Teaching of the Optina Elders
St. Joseph: What is the intent of prayer
In maintaining an external character of quiet restraint, Elder Joseph succeeded in cultivating a rich inner life of prayer in spite of his being constantly surrounded by people and the distractions of his administrative duties as skete superior. Here, too, the key to his attainment was his humility. To someone who asked for help against distractions during prayer, the Elder wrote: “It is impossible for us, sinful people, to be entirely free of distractions during prayers. Nevertheless, one should strive as much as possible to gather one’s thoughts and lock one’s mind into the words of prayer, into each word. One should not be troubled by coldness and hard-heartedness but persist in forcing oneself towards prayer, recognizing oneself as unworthy of consolation and compunction. If prayer is cold, one mustn’t conclude that it is displeasing to God; sometimes even such prayer is counted as an ascetic feat if only the person humbles himself in everything before God.”
The Elder cautioned against seeking the heights of prayer prematurely He used to say that prayer of the heart comes of itself, following upon purification and experience in oral prayer. “Even if you do not fully attain the fruits and perfection of prayer, it is already a good thing if you depart this life on the path leading towards it. Do not seek the sublime (i.e., consolation and spiritual vision); this will come in God’s time.” “Even spiritual consolation brings more harm than good to the inexperienced; they lead imperceptibly to high-mindedness, and when the soul becomes accustomed to them it grows weak and when sorrows and misfortunes strike it becomes fainthearted and falls. Patience is the mother of consolation – this is what the Holy Fathers say.” As to the intent of prayer, the Elder counseled, “Salvation; to ask mercy rather than consolation.”
Editor’s Note:The Elders of the Optina Hermitage were a spiritual beacon to Holy Russia in the 18-20th centuries. The most reknown of the Elders, Saint Ambrose, was introduced to the world by Dostoyevsky in one of his works, as the Elder Zossimas. It is not insignificant to consider the number of spiritual children, reared in piety by these righteous fathers. They provided a godly light for a nation that would sink to the deepest abyss with the horrors of Communism. The Lord did not forget His people and sent these luminaries to prepare the faithful for the dark times.