Archimandrite Sophrony (Elder Sophrony was born in Russia in 1896. He was a priest, a monk, a disciple of St. Silouan of Athos, and was himself a spiritual guide to many. Sophrony fell asleep in the Lord on July 11, 1993. The following brief excerpts are from a book, “On Prayer,” published by St. Vladimir Seminary Press. “On Prayer” contains writings by the Elder, and was originally published in Russian following Sophrony’s repose.)
Prayer as Communion and Life:
Through prayer we enter into communion with Him that was before all worlds. Or, to put it in another way, the life of the Self-existing God flows into us through the channel of prayer…(p. 9).
Prayer assuredly revives in us the divine breath which God breathed into Adam’s nostrils and by virtue of which Adam “became a living soul.” (Genesis 2:7). Our spirit, regenerated by prayer, begins to marvel at the sublime mystery of being. The mind is filled with wonder…And we echo the Psalmist’s praise of the wondrous works of the Lord. We apprehend the meaning of Christ’s words, “I am come that (men) might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10). (p. 10).
True prayer to the true God is contact with the Divine Spirit which prays in us. The Spirit gives us to know God. The Spirit draws our spirit to contemplation of eternity…(p. 12).
God Honors Man’s Freewill:
The life-giving Divine Spirit visits us when we continue humbly, open to Him. He does not violate our freedom…He envelops us with His tender warmth. He approaches us so softly that at first, we may not notice Him. We must not expect God to force His way in, without our consent. Far from it. He respects man, submits to Him. His love is humble – He loves us not condescendingly but tenderly, as a mother ached over her sick baby. When we open our heart to Him we have an irresistible feeling that He is our “kin,” and the soul melts in worship. (p. 14).
God does not violate our freedom. He will not force Himself into our heart if we are not disposed to open the door to Him. “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him.” (Rev. 3:20). And the wider we open our hearts, the more abundantly does the Uncreated Light flood into our inner world. (p. 66).
Difficulty and Fluctuations in Prayer:
St. John Climacus (St. John of the Ladder) says that it is possible to familiarize oneself with every form of science, of art, and every profession, and practice it without any special effort. But no one has ever been able to pray without toil – particularly if it is a case of the concentrated prayer of the mind in the heart…(p. 67).
Time after time we experience an eager upsurge towards God, followed repeatedly by a falling away from His Light…(p. 9). The struggle for prayer is not an easy one. The spirit fluctuates – sometimes prayer flows in us like a mighty river, sometimes the heart dries up. But every reduction in our prayer-strength must be as brief as possible…(p. 12).
This world contains no source of energy for prayer. If I eat well, so that my body may be strong, my flesh will rebel against prayer. If I mortify the flesh by excessive fasting, for a while abstinence favors prayer, but soon the body grows faint and refuses to follow the spirit. If I associate with good people, I may find moral satisfaction and acquire new psychological or intellectual experience, but only very rarely will I be stimulated to prayer, in depth. If I have a talent for science or the arts, my success will give rise to vanity and I shall not be able to find the deep heart (Ps. 64:6), the place of spiritual prayer. If I am materially well-off and busy wielding the power associated with riches or with satisfying my aesthetic or intellectual desire, my soul does not rise up to God as we know Him through Christ. If I renounce all that I have and go into the desert, even there the opposition of the cosmic energies will paralyze my prayer. And so on, ad infinitum…(p. 11).
Like grace coming down from on High the act of prayer is too much for our earthly nature and so our mortal body, incapable of rising into the spiritual sphere, resists. The intellect resists because it is incapable of containing infinity, is shaken by doubts and rejects everything that exceeds its understanding. The social environment in which I live is antagonistic to prayer – it has (its own) organized life with other aims diametrically opposed to prayer: hostile spirits cannot endure prayer. But prayer alone can restore the created world from its fall, overcoming its stagnation and inertia, by means of a mighty effort of our spirit to follow Christ’s commandments. (p. 12).
Prayer for the Neighbor:
Christ’s love inspires compassionate prayer for all men – prayer in which soul and body take part together. Grieving over the sins of one’s fellow (man) in prayer of this kind links us with the redeeming passion of the Lord…Our Heavenly Father “favors” us when we grieve over our brothers who stumble. In the spirit of the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves we are bound to have pity one for one another; we must establish a kind of mutual responsibility to link us all together before the face of God our Creator. (p. 19).