From Lord, Have Mercy: Praying for Justice with Conviction and Humility
One of the fourth-century desert fathers, Abba Macarius, was asked, How should one pray? The old man said, There is no need at all to make long discourses; it is enough to stretch out one’s hands and say, “Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.”
Macarius was among the early monks and nuns who led solitary lives in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. They left cities and towns to live a stark, ascetic life of prayer, confronting the demons within and without, seeking to grow in discernment and purity of heart. People often came to them and asked for a “word” – for spiritual counsel. The elders would respond with short sayings directed to the person, getting right to the heart of his or her struggle or vice.
Macarius left his village to go to the desert of Scetis in Egypt, where he lived in a cell and traveled around the desert to see other monks. His experience of long hours in prayer flows into the word that he offers to others. Macarius emphasizes the trust and humility integral to prayer. Prayer means opening oneself to the will of God, abandoning oneself to it, and clinging always to the promise of God’s mercy. The desert elder did not underestimate the depth of struggle human beings experience in their lives; he goes on to counsel: And if the conflict grows fiercer, say, “Lord, help!” But then, Macarius says, still trust: He [God] knows very well what we need and he shews us his mercy. The abba was not offering a simplistic salve but rather articulating the few, trusting, humble words that are necessary in prayer.
For the desert elders, prayer was a way of life. They sought to live into the apostle Paul’s counsel to “pray without ceasing.” According to John Cassian, whose Conferences depict conversations with monks of the Egyptian desert, Abba Isaac told him, Whoever is in the habit of praying only at the hour when the knees are bent prays very little. Constant prayer paves the way for the perfection of one’s heart; at the same time, purity of heart and the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit enable the person to pray well. It is a theme that resounds for centuries in Eastern Orthodox spirituality. Ceaseless repetition of the “Jesus Prayer” (Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.) purifies the heart and leads to inner freedom and stillness. As the Russian peasant describes in the anonymous nineteenth-century classic, The Way of a Pilgrim, this humble prayer, an “abbreviated form of the gospel,” can eventually flow from a person as naturally as breath.”
The desert elders looked to the psalms as a basis of unceasing prayer. Every day at dusk and again in the middle of the night, they individually prayed the divine office, which included reciting twelve psalms, and they meditated on the psalms throughout the day while they did their manual labor. On Sundays, they gathered for communal prayer – again, heavily emphasizing the chanting of psalms – and for Eucharist. According to Cassian, Abba Isaac counsels monks to meditate constantly on a line from Psalm 70: O God, incline unto my aid; O Lord, make haste to help me. The prayer contains an invocation of God in the face of any crisis, the humility of a devout confession, the watchfulness of concern and of constant fear, a consciousness of one’s own frailty, the assurance of being heard, and confidence in a protection that is always present. Repeating this prayer in all circumstances brings a “perpetual awareness of God.”
Although their vision was for prayer to be constant, woven seamlessly into every moment of the day, prayer was not necessarily easy for these desert monks and nuns. They believed they were engaged in a real battle for the soul; demons would tempt them – often to the sin of pride – as Satan tempted Jesus in the desert. Demons would deceive them about themselves and lure them to false attachments. Thus Abba Agathon could say: I think there is no labor greater than that of prayer to God. For every time a man wants to pray, his enemies, the demons, want to prevent him, for they know that it is only by turning him from prayer that they can hinder his journey. Prayer is warfare to the last breath.
The desert elders offer a startling witness to the urgency and centrality of prayer. Their message on the relationship between prayer and action in the world is, perhaps, more ambiguous. After all, they did leave cities and towns to live in remote areas, some as hermits in tiny cells, miles away from the centers of power of the Roman Empire. Some monks were known for spectacular feats of asceticism and extreme solitude. Symeon Stylite avoided visitors to his monastery, for example, by climbing atop a pillar and living there in prayer for more than thirty years. It is difficult in such a case to see how prayer is deeply engaged with the realities and sufferings of the world. The sayings of the desert fathers often counsel strict detachment from the things of this world as necessary for intense relationship with God.
Yet some would see in their desert withdrawal not a retreat from the world but rather an alternative, starkly counter-cultural witness to that world, in which they saw Christianity accommodating to the culture and mores of the Roman Empire. Moreover, in most of the desert elders’ sayings and lives prayer certainly is not detached from compassion. Hospitality is a key practice for those who live in the desert. In their spiritual counsel, the desert elders carefully connect prayer, humility, self-examination, and deep compassion for human frailty.
The sixth-century monk Dorotheos of Gaza offered this word: Suppose we were to take a compass and insert the point and draw the outline of the circle. Let us suppose that this circle is the world and that God is the center. As human beings draw closer to God, moving from the outer edge of the circle to the center, they also draw closer to one another. The closer they are to God, the closer they become to one another; and the closer they are to one another, the closer they become to God, noted Dorotheos. As contemporary theologian Roberta Bondi explains in reflecting on this saying, the monk teaches that intimacy with God cannot be separated from love of neighbor; the two go hand-in-hand. Similarly, as one becomes more distant from the neighbor, one drops back away from the center. Prayer and love of neighbor are intimately linked. Thus the scholar of early monasticism Douglas Burton-Christie describes a rhythm of “withdrawal, encounter, and return.” Periods of withdrawal for intense prayer and self-examination are important for the spiritual life, but they are not an end in themselves; rather, they flow back into community.