Sunday, November 18, 2012

Become a Child

While I was showering before going to work yesterday I had a bit of a revelation (if I may presume to call it that). I recently heard a story about the great Romanian Orthodox theologian, Fr. Dumitru Stanialou. It seems that Fr. Dumitru always used the Horologion as his prayer book. Whenever he didn't have his Horologion with him, however, he would just repeat short ejaculatory prayers for his entire prayer time.  "Lord, have mercy," "Lord, hear me," "O God come to my assistance," etc., etc., etc. When asked about this he said that the temptation for theologians is to theologize while they pray. This, he said, is not prayer, but the theologian simply talking to himself.

With this in mind I got to thinking; what a childlike confidence and hope in God it must take for such a great academic theologian to "reduce" his prayer to such simple phrases, especially within the context of the Byzantine tradition where we pride ourselves on having these long and very poetic prayers (it's often been said that Byzantines don't take anything away from their prayers, they only add to them). There is, of course, a time and place for long and poetic prayers. That's why the Liturgy is so full of them. But there is also a time and place for short prayers that really cut to the heart of the matter. This is why the Fathers have put so much emphasis on the Jesus Prayer. Earlier in Church history the Eastern Fathers also put a great deal of emphasis on other short ejaculatory prayers, not just the Jesus Prayer.

There are short prayers for nearly every experience, emotion, psychological state, intention, or what have you. I've found that such prayers really challenge me to place all my confidence in God. Often when I pray for something in particular I feel the need to explain to God why I need this or that, or why I need something else to happen. I tend to get very specific and at the end of my prayer my hope in God's goodness becomes almost like a footnote to the prayer itself. My prayer becomes more like making demands of God rather than placing my hope in our Father's loving care. "God, grant xyz because I believe this will be best for my family, for myself, I believe it's your will.... Oh, and by the way, I place this in your hands, my hope is in you." That's not childlike confidence, nor is it true hope in God. True hope is to turn to the Father even in the face of great suffering and say as Jesus said, "If it is your will... yet not my will but yours be done."

God knows what we desire and what we most need. He wants us to approach Him with our desires because we are His children. But He wants us to approach with the confident and hopeful expectancy of a child, not the presumptuous expectancy that all of us are all too familiar with. When a child asks something of their parents, they are confident that their parents will give them what they want, knowing also that sometimes it is necessary for their parents to deny their request in order to give them what they really need. They don't go into long explanations as to why the really need something. "Mama, can I have a cookie?" That's the language of a child. Short, simply, confident. Our prayer should have this same confidence.

Apart from the Jesus Prayer, some prayers that have helped me over the last few years are: "Incline my heart according to your will, O God," "O God, come to my assistance. Lord, hasten to help me," and "Deliver me, O Lord." One of my favorite responses in the Liturgy is simply, "Grant this, O Lord." These are all simple prayers that are short and to the point. The Fathers called such prayers arrows that fly straight up to the heart of God. There's no need for us to heap up vain words, as our Lord warns us against. All that is needed is a childlike hope in our loving Father. This attitude, however, can be more difficult to acquire than first meets the eye. May God grant us all this childlike confidence in Him.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, for this, brother. Whenever I'm at the Orthodox parish, I see the icon, bearing the teaching about the child like nature, being requisite for entrance into the kingdom.

    I'm also reminded of what I've read throughout The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox anthology (which you kindly recommended to me), about short, and quick prayers. Just the sign of the cross, itself, is highly significant: one in essence, and undivided, as relayed in liturgy.