9. I passed a Progressive “church” sign today which read, “God has a big eraser.”

    By stark contrast, Tolkein chronicles in the Silmarillion creation account that the Satan figure attempts to mar God’s creation song intentionally with the interjection of bum notes. God does not respond by producing a “big eraser;” rather, He takes the notes into the Song, where they fit perfectly, of a piece with the Beauty. (Much to the Devil’s chagrin).
    Lewis also alluded to this in Narnia when the white witch cast the lamp post at Aslan (creating the world by singing), only to have the lamp post, upon contact with Aslan and the Song, become part of the living landscape.

    What does the book of Revelation actually…”reveal”?
    It seems rather obvious that what what it does NOT reveal is a Progressive god producing his “big eraser” to “fix” our errors. Rather, what IS revealed is the transformation/transfiguration of our sin/weakness/failure/error.
    They are not removed, but rather redeemed.

    In Genesis, clothing was a sinful necessity of the fall. God intended the primal couple (and their offspring in perpetuity) to exist naked. Yet Revelation does not present us with naked saints, but rather everyone – including Christ and the angels – donning clothing: white robes.
    Adam sinfully hides in the tree. In the Apocalypse it becomes the Tree of life in which the nations – Adam’s descendants – seek refuge.
    Death itself – not obliterated, but transformed into the portal into eternal life, the Lamb who was Slain.
    Kings. God never intended kings to exist, making it quite clear that Israel was not to have one. When they sinfully did, God did not abolish the evil kinghood – rather He took it into the Song, “from glory to Glory” bringing forth David, then the Son of David, the “King of Kings” for all eternity.
    Adultery. The child is not annihilated, but becomes the great Solomon, builder of the Temple (icon of the Theotokos, bringer of the Christ).
    Polygamy. By the resounding of the final trumpet, the Bride of Christ – a great multitude of us from every tribe and nation – wed the Lamb.
    Slavery? We becomes slaves of Christ, heirs and sons.
    And on and on.
    And on and on.
    “Further up and further in.”

    God never seems to get around to that “big eraser” does He? (Notably, it is only the wicked ones who ever evince any desire to produce that big progressive eraser to “fix” “improve” “make the world better” “change the world” by wiping out the “mistakes of the past”.)
    He’s more glorious. Glory “no eye hath seen, no ear hath heard.”

    Your sin? weakness? mistakes? failures?
    All taken into the Song.
    From “glory to Glory.”
    To GLORY.
    Glory to God for all things.

  10. Prayer of the Empty Water Jug-Macrina Wiederkehr, OSB

    Jesus, I come to the warmth of your Presence
    knowing that You are
    the very emptiness of God.
    I come before You
    holding the water jar of my life.
    Your eyes meet mine
    and I know what I’d rather not know.
    I came to be filled
    but I am already full.
    I am too full.
    This is my sickness
    I am full of things
    that crowd out
    Your healing Presence.
    A holy knowing steals inside my heart
    and I see the painful truth.
    I don’t need more
    I need less
    I am too full.
    I am full of things that block out
    Your golden grace.
    I am smothered by gods of my own creation
    I am lost in the forest of my false self
    I am full of my own opinions and narrow attitudes
    full of fear, resentment, control
    full of self pity, and arrogance.
    Slowly this terrible truth pierces my heart,
    I am so full, there is no room for You.
    Contemplatively, and with compassion,
    You ask me to reach into my water jar.
    One by one, Jesus, you enable me
    to lift out the things
    that are a hindrance to my wholeness.
    I take each on to my heart,
    I hear You asking me
    ” Why is this so important to you ? ”
    Like the murmur of a gentle stream
    I hear You calling,
    ” Let go, let go, let go! ”
    I pray with each obstacle
    tasting the bitterness and grief
    it has caused.
    I sit with my empty water jar
    I hear you whisper
    You have become a space for God
    Now there is hope
    Now you are ready to be a channel of Life.
    You have given up your own agenda
    There is nothing left but God.

  11. Father,

    Could you provide some examples of *how* we can embrace our weakness and empty ourselves in our day-to-day lives? I know that what you say is true, I just wonder where to begin. Minute by minute, how am I to empty myself?

  12. RC

    Start by being thankful to God for something. Acknowledge His gifts. The more you do this, the less you will be.

  13. Father, thank you. A few words about the difference between self-emptying and escapism would be helpful to me, as well as how to keep on the right side of this,

  14. O. K. Fr. Stephen, burning question: the “Jesus Prayer”. Are we truly asking God for mercy or is this a mental exercise? I’m sorry to be so ignorant on this subject, but when I hear that we should repeat the prayer 20, 30 or 40 times the scripture comes to mind where Jesus said, “Don’t use meaningless repetitions as the Gentiles do, for they suppose they will be heard for their many words”. I know the words are not meaningless and I suppose focusing on every word can be even more meaningful, but the question remains, is this a prayer to bring us into communion with God or is it to somehow change ourselves? (There are also services where we are to pray “Lord, have mercy” 40 times – it usually comes out “Lordamercy” and I’m using my fingers to get it right).

    Again, please forgive my ignorance (a cure is possible), I don’t want to be one who disregards what is holy.

  15. So true and obvious about demons, and yet I had never thought of that! Father, I hope you someday consider compiling your columns into a book.

  16. Mark: If I speak amiss, forgive me and feel free to ignore this as the ramblings of a clueless idiot. It’s just that your experience sounds rather common, so I’ll hazard a few thoughts.

    On the surface level of your question:
    On “mental exercise”: more like anti-mental exercise. It’s the “mental” stuff – your experience – that seems to be tripping you up a bit (more on that below).
    On repetition: The “no vain repetitions” passage you quoted above is just that – no VAIN repetitions, not “no repetitions” as such. Just as we don’t interpret the scads of passages prohibiting “VAIN worship” to mean we shouldn’t worship as such.
    In addition, the Gospels clearly teach repetition in prayer, using the same words. Luke, around chapter 17-8 or so, relates a series of Christ’s parables on prayer. They advocate persistently using the same words (parable of the persistent widow, for example). In point of fact, the Prayer is based upon one of these accounts – the two blind men incessantly crying, “Son of David, have mercy on us!” (What you are experiencing may be your mental “crowd” attempting to silence them).
    In this context, Christ Himself gives us specific words to pray, saying, “When you pray, say” then the Lord’s prayer. (Interesting that no one ever avoids THAT as a ‘vain repetition.’) Also, the Gospels relate (more than once, I believe) that Christ Himself “retreated again to pray, USING THE SAME WORDS.”
    I hope this helps with the ‘surface’ stuff.

    Going a little deeper: rhythm is the stuff of life. your heart, lungs, etc operate on varyless repetition (if they didn’t you’d be dead). Same with eating, sleeping, paying the bills, the four seasons, night and day, moon phases, tides, etc.
    Repetition = Life.
    Death is what happens when the repetition halts.

    Going a little deeper: your experience is evidence that the repetition is NOT vain. Here’s what vain repetition looks like: having your heart carried off to the heights of heaven every time you take the Prayer on your lips. Why? Because then the prayer is just hedonism, incantation, spiritual masturbation. It’s when the Prayer doesn’t “work” that it is beginning to Work. That’s when it reveals what is in your heart – do you love Christ when it’s the Cross, Gethsemane?

    Let’s look into how Christ put it – the persistent widow. Try on her shoes for a moment. You don’t know the end. You don’t know the door finally opens. You’ve dragged your tired booty out of bed super early for the 1500th day in a row, to vainly beat at the judge’s door. You have to fight yourself – all the way there – to do it YET AGAIN TODAY. No guarantee it will be effective. Why should today be any different? WHY DO I KEEP DOING THIS? Am I crazy?
    You arrive and beat on the judge’s door. Yet again, it doesn’t open.
    All the way home, the same doubts. Will this ever work? Will the door EVER open? Is there something ELSE I could be doing that WOULD get that [edited] door open? Am I squandering myself in a vain pursuit here? Others seem to frequently get the judge to open that door – seemingly without half the crap I’m going through. It’s not fair! (Gosh, sounds like your experience at prayer, right?)

    The goal of the Prayer is union with God. Not to produce a certain type of experience. Union with God requires that all in us which doesn’t resonate with Him be removed, so that we can have that union. The Prayer removes these hindrances, and the removal is never pleasant. This is why the Prayer is ALWAYS a struggle. What you are experiencing is absolutely normal, healthy, good, and … universal, common. The Prayer is working. The widow is banging (Lordamercy Lordamercy Lordamercy x40).
    You are likely bumping up against being full of your own emptiness.
    Empty yourself of your empty fullness, and He’ll fill you with His full emptiness.
    Christ was never more in union/communion with the Father than from the Cross. How did He describe that? “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”

    I’ll leave it to you to judge whether or not I have “hit the Mark.” (Sorry, couldn’t help it, LOL). If I am way off – and I’ll be the first to proffer that I could be – feel free to enact a defenestration.

  17. Mark,
    I probably should not try and answer you since I fail constantly in prayer….However, a couple of things I have learned. When we think of mercy we are usually thinking of clemency. However, and Dino please correct me if I err, the word mercy in the Jesus prayer means rather that God show us his lovingkindness, his steadfast love. Perhaps, God, shower me with your goodness, with your presence. St. Paul says that we should pray without ceasing, to be mindful of God at all times. Psalm 16 in the RSV says, “I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.” We are “to live, move, and have our being in God.” I knew these verses as a Protestant, but I had no tool to aid me in doing what the Scriptures asked. The Jesus prayer is just such a “tool” and the prayer comes right from the Bible….think of the words of the publican. It’s Trinitarian when prayed in its long form, for no one can say Jesus is Lord, except the Spirit move him. Can it be a meaningless repetition? Of course, anything can be misused. However, when Jesus’ name is on your lips, it’s pretty difficult to sin. And of course, we want the prayer to finally descend into the heart and stay there. These are a few thoughts from a complete novice. But I’ve been around enough monastics the last 13 years to see the fruit of the prayer.

  18. Mark:
    Please forgive me if I have intruded where I was not invited. I just noticed that the comment I responded to was addressed to Fr Stephen and not to anyone else (including myself. How I missed something so obvious as THAT the first time round I’ll never know. See? Clueless idiot here.) I’m a neophyte at the whole blogging thing, so I’m not the most familiar with the etiquette involved.
    Again, please forgive me if I have obnoxiously inserted myself where I was unwelcome.
    And remember: Let he who is without sin cast the first tomato.

  19. Father Stephen:

    Re: “Occasional Experiments”

    Around the time you were in college, Notre Dame Press issued a monograph on “The Effect of Prayer on Plants.” A double-blind set of groups with controls took part, alternately blessing or cursing a set of sprouts. Growth and germination rates were tabulated to see what “got results.”

    A Jesuit priest saw the monogram and wanted to assign it to his theology students. (Notre Dame, of course, is famously NOT a Jesuit institution). The bookstore ordered more than enough copies, it thought, but there was a run on the title. Its whole stock was sold out in a few minutes to random students, just ones who caught the title and wanted to “check it out.”

    Three (large) orders followed, but the text kept selling out the moment it hit the shelves. When the bookstore found it could not be kept in stock long enough for the class to get it, the professor ultimately substituted some other work.

    Shows in part the fascination with “prayer working” in quite an unlikely setting.

  20. Mark, If I may add my 2 cents worth… The word for Mercy, Loving Kindness, Long Suffering etc in Hebrew is Hesed which means all of those. The Greek, Eleos, which we faithfully translate as Mercy has all of that meaning as well. The richness of the Hebrew word Hesed encompasses far more than we can translate as a single word in English for it can be translated into Greek as Agape as well. When we pray “Have Mercy on me,” we are really asking for it all, the love, the mercy, the peace, the loving kindness and the long suffering of our Lord as blessing to us.

  21. Mark, I have come to “hear” the 40x repetition as a kind of gentle rain from heaven. Each repetition is like a refreshing drop, which is especially uplifting when I have heard it sung in a way that is almost like breathing…rising on the first 5 repetitions and falling on the second 5, etc.

  22. Justin, Dean and GF
    Though my question was addressed to Fr. Stephen, I appreciate other believers entering the conversation. I appreciate the care with which all of you have answered.

    Based on what I understood from Fr. Stephen’s blog the idea that a specific prayer or kind of prayer “works”, is more consistent with the idea of an incantation. Taking the time to consider the words and their meanings can certainly be fruitful, but that’s more like a meditation. It wasn’t and isn’t the content of the prayers that troubled me. Neither was it the idea of a daily “repetition”; I simply thought that “vain” or “meaningless” referred to the act of repetition not the words themselves, but I don’t know how the passage reads in Greek. Obviously, prayers directed to a god who is not God are vain for that reason alone.

    I’m grateful for the different perspectives all of you have brought and for the time you took to enter the conversation. The Lord IS merciful!

  23. I remember reading of a saint (I forget which one) when asked the question, what is the highest form of prayer, the immediate response was – answered prayer. One would expect a response of something about contrition, but that wasn’t the answer.

    We all know the scripture in James about an effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man. We probably know people in our lives where we simply know to go them when we need prayer – they have a level of sanctity and a taste for prayer. Enough ‘odd coincidences’ surround our encounters with them.

    Father, you brought up the notion of prayer as a movement of greater self-emptying – ‘our life is Christ formed in you, the hope of all glory’ (Col 1:27). Movement is not viewed in the context of progress, but a life in the spirit, which is the mystery of Trinitarian life. Could it be that the movement we are speaking of as life in the spirit is one of procession? At least in similitude it does appear so. After all, we’ve been given the same glory.

    To enter this life is to enter into the uncreated (in hypostatic union.) This fullness of life (and could it be expressed in a lesser manner!?) i.e., the fullness of God, finds its expression in the cross, the tomb, the grave (literally and figuratively) and only – by what proceeds it – in the resurrected life. We must all be willing to go there. We are promised that this is where the victory is. We won’t find that in another place. Christ did not. We will not.

    If we don’t go there we won’t find the place; the source (life swallowing up death) of our life.

    This grave and hell is where our lives are won; our regeneration achieved. As St. Silouan said – until you prays for the world you will not cease from your sin. Implicit in this statement is the fact of struggle. Most of us just aren’t praying consistently for our enemies or the world.

    This is the very place where ‘our capacity’ is expanded; by doing, is expanded even more. Praxis and theoria working in unison; one informing the other.

    The fullness of this: 1 John 4:17… as he is, so are we in this world. The way of the spirit is mysterious but we can recognize its effects. We simply have to make room for this. We can’t control it or force it. Simply make room for it. Isn’t that what the scripture means.

    John 3:8 The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

    I have far to go but with the Church and her saints the path is becoming familiar.

    P.S I asked my Father-confessor what his prayer rule was and he responded without hesitation “Oh, I just pray for other people.” I think this is great place to start.

  24. Mark: Thanks for your gracious response. I’m relieved I didn’t step on your toes (although I have no doubt you would have just as graciously forgiven me if I had).
    With regard to the act of repetition itself, one of my points – I probably didn’t make it quite clearly – is that the act of repetition (for repetition is itself an act, a series of acts) is transformative in itself, it becomes part of us, often beneath our awareness.
    Here’s an example – at one point the military had to deal with a staggering problem; humans just wouldn’t pull the trigger on other humans. 95% of soldiers in direct combat had never fired upon enemy soldiers. How to overcome so fundamental and deep seated human aversion to killing others? Simple – enact a simple type of repetition which would transform the men beneath their awareness (as most repetitions do). They had the soldiers repetitively fire at human shaped silhouettes instead of round targets. Seemed like “vain repetition” to the soldiers. They didn’t put their hearts into it or engage it any more than they had the previous round targets. Yet it so transformed them (beneath their awareness) that by the next war 95% pulled the trigger on their fellow man.
    Here’s another example – if I repetitively lift weight, my muscles are going to get stronger whether or not my heart is in it. (In fact, if you go to the gym you will notice that most folks attempt to distract themselves from concentrating on lifting the weight).
    Of course putting one’s heart into prayer is highly preferable (rather, putting one’s entire being into it).
    If one is unable to do so, then the mere act of repetition itself will leaven us. And it is a small amount of this ‘forced’ prayer, this widow’s mite, which can be more pleasing to God than hours of heartfelt prayer in ease and comfort.
    Hope this helps to clarify and not muddy things up worse.

  25. Fr. Stephen,
    I heard once an elder, Fr. Arsenie Papacioc (on youtube), saying that we should not ask like beggars, without giving anything. We must be heroes in prayer. Paradoxically, but so beautifully, “heroism” is putting oneself on the cross. The most heroic thing one can do is to give oneself up.

  26. I agree wholeheartedly with your last paragraph, Fr. Stephen, but you take so many twists and turns and try to disabuse us of so many simple notions . . . I doubt the Apostles would have been able to discern the subtle truths you expound in much of the piece. But of course, if these subtle truths are actually true, they are esoteric, I suppose.

    Anyway, great conclusion. Try not to overthink things.

  27. Justin
    Thanks again for taking the time to articulately respond. In a way, you’ve actually answered a part of my question: is repetition in prayer a mental (or spiritual) exercise?

    Would a repetition be vain if we had confidence that we were heard the first time we spoke? I don’t at all mean “if we got what we asked for”; a loving Father doesn’t always grant a child’s request. A request for mercy (lovingkindness), however, is not asking amiss regardless of who is to be the recipient.

    In the Divine Liturgy, “Lord have mercy” is a repeated response of the people, but each time it follows a specific request. This was not what I have been referring to. Please forgive me if I have misled you. It is the 20, 30 or 40 repetitions alone that prompted my original query.

    I admit that I have reservations about doing what everyone does, simply because everyone does it. In this regard I appreciate St. Thomas. While he will probably always be known as “doubting Thomas”, he refused to base his faith on the experiences of others – even his close companions. And look at what the incident revealed of our Lord.

    If my ignorance (or worse) has now been made manifest, please pray for me …(but only once a day 🙂 !)

  28. Nicholas Stephen
    Please forgive my the omission of your response in my second comment. I appreciated the fuller explanation of the word “mercy”. You took the time to enter the conversation – I should have been more thoughtful.

  29. Mark: after some reflection, think I may have gotten to the “root” of the issue. (Emphasis on “may,” LOL).

    How to explain this? Let me go the route Fr Stephen has trod. (“If I seem to see very far, it is because I have stood upon the shoulders of giants”).

    I believe your hangup via repetitions may be die to modernism/secularism having a toehold on your perception of Reality/Meaning.

    Here is what I mean: the Mystical (you may also use the term Sacramental) Reality firmly asserts that Meaning is given by God in the very Nature of Things Themselves, inherently. Thus, Bread and Wine ARE the very Body and Blood, every Tree is the Cross, every River the Jordan, all Water is Holy Water, etc.
    Take the Tree for example – every Tree, as a Thing in Itself, carries the Cross within It as inherent Meaning whether or not anyone sees It, agrees with It, opposes It, is indifferent to It, etc.
    By contrast, secularism/modernity sees meaning as given by man, within his own mind, NOT part of the nature of the thing itself at all. The tree is merely a tree with no inherent meaning within its nature at all (the Cross or otherwise). A tree can never be a Tree. The association of a tree with the Cross can only occur, according to secularism/modernity, within the confines of the mind of the individual observer. The tree cannot actually be – not carry – the Cross. A fellow observer may make a completely different observation. And his is just as valid because both observations are only within your minds, not in the essence of the tree itself.

    Thus, your question regarding repetition is really not about repetition at all; rather it is a confusion regarding the nature of Creation/Reality itself.

    You see, what you seem to believe is repetition as opposed to Repetition.

    In other words, secularism/modernity seems to be dominating your view of repetition. Your concern seems to be founded upon viewing repetition as a non-Mystical (non-Sacramental) thing which has no inherent meaning or value within itself; thus, if you don’t constantly fill it with meaning within your own mind/heart, then the repetition has no Goodness by itself, as a Creation of God with inherent Goodness independent of your mental/heartfelt efforts. And therefore it becomes possible for the repetition itself to be “vain” and useless, a waste.

    And this leads to the problem you’ve identified. If it’s up to you to fill repetition with meaning within yourself, or have the repetition be “vain” if you don’t; then a sort of internal insanity sets in whereby you will constantly doubt yourself, constantly spy on yourself, constantly wonder, “did I do enough to rescue the act of repetition from vanity?”
    If you suddenly “come to yourself” in Church and realize you just said/did 30 out of 40 “Lordamercy’s” while thinking of your grocery list, then the suspicion of vanity overtakes your soul (rendering the remaining 10 futile as well, since you can’t very well fill those 10 with meaning while occupied with doubt over the first 30).

    You see, if repetition has no meaning within itself independent of your own heartfelt/mental efforts, then of course repetition can be for you nothing more than “works salvation” (to borrow a protestant phrase). Constantly endeavoring to do enough to make the repetitions “count.” Constantly attempting to fill them with meaning.

    But here’s the rub: the term “vain” in the phrase “vain repetition” is NOT descriptive of repetition; rather, it is descriptive of the PERSON who fails to resonate with the inherent Meaning the Act of Repetition has in it’s very Nature as a Good Creation of God.

    “Let my prayer be set forth as incense before Thee; the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” Note that it is the Incense as a Thing in Itself which is ALWAYS invariably acceptable to God; the prayer is the thing which might not resonate with God like the Incense does. (Also of interest is the fact that censing is a repetitive act).

    To sum up:
    Repetition, AS AN ACT IN ITSELF, by its very Nature, is a Creation of God, inherently Good, Holy, etc.
    It is literally IMPOSSIBLE for any man to make repetition “vain.”
    [Yes, it is possible to abuse repetition, just as it is possible to abuse a tree by using it to kill Someone. (The Cross, for example). And yet, even the abuse reveals the inherent Holiness, does it not?]

    “Let my prayer be set forth as repetition before Thee; the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.”

  30. Mark,
    I am glad I helped. I try to bring some of the linguistic and cultural understanding into the conversation to help us understand things in the way they were meant by the people who wrote them. We have been discussing “self emptying” and I cannot help but think that the utter helplessness we feel when we understand exactly what we are saying when we say “Lord, have mercy” has a lot to do with this self emptying. When we reflect on the truth of how much we really depend on the Lord for our being and our salvation, the Self looks very small, insignificant and powerless. The truest meaning of salvation is tied up in the full definition of Mercy

  31. Pete’s comment on the highest form of prayer is answered prayer and James the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man reminds of the Russian movie, “The Hoard”. Reviews are mixed but one commenter says: “ was advertised as the life of St. Alexius, the Metropolitan of Moscow, who prayed over & healed Taidula’s blindness who was the mother of the Khan Janibeg in 1357. This movie is neither a historical documentary nor a historical fictional account on the last days of the Mongol Golden Horde instead this movie is a religious epic about a Holy Saint in Russia. The movie does over play the harshness & spiritual depravity of the Horde & over lengthens the punishment given to St. Alexius when his first attempts to heal Taidula’s blindness fails. Nowhere in the history books is it written that the Saint had to wait, but that Taidula’s cure of blindness was a fast & clear miracle. I guess the punishments given to St. Alexius made great movie making.”

  32. God desires our wholeness and to commune with us. Prayer is a way of fostering both. Even as we pray for others, our own heart is enlarged. That is one reason why praying for our enemies and the people we don’t like is a really good discipline.

  33. Dear RC
    It is very difficult to “empty” one’s self on the one hand if you are simultaneously “filling” one’s self with the other. It seems the oft mis-understood bumper sticker which reads “Let go and let God” is true. As my late spiritual father once told me the biggest obstacle in my path to theosis was not Satan; it was me. My daily struggle is in large measure confronting the myriad subtle ways I try and control the “process” in the faithless belief that my desires for my well-being will somehow be a safety net just in case God doesn’t come through the way I think He should. Faith is lived out by those who have come to see that they really *don’t* have to worry about the morrow.

  34. Father Stephen,

    I’ve been (slowly) reading through Larchet’s “Therapy of Spiritual Illness” the past year. Some of what is said about the “progress” of spiritual healing seems to be in contradiction with what you’ve said these past few months about progress in general. Is that because spiritual progress/healing is such a completely different thing from what you’ve been talking about here? Or is there some disagreement here between you and Larchet’s work?

    I’d appreciate your thoughts when you have a moment. Safe travels!

  35. Tess,
    I have Larchet’s book, but have yet to do more than skim it. I think that we speak without caution many times when we speak of “progress” in spiritual healing. Frankly, most people are so used to thinking in terms of progress, they never stop to question its primary assumptions. Thus, it might be a critique I would have, but I would have to read more to say for sure.

    It is certainly the case, as in physical healing, that there is psychological healing. That healing could easily be described as “progress,” though I would prefer not to use the term. “Spiritual” progress is much more problematic.

    The term “progress” has been so ladened with ideological baggage and assumptions in modernity, that are false, that we may have to use it very carefully for a while.

  36. “It is certainly the case, as in physical healing, that there is psychological healing. That healing could easily be described as “progress,” though I would prefer not to use the term. “Spiritual” progress is much more problematic.”

    This formulation, caveat noted, is very helpful Father. Thank you.

  37. It may sound odd, but your last comment, Father, suggested this to me: is there any progress in our understanding that there is no progress? After all, the movement from non-understanding to understanding is a process of healing. It seems to me that there is some meaning in saying that true opinions (not understanding, but true opinions) are better (and in this sense progress) than false opinions. So if I believe that there is no progress (but I do not understand that there is no progress), I may be somehow in a better position then if I believed that there is spiritual progress. I say that “I believe” because it is not yet understanding. I just happen to believe that because, let’s say, people I trust say so, or because it seems to me that it sounds accurate, or because of any other reason.

    Having understanding, though, is not a progress from my previous state of “believing” something, in the same way in which being healthy is not a progress from being sick. It just is: presence and life. Progress seems to be meaningful only within the disease-state (or the state on non-understanding). If my fever was 40 degrees yesterday (it’s meaningful for me in Celsius; I don’t know what high fever is in Fahrenheit 🙂 ), it is a progress if today I only have 38. If I used to believe that there is “spiritual progress,” then it is a progress if I no longer believe that. However, in both situations I still manifest a disease. I am not healthy, or I don’t have understanding.

    Anyway, this is what your note suggested to me :).

  38. The difficulty with the idea of spiritual progress can be found in a saying of the Confucian Lao Tzu who said that the quest to be ego-less is like beating a drum in search of a fugitive. Someone else observed that the quest to be ego-less is the ultimate ego trip. The problem seems to be that in attempting to measure our “progress” in becoming self-less, we are unable to avoid patting ourselves on the back, even just a little. It seems that my spiritual evolution can be sensed or observed briefly, but the second I try and grab hold of it by attempting to measure it, it turns to smoke in my hands. In other words, every time I try to measure my “progress” it vanishes and I have to return to square one and start over again. Otche was right. My own ego is the biggest obstacle in my struggle to over come my “self”. My ego cannot resist trying to take just a little credit for the “progress”. To the extent that I actually progress (journey forward) in overcoming my self, it is despite my efforts rather than because of them. This conundrum is a maddeningly frustrating obstacle for my ego to overcome because it wants to watch itself “making” something successfully happen. It can’t be done. The ego, the self, must be let go of and trust put in God. There is no other way. The self is a very greedy and tenacious thing which resorts to all manner of defenses–the most common being whining and self-pity. Until I learn to let go of my self and trust God, the struggle will always be marked with frustration, discouragement (and whining and self-pity).
    And I so wanted to admire myself for making it all happen.

  39. What I know of myself is that I am different now that I was 40 years ago. Yet, I persist in most of the same sins. Sometimes I think that the difference lies in how I attempt to fool myself into believing that I am “better”.

  40. Gregory,

    Your words on ego reminded me of something I recently read in an old “psychology” book. It said that “depression is egotism gone to seed”… I often, with my life story, felt I could be justified to “be depressed”, but it just did not feel honest to go that route…

    I will try to look it up later and post it in more of a full context…

  41. Michael,
    The irony may be that the realization that you’re fooling yourself is the first step. The ensuing struggle starts with a dilemma illustrated for me in a line from a Joni Mitchell song which goes: “Behind my bolt-locked door the eagle and the serpent are at war in me; the serpent fighting for blind desire, the eagle for clarity.” Fr. Barnabas Powell gave a sermon one Zacchaeus Sunday entitled “What do you desire?” This is a crucial question. The answer we give determines the course of the rest of our journey. For most of us, we live day to day desiring blind desire on Monday and clarity on Tuesday and on and on. Our efforts to achieve clarity, like our efforts to achieve selflessness, are doomed to failure without God’s help. As Fr. Hopko pointed out, we may have to admit to God that we don’t really entirely want “clarity”; we’d like to hold on to some of the “desire” as well, but that we’d like his help in preferring, more and more, the former rather than the latter. God, of course, knows this, but it seems we have to say it; to admit to this weakness in plain language. “Lord, I don’t always desire to love You but I would like to desire You. Help me with my week desire!” Always the admission of weakness (as Fr. Stephen keeps pointing out). Then the help, mostly undetectable to us, begins. But then comes the second trap. Once we sense our “progress” we destroy it all by rejoicing in our “success”: “I did it! I did it!”. BOOM! Back to the drawing board. This constant failure is exasperating to the self which becomes even more resentful when having to face up to the fact that if “success” is to be attained, it (the self) must be completely banished from the room. This produces much pouting and gnashing of teeth. But there is no other way.

  42. “What I know of myself is that I am different now that I was 40 years ago. Yet, I persist in most of the same sins. Sometimes I think that the difference lies in how I attempt to fool myself into believing that I am “better”.”

    For me the difference is in that I now more readily recognize that I am trying “to fool myself” or that I am trying to fool others. Is that “progress”? I am tempted to say yes, except I am now more aware of this “playing the fool” and what a real fool I am and how persistent it truly is, so on a “practical” level it is a step back actually. I used to “ride” my foolishness with confidence, now I just pray for the old fool… 😉

  43. I prayed for God to break me once. Zoinks! Not sure I’ll ever do THAT again!

    Or at least, I hope I won’t have to.

  44. SXL, your account reminded me of a story I read about a pious Greek man, who asked God to show him himself as He saw him. The result was so spiritually shocking (not in a good way with regard to the man’s true spiritual condition), that he had a heart health crisis. It taught him this was not a prudent request to make of God at that stage in his spiritual journey. If I’m not mistaken, this was a friend of Kiriakos C. Markides and related in one of Kiriakos’ books about his trips to Mt. Athos.

  45. SXL,
    I strongly agree with Karen. This is the kind of trouble you can get into when you attempt to manage your spiritual life without the benefit of spiritual counseling from a priest or spiritual father/mother. I dare say they would never have let you go down that path. Suffering will come to you but to seek it out is to give the lie to the prayer “lead us not into temptation.” The Church in her wisdom places enormous importance on the dangers of prelest or spiritaul delusion, and for good reason. Attempting to become your own spiritual guide is asking for trouble. The conventional wisdom in the legal profession says that a lawyer who attempts to defend himself in court has a fool for a client. Lawyers know from experience that such a lawyer runs the dangerous risk of failing to be objective and dispassionate. This is even more true in the spiritual life.

  46. Older BCPs had Morning & Evening Prayers end thusly:

    A Prayer of St. Chrysostom.
    ALMIGHTY God, who hast given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplications unto thee; and dost promise, that when two or three are gathered together in thy Name thou wilt grant their requests; Fulfil now, O Lord, the desires and petitions of thy servants, as may be most expedient for them; granting us in this world knowledge of thy truth, and in the world to come life everlasting. Amen.

    Thank you, Stephen+ for your articles, your talk, “Beyond Shame” (you & I met in Santa Rosa), and sharing your gracious wisdom.

  47. Thank you for the thoughts, Father. I’d be interested in your thoughts about the book if and when you get to it!

    The distinction between healing and progress feels important to me. I’ll have to think about it some more. 🙂

  48. Being in Christ, do we not *have* union with God? Is this not our Christianity?

    How then could it be “a spiritual path towards union with God”?

    Union with Christ is not a goal that has not been attained, though our subjective experience may be problematic.

    With due respect also to Justin, our union with Christ cannot be “the goal of prayer,” since it has been given us freely in Christ, in the Beloved.

    To be in Christ is to be in union with him, all our feelings and experiences to the contrary, notwithstanding.

    We grow in our understanding and appreciation of Christ, but that is b/c we are *in* union with him, not in order to attain such.

  49. Hugh,

    Union is never static. It is relationship. I am union with my wife. But that union is consistently contingent upon my living into the grace she exhibit towards me…i.e. being faithful. I will never know everything about her. She defies such objectification. This is living faith.

    The union with Christ is accomplished for every person –in all times–in all places. That grace is given. But is it recieved? Is it reciprocated?

    Our union with Christ either warms and softens us like wax or burns us like fire and chaff.

    Union with the ineffable and incomprehensible God can never be static, as the created can never approach the bottom of the depths of the essence of God. He is inapproachable light…and we can constantly approach Him in grace…but never be “full” of such Grace…as it overflows beyond measure.

    …”to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us…”

    There is no end to this relationship and the depths of the boundless unbegotten God. To whom much is given…much is required. He who has shall be given more, and he who does not have…even what he has shall be taken away.

    This is who grace is available to all. “Attained” only as a gift received and lived into…not earned.

    Make sense? If no…sorry…

  50. Christopher,

    Per an email response from Dr. Farrell re: the link you provided regarding John Scotus;

    they are part of a fictional story and hence NOT genuine texts…

    If you knew that already…please disregard…I may have misunderstood you as stating these were genuine historical texts.

    In Christ,


  51. Being in Christ, do we not *have* union with God? Is this not our Christianity?

    Hugh, we are in fact made in His image, which gives us some union with Him, I would think (I don’t think of “image” as necessarily a reflection; more of an icon). I tend to think in terms of “fullness” in union in much the same way that the Orthodox Church is the “fullness” of worship. Just my thoughts. Please correct me if I am incorrect!

  52. Hugh, our sins keep us from realizing our union with God thus we practice repentance. It is much as a marriage: not all married couples evidence or “have” the same degree of union with each other. In fact that union may be so bad that a divorce occurs. Even in the best marriages, the union deepens over the years.

    Since Christianity is an incarnational reality, the union with Christ is not just a philosophical or even an abstract theological precept.

    The union is, as Father says, ontological. It can be realized if we love sufficiently, repent sufficiently, give alms, all of those and more. Nevertheless, no matter how deep the union, there is always more. “Higher up and further in.”

    All have the promise of sainthood, most do not enter into that promise, that marriage.

    At during Bridegroom Matins at the beginning of Holy Week we Orthodox sing the Bridegroom Hymn : “I behold the bridal chamber, richly adorned for my savior, but I have no wedding garment to worthily enter. Make radiant the garment of my soul oh giver of light and save me”


    The Troparion
    Behold the Bridegroom comes at midnight, and blessed is the servant whom he shall find watching, and unworthy is the servant whom he shall find heedless.

    Beware, therefore, oh my soul. Do not be weighed down with sleep, lest you be given up to death, and lest you be shut out of the kingdom.

    But rouse yourself, crying, Holy, Holy, Holy are Thou O God.

    Through the Theotokos, have mercy on us.

  53. And…

    As Paul says; “We all, with unveiled faces, are looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed(by our continued union?) into the same image from glory to glory; this is from the Lord who is the Spirit…

    “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. “

  54. Hugh,

    It is as the others have said. Christ has united Himself with our humanity by becoming Incarnate, and so in this sense we are all irrevocably united to Christ by virtue of His having taken on our human nature and our sharing that human nature. As individual persons, we are united to Christ in a reciprocal movement of our own will by virtue of our confession of Christ and Baptism into the Church. We actually declare aloud our intent to renounce the devil and to unite ourselves to Christ in the rites normatively preceding Baptism in the Orthodox Church.

    But if this is a marriage to Christ, our personal Baptism is analogous to the wedding ceremony. No one would say after that point that a marriage doesn’t exist, but at the same time there remains a lifetime’s work of entering ever more deeply into the fullness of that union with Christ in His death and resurrection (Philippians 3:10-14). There may be many ruptures on our end from this Union along the way (as in the case of the idolatrous contentious, and fornicating Corinthian Christians, compare 1 Cor. 6 and 2 Cor. 6:14-18).

    In general, when speaking of the need to unite ourselves to Christ through the use of the Church’s spiritual disciplines such as prayer, charitable acts, and sacramental participation, etc., we are speaking of our personal actual experiential communion with God that results in our progressive transformation into the very likeness of Christ. In the same way, St. Paul could exhort those under his charge to “keep being filled with the Holy Spirit” and not to “quench” the Spirit, though they were all, by virtue of their entry into the Church, already “sealed by the Holy Spirit.” We are all called to “work out with fear and trembling” that same salvation that has already been wrought for us in Christ (“…for by grace you *have been saved* through faith…”).

    One difference from when I was Protestant, though, is that when I need greater assurance of salvation or a deeper sense of experiential communion with Christ, I don’t attempt to bolster myself simply by mentally noting and affirming my change in status from child of darkness to child of God and all the benefits Scripture lists as being my inheritance in Christ by virtue of my “faith” in Him. No, rather I renew my efforts in prayer and in participation in the Liturgy and life of the Church, for example by regularly going to Confession and partaking of Christ in the Eucharist. I have discovered this is what makes the difference between the theoretical knowledge of God and “knowledge” of God as true union with Him, which is experiential. You don’t typically find pious Orthodox Christians lamenting the constant struggle to make “head knowledge” become “heart knowledge” as happened fairly regularly in the Evangelical churches to which I belonged. Rather, as an Orthodox, I know the real issue is the disparity between what I now am and what I hope to become in terms of my true closeness to Christ, and I know the only way to realize this change is by the active practice of my faith through obedience to the commands of Christ in dependence on the grace of God to make that practice fruitful.

  55. RC says
    February 7, 2016 at 8:34 am
    … *how* we can embrace our weakness and empty ourselves in our day-to-day lives? … Minute by minute, how am I to empty myself?
    Michael Bauman says
    February 7, 2016 at 10:21 am
    Start by being thankful to God for something. Acknowledge His gifts. The more you do this, the less you will be.
    I don’t know RC that you will get notified re: this Reply.
    First, let the Spirit amplify Bro. Michael’s observation: the more we appreciate God’s giveness (grace) to us, the more apparent His givenness IS. And the more we perceive. To over-flowing.

    *how*: Recognizing Paul’s habit of dying daily, the conscious effort of daily hanging one’s ‘self’ upon the Cross – partaking in the suffrage of mankind, all that is left for one is to proceed by the Spirit, bearing it’s Fruit. Just as gratitude compounds our experience in God, our humiliation is to do His good will, in all things!

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