Monday, November 23, 2009

Thanksgiving Reflection: Elder Paisios and Prayer

Thanksgiving Homily: 25 November 2009

I start with a reflection by Elder Paisios (1924-1994) of the Holy Mountain, Athos.

I have realized that the destruction of man lies in the abundance of material goods, because it prevents him from experiencing the presence of God and appreciating His benevolence. If you want to take someone away from God, give him plenty of material goods. He will instantly forget Him forever.

I realized this when I was younger. When I was on Mount Sinai [at St. Catherine's Monastery], I lived in a place that had no water. I had to walk for two hours to get to a rock where water was leaking from its side. I placed the jug underneath and waited about an hour until it was filled up. The limited amount of water created in my soul various feelings:

Every day I was in agony: “I wonder, will the water be dripping from the rock?” I prayed to God to continue to make it drip. As I was walking towards the rock, I was anxious to see whether I would find some water and I prayed. When I could detect from far away the water glittering as the sun beams were falling on the rock, I glorified God. On my way back, I constantly thanked and glorified Him for the water He gave me. So, the small amount of water impelled me first, to constantly pray to God to make the rock drip and secondly, to thank and glorify Him, as He is the giver of all good things.

When I left Sinai, I went to the Scete of Iviron [on Mt. Athos], where there was no shortage of water. We had plenty of water, which was sometimes wasted, as it was left running for no reason. At some point, I felt that I had developed a different attitude inside my soul. I realized that during my stay at the Scete, I hadn’t said, not even once, “Glory to God.”

While the small amount of water became a reason for me to pray and glorify God, its abundance made me forget that water is indeed a gift from God and I should be grateful to Him. The same thing applies to material goods…

The same thing applies to everything. If we are found in a difficult situation, we must not be upset; instead we should realize this is God’s way to make us feel closer to Him and become aware that He is the grantor of everything in our lives.

This reflection by Elder Paisios pointedly captures the challenge facing many Western Christians this Thanksgiving holiday, and indeed, every day: How do we cultivate and maintain a thankful spirit in the midst of such prosperity? It is ironic, but it is generally true, I think: the more abundant the blessings, the less thankful the heart. I certainly stand convicted. Perhaps this is why neither our Lord nor his Apostles nor the saints nor the fathers have a positive word to say about the accumulation of wealth. It breeds arrogance and self-sufficiency and kills the spirit of humility and thankfulness. The rich young man who chose his wealth over his relationship with Jesus of Nazareth and the rich fool who tore down barns and built larger ones until the very day his soul was required of him are but two examples of souls wrecked by wealth. How have the modern purveyors of the prosperity gospel missed these stark warnings? How have I?

Listen again to Elder Paisios as he identifies three dangers of abundance.

I have realized that the destruction of man lies in the abundance of material goods, because it prevents him from experiencing the presence of God and appreciating His benevolence. If you want to take someone away from God, give him plenty of material goods. He will instantly forget Him forever.

In our abundance we forget God, we fail to appreciate his benevolence, and we grow oblivious to his presence. These are illnesses of the heart and soul. As safeguard against them, I offer – not I, but the church – three prayers this Thanksgiving Eve, prayers from the East and the West: A Collect for Grace[2], The General Thanksgiving[3], and a prayer to the Holy Spirit from the Trisagion Prayers[4].

The church bids us rise each dawn with A Collect for Grace, a prayer which calls us to remembrance of God.

A Collect for Grace

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have
brought us in safety to this new day: Preserve us with your
mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome
by adversity; and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of
your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This day, this dawn: it is a gift from God, yours only because God in his infinite mercy has said once again, “Let there be light.” And this breath that fills your lungs: it is a gift from God, yours only because God has once again bent low over you and breathed into you the breath of the Spirit. Surely, the everyday wonder of new creation calls you to remembrance of God. If you make it through the day – neither falling into sin nor being overcome by adversity, that, too, is a gift from God who once again shields you as a rock and fortress. Remember God as you rise, this prayer calls. Remember that, just as surely as life and breath come from God, so, too, does your purpose, your reason for being at all. And your purpose is to fulfill God’s purpose: to love him with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Your purpose is to become a partaker of the divine nature: union with God, through Christ, in the Holy Spirit. Your purpose this day and unto the ages of ages is to remember God. So says this prayer.

To remember – to truly remember and to remember truly – leads to thankfulness. And so the church offers us daily The General Thanksgiving.

The General Thanksgiving

Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks
for all your goodness and loving‑kindness
to us and to all whom you have made.
We bless you for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for your immeasurable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies,
that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to your service,
and by walking before you
in holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

This prayer, offered morning and evening, moves through and beyond the “ordinary” blessings of this life – creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life (health, food, shelter, family, friends – all the blessing of our Thanksgiving celebrations) – to the blessing above all others: God’s immeasurable love for us in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, which is both God’s grace and our hope – our only hope – for glory. And, tellingly, the prayer recognizes our inability to be fully and properly thankful for that grace and hope, and asks God, himself, to make us aware of the depth of his blessings to us, to enable us to be truly thankful in heart and lips and lives and service. We are dependent upon God, it seems, not only for our lives, but for the ability to recognize that fact and to thank him for it. We are, after all, unworthy servants, as the prayer reminds us – but unworthy servants who are loved immeasurably.

Having been called by these prayers to remembrance and thanksgiving, the Trisagion Prayer calls us to dwell in God’s presence.

Trisagion Prayers (Prayer to the Holy Spirit)

O Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things, Treasury of good things and Giver of life: Come and dwell in us, and cleanse us of all impurity, and save, our souls, O Good One.

Fr. Stephen Freeman[5] attributes much of our failure to live as Christians to our construction of a two-storey universe in which God is in heaven – the upper storey – doing God-knows-what while we are on earth – the lower storey – busy managing our lives: providing food, clothing, and shelter for our families, getting ahead in business, worrying about our kids, and on and on. In his model, these two storeys meet – if at all – only when we leave this world (death) at which time we hope to make the transition to the upper storey. (Let us hope there is no basement.) Until that time, we live as functional atheists, largely ignoring God except for perfunctory religious observance or panicked prayer in time of personal tragedy or great need. We have created a worldview in which God is an unnecessary fixture.

And herein lies the importance and beauty of the Trisagion Prayer: it shatters our illusion that God is over there somewhere, distant and uninvolved. No: God is everywhere present, filling all things. “Where can I go from your presence?” the psalmist asks rhetorically. Nowhere, this prayer replies. Bidden or unbidden God is present and we live moment-by-moment in his presence. There is no second storey in the universe. This prayer is a practice of the presence of God, as Brother Lawrence might say, an invocation of the Holy Spirit that we might know the nearness of our God who is the Treasury of good things and the Giver of life.

Elder Paisios was right: abundance of material goods can take someone away from God. But these prayers – these prayers can draw us back again.


[1] Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain. Copyright 1998 (1st English Edition). Holy Mountain, Greece. Quoted by Fr. Stephen Freeman at .
[2] The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the ChurchTogether with The Psalter or Psalms of David According to the use of The Episcopal Church (BCP 1979). Oxford University Press. New York.
[3] BCP
[4] Prayer Book. Holy Trinity Monastery. Jordanville, New York.
[5] Fr. Stephen is priest at St. Anne’s Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, TN, and author of the Glory To God for All Things blogsite,

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