Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh
I ended my first talk on mention of morning prayers and what it could mean as the beginning of a day. But there is a moment when the day comes to an end. And what do we do about evening prayers? Again, we can treat them in a purely functional way and present God with the prayers of the Prayer Book, of the saints and of any other sequence of prayers. But is that all we can do about it? I think, the first thing that should be done, and it does not require more time to do things well than to do them badly, the first thing that we should do is to put ourselves silently in the presence of God and let ourselves calm down, be aware that the day has come to an end, that we are now in God’s presence and that we will enter into the night of sleep, which is the real end of this working day.
I think that the best would be simply to be absolutely quiet and to say, “The Lord is here, so am I ”, the way in which this old peasant spoke. And then if we can not concentrate or become open and quiet in the divine presence, we can rehearse in His presence the day that has passed, thank Him for life, thank Him for everything that has come our way in the course of this day, - and I do not mean only the happy encounters or the lovely circumstances, I mean everything that allowed us in the course of this day to function as Christ’s messengers or as Christ’s people.
And then there will be of course the adverse. We will have to say, “Lord, I have not responded either to Your presence or to Your prompting or the cry of need, which I heard, or to what I saw. Worse - I have responded in a bad way, in a dismissive way, in a cold way. And worst of all - in a “pious” way, and am I ashamed of it. And so we could make a confession to God of the essential failings of the day and express our gratitude to God about the good things. And at this point we may well find ourselves face to face with a temptation. When things have gone wrong, in a way things are easier because we can express our sadness to God about the way in which we have treated Him and others; but when things have gone well, it is so easy to boast and to feel, “I am great.” Well, there is a solution to this.
Some time ago a girl came to see me. She sat with the most miserable expression on her face and said, “Father, I am a sinner.” So I said, “Well, I know that, what next?” She said, “Whenever I look at a mirror, I find that I am lovely to look at and I feel it’s vanity”. I said, “Well, try to cure vanity by gratitude”. “How that?” she said. I said, “Place yourself before a mirror, detail every single feature of your face and whenever you find that something is lovely, say, ‘O God, thank you for having made this feature, having given me this feature’. And when you have said Him “thank you” for every single feature of loveliness, say, ‘Lord, forgive me that on this lovely face I have put this miserable and ugly expression’ ”.
And I think, we can do that, clergy or not clergy, without any special mirror, simply thinking, “Yes, this I have done well, God gave me the vision, the understanding, the good will, the warm heart, the occasion, the possibility. God gave me it all. How grateful I can be for it! It doesn’t mean that I haven’t done it: I have done it, but God gave me all the elements I needed to do the right thing. How grateful I am that He allowed me to be His co-worker, to do it for Him, to be His hands, His ears, His presence”. So that we can overcome these bouts of vanity by gradually pushing them out by gratitude, because humility is far too big for most of us but gratitude is accessible at any point.
Now, the second thing is that having done this, very often, say, an Orthodox will always, turn to evening prayers as they are couched in our Book of Prayer. Now here we must also learn honesty, overcome piousness and replace it by integrity. All the prayers which we read whether it is psalms or the prayers of the saints, were written not in a study, not as a literary exercise. There was a moment when under the pressure of circumstances, either internal or eternal, they gushed like blood out of someone’s heart. They were either a cry of exultation, or a cry of repentance, or a cry of misery. They were true at that moment. Now they are on paper, but what can we do with these prayers? Can we really earnestly imagine that we can day after day read prayers that mirror the life of the saints of God wholeheartedly? In our Book of Prayer we have prayers by St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil the Great and so forth. Can I imagine that I can identify completely with anyone of these saints, with anyone of these prayers? And I say “completely”. No! And there is no point in reading these prayers to God as though they came from me while they have nothing to do with me or little. It’s a delusion to imagine that God likes psalms and it’s His pleasure to hear me trot out one psalm after the other. He has loved them when they came out of the soul of king David or others but not when we read them just with indifference.
So what can we do about it whether it is psalms or prayers? What we can do is to take our stand, if we believe in the help and the intercession of saints and we find a prayer inscribed by the name of one them, we can say, “St. John Chrysostom or, St. Basil, I will read your prayer, pray with me, lift this prayer off the ground and if possible, help me understand what you meant.” And then read this prayer attentively or this psalm attentively. As long as we can do honestly the reading and say, “Yes, I can agree with this, it expresses something true about me or about my attitude to God, to life, to people”, all is well. But when we come upon a passage which is totally alien to us, we must have the honesty to stop and say, “Lord, this I do not even begin to understand. I can’t understand how this saint could say such a thing. I know nothing about his experience of You or his experience of life, or his attitude to people. I can read it as a programme, I can read it in order to impress it upon my heart and mind but that is all I can do. One day, perhaps, I will be able to say these words honestly in my own name and not only in the name of this saint but that’s all I can do now.” And if we did that, how honest we would become and how little we would be able to say in our own name.
Well, I am sorry, I am perhaps, a pessimist because I look at myself in the mirror while I speak.
Now, there is something important which we can do. We must manage two things: the one is understand what we will say to God. Very often we meet these prayers only at the moment when we pray, we are struck by a phrase or another, but as we are praying together with a congregation, we have no time to stop. We can not turn to the congregation and say, “Sorry, I want to meditate a little on that because it has struck me.” We go on, on, on, but we must come back when we are peaceful in our study or in our room. Sit down and say, “These words struck me when I read them, why? What did they convey to me? If they struck me, it means that there is an echo within me between these words and my total experience of mind and heart and life. What do they convey to me?” And if we meditate that way over the prayers, which we read day after day, gradually they become part of us and the experience of greater men or women than we are become our experience, and around the words of prayers or the phrases of one prayer or another, our experience of life begins to collect, so that when we use these words, the whole experience springs to mind or to heart.
And I can give you an example of something that moved me very deeply and still moves me. I was about nineteen years of age, I was in our parish church together with an old deacon who was reading together with me, that is, in turns. But he read at a speed that was so extraordinary that I simply couldn’t even follow with my eyes the lines. After the service I said to him, “Father Evfimiy, you have stolen the whole service from me! And what is worth, I am sure you couldn’t have prayed”. It was very arrogant but I was nineteen. And this man who was in his eighties began to cry and said, “Forgive me! But you know, I was born in a very poor little village in Russia, my parents were too poor even to feed me. At the age of seven I was given to a monastery to be fed and educated. I remained in this monastery all my life. All the words, all the tunes I have heard day after day, they have become so interwoven with me that when I look at the book, when I see a word, all my soul begins to sing as though a hand had touched the cord of a harp”. And so you see, for this man every word has become a cord, and it was enough for him to see for his soul to sore in prayer and to sing in prayer. That is what we should learn to do with the prayers which we use - to get them so integrated, interwoven with what we are that every sound, every word should evoke an act of worship. This act of worship, of adoration may happen once in my life but it is there indelibly marked in my soul.
The second thing, which is very important in that respect, is to make our prayer into life and our life into prayer. That is, if we have said to God, “God, grant me this”, it means that I am undertaking to do all I can to achieve it. I will not simply sit and wait for God to do in me and for me what I can do for myself or should do for Him.
There is a story about St. Philip Neri, I believe. He was a man of hot temper who had managed to quarrel with most brothers in his monastery. One day he got tired of it. And so he went into the chapel, fell on his knees before a statue of Christ and said, “Lord, grant me patience!” And having prayed a little, he went out into the courtyard. There he met one of the brethren who had always been kind to him and who in passing made a scathing remark. He flared up and abused him. He went a little bit farther and the same happened: he met another brother and told him what had happened, and this brother said, “O well, good for you!” So in desperation St. Philip ran back into the chapel, fell on his knees before the statue of Christ: “Lord, have I not asked You to give me patience?” And the voice of Christ came from the statue, “And I am multiplying occasions for you to learn it.”
Well, we must be aware of that, that we can not say to God, “Do it for me”. We can say, “Lord, I have understood that such is my need. I will do my share and give me Your help because without You we can do nothing, yes”. It’s also true that the power of God deploys itself in weakness, yes, but we must offer this weakness to God, we must be there and allow Him to act, and do all that we can.
And at times we can cheat ourselves for the good. I remember, when I was a medical student, I used to come back from the hospital and I had to round a corner from which I could see our flat on top of a house. Every morning I said to my grandmother in the spring and in the summer. “Please, don’t shut my window, the weather is so good”. Every time I rounded the corner, I saw that the window was shut; and boiling inwardly I went home and said to Gran, “Gran, didn’t I ask you?” And she had always a good reason why she had shut it. One day I got tired of that and I thought, “No, I’ll work it out differently”. So I reached the corner but before rounding it, I said to myself, “I bet the window is shut.” I rounded the corner and so it was shut. I said, “I have won!” And the result of it was that I was no longer angry, I was pleased with myself. So you see, how one can, you can find a lot of ways in which you can apply the words of your prayers to life and vice versa.
But it is very important that the words of prayer should get so interwoven with every fibre of our soul as to be able to have power over us because a lot of things have power - resentments have power, memories have power, what not. Why is it that the Gospel or the words of prayer have less power than the resentment we have for someone who has offended us really very superficially? We remember things for years, it’s there like a wound, like a poison.
And I will give you an example of what I mean by this power of the prayer over our soul when it is interwoven with it. One of our singers, an old man who had the most beautiful voice fell ill with cancer, was taken to hospital and was gradually dying. I visited him daily and after a short while the matron said to me every morning, “O you shouldn’t have come, it’s a waste of time. He is unconscious.” I went into the room where he was and began to sing a short service of intercession. Gradually one could see consciousness awaken in him and for a while before the end of the service he was also singing with me - weakly, as he could, but he was conscious and we could talk. Then a day came when I have arrived and I found there this man totally unconscious in a coma with his wife on one side, his daughter on the other, and the wife said to me, “How terrible - we were in Japan, we have arrived today and we can’t even kiss him goodbye before he dies.” And I said to the daughter, “Move on to the other side and sit next to your mother.” Then I knelt next to this man and began to sing to him softly the tunes which we use in Holy Week and Easter. And one could see consciousness welling up in him, and he opened his eyes, and I said, “You are dying, your wife and your daughter are on your left, say goodbye to them.” They said goodbye, and then I said, “Now, go in peace.” And he went down into his coma and died. And it was no miracle, I don’t mean to say that I worked any kind of miracle. It is the fact that from early childhood these tunes were so interwoven with what was the Life with a capital “L” for him that it brought him back for as long as was needed. So this is something, which we must learn to do, but we also must teach, teach others.
And I feel that it’s very important that pregnant mothers should pray, that mothers who have got small baby children should sing over their cradle prayers or read them, because you do not know how sacred words or simply words can get woven into the fabric of a child.
And we cannot say that consciousness plays a decisive role. I remember during the war we had a soldier who was an Alsatian who had never learnt French in spite of the fact that he was born between the two wars when Alsace was already French again and he spoke only Alsatian and German. And we had a very young Protestant pastor who talked to him while he was conscious. One day he came out of the room, his face streaming with tears and said to me, “It’s horrible, he is unconscious now, I can do nothing for him anymore.” And I said, “Don’t be a fool, go back to his room, sit down and read slowly, clearly the Gospel to him starting with the raising of Lazarus.” And this young minister did that for three days, I don’t mean day and night but in periods, then he let him rest. Before he died, this man came to consciousness and said to me, “Thank you for having made the minister do that. I could hear every word. I could not respond but it gave me new life”.
And that can be done by each of us to ourselves and to others, not in these extreme situations of coma, of dying people but of just people who are in a spiritual coma, who are in a spiritual dream but who have received without even perceiving it this message and who one day will be able to pray and to worship, even one moment, to say one word. I remember, one of our saints, the Staretz Siluan saying that if we could say once in our life with all our being, “Lord, have mercy!”, we would be saved.
And I remember also a Moslem story of a Bedouin who had galloped for hours and hours to be at a mosque but he arrived too late. He entered the mosque, saw it empty only with the mullah being there and he sighed. And the mullah said, “If only I could sigh once in my life as you have done, it would be the best of prayer, which I can offer”. So you see, things are infinitely simpler, more human, more direct than what we make them to be when we try to make them into clerical exercises or pious exercises, or give them a shape. Human souls are open, are alive and they can be brought from the natural life of a creature made in the image of God into the communion, into real communion with the living God.