Spiritual Techniques

"Untitled (Old Man with Prayer Book)"; painted by Maurice Bismouth; Tunisia; 1920

“Untitled (Old Man with Prayer Book)”; painted by Maurice Bismouth; Tunisia; 1920

In the West, we despise tradition, the accumulated wisdom of our predecessors. In some cases this is good, causing us to learn new things. The idea that our predecessors didn’t know everything is a Western phenomenon. The idea that there was more to learn, more to discover, and that our predecessors could have been wrong was unthinkable before the modern era. We now know that disease is not caused by an imbalance of the four humors. The idea that sickness was caused by bacteria and viruses was a medical breakthrough enabled by a culture that allowed for new ways of thinking. So far, so good.

The problem is that western Christianity quickly adopted this same mode of thought. And it is not just Protestants—this began with the scholastic movement among the Roman Catholics, and thus became part of Protestantism as well. I believe it was the Lutheran Samuel Schmucker who stated that we are standing on the shoulders of giants, and therefore see further than they did. The idea that we can understand Christianity better than the apostles who studied at the feet of Jesus is arrogant in the extreme, yet widespread in the west. Samuel Schmucker himself was not speaking of seeing further than the apostles, but rather of the Martin Luther himself. Schmucker was using this idea to abrogate and replace Lutheran dogma with something he considered more appropriate for the situation in America.

By dismissing the past, theologians and churchmen are seeking to discover the truth in its purity, stripped of the accretions of dogma, tradition, and folk religion.In fact, by reducing Christianity down to the bare text, they strip Christianity of 2,000 years of accumulates wisdom. This is demonstrated most clearly in the realm of spiritual techniques.

About ten years ago I happened to be listening to a Roman Catholic radio show. A caller asked about resisting temptation, and the host suggested that when faced with temptation, try saying the Lord’s Prayer three times. I tried it, and it worked. I was surprised that I could learn something about the spiritual life from a Roman Catholic. I have continued to keep my eyes and ears open since that time, and have decided it is time to discuss some of these things.

When facing an extended period of spiritual doubt, begin reading the gospels, beginning with the gospel of Matthew. Matthew was used as the earliest Christian catechesis, and the five discourses are key to understanding Christianity. Do not begin reading the gospel of John right away. This is advanced theology, and the person wrestling with doubt needs to build up to it.

When struggling with bad thoughts, begin by saying the Lord’s Prayer three times. if the spiritual assault is severe, you may need to continue saying the Lord’s Prayer, speeding up the tempo until it crowds out the bad thoughts. You can also begin repeating the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” I realize this runs counter to some of the advice from the spiritual fathers, who often counsel praying slowly and concentrating on the words. This is good advice under normal circumstances, but when under spiritual assault the mind needs to be forced to focus on something else.

I the Protestant churches, I was never taught to pray. We had prayer in our churches, and we had our Wednesday prayer meetings, but it was very ad hoc. We didn’t follow any patristic model. Instead, we parroted the prayers of those around us. I am still a beginner in the way of prayer, but this is what I’ve learned.

Prayer is not about accommodating the desires of the flesh. In the Lord’s Prayer, we begin with praising God, then asking for spiritual blessings. Even the prayer for our daily bread is probably a reference to the Eucharist. Even if it is not, it is simply a request for the bare minimum necessary to keep us alive, not for fleshly extravagances. According to the Lord’s prayer, we praise God, ask for our spiritual necessities, and ask for deliverance from the wiles of the evil one.

Likewise, the morning prayer discipline begins with the Trisagion Prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, The Morning Troparia, Prayer of St. Basil the Great, Psalm 50(51), and The Nicene Creed. Then we get into the Intercessory Prayers, praying for the health, welfare, and spiritual well-being of the world. Only then do we get to the Prayer of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, in which we begin to pray for ourselves. Except even then, most of the prayer is focused on our spiritual needs and our relationship with others.Our Final Prayers are for our spiritual well-being, the spiritual well-being of those around us, and request for intercession by the Mother of God and all the saints. Never do we pray for our physical needs, wants, and desires. Not that these are unimportant, but the model seems to be to have others pray on our behalf, and for us to pray on theirs. Prayer then becomes a communal affair. We share our burdens with our fellow Christians, and they pray for us, just as we pray for them. Prayer becomes a means of increasing our bond of unity as the body of Christ.

I which I had more, but that’s it for now.


The Sinner’s Prayer: Lord Have Mercy 

Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.

Lord have mercy.

Some Protestants are offended by the number of times we Orthodox say “Lord have mercy” in the Divine Liturgy. If my count is correct, this is said 116 times every time we celebrate the Divine Liturgy. This doesn’t count all the movable bits — the various hymns sung at various feasts, saints days, and the like; it doesn’t count the Orthros, Matins, or the Hours chanted before each Liturgy, or the Post-Communion Prayers chanted after the Liturgy.

On his YouTube show “Have a Little Faith“, Zach Anner visits a Greek Orthodox Church and asks a Noah Johnson a question about prayer.  Noah tells him: “In Orthodoxy there’s really only one prayer…it’s ‘Lord have mercy’ and we pray that prayer for everything and everyone in the whole world.” The more I think about this, the more profound this is.

Zach Anner waving hello to Christ the Pantocrator (Ruler of All)

Zach Anna waving hello to the icon of Christ the Pantocrator (Lord of All)

What does it mean to pray “Lord have mercy?” This is an interesting question in itself. We should begin with the understanding that “Lord have mercy” was the cry of the beggar, the person in need who nonetheless had no claim upon anyone else. The beggar had no personal or familial ties to whomever was passing by; the best he or she could do was ask for mercy. The person giving alms was showing mercy upon the beggar. In one sense, this prayer illustrates our relationship with God. We have no claims upon God. God does not owe us anything. But God, in His mercy, provides us with existence, with being, and meets our physical and spiritual needs.

There are several examples of this type of prayer in the Gospel of Matthew. The first was the two blind men who followed after Jesus, crying out: “Thou Son of David, have mercy on us.” (Matt 8:27) The second example is the Canaanite woman who interceded with Jesus on behalf of her daughter: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David.” (Matt 15:22) And yet another example is of the man who interceded with Jesus on his son’s behalf: “Lord, have mercy on my son.” (Matt 17:15) In all these cases, Jesus was asked to heal someone. Yet no one dared demand healing, or imply that Jesus was obliged to heal them or anyone else. They simply asked for God’s mercy upon them and their loved ones. So, as we see, Lord have mercy is a prayer of intercession.

Lord have mercy has other connotations as well. The word mercy is the Greek word ελεεω (eleeo, el-eh-eh’-o). This is related to the Greek word for oil, ελαιον (elaion, el’-ah-yon). In the New Testament, there is a play on words here. Besides being used in cooking, oil was used to provide light, to heal the sick, to anoint someone, and as a means of cleansing the body.

Noah Johnson

Noah Johnson

When we pray “Lord have mercy”, we are asking God for enlightenment. With St. Basil the Great we pray: “Enlighten the eyes of my understanding; open my heart to receive your words; teach me your commandments and help me to do your will, confessing you from my heart, singing and praising your all-holy name: of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.”[1]

When we pray “Lord have mercy”, we are asking God for healing. The Orthodox understanding of salvation is that sin is a sickness we must be healed from. In the words of the Psalmist, we are asking for the anointing of the Holy Spirit: “Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.  Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” (Ps 51:2, 7, 10). Perhaps the best description of this is in the parable of the Good Samaritan, where the Samaritan washes the injured man’s wounds, binding them with oil and wine. (Luk 10:33-34)

The idea of the “Lord have mercy” prayer having a connection to healing shares a natural affinity with its connection to repentance. In the pericope of the Pharisee and the Publican, the Publican dares not even lift his eyes to heaven, but beats his breast and prays: “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luk 18:13), which is one of the two prayers approved of by Jesus (the other being the Lord’s prayer). In like fashion, the psalmist opens  the psalm of repentance with these words: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.” (Ps 51:1)  This idea is extended in the Troparia of Repentance.


Have mercy on us, O LORD, have mercy on us, for laying aside all excuse, we sinners offer to you, our Master, this supplication: have mercy on us!

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.

O LORD, have mercy on us, for in you have we put our trust. Do not be angry with us, nor remember our iniquities, but look down on us even now, since you are compassionate and deliver us from our enemies; for you are our God and we are your people; we are all the work of your hands and we call on your Name.

Now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

O blessed Theotokos, open the doors of compassion to us whose hope is in you, that we may not perish but be delivered from adversity through you who are the salvation of the Christian people.

LORD have mercy! (12x)[2]

When we pray “Lord have mercy” 116 times in the Divine Liturgy, it has all these meanings. We repent of our sins, we ask for healing of soul and body, we pray that God would enlighten our hearts, and we intercede with God on other’s behalf. Some of these meanings receive a greater emphasis in specific parts of the service, but they are all present. Thus, as Noah Johnson says in his video interview with Zach Anner, all of our prayer can be summed up the short phrase: “Lord have mercy.”



[1] All Saints of Alaska Orthodox Church (2011-03-22). Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church (Kindle Locations 61-63). Saint Arseny Press. Kindle Edition.


[2] All Saints of Alaska Orthodox Church (2011-03-22). Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church (Kindle Locations 315-324). Saint Arseny Press. Kindle Edition.


Hypostatic Prayer

The Rich Man and Lazarus

The Rich Man and Lazarus


What is prayer? For a great many years I struggled with this. Not only how to pray, but what to pray for. It was not until I became Orthodox that I began to learn something about prayer, and how especially bad I was at it. Fortunately, the Orthodox faith has 2,000 years of experience in teaching people how to pray. The most important thing I learned is that prayer is rarely about me, or for me. Instead, prayer is for others, and on behalf of others. Specifically, we are called to “pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Mt 5:44); we also enjoined to sorrow over and pray for those who do not know God.

St Silouan the Athonite writes:

He who has the Holy Spirit in Him, to however slight a degree, sorrows day and night for all mankind. His heart is filled with pity for all God’s creatures, more especially for those who do not know God, or who resist Him and therefore are bound for the fire of torment. For them, more than for himself he prays day and night, that all may repent. Christ prayed for them that were crucifying him: ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’ Stephen the Martyr prayed for those who stoned him, that the Lord ‘lay not this sin to their charge.’ And we, if we wish to preserve grace, must pray for our enemies. If you do not feel pity for the sinner destined to suffer the pains of hell-fire, it means that the grace of the Holy Spirit is not in you, but an evil spirit. While you are still alive, therefore, strive by repentance to free yourself from this spirit. (Archimandrite Sophrony 1991, 352)

We are also called to pray for the world — the entirety of creation. Some saints even prayer for the devil and the fallen angels, so great is their love for God’s creation.

Christopher Veniamin writes:

Hypostatic prayer – this prayer for all creation as for one’s self – is at the very heart of the Divine Eucharist – the Liturgy – and can be seen very clearly both in Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition: In the Old Testament, for instance, we find Moses imploring God to forgive the people of Israel, after falling into the grave sin or idolatry:

Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin — ; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou has written (ex 32:32)

And in the New Testament too, St. Paul says of his fellow Jews:

I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, That I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh (Rom. 9: 1– 3). (Veniamin 2013, Kindle Locations 167-175)


Archimandrite Sophrony. St Silouan the Athonite. Translated by Rosemary Edmonds. Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991.

Veniamin, Christopher. Holy Relics: The Deification of the Human Body in the Christian Tradition. Dalton: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2013.

Neither Will I Tell You…

Neither Will I Tell YouNeither Will I Tell You… by Metropolitan Nahum of Strumica

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this volume, Metropolitan Nahum of Strumica uses the three states of the spiritual life as an interpretive lens on scripture. As the spiritual Father of a monastic community, Metropolitan Nahum addresses these homilies to monks. The reader needs to keep this in mind while reading, as exegesis, explanation, and exhortation meant for monks is not always generally applicable to those of us ‘in the world’, so to speak.

Metropolitan Nahum lays out the three stages of the spiritual life as follows: the purification of the heart; the illumination of the mind; and deification. He uses these three stages in a variety of ways, including applying them to the three orders of the clergy. One who has mastered deification is ready to be ordained as a deacon; one who has mastered illumination is ready to be ordained as a presbyter; and one who has attained deification is ready to be ordained as a bishop. He also points out that the three stages of the spiritual life are ‘determined solely by the quality of prayer’.

Metropolitan Nahum provides a wonderful service with his description of three different methods of interpreting Scripture: the Alexandrian school, which uses parables and allegory; the Antiochian school, which uses history and ethics; and what he calls the ‘Hagiorite-Macedonian School’, which focuses on the systematization and harmony of Orthodox spiritual life.

Metropolitan Nahum of Stumica is part of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, which is out of communion with the rest of the Orthodox Church. The reasons for this are primarily political; when the Macedonian government inserted itself into the discussions between the Macedonian and the Serbian Orthodox Churches, the Macedonian Orthodox Church broke off discussions. Apparently this was done to keep the church free from political and nationalistic machinations. I say this neither to condemn nor absolve, but merely to provide context for those who might otherwise question the wisdom of reading this book.

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