”PRAYER is by its very nature a dialogue and a union with God. Its effect is to hold the world together and to achieve a reconciliation with God. Prayer is the mother and daughter of tears. It is expiation of sin, a bridge over temptation, a barrier against affliction. It wipes out conflict, is the work of Angels and the nourishment of all bodiless beings. Prayer is the future gladness. (St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 28)
One of the world’s most profound definitions of prayer appears above in this powerful quote from the pen of the great ascetic and writer, St. John of the Ladder (579-649 AD). Interestingly, he assigns a value to prayer not only for us earthly beings but for the bodiless angels as well. What is prayer indeed but the content that fills the time we spend with God? When we enter into God’s company, we are set to interact with Him, to dialogue with Him, to become united with Him. For the angels, prayer takes on not so much the activity of supplication (as it does for us human beings who are needful of many things in this life to preserve our physical existence) but doxology. The angels, who exist as spirits in the same ethereal realm as God, need nothing to preserve their existence except interaction with God on a more sublime level. In other words, they need only to glorify Him, and this is their prayer — one of confession and praise. When certain earthly beings assume this angelic life and care no more for their bodily needs but truly define their existence by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4), we call them “earthly angels” (ἐπίγειοι ἄγγελοι), or saints (ἅγιοι).
When we pray to God, we are spending “quality time” with Him. In other words, we are using every moment of our interaction with Him constructively. We praise Him not because HE needs it or demands it, but because WE need it for our own sake, because He created us in His image (Genesis 1:26) to imitate Him in His attributes as interpersonal and communicative. So when we spend time with Him, we resemble the oneness of the Holy Trinity as a communion of Three Persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — who are perfectly united to one another in their essence and will and power. In prayer, God gives us Himself … and in prayer, we give God to one another.
A quick look at the various forms of media around us indicates that we live in a miserably fallen world, which only seems to get worse as the moments and days pass. Violence, injustices, natural disasters — the wretchedness is appallingly too familiar. It is not that we live in a godless world; it is that we have forgotten to give God to ourselves and to one another through the simple activity of spending time with God in prayer. Prayer has become relegated to a formality, a mechanical exercise from which we assume magic and power will flow like a rushing ocean current. We want and expect and demand even when we “pray”, very much like all newborn infants who out of necessity are utilitarian in their early lives. We lack understanding and operate on the sole basis of our shortsighted impulses. We only know how “to do”; we have not yet learned the central importance of knowing how “to be.” Hence, our lives become shallow and congested with unnecessary distractions that add to our distress when our expectations are not fulfilled. Yet, if we would only rejoice with simply “being with God”, we would then come to realize that the answer to prayer is not getting what we want, but getting what we need. And what we need is to be with God — always.
Let us give ourselves God in prayer and experience the untold joy of His company, in the private confines of our heart. When our hearts rejoice with the knowledge of this interactive presence inside of us, then we confront the need to do something with this overflow. But what a wonderful “problem” to have! It is then that we need to give God to one another, to share the love and mercy of God with those around us far needier and more anxious than ourselves.
People need God daily as they need material food and drink. We starve spiritually and physically when we are deprived of nourishment that gives us our overall health and wellbeing. I recall the significant passage from the Gospel of Matthew 14:16, just prior to our Lord Jesus Christ’s miracle of the multiplication of the five loaves and two fishes, when the disciples complain to Jesus to dismiss the people after a long and tiring day. Testing His followers, Christ addresses them: “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” The misunderstanding is that physical food alone will satiate the people’s appetite. Christ wants to give to the throngs of well over five thousand men, women, and children not physical food — He wants to give them God. And when they have God, the physical food is just the icing on the cake, the dessert.
In prayer for one another, we give God to each other. We sacrifice a very minimal portion of our time and energy for someone else’s welfare. When we pray for one another, we spend time with them. When we pray for one another, we love them because we broaden our hearts to fit them inside, as God does for each one of us. When we pray for one another, we become each other’s “little christ”, a paradise and an oasis for the other. We open up heaven for them because we allow God into their lives when they most need it. For this reason does St. John Climacus call prayer a “barrier against affliction”, possessing the ability to wipe out conflict because it softens our heart to the plight of others. If we were ever judgmental or hurtful toward another, prayer for them heals our enmity and produces in us the necessary humility to find salvation. It gives us the opportunity to witness our shared humanity — its fallenness but also its pristine beauty — and to bring about the internal change whose absence prevents us from attaining perfection.
Giving God to others is the best way to give God to ourselves, for without God, we are like the “living dead.” As I said once in a university lecture, our rejection of God assimilates us to the demons who do not exist in God and yet they are aware of this … and this is the self-imposition of the hell we have the potential to create for ourselves. For as C.S. Lewis wrote in his famous work, The Great Divorce, “The gates of hell are locked from the inside.” Punishment is not God-imposed but self-imposed when we steer clear from the will of God, who lovingly permits us to make the choices we make without controlling us. In most cases, however, the sins of one affect collectively the lives of others, and this is perhaps the greatest of all of life’s tragedies.
And by giving God to others, we ultimately reestablish the blessed harmony between ourselves and the cosmos. This is what St. John means when he says prayer holds the world together. In prayer, we bless with good words (εὐλογίαι) the creation and humanity all around us, allowing the cosmos to be permeated with the grace of God. And wherever God is welcomed, the universe is kept in order. One day, someone asked me: “Father, how can my insignificant prayer do great things?” I responded that your prayer, when combined with that of the Church that prays in every time zone, brings God to every nook and cranny of the world, keeping it intact. So, in a sense, remember that your prayer contributes as a catalyst to save the world, to redeem it, and to sanctify it. This is no small thing by any stretch of the imagination! We are “miracle workers” when we allow God’s light to reflect off of us and touch another human being. God is, of course, the agent that hallows and transforms; we are the instruments He needs to bring His will to completion.
My dear people, our world is starving for God now more than ever before. Let us give one another the One we have in our possession. Let us give God to each another through our heartfelt prayers, as priests and “little christs” who willingly sacrifice not necessarily our lives but our time and effort. To give God means we have received Him beforehand. In order to love, we must feel loved and be ablaze with this power from on high. For this will be, as St. John reminds us once again, “the future gladness”, the eschatological fulfillment of all of life’s expectations. Giving God to each other will open to us the heavenly kingdom, in which we will intermingle mystically with the holy angels and see ourselves as we were truly meant to be.
Anything short of this calling will be a betrayal of our true humanity. Give God to yourself and to one another … and so give each other and yourselves to God. Amen. (+)
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