July 24, 2024

True Orthodox Diocese of Western Europe

Russian True Orthodox Church (RTOC)

Prayer and the Ascension, by Reader Timothy

6 min read

‘With the power of Thy Cross strengthen, O Christ, my thinking, that I may praise in song and glorify Thy redeeming Ascension.’ – From the Irmos of the First Canon of the Third Canticle of the Ascension.

‘Leaving the things of earth on earth and surrendering ashes to dust, come, let us lift our eyes and minds and make them rise on high.’ – From the Ikos of Matins Service of the Ascension.

The saving Passion of the Lord can be viewed in many ways. In one sense the seasonal round of the material kingdom is given its proper meaning by the Incarnation. We understand the seasons as echoes of the great sound of the Word of God throughout creation. Creation itself with its many and varied mysteries of death and resurrection, from the Peacock who is rather drab and not a little shabby looking in winter, only to become radiantly beautiful at the height of spring, at the same time as the Feast of the Holy Resurrection, shows us the truth of the Gospel as metaphor, analogy and just plain outright glory of God. 

Winter trees are entirely bare, and might almost be dead for all the life they show, and yet barely a few months later they produce a more abundant show of leaves than the year before.

With the Ascension occurring generally towards the end of spring time, quite close to the longest day of the year, it is a literal high point of the Christian year. We have spent the last few weeks basking in the Paschal glory of the risen Lord, reliving what must have been the most wonderful time in all of creation, those few short weeks when the risen Lord was here on earth teaching His disciples, passing on the fullness of the Faith, which, with the advent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, they would be fully equipped with to preach the Gospel to the world.

Even Thomas had no more doubts, and yet the Apostles are dumbstruck as they watch the Lord Ascend to His rightful place at the right hand of the Father. It took angels to break their reverie, and who can blame them?

As we follow the gaze of the Apostle’s in our mind’s eye, we are guided upwards, heavenwards, and this is one of the purposes of the Gospel, of the Incarnation, to guide our fallen perspective heavenwards, for it is here that we must try to keep our thoughts inclined, at all times, but most especially during prayer. Perhaps now is a good time to review some of the words and thoughts of those champions of the faith who have successfully run their course in times past. Prayer can be a two-edged sword. It must be performed ‘in Spirit and in Truth’ (John 4:24).

‘Pray simply. Do not expect to find in your heart any remarkable gift of prayer. Consider yourself unworthy of it. Then you will find peace.’ – St Macarius of Optina, from Russian Letters of Spiritual Direction.

‘The soul of prayer is attention. Just as the body is dead without the soul, prayer is dead without attention. Without attention, the prayer uttered by the lips is no more than empty words, and he who prays thus is included among those who take the Lord’s name in vain.’ – St Ignatius Brianchaninov from The Field.

St Tikhon of Zadonsk encourages us to contemplate our situation in the same way that a man might approach an earthly king to beg for mercy.

‘He stands with reverence, bows his head, and falls on his knees. His mind and heart are fully present there. He is not thinking of anything else, but his mind is immersed only in that request.’ – St Tikhon of Zadonsk from True Christianity Volume I

‘Prayer is the lifting up of the mind and heart to God.’ – St John of Kronstadt from My Life in Christ

‘He who says prayers hurriedly, without understanding and feeling in the heart, being conquered by his slothful, sleepy flesh, does not serve God, but serves his own flesh, his self-love, and reviles God by his inattention and the indifference of his heart to prayer. .. Do not spare yourself for God’s sake’ renounce yourself; let your gift to God be perfect. Give God your heart.’ – St John of Kronstadt from My Life in Christ

The Ascension guides us upwards. In this moment we see our own lowliness, the lowliness even of the Holy Apostles at that moment, as their Lord and Master ascended without them, having reassured them and instructed them in the true life of the Spirit, in which He would be with them, and all Christians, until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). In this moment we realise, are shown a glimpse of literally how far God is above us. We are like St Tikhon’s supplicant before the king:

‘With what humility, reverence and self-abasement we must fall down before His majesty, bow our head and heart, and cast down the fullness of our soul and body before Him, for God only looks upon the humble.’ – From True Christianity Volume I

‘Pronounce the words of the prayer slowly; do not allow your mind to wander, but keep it firmly fixed on the words of the prayer.’ says St Ignatius Brianchaninov in the same chapter of The Field. ‘Hurry to prayer’, says the saint, yes, but do not hurry in prayer. For:

‘The reading of prayers and singing done with speed, as fast as the tongue can move, or, what is worse, performed with two voices by foolish priest, clerics, and others, is nothing other than noise in the churches, beating of the air, and voices out of throats, not prayer. From this it follows that there is no correction in the lives of such, but only corruption and scandal. Although they think of praying to God every day, in truth they never pray. Without this, it is impossible for a Christian to correct his life, since he is weak and under constant attack from the devil.’ – St Tikhon of Zadonsk from True Christianity Vol. I

Prayer then, is the greatest gift for Christians, and also perhaps the place of our greatest temptations. Many of our recent saints reiterate this point, having themselves learned in from the Fathers. As St Macarius of Optina writes:

‘Be sure that sweetness and tears, unaccompanied by a sense of the deepest humility, are nothing but temptations.’ – from Russian Letters of Spiritual Direction

The challenges are many. We must be most wary when our efforts seem to be crowned with success. Have we forgotten that we are not worthy of success, and that nothing we could ourselves do would make us worthy of the great gift of communion with God in prayer? Let us not be disheartened, however. It is a narrow path, but one the Saints have trodden before us and they will guide us in the way of the Lord.

‘Hurry to pray, o soul that thirsts for salvation, hurry to follow the Saviour who is accompanied by His countless disciples. Cry out to Him as He passes with your prayer, as did the woman of Canaan; do not be offended by His long inattention to your prayers; patiently and humbly bear the sorrows and offences, which He will allow to come your way. For success in prayer, you fundamentally need help from temptations. According to your faith, for your humility, for the constancy of your prayer, He will comfort you with the healing of your daughter who is possessed by the passions. He will heal your thoughts and feelings, transforming them from passionate to dispassionate, from sinful to holy, from earthly to spiritual. Amen’ – from The Field – St Ignatius Brianchaninov.

‘Having fulfilled for us Thy dispensation and united to the things of heaven the things on earth, Thou didst ascend in glory, O Christ our God, without departing in any way from those that love Thee, but remaining with them inseparably and crying to them: No-one shall prevail against you: I am with you.’ – Kontakion of the Ascension

Reader Timothy

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