This is a guest post by St. John Chrysostom. He was an important early Church Father given the nickname “golden-mouth” because he was known for his eloquence in preaching and teaching. This is an incredibly beautiful piece that talks about the practicality of praying at all times and in all places using, as a tool, the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”
Nothing, you see, equals prayer: it makes the impossible possible, the difficult easy, and renders the crooked way straight. Blessed David also practiced it, and hence said,
“Seven times a day I praised you for the judgments of your righteousness” (Psalm 119).
Now if a king, a man immersed in countless concerns and beset from every quarter, beseeches God so many times a day, what excuse or pardon would we have, with so much free time on our hands, not to implore him incessantly, especially as this puts us in a position to reap such benefit? It is inconceivable, in fact, inconceivable that someone praying with due fervor and constantly beseeching God should ever sin. Why this is so, I shall tell you. The person who enkindles his attention, lifts up his soul, transports himself to heaven, and thus calls upon his Lord, remembering his sin, speaking to him about pardon for them and begging him to be merciful and mild sets aside every worldly concern through the time spent in this converse, takes wing and becomes exalted above the human passions. He is not distracted by the sight, even of a comely woman the ardor of his prayer abiding within him and dispelling every untoward thought. Being human, however, it is likely that you relapse even into sloth when an hour or two or three has passed after prayer, and you notice the ardor you have developed about to evaporate gradually; then betake yourself promptly to prayer again and rekindle your cooling attention.
If you do this throughout the day, maintaining your fervor at intervals with the frequency of your prayers, you will not give the devil an occasion and admission to assault your thoughts. And as we do when having lunch and on the point of taking a drink, when we notice the hot water has cooled down, we put it on the stove again for it to be quickly heated, let us act likewise in this case also, and by giving our mouth to prayer as though onto hot coals, let us rekindle our mind once again with piety. Let us imitate the builders: when they are getting ready to build with bricks, on account of the fragility of the material they support the building with long timbers, doing this not at great intervals but at short ones so as to make the binding of the bricks firmer through the closeness of these timbers. Do this in your case, too, and fence your life around on every side by interspersing your worldly activities with constant prayers as though with wooden binding. If, then, you act in this way, even should countless winds later blow, even should trials, discouragement, disagreeable thoughts of some kind, trouble of whatever sort befall, they will not succeed in demolishing that house held together in this way by frequent prayers.
How is it possible, you ask, for a man of the world, tied to the bench, to pray three times a day and betake himself to church? It is possible and quite simple: even if heading off to church is not manageable, it is possible even for the man tied to the bench to stand there in the vestibule and pray. After all, there is not such need for words as for thoughts, for outstretched hands as for a disciplined soul, for deportment as for attitude, since Hannah herself was heard not for uttering a loud and clear cry but for calling out loudly inside in the heart:
“Her voice was not audible, but the Lord hearkened to her,” (1 Samuel 1:13,19)
the text says, note. Many other people also did this in many cases, despite the officer calling out from inside, threatening, ranting and raving, while they stood in the porch making the sign of the cross and saying a few prayers in their mind, and then going in and transforming and soothing him, turning him from wild to mild. They were not prevented from praying like this by the place or the time or the absence of words. Do likewise yourself: groan deeply, recall your sins, gaze towards heaven, say in your mind, ‘Have mercy on me, O God,” and you have completed your prayer. The one who said “Have mercy,” after all, gave evidence of confession, and acknowledged their own sins: it belongs to sinners to have mercy shown. The one who said “Have mercy on me” received pardon for their faults: the one to whom mercy has been shown is not punished. The one who said “Have mercy” attained the kingdom of heaven: the one on whom God will have mercy he not only frees from sin but also judges worthy of the future goods.
Accordingly, let us not make excuses, claiming a house of prayer is not close by: if we have the right dispositions, the grace of the Spirit made us personally temples of God, and there is ease for us in every respect. Our worship, after all, is not of the kind that formerly prevailed among the Jews, which was long on appearance but short on reality. In that case, you see, the worshiper had to go up to the temple, buy a turtle-dove, get hold of wood and fire, take sword in hand, appear before the altar, and carry out many other requirements. In our case, on the other hand, it is not like that: wherever you are, you have the altar with you, the sword, and the victim, you yourself being priest and altar and victim. In other words, wherever you are, you can set up the altar, giving evidence only of an attentive will, place being not an obstacle, time no hindrance; even if you do not go down on your knees, do not strike your breast or raise your hands to heaven, and merely demonstrate an ardent disposition, you have completed the whole of the prayer. It is possible for a woman with distaff in hand working at the loom to gaze towards heaven in her mind and call upon God with ardor; it is possible for a man venturing into the marketplace and walking by himself to pray with attention, and for someone seated at the workbench sewing skins to direct his soul to the Lord; it is possible for a servant making purchases and running hither and yon, or standing in the kitchen, when there is no possibility of going to church, to pray attentively and ardently. Place is not something God is ashamed of: he looks for one thing only, a fervent mind and sober spirit.
For you to learn that there is no need at all of appearance or places or times, but of a generous and ardent disposition, Paul was lying on his back in prison and not standing up (the stocks fastening his feet did not allow it, after all) when the prison shook while he was praying zealously as he lay down, the foundations were moved, the guard was terrified, and Paul later conducted him to the sacred rites of initiation (Acts 16). Likewise Hezekiah was not standing upright nor on his knees, but was lying on his back in bed on account of sickness, facing the wall, when he ardently called on God with a sober spirit, recalled he sentence passed on him, won a great favor and regained his former good health (2 Kings 20). You would find this happening not only with holy and important men but also with wicked ones: the brigand was not standing in a house of prayer nor on his knees, but stretched out on the cross, when with a few words he attained to the kingdom of heaven (Luke 23) another man was in a deep pit (Jeremiah 38) another in a den of wild beasts (Daniel 6) still another in the very belly of a sea monster (Jonah 1), when calling upon God they dispelled all the troubles besetting them and won favor from on high
In saying this, 1 exhort you unceasingly to keep up the habit of visiting the churches and praying at home in tranquility, and when time allows going on your knees and stretching out your hands. If, however, we are caught up by reason of time or place with a crowd of people, let us not on that account abandon prayer, but in the fashion I mentioned to your good selves pray and beseech God in the conviction of gaining your petition nonetheless with that prayer. I said as much, not for you to applaud and marvel, but for you to practice this yourselves, night time and day time, interspersing the time of work with prayers and petitions. If we manage our affairs this way, we shall both pass this life securely and also attain the kingdom of heaven.
Reference: Old Testament Homilies, St, John Chrysostom, Volume One, Homilies on Hannah, Translated by Robert Hill, Holy Cross Orthodox Press.
- January 1, 2014
- growth, guest post, prayer, virtue