Some years ago I stood by the bed of an elderly Pentecostal woman in mountains of East Tennessee. She was dying from respiratory complications – I was visiting her as a Hospice chaplain. We chatted about many things – mostly the things of God. She showed me a well-worn Bible she had owned for most of her life. In the front she had marked down the date for each occasion when she had finished reading the Bible from cover to cover. There were over 95 such dates – more than the years of her life.
As we were finishing the visit I offered prayers for her. I prayed for 5 or 10 minutes – a respectable length of prayer in the mountains. When I finished she looked up at me and said, “May I pray?” I told her, “Of course.”
She then began to pray, quietly, her breaths labored. Her prayer rose in fervor as did the shortness of her breath. Her prayer had to have lasted at least 20 minutes – it was mostly a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.
At last, her breath gave out and she whispered an Amen. I could not move from the spot. I said to her, “Sister, that was a fine prayer.”
She looked up at me with a wry smile and whispered, “You can’t pray too much!”
I have carried that scene around in my heart for about 10 years. I have hoped that my last breaths would be shaped into such words of praise.
There is a failure in much of modern Christianity – a failure that is marked by a passivity in our approach to God. Some would justify such passivity by deriding certain actions as an example of “works righteousness,” mistakenly thinking that being saved by grace and not by works means that all we should do as Christians is believe. This is not even good Protestantism.
It is interesting to take a short look at what St. Paul actually wrote about being saved by “grace through faith.” One of the most oft-quoted passages on the topic is found in Ephesians 2.
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10).
Many will cite by memory the first part of this statement, but forget (or never knew) the second part. To be in Christ is to be a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). But the nature of that “new creation” is clearly described here by St. Paul. To be a new creation is to be ourselves the “workmanship” of God, that is, creations of grace. But he clearly states that we are “created in Christ Jesus for good works.”
Thus it is that as Christians we are enjoined to:
Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you (1 Thes. 5:16-18).
To this could be added admonitions to “walk in love,” to “forgive our enemies,” to “give without expecting in return.” The list of New Testament commandments, clearly intended for us as we walk the path of grace, is quite extensive – together pointing towards the call of God in our lives to be conformed to the image of Christ.
A friend recently told me of a conversation with a non-Orthodox Christian who could not understand the many hours of prayer and thanksgiving that mark the Orthodox services of Holy Week. To this Christian, such activities seemed like “works righteousness.”
The Orthodox do not pray because we think we will gain any merit by such action, but because we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in.” The goodness of God transcends our ability to give thanks.
In the simple words of a dying Pentecostal in the mountains of East Tennessee, “You can’t pray to much.”
I am reminded of a saying in the Desert Fathers: Prayer is a struggle to a man’s dying breath.
I’ve not only read this statement – I’ve actually seen it. May God grant me the grace to struggle so until my last breath.