Praying for the World

We must pray for other people with contrition and pain in our soul. We can only achieve this, if, due to our humbleness, we consider ourselves the cause of all the problems in the world.

The Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain

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This insightful but “hard” saying of the Elder Paisios is very similar to a statement made by the literary character, the Elder Zossima, in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, who taught that “each man is responsible for the sins of all.” In our individualized culture, particularly as it is marked by a strongly legal world-view, such statements sound like madness or an invitation to an extreme form of neurosis. And yet these things are taught by some of the most sane among us.

An insanity of our world is to refuse to acknowledge that we share a common life. None of us is saved alone, the fathers teach. If we do not share a common life, then the life of Christ cannot become the life of all. There would be no possibility of union with God nor would love mean anything deeper than the feelings and attitudes we have for one another.

Instead, the opposite is true. Our lives are a common life. Whether I want it to be so or not – my life is intimately connected with the life of every human being – both those now living as well has those who have gone before and those who are yet to come. This is an inherent part of the fullness of the Christian faith.

Refusals of this teaching mark the earliest sins of mankind. Adam refuses to accept union with his wife when he seeks to pass blame on her (and through her to God): “The woman You gave me – she gave me and I did eat…” In a similar fashion Cain, when confronted by God about the murder of his brother, defends himself by saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

There are many things in life that sustain the delusion of radical individuality. Wealth can insulate a person from the true sense of their interdependence on others. Many seek wealth in order to avoid necessities of dependence. We admire the strong and despise the weak. But all of us are weak. We enter the world in a state of complete dependence and often leave in the same manner.

Our fear of a common life is not unreasonable. Dependence, in our fallen world, often means that we are subject to the abuse of power by those around us. Of course only someone living in a fortress can resist much of the abuse of power that infects our world. But we are not told to overcome evil by running away. We are told to “overcome evil by doing good” (Romans 12:21).

It is this “good” which the elders of the Church enjoin. Recognizing and embracing our common humanity – our common life – is an act of love and an offering of the self. The act of prayer for another, when rightly prayed, always means taking upon ourselves the life of the other. This is the great mystery of life as communion. It is the very heart of love.

For those who have a strong psychological take on human relationships – I would quickly want to say that I am not arguing for the destruction of proper “boundaries.” To have a common life with others does not mean to destroy the uniqueness of our own personhood, nor to confuse my life with the life of another.

It is to step into one of the deeper mysteries of our existence. In my own life, perhaps because of my weaknesses, I have frequently been aware that I could not live except for the mercy and prayers of others. I have suffered only small things and been spared many greater sufferings through the kindness and prayer of others. Ultimately, we all live through the life of God who sustains us in our very existence.

I venture to pray for the world from time to time – but I know that my prayers in this regard are quite weak – for my love of the world and my willingness of be the “cause of all the problems in the world” is virtually nil. On most days it is enough of a struggle to take on prayer for those whom I know, particularly those with whom relationships are damaged. But such prayer is the path of the Cross. It leads us to a place where Christ is, taking on the sins of the world – for the life of the world and its salvation.

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21 Responses to “Praying for the World”

  1. Jeremiah Says:

    Your reflections, by the providence of God, meet me right where I am at. I have been reflecting on how we should be praying for our leaders, rather than falling for the political traps of those who seek to demonize their “opponents”. This tendency is strongest in my former Fundamentalist Evangelical camp. I can now see how that was wrong of me to do. This quote from Elder Paisios is the perfect antidote to that.
    This also seems to go along with the prayer of St Nicolai of Zica for his enemies. If I am quick to blame myself, how can I but show mercy to another?
    Thank You Father Stephen. Can’t wait to see your book in print.

  2. WW2 Marine Veteran, Tucson, AZ Says:

    I am lost without prayer. I feel a strong desire to pray for those whom I have done wrong. I likewise feel a strong need for forgiveness, but if that does not come forth I know I have my Lord Jesus Christ to whom I can go and seek His forgiveness. Prayer is a wonderful tool for Christians to use.

  3. November In My Soul Says:

    Is not this reality of spiritual community at the heart of the Gospel? Christ lived out the prayer of salvation of the world. As always we pray for those who love us and those who hate us.

  4. fatherstephen Says:

    November,
    Indeed I think it is indeed at the heart of the gospel. Otherwise the gospel dissolves into mere moralisms.

  5. Pete Says:

    I don’t carry the Cross by myself.

    I cannot do that without God’s help.

    Pete.

  6. Micah Says:

    “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.”

    Matt 13:44

    God bless you dear Father Stephen!

  7. fatherstephen Says:

    Pete,
    Indeed. Even Christ had help carrying the Cross.

  8. WW2 Marine Veteran, Tucson, AZ Says:

    Yes indeed Christ had help carrying the cross. Knowing what I know now, even I would be willing to help Him carry the Cross. But if we were living at that time, the big question: would we help or would we be like His disciples and run or deny Him like Peter?

  9. Tweets that mention Praying for the World « Glory to God for All Things -- Topsy.com Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jon Summers, Veronica du Bruyn and Ζωντανό Ιστολόγιο, Fabio Leite. Fabio Leite said: Praying for the World: We must pray for other people with contrition and pain in our soul. We can only achieve thi… http://bit.ly/d1tRCz […]

  10. Jerry Cornelius Says:

    We must pray for other people with contrition and pain in our soul. We can only achieve this, if, due to our humbleness, we consider ourselves the cause of all the problems in the world.

    The Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain

    This is an interesting treatment of two observations made by Paul the Apostle:

    1 Corinthians 4:13b Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.

    1 Timothy 1:15b Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.

    ‘Identificational Repentance’ is a common theme running through the Athonite Elders – if their actions were matched by the Episcopate – then the ‘inverted pyramid’ of Sergei Sakharov (Archimandrite Sophrony) would be preached by example in every Parish.

  11. fatherstephen Says:

    Karen, thanks for the head’s up on the typos. I think I’m writing too fast and not rereading carefully. Thanks again.

  12. Karen Says:

    De nada, from your friendly cyber-neighborhood (compulsive) copyeditor!🙂

    Such minor defects are easily overlooked especially when one is most concerned with the heart of the thought (that which is most important). That’s what the proofreaders and copyeditors at a publisher are for. Congratulations on your upcoming publication at Conciliar! It will be wonderful to have some of your material here accessible in book form.

  13. confused Says:

    I think there is a name for this… oh yeah, borderline personality disorder…. sorry I don’t mean to be snarky. I am a Christian but this seriously is the symptom of a very serious mental disorder.

  14. fatherstephen Says:

    Confused,
    I understand your concern – as I noted in the article it is easy to misunderstand what I am saying when approached from a purely psychological standpoint. What I had to say about boundaries clearly separates this from borderline personality disorder. On the other hand, you might benefit from reading in classical Christian teaching on the nature of personhood. I recommend Nicholas Sakharov’s I love Therefore I Am, a good modern treatment of classical Orthodox understanding of personhood.

  15. Jeffrey Says:

    Dear Father Stephen,

    Christ is Risen!

    Thank you for sharing this timely quotation and reflection. My family and I have been concerned lately about the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, of course, to prayer, this morning I sought to voice my concerns. I wrote the following message on the BP web site:

    “I have had a sickening in my heart since reading about the loss of life and now the impending disaster. I pray that God delivers a speedy solution but I would not be honest if I did not say that I am angry at the lack of responsibility of drilling in a sensitive area without a backup shut off valve and a comprehensive mitigation strategy. It is clear that BP and the oil industry can do better. I pray that God gives you all the strength and will to do what is right. God bless all the creatures and God bless BP.”

    As much as I am able, I am praying with “contrition and pain in our soul” for the fishermen, the creatures, the authorities, and even the employees of BP. I understand how my prayer for God to heal and help all involved is good, right, and necessary. Where I am lost is on the second part “consider ourselves the cause of all the problems in the world.” Yes, I know how my choices contributes to the demands on fossil fuels. Yes, I know how many times I could walk or bike instead of using the car. Yes, I know how we are all connected.

    What I do not understand is the value in calling myself source of all problems, much less this single particular problem. Perhaps my perspective is too narrow. When we each confess that we are the chief of sinners in the pre-Communion prayers, I have the sense that we are standing together before God in our brokenness. We are modelling for each other that necessary sense of humility and contrition to help prepare us to receive Christ.

    Where I am lost is the apparent futility in bringing this sense of brokenness to a corporation or an individual who expresses no sense of wrong doing and who is all too willing to say yes, you are the one to blame. At some point, aren’t we called to rebuke our brother who continues to do wrong? I don’t see how we can rebuke and all the while say that we are the cause of all the problems. I understand how a paradox can reveal an insight into the truth, but this just seems a confusing contradiction. Can’t I just consider myself at fault for what I do or leave undone concerning my family, my neighbors, my co-workers? Trying to take on the whole world is beyond my conception.

    I also don’t understand how to understand “lay aside all earthly cares” and “do not put your trust in men in power or any mortal man …” in the context of seeing myself as the cause of all the problems. I already think too highly of myself–I sure don’t need to think that I am powerful enough to be the source of all the trouble in the world!

    In Christ,
    Jeff

  16. Micah Says:

    Jeff,

    To see in “ourselves the cause of all the problems in the world” is to place ourselves in the proximity of the Holy Cross — the point in time that intersects all time. Alas, our intellect only takes us so far (which is to say, not near enough).

    Thus we see the crucifixion isolated from Pascha:

    “As a result” says Met. KALLISTOS “the vision of Christ as a suffering God is replaced by the picture of Christ’s suffering humanity”.

    St. Seraphim of Sarov tells us that the entire purpose of the Christian life is to acquire the Holy Spirit:

    “Prayer, fasting, vigils and all other Christian practices however good they are in themselves, certainly do not constitute the aim of our Christian life: they are but indispensable means of attaining that aim. For the true aim of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.” (The Orthodox Church, 1997, p. 228–230).

    (This view is supported by Vladimir Lossky who tells us that while it appears at first sight as an oversimplification it “sums up the whole spiritual tradition of the Orthodox Church”).

    In the words of the Ecumenical Patriarch, the current global crisis is an opportunity:

    “If we believe that we are no more than consumers, then we shall seek fulfilment in consuming the whole earth; but if we believe we are made in the image of God, we shall act with care and compassion, striving to become what we are created to be.”

    The Gospel writers agree that the Pascha of Christ is the new Sabbath which is why on the seventh day “He rested” (Exodus 31:17) –in transliterated Hebrew vayinnafash from nefesh meaning “soul” — sacred space spoke to sacred time.

  17. fatherstephen Says:

    Jeff,
    It is a deep mystery – approached slowly. Begin with small things. To separate yourself from the cause of all problems is to make yourself also the judge of all problems. Christ accepted that burden on the Cross, though innocent of all. But do not swallow to much at one time. Try the small things like a relationship close at hand. But the meaning is a mystical meaning, rather than a literalist meaning. If it’s not helpful right now, then “put it on a shelf,” a wait. Only the Spirit can teach these things to our heart and we learn them slowly.

  18. Lou. Says:

    Father,

    On “To separate yourself from the cause of all problems is to make yourself also the judge of all problems,” here is my small comparison.

    I learned a great many things from coaching Little Leage baseball. One lesson was that most kids, given a problem, thought they should be the umpire (judge). Not the player. Kind of like the pot saying to the . . .

    Of course, they could realize their purpose in the game only by becoming more competent as players, not as judges. And umpires have their own troubles.

  19. epiphanist Says:

    ‘Our lives are a common life. Whether I want it to be so or not – my life is intimately connected with the life of every human being – both those now living as well has those who have gone before and those who are yet to come.’ Thank you Father. Occasionally I post something which rewards meditation on my site. Would you mind if I used this quote please?

  20. fatherstephen Says:

    Epiphanist,
    Feel free. thank you.

  21. Considering Ravens Says:

    Thank you for this, Father. Very timely and helpful, as this is a difficult area for me.
    I am glad that in your article you clearly separate the psychological from the spiritual. It’s hard to come out of that fortress and take on the world. I also find it incredibly hard (but very beneficial) to pray for those who wrong me or others, or even to work on difficult relationships. For example, I find it much easier to pray for creatures and fishermen than for a corporation or for irresponsible individuals!🙂
    I’ve been making progress in this both areas (interdependence and praying for others), but still have a long way to go, may God help me. Your article is encouraging, and I will have to read the book you mentioned.
    Some great comments on here, too–many that hit home🙂
    Thank you all!

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