On Prayer

Bishop JOHN (Shahovskoy)

Many pray. Many turn toward God in various moments of their lives -- not only under the sway of painful experiences, but also when the heart overflows with radiant joy. At times, they pray at the beginning of an undertaking; less frequently, at the end. At other times, they pray unexpectedly, during the day, suddenly walking up to an image or simply kneeling down where they stand, turning toward their Creator in an impulse of gratitude or repentance. Some pray methodically mornings and evenings, before and after meals, and more at length, in church. Others pray at home when evening stillness descends, or dawns the quiet of the early morning.

Various are the words with which man turns to God; many are the shades of feeling; unequal is the force of aspiration; not alike is the degree of faith.... And meanwhile, all humanity possesses the bond of prayer, great and tremendous in the force of its responsibility; bond of prayer -- the highest attainable communion of mankind. In the invisible but true communion are united all ages and generations, all fragments of fallen and broken humanity, men of various convictions, ideas, circumstances. Everything is held together by invisible threads in the mystery of prayer.

If the world has not yet disintegrated, if it still stands and holds a man, it is because from all ends of the world, from all its mountains and from all its abysses, toward God arises a pure prayer, a sigh of a creation given new life.

What is prayer? It is communion with God. People regard themselves happy and all their lives remember the occasions when they succeed in conversing with some outstanding man, high in position or talent, world-renowned in name. How much more, it would seem, should people treasure to commune with Him who has created loftiness and significance in the world. It would seem that great happiness ought to be evoked by the realization that a direct recourse to the Only True King of Heaven and Earth is possible.... But little and all too mutely do people realize this nearness of God.

What ordinarily does one value in prayer? One values the possibility to ask something of the Master of all things: to escape sickness, suffering, danger, death, whether his own or of those dear to him. One values the possibility of receiving tangible blessings treasured by the world: so-called life's happiness -- a happy home, a loved one, good children, fortunate circumstances, pleasant work, good health, this undertaking or that....

Yet not only the earthly needs overpower a man and tend to turn him toward God. The enlightened people in the world realize that everything material should be left in the hands of God, while they themselves ought not care overmuch even in prayers about it, and ought fulfill only their higher tasks. The rest "shall be added," said the Lord. And having faith in that, the spiritual people seek and ask in prayer only spiritual blessings: a prayer itself, patience, love, humility, purity, and truth. They ask to know and to hear the will of God, and on hearing it, to do it. In many things knowing the will of God already, they ask for the blessed strength to fulfill His will.

People with such inspired consciousness, with such interests of the heart, are not uncommon in the world. More numerous of course are those, however, who combine their highest purpose with the baser, and much more numerous are those who are guided in life only by their baser interests, even praying to God on their behalf.

Worthy of every esteem is the lofty, nonmaterial aim of prayer. Yet even in their material requests, people, like children who turn to prayer, harvest the fruit of prayer, although not always in the way they ask.

The loftiest prayer of all, however -- one knows not with what words to praise it -- is the prayer in which man forgets all his aims, even the loftiest, and finds himself aflame with the single desire to draw as near to the Lord as possible, to lay his head at His feet, to place into His hands all his heart, and thus, to forget himself and the world. This is the perfect love and perfect prayer. One desires to breathe only the Lord, to live only in Him, to love Him, to take refuge in His proximity, in His ineffable love. It becomes unbearable to breathe the air that lacks His light sweet breath, for the human soul longs for His peace. Already here on earth it tastes this peace, and breathes the heavenly air, and hears heavenly voices which speak of great mysteries, not renderable in any human words.

Any human supplication to God can be fulfilled, every human prayer inspired and justified with reverent selflessness and with seeking prayer for its own sake. The mundane impulse for it is but a secondary and accidental circumstances. Celestial joy remains the heart and will of prayer -- to speak, to commune with, to pour out all one's doubts and joy, to the One All-loving, All-wise, All-knowing Father.

A child's lisping is acceptable to Him. The Lord accepts all human supplications, no matter how small and insignificant they might be, if the human heart beats with joy in standing before the Face of the Lord. In standing thus before Him, everything small is perfected; everything imperfect becomes great.

Do not be dismayed by the greatness or insignificance of your supplications, but seek above all, not the thing you wish to ask, but Him whom you wish to ask. Unworthy only are the supplications of those who love the Lord less than the thing or deed for which they ask. If you love the Lord above all else, blessed will be your every request, both great and small; and your every request will be fulfilled, and that which shall not be fulfilled will bring you greater blessing than that which shall be fulfilled.

Great is the power of any humble prayer. It never fails to be fulfilled, although not always does it bring its blessing in the form requested. If one might imagine a man who had turned to God with a million wishes, none of which had been fulfilled, know and believe that after all these supplications to God -- if they had been humble -- the man would have received a blessing greater than if all of his requests had been fulfilled. The Lord substitutes for the unfulfilled human requests His gifts which are the most important and the most needed blessing for man. The Lord alone knows what is important and what is necessary for everyone. Man, however, in his supplications, is something like a child reaching for the flame of a candle....

Prayer, for him who truly believes, is always a treasure, always precious.

Suppose that you fail to see a person you greatly love, contact with whom is always a joy to you. You wish to see him -- and as frequently as possible -- but you can call on him only if you have some request to make of him. You wish very much to see him, far more than to receive anything from him. And in order to see him you turn to him with a request. In the depth of your heart it is immaterial to you whether he will grant your request or not; but dear to you is the contact with him, the opportunity to speak, to hear him. You leave his house not thinking at all of the gift, whether he had given it or not. Your heart is filled with him alone.... This is what human love means.

If we can thus love a man, how much more -- God! A joy is our every supplication before Him -- that which is granted and that which is not. In both cases a great fruit remains within our soul. We rise to heaven to the Creator of worlds. And falls upon our heart the divine ember of seraphic grace. . .

Translated from the Russian by Alexandra Stadnitskaya

New York, 1947

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