THE V. Reverend Protopresbyter Dr. Stelyios S. Muksuris, Ph.D. [BA, MDiv, MLitt, PhD, ThD (post-doc.)], serves the Kimisis Tis Theotokou Greek Orthodox Church in Aliquippa, PA, and is Professor of Liturgy and Languages at SS. Cyril and Methodius Byzantine Catholic Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. A native of Boston and a graduate of Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA, he received his postgraduate degrees and his doctorate in liturgical theology from the University of Durham in the United Kingdom. He is an active member of several academic societies (AAR, SL, SOL, BSC, OTSA), a frequent conference speaker both nationally and internationally, the author of a monograph, Economia and Eschatology: Liturgical Mystagogy in the Byzantine Prothesis Rite (Boston, 2013), and the author of an introductory chapter for a textbook on Christianity, as well as numerous papers and studies in theological journals. He is a frequent consultant on liturgical matters for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Pittsburgh.
Recently, I ran across a compelling quote from the pen of St. John Chrysostom, which I believe is very telling of the spiritual poverty people experience in our day and age. This spiritual poverty is a serious self-inflicted disease which, unlike most physical maladies, can only be exclusively healed by the individual who falls prey to it. It speaks about prayer and how appropriating it in our lives renders us the wealthiest of all. Chrysostom writes:
Prayer is a refuge for those who are shaken, an anchor for those tossed by waves, a walking stick for the infirm, a treasure house for the poor, a stronghold for the rich, a destroyer of sicknesses, a preserver of health. He who can sincerely pray is richer than everyone else, even though he is the poorest of all. On the contrary, he who does not have recourse to prayer, even though he sit on a king’s throne, is the poorest of all….
The suggestion, naturally, is that when one possesses God in his or her life, one has every need fulfilled and, as such, has become larger than life because life no longer controls him or her, but such a person controls life. And their ability to function in the world as an “other-worldly” being, as another “little christ” called from out of the world for the fulfillment of God’s will, stems from their having likewise acquired the fruits of the Holy Spirit, which St. Paul the Apostle lists in Galatians 5:22-23 as “love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Simply put, when the Christian “becomes Christ,” he becomes all light for his immediate surroundings, for his neighbors, permeated by the uncreated glory of the Lord God. Beyond this transformation into a “god by grace,” there is nothing left for the Christian to become. He has attained his calling. By joining himself to prayer, he becomes prayer himself.
However, who amongst us can verily claim that we have drawn near to such a lofty calling? Who amongst us can say they have arrived at the threshold of perfection, that they can exercise perfect love and joy and peace and self-control? I will be the first to admit that I fall short daily, and I will be the first to admit that you probably do too! A quick glance at the news on the television, in the papers, or on the Internet will prove that the state of our world is in such utter turbulence that man has, nevertheless, remained religious … he has refused to be transformed into God’s own image and likeness (cf. Genesis 1:26) but rather has transformed God into his own.
Man’s religiosity has been radically deformed into self-idolatry; he worships his own misguided will and expects others to do the same, usually by employing extreme force or duress. Man believes in himself today more than in God; consequently, he finds no reason to pray. He has forgotten to pray and how to pray. His version of “prayer” is a sickening exercise in self-aggrandizement and self-glorification, like the Pharisee in the well-known parable (Luke 18:10-14) to which he expects others to conform as well.
This detachment from God is fueled by the demons, who are elated that yet another child of God foolishly chooses to wither away and spiritually perish. And the saddest thing of all is that other individuals are unsuspectingly and unfairly sucked into the same whirlwind of oblivion. An abba of the desert once remarked wisely: “Prayer to God is not solely the mark of faith for the Christian but the proof of his love for Him. If you truly love God, you will not only speak to Him but you will rejoice to spend time with Him. This is the Kingdom of God, plainly and simply.”
When we pray, we acknowledge a fundamental truth, the acceptance of which draws us deeper into the mystery of who God is and who we are in relation to God. And this realization is the key to a peaceful internal disposition which, unfortunately, is lacking in most human hearts. This truth is none other than this: we cannot weather the storms of life alone. Man is no island; he cannot live independently and rely only on his own faculties for his survival and general welfare.
Many individuals today try to convince themselves that they are self-sufficient and do not need the benevolences of another human being. The tenets of individualism today support this credo, preaching the centrality and power of the individual person. As a result, we find ourselves living in an ultra-competitive world, in which getting ahead and being better than another person is lauded as an ideal to which one should aspire. And then stress sets into the heart, and we find our lives becoming more and more fragmented and opposed to our fellow man. Then our lives begin to lose fervor and meaning because after ostracizing the world, we are left to live with our empty selves. In fact, we cannot live with ourselves anymore because what has remained is not who we truly are.
And who are we really? The image and likeness of the very God who created us and loves us. In order to truly acknowledge and honor the divine image inside of us, we need to share fellowship with the Lord and see our lives not against the backdrop of humanity but against the background of the Kingdom of God. This requires prayer, dialogue, and fellowship with the One who gives us meaning simply by who He is and who we are in relation to Him. In prayer, we come back to our true self and reestablish the proper relationships that God willed for us to have from the very beginning. In prayer, we do not see others as opponents or enemies or even strangers, but as fellow sojourners and co-sufferers in this thing called life. Truthfully, we no longer seek personal advancement but rather the collective attainment of ideals that we would otherwise have selfishly reserved only for ourselves.
And sincere prayer to God, when perfected, does not even focus anymore on the successful fulfillment of a request. The man or woman of faith does not care whether or not a prayer is answered; what only matters is that he or she is spending time with the Lord God. This fellowship and the joy that blossoms from it is infinitely of more value than the petition itself. If a prayer is fulfilled, it means the Lord has answered, but the joy is in the fact that God loves us so much that He responded. And if a prayer request is not fulfilled, it does not mean that God ignored us, but that He likewise answered by not granting us what we wanted but by granting us what He wanted, which is always to our best interest even if, at that disappointing moment, we felt otherwise.
Only true faith can help us accept a “negative” answer. It is like the saintly ascetic in the Eastern monastic corpus of literature who acknowledged the absolute love of God even if it meant that God was intending for him to be cast into hell. So long as we have faith and love for God, God will make everything right. This is prayer: not having your petitions answered but spending time loving and being loved by God. For when you have God, you have everything.
For this reason, the person of prayer, as Chrysostom says, is the wealthiest man and woman of all. Such persons are at home, complete, full. Nothing can be added further to their lives, and nothing further can be taken away. May our lives likewise be not only prayerful, but may we become a living prayer to one another, so that our very presence and demeanor in life may be proof that not only does God exist, but we likewise exist fully … in God.
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