The Holy Face, Russian, 20th c., Holy Trinity Church, Paris
The Lord said, Without Me ye can do nothing. We must pray ceaselessly, call upon God, that He might give us strength in the battle with sin. Prayer is a conversation with God; it is our trusty companion helping us on our way to Paradise. This is the kind of prayer we must acquire and preserve in our hearts. But in order to have such prayer we must ask God to grant it to us.
We also acquire strength through reading the Word of God. When we pray, we talk to God; when we read the Holy Scripture, the Lord talks to us, He reveals His will, how it is that we are supposed to live and save our souls. The Orthodox Christian absolutely must read the Holy Gospel, because it enlightens the mind, soul and heart. "From the Scriptures," says St. Seraphim of Sarov, "the soul comes to an understanding of what is good and what is evil."
When we read a secular book, our soul involuntarily absorbs the spirit of the person who embodied in the book his passions; in reading such books we ourselves become passionate, sick in soul; our mind becomes darkened and loses its purity and integrity. But when we read the Holy Gospel, grace flows abundantly from its pages, and our soul absorbs the spirit of Christ, Who is the ideal of perfection, the ideal of humility. He will lead us to eternal life, to eternal rejoicing.
They say that those who read the Bible lose their mind. And this is true. But one must understand this correctly: in reading the Bible a person assimilates the spirit of Christ; he loses his secular mind and adopts a spiritual mind. In other words, he begins to think as he should! By all means, read the Gospel! If you don't have one-get one. Get a prayerbook and pray. Standing with reverence in front of your ikons, read the morning and evening prayers. Train yourself: I won't go to bed before I read my evening prayers; I won't eat before I say my morning prayers. Ceaselessly, without rushing, with a feeling of repentance, one should say the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." When we say this prayer, the air around us is sanctified and the evil spirits are afraid to come near us: it is as if we are surrounded by a fiery ring through which they cannot pass. This short prayer is both convenient and soul-saving; it protects a person from sinful beguilement, from sorcerers and magicians. "All Christians must practice the Jesus Prayer, with the aim of repenting and calling upon the Lord for help; they must practice it with fear of God and faith, paying careful attention to the meaning and words of the prayer, with compunction of heart," writes Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov.
Here's an example of the power of the Jesus Prayer. A train was racing along when, in the distance, the engineer saw a monk standing next to the tracks and waving his arms. "Stop!" The engineer stopped the train. It turned out that there was a break in the crossties; another second and there would have been a catastrophe. The track was repaired, and then they remembered about the monk: where was he? They decided that he must have boarded the train, and went through the cars looking for him. Sure enough, in one of the cars was a monk with his prayer rope in hand: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."
"Was it you who stopped the train?"
"No, what made you think that!"
"Then who was it?"
"I don't know."
The other passengers confirmed that the monk hadn't gone anywhere; he had been sitting in the car the whole time. What had happened? By the prayers of the monk the Lord had sent an angel in his likeness, and he had averted the disaster.
It is likewise very beneficial and soul-saving to read the prayer: "O Theotokos and Virgin, rejoice, Mary full of grace the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, for thou hast borne the Saviour of our souls." According to the tradition of the Holy Fathers of the eighth century, he who reads this prayer a hundred and fifty times a day, attentively and without rushing, will find himself under the special protection of the Mother of God.
When we turn to God in prayer, and He doesn't immediately fulfill our petitions, it means that either they are not beneficial to us, or else He, like a loving Father, wants us to be with Him longer. The Lord loves us, and it pleases Him when His children converse with Him. After all, if He were to fulfill our petitions straightway, we would then forget about Him.
As Christians, it is our duty to pray ceaselessly and to labor. A fisherman gave a ride in his boat to a "freethinker." They had no sooner pulled away from the shore than the passenger began urging the fisherman, "Hurry up, I'll be late for work." Then he noticed that on one oar there was written the word, "Pray," and on the other oar the word "Work." What's this for?" he asked.
"As a reminder," replied the fisherman. "So I won't forget that it's necessary to pray and to work."
"Well, work-that's understandable; everyone has to work. But pray..." The "freethinker" waved his hand. "That's not necessary. No one needs that!" "Not necessary?" said the fisherman, and he took the oar with "Prayer" out of the water, and continued rowing with one oar. The boat turned round and round in one spot.
"You see what work does without prayer? We're just going round in circles; there's no forward movement."
So it is in the sea of life: in order to cross over to the other side, to the eternal and blessed life, we need two "oars": prayer and work. We must pray for one another; by holding hands, helping and supporting one another, we make our way along the path of salvation. St. Seraphim of Sarov, who led a holy life here on earth, attained such a state of spiritual perfection that he was able, by the power of his prayers, to free souls from hell. One day a woman came to him and began sobbing, "Batiushka, dear, pray for my son; he died without repentance." The Saint, who considered himself a sinner, declined, but the mother begged him until he consented, and he pulled the boy's soul from the jaws of hell.
Prayer is especially needful for the dead. One should never commemorate the dead with vodka and wine. A dead person doesn't need vodka; he needs prayer. The dead cannot pray for themselves; they await our prayers. The soul needs prayer especially during the first forty days after death, while it is going through the "toll-houses" and the particular judgment. For this reason, when one of our close ones departs to the other world, we must request-in as many churches as possible-that they be commemorated; we must request memorial services, ask that the Psalter be read, give alms, and ask that people pray for this soul. And thereby, with constant prayer and the help of the Church, it is possible to pray a soul out of hell.
Suicides are the only ones the Church does not pray for. Suicide is a dreadful, mortal sin, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, cowardice and faint-heartedness. According to the Church, one can pray for a suicide only if that person was not in his right mind, that is, if he acted unconsciously. If a person, even one who is mentally ill, commits suicide consciously, one should not pray for them.
In a letter of the Athonite monk Seraphim, there is the following account. Another Athonite monk told him what made him come to the Holy Mountain. "When I lived in Russia, I believed in God, but I rarely went to church and I didn't always keep the fasts. On the whole I led a rather careless life.
But it was pleasing to God that an angel appeared to me and led me somewhere along dark and stinking tunnels. I heard people groaning, crying, shouting. With each step they became louder. Then suddenly we came out into an open space where there stood some enormous fiery furnaces; the cries were issuing from there. A whirlwind of flames coiled around the furnaces. The angel entered into one of them and pulled out a man bound with chains. He was all black, from head to foot. The angel touched his red-hot fetters, and the chains fell off his hands and feet. And when the angel touched his body, the charred flesh slipped off him like a husk. The angel clothed the man in white, and his face shone with heavenly joy. I asked why such a change had taken place, and the angel said: 'This man went to church two or three times a year; he kept the fasts but not strictly, only the first and last weeks; he didn't wear a cross, didn't say morning and evening prayers, nor did he pray before and after meals; he drank, smoked, engaged in fornication, and did not reveal his sins during confession but got by with the general formula: "...by word, deed and thought.."; he received the Holy Mysteries unto judgment, and died without repentance. And so he received his due according to his deeds. But he had relatives who were faithful Orthodox, and after his death they prayed fervently for him, they had him commemorated every day at the Liturgy, they had memorial services for him, read the Psalter for the repose of his soul, gave alms, and, by the prayers of the Church, the Lord sent me to free this soul from hell. Know this,' here the angel turned to me, 'that your place is also here, in these furnaces, if you don't change your ways.' "
This is what the Athonite monk told the monk Seraphim. We, who are living on earth, must not forget this example. Many of us are following the same path as this monk, and in order for us to avoid falling in with the unrepentant sinners, let us mend our ways while there is time. After all, there will be no one to pray for us.
Translated from S. Lavrov, Yako s nami Bog (For God Is With Us), Jordanville, 1980.[_private/oabot.htm]