Earthen Vessels

In this fourth chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition, Father Gabriel (Bunge) continues by pointing out that, while standing was the characteristic prayer posture for the Fathers, they didn’t just stand there, but, at the same time, lifted up their hands to heaven. This position was so typical that the orantes position is seen in countless examples of Christian iconography. However, this position was not limited to Christianity and so one needs to look at the particular meaning the Christians gave it.

Whereas the pagan – and also the apostate – throws himself down to worship before an idol and lifts up his hands to this “strange god” in vain, since this mute object fashioned by his own hands is less capable of helping than any other man would be, the believer lifts up his hands only “in the name of God”, who “created heaven and earth” and is able to do everything that he wills. He does this also “in the night” when he “cries aloud to God” in his distress. He not only “lifts up” his hands; he “stretches them out”, when his “soul, like a parched land,” thirsts for the living water of God. And because God has communicated himself to man completely in his word, in his commandments, the one who prays stretches his hands out figuratively – imploring, yearning – toward these manifestations of the divine will also, “which he loves”. (150-151)

This biblical gesture, which was taken over by Christ and the apostles, expresses an intimate and personal relationship between the creature and the Creator. It also gives prayer a direction.

For the one praying lifts up his hands “to heaven” as the symbolic “place” of God, or else to the temple as the place of his presence among his people in the course of salvation history. Christians go even one step further by turning, not only toward heaven, but also toward the “orient”, as we have seen. (151)

This symbolism involved and intimate connection between body and soul.

It is often said nowadays that one must also “pray with the body”, and therefore much importance is ascribed to the corresponding “techniques”. What the Fathers meant, though, was something different. The body does not stand, as it were, on its own beside the soul. Rather, the two make up a perfect unity. The whole man prays, body and soul, whereby the body, so to speak, provides the soul with a medium through which it can make visible its “special condition” – in this case its striving for God, which is invisible in and of itself. And this is no insignificant thing, as we shall see, because this “embodiment” keeps the inner disposition from evaporating into something insubstantial. (152)

Father Gabriel (Bunge) begins this fourth chapter of  Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition on “Prayer Gestures” by noting the common western complaint that Christianity is supposedly hostile to the body and gives too little attention to the role of the body in the spiritual life. Such a complaint is based partly on the assumption that Christian “methods” should be the same as those of non-Christian religions, and partly on ignorance. However, the wealth of bodily expressions in prayer have been gradually lost in the West since the beginning of the second millennium.

He then turns to the “original, unwritten tradition” of prayer gestures to probe “in what spirit the holy Fathers made use of them”.

Father Gabriel notes how contemporary people have become fundamentally sedentary creatures.

What a difference between that and the characteristic posture for prayer of men in biblical times, and also of the Fathers! Not sitting in comfort, but rather standing at the cost of some effort is the hallmark of the one who prays. He “stands in the house of the Lord, in the courts of the house of our God” and “in his holy place”, whether he is a self-righteous Pharisee or a remorseful tax collector who scarcely dares to stand at a distance. (141)

Thus Christ exhorts His disciples to “Rise and pray” (Lk 22:46) and the early Church continued this expectation that both public and private prayer were done standing. While Origen tells us one may also pray in other postures if one has a serious reason such as sickness or travel, such exceptions only prove the general rule.

The question arises as to why one should pray standing. For the Fathers, this was far from arbitrary. As Origen wrote:

Nor may anyone doubt that of the countless postures of the body, the posture with hands outstretched and eyes uplifted is to be preferred to all [the others], because one then carries in the body too, as it were, the image of that special condition which befits the soul during prayer. (145)

What is significant here is that there is a correspondence between the body and the soul during prayer.

Like sacramental actions, methods and gestures in prayer must also be meaningful that is to say, the body must reproduce visibly what is taking part in the soul. As it is understood in the Bible, standing to pray is the bodily expression of the profound reverence of the creature before the exalted majesty of its Creator, in whose presence even the angels stand. …

The outward posture, however, does not only give bodily expression to the interior attitude, it also has an immediate effect upon this disposition. Without the effort of standing – and of the other prayer gestures, which will be discussed later – our prayer will never attain the proper fervor, said Joseph Busnaya, but will remain “routine, cold and shallow”.

Thus there is a genuine reciprocity between one’s internal disposition and external posture. This is the “special property” of the soul, which in the body’s posture creates, so to speak, a suitable “icon” of itself, which therefore always precedes it, as Origen says in this connection. Once such a visible representation exists, though – once a suitable gesture has been formed and has become a “tradition” in the course of salvation history, then the individual cannot forgo it without harming his “interior condition”. By making it his own, on the other hand, and “practicing” it diligently, he forms and strengthens within himself that same interior disposition that once created the gesture… (145-146)

In the last section of the third chapter of  Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition on “Manners of Praying,” Father Gabriel (Bunge) balances what he had said about praying aloud in the previous section, by pointing to the importance of silence in prayer. The Fathers warn us about vain display in prayer and point out that it is only God who knows what is in our hearts. As Saint John Cassian tells us:

We pray “in secret” when we make our petitions known to God alone in our heart and with a watchful mind, in such a manner that the hostile powers cannot even tell what sort of a petition it is. Therefore one should pray in the most profound silence, not only so as to avoid distracting the brothers around us by our whispering and calling, or disturbing the sentiments of those who are at prayer, but also so that the purpose of our petition might remain hidden from our enemies themselves, who lie in wait for us especially when we pray. In this way, then, we fulfil the commandment: “Guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your bosom.” (132)

While the words of the psalms are intended to drive away our adversaries and should be prayed aloud, our intimate conversation with God should remain hidden from them.

Moreover, the words that we use in prayer can sometimes be a distraction to us as well as to our neighbours. Even worse are our own thoughts which can interrupt the immediacy that we desire with God, for true prayer takes place without any mediation between God and the one praying.

Standing in the way of this desired immediacy, nevertheless, are not only our voices and our words but also and above all our “mental images” (νοήματα), insofar as they represent a “mediation” between us and God. This means not only the passionate, sinful “thoughts” but all thoughts whatsoever about created things, or even about God himself, be they ever so sublime, since they hold a person bound to human concerns. In a word, man must “cast aside all mental images” if he wants to “pray in truth”. This “withdrawal” is a step-by-step process corresponding to the ascent in the spiritual life, not a “technique” to be acquired somehow, as one often encounters in many non-Christian methods of “meditation”. Man, to be sure, does his share in this, but he cannot accomplish this “transcendence” by his own power, because the destination, God, is a “Person” who inclines himself to man with absolute freedom. (133-134)

If the grace of entering this “place of prayer” is given then it is fitting that one’s prayer becomes adapted to it. In the words of Diadochos of Photike:

When the soul finds itself amidst the fullness of its natural fruits, then it recites the psalmody with an even stronger voice and desires, more than anything else, to pray aloud. When, however, the Holy Spirit works within it, the it recites the psalms very gently and lovingly and prays in the heart alone.

The first state is followed by a joy that is bound up with mental imagery; the second by spiritual tears and thereafter a certain joy in the heart that loves silence. For being mindful [of God], which maintains its warmth through the moderation of the voice, enables the heart to bring forth tearful, very gentle thoughts. (135)

Father Gabriel points out that

The masters of the spiritual life expressly warn against disturbing this “visitation of the Holy Spirit” by stubbornly clinging to one’s own activity or to any self-imposed “rule.” At this moment the only valid law is that of “the freedom of the children of God”, as the East-Syrian mystic Joseph Hazzaya teaches.

Close the doors of your cell, enter the inner room, and sit down in darkness and seclusion in a place where you do not even hear the song of a bird. Then when the hour for the Divine Office comes, beware, do not stand up, lest you be like a child that in its ignorance exchanges a talent of gold for a fig that sweetens its gums for an instant. But you, like a wise merchant, once you have discovered the “pearl of great price”, do not exchange this for contemptible things that you find before you at all times, lest you end as did that people which went forth from Egypt and which despised the food of the spiritual manna and craved the loathsome food of the Egyptians. (135-136)

Father Gabriel (Bunge) begins this fourth subsection of the third chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition by pointing out that contemporary Christians tend to pray silently when they pray alone. However,

Men in biblical times, in contrast, not only read in an undertone (sotto voce), that is, they actually read aloud to themselves, but they also meditated and even prayed as a rule in an audible voice as well. Therefore we find again and again in the psalms, for instance, expressions like: “Hear the voice of my supplication.” Furthermore, the psalmist “cries aloud to the Lord,” and we even hear “his words” and “the sound of his cry.” (123)

The same applies to the freely formulated prayers which we find in the writings of the Fathers and which were clearly meant to be said for all to hear.

Ineed, the sayings of the Desert Fathers, too, are full of such prayers, some of which are very short and simple, while others are quite extensive; all of them, at any rate, are spontaneous.

The story is told of Abba Makarios the Great that he visited a brother in the skete every day for four months and did not once find him idle. When he visited him yet again and remained outside standing at the door, he heard him saying tearfully: “Lord, do your ears not hear me crying to you? Have mercy on me on account of my sins, for I do not grow weary of calling to you for help.”

Such a direct expression of emotions might seem strange to modern man, as something not at all in keeping with his ideas of “prayer” and “meditation”. And yet the spiritual Fathers – including those in the Christian East down to this day – teach that one should recite even the prayer of the heart in an undertone, at least at the beginning and for a certain time, that is, until it has become truly united with one’s heartbeat. For they knew that this, as in the case of reading or “meditating” in an undertone, is an excellent means of bringing distractions under control, which are otherwise so difficult to overcome. (125)

Hearing one’s own voice makes it easier to concentrate on the words, for

even though prayer is and of itself a purely spiritual phenomenon, the body must necessarily be able to make its contribution to it. (126)

However, the biblical witnesses to prayer were not so much concerned with the practical benefits of praying aloud. Instead their cries were rather an expression of the immediacy of their relationship to God. They were praying to the “living God,” who is contrasted to the idols who have mouths but cannot speak etc. He alone possesses a face in the true sense of the word.

These and other very graphic ways of speaking about God are much more than mere poetic metaphors. The more spiritualized the image of God in the Old Covenant becomes, the more “anthropomorphic” – having a human form – speech about God can and must be, if the relationship with God is not to evaporate into impersonal abstractions. The Old Testament prophets are the most often cited examples of this paradoxical development. Their God is, as John would later say, entirely “spirit”, in sharp contrast to all the pagan reification of the divine. For precisely this reason, though, they can dare to speak of him in an unprecedented, concretely anthropomorphic way.

In the Incarnation of the Word, this personal being of God, his being present for us as well, has transcended all imaginable limitations. His nearness in the Son is a light that blinds the unbeliever with radiance. Only to the believer does the Son grant access to the “hidden Father”; he even makes it possible for the believer to call him by the familiar name of “Abba – dear Father”, as only a child would dare to address his father who is physically present. (127)

It has perhaps seemed remarkable to many a reader of The Way of a Pilgrim that the traditional formula for the perpetual prayer of the heart goes: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He may have been surprised that this centrepiece of the hesychastic tradition in the Eastern Church is actually a sort of penitential prayer. Anyone who has read the chapter about the tears of metanoia, though, will not be surprised. Rather, it will seem to him quite consistent that the Fathers finally agreed upon this formula, which we do not hear about in the early period of monasticism. For it reflects perfectly that spirit which from the beginning inspired the Fathers in their endeavours. (113)

In this third section of the third chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition, Father Gabriel (Bunge) outlines the development of what has come to be known as the Jesus Prayer, which originated in the Desert tradition of using oft-repeated phrases in prayer, and which is rooted in an attitude that calls out to God for help. This practice of short invocations goes back to the origins of monasticism and soon became known outside of Egypt. Evagrius advocated frequent and uninterrupted prayers like “spear thrusts” that were often comprised of scripture verses. While Evagrius did not seem to know of any fixed formula, Saint John Cassian passed on the Egyptian tradition of praying “O God, come to my assistance, O Lord, make haste to help me.” Abba Ammomas advised a monk to recall the prayer of the tax collector – “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” whereas Abba Macarius the Egyptian, when asked “How should we pray?” answered:

It is not necessary to ‘rattle on,’ but one has only to stretch out one’s hands and say, ‘Lord, as you will’ and ‘as you know’, ‘have mercy on me!’ On the other hand, if a battle is impending, pray, ‘Lord, help me!’ He himself knows what is necessary and treats us with mercy. (116)

Whatever the differences in form, these “ejaculatory prayers” are all cries of help to God. This is what Evagrius meant when he recommended “praying, not like the Pharisee, but like the tax collector,” for

The spirit common to all of these ejaculatory prayers is the spirit of metanoia, of remorse, conversion, and repentance. Precisely that spirit, then, which alone is capable of accepting the “glad tidings” of “reconciliation in Christ”.

The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel. [Mk 1:15]

Without “conversion” (μετἀνοια) there is no faith; without faith there is no share in the gospel of reconciliation. For this reason the sermons of the apostles, which Luke has preserved for us in his Acts of the Apostles, almost without exception end with this call for “conversion”. This metanoia, however, is not a single act, but rather a life-long process. The “spirit of repentance”, that is, humility that comes from the heart, is not attained once and for all. A lifetime is not sufficient to “learn” from Christ this essential feature, which, as he himself tells us, is his distinguishing characteristic. The practice of repeating over and over again – audibly or in one’s heart – this “supplication” (which was discussed in the previous chapter), in the spirit of the remorseful tax collector, is one of the best means of vigilantly maintaining an interior desire for genuine metanoia. (117-118)

These prayers were usually directed to Christ, even if, in the case of psalm verses, this was not always explicit.

The formula that later became usual, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”, merely says explicitly what was meant implicitly from the beginning, namely, that “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”, except through the Name of Jesus Christ. Therefore it is with good reason that the Fathers later gave particular emphasis to this salutary affirmation of “Jesus the Christ” – to the extent of developing a full-fledged mysticism of the Name of Jesus. For the person who prays with a “supplication” consciously takes his place among the blind and the lame, and so on, who cried out to Jesus for help during his life on earth. They did this in a way that is in fact appropriate only when one is turning to God – and thus they demonstrated more clearly than by any verbal profession their faith in the Divine Sonship of the Redeemer. (119-120)

The second disposition or manner in which we are to pray, which Father Gabriel (Bunge) addresses in this third chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition, is Jesus’ instruction to “pray at all times” or Saint Paul’s exhortation to “pray constantly.” This would seem to contradict the way in which prayer is limited in time and therefore simply to mean to pray frequently, or very frequently. However, the early monastic Fathers did understand such exhortations literally although it was not always apparent how this was to be done.

“At all times” and “praying constantly” therefore means nothing less than praying always and everywhere, and that not as something done besides other activities, but rather at the same time with them! (106)

The later hesychastic tradition developed various specialised methods regarding breath and posture. However, these are intended for monks living in seclusion and should only be practised under the guidance of an experienced teacher, making them accessible to only a few.

In contrast, what we know of the practices of the early Fathers is, in its simplicity, attainable by a greater number. (107)

Father Gabriel then points out how the Egyptian Desert Fathers integrated prayer and manual labour as we see in the words of John of Gaza:

When you sit down to your handwork, you should learn by heart or recite psalms. At the end of each psalm you should pray sitting: “O God, have mercy on me a miserable man.” When you are troubled by thoughts, then add: “O God, you see my affliction, come to my aid.”

Once you have made three rows of the net, then stand up to pray, and when you have bent the knee and likewise when you stand up again, pray the prayer just mentioned. (108-109)

Father Gabriel comments:

The “method”, then, is simple enough to be feasible. It consists of interrupting one’s work, in this case making nets, at determined “short intervals”, so as to rise for prayer and the prostration that goes along with it. …

During the work the mind was not idle, either, but occupied itself with “meditation”, that is, the contemplative repetition of Scripture verses, very often psalms, which were learned by heart for precisely this purpose. Each “meditation” of this sort was followed by very short ejaculatory prayers, that could be prayed sitting. Their content was not fixed and, once a particular “formula” was adopted it could be modified at will. Neither the “prayers” mentioned above nor these ejaculations were particularly long, and they did not need to be either. (109)

This presents a framework which those who want to “pray in truth” can use to develop their own personal methods that fit with their own circumstances and their own work.

For upon closer inspection one sees that these Desert Fathers were not conducting a life of prayer alongside the rest of their life, but rather worked, like any other man, so as to make a living, and also took six hours of rest at night. Their prayer life is identical with their daily life, permeates it completely, and ultimately leads to the point at which the spirit “is at prayer throughout the whole day”. External circumstances and “disturbances” such as conversations, for example, no longer make any difference. (110)

While this ideal of continual prayer might seem typically monastic to us today, it is older than monasticism and belongs to those “unwritten traditions” that the Fathers traced back to the apostles themselves.

The early monks did nothing more than give to this ideal a definite form, which in its simplicity is accessible to anyone who seriously wants it. For every soul is by its very nature inclined “to praise the Lord”. (112)

The third chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition is entitled “Manners of Praying” and in it Father Gabriel (Bunge) is concerned with the disposition of those who pray which is reflected in the manner in which we pray. And the first “manner” that he discusses is that reflected by the tears that are to accompany our prayers (Heb 5:7).

For both Scripture and the Fathers, tears and prayer were intimately connected. These tears “belong to the “practical manner” of prayer, for they are part of the labours of praktike, that is the first stage of the spiritual life. (97)

Why this insistence on the necessity of tears, which appears so strange to modern men? Is the Christian not supposed to be joyful instead? Certainly, by the Fathers viewed the human condition more realistically perhaps than we do.

Abba Longinus had great contrition when he prayed and recited the psalms. One day his disciple asked him, “Abba, is this a spiritual rule, that a monk should weep all the time he is praying his office?” And the elder answered, “Yes, my Child, this is the rule that God now demands of us. For in the God did not create man so that he might weep, but rather so that he might rejoice and be glad and might glorify him, as pure and sinless as the angels. Once he fell into sin, however, he needed tears. And all who have fallen need them just the same. For where there are no sins, no tears will be necessary.” (99)

While the first stage of the spiritual life is marked by repentance, conversion and a change of heart,

The very thought of such a conversion, however , is met with unexpected interior resistance. Evagrius speaks in this regard about a certain interior “wildness” (ἀναισθησια) and dullness, which is overcome only with the help of tears of spiritual “sorrow” (πένθος).

Pray first for the gift of tears, so as to soften through contrition the wildness that dwells in your soul, so that by “confessing your transgressions to the LORD”, you may obtain forgiveness from him. [Evagrius](100)

Tears are a particularly effective remedy against that oppressiveness of soul that the Fathers refer to as acedia, or taedium cordis – weariness of soul, boredom and empty indifference.

However, tears should never become an end in themselves. As Evagrius says:

Even if you shed streams of tears as you pray, do not therefore become at all presumptuous in your heart, as though you stood high above the crowd. For your prayer has simply received [divine] assistance, which enables you to confess your sins eagerly and makes the Lord favourably inclined toward you through these tears. (101)

Therefore do not turn the defense against the passions into a passion itself, lest you anger the Giver of grace even more.

It is also a mistake to think that a proficient soul no longer has need of tears. Indeed

Even when a man has attained the goal of the “practical life”, the state of interior peace of soul, tears do not just vanish! At this stage, however, they are the expression of humility and as such are a guarantee that this state of peace is genuine (as opposed to the many forms of demonic counterfeits). Therefore the Fathers consider tears to be in fact a sign of a man’s nearness to God

“The nearer a man is to God, the more he feels that he is a sinner”, one of the Fathers has said, because only God’s holiness makes our sinfulness truly visible. Hence tears are not only found at the beginning of the spiritual path of conversion, but also accompany the penitent as far as his goal, where they are transformed into “spiritual tears and a certain joy of heart”, which the Fathers esteemed as a sign of the immediate action of the Holy Spirit and thus of nearness to God. (102-103)

After noting the loss of consciousness of fasting in the modern West – or its transformation into a secularized “dieting” – Father Gabriel (Bunge) continues this second chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition on “Places and Times” by noting that prayer and fasting have been seen as intimately connected from time immemorial, as is attested to by numerous passages of Scripture.

At first glance the Christian practice of fasting might seem difficult to reconcile with Christ’s word and example. Despite fasting for forty days and nights in the desert, Jesus had a reputation for being a “glutton and a drunkard” (Mt 11:19) and his disciples’ lack of fasting was contrasted to the practice of John’s disciples (Lk 5:53).


Christ did not reject fasting any more than he rejected prayer. In both cases, nevertheless, he was concerned with guarding his disciples against every sort of hypocrisy and vain display of their own “piety”.

And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward.

But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

It is with fasting just as it is with prayer: The disciples of Jesus also fast, naturally, but they do it solely for God’s sake, not in order to be seen and praised. The same goes for almsgiving and ultimately for the practice of all the virtues. The Fathers, who were noted for the severity of their fasts, took that very much to heart. It is especially true of fasting that one should “seal up the good odor of one’s [ascetical] efforts with silence.” (89)

Moreover, Christ had a particular reason for disregarding the customary fasts of His day, namely, the presence of the “Bridegroom” (Mt 9:15). He also used the symbolism of the common meal as a way to indicate the presence of the Kingdom and announce the good news of reconciliation. This privileging of the common meal was something that the Desert Fathers took to heart teaching that the commandment of hospitality overrides the rules of fasting. In addition, because fasting belonged to the penitential practices of the Church, it was not to be observed on those days “on which Christians call to mind the return of Christ the ‘Bridegroom’”.

From Saturday evening, the vigil of the Lord’s day, until the following evening, one does not bend the knee among the Egyptians, and it is the same during the entire time of Pentecost [between Easter and Pentecost], and in this season the rule of fasting is not observed, either.[Cassian] (92)

Fasting has a relative value, but its importance lies in humbling the soul.

Hence the spiritual meaning of fasting is, first of all, to make the soul humble. “Indeed, nothing humbles the soul as does fasting,” [Evagrius] since it causes the soul to experience in a fundamental way its complete dependence on God.

The obstacles to this humility of heart are our manifold “passions”, those “sicknesses of the soul” that do not allow it to behave “naturally”, that is, according to the purpose for which it was created. Now fasting is an excellent means of “covering over” these passions, as Evagrius says in an allegorical interpretation of a psalm verse.

Fasting is a covering for the soul, which conceals its passions, that is, shameful desires and irrational anger. Therefore he who does not fast exposes himself indecently,

like Noah when he was drunk, to whom Evagrius is alluding here. This means that the purpose of bodily fasting is to cleanse the soul of its shameful vices and to instil a humble attitude. Without this “purity of heart”, even the thought of “true prayer” would be sacrilege.

Whoever is [still] caught up in sins and outbursts of anger and dares to reach out shamelessly after the knowledge of divine things or even to enter [the place] of immaterial prayer, let him expect to hear the Apostle’s reproach, according to which it is not safe for him “to pray with head uncovered”. Indeed, such a soul, he says, “should have an ‘authority’ on her head, because of the angels,” by wrapping herself fittingly in shame and humility. (93)

In addition to this, fasting has a practical significance in that it enables one to watch in prayer, as opposed to a full stomach which is inclined to sleep. Fasting prepares the mind for the contemplation of the divine mysteries.

Father Gabriel concludes:

Although fasting is therefore just as indispensable as watching to anyone who wants to “pray in truth”, still, like everything in the spiritual life, it must take place “at the appropriate times and in moderation”. In this respect each person will have his own suitable measure, according to his strength, his age, the circumstances of his life, and so on.

For what is immoderate and untimely is of short duration. Something that lasts only a short time, though, is more likely harmful than useful. [Evagrius] (94-95)

Father Gabriel (Bunge) begins the fourth section on wakefulness of this second chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition by noting that contemporary people see the night mainly as a time for rest, and that staying awake is usually done for the sake of work or of feasting. By contrast, Scripture and the Fathers saw the night as the preferred time for prayer as we also see in Jesus’ own practice. For the Apostle Paul, keeping watch was “not the least important thing that distinguishes the Christian from the drowsy children of this world.” (80)

Watching and waiting belong to the oldest customs of the Church and this eschatological note of waiting for the return of the Lord was passed on to the early monks who organised the entire course of their day with this goal in mind. The practice of rising at night to pray required a certain willpower, but should not be seen as merely “an ascetical test of strength aimed at ‘conquering nature’. ‘Nature’ mistreated in such a way would sooner or later settle accounts on its own.” (83)


Biblical man and the Fathers held watching and praying in high esteem for various reasons. The eschatological “waiting for the Lord”, which really ought to characterize every Christian, has already been mentioned. It imparts an entirely new quality to time, in that it sets a fixed goal for its endless streaming and thus impresses its own stamp on the whole of life, which strives toward this goal. “Living for today” is something quite different from realizing the uncertainty of the “day of the Lord” and therefore wisely “making the most of the time.”

Watching and waking brings about in the praying Christian that “sobriety” which guards him against being overcome with sleep and against the intoxication of the children of darkness. In turn, sobriety of the mind, which (in contrast to the “coarsening” effect of sleep) “refines” the mind, makes the one who keeps watch receptive to the contemplation of the divine mysteries.

Sleep flees from the one who, like Jacob, watches his flocks at night, and if it still takes hold of him, then this sleep is for him like waking is for someone else. The fire with which his heart burns simply does not allow him to be submerged in sleep. Indeed, he sings psalms with David: “Lighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death.”

The one who has arrived at this degree and has tasted its sweetness understands what has been said. For such a one has not become drunk with material sleep, but only makes use of natural sleep. [Barsanuphios and John] (83-84)

Father Gabriel acknowledges that the rhythms of modern life make it more difficult to keep vigil.

“Lately, in these times” even the majority of monks have to be content with less … Christ’s example and the rule stated in the letter of the recluse John of Gaza (cited above) make clear, nevertheless, what is at stake and how one can still “watch and pray” even today. For even Christ would hardly have spent every night in prayer. Evidently, though, he was accustomed to withdraw to pray alone in the late evening, after sunset, or else “in the early morning, a great while before daylight”, as any devout soul who prayed the psalms would do. These are precisely the times that the Fathers, too, generally reserved for prayer. The individual will have to determine the quantity on the basis of his own experience, together with the advice of his spiritual father, who will take into account age, health, and spiritual maturity. One thing is certain, in any case: Without the effort of watching and waking, no one attains that spiritual “sobriety” that the monk Hesychios from Mount Sinai so extravagantly praises.

How lovely and delightful, luminous and pleasing, extraordinary, radiant, and beautiful a virtue is sobriety, when with thee, Christ our God, and accompanied by the great humility of the watchful human intellect!

For indeed, it sends out “to the sea and its depths” its branches of contemplation, and “to the river its shoots” of delightful, divine mysteries. Sobriety is like Jacob’s ladder, upon which God rests and the angels ascend. (86-87)

In the third section of the second chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition on “Places and Times,” Father Gabriel (Bunge) turns his attention to the topic of regularity in prayer, noting that “practice makes perfect” is also true of prayer:

A “practicing Christian” is, to the mind of the holy Fathers, not a man who more or less faithfully fulfils his Sunday duty, but rather one who day after day, his whole life long, prays several times a day, that is, practices his faith regularly, just as he regularly performs other functions necessary for life – eating, sleeping, breathing … Only in this way will his “spiritual activity” attain that natural character that appears self-evident in the case of the functions just mentioned. (72)

Both the Old and the New Testaments refer to regular times of prayer, a practice that the Fathers draw on and reinforce. The details of such times vary. Tertullian refers to the third, sixth and ninth hour found in the New Testament and adds to these one’s prayers at the beginning and at the end of the day and at night, giving the five hours that have been preserved by Islam. The Desert Fathers of Egypt knew only two (fairly short) set prayer times but sought ways of keeping the mind at prayer during the rest of the day and night. Palestinian monasticism knew more prayer times and developed the biblical notion of “seven times a day I praise thee.” Nevertheless, the purpose of such varying practices was that of acquiring “unceasing prayer.”

The observance of a fixed number of times of prayer, distributed throughout the day (and the night), which requires a certain self-discipline, has therefore, essentially the sole purpose of building bridges that enable our inconstant mind to make its way across the river of time. Through this practice the mind acquires that dexterity and facility of movement which no artist or craftsman can do without. To be sure, this is in part simply routine, but it is necessary in order to accomplish what is really at stake: the art – of carpentry, of playing the violin, of soccer… – and, indeed, of praying, which is the highest and most perfect activity of our mind, as Evagrius assures us. The better the training, the more perfectly natural the movement will seem to be, and the greater the joy, also, that we experience in the action. (76)

This training is not without trials however and “the most formidable opponent is a certain weariness, often indefinable, which can set in even when there is not lack of necessary leisure time” and which can lead to one doubting everything.

What should you do, then? You must force yourself, that is, activate the power of your will, so as to observe in any event the prescribed number of prayer times, even if the office itself has to be reduced to a minimum, one psalm, three Glory Bes, one Trisagion, and one genuflection – provided you are capable of it. If the soul’s oppression is too great, one must make use of the ultimate remedy.

If this battle against you increases in force, my Brother, and stops your mouth and does not allow you to recite the office, not even in the way that I have described above, then force yourself to get on your feet and walk up and down in your cell, while saluting the Cross and making prostrations before it, and our Lord in his mercy will allow [this battle] to pass. [Joseph Hazzaya].

When words seem to have lost all meaning, the only thing remaining is the physical gesture, a theme to which we shall later return and treat in detail. (77-79)

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