He also said, ‘Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.’
[Abba Anthony the Great, the Father of Monks, Apophthegmata Patrum]
The blessings of the contemplative life do not burst in on our lives like a flash of lightning. They do not arrest our attention the moment we open our eyes to look for them. Rather, they permeate our lives imperceptibly. They are like the light of the rising sun. The first faint light of dawn penetrates the veil of darkness – slowly but surely. Although it is difficult to trace the inception of this light, it spreads until it pervades everything. It dispels the darkness before the sun rises into view.
In order to attain a fruitful life of prayer, we should not expect blessings to fall upon us suddenly. Rather, we should make our way through with slow but sure steps. We need a long, disciplines struggle. We need patience and constraint. It is enough to make progress however slow that progress may seem, or however pitch-black the world around us and around our faith may appear. Mere progress in the life of prayer and intimacy with God is a sure sign that we will reach our goal. It is proof positive that the light must appear, however long it may be hidden from us. Once it appears, the fruit of our laborious struggle and our faith and patience will materialise. When we constraint ourselves in our struggle, when we expend our sweat and tears, when we contend with our doubts and whispers – walking on in spite of the darkness that shrouds everything in us, our own eyes may not see in ourselves anything but weakness. The eyes of God, however, see precious and valuable signs of growth: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (Jn 20:29); “For God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love which you showed for His sake.” (Heb 6:10)
[Fr. Matta El-Meskeen, Orthodox Prayer Life]
They used to say of Abba Aghathon that on hearing of his great discretion, some people went to him. Wanting to test him [to see] whether he would become angry they said to him, “Are you Aghathon? We hear that you are given to porneia and arrogant,” but he said, “Yes, that is so.”
They also said to him, “Are you Aghathon, the tattler and slanderer?” and he said, “I am.” Then again they said to him, “Are you Aghathon the heretic?” and he replied, “I am not a heretic,” and they begged him saying, “Tell us why you accepted when we said so many things about you, but you did not tolerate this description?”
He said to them, “I charge myself with the first [faults] because it is good for my soul; but to hear [oneself] called heretic – that is separation from God, and I do not wish to be separated from my God.” On hearing this they were amazed at his discretion, and went their way enlightened.
Somebody asked Abba Anthony, “By observing which [precept] shall I be well pleasing to God?” The elder answered, “Observe what I am telling you: Always have God before your eyes wherever you go. Whatever you are doing, have the testimony from Holy Scripture to hand. Wherever you are living, do not be in a hurry to move away. Observe these three [precepts] and you will be saved.”
[Abba Anthony the Great, the Father of Monks, Apophthegmata Patrum]
Whatever anyone may set out to do, if it is done with prayer the undertaking will prosper and he will be kept from sin, because there is nothing to oppose him and drag the soul into passion.
If, on the other hand, a man leaves God out and gives his attention to nothing but his business, then he is inevitably opposed to God, because he is separated from Him. For a person who does not unite himself to God through prayer is separated from God.
Therefore we must learn first of all that we ought always to pray and not to faint. For the effect of prayer is union with God, and if someone is with God, he is separated from the enemy.
Through prayer we guard our chastity, control our temper, and rid ourselves with vanity; it makes us forget injuries, overcomes envy, defeats injustice, and makes amends for sin. Through prayer we obtain physical well-being, a happy home, and a strong, well-ordered society. Prayer will make our nation powerful, will give us victory in war and security in peace; it reconciles enemies and preserves allies.
Prayer is the seal of virginity and a pledge of faithfulness in marriage; it shields the wayfarer, protects the sleeper, and gives courage to those who keep vigil. It obtains a good harvest for the farmer and a safe port for the sailor.
Prayer is your advocate in lawsuits. If you are in prison, it will obtain your release; it will refresh you when you are weary and comfort you when you are sorrowful. Prayer is the delight of the joyful as well as solace to the afflicted. It is the wedding crown of the spouses and the festive joy of a birthday no less than the shroud that enwraps us in death.
Prayer is intimacy with God and contemplation of the invisible. It satisfies our yearnings and makes us equal to the angels. Through it good prospers, evil is destroyed and sinners will be converted.
Prayer is the enjoyment of things present and the substance of the things to come. Prayer turned the whale into a home for Jonas, it brought Ezechias back to life from the very gates of death; it transformed the flames into a moist wind for the Three Children. Through prayers the Israelites triumphed over the Amalekites, and 185,000 Assyrians were slain one night by the invisible sword.
Past history furnishes us with thousands of other examples besides these which makes it clear that, of all the things valued in this life, nothing is more precious than prayer.
I wish we could already turn to prayer itself; but we would rather add a little to what has been said, and consider how many diverse good things we have received from Divine grace, for the gift of which we should make a return to our Benefactor by prayer and thanksgiving.
Now I think that, even if we spent our whole life in constant communion with God in prayer and thanskgiving, we should be as far from having made Him an adequate return as if we had not even begun to desire making the Giver of all good things such a return.
[St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Lord’s Prayer, The Beatitudes]
[On this day, the 26 Hatour in the Coptic Calendar, we commemorate St. Gregory of Nyssa, his blessings be with Amen.
Another brother asked Abba Sisoes, “I have fallen, Abba; what shall I do?” The elder said to him, “Get up again.” The brother said, “I have gotten up again, but again have I fallen.” The elder said, “Get up again and again.” So the brother asked, “How many times?” The elder replied, “Until you are taken up either in virtue or in sin. For a man presents himself to judgment in that state in which he is found.”
This is the mark of Christianity: however much a man toils, and however many righteousnesses he performs, to feel that he has done nothing, and in fasting to say, “This is not fasting,” and in praying, “This is not prayer,” and in perseverance at prayer, “I have shown no perseverance; I am only just beginning to practice and to take pains “; and even if he is righteous before God, he should say, “I am not righteous, not I; I do not take pains, but only make a beginning every day.
[Abba Macarius the Great, Homily 26]
[Tomorrow, the 16th day of Hatour in the Coptic calendar marks the beginning of the Blessed Fast of the Nativity. May God grant us an acceptable and fruitful fast before Him, to aid us in the salvation of our souls, and to the Glory of His Name.]
Fasting by itself is not a virtue. It is nothing at all. Without prayer, it becomes a bodily punishment that induces spiritual aridity and bad temper. The same is true of prayer; without fasting, it loses its power along with its fruits.
We may liken fasting to a burning coal and prayer to frankincense. Neither has value without the other, but together, the sweet savour of their incense fills the air.
Fasting calms the impulses of the flesh and quenches the fire of passion; it curbs the prattling of the tongue. Thus, it substantially prepares us for the work of prayer and the release of the spirit from slavery to the flesh. In this way, fasting allows the spirit to contemplate the truths of eternity and the age to come.
The following constitute spiritual meanings for fasting:
– Fasting is not a deprivation from certain kinds of food, but a voluntary abstinence from them.
– It does not humiliate the flesh, but refreshes the spirit.
– Nor does it fetter or imprison the senses; it releases them from all that hinders the contemplation of God.
– Fasting does not seek to repress the appetite for food. It renounces this appetite and, in renunciation, elevates it to relish the love of God.
– Fasting does not imply confinement or restriction, but aims at joy and magnanimity of heart.
[Fr. Matta El-Meskeen, Orthodox Prayer Life, Chapter 13]