1 Thessalonians 5:16-17
“Always be joyful. Never stop praying.”
It seems that that the powers of darkness are more visible than ever, and that the children of God are being tested more severely than ever. Have you ever wondered what it’s going to take to survive our times? What is required of those of us who want to bring light into the darkness? What is required of those of us who feel called to enter fully into the agony of our times to speak a word of hope? It’s not too difficult to see that this is a fearful and painful time of history. And in response many become tired, bitter, resentful, or simply bored. Where are we supposed to find nurture and strength?
Today we continue to investigate Christian traditions that can help us grow in our faith. Our job this morning is to look at the life of prayer, otherwise known as the contemplative tradition. I want to introduce you to some Christian contemplatives called the Desert Fathers and Mothers–hermits who lived in the deserts of Egypt during the fourth and fifth centuries. Their lives continue to inspire me and speak to us today in our own need.
As the fourth century unfolded, it seemed like Christianity was finally gaining some respectability. Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Christians were no longer sought out and persecuted for their faith. At the same time, the fabric of society was being torn apart. The Roman Empire Outside enemies threatened the already tender Roman Empire. Taxes soared. Ever-increasing military service was demanded. Even thought Christianity was legalized, people became more secular and less interested in the spiritual life.
In response, devout men and women fled into the deserts of Egypt to escape this corrupting conformity of the world. In the desert they waged war against sin and evil, witnessing against the destructive powers of their times and showing forth the saving power of Jesus Christ. For instance, a man named Arsenius was a well-educated Roman nobleman who lived at the court of the Emperor.
It is said that while living in the palace, Arsenius prayed, “Lord, lead me in the way of salvation.” A voice came to him saying, “Arsenius, flee from the world and you will be saved.” Having sailed from Rome directly to Alexandria Egypt, and having withdrawn to a solitary life in the desert, Arsenius prayed again, “Lord, lead me in the way of salvation.” And again he heard a voice saying, “Arsenius, flee, be silent, pray always, for these are the sources of sinlessness.” Flee, be silent and pray always. Three words summarize the spirituality of the desert.In the desert, people learned to reject the false patterns of the world and flee to places of harsh seclusion. Once they found who they were in Christ, these men and women spoke back to the world with wisdom that confronted society’s evils. We call them the Desert Fathers and Mothers.
Many of these women and men began their ministry by seeking God alone in prayer. Remember, this is how Jesus began his ministry. He fled to the desert where he fasted forty days and did battle with the devil. The same is true with many who have transformed the shape of faith. They hear God’s call, and then they find solitary time to do battle with the demons. A story is told of Abba Anthony, the grandaddy of the desert fathers. It’s told that when he was 35 years old he went to the local tombs for long period of solitary prayer. As he prayed, the enemy came with helpers and attacked. His biographer writes:
Now schemes for working evil come easily to the devil, so when it was nighttime the demons made such a crashing noise that the whole place seemed to be shaken by a quake . . .the place was immediately filled with the appearance of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions and wolves.Anthony was struck and wounded by them, groaning in physical pain from their attacks. Then he addressed the demons and called upon the name of Christ. At that moment, it looked as if the roof was being opened and a beam of light came through. The demons instantly vanished and his pain disappeared. Anthony knew it was Christ, so he asked, “Where were you? Why didn’t you appear in the beginning?” A voice came to him and said, “I was here Anthony, but I waited to watch your struggle. And now, since you persevered, I will be your helper forever.” From this point on, Anthony was ready to minister to others in Christ’s name. He, and those who come after, show us the power of prayer. And their battle cry is the words of Paul: Never stop praying.
The Desert Fathers and Mothers showed us how to keep the world from shaping us in its image. They showed us a way to live in the Spirit during fearful and painful times. But how do we do it? How do we pray without ceasing in our own dark world? I think one of the great deceptions is to get into the habit of thinking that prayer is simply talking to God. This concept causes great frustration. If I present a problem to God, I expect a solution. If I ask God a question, I want an answer. If I ask for guidance, I want a quick response. To be honest, when I pray like this long enough, it seems as if I’m talking into the darkness. Sometimes I’m tempted to think that I must have prayed the wrong way because God’s not answering. Sometimes I’m tempted to feel cheated, and I quickly stop and find “real people” to talk to. Here’s where we get into a bind. We realize we should take time to pray–that prayer should be a priority in our lives. However, if there don’t seem to be any immediate benefits, we will begin to find reasons not to pray. The flesh becomes itchy. The world becomes alluring. Temptation is noisy and irresistible. There’s always one more phone call, one more letter, one more visit, one more meeting, one more book, one more party. One of the dessert mothers, Amma Theodora put it his way:
“You should realize that as soon as you intend to live in peace, at once the evil one comes and weighs down your soul through boredom, faintheartedness, and evil thoughts. It also attacks your body through sickness. . .and weakness of the knees. It dissipates the strength of soul and body, so that one believes one is ill and no longer able to pray, But if we are vigilant, all those temptations will fall away.”How do we pray always, according to the desert tradition?
1. Short prayer. They asked Abba Macarius, “How should we pray?” And the old man replied, “There is no need to speak much in prayer; often stretch out your hands and say, “Lord, as you will and as you know, have mercy on me.” But if there is war in your soul, add, “Help me!” And because God knows what we need, God shows mercy on us.” The desert tradition teaches people to pray using a word or a short phrase which is quietly repeated. Even while we are talking, studying, gardening or building, short simple prayers can continue in our heart and keep us aware of God’s presence and guidance. Another Desert monk, John Climacus, said it his way:
“When you pray, do not try to express yourself in fancy words, for often it is the simple repetitious phrases of a little child that our Father finds most irresistible. Do not strive for verbosity lest your mind be distracted from devotion by a search for words.”2. All life is a prayer. Every breath we take is a prayer. Abba Evagrius said, “Join to every breath a sober invocation of the name of Jesus and the thought of death with humility. Both these practices bring great profit to the soul”. Try it sometime. Sit still and quietly and begin to notice your breath. As you breathe out, confess sin. As you breathe in, let the air you take in be the breathe of the Holy Spirit. Breathe out the false self. Breathe in God’s presence. Breathe out that which keeps your from God. Breathe in holiness. Eventually you may be able to do this at all times, not just when you are sitting quietly.
3. Prayer is not doing but being. Abba Paul said, “Keep close to Jesus.” Abba Evagrius said, “You will pay glorious homage to God if, through virtues, you imprint God’s likeness on your soul.” Prayer is not one more thing to check off your list of things to do. Prayer has to do with who we are as God’s people, not what we do. Prayer has to do with being like Jesus. When we allow prayer to remodel us into living witnesses of Christ, we no longer have to worry about whether we are saying the right thing or making the right gestures. Christ makes his presence known even when we are not aware of it.
Do you really want a rich spiritual experience that will bolster you at all times? Do you think quantity or consistency is important? If you answered, “Yes”, then you must come to the place where you are willing to let go of the drives that propel you to be successful, better, richer or higher than someone else. You will instead to listen to the call of the Lord in your life–it’s the call to the desert where we do battle with all that keeps us from knowing God in prayer. “Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus”
Exercises in the Contemplative Tradition
Today’s sermon continues our exploration of practical methods for growing in our faith. God desires that we spend time building our relationship with the divine. The contemplative tradition enables us to create the space that God desires — and we need — in our lives. As we explore different traditions, you are asked to choose an exercise and practice it for a week. Don’t forget to keep your emphasis on God, not on the method. Feel free to modify the exercises to fit your needs.
- Set aside 10 minutes for prayer. The idea is simply to stop your busy activities and turn your attention to God.
- Spend 5 to 10 minutes in silence. Pray without words or distractions, letting the peace of silence wash over you.
- Read a selection from a devotional book. However, instead of just reading for content, read it with God, knowing that God is with you and will help apply what you read to your life of faith. There are many devotionals online. Or, try praying with a book of prayers like Guerillas of Grace by Ted Loder.
- Pray, using a verse of Scripture for ten minutes. There is a tradition in the Eastern Orthodox Church called hesychasm. It is the practice of repeating a simple prayer over and over. The idea is to focus our thoughts on God so that we may experience God descending from our mind into our heart. A verse from the Psalms is a good start. Try thinking on Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want,” or Psalm 51, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.”
- Write our a prayer. Maybe write it as if it were a letter to God. Tell God about your hopes and dreams, what you’re worried about and what you need. You may want to confess sins and seek renewal. Like a diary, your prayer journal should be private in order to allow you the freedom to be honest.