On April 27, 2023, the relics of a modern ascetic of piety, the abbot of the Romanian Athonite Prodromou Skete Protosinghel Petroniu (Tănase), who reposed in the Lord twelve years prior on February 22, 2011, were uncovered at the skete. Elder Petroniu is one of the Romanian spiritual confessors proposed for canonization in 2025. We present in this article the Elder’s counsel on the work of prayer.
Protosinghel Petroniu —Tell us about unceasing prayer.
—The Holy Fathers call prayer the “breath of the soul.” As the body can’t live without air and must constantly breathe, so the soul can’t live a moment without a connection with God; it must always be connected with Him and pray unceasingly. Therefore, St. Paul exhorts the Thessalonians, and through them all Christians: Pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17). Throughout the centuries, Christians have tried to fulfill this commandment from the Apostle. But as it’s not such a simple matter, the Fathers of the Church have taught us how to pray unceasingly.
St. Maximus the Confessor says, describing the conversation of a brother with his spiritual father:
And the brother said: “How can the mind pray without ceasing? After all, when we sing or read, when we meet with others and serve, we turn away towards many thoughts and contemplations.” And the Elder responded: “The Divine Scriptures don’t command anything impossible, for the Apostle also sang, read, and served, but nevertheless he prayed unceasingly. Continuous prayer consists in reverently and lovingly keeping your mind attached to God, always hanging on Him with hope, relying on Him in everything, no matter what you do and no matter what happens.
True, unceasing prayer consists, first of all, in the soul constantly hoping in God,” and not in verbosity.
True faith in God lives by this prayer, full of simple hope. Being in such a disposition, the Apostle Paul says: Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress? And: For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels… (Rom. 8:35, 38). And also: We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body (2 Cor. 4:8-10).
In this state, the Apostle prayed without ceasing, because in everything he did and everything that happened to him, he placed his hope in God.
In his Dialogues and Homilies, St. Basil the Great teaches us how to attain unceasing prayer:
Prayer is a petition sent by the faithful to God for the acquisition of some good. The petition doesn’t necessarily have to be sent in words, and I don’t think that God needs us to remind Him in words of our desires, for He knows what’s good for us, even if we don’t ask Him for it.
It’s not necessary to pray with articulation of the words—it’s better to replenish the power of prayer with the free will of the soul and virtuous deeds that would extend throughout our lives. Whether therefore ye eat, says the Apostle, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). When you sit down at the table, pray; when you take your bread to eat, give thanks to Him Who gave it to you; when you strengthen the weakness of the flesh with wine, remember Him Who gave you this gift for the gladdening of the heart and the weakening of diseases. When you eat your fill, don’t forget about your Benefactor; when you put on a robe, give thanks to Him Who gave it to you; when you put on your outer garment, may your love for God multiply, for Him Who gave us a garment suitable for winter and summer—a garment that preserves our life and covers our shame.
When the day has passed, thank Him Who gave us the sun to serve our daily affairs; Him Who gave us fire to enlighten the night and to serve our other daily needs.
May the night give you other reasons for prayer. When you raise your eyes to Heaven and behold the beauty of the stars, pray to the Lord of what you have seen and worship God, the all-surpassing Master of the universe, Who created all things with wisdom. When you see that all living things have sunk into sleep, again worship Him Who allowed us, against our will, to suspend work for sleep, to rest a little and thereby renew our strength for further work.
Don’t allow your whole night to be devoted to sleep; don’t make half your life useless by allowing yourself to sleep, but divide the night between sleep and prayer. Even dreams give you the opportunity to think about faith. Most of the time images in our dreams are echoes of our concerns during the day. What concerns we have during the day we also have in our dreams.
By doing so, you will pray without ceasing. Don’t pray with words alone, but by uniting your whole life to God, and your life will be an unceasing and continuous prayer.1
—Tell us about the unceasing prayer that comes from saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
—This is the hesychast or hermit prayer, because in a special way, it’s the monastics who have renounced and fled the world in order to be in constant prayerful contact with God who repeat this prayer. To this end, they found a simple prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Every monastic, when he takes on the angelic habit, is given a commandment to say this prayer without ceasing, for which he’s given a prayer rope with which he recites it. However, in the monastery, the monks have the liturgical life, the daily Church services, and work for the good governance of the community, and therefore unceasing prayer became the work of hermits leading a solitary life, simple and ascetic, whose main work is unceasing prayer. While practicing this prayer, the hermits encountered some difficult obstacles, therefore certain Fathers who succeeded in prayer developed a spiritual art—methods for overcoming these obstacles.
We find several such methods in the Philokalia, from St. Nikephoros the Hermit, St. Gregory the Sinaite, St. Symeon the New Theologian, and others. Whoever desires to engage in unceasing prayer must first of all acquire a certain inner disposition, having a pure conscience in relation to God, neighbor, and things: towards God not doing anything that displeases Him; towards his neighbor not doing anything he wouldn’t want done to him; towards material things abstaining in everything: in food, in drink, in clothes, save for what’s necessary.
Do everything as before God, and then add dispassion; that is, be free from every passion. Only after you have acquired all of this do you begin to pray without ceasing.
Practicing unceasing prayer isn’t so easy even for hermits, and even less so for men in the world. A man in the world can also pray the hermit’s prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” but that doesn’t mean he becomes a hermit, a hesychast, or that hesychasm has descended into the world—that would be the easiest path for men today, as some have said. Christians in the world also pray the hermit’s prayer, but to the extent that it’s possible in the world and with the corresponding result.
In this regard, there’s a saying in the spiritual world: “For the small, the great is not great, and for the great, the small is not small.” The meaning is clear: Hesychastic prayer is simple and brief, but for hermits it’s not small; and conversely, hermetic prayer is great for the hermits, but small for a man in the world.
—How can we acquire a peaceful conscience towards things?
—God created things and we can’t live without them. Some serve us for food, others for other needs. We use things our entire lives, but they were created not only for bodily use, but also for the soul. Things have their own language, and if we understand it, we learn how to live in a spiritually correct way.
In the third volume of the Philokalia, St. Maximus the Confessor explains in detail how this should be understood.2 God created man with a need for food,3 although He could have created him without it. God created man to live at the expense of lower things so he would understand that he’s not an autonomous being, that he doesn’t live by himself. He didn’t create himself, because he lives thanks to things lower than himself. And then the need for food forcing him to be humble, and see that he isn’t as Lucifer considered himself to be, pridefully imagining he could ascend to Heaven by himself to become higher than God.
Man is not only a body but also a soul, and as the body needs food, so the soul needs God and must find spiritual food. The food of the soul is prayer, divine contemplation. Because just as a man can’t live without air and food for the body, so he can’t live without Divine food for the soul. He must always be connected with God by unceasing prayer. God created him for a purpose. And if we understand why God created him this way, then we learn how to lead a spiritual life.
Not seeing the spiritual side, man has violated nature. He didn’t use it properly, he abused it with the rights he has over it, and now nature is taking its revenge. Not having the right understanding he overused it for the body alone; and as a result, all the mistakes wreak havoc on him.
Man must always be sparing with his use of food and things. For example, television isn’t useful for man, because it isn’t necessary. If man lived without television for two thousand years, that means it’s not a real human need, but a false one, made up. One need is to cover my body, but I cover it with a simple garment, not something made of very expensive silk.
Moderation is very important. I wear inexpensive clothing because it makes less fuss, I spend less, and there’s more time left for spiritual things. People who live in moderation are healthier than those who live in satiety.