(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).