Mother Alexandra, formally Princess Ileana of Romania, back in 1960 wrote a little booklet called “Our Father: Meditations on The Lord’s Prayer.” The booklet is divided into fourteen prayers each focusing on a phrase from the Lord’s Prayer and arranged to be prayed with one’s morning and evening prayers over a week (so there’s a morning and an evening prayer for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc.). In the very last prayer, the prayer for Sunday evening, the prayer contains this sentence: “Only this have I to recommend me, that Thou has made me; nothing have I to give Thee, for all I have has come of Thee; only my love is mine to give or to withhold.”
“Only my love is mine to give or to withhold.” What a powerful thought. In our relationship with God, we have nothing to give, nothing that is actually ours, nothing but love. I wonder if this is also what Archimandrite Aimilianos is referring to when he speaks of longing for God, and what St. Isaac the Syrian is referring to what he speaks of tears that one sheds before God. Are these ways to talk about love for God, the feeling of love for God, how they felt and experienced their love for God? I have nothing to give God but love.
Archimandrite Aimilianos says that when we go to Church with longing, we often encounter God in our prayers. Not always, of course. Nothing is formulaic in our relationship with God. Nonetheless, if all we really have to give God is our love, then it seems that if we are going to encounter God at all, if we are going to offer ourselves to God in any way or through any service, then it seems to me that having love in our heart and being motivated by love are essential if we really want to know God, if we really want to see God, as Archimandrite Aimilianos puts it.
Of course love is not static, as though you can say, “You either love me or you don’t.” Love grows. Love fades, it can grow cold. So often for many of us, our religious life becomes routine. Even if it is rigorous, even if we do our best to keep the fasts and feasts, even if we give generously, and serve the Church in lots of small and large ways, even if we appear to everyone else to be zealous, pious Orthodox Christians, still all of this activity can become routine, mere habit, like a marriage that has grown cold—or if not cold, perhaps just lukewarm.
It’s not that habit is wrong. St. Isaac the Syrian speaks at length on the importance of developing good habits. It is good to have a habit of prayer and of fasting, a habit of giving to the Church and of going to confession and Communion of the Holy Body and Blood of Christ our God. Habit is good, but habit without love, that’s not good. Habit without love may be partly what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of the Pharisees (quoting the Prophet Isaiah), “These people draw near me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
I think I do that. I think I sometimes draw near to God with only my lips, only the words of the prayers, only the outer actions. I draw near to God with my lips, but my heart is somewhere else. And as wretched as that makes me, at least I know that I am not alone with this problem. Apparently St. John of Damascus experienced the same problem. In one of his pre-Communion prayers, St. John of Damascus begins with the words, “Behold I stand at the gates of Your Temple, yet I refrain not from my evil thoughts….” This problem of drawing near to God with our lips, out of habit or convention, yet having our hearts far away, is perhaps a common problem. Many of us, and often, it seems, fail to bring to God the one thing we actually have to Give Him: love.
Love does not always have to be emotional. People are different, and how each person feels and experiences love can be different. However, one thing, I think, is certain: love always requires a certain attention, a certain focus, a certain intentionality and devotion of the mind and heart. I cannot say I am loving someone by doing some act of kindness for them if my principle thought before, during and after the action is how I will benefit in some way from the action. Sure it’s always good to be kind. It is good to have a habit of kindness even if it is not really motivated by love, but we should not fool ourselves (and we cannot fool God). To give hoping to receive, to act kindly out of a sense of mere social obligation, to give so that I can get, this is not love. And love, according to Mother Alexandra is all that is really my own that I can give.
I can look into someone’s eyes and say the words, “I love you,” but if my mind is somewhere else, then the words have no meaning. And so, what should I do? If I have a habit of going to Church, of praying and of faithfulness in various religious obligations, but my heart is cold, what should I do? Should I just stop praying? Should I stop going to Church if my heart is not in it? What should I do if I realize—like St. John of Damascus—that though I draw near to God’s Temple, my heart is full of evil thoughts? Should I just stop drawing near to God with my lips if I realize that my heart is far from Him?
Probably not. Probably, like in a marriage, you don’t actually need “space.” What you need is to kindle the smouldering spark of your love back into a flame. Probably what you need to do is start paying attention to what you are saying and doing. Probably, all you need to do is to start thinking about it, to start being thankful for the blessings you do have, to start choosing with intentionality to love, to direct the focus of your heart to attend to acts of devotion and kindness (as in a marriage) and to nurture longing, to nurture desire, and to bring that desire and longing with you when you go to Church and when you say your prayers. If your heart and mind is not where your body and words are, then probably what you need to do is work on bringing your mind and heart to where your body and words are. And I would say that this is probably the right prescription for most people most of the time.
However, there are times when the right thing to do may indeed be to cut back on your actions and to curtail your words. This is sometimes the case with young adults who have been raised by very pious parents. Having been raised to say all of the prayers and attend all of the services and to keep all of the pious traditions, some young adults once they get a chance to do so, pull away from everything. They may lie to themselves and to everyone else that they are busy (after all, isn’t that the universal excuse we all use, the excuse no one dare challenge: I’m busy with studies, busy with work, etc.). Many parents lament when they see their children fall away from piety; however, something very important may be going on in their child’s life. It may be that the child is trying to find his or her level, trying to find what of the faith that they have received is really theirs. They are indeed trying to love God genuinely.
This is a dangerous time, no doubt, and parents with children who have wandered from piety should pray diligently for them realizing that in no small way their own sins have contributed to their child’s struggles. Now is the time for parents to draw near to God with longing to find mercy and help in the time of need. Now is the time to pray, not preach, for only God is able to bring the prodigal home.
There is perhaps also be another time in which pulling back may be appropriate when we find our religious life devoid of love. And that’s when our pious behaviour and good religious life have been motivated by pride, when we have come to base our identity on how good we are, how carefully we observe our religious obligations. In such cases, perhaps the best thing to do is to pull back, to not make ourselves do what we are supposed to do, what we have always done because it is the right thing to do and we have always tried to do the right thing. Perhaps it’s time that we too find our level, that we begin to let our outer behaviour reflect what’s really in our heart so that with humility, as we are astonished at how lazy, sinful and undevoted to God we really are, so that with humility we may begin again in small ways, but with our whole heart, to give to God the one thing that ours to give: our love—even if it is much less than we had supposed.
An old priest once told me a story about a man who had confessed to him that he was always angry and frustrated when he came to Church. This man was a regular attender and active in many ways in the Church community. Do you know what this priest told him to do? He told him to not come to church so often, to come only once a month or so. After an initial struggle with guilt, this man began to pull back, he began to attend church only once a month. And for the first year or so, having most Sunday mornings to himself was a great joy, and he found many enjoyable ways to take advantage of the extra half day each weekend. But then, after a few of years, the strangest thing happened, this man started coming to church more often, started asking the priest for spiritual advice, started being more at ease and prayerful in Church. Why was this? It was because this man was now coming to Church out of love, out of longing, out of a desire to meet God. Having been freed from the self imposed “have to” and the “should” of strict religious observance, after a while, this man had started to become lonely of God, he had started to want to express his love, he had started to want to draw near to God again.
All we have to give to God is our love. Religious observances, prayers, fasting, generous donations, all of these are ways we express that love. These are all ways that the longing to draw near to God is expressed and through which we can come to actually encounter God. All of these disciplines of the religious and spiritual life require practice and consistency and, yes, they all work best as they become habit for us, all of these are ways to express the one thing we have to give God, the one thing that is our own to give. Love is all that is really my own to give.