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(This is part of a retreat given by Fr. George Calciu in Romania

– November 2006 – few weeks before departing in the Lord).

May his memory be eternal!

 I would like to speak to you few words on pious prayer.

 I do not like definitions because prayer is undoubtedly a work of God that returns to God. The spirit of prayer is a gift that the Holy Spirit places in each of us, according to our more or less intense labor, while eliminating the barrier raised between God and us.

  In our attempt to pray, there is always a communion of divine will with the human will.  And know that without perseverance and piety, there is no prayer.

  I am not a pietistic, but I’d like to say that without the will of God, we wouldn’t be able to pray even the “Our Father”. This is because when we start praying, thousands of demons assail us.

  When I was a child, my mother would take me to church. We were eleven children in our family, and when she took us to church, we wound complain that our feet hurt from standing and that we wanted to go outside.

  And my mom would say: “As kids you do not understand, but know that the pain of your feet is your prayer before God.”

  She would also tell us this story: “In a village there was a bar where people and especially men will go out to drink (because at that time women will not go to bars, but now they do…). There, people would get dank, swear and fight, but in the entire place there was only one demon and perhaps the weakest that slept on the countertop because he had no work to do. In that same village, there was also the house of a widow who had seven children, and they all prayed at night. And her house was surrounded by a legion of demons… laboring hard”

  Then know my brethren that our churches and surrounded by legions of demons, striving hard to surrender us. For where the demon ought to accomplish its evil work! at the disco bar or at the beach? It has no work to do there. Of course that the evil spirits are also present in those places, but without much labor.

  But in the church, where the true faith is preached and we strive to practice true prayer, so the demons surround us from all sides striking where we’re most vulnerable.

  They temp you with doubt that your prayer is in vain, that you have something better to do, or perhaps with thoughts that God will not hear your prayer. But if you persist, this state of doubtfulness will vanish.

  When they first arrest me and I entered the Gulag, my faith was weak.

  When I started the school of Medicine, I knew some things about prayer and coming to Bucharest, I witnessed the beginning of a movement called the “Burning Bush”, a group of faithful dedicated to prayer that was initiated by Sandu Tudor [the future hieromonk Daniel from Rarau Monastery who later died as a martyr in communist gulag of Ayud – Ed], Father D. Stăniloae, Fr. B. Ghiuş, Father Babus, [Alexander “Codin”] Mironescu and other laymen and clergy engaged in the practice of prayer and catechesis, speaking on the great perils (elders) of the desert, and I was surprised of the deep treasures that prayer hides within and how much we can possibly grow that our prayer may become genuine.

  All these men I’m referring to – were extraordinary figures of our Church that with time have passed in the Lord, but they left behind a shinning mark and many of us today follow in the spirit that these fathers have instructed us then.

  In their presence I’ve learned greatly, and with time I strived to deepen my prayer life, until 1948 when I was arrested and sent to the gulag where I really felt the work of prayer.

  I shared the prison cell with various politicians, bishops, priests and monks, then I understood that prayer is a battle, a great effort.

  From the moment you sit or kneel down to pray, many demons attack you, even at your first words of prayer; the evil one fills your mind with many worldly thoughts, all sorts of unimportant things. Even the curiosity to know the time will occupy in your mind. Or the interest to know whether is sunshine or cloudy outside. All these thoughts may seem innocent, but they vanish the voice of prayer from our hearts.

  Elder Porphyrios says that these thoughts that assault our mind while we’re praying are like airplanes. You hear them from afar like a soft noise without much disturbance, then they grow stronger and when they fly above your head they overwhelm you with their noise, but then they’ll passed away.

  But if you get into conversation with such thoughts – says father Porphyrios – they’ll make your heart an airport.

  I was asked by many faithful how to fight the human thoughts that come to mind while praying. First, don’t pay attention to them. Let them pass by.  Second, call for the help of the Lord and of your guardian angel. And thirdly do not open your heart to the conversation with evil thoughts. Because the demon is stronger than us.

  Then we ought to pray with piety and humility. Whilereading the prayers of confession and Holy Communion written by Saint John Chrysostom, St. Simeon the New Theologian and other great saints of our Church that we seek as models for our lives, we see how these fathers confess the temptations that themselves had encountered, the evil thoughts, the malice… explanations given to help us with our prayer.

  Here is what St. Symeon Metaphrastes said, quote:

“What evil have I not committed? What sinful things have I not done? What form of wickedness have I not imagined in my soul? You know that I have gone beyond the bounds of depravity in my deeds. I have been proud, arrogant, contemptuous, blasphemous, gossiped, laughed uncontrollably. I have been drunk, gluttonous, malicious, envious, and greedy, judged others, conceded, sought praise, and been unjust, covetous, and consumed with shameful thoughts”…

  This is how Saint Metaphrastes was praying!

  When I read these prayers before confession and Holy Communion, I reflect on how much I have sinned in my whole life. If these saints were tempted, then how much more am I being (tempted)? If these saints were speaking of committing vain talk, drunkenness, gluttony, envy and love of wealth, then how much darker my thoughts ought to be?

  But St. Simeon the New Theologian will then continue: “Lord, You know my many errors, You know my sores and You behold my wounds; but You also know my faith, You behold my will and You hear my sighs. Nothing is hidden from You oh Lord, my God, my creator and deliverer, not a teardrop nor even part of a drop”…

  And this is a great consolation for us. Because God does not take into account only my prayer, but also my labor.

  Satan is outraged seeing someone praying. This explains why we are so attacked when we pray. There is an army of demons that try to inflict us with many despicable thoughts. They may not seem of a great harm, but are enough to interfere and separate us from God: worldly thoughts, memories that alter your peace, all sorts of unimportant things that imprisoned our minds.

  When you have prepared your heart and have emptied your mind of all daily cares – which however you cannot vanish completely – be watchful to see which side the demon will strike. At that moment, the angel of prayer that watches over you will help you “from the right” but the demon will strike “from the left”. The demon will try to distract you from prayer so you may lose the connection with God but the angel of prayer will place in your heart undisturbed thoughts and will aid your mind – its rational part, so you may oppose all evil influences and make a pure prayer.

  Father Roman Braga would says that when you sit down to pray, you ought to empty your mind of all images and during prayer to reflect not, so God may place in your emptied mind His Holy Spirit, filling you with His presence.

 I must confess that I had tried to follow this instruction – to empty my mind of all images, of anything that connects me to this material world, but I didn’t always succeed. There are moments when I can…. There are times when I raise myself above these images, but these moments don’t last very long because of my weakness.

  So I believe that been made of flesh and spirit, having a material body and an earthy mind, we need practice. We need to connect the rational or the imaginative part of our being with what we can see, for instances an icon. The icon especially, is the first step to help to lift up our spirit. It is good if you have an icon in front of you, to gaze your attention on it. To make from its sacred image – the saint represented on it, the link between you and God.

  Then can you can reflect on the saint’ holy life, the wonders he has done, the help he offered you in various circumstances, and feel his presence from the icon or his relics, in your soul. In this way you have come to the second stage.

  The third stage is when these worldly images no longer work in your mind and everything comes from God, Who fills the empty space in your soul with His divine presence.

 If you pray out loud, and many times we pray this was because we can focus more, do not let yourself carried out by the resonance of words, or by the beautiful phrases, as some prayers are indeed very beautiful. Do not be tempted by the “aesthetic”.

  I remember when I first read the acathyst prayer of the Burning Bush [composed by Daniel Sandu Tudor: Acathyst Hymn to the Mother of God, the Burning Bush – Ed], I did not comprehend very much. It sounded so beautiful, so theological that I was left only with a pleasant idea. However, this was also good, because through its mystical beauty God worked within us.

  Typically when we pray without words, only with our minds, there is a gap between the mind and the words. The doctors would say that when we recite something in the mind – for example the prayer Our Father – we do it in one breath, but the epiglottis – the phonetic organ, works more slowly.

  So, there is a gap between my thought and the prayer itself.

  Therefore, if you pray in your mind and utter incomplete words, it is good to work a resonance between the word and the thought. Otherwise the image becomes double, once through the thought and then through epiglottis by its small movement that creates inertia. Thus you are been left behind and lose the connection between your thought and the words of prayer.

  If your mental concentration leaves you during prayer taking you in vain, strive to return to prayer. Try to strengthen your attention and the angel of prayer would not only guide you in knowing that you last your attentiveness but he will also instruct you when you lost it.

  But if this interruption becomes rather a habit while praying, then the angel will no longer instruct you.

  Then repeatedly you’ll be losing and gaining… and you’ll advance very little.

  Thus, if you hold your attentiveness watching over your thoughts, your mind and your heart, then the angel will remind you where you lost the sweetness of prayer.

  These are small exercises to (help you) reconnect your thoughts to prayer. For instance, when you bend down your knees, your whole being is engaged in prayer. The simple union of your palms will engage you back into prayer. The sign of the Cross or other pious acts will help you bring back the payer. Thus, through small and unspectacular gestures, we can attract the angel of the Lord to help us bring back the prayer so we can go forward.

  There are people who try to replace all prayers with the prayer of the heart (the Jesus prayer). I think this practice is for those advanced.

  Once I went to Essex – England where they practiced the Jesus prayer in the church taking turns and they often replaced the service of Vespers with this prayer. There was a group of monastics, monks and nuns, and each one would say the Jesus prayer a hundred times… It seems like a record/book keeping offered to God, by counting exactly how many times you would say the prayer.

  My brethren, I’d like to say this: all prayers should start with the beginning prayers, the troparies: Heavenly King … Holy God…, the prayer to the Most Holy Trinity… Our Father…, the Creed, Psalm 50, then the prayers to the Most Holy Theotokos.

  These are the basic prayers. Without them one cannot really get to the essence even thou you may seem advanced; as we’re not at the level of the fathers of the Holy Mountain.

  You must prepare your heart before getting to more advanced prayer. You begin with the first prayer dedicated to the Holy Spirit, then to the Holy Trinity, then the third to God the Father – and so on. They all have a purpose. Often I would ask my younger seminarians, to whom is “the Heavenly King prayer” addressed? And they did not know. They would pray without knowing…

  For it is better to start with the introductory prayers then to advance. Even if you say only these basic prayers ten times, a hundred times, over and over, with time the prayer works in our heart to restore it and to advance it to deeper prayer.

  Then you can utter another prayers and the Jesus prayer (the prayer of the heart).

  For I believe that the prayer of the heart, said especially at night, is a gift of the Holy Spirit that works in our hearts, and we ought to practice it with deep piety/humility.

  Before I been sent to prison for the second time, I was received to the priesthood and serve from 1972 until 1978.

  In 1978 I was removed/band from teaching at the Seminary and from serving the Church, so I was given into the hands of the communist regime (“the Securitate”), with no ecclesiastical protection.

  I no longer had a parish or a sit to teach, no one offered me protection, no bishop would take responsibility for me and I felt lost.

  I was arrested again and sent to prison.

  During my time at the seminary, many days I would pray with my students.

  We met in the evening, read from the Bible and said some prayers. If God would inspire one of us with a new word of explaining the biblical text we read, he will speak it out, otherwise we would depart home reflecting on how we ought to approach it next time.  And I thought I truly knew prayer…

  But when they took me to the gulag, I realized that I knew not how to pray.

  For I lived in a permanent fear being always distracted. When I wanted to pray, the guards troubled me or even beat me so I may cease praying and I could not go beyond this inner battle I was fighting… I was not able to concentrate to make a genuine prayer. I could not pray: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”. I could not even say this much…

  There was a war with myself…

  Then I remembered what St. Maximus the Confessor said about prayer and indeed, slowly I started to connect to prayer… the deeper prayer; I was striving to empty my mind of all evil, of all that was negative within me and the evil that surrounded me, so I advanced to a point where an abyss was laying before me… a frighten abyss… and I did not know what would follow.

 To throw myself into the abyss as Satan tempted Jesus that God will send His angels to save Him? I was frightened so I pulled back.

  But it happened that God sent the angel who saved me, and the stone did not hurt my foot… 


(Transcribed and translated by EC. Please do not copy without permission).   


  It is extremely provocative to say the least to put into prison the Abbot of the Vatopaidi monastery, Efrem, when politicians who have confessed to accepting bribes are still at large! The judicial council decided on December 23 to remand into custody Fr. Ephrem in order to ensure that he will not leave the country. The prosecutor clashed with the investigator on the issue. After the elder’s apology, the prosecutor, Panayiotis Matzounis, argued in favor of the imposition of restrictive conditions rather than the custody remand. The conditions were prohibition of travel, bail of 200,000 Euro and personal appearance at a police station twice a month. Mr. Yiannis Matzouranis, who appeared for the Elder argued that ‘the remand into custody decision had no moral or legal base’.

  The custody decision against a clergyman renowned world wide for his charitable work and spiritual mission a few days before Christmas comes to add to the woes which befell the country as a result of the gloomy political and financial conditions. Needless to say no one has so far been accused or found guilty or imprisoned for the country’s degradation! It was only yesterday that the Vice President of the government, E. Venizelos told the plenary of the House of Representatives that any investigation into money laundering in Switzerland on behalf of Mps constitutes a mockery since ‘anyone can set up an offshore company rather than keeping a personal account’.

  Deep down no one wants to remember those who confessed that they had accepted bribes from Siemens, which they either put in their pockets (as in the Manteli case) or in the party coffers (as in the Tsoukatou case). Yet justice and the political system have found a monk as a target for their purging; a monk whom for a long time they hold hostage to political intrigue without any evidence as to his personal involvement in any issue under investigation. In this indescribable Greek reality show, monk Ephrem is judged as ‘likely to leave the country’ and is remanded into custody. Yes, during the entire time of his judicial ordeal, this ‘likely to leave’ monk has visited several countries and gave 48 presentations. Recently he even visited Moscow at the invitation of the Russian President and the Prime Minister. At the end of these visits, Elder Ephrem always returned to his country and his monastery even though he suspected that the outcome of this whole process might be regrettable.

  Elder Ephrem of Vatopaidi is therefore accused of financial machinations, him that once returned from Russia, gave away all the money he had gathered from donations (made by the faithful venerating the Holy shrine: “the belt of the Virgin” during his recent pilgrimage to Russia) to the Greek dioceses and a philanthropic canteen from the cities of Thessaloniki and Athens, to help the suffering believers due to Greece’ recent economic crisis.

  Abbot Father Ephraim received the unexpected news with Christian love and deep faith in the divine providence. He appeared ready to comply with any provision of the authorities, including preventive detention. Elder Ephrem addressing to his monastic community of Vatopaidi, had asked the fathers of Vatopaidi to receive these news with spiritual eyes and not to condemn those who accuse him, and to continue their religious asceticism in unity, love and harmony.


The Russian Church believes that the arrest of Abbot

Ephrem of Vatopaidi is a groundless sanction

Moscow, December 26, Interfax – The decision to arrest the Rector of Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos, Archimandrite Yefrem (Ephrem) is “unreasonably tough”, the secretary for Inter-Orthodox Affairs in the Synodal Department for External Church Relations Archpriest Igor Yakimchuk told Interfax-Religion.

”It is an unprecedented event and, of course, we’re concerned. Even if Father Yefrem is someway guilty, to arrest of a rector, a monk is an extreme sanction,” Father Igor said.

  According to him, it is difficult to say whether there are grounds for detaining as it requires good knowledge of Greek legislation and the essence of the case, but the very fact of detaining Father Yefrem on the Eve of Christmas in Greece “raises big questions.”

  Father Igor is perplexed that “a new turn of this case” started after Father Yefrem triumphantly returned from Russia with the Belt of the Mother of God. 

”Perhaps, is a coincidence, but many people see some political backgrounds here,” the interviewee of the agency said. 

The Foundation of St. Andrew the First-Called believes that such legal decisions can be explained only with “political engagement of certain circles of Greek establishment, which thus want to demonstrate the West that they are ready to refute principles pertaining the spiritual life fixed in the Greek Constitution.”

”The fact that court actions were turned against a spiritual leader, one of the most respected people on Athos, an elder suffering from many diseases is especially outraging,” the Foundation officials wrote in their statement. 

The Foundation urges the governing body of Athos, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, representatives of other local Orthodox Churches and ordinary believers to speak for Father Yefrem as he “is exposed to prosecutions, which exceed the formal reason for launching the case.”

Earlier, the Foundation of St. Andrew the First-Called had for the first time received the Belt of the Mother of God from the Vatopedi Monastery. After visiting St. Petersburg the shrine was taken to other Russian cities. The last point was Moscow. The belt returned to Athos on November 28.

Three million of people venerated the Belt of the Holy Virgin while the shrine was in Russia.

Please also see:


Cyprus stands by Elder Ephrem

The Arrest of Archimandrite Ephrem is a hostile attack against Athonite monks and Orthodoxy

True motives for Father Yefrem’s arrest is struggle against Athos independence and Russian influence there…

The Holy Community of Mount Athos Stands By Elder Ephraim of Vatopaidi

Guardian of Holy Virgin’s Belt from Mt. Athos Decides To Go To Jail

Greek Abbot Jailed Pending Trial Over Land Scandal Probe That Cost Ministers Their Jobs

Cypriot Abbot To Be Held Behind Bars in Greece

Greek Monk On His Way To Jail

Photos of Elder Ephraim Leaving Mount Athos

Photos and Video of Protests Supporting Elder Ephraim

Russian Orthodox Rise in Defense of Arrested Vatopedi Monk

Patriarch Kirill Asks Greek President To Release Vatopedi Monastery Superior From Custody

Vatopedi Monk in Jail as Minister Warns ‘Meddlers’

Archimandrite Yefrem’s Arrest Violates European Human Rights Court’s Decisions – Russian Foreign Ministry

Greece Jails Abbot Ephraim in Mount Athos Fraud Case

Father Ephraim – Prisoner of Cell 2 in the Koridallos Prison

Nativity’ Troparia!

“Thy nativity, O Christ our God,
has shown to the world the light of wisdom;
for by it, those who worshipped the stars
were taught by a star to adore Thee
the Sun of Righteousness,
and to know Thee, the Orient from on high.
O Lord, glory to Thee.”



  The Church of the Nativity and the oldest Church of the Holy Land  is situated approximately 8 km from Jerusalem to the east of Bethlehem. Its surrounding covering some 12,000 square meters, include an Orthodox Monastery,  a Catholic and an Armenian quarter.


  Its foundation begins in the second century, when St. Justin the Martyr identified for the first time the grotto or the cave of the Nativity as been the sacred birthplace of Jesus Christ. The original  church was erected quite early – in the year 326 –  by Saint Helena the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great .

  In 531, the Emperor Justinian the Great gave it a new shape which has been preserved until today. Some of the historical facts about the church are quite interesting. For example, during the invasion of the Persians (in 614), the place was left untouched by the invaders, which were impressed to see the Nativity scene with the Magi from the east dressed in Persian’ costumes.


The entrance into the church is through a carved door, very low into the ground and suggestively called ‘the door of humility”. The tradition testifies that the height of the door was intentionally carved this way by Christians, to prevent non-believers to enter and as a  defense to the Muslim’ attacks.

 the Church of Nativity, interior

  The basilica of the Nativity is divided into four separate longitudinal areas   divided by four rows of columns that were built in the Corinthian style. Each row includes 11 columns depicting the apostles of Christ’s with their names written in Greek and Latin. Recent archaeological excavations had revealed part of the old Byzantine mosaics that were covering the original ground-floor of the church.

 the Cave of the Nativity

  The Shrine of the Nativity has three altars: a central altar and two others on the side apses. From here, one can descend into a small cave – the Nativity Cave –  located just below the central altar.

 the silver star

  A silver star fixed in marble represents the place of the manger and is surrounded by fifteen candles that burn continuously. A Latin inscription testifies that: “”Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est” („Here the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ”).

  The basilica of the Nativity is administered by different Christian denominations.  The Cave of the Nativity is under the jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church.


“From heavenly skies, I hear a song divine,

Thy three Magi, with gifts they come,

From far above, a star that shines

Enlightens the Magi.

That mighty gifts they may bring forth

In white rucksacks, while signing

To One new baby born.

The humble baby lays in peace

And joyful in a manger,

While Holy Virgin sways.

And seeing this,

We all rejoice.

Thy heavenly sky and the whole earth

Are sanctified by Him

Christ our King,

Came to redeem

All those who may believe.

We worship Thee,

Christ long-awaited Savior,

Eternally being glorified;

From far above, a song divine….”

A Blessed Nativity to all my readers!


A documentary on the history of Orthodox – Byzantine iconography

Please also see

“Testimonies of the Icon of Nativity”



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December 2011