The Mystery of Salvation Revealed Through Ceaseless Prayer - from the book The Way of a Pilgrim
- this is an article that was shared with the Pilgrim and is replicated in the book
How does one attain salvation? This pious question comes naturally to the mind of every Christian as a result of two things: man’s innate longing for truth and righteousness and his awareness of his tainted and weakened human nature. Everyone, even the man with little faith in immortality and the rewards of afterlife, finds himself thinking about salvation when he turns his glance toward heaven. But being unable to come up with any answers, he questions the wise and the experienced; he follows their advice and reads inspiring books of spiritual writers, and he tries resolutely to apply the truths and directives which he has learned. In one way or another all of these instructions show him the necessary conditions for salvation: a devout life, heroic actions, and complete self-renunciation. The practice of virtue and a wholehearted fulfillment of God’s commandments are to bear witness to his firm and vibrant faith. Further, he learns that all of these conditions of salvation are to be fulfilled with deep humility and concurrently, because virtuous acts depend on one another, support one another, perfect and inspire one another.
This process is similar to the rays of the sun, which only show their power and light when they are concentrated through a glass into one point. Scripture confirms this when it says that he who is unfaithful in little things is also unfaithful in bigger ones. In addition to this, to convince him even more completely of the need to practice moral integrity, he hears of the tragedy of sin and of the excellence of virtue. All of this is strongly impressed on his mind with a promise of either a great reward of heavenly bliss or unspeakable punishment in eternity.
This is the special character of modern preaching. After hearing such instruction, the man who earnestly seeks salvation approaches the fulfillment of these directives with great joy and tries to apply and to experience all that he has read and heard. But alas! Even in the first step of his attempt he seems incapable of reaching his goal. He sees and experiences his weakened nature taking the upper hand over the convictions of his mind, and he finds that his free will is constrained, his inclinations are sinful, and the power of his spirit is exhausted.
In this awareness of his weakness he naturally wonders whether there is a method which would facilitate his striving for the perfection which the law of God enjoins on him, which Christian devotion demands, and which was fulfilled by those who were found worthy to attain salvation and holiness. And so, to reconcile within himself the demands of reason and conscience with his infirmity and his lack of strength, he once again turns to the preachers of salvation with the question, How can I be saved? How can I justify my inability to fulfill the conditions of salvation? And how about those who instruct—have they the strength resolutely to accomplish what they teach? “Ask God; pray to God that He would help you!”
So the questioner concludes: Would it not have been more fruitful to have learned first of all that prayer is the source of all which Christian devotion demands and by which salvation is attained? And so he begins to study prayer. He reads, meditates, and analyzes the teachings of spiritual writers on this subject. And without a doubt he finds in them many clear thoughts, profound insights, and forceful expressions. One writer eloquently discourses on the necessity of prayer, another about its power and its benefits; also man’s obligation to pray and the necessary conditions of prayer: fervor, attention, warmth of the spirit, purity of thought, reconciliation with enemies, humility, contrition, etc. But what is the essence of prayer? And how does one actually pray?
To this first and fundamental question one seldom finds a comprehensive and clear explanation, and consequently the man who seeks to learn the art of prayer finds himself once again under the veil of mystery. From general reading he gets ideas about the external acts of piety and concludes that to pray it is necessary to go to church, to make the sign of the cross, make prostrations, kneel, read the psalter, or recite the canons or akathists. This is a common understanding of prayer of those who are not familiar with the writings of the Fathers about interior prayer and contemplation. At last the aspirant encounters the book called Philokalia, in which twenty-five holy Fathers clearly explain the essence and the truth about prayer of the heart.
Here the curtain is raised before the mystery of salvation and prayer, and he sees that really to pray means to direct the mind and heart to constant remembrance of God, to walk in His divine presence, to arouse in oneself the love of God by means of meditation, and to say the name of Jesus in harmony with one’s breathing and the beating of one’s heart. He begins this process by vocally calling on the holy name of Jesus Christ at all times, in all places, and in all occupations, without interruption.
But while these lucid truths enlighten his mind, open to him a path of learning and achievement in prayer, and convince him to apply himself to these wise directives without delay, he continues to encounter periodic difficulties until such time as an experienced director clarifies the mystery of prayer from the Philokalia completely and shows him that it is constancy in prayer which is the single most powerful means for attaining perfection of interior prayer and salvation. Constancy in prayer is the foundation or basis which supports a whole range of spiritual activity.
As St. Simeon the New Theologian says, “He who prays ceaselessly by this one good joins all good.” And so in order to present the truth of this revelation in its fullness, the director develops it in the following way: The first condition necessary for salvation is true faith. Holy Scripture says, “Now it is impossible to please God without faith” (Heb. 11:6). He who has no faith will be judged. But it is clear from Holy Scripture that man of himself cannot give birth to faith even as small as the mustard seed; faith does not originate in us but is the gift of God; and as a spiritual gift it is given by the Holy Spirit.
What must one do then? How does man reconcile his need of faith with the impossibility of acquiring it by himself? Again Holy Scripture points to the means and also gives us examples: “Ask and you will receive.” The Apostles could not of themselves bring their faith to perfection, and so they prayed to Jesus Christ, “Lord, increase our faith.” This is an example of obtaining faith, and from this we can see that faith is attained through prayer. Other conditions necessary for salvation in addition to faith are good deeds or virtues, because “faith is dead if it is separated from good deeds.”
Man is justified by his deeds and not by faith alone. “But if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments and You must not kill. You must not commit adultery. You must not bring false witness. Honor your father and mother, and you must love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 19:17-19). And it is necessary to observe these commandments together, as the Apostle James teaches: “You see, if a man keeps the whole of the Law, except for one small point at which he fails, he is still guilty of breaking it all” (Jas. 2:10).
And Paul the Apostle says the following about human weakness: “No one can be justified in the sight of God by keeping the Law” (Rom. 3:20). “The Law, of course, as we all know, is spiritual; but I am unspiritual; I have been sold as a slave to sin. I cannot understand my own behavior. I fail to carry out the things I want to do, and I find myself doing the very things I hate. In my inmost self I dearly love God’s Law, but I can see that my body follows a different law that battles against the law which my reason dictates” (Rom. 7:14—15, 22—23). How then is it possible to do the works of the law when man in his weakness cannot be justified by observing the law?
Man finds this impossible only until such time as he asks for it, until he prays for it. “You don’t have what you want because you don’t pray for it” (Jas. 4:2). And Jesus Christ Himself says, “Cut off from me you can do nothing.” And in regard to acting through Him He says, “Make your home in me as I make mine in you. He who abides in me bears much fruit” (John 15:4 and 5). Now to abide in Him means to be continuously aware of His presence, ceaselessly to ask in His name: “If you ask anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14).
Thus the possibility of doing good works is realized through prayer! An example of this is seen in St. Paul himself, who prayed three times that a temptation be taken away from him; he got down on his knees before God the Father, begging for strength of the inner man, and he was directed to pray ceaselessly about all his needs. From what has been said above, it follows that the salvation of man depends on prayer, and therefore prayer is of primary importance; it is more necessary than anything else, for it animates man’s faith and is the source of all virtues.
In a word, with prayer all goes well and without it no good deed of Christian devotion can be accomplished. For this reason constancy and regularity apply to prayer exclusively; other virtues have their own time, but we are commanded to practice prayer without interruption; to pray constantly. It behooves us to pray always, at all times, and in all places.
True prayer must have its conditions; it is to be offered with a pure mind and heart, with ardent zeal, with undivided attention, with reverence and deepest humility. But who in good conscience does not admit that he is far from fulfilling these conditions for prayer, that he prays more out of necessity, by forcing himself, than by natural inclination, joyfully, and out of love of prayer? Sacred Scripture testifies to the fact that man does not have the strength to keep his spirit steadfast and to purify his mind from unseemly thoughts: “Man’s heart contrives evil from his infancy.”
It is God alone who gives us a pure heart and a steadfast spirit, for “both the will and the action” are of God. And the Apostle Paul says, “My spirit may be praying but my mind is left barren” (1 Cor. 14:14). And, “We cannot choose words in order to pray properly” (Rom. 8:26). From this we can see that of ourselves we cannot fulfill the essential conditions of prayer.
What then can man do toward his salvation when his weakness is so great? He can acquire neither faith nor good works without prayer, and by his own power he cannot pray properly. What then is to be his contribution toward salvation, what is within the range of his freedom and his ability? Is there anything he can do so that he will not perish but be saved? Every act has its perfection, but the Lord reserved this gift to His own will.
So that man would see clearly his dependence on God’s will and would learn real humility, God left to man’s freedom and ability only the constant flow of prayer. God commands us to pray ceaselessly, at all times, and in all places. This is where the secret of true prayer, of faith, of keeping the commandments, and of salvation is found. Man has the ability to pray regularly and frequently.
The Fathers of the Church clearly confirm this. St. Macarius the Great says, “To pray often is in our will, but to pray truly is a gift of grace.” And Venerable Hesychius says that constancy in prayer becomes a habit which then turns into a natural state; he also says that without frequent calling on the name of Jesus Christ it is not possible to purify the heart. Venerable Callistus and Ignatius recommended frequent, uninterrupted prayer in the name of Jesus Christ before all actions and good works because constancy can bring even careless prayer to perfection.
And Blessed Diadoch says emphatically that, if man would call on the name of the Lord as frequently as possible, then he would not fall into sin. How full of wisdom and experience these directives of the Fathers are, and how they warm the heart; their simplicity is the result of experience, and they shed light on the ways and methods of perfection. What great contrast there is between their teaching and the moral directives of theoretical reason!
Reason dictates: Do this and that good, arm yourself with manliness, use your will power, let the fruits of virtue persuade you, that is, purify your mind and heart of vain dreams, fill their place with instructive thoughts, do good, and you will be respected and at peace; live as your reason and conscience direct you. But alas! All this reasoning power will not reach its purpose without frequent prayer and its saving help.
Let us look again at the teachings of the Fathers and see what they say, for example, about the cleansing of the soul. St. John Climacus writes that “when the soul is darkened by impure thoughts, you can overcome them by frequently calling on the name of Jesus. You will not find a more powerful and successful tool than this either in heaven or on earth.”
And St. Gregory says the following: “Know that no man can control his thoughts; therefore when impure thoughts come to the mind, call on the name of Jesus Christ frequently and the thoughts will of themselves quiet down.” What a simple and practical method and born of experience! And what contrast with the theoretical directive, which attempts to reach purity by its own efforts. After considering these directives of the holy Fathers, tried by experience, we come to the conclusion that the primary and most conducive method for performing actions leading to salvation and spiritual perfection is constant, uninterrupted prayer, no matter how weak it is.
O Christian soul! If you do not find in yourself the strength to worship God in spirit and in truth; if your heart does not yet feel the warmth and sweetness of mental interior prayer, then bring to prayer that sacrifice which you can, which is in the power of your will and your strength. Let your lips first become familiar with frequent, uninterrupted prayerful calling; let them constantly, without interruption call on the powerful name of Jesus Christ. This does not require great effort and is possible for everyone.
St. Paul, from his abundant experience, advocates this: “Through him, let us offer God an unending sacrifice of praise, a verbal sacrifice that is offered every time we acknowledge his name” (Heb. 13:15). Constancy in prayer will certainly become a habit and then second nature, and in time it will bring the mind and heart to a wholesome attitude.
Imagine this: if a man would steadfastly observe this one precept of the Lord regarding prayer then by this one he would fulfill all the other precepts; because if he would pray in all places and at all times and in all occupations, if he would secretly call on the divine name of Jesus Christ, even if at the beginning without much fervor so that he had to force himself, he would then not have time for sinful sensual pleasures.
Every sinful thought of his would meet opposition before it had a chance to develop; every sinful act would be considered less attractive than in an empty mind; useless talking would either be diminished or be completely eradicated, and every offense would immediately be purified by grace from the frequent calling on the name of the Lord.
Constant exercise in prayer would draw the soul away from sinful actions and would bring it to essential knowledge and to union with God! Now do you see how important and necessary is constancy in prayer? It is the sole method of acquiring pure and true prayer, the best preparation for it, and the easiest way of reaching the goal in prayer and salvation!
To convince yourself even more of the necessity and fruitfulness of frequent prayer, (1) note carefully that every aspiration, every thought in prayer is the act of the Holy Spirit and the voice of your guardian angel, and (2) that the name of Jesus Christ called on in prayer contains within itself real, self-activating salutary power, and therefore (3) do not be disturbed by the impurity or dryness of your prayer, but with patience await the fruit resulting from frequent calling on the name of the Lord.
Do not listen to the inexperienced, foolish suggestion of the world that though constant such prayer is only so many empty words. No! The power of the name of the Lord, if frequently called on, will bring its fruit in due time! One spiritual writer describes this beautifully. “I know,” he says, “that for many seemingly spiritual but pseudo wise philosophers, seeking false grandeur and actions which seem noble in the eyes of reason and pride, the simple, vocal, and frequent exercise in prayer seems insignificant or useless.
But they are unhappily mistaken in forgetting the precept of Jesus Christ: “I tell you solemnly, unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). They fabricate for themselves a knowledge of prayer based on the unstable foundation of natural reason.
Does it require much education, brains, or knowledge to say earnestly, “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me”? Was not this the kind of frequent prayer that the divine Teacher Himself praised? Was it not by such short but frequent words that miracles were performed? Ah, Christian soul! Take courage, and do not cease to call on the name of the Lord!
Even if this cry comes from a heart which is distracted and filled with worldly concerns, do not worry! only continue to recite the Prayer; do not become silent and do not lose your peace, for prayer will purify itself by repetition. Do not ever forget that “you have in you one who is greater than anyone in this world” (1 John 4:4).
“God is greater than our conscience and knows everything,” says the Apostle. And so, after all these convincing reasons why constancy of prayer, despite human weakness, is so very powerful and is surely within the range of man’s ability and his will, decide to experience it at least for one day in the beginning.
Observe the constancy of your prayer so that calling on the name of Jesus Christ will receive more time than any other occupation; and this preference for prayer over worldly concerns will show you in time that this day was not lost but brought you closer to salvation; that on the scales of divine justice frequent prayer outweighs your weaknesses and actions and expiates the sins of that day in the book of life, places you on the path of righteousness, and gives you hope for attaining holiness and life eternal.
From - The Way of a Pilgrim (pp. 134-143). Random House, Inc.