Igumen Nikon is the abbot of the Athonite Kellia of St. Spyridon, which belongs to New Skete, and a disciple of Elder Ephraim of Philotheou and Arizona.
All the virtues prepare us for union with God. This is the goal of our lives—union with God, or theosis as theologians express it. All the virtues… However, something miraculous happens with prayer! Prayer unites us with God, not simply preparing us for union with Him. Therefore, we must prepare ourselves to meet God, paying heed to how we will appear before God. This is important. It’s not nothing.
We’re not saying that prayer is a purely spiritual activity, relating only to the soul. No! An educated man once told me:
“What difference does it make how I stand at prayer? What matters is how my soul appears.”
Yes, but there’s something neither he nor I knew, and this is a very important truth that a saint of the Church discovered: The soul simulates the body. The soul assumes the pose of the body. We can’t sit in the lotus position as the Hindus do and say: “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” No. Let us stand arms crossed, and let us sign ourselves with the sign of the holy Cross and pray.
The body must also learn to pray, not just the soul. Let us keep this in mind, to put it into practice. For example, we don’t always feel well, we don’t always want to pray: Perhaps we’re tired, or indifference to prayer has washed over us, or perhaps it’s a temptation from the devil, who brings us to a state of misery, sadness, and spiritual dryness. What should we do then if we don’t want to pray?
Then we cross ourselves and say: “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” We prostrate to the ground and rise again: “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!”—a prostration, and again we rise up. “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!”—and again we prostrate and again we get up. And the body pulls the soul along with it. The soul will also begin to make prostrations. The soul will also begin drop down and rise up together with the body. We thereby prepare ourselves to stand properly in prayer. That’s the first thing. Now let’s turn to the second.
Before we begin to pray, let us forget all the evil we’ve endured from others. If we remember about someone offending us during prayer, our prayer will be in vain. Let us not remember evil! Let us fight for this every day, our whole life, and especially during prayer. Do you know what the Fathers say? He who remembers evil commits suicide—he kills himself. Therefore, let us forget any evil that has been done to us.
One Church Father says that he who prays and remembers evil is like the man who sows on a rocky place. As many roots as will grow from a seed sown among rocks, so much fruit will the prayer of a man who remembers evil bring.
What do we say in the Lord’s Prayer? “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Do we understand what we’re saying? We pray to God to forgive us to the extent that we ourselves forgive, that He would forgive us as we forgive. Think about what we’re saying! We pray to Him to forgive us and to do so to the extent that we ourselves forgive. Woe to us!
That’s why what I said to you is so important: That we stand up properly (the first stage of preparation) and forget any evil that others have done to us (the second stage). Then we will begin to pray. Let us ever be attentive to these points.
And what do we begin our prayer with? Let us always start with thanksgiving. Above all, let us thank God! Before we do or say anything, let us give thanks to God first of all.
What should we thank Him for? With everything that’s going on around us, with everything we endure, with all the diseases we have? What for? Think about it! Do we have any reason to be grateful to Him? We usually look at what we’re lacking. And we do well to fight for it, to achieve it. But have we ever thought about how much we already have? For example, why did God give us these eyes? What, did He owe us something? Have we ever thanked God that we can see? And why do we need to see? Couldn’t we have been born blind? What did we do to receive this gift? Absolutely nothing! We were born with sight. We didn’t even begin to do anything to deserve this gift of sight. Have we ever thanked God that we can see?
The holy Apostle Paul says we should thank God for everything (cf. 1 Thess. 5:18). He is referring here also to the unpleasant things that happen to us. Thank God for everything! We have reached such ungodliness that we don’t even thank God for His gifts. And we still think we’re good Christians! So let us see what we lack; let us pray to God to fulfill our desires. But let us thank Him for what we have already received.
God draws the grateful to Himself with love—those who have learned to say: “Glory to Thee, O Lord!”—and immediately fulfills their requests. God quickly grants the petitions of the grateful, because He knows that they will not separate themselves from Him. But God is slow to fulfill the desires of the ungrateful who haven’t learned to say: “Glory to Thee, O Lord!”, who don’t thank God for His gifts. The ungrateful ones, who haven’t learned to say: “Glory to Thee, O Lord!”, pray and pray, but God is slow to respond to their petitions. And He does it intentionally, to keep them in prayer as long as possible, to keep them close to Him as long as possible.
So, do we want God to hear us? Then let us begin with: “Glory to Thee, O Lord! I thank Thee, O Lord, that I can see and hear, that I have a home, I have clothes to wear, I have a bed to sleep on, that I have friends, that I can talk, and hear!” Then we will move on to the second stage of prayer—confession. We confess our sins before God—God knows them, but that we might realize them ourselves, because we love to forget what we’ve done. And we always see ourselves as better than we are. That’s why we don’t accept criticism from others.
Thanksgiving is followed by confession, and then petitions: “Lord, I want this, I want that. Help me succeed here. Help me achieve this.” And let us not forget that Christ Himself admonishes us: Ask, and it shall be given you (Mt. 7:7).