How do you learn to hear God?

Obedience and obedience to God.

Some of you live nearby, others have come from far away. Coming from far away, geographically, is not so difficult, thanks to the speed of modern transportation, but overcoming the spiritual distance is much more difficult. However, it is not so important where we came from as it is important to know where we are going and how we will reach our goal. For this we need people who, like guides in the mountains, can show us the way and gather those who are lost or standing on the edge of a precipice. That is the role of clergy.

Some Objections

The practice of clergy often meets with objections, especially these days. Here are four criticisms that are most often heard:

  1. Matthew’s Gospel is quoted: And you shall not call anyone on earth your father, for you have one Father who is in heaven ( Matthew 23:9 ).
  2. The idea of spirituality shocks our contemporaries who are so committed to democracy and equality.
  3. From the fact that true spiritual fathers are rare, the conclusion is drawn that we can do without them.
  4. The dangers of abuse.

Who is a spiritual father?

Let us consider the place of clergy in the life of the Church.

Soloviev, in his philosophical testament, Three Conversations, composed in the last months of his life, sets forth his views on the end times. He describes how the Antichrist convenes an ecumenical council in Jerusalem to unite Christians. For the most part they accept unification as he intended it, except for a small group who oppose it. It includes Catholics, led by Pope Peter II, Protestants, led by Professor Ernst Pauli, the famous German theologian. About the Orthodox, it is said that their real, though unofficial leader was the elder John, very famous among the Russian people.

In choosing the elder as a person representing Orthodoxy, Solovyov, of course, showed a very deep intuition, but at the same time did not give this person a definition. Indeed, who is an elder? It is relatively easy to understand who a pope or a university professor is. But who is an elder? His ministry is not established by the canons of the Church, but has a prophetic dimension to which no external criteria apply. The words of the Gospel can be applied to the elder: The Spirit breathes where he wills, and his voice you hear, but you do not know where he comes from and where he goes: so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit (John 3:8). The words of St. Silouan of Athos can be applied to the true elder: “Those who are perfect say nothing of themselves, but what the Spirit inspires in them. “1 And such people are rare. In contrast to eldership, there is the sacrament of confession, established by the Church, which is defined by the canons and governed by Church discipline

So we have – schematically – something like two poles. On the one hand, the confessing priest, based on the canonical tradition of the Church, judiciously administers the sacrament of confession and gives absolution. In this sense, the sacrament of penance takes place as in a court of law and concludes with a determination: sins are either absolved or not. On the other hand, the elder, following the tradition of the Dobrotoluby, teaches the healing word of life. Here we are no longer in the realm of judgment, but rather in a spiritual hospital where believers receive healing by the word.

In my opinion, spiritual fathers gravitate to one or the other of these poles: some are closer to confessional priests, others to elders. Since clergy is between these poles, it can be understood and lived out in different ways; hence, its boundaries cannot be rigidly delineated.

How important it is to listen.

What concept, what word would best define spiritualism as I understand it? In other words, what inner attitude underlies spiritualism and enables it to be an authentic sacrament of the Church? In searching for this concept, knowing that another, perhaps more correct, might be suggested – I have defined it as listening . In this word is present in condensed form the whole spiritual work of the father and his children in their mutual relationship. Listening is the key word, the virtue that underlies spirituality and allows it to be what it is and bear the necessary fruit.

Listening to God.

A spiritual father must first of all listen in his heart to what God says to him in prayer, in order to be able to say a saving word to his disciple. He listens to God to speak, not from his knowledge acquired from books, or even from his own experience, but from what God gives him to say. The apostle Paul says: We believe, therefore we speak (2 Corinthians 4:13). And again: Because with the heart they believe unto righteousness, and with the mouth they confess unto salvation ( Rom. 10:10 ). There is a direct connection between the inspiration received in the heart and the saving word spoken with the mouth and addressed to another.

Here is what Father Sophronius says on this subject in one of his spiritual conversations: “Do not speak only from your mind, but keep in mind that your heart must always be afflicted, sorrowful, to a degree sufficient to attract the mind.2 In his book On Prayer, Father Sophronius adds: “And in the very hour of conversation with man I have tried to keep the ‘hearing’ of my mind on my heart, in order to catch God’s thought and often even the words that I need to say. “3

3 So it is through the word, born of grace, that the spiritual father can guide his children properly. It is the word the disciple is looking for. He comes to his spiritual father and says, “Father, tell me the word of salvation,” an expression often found in the sayings of the Egyptian desert fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries. This living spiritual thirst remains the same throughout the centuries and even to this day.

Here is how Father Sophrony describes his attitude toward St. Silouan of Athos: “I recall the years when I came to Silouan to listen to his word. It served me like no other. Thanks to his support, I was able to endure trials that surpassed my strength. But who was Silouan to me? He was the man of whom the prophet Jeremiah speaks: from him who is poor, needless, unhappy, something precious will come forth, and he will be like the mouth of God. For me, the mouth of God was Silouan.

4 So far I have stressed the need for the spiritual father to listen to God in his heart. But, of course, he must also listen to his disciple, not only to what he says, but he must also enter into a relationship of belonging to him, a co-sensitivity in the ancient sense of the word. The apostle Paul expresses it this way: Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). Father Amphilochius († 1970), abbot of St. John the Evangelist Monastery on Patmos, said that “the spiritual father suffers, loves, weeps, and prays for those who come to him more than they do. Only on this condition can he truly serve people. Explaining these words, Fr. Sophrony specifies: “The behavior of a spiritual father cannot be like this: from 14 to 15 I only receive those who rejoice, and from 16 to 17 only those who mourn. No, every minute he carries within him both joy and suffering.

Christ’s Obedience

If the spiritual father must listen to God in order to speak a word to his disciple, the latter must listen to his spiritual father. Here listening means obeying. In most European languages, the word “obedience” etymologically goes back to the verb “to listen. Christ set us an example of perfect obedience: He was obedient in its entirety. The apostle Paul says of Him, “He humbled Himself, being obedient even unto death, and unto the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8). The apostle John, in his gospel, tells us what Christ said, stressing His obedience to the Father: For I came down from heaven not to do My will, but the will of the Father who sent Me (John 6:38). And he also emphasizes that Christ, who is the Word of the Father, spoke, not from himself, but from the Father who sent him, what the Father commanded him to say and to declare (see John 12:49). Everyone knows His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane: My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me, but not as I will, but as you will ( Matthew 26:39).

If Christ was obedient, we too should imitate him. If the disciple listens to his spiritual father, if he follows his instructions, the sacrament of the Church, which is spiritual paternity, can fulfill its true purpose and bear fruit. Otherwise the sacrament remains fruitless. Then occurs what is recounted in one of the Paterikon of the Desert Fathers: the brethren, taking with them men of the world, came to Abba Felix and asked him for a word. The elder, however, remained silent. After they begged him for a long time, he said: “Do you want to hear a word?” They answered, “Yes, Father!” Then the elder said: “From now on there are no more words. When the brothers asked the elders and did what they said, God told them what to say. But now they ask and do not do what they hear. God has taken away the grace of the word from the elders, and they no longer find what to say because there are no more doers.” And the brothers, hearing these words, wept and said, “Pray for us, Father.

I would like to end with a phrase borrowed from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who once said that only the heart can see well. One truly hears only with the heart!

translation from the French


1 Archimandrite Sophrony . The Elder Silouan. Essex, St. John the Baptist Monastery, 1990. С. 27.

2 Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov). Spiritual Conversations (in French, unpublished), July 31, 1989.

3 Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov). On Prayer. Essex-Moscow, St. John the Baptist Monastery-Russian Way, 2002. С. 103.

4 Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov). Spiritual Conversations, July 31, 1989.

How to pray that God hears?

– Vladyka, you and I have already said that prayer is our communion with God; for a Christian it should be as necessary as breathing. But we know both from our own experience and from the experience of our readers, who have many questions on this subject, that it is very difficult to learn to pray and love prayer. Even the saints said: to pray means to shed blood; prayer requires work until a person’s last day. Vladyka, why is it so difficult to pray?

– Indeed, prayer is work, as many saints have said. And Russian people have a very accurate saying: the hardest thing in the world is to pray to God and feed your old parents.

So why is it difficult to pray, although many saints had the skill of constant unceasing prayer? We must remind ourselves what prayer is. It is standing before God, one might say, talking to God, communicating with Him. And what does it take in our ordinary life to want to communicate with a person all the time?

– To love him…

– Absolutely right. For example, here is a bride and groom–they want to communicate with each other all the time, 24 hours a day. Because there is love, attraction to each other. It is the same with God: there must be a longing for Him, so that prayer is not a tedious obligation. You know how sometimes they say: “I have read the rule”? Of course, it is difficult to pray constantly, living in the world, but at least we can turn to God often and with love.

I remember my youth, when I just ran to church. I know others of my age who went to church during the Soviet era. For us it was the most important thing on earth, and it overshadowed absolutely everything: school, work, and family ties. We literally woke up to the temple (as the prayer says, “My spirit will morn to your holy temple”), which meant that from the early morning we always wanted to be in church, to see and hear what was going on there. I remember that feeling, to this day the memory of it is in my heart.

Such a lively feeling for God a person must have in order to want to pray. But, of course, it is not always there. Man is a very fickle creature, and even when he reaches some peaks in his life, then he has periods of cooling down and falling. But the memory of what has been – of the former peaks, whether it is a relationship with God or people – should warm the human heart when the peak of feelings gradually passes. Then instead of cooling down, there will be a steady burning, and then it will flare up all the brighter. There are cases where spouses, after living with each other for many decades, at the end of their lives love each other is not less, but rather, even stronger, deeper than it was in his youth.

This is roughly the same relationship a person can have with God. This example may not seem quite right to some, but it is understandable. We must not forget that communication between man and God is the communication of two persons, and it requires that man constantly rekindle, feed his feelings with the memory of those moments when the Lord Himself appeared to the human heart. In general, every person who goes to the temple – I am deeply convinced of that – at least once saw God, felt His nearness and, still here on earth, had that feeling, of which the Apostle said: eyes have not seen that, an ear has not heard that, and that has not come to the heart of man, which God has prepared for those who love Him (1 Cor. 2:9). The memory of this gives a person strength when the coldness comes.

When one of her confessors complained in a letter to St. Theophan the Recluse about her coldness, about her inability to pray, although yesterday she was delighted with everything and thanked God, he answered: look outside the window – yesterday the sun was shining, and today it is raining. It does not depend on you and me. The same, he said, is in the human heart – one state, then another. But you have to learn to endure the periods of coldness, despondency, forgetfulness about God and come back to Him.

– Vladyka, we would like to ask you questions about prayer that many of the parishioners of our churches have. “I have a difficult life situation. I pray, but it is not resolved, and it is getting worse. What to do, how to pray that God hears?” – Sergey asks.

– Prayer is necessary to persevere. But on top of this you must be sure to examine the situation and try to understand why it is the way it is. Sometimes the Lord wants us to change something, to make us work for it. Suppose we ask God for something, and He puts us in circumstances in which we can do God’s will by doing something with our own hands. God very rarely works in human life directly, through some overt miracle. Usually people are corrected by people themselves.

Therefore, I think Sergei and those who are concerned about similar issues need first of all to take this difficult situation apart very carefully, maybe consult with some spiritually experienced people to understand: What exactly is my fault for what has happened? What can I change, not in the people around me, but in myself? And if we change something in ourselves, then the situation will begin to change after that.

– Another question, let’s say, about the efficacy of prayer: “I would like to clarify the important questions for me. Is it better (more effective) to perform the prayer rule: mentally or out loud? If aloud, then whispered or loudly? What intonation should I strive for: the church tone or my own? Igor.”

– In general, it is wrong to approach prayer from the point of view of “effectiveness. And we need to do the rule in a way that is most helpful to us. We are all very different people: we have different skills, habits and characters. Some are more comfortable reading to themselves, and some to read aloud. The main thing is that the texts of the prayers that we read should go through our heart, our consciousness. And the tempo of the prayer and the way of saying it depend on how it is easier for a person to perceive it. Personally, I have one problem from my youth: in my time I read a lot of books and I read very fast. For example, the prayer rule (three canons with an akathist) I can read to myself in fifteen minutes, and quite consciously. So when I serve, I always say the prayers out loud to make it a little slower. Another person, on the contrary, may be reading aloud in syllables, and it is more convenient for him to read to himself.

Concerning the intonation that Igor calls churchy (reading on one note, calmly, without emotional outbursts), I think that it is preferable, because in this way one gets used to reading in the church, and then it is easier for him to understand it. This reading in church is actually more correct, because in the words of the prayer should sound the prayer itself, not our personal emotions. Although regarding the house rule, I will repeat – all this is very individual and does not matter much, as long as the prayer is understandable to the person and goes through his heart.

– “For about ten years I have been praying and addressing my needs to Saint Matronushka. I asked, of course, for earthly things: health, marriage, for my daughter to get a state-funded degree, etc. Because even before she died she said: “Everybody come to me and tell me, as if you were alive, about your sorrows. I understand the word “tribulations” as earthly difficulties, problems, sorrows, failures. But the theologian Professor A.I. Osipov’s lectures say that we pray wrongly, asking for earthly goods. We should pray, asking for help in getting rid of sins. And when we are delivered from sin, the Lord, seeing our needs, will Himself give us what we need. I am now in doubt: I believe Matronushka and Professor A.I. Osipov, too. Explain how to pray correctly? Do I have to confess that I asked for earthly goods? Angelina”

– No, there is no need to repent of that. Professor Osipov speaks of high things. But we are still living in this world, so we are concerned, among other things, about worldly things, about which you write. On such occasions I always recall an episode from the life story of St. Ambrose of Optina. Once a peasant woman from a neighboring village came to him and complained that her turkeys were dying. The old man listened, felt sympathy, explained her what to do and how to do it. The peasant woman went away comforted. Was it the right attitude? Everyone has some needs and troubles and I think it is normal for a person to turn to God with them.

Another thing – and here I agree with Professor Osipov, and I often speak about this myself – is that our relationship with God must by no means be limited to this “give, give, give”… If we are Christians, we must also think about some deeper things, and try to offer something to God as a sacrifice ourselves. “Son, give me your heart,” says the Lord. He is waiting for our heart, and I think that is most important.

So despite the seeming contradictions in the positions cited in the letter, both sides are right. It is possible to ask God for earthly goods, and there is nothing criminal or bad about it. But we must not limit ourselves to that, because our earthly life is a preparation for eternity. The most important thing is the salvation of our souls. We should ask God for this and do everything that depends on us.

– Another question that we often hear is: “They say that in order to understand God’s will, you must pray. But how do you pray correctly and how do you know that the answer is really from God?”

– There is a rule: follow the circumstances in which the Lord puts you. Especially if a person prays from the heart and asks God for help. In general, you should be guided by the Gospel in all life situations, and then you will do the will of God, because God’s will for us is very clearly defined in the Gospel.

– The next few questions, Vladyka, are again about coldness in prayer. This is a very common affliction… “If the heart does not respond to prayer for a long time, should we accept and accept it? For example, one prays in the temple, and I want to, but I can’t, and then the prayers even begin to irritate: “How many times can I say the same thing. ” Irina.”

– No, it is not necessary to accept it, but it is necessary, as said in St. Theophan the Recluse, whom I just quoted, this state somehow wait it out. There is an interesting episode in the ancient Paterikon. One novice monk asks a more experienced one: what to do if there is no desire to pray, on the contrary, relaxation, despondency has come? The elder advises: get up, exert yourself, try to warm your heart. The monk complains that he is failing. Then, says the elder, take your robe, wrap yourself in it and sleep.

This advice, though it looks humorous, is actually very wise. Because sometimes it happens that a person just needs to come to his senses, to take a break. But by no means accept such a state, but, after resting, gradually return to prayer. And here, as I said, it is very important to remember the period when one prayed and was heard by God, when one felt unity with Him, His closeness.

– “For many years I have been reciting evening and morning prayers, but I get up for the rule with great difficulty. How can I change my attitude toward prayer, how can I love it? Tatiana”

– There are times when a person is simply, as they call it, withered, that is, the usual worries and cares of the day have taken too much of a place in his life. But at the same time there is a rudiment of getting up for prayer in the morning and in the evening. Of course, when there is no living relationship to God, after a while this rudiment begins to annoy: well, why waste time on repeating the same words when your heart is silent? Again, you have to stop and sort yourself out. The reason is always in the person.

It also happens that a person stops praying, fasting, going to church when his way of life becomes far from the Christian way of life. What are we like? We have sinned in one thing, in another, in a third – but it’s hard for us, and times are like that, everybody lives that way… We all know this set of self-justifications. And gradually, when some faults, sins, maybe even vices accumulate, it becomes impossible to pray. Trying to pray only causes rejection.

The reason can be anything. Therefore, Tatiana and all those who have a similar condition need to think, understand themselves and their lives and try to make adjustments. Then the person will be able to pray attentively again.

– You once spoke, Vladyka, of the experience of unceasing prayer. But these matters, the worries about which our reader writes, they do not interfere with prayer, according to St. Seraphim of Sarov, who said that prayer is not a hindrance?

– Unceasing prayer is a monastic endeavor, and it is not always possible to find it in our time. You don’t have to strive for it in the world, but you can and should pray often. You know, there is unceasing prayer and there is its opposite, unceasing vanity… It is necessary to put unceasing vanity aside. Besides, prayer is the memory of God. And it is good to have such a skill: I walk, talk, do something, and all the time I remember that there is God, He is above all my actions. But usually we live as if He does not exist, and we rarely remember Him. In fact, we should always remember Him.

– “Please tell me the right thing to do when anything goes through my head during prayer except prayer itself. I read two completely polar opinions: to stop praying, because God does not hear such a prayer anyway, – or to force yourself to pray through force. Inna.”

– In no case should you stop, you should force yourself. To restore your attention to prayer, you can from time to time do the following exercise: when you read a rule and suddenly realize that your attention has “flown away,” you must go back and read with attention. It is difficult, and it is not necessary to do it all the time, but it is necessary to try it in order to establish the skill of attentive reading in oneself.

The same St. Theophanes has a wonderful answer to a similar question. One of his spiritual children asked: “Sometimes I realize that I have stood in prayer and nothing in my heart has moved. What to do?” He replied, “Then stand before the icons, cross yourself, sigh, and say, ‘Lord, I could not bring my heart to you today, at least accept my feet from me.'” He says a lot in his letters that you have to learn to keep yourself in order, to be collected. For example: here you are lying on the couch, remember that this is wrong, and instead sit up properly, straighten up. These seemingly small external things help a person to keep himself within the necessary limits, because when we abolish those limits, we spread out, we lose our focus. And without that, it is impossible to do a lot of things, not only pray to God, for example, to study. Look, much of what we say about prayer can be said to a student who can’t study, because it’s exactly the same there: no focus. Therefore, many things in a person’s life will change, many things will become easier to do, a person will achieve greater success if he tunes himself into the right attentive prayer.

I would like to advise the authors of these questions and all our readers to be sure to read the book of St. Theophan the Recluse “What is the spiritual life and how to tune into it”. These are answers to such questions in the form of letters. And for those who love to read and are not afraid of thick books, I would recommend the collection of letters of St. Theophanes, which contains exceptionally deep, very valuable, quite contemporary materials. The saint answers the questions of his spiritual children, which are not so different from those asked today. At one time these books helped me a great deal myself.

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