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INSTRUCTIONS FOR JOINING

THE ORTHODOX CHURCH 

CHAPTER 10

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ON PRAYER

 

WHAT IS PRAYER?


Many people today do not understand the power of prayer and the need for prayer as a whole. Most people only remember that there is a God when they are in need of something, and usually resort to prayer when they suffer from some sort of ailment, when someone close to them is ill, when they are in trouble, when they need financial help, when they apply for a new position, in general when they have need of something worldly. At all other times they rarely think of God and live their lives without God and prayer. Others again have got into the habit of praying in the morning or before going to bed but don’t feel the need to pray throughout the day. On those rare occasions when they resort to prayer they expect God to respond by answering their prayers. If he doesn’t then that affects their belief in him and often people lose faith and say God didn’t help me when I needed him. Prayer from this point of view is not prayer at all. The meaning of prayer has been grossly distorted from its main purpose which is communion with God. So how should we pray and for what things should we pray for? Christ Himself, in his Sermon on the Mount, taught us how to pray and told us the things we should pray for. He said:


“when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” (Matt. 6:6)


This does not mean that we should enter into our room to be alone. The closet has always been interpreted as meaning our heart. We should look into our heart which no man can see but only God who sees the secret parts of man. He told us that:


“Our Father in heaven knows what things we have need of even before we ask him.” (Matt. 6:8) “Take no thought for your life, what you shall eat, or what you shall drink; nor yet for your body, what you shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much better than they? And why take you thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that you have need of all these things. But seek you first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.” (Matt: 6: 25-34)


So we should not worry about everything that has to do with our worldly existence, but only seek the kingdom of God, and his righteousness. That is all that we should strive and pray for, everything else will be provided for if we believe in Christ’s words. True prayer then is to seek for God’s love, because the kingdom of God is love. Prayer is the means by which we ask God to help us love him and this is what we mean when we ask for God’s mercy. It goes without saying that God is love and his love is there for us to experience thus we don’t ask God to love us, we take it for granted that his love for us is total and unconditional. It is we who need to heal ourselves so that we may be able to experience God’s love. It is we who have a problem in our relationship with God. When we ask for God’s mercy we are in fact asking him to heal our existence in such a way as to allow him to find rest within our own hearts and bring about a union with his love. This is what we must first and foremost ask of God. When this happens then God offers us whatever else we might have need of. If fact, when this primary need has been satisfied then all other needs seem to fade away, they are not important to us anymore. We see things in a different light and even our infirmities are not seen as a burden but as a blessing. We can see an example of this from St. Paul’s life: After describing how he was caught up to the third heaven and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter, he was in danger of glorifying himself for his holiness if he didn’t remember that he had a bodily ailment of the flesh which constantly reminded him that he was only human. In his own words he says:


“I will not boast, except in my infirmities. For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool; for I will speak the truth. But I refrain, lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be, or hears from me. And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for you: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12: 5-10)


Thus we should look upon our infirmities and difficulties as a blessing from God for they are often a source for us to grow stronger in faith. We should remember that nothing in our lives happens without a reason. This doesn’t mean that illnesses and troubles come from God. They are the result and consequences of the fall, but by accepting them as blessings we use them for spiritual growth. When health problems arise People often say within their hearts: why me O God, why have you allowed this to happen to me, me of all people who believes in you, who goes to Church every Sunday, why have you kept in good health that person who doesn’t believe in you, but have dealt with me in this way. This attitude reveals that we only have love of ourselves; our main concern is ourselves and definitely reveals our lack of faith in God. On the other hand, if we accept everything as God’s plan, then our troubles, our weaknesses become instruments that help us come closer to God’s love. That is why holy people never pray for their own afflictions, but only for God’s mercy. This doesn’t mean that we should not pray for other’s when they are in need. Praying for others is an act of love and as God is love and loves all of mankind, then we should also show love to all mankind. The most practical way for us to show love for others is by praying for them.

Usually the first stage where someone will seek God’s intervention is as we have already said when either they themselves or someone close to them is suffering from a serious illness. It is then that they remember God and seek for a miracle. If there was no illness then they would not remember that there is a God, so the illness is in fact a blessing in disguise: it forces the person to accept that there is a God and for the first time they reach out to God for his help. A communion with God has begun where before it was non existent. In these first stages God often responds and gives the person more opportunity to seek him. If the person responds positively then God will slowly guide him to what is necessary for his salvation.

Now there are various forms of prayer. Prayer is doxology, praise, thanksgiving, confession, supplication and intercession to God. The things we petition for are also many, we ask God for all sorts of things especially in the liturgy and other church services. We ask for peace, a good harvest, protection for those at sea, good rainfall, etc.
The way we pray are also many. Prayer is of course devout words but also the outward signs of piety as: the sign of the Cross, bowing our head, kneeling, prostration, etc. But prayer can also be offered without words, and without other external manifestations. This is the inner or hidden prayer of a pious soul, which is familiar through experience to many earnest Christians.

The most widespread form of prayer is petition, offered in acknowledgment of our weaknesses, infirmities, and lack of experience. Because of sins and passions, our souls become weak and sick. Therefore, it is essential in prayer to ask God to forgive us and help us to overcome our faults. Sometimes requests are made because of an impending danger hanging over us, a need, etc. Petition in prayer is inevitable in view of our weakness and is readily accepted by the all-merciful Lord. But if our prayer has only a predominant character of request, that is, if all we do is continually demand things without also giving praise and thanksgiving; this indicates poor development of our spiritual life. It shows that we are not progressing spiritually: that we have not understood that prayer is to commune with God, that our aim in life is to be with God.

So we have seen that we should not continually seek things from God only for our worldly benefit, yet Christ said:

“Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; if you ask anything in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:13-14)

And again he said:

“Truly, truly I say to you, if you ask anything of the Father, He will give it to you in my name. Until now you have asked nothing in my name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” (John 16:23-24)


Whatever one asks in the name of Jesus will be given. This does not mean that man can ask God for all and everything. He cannot ask for what is not needed, or for what is evil. He can ask, however, and must ask for “good gifts,” for whatever can be asked in the name of Christ, for whatever is holy and sinless and good. If one asks for good things in faith, he will certainly receive them if God thinks that he should have them for his life and salvation. This is the promise of the Lord Himself.


“If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you.” (John 15:7)


“And whatever you ask in prayer, if you have faith, you will receive.” (Matthew 21:22)


Every prayer directed to God in faith is answered. This does not mean that what is asked is always given, for God knows better than the person who prays what is good for him. For this reason the spiritual teachers warn us against being too long and insistent in our demands of the Lord other than for his mercy. God knows best what is needed thus it is always best to be brief in prayer, and not too specifically demanding. It is always best to pray: “Give what is needed, O Lord. Thy will be done.”

Regarding how to pray, St. Isaac the Syrian writes: “Don't be thoughtless in your petitions, in order not to offend God by your foolishness. But rather be wise, to become worthy of the greatest gifts. Ask for a treasure from Him Who is a stranger to stinginess and you will receive a treasure from Him in accordance with the reasonableness of your request. Solomon asked for wisdom and together with it he received an earthly kingdom because he made a wise request before the Great King. Elisseus (Elisha) asked for a twofold portion of grace of the Holy Spirit and his request was not refused. To ask for trifles from the King insults his dignity.”

Westerners not used to the Orthodox way of praying often accuse us that our Liturgical prayers are repetitive and. Yes, they are - by design: “Again and again, in peace, let us pray unto the Lord.” In this way the Orthodox Church is simply following the command or Our Lord that we should be persistent in prayer and not half-hearted. Twice in St. Luke’s Gospel, Our Lord commends people who are persistant in asking: The first is the friend we go to at midnight to ask for three loaves of bread because another friend of ours has visited us and we have nothing at home to offer him. And although the friend doesn’t want to get out of bed he gets up not because you are his friend, but because of your persistence and gives you as many loaves as you need. (Luke.11: 5-8) The second is the parable of the unjust judge. The Lord spoke this parable to show that men should always pray and not lose heart, He said:

“There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying: Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith. And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? I tell you that he will avenge them speedily.” (Luke18:1-8).

Another repetitive prayer is the “Jesus prayer”: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. People are quick to remind us that the Lord warned against vain repetition by which he meant hypocritical babblings. There is nothing vainly repetitious in the use of this prayer. Any believer who prays it must do so consciously, focusing on each word and the whole meaning. If it is used mechanically then yes it can become vain repetition. The Jesus prayer is a simple prayer used throughout the day to keep our minds on God thus fulfilling what St. Paul said that we should “Pray without ceasing”. (1 Thess. 5:17). It is repeated over and over, literally hundreds of times throughout the day and night, until it becomes unceasingly implanted in the heart as a “gushing spring,” a continual presence in the soul calling out to the Lord. It is often, but not necessarily, connected with one’s breathing, so much so that it is uttered “with every breath.” (St. Gregory the Theologian; St. John Chrysostom) There are various stages to the Jesus Prayer. It begins by being said vocally, then silently with the lips, then with the mind and then by joining the mind to the heart, the last stage is the gift of grace which takes its abode in the heart. One can continue this “unceasing prayer” even while engaged in the normal activities of life, while reading or writing, and even while sleeping, thus the “body sleeps,” but the “heart is awake.” Then, when one awakes from one’s bed, one finds that the prayer is continuing itself. This is of course in the advance stage of the prayer.

The choice of this particular verse Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner has a theological and spiritual meaning. First of all, it is centred on the name of Jesus because this is the name of Him whom “God has highly exalted,”(Acts 5:31) the name given to the Lord by God Himself (Luke 1:31), the “name which is above every name.” (Philippians 2:9) “For there is no other name given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) All prayer for Christians must be performed in the name of Jesus: “if you ask anything in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:14)

The fact that the prayer is addressed to Jesus as Lord and Christ and Son of God is because this is the centre of the entire faith revealed by God in the Spirit.


That Jesus is the Christ, and that the Christ is Lord is the essence of the Christian faith and the foundation of the Christian church. To believe and proclaim this is granted by the Holy Spirit. “no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.” (I Corinthians 12:3) and “every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:11)

The second part of the prayer “Have mercy on me a sinner” is the publican’s prayer. When uttered with humble conviction it brings divine justification. (Luke 18:9-14) Generally speaking, divine mercy is what man needs most of all. It is for this reason that the numberless repetitions of the request for the Lord’s mercy is found everywhere in the prayers of the Church.

But to pray without ceasing is easier said than done. How does someone begin to train oneself to have remembrance of God all the day long and eventually all night long. The beginner should take things very slowly in the beginning establishing in his daily timetable a set time that he will use for his daily prayers. Each person desiring to live the spiritual life should have his own rule of prayer. It should be brief and regular, such that it could be kept in all conditions and circumstances. In this set rule of prayer, the prayers of the Church should be used, the Lord’s Prayer and those from the prayer book.


The set times of prayer are very important, and should not be put aside for any reason, even when one prays continuously in his heart. This is the teaching and practice of the saints. This gives discipline in prayer and provides instruction and inspiration in prayer which is perfectly trustworthy and sound, having demonstrated its power in the lives of the saints. In this set time for prayer one can introduce the Jesus Prayer saying it aloud with the lips. In the beginning the novice should keep to a minimum and perhaps limit himself to only one hundred prayers to begin with. To keep count of the prayer a “komposkini” should be used. The normal komposkini is a prayer rope made of 100 knots. The komposkini is also an aid to help concentrate on the prayer.

When praying, it is important to turn away from our usual cares and preoccupations, collect our scattered thoughts, as if closing the door of the soul against all that is worldly, and direct all our attention towards God. Then without rushing the prayer try to keep focused on the prayer trying to observe each word as it comes out of the mouth. You will notice that even after only four or five times of saying the prayer, the mind has already lost its focus on the prayer and has started to wander and think of other things that seem important. This is natural and to be expected at this stage. This is the beginner’s stage. It takes time, practice and growth to master the skill of praying, we would not expect a child to act as if he is a university graduate. When we are beginners we are bound to face difficulties and make mistakes. We will pray in an imperfect way. So having that in mind one mustn’t lose hope or courage that he cannot focus and then lose interest in getting into the habit of prayer, but just redirect the mind back to the prayer. It takes a lot of hard work and persistence to master any skill. Do not attempt to do more than one “komposkini” (100 Jesus prayers) until you have accustomed yourself to the prayer. For the rest of the day use short prayers asking God to bless everything that you do. For example on waking praise God for the new day, thank him for raising you from sleep and ask him to bless your day. If you have a set rule for the morning, say your prayers and then ask him to bless your breakfast or your morning drink. As you leave your home to go to work, ask him to bless your exit and safeguard your return. As you get into your car ask him to bless your journey, as you begin work ask him to bless your work and workplace. Ask him to bless and enlighten your work colleagues that working side by side with them you do not encounter problems of jealousy and stress related tempers. In fact in everything we do we should first ask God to bless our actions and in this way we get into the habit of remembering God throughout the day. This is a form of unceasing prayer and can easily be adapted into one’s life. When we have mastered this stage we can then go to the next stage of saying the Jesus prayer not only at our set time for prayer but at every opportunity that we don’t have to concentrate on our work. For example during our coffee and lunch breaks and if our work is not of the mental kind but manual and doesn’t demand concentration then these are excellent opportunities to practice saying the prayer. At these times the prayer should be said silently otherwise people will think that there is something wrong with you. Gradually you will notice a difference in yourselves. You will be saying the prayer without even being conscious of praying. The prayer is becoming part of your life and soon you will wonder how you ever lived without it.

The Jesus Prayer basically is used in three different ways. First as the verse used for the “prayer of the heart” in silence in the hesychast method of prayer. Second as the continual mental and unceasing prayer of the faithful outside the hesychast tradition like the way we have described above, and thirdly as the brief prayer used to ward off temptations. Of course, in the actual life of a person these three uses of the prayer are often interrelated and combined.

The second use of the Jesus Prayer (outside the hesychast method for unceasing prayer) is to repeat the prayer constantly and continually, whatever one is doing, without the employment of any particular bodily postures or breathing techniques. This is the way taught by St. Gregory Palamas in his short discourse about how unceasing mental prayer is the duty of all Christians. Anyone can do this, whatever his occupation or position in life. This also is shown in the book “The Way of the Pilgrim”, which everyone who is serious of the practice of the Jesus Prayer should read. The purpose and results of this method of prayer are those generally of all prayer: that men might be continually united with God by unceasing remembrance of His presence and continual invocation of His name.

The third method of using the Jesus Prayer is to have it always ready for moments of temptation. In this way, as St. John Climacus has said, you can “flog your enemies, i.e. the temptations, with the name of Jesus for there is no stronger weapon in heaven or on earth.” (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 21) When one practices the continual “prayer of the heart,” and when the temptations to sin enter the heart, they are met by the prayer and are defeated by grace.

But coming back to the first method, the use of the Jesus prayer in the hesychast method of prayer called “Prayer of the heart” this requires always and without exception the guidance of a spiritual guide, one must not use this method unless one is a person of genuine humility and sanity, filled with all wisdom and peace. To use this method without guidance or humble wisdom, is to court spiritual disaster, for the temptations that come with it are many. It is usually used with aids which help concentration of the prayer. The person sits on a stall in total darkness or with only the light of a candle or vigil light, with his head bowed and his eyes directed toward his chest. He continually repeats the prayer with each breath, placing his “mind in his heart” by concentrated attention. Thus as he inhales he says the first part of the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” and as he exhales the second part “have mercy upon me a sinner.” Breathing in this way helps to concentrate on the words of the prayer and by keeping one’s mind near the heart area one soon becomes aware of the rhythm of the heartbeats which again help to rhythm the prayer with the beating of the heart. Quite soon the person feels his heart warming as though it is on fire. In this state he may find an ineffable sweetness welling up in his soul. We should not seek this sweetness as such consolations are not always of divine origin. We should, rather, praise God that the prayer is proving to a blessing in our Christian lives. This is actually a very natural stage of the prayer which many people misinterpret as the grace of the Holy Spirit. They become puffed up with pride thinking that they have succeeded in such a short while what many monks do not achieve in a lifetime of prayer. The grace of God does not come by using mechanical methods of concentration. That is why the fathers continually warn us of the dangers of these techniques and should only be attempted with the guidance of a spiritual father experienced in prayer of the heart. Bishop Theophan (1815-1894) tells that the bodily postures and breathing techniques were virtually forbidden in his time since, instead of gaining the Spirit of God, people succeeded only “in ruining their lungs.” (The Art of Prayer, lgumen Chariton) So mechanical aids or mental techniques are not at all necessary. What is important is to pray with humility, without expecting reward. In time God will intensify and strengthen your prayer and at a time that God will allow the prayer will become automatic. Without effort the prayer will repeat in your heart whatever you might otherwise be doing and not only while you are awake but also while you are sleeping For as it says in Holy Scripture: “I sleep but by heart waketh” (Song of Songs 5:2)

This stage is accompanied with tears, not the sentimental tears which we associate with females, but uncontrollable tears of repentance. And tears are necessary and an integral part of real prayer. It cleanses the heart of all the defilements that Christ mentions are hidden in the heart and replaces them with love for God and all creation. With the heart cleansed, God can now take his abode there. This is the last stage of the prayer. The grace of Christ lives in the heart. We become the dwelling place of God, when He lives within us and we become the temple of God where remembrance of Him is not disturbed by earthly cares, and the mind is not distracted by unexpected thoughts. This then is the kingdom of God that Christ said is within us. This stage is connected with the vision of the uncreated Light that we saw in the chapter dealing with the Hesychast Controversy and it is not reserved only for the saints. We are all called to be saints and unceasing prayer – the prayer of the heart of the Orthodox Church has for two thousand years proven that with proper use it can open the doors of the kingdom to all who seek it.

PRAYER FOR THE DEPARTED

Why do we pray for the departed? Why does the Orthodox Church encourage its members to pray for the dead? Death does not cause a spiritual separation between the dead and the living, for Jesus is still the Lord of both groups. Together, these two groups, the Church in heaven often called the Church Triumphant and the Church on earth called the Church militant, comprise the one, whole, undivided Church, which Saint Paul calls The body of Christ (Eph.1:22, 23). The love which knits together in perfect unity these two aspects of Christ's Body prevails forever, for “love never fails” (1 Corin. 13:8). As Saint Paul also says:


“For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord”. (Rom. 8:38, 39).


The Church is not only the visible congregation worshipping here on earth, but also the invisible congregation of the saints and the angels worshipping in heaven. The Church visible on earth lives in complete communion and unity with the whole body of the Church of which Christ is the Head. Our departed family members and friends are also members of this one body and just because they have crossed over to the other side doesn’t mean that they cease to exist or are no longer members of the Church of Christ. If we were to believe such a thing, then all our hopes of the future life and the Resurrection would be lost.


Our Christian parents, grandparents, children, brothers, sisters, and friends live on with Christ after they die, and remembering the great unity that we still have with them as fellow-members of Christ's Body, the Church finds nothing in the Scriptures that would prohibit Christians from expressing love for and maintaining a sense of fellowship with those who have died. What better way do we have to express our love than to pray for them? Now some Protestants might object and say, “If they are already in heaven, how can they possibly need our prayers? Their eternal destiny is already settled!” This is very true! One’s eternal destiny-whether one spends eternity in heaven or in hell-is determined by how one believes and lives in this life. The Orthodox Church does not claim that prayers for someone who died in opposition to God can save that soul from hell, since the Scriptures clearly teach that there is no chance for repentance after death (Luke 16:19-31). The passage from Hades to Paradise is impossible for those who sinned very severely and did not confess their sin before departing. But for those who sins were minor this pathway is not definitely closed, given that in the future judgment each one’s place, either in heaven or in hell, will be decided permanently. The prayers of the Church are able to help some souls to be saved after their death, but before the resurrection of the body, for the torments sinners suffer after death are temporary and will only become permanent after the Last Judgment. Thus, the opportunity is given to the faithful of the Church, in love to strengthen the reposed by their prayers. Alone the dead cannot be helped, however, with the love of others “all things are possible.”

The Church, firmly believes that prayer for the dead in Christ is helpful to them because in the Orthodox view, sanctification is seen not as a point-in-time occurrence, but as a process which never ends. As Saint Paul says, “And we all, with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” (2 Corin. 3:18). And in another place St. Paul says: “For preaching of the cross is foolishness to them that perish; but unto us who are being saved it is the power of God”, the phrase “who are being saved” suggests that we are continually being saved. For this reason, Orthodox Christians look upon salvation itself as a continual growth in holiness, purity, and closeness with God, which continues even in heaven. Holiness is rarely achieved or completed in anyone's life while on earth - no one becomes sinless. It is the Orthodox understanding that sanctification continues on, in some way, into the world beyond-especially in the beginning stages of the next life. The Church believes that our prayers for the departed can help them in this process of healing and purification. There is yet another dimension to these prayers. Not only do our prayers help the departed, but praying for them helps us as well. It keeps their remembrance alive in us, helping our hearts to stay warm and full of love towards them. It gives us a way to experience a sense of their presence, since prayer is far more than simply the making of requests. It keeps them before our eyes as living examples of Christian faith for us to emulate. And a vivid remembrance of those living with Christ in heaven can more thoroughly and deeply assure us that there truly is life after death, which can help diminish any fear of death, which we may have. We can see, then, that our prayers for the departed help preserve and increase the unity between the Church on earth and the Church in heaven-which helps both aspects of the Church. As a contemporary British Orthodox theologian, Bishop Kallistos Ware, says, “just as Orthodox Christians here on earth pray for one another and ask for one another's prayers, so they pray also for the faithful departed and ask the faithful departed to pray for them. Death cannot sever the bond of mutual love which links the members of the Church together”.

HOW AND WHEN DO WE PRAY FOR THE DEPARTED?

As soon as someone has reposed, the priest should be informed so be can read the Prayers on the Departure of the Soul, which are appointed to be read over all Orthodox Christians after death and to arrange for when the funeral should take place. Almost immediately, we should arrange for the serving of the forty-day memorial, that is, daily commemoration at the Liturgy for the course of forty days. Town churches rarely have daily services, but male monasteries or female monasteries, if they have a regular priest, serve the Liturgy everyday. When asking the monastery to pray for our departed it is good to send a contribution with the name. The forty-day memorial must be begun immediately after death, when the soul is especially in need of help in prayer, and therefore one should begin commemoration in the nearest place where there are daily services.

How important commemoration at the Liturgy is may be seen in the following occurrence: Before the uncovering of the relics of St. Theodosius of Chernigov (1896), the priest-monk Alexis of the Kiev-Caves Lavra, (who died in 1916) who was conducting the re-vesting of the relics, becoming weary while sitting by the relics, dozed off and saw before him the Saint, who told him: thank you for labouring for me. I beg you also, when you will serve the Liturgy, to commemorate my parents” and be gave their names (Priest Nikita and Maria). Father Alexis was astonished at the saints request and said “How can you, O Saint, ask my prayers, when you yourself stand at the heavenly Throne and grant to people God’s mercy?’ “Yes, that is true,” replied St. Theodosius “but the offering at the Liturgy is more powerful than my prayer.”

Besides the 40 day Liturgies the Church instructs us to offer Trisagia or Mnymosyna for the departed on the 3rd 9th and 40th days, on the 6 month anniversary and then yearly. The 3rd, 9th, and 40th day memorials have symbolic meanings but are also times when the soul needs fervent prayer to help her.

What happens to the soul on these days? The soul for the first two days enjoys relative freedom and can visit places on earth which were dear to it, but on the third day, Christ, Who Himself rose from the dead on the third day commands the Christian soul, in imitation of His resurrection, to ascend to the Heavens to worship the God of all. On this third day, it passes through legions of evil spirits which obstruct its path and accuse it of various sins. When St. Macarius of Alexandria besought the angel who accompanied him in the desert to explain to him the meaning of the Church's commemoration on the third day, the angel replied to him: “When an offering is made in church on the third day, the soul of the departed receives from its guardian angel relief from the sorrow it feels as a result of the separation from the body.”

The ninth day is symbolic of the nine ranks of the holy angels. The Church offers prayers for the departed, that his soul be accounted worthy to be numbered among the choirs of the saints through the prayers and intercession of the nine ranks of angels. But here again, St. Macarius of Alexandria informs us that in accordance with the angel’s revelation, the soul after worshipping God on the third day, is commanded to be shown the various pleasant habitations of the saints and the beauty of Paradise. The soul considers all of this for six days, lost in wonder and glorifying the Creator of all. After considering all the joys of the righteous in the course of six days, it again is borne aloft by the angels to worship God. And only after this for the remainder of the forty days, is it shown the torments and horrors of hell, the various parts of hell, and the diverse tortures of the wicked, in which the souls of sinners ceaselessly wail and gnash their teeth, before being assigned on the fortieth day to the place where it will await the resurrection of the dead and the Last Judgment. This is a great day for the deceased, for it determines his portion until the Dread judgment of God, and therefore, the Holy Church correctly commands that fervent prayer be made for the dead on this day.

We can do nothing better or greater for the dead than to pray for them, offering commemoration for them at the Liturgy. Of this they are always in need, and especially during those forty days when the soul of the deceased is proceeding on its path to the eternal habitations. The body feels nothing then: it does not see its close ones who have assembled, does not smell the fragrance of the flowers, does not hear the funeral orations. But the soul senses the prayers offered for it and is grateful to those who make them and is spiritually close to them.

Besides the personal days set aside for commemorating our departed friends and relatives, the Orthodox Church, has set aside certain days on which all Orthodox Christians that have departed in hope of resurrection and eternal life must be commemorated in general. There are two such days which we can term as “universal,” days for the departed. The first is on Meatfare Saturday. It is the last Saturday on which we may eat meat before the Great Fast begins. On the following day, Sunday, the Church commemorates the Dread judgment of Christ, thus the Church prays for all that have departed in faith and in the hope of the resurrection, beseeching God, the righteous judge to show forth His mercy upon them before the universal judgment. The other day is the Saturday before Pentecost. The day of Pentecost is the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the earth to teach, sanctify and lead all people to eternal salvation. Therefore, the holy Church calls upon us to make a commemoration on the Saturday before the feast, that the saving grace of the Holy Spirit wash away the sins from the souls of all our forefathers, fathers and brethren, that have reposed throughout the ages and, asking that they all be united in the Kingdom of Christ.

PRAYING TO THE SAINTS

The word “Saint” literally means “Holy One”. All Christians are in a sense saints. From the day of our Baptism and Christmation when we received the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we became the temple of the Holy Spirit and God dwells within us. But the gifts we received at baptism remain hidden because we haven’t as yet purified ourselves to discovered their existence. Thus we reserve the term saint only for those people who have through struggles attained holy lives, above and beyond the average Christian: those men and women who “fought the good fight and finished the course and kept the faith”. (1 Tim 4:7)

The Orthodox Church honours all known saints with Icons and special services and on the Sunday of All Saints honours all those other saints whose names have been lost with time and all those that died without being recognized for their sainthood. The Church continually beseeches the saints in prayer and encourages her members to seek their assistance. This has been misunderstood by non-Orthodox people especially Protestants who would even go as far as to call it blasphemous. So why do we pray to the saints?


When we are in need it is natural to ask our friends and family to pray for us. We do not see this as something offensive or blasphemous. We hope that through the prayer of many God will speedily hear our request and come to our aid. Praying for one another is an act of love and it is our duty as Christians to pray for each other. The Church is a family of brothers and sister all with the same Father in heaven. When someone passes over to the other side he does not stop being a member of this great family. All our faith and hope is that there is life beyond the grave. As Orthodox Christians we believe that with his death on the Cross Christ overcame death. There is only the temporary death of the body but the person still lives on in the world of spirits. “God is the God of the living, and not the dead”. How then more natural can it be for us to seek the prayers of our fellow brothers and sisters who not only have passed over to the spirit world but have through their way of life found favour with God and find themselves bathed in his glory. Is it not more natural and logical to put our trust in their prayers than our fellow Christians who are still living in this world?


Asking for their intercessions does not mean that we worship them. Yes, we give them honour and respect because of their oneness with God and because they have made themselves God’s friends. When we pray to a saint, we do not ask him to save us directly as though he was God, but we beseech him as our fellow man and as our brother and fellow member of Christ’s Church to intercede to God on our behalf. Of course our prayer to the saints is always accompanied by a great reverence because they have been shown by God as great men who have overcome the passions of this world and for this he has rewarded them with glorification. We are struck with awe and admiration of their exploits and clearly recognize the grace of God in their struggles and martyrdom. But this is nothing unusual for we do something similar to honour great men in other fields. Men have always honoured others who have performed great deeds, such as a brave General, a soldier who is singled out for his heroic deeds, or a wise statesman. If we honour such people who are still in this life with medals and ceremonies, how much more should we honour the saints who have battled with demons and whose deeds far surpass the deeds of ordinary men. By honouring the saints we are recognizing that we see in them the light of Christ and rejoice because we are reassured of the resurrection.

We know that prayer to the Saints is pleasing to God, because of the witness of the Scriptures and the abundant experience of the Church. God has revealed to the world that he himself has honoured them through the many miracles they perform when they are beseeched to act as mediators. Through these miracles we are assured that such prayers to the saints are pleasing to God, and because we recognize the great grace that God has bestowed upon His Saints, we have great confidence when we ask their intercessions.


St. Nectarius of Aegina, the renowned saint of the 20th century wrote: “In invoking the intercession of the saints, the Church believes that the saints, who interceded with the Lord for the peace of the world and for the stability of the holy churches of Christ while living, do not cease doing this in Christ's heavenly, triumphant Church, and listen to our entreaties in which we invoke them, and pray to the Lord, and become bearers of the grace and mercy of the Lord.” (Modern Orthodox Saints, Vol. 7. Constantine Cavarnos)

The word Prayer means to ask, but it is also a form of communication. When we pray to God we are at the same time communicating with him. As a form of communication we are obliged to have a active spiritual union with the heavenly inhabitants, with all the saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs, prelates, venerable and righteous men, as they are all members of one single body, the Church of Christ, to which we sinners also belong, and the living Head of which is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. This is why we call upon them in prayer, converse with them, thank and praise them. It is urgently necessary for all Christians to be in union with them, if they desire to make Christian progress; for the saints are our friends, our guides to salvation, who pray and intercede for us. (St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ)

There are many (like the Protestants churches) who call themselves Christians but have almost no knowledge of the intercession of the Saints, and even consider this heavenly intercourse as blasphemy. There are several reasons for this, including prejudice, a lack of grounding in Christian Tradition, misunderstanding of Scripture, and the abuses of Rome which I will shortly mention, but the primary reason is that they do not fully understand the relationship between God and man, neither what the Resurrection means for mankind or the Ascension and the Sitting on the right hand of God.

Scripture is full of quotations that honour the saints. Sadly because they read from the Old Testament translation made from the Masoretic text like the KJV they are deprived of many truths. The Prophet King David in the Psalms of the Septuagint version says “How honoured also are Thy friends unto me, O Lord! their rule is greatly strengthened. I will number them, and they shall be multiplied in number more than the sand.” (Psalm 138: 17-18)

St. Paul recounts the achievements of the Saints, how they stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. how they raised the dead to life again: but also how they suffered: they were tortured, they were mocked and scourged, they were in bonds and imprisonment, they were stoned, they were sawn asunder and were slain by the sword, how being destitute, afflicted, tormented they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. (Heb 11 33-38) Having set forth their memorial as an example that we might turn away from earthly things and from sin, and emulate their patience and courage in the struggles for virtue, he says:
 

“Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every burden, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1).


There are some that believe that when we die we are inactive and in a deep sleep awaiting the General Resurrection of the dead. Our Lord Himself told us clearly that “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Mat 22:32) and there is an event in the New Testament that clearly teaches that the saints are not asleep or dead. The event is the Transfiguration of our Lord on Mount Tabor. Moses and Elias appeared very much alive next to Him and talked with him. This clearly shows that the “dead” are even more filled with knowledge and activity than the living, for in comparison the apostles Peter, James and John could not withstand the uncreated light which came forth from Christ, but Moses and Elisa basked in it. Therefore the departed Saints have greater vision and knowledge and their intercessory boldness is greater for them without their bodies, than when they were in the flesh. This important understanding is elementary knowledge for the Church, but has passed from many of those outside of her.

Thus because they do not understand that the Saints are alive, conscious and active, those who shun prayer to the Saints misinterpret the reverence the Orthodox Church show to the saints. Another thing Protestants misunderstand is the word “pray”. They think of it as a word that applies only to God in the same way that worship applies only to God. They are so scandalized by the thought of praying to a saint that they consider it almost blasphemous and if they were in the days of Christ they would rend their clothes like the high-priest Caiaphas. As already mentioned the word pray simply means “to ask”. We ask the Saints to intercede for us, and any examination of the Church’s canons, the writings of the fathers and our liturgical texts will show clearly that we understand that worship is for God alone.

Another thing that had a detrimental effect on the Protestant understanding of prayer to the Saints was an unorthodox teaching by the Roman Catholic Church. It came up with the doctrine of “Supererogation” or more simple the superabundance of the good works of the saints as we have already seen in the chapter dealing with the differences we have with the Roman Catholic Church. The doctrine teaches that a certain amount of “good works” are required to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The good works or merits of the Holy Virgin and the saints are more than they need to save themselves and therefore, the rest of them can be used for the forgiveness of the sins of other men. Thus for a price, poor sinners who cannot attain to all these good works, can pay to be granted "indulgences", which would increase their chance of entering the Kingdom of Heaven. This sounds so unbelievable and naďve that we would be forgiven if we laughed out loud, but this is essentially the doctrine of Rome till this day.


Opposition and the abuse of this teaching was the main point of Martin Luther when he began opposing the Roman Catholic Church, and it influenced the thinking of the Protestant Reformation as a whole. The Anglican Church also denied the doctrine of supererogation in the fourteenth of the Thirty-Nine Articles, which state that works of supererogation “cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety.” Many later Protestant movements followed suit, as did Methodism in its Articles of Religion. The doctrine of supererogation was therefore responsible for poisoning the understanding of Protestants regarding the Saints. This lead to their unanimous teaching that a Christian “needs no mediator” save Jesus Christ, believing that the scripture they refer to “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5)) forbids prayer to the Saints.

Overall we see in those that refuse to ask the saints to intercede for them a great lack of understanding of the Christian faith and a form of prejudice against the saints. Its seems that they do not recognize that there is life beyond the grave and it also seems that when someone of their church dies he automatically stops being a member and is cut off from the main body. I say this because while they refuse to pray to the saints they ask of those still among the living, among their family and friends, to pray for them. This latter action is entirely correct, as fellow believers and brothers of a church we should pray for those we love, but if our departed are still considered as members of the same church then they also should be asked for their prayers. If the departed members of the church were righteous then their prayers can do much for the living for as the Scripture tells us: “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” (James 5:16)

There is a general perception that praying to the saints is like “second best” so why don’t I go for the best and pray directly to God. Of course God hears our prayers but it is also a little arrogant and self righteous on our part to assume that he will respond to our request. Why should he, want have we done to merit such attention, do we live such holy lives that we are so full of confidence that as soon as we ask for God’s help he will send his angels to our aid? Scripture clearly says that “God heareth not sinners” (John 9:31) and that “God is far from the ungodly: but He hearkens unto the prayers of the righteous.” (Prov. 15:29)


Is it not then better to use every means at our disposal in the hope that God will not only hear our prayer but also respond? If he hears the prayers of the righteous then that is a safe and sure route for our petitions. Let us not forget that God has glorified his saints and he wants us to recognize them as people full of his own glory. He has given them to us as protectors and helpers in times of trouble. By honouring the saints we do not forget or abandon God, but rather we honour, thank and glorify God for his great grace that he bestows upon man. We glorify him who glorified the saints.

The Orthodox veneration of the Saints is nothing less than the wholehearted belief in Christ, his Incarnation, his Resurrection, his Sitting on the right hand of God and the Descent of the Holy Spirit. With his resurrection Christ re-opened the gates of Paradise, but more than this, he took his deified body to heaven and sat it at the right hand of God. He raised man to be with him and be a partaker of the divine nature: he raised man to be a God by grace.


Our veneration of the saints is nothing more than our conviction that all men can participate in God’s divinity. In recognizing a saint we see the fulfilment of God’s promise and the expectation of our own destiny. Christ has commanded us to be perfect even as his Father in heaven is perfect. This seems like an impossible task to the majority of us sinful men, but the saints have proved that with the grace of God this is indeed possible by all Christians who strive for perfection and union with God. The saints are therefore our examples or if preferred “our heroes” who have fought the good fight and with their heroic deeds became shining examples of virtue, and benefactors of mankind. Their lives are for us as beacons of light which show us the path to perfection; let us therefore set them as our examples that by following in their footsteps we also, when our earthly time is over, may find ourselves among the righteous and glorified by God as a saint.

Until then let us give them their due honour and as friends of God let us beseech them to remember us lowly sinners in their prayers before the throne of God. Through the prayers of All the Saints, who have been well-pleasing to God from our forefather Adam up to the present day, may God have mercy upon us and save us. Amen.
 

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