Very often we understand these words “call to prayer” in a very direct intercessory sense. We think of “claiming”, “rebuking”, “pronouncing the judgements of God”; and if like me we are called to a very different way of prayer, we conclude that it can’t be addressed to us.
Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov lived through the years of the Russian Revolution, World War II, and the Cold War. A Russian, he prayed in community at Mount Athos, and later at The Monastery of St. John the Baptist at Tolleshunt Knights, Essex, England, and like most Orthodox religious, he was a contemplative. Sophrony wrote, and taught, on the practice of the Jesus Prayer, and it was to this practice that his life was given.
I feel that we all sometimes – and I am one of the worst – have far too narrow a sense of what prayer is. Paul wrote, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8.26-27)
We cannot, humanly, know how to pray in the direct, petitionary sense under these – or many – circumstances. Coming before God with our list of demands, and our advice on how best to fulfil them, simply won’t do, given the extraordinary complexity of world events, and the limited nature of the human mind. Sophrony understood this. He wrote, “Sometimes prayer seems to flag, and we cry, ‘Make haste unto me, O God’ (Ps. 70.5). But if we do not let go of the hem of his garment, help will come. It is vital to dwell in prayer in order to counteract the persistently destructive influence of the outside world.” (His Life Is Mine p.64)
Later in the same book Sophrony addressed directly the issue of prayer in a world such as ours:
The Jesus Prayer will incline us to find each human being unique, the one for whom Christ was crucified. Where there is great love the heart necessarily suffers and feels pity for every creature, in particular for man; but our inner peace remains secure, even when all is in confusion in the world outside...I wrote 18 months ago about this, and what I wrote seems so relevant to this question of prayer in the midst of a broken and despairing world that I thought I should repost it in its entirety here:
It has fallen to our lot to be born into the world in an appallingly disturbed period. We are not only passive spectators but to a certain extent participants in the mighty conflict between belief and unbelief, between hope and despair, between the dream of developing mankind into a single universal whole and the blind tendency towards dissolution into thousands of irreconcilable national, racial, class or political ideologies. Christ manifested to us the divine majesty of man, son of God, and we withal are stifled by the spectacle of the dignity of man being sadistically mocked and trampled underfoot. Our most effective contribution to the victory of good is to pray for our enemies, for the whole world. We do not only believe in - we know the power of true prayer...
ibid, pp. 127-128
Only in silence and solitude, in the quiet of worship, the reverent peace of prayer, the adoration in which the entire ego-self silences and abases itself in the presence of the Invisible God to receive His one Word of Love; only in these “activities” which are “non-actions” does the spirit truly wake from the dream of multifarious, confused, and agitated existence.
Thomas Merton, Love & Living, Naomi Burton Stone and Br. Patrick Heart, Eds., Harcourt, 1979. p. 20-21
I wish I could express somehow how these words awaken my heart’s longing. They come like some rumour from a distant shore, like the scent of green places across a salt and barren sea at the end of a long voyage.
These are not words of escape, though. Peace yes, but no escape, no final rest until “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8.21) Until then, our silence and our solitude are the risk of radical openness, the love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13.7)
Prayer cannot finally rest in itself as long as there are tears shed, blood spilt, among even the least in God’s creation—for “we know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8.22-23)
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner…