The Boldness of Prayer

In the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, at the end of the litany that precedes the Lord’s Prayer, the priest intones:

And make us worthy, O Master, that with boldness and without condemnation, we may dare to call upon Thee, the heavenly God, as Father, and to say: Our Father…

It is a phrase that relfects Hebrews 4:15-16:

For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.

It also echoes Ephesians 3:12 – “In whom [Christ] we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him.” Having been made the children of God and joint-heirs with Christ, we are able to enter into the place of a son in our prayers. My experience over many years of pastoring, is that people generally do not like to pray. Most Christians would not state their feelings so clearly – we would rather say that “I do not pray like I should…etc.” But underneath that confession lies the uncomfortable fact that most people find prayer difficult, awkward, and full of distraction.

One of the desert fathers said, “Prayer is a struggle to a man’s dying breath.” Thus our difficulties with prayer are perhaps nothing new. But since prayer is, at its heart, communion with God – it is among the most essential expressions of our reconciliation with Him. I have long suspected that our hesitancy and distaste for prayer is rooted in the our lack of experience of prayer as communion. The reward of prayer is nothing other than this communion with God. Such communion, made possible by the reconciling work of Christ, often remains at the level of “idea” rather than becoming the content of our experience. This is true both because of our own failings, as well as God’s gentle care for us in which He draws us slowly into such an experience lest we become afflicted by our own pride (and other passions). Thus we pray with patience and humility.

I offer a small passage from Mar Jacob of Serugh (6th century). It is a meditation on the “boldness” of prayer and its measureless worth. I trust that readers may find it an encouragement in the life-long struggle.

+++

Prayer reveals the deep things of the Divine,
by it one enters to behold the mystery of hidden things.
It is the key able to open all doors.
From it one can clearly espy what is hidden,
by it the soul can approach to speak with God,
it raises up the mind so that it reaches the Majesty.
It is easy for prayer to learn the mysteries of the divinity,
for it can go in and out unhindered by the angelic powers:
no angel is as swift-winged as prayer,
nor do the seraphim fly up with it as it ascends;
it whispers its words in the ears of the Lord, without any intermediary,
it murmurs in the heart, and God hears it in his exalted place.
Where it ascends not even the Watchers have ever reached,
for it is capable of approaching the very Divinity.
The seraph hides its face fromm the divine Being with its wings,
but prayer stands there unveiled before the Majesty:
nothing at all stands in the way between it and the Lord,
for it converses with him and he hears it gladly.
The Watchers tremble and the heavenly hosts in their modesty are held back,
whereas prayer goes in and relates its affairs before God.
The cherubim are harnessed and cannot see him whom they bear,
but prayer goes up and speaks with him lovingly.
In its love prayer speedily attains the exalted place,
in its love prayer advances to be raised up above the heavenly orders.
The cherub is afraid to raise its eyes to the Majesty,
being harnessed in its modesty with the pure yoke of flame;
the ranks of fire do not approach the Hidden One,
whereas prayer has authority to speak with him.
Prayer enters closer in than they and speaks unashamed;
above the myriads of heavenly hosts does it pass in flight, unhindered by their ranks.
As though to a close relation prayer reveals its secret to the Lord of the Watchers,
asking of him what is appropriate in all sorts of activities.
Prayer does not bend down to the angels to speak with them,
for it asks God himself, and he bids the angels attend to its affairs.

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29 Responses to “The Boldness of Prayer”

  1. fatherstephen Says:

    The photo is of the Great Entrance in the Liturgy – the moment the gifts of bread and wine are brought into the altar. The celebrant is the late Archbishop Job of Chicago, may his memory be eternal. The Church is Holy Trinity Cathedral in Chicago.

  2. Steve L Says:

    Hello Father,

    I’ve been thinking about these two verses (Ephesians 5:19-20):

    “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

    Have you said anything remotely related about finding peace using songs? Paul seems to suggest this rather than getting drunk.🙂

    I just think “speak to one another with psalms” is such an interesting phrase.

    merci

  3. Steve L Says:

    “The cherubim are harnessed and cannot see him whom they bear” … wow.

  4. Marigold Says:

    Thank you for sharing that passage, I especially like the idea of whispering in the ear of the Lord, and revealing your secrets as though to a close relation. I love the facet of prayer which is the ‘voice of the Church’, in the Liturgy and the Psalms and even the words in the prayer books. But (like a lot of people I think) I struggle to let down my guard before God in private, and ‘tell secrets’. That little passage is encouraging🙂

  5. mike Says:

    ….”I have long suspected that our hesitancy and distaste for prayer is rooted in the our lack of experience of prayer as communion”…i think that statement sums it up very well…..while any attempt to convey this “state” of exchange with God to the un-initiated amounts to casting your pearls ..how can you describe wordless communication?…even Telepathy implies a mental dialog…”Communion” denotes Presence…a being IN Gods presence and being aware of an exchange taking place without words or thoughts..it’s as if being near a fire…you “feel” warmth and comfort radiating from the source and you simply abide in that presence……on the other hand..getting there is a whole different ball of wax……:o

  6. Timothy Says:

    That church is Holy Trinity Cathedral in Chicago. [Timothy – thanks for the head’s up – my misidentification of the Church was based on some wrong web info – I’ve corrected it in my note.]

  7. Daniel Wilson Says:

    Bless Father!
    Perhaps in the future you could post some “remedies” for our lack of experience of prayer as communion. You could draw upon your years of pastoral experience with the many types of people you have come in contact with and suggest ways that you have encouraged them- generally, of course- to overcome their “pride and other passions” and enter into an authentic prayer of communion.
    Lastly, isn’t there a danger- for those of us who only hope to someday touch the hem of the Lord’s garment- when we read lofty passages written by people who profoundly dedicated themselves to a life of prayer? It makes one think that either deep prayer is as simple as repeating the Jesus Prayer once or twice or- since that generally doesn’t happen- that we are among the foolish virgins and not very welcome at the Wedding Feast?

  8. Timothy Says:

    Daniel,

    Read Fr. Anthony Bloom’s Beginning to pray.

    Fr. Anthony begins by describing the absence of God in prayer. Here we must realize that we make ourselves more absent from Him than He ever is, and His absence from us is actually a blessing because we are not sufficiently prepared for such an encounter.

    Fr. Anthony then discusses the first beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.” As we begin to accept the gift of God’s grace, letting go of our own passionate life in sin, we obtain poverty of spirit. We must turn inwards, not to any outward distraction or false idol, but to an inward life. By turning our prayer on ourselves, we find the silent depths of our heart, where we can hear God knocking on the door. At this moment of crisis, we open up and stand before God without attempting to form any impressions, either images or ideas. God is impressed upon us.

    Once inside the heart, prayer can take a variety of forms; useful in many different circumstances, but most importantly, it must be true to who we really are, not sinners in the hands of angry god or foolish virgins left outside the kingdom, but adopted sons of the Father, children of light. This requires purity and humility. In order to have a heart attuned to God, contemplative prayer must be upheld by our life, so it is said with genuine charity, purity, obedience, and humility, an action involving the whole person – heart, mind, body and total submission of will.

    We should not expect to have the intensity of contemplative prayer at all times, certainly not as beginners. We should begin with short prayers said in the morning with full attention and then recall these words to mind during the day. We should dedicate short moments throughout the day wholly to God. Eventually these brief times can be extended little by little so we learn to live in the presence of God with stability and stillness at all times. Here Fr. Anthony explains the importance of living in the moment, a discipline of mind critical to the understanding and application of this concept.

    Fr. Anthony also deals with how to address God in prayer. We must address Him by name. When we can address Him by name with all the love and frustration that characterizes any deep and abiding relationship, then we have established a genuine and rich life of prayer. The use of names may change from time to time, but just as we have been given many prayers, we have been given many names for God.
    When we begin to pursue a life of prayer and discover we stand outside the Kingdom, we must turn inward with our prayer and find the silent depths of the heart where we can hear God knocking. It is here we must stand in obedience to His Word with purity, humility, and unconditional love. By the power and operation of the Holy Spirit, we call on the name of the Lord. If we hear His voice and open the door, He will come in, commune with us, and we will be saved (Rev. 3:19-21).

    All we really need to know about prayer is that God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father’” (Gal 4:6). Anything else is just a distraction.

  9. Daniel Wilson Says:

    Thank you Timothy!
    I searched online for more information about Mar Jacob of Serugh, the “Flute of the Spirit.” Here’s an excerpt from one of his homilies that reinforces what you said:
    “Come to prayer, and bring with thee thy whole self. Let not thy mind remain in the market about thy business. If thou art here, let also thine inner man be here within the doors of the crowned (bride). Why is thy thought gone forth and distracted after affairs, so that when thou art here thou art not here, but there? Without amid the markets thy mind is wandering, (taken up) with reckonings and profits; fetch it, that it may come in and ask for its Life. Stand not with one half of thee within and one half without, lest when thou art divided thy prayer lose itself betwixt the two parts. Stand at prayer a united and complete and true man, and all whatsoever thou askest thou canst obtain from God. Why art thou impatient to be off when He has not given to thee? Stay long and knock at the Physician, and beseech Him, and bring the tears of repentance and besprinkle His doorstep; entreat much; and if for love He give not to thee, yet to importunity He will not be able to deny all her requests. Be insistent at the Physician’s door, and give not over; for if thou be backward He will not bind thee up. Why standest thou still? Importunity knows how to obtain mercy of Him; and unless He give to her she will not suffer Him to depart.”
    http://www.ccel.org/ccel/pearse/morefathers/files/jacob_serugh_homily_extracts.htm

  10. fatherstephen Says:

    Daniel,
    Nothing is without danger.

  11. davdperi Says:

    I am going to paste and copy this prayer.

  12. Moses Says:

    Thank you for posting this; I needed it.

  13. Yannis Says:

    Daniel,
    saying the Jesus Prayer “once or twice” will generally have no effect (except in rare miraculous occasions on which one should not base his prayer life). Prayer of the Heart starts as an act and aims to become a living reality ie no longer something we do but who we are.

    In order to reach this stage, constancy of special hours everyday set aside is needed, as well as sneaking the recitation in between any other time of the day one can do so. Sometimes things are made easy, for the prayer is kind enough to acivate itself in us. However its crucial that particular hours are set aside for it.

    Being a part of Church life and worship and guidance from an elder/priest one communicates with are essential in helping one “getting into it”, as is living a life of purity (as much as possible), and some study of the Scriptures and the Fathers for guidance, understanding and inspiration.

    I personally think that these three (guidance, understanding and inspiration) is what hearing the words of experienced Fathers, Saints and others such is all about in. Although, as you say, some people may be misled, even their initial wrong approach can be put to good use as it can show them what exactly they do wrong in order to approach prayer and God in a more suitable and fruitful manner.

    Some Fathers, advise that we read the works of people that are closer to our level – in order not to get lost by trying to make huge leaps. This is indeed a reasonable advice and in line with what you say, yet oftentimes, a few glimpses of what lies beyond can often help a great deal.

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  15. Doug C. Says:

    Thank you Father Stephen for this post; I have been struggling with this for many years. This has again given me hope that even the Desert Fathers struggled with prayer. Once again I am ever so glad to not have to rely on myself in this struggle, and that the Saints help and intercede for us. What a great witness they are to us, and what an encouragement they are to perserver(sp?)

  16. David Dickens Says:

    (I’ve been a way for a while, so nice to see this goodness poured through Fr Stephen still pouring out online. What an encouragement!)

    I can tell you another reason we do not like prayer. We do not like it because we do not trust our thoughts. We know what we think is usually not so. We know what we desire is often poison. Yet we cannot deny that we would cry out if we were bold.

    Were I do be bold in prayer, I would not have a noble boldness. I would ask not for righteous suffering, but relief from it. Not for the inner conflict of self-denial, but for a path to peace that does not pass through the valley of the shadow of death.

    If I were bold I would ask for everything that seems good to what little my brain knows as good (a parish closer, finances to meet demand, the healing of family relationships, a refuge of roots and community in the midst of this hyper-isolated land).

    But I am not only not allowed to pray for these things, but I am revealing my spiritual immaturity by the mere admission of them.

    I want the hurt to stop for a while for my wife of the loss of our son. I want to boldly ask even for the most trivial things which have been good to us, for the slightest lift, a walk in the pines, time with a friend, or to have a working car to get to services.

    Bold? I want to say, “so I am but a foolish child, who can only stand milk, God then give me such milk as will fill my aching belly.” I want to say, “Lord give the whole world, but a single moment, a short second, where every life, every breath being drawn, for one moment is without pain, without hate, without fear and without loneliness.”

    But I cannot be bold. I have lost almost all the words of my own for prayer. I pray the words given to me by others, and try to make them my own. For myself I only pray one thing that I can speak, that my son of blessed memory be remembered in His kingdom.

    This is why I have always struggled to pray. That I know that the answer for all my prayers is in the prayer itself, for He answers with the only thing that can answer… which is Himself. But I am too much the fool and the sinner to grasp that gift.

  17. Yannis Says:

    Welcome back David,

    i am very sorry to hear that.

    God be with you.

  18. fatherstephen Says:

    David,
    Deep joy to hear from you. The joy remains, that we can enter before the Father and plead for our children. My son, Michael Seraphim, would have been 17 this year. To pray for him is a great grace and consolation. Even the “weakest” prayer is truly bold.

  19. Anna Says:

    David, what is your son’s name?

    Fr. Stephen, when did Michael die?

    May their memory be eternal.

  20. David Dickens Says:

    I do blow in like a gale force wind, don’t I? Thank you all for your prayers. Forgive me if I seem dramatic, I’m quite harmless despite my tendency to speak in superlatives..they are the truth (if I know any), but not all truth needs to be said in it’s most provocative way or at all.

  21. Jonathon Says:

    Hello Father!,

    I am a fairly recent convert to Orthodoxy (my wife and I were Chrismated this past Easter). We attend Holy Incarnation in Detroit ( it is a Western Rite parish ) and are under the care and guidance of Father John Fenton.

    I have checked in now and again with your blog and it’s always been a very odd coincidence when I do! It seems that your latest blog at the time always mirrors or answers a question that I am thinking about.

    I have been reading “The Cloud of Unknowing” as recomended by the Vicor General, Ed Huges ( I’m not sure if this is a book for everyone, though ) and it describes a method of prayer and meditation in which the soul may come closer to God (or I should say that God brings you into Him). I admit some of which is written is beyond me, but then again the author urges you to not know God with logic and understanding, but with love. A lot of transendency going on here.

    Much of what the author writes seems to go hand in hand with what you have posted, and it was very good for me to read this. I am always learning the proper way to pray it seems. Have you happen to have read this book, and if so, would you care to share your thoughts on it?

  22. fatherstephen Says:

    Jonathon,
    It’s one of the great classics and a good read. I’ve not spent much time with it since seminary (back in the dark ages).

  23. fatherstephen Says:

    Anna,
    Our son Michael, died in the 6th month of pregnancy, in 1993.

  24. bob Says:

    I’ve only been in a couple of parishes where that prayer before the Lord’s prayer is read aloud. It’s one of the sad things about buried prayers in most places. One priest I know calls it THE pre-communion prayer, and it’s a great one. I hope more places will start letting everyone hear it, more laity use it even if it isn’t heard. Same with the prayer in St. Basil’s liturgy in the same place.

  25. Timothy Says:

    Bob, here’s the texts for those prayers the priest says before the Our Father, the part usually said silently while the laity sings the litany:

    St. John Chysostom’s
    We entrust to You, loving Master, our whole life and hope, and we ask, pray, and entreat: make us worthy to partake of your heavenly and awesome Mysteries from this holy and spiritual Table with a clear conscience; for the remission of sins, forgiveness of transgressions, communion of the Holy Spirit, inheritance of the kingdom of heaven, confidence before You, and not in judgment or condemnation.

    St. Basil’s
    Our God, the God who saves, You teach us justly to thank You for the good things which You have done and still do for us. You are our God who has accepted these Gifts. Cleanse us from every defilement of flesh and spirit, and teach us how to live in holiness by Your fear, so that receiving the portion of Your holy Gifts with a clear conscience we may be united with the holy Body and Blood of Your Christ. Having received them worthily, may we have Christ dwelling in our hearts, and may we become the temple of Your Holy Spirit. Yes, our God, let none of us be guilty before these, Your awesome and heavenly Mysteries, nor be infirm in body and soul by partaking of them unworthily. But enable us, even up to our last breath, to receive a portion of Your holy Gifts worthily, as provision for eternal life and as an acceptable defense at the awesome judgment seat of Your Christ. So that we also, together with all the saints who through the ages have pleased You, may become partakers of Your eternal good things, which You, Lord, have prepared for those who love You.

  26. Margaret Says:

    Fr. Stephen, Thank you for posting this encouragement to prayer! We are so often without this very necessity of life! Thank you also as you remember your child who passed on in 1993, and to others here who have posted their loss. I have been Orthodox Christian for five years now and it is only during the past year that I have realized that I am to pray for the children I have known, who have passed on to God. It has been a wonderful realization as the first death of a child — my sister — occurred when I myself was a child. The Orthodox Christian teaching of prayer reminded my heart of what God showed me then, He is ever present, filling all things and I am to pray at all times and in all places of this life. Glory to God for All Things! May the Peace that passes all understanding rest with us all.

  27. Margaret Says:

    Maybe I could say a word about the grief and bitterness that overcame and has overcome me as I have met and realized death and grief. But when I was young, God showed me in the midst of these feelings that He is ever present, that life is not over at death and that comfort is present as He is ever present. I ignored a lot of this and seemingly fell into a sleep about it until Orthodoxy woke me up, addressing the very reality of life, which is only partially lived in this world. That is the blessing, that God stayed with me and held my hand through years of bitterness and of not even thinking to say a prayer for those I loved who were so young, so little. I hope this is an encouragement, that is all I mean by commenting. God bless us all.

  28. The Boldness of Prayer « THE HOLY MOUNTAIN Says:

    […] The Boldness of Prayer (Fr. Stephen’s blog) […]

  29. ReBlog: The Boldness of Prayer « Nowturningback's Blog Says:

    […] 21, 2010 at 07:25 (Quotes, Weblogs) From Fr. Stephen’s Blog, I am linking a post on the boldness of prayer. I’m copying a passage from Mar Jacob of Serugh, from the 6th century. Fr. Stephen wrote: […]

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