Incense as a symbol of prayer

Incense is a resin of the tree called Boswellia serrata or Floribunda papyrifera, which grows in Africa and India. The resin derives from the juice which flows from the trunk of the tree. The juice hardens in the sun. It is collected from the bark of the tree, it is crushed and in order to obtain an even nicer scent, this resin is mixed with other flavours. The preparation process is exposed in the Old Testament (Exit 30, 34-38)

 In the cult of the Old Testament, the use of the resin was habitual, besides the sacrifices that were brought to God on the altar (Leviticus 2, 16 and Leviticus 16, 11-12). The resin began to be used in Christianity as the cult developed. We have testimonies about the use of resin in the first Christian centuries both in the ancient liturgies and the writings of saint Dionisios the Areopagite, saint Justin the Martyr and Philosopher, the pilgrim Egeria, saint Ambrosius of Milan and others.

At the Holy Liturgy the resin is used especially in those moments during the holy service when it is symbolically revealed the presence of the Savior, moments which must be highlighted by the embalming of the church. Thus after preparing the Holy Gifts at Proscomidy, the priest incenses the Holy Table. The smoke of the resin is like an embalming of the place where the Gift are to be put. During the reading of the Apostles ‘epistles and before coming out with the Holy Gifts, the priest incenses the church. The smoke and the scent of the resin create a specific atmosphere, favorable for prayer and religious meditation.

The resin by its smoke and scent highlights the beauty of the acts of worship, creates the atmosphere of holiness and thus it integrates in the act of worshipping God as a gift, as a precious offering, as a symbol of prayer and good deeds.

May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.(Psalm 140, 2) it is sung during the Vespers. The resin is a symbol of the prayer of veneration addressed to God but also of invocation of the Holy Spirit: We bring resin to You, Christ, our Lord, for a pleasant spiritual scent and by receiving it on the altar that is above heavens, send us the grace of Your Most Holy Spirit, as it is recited during the Holy Liturgy.

The resin must be present not only at the Holy Liturgy, but also at any other religious service. Its scent casts out the evil spirit. Thus the incensing from the beginning of the service of baptism symbolizes the good fragrance and the holiness of the Holy Spirit which melts away and cats out all bad odors of sin.

The resin in the Orthodox cult is closely linked to the belief in the afterlife, as an expression of this belief. This thing is proved by the cult of the dead. At the funeral services, at the requiems for the dead, the resin is an essential element. The incensing of the tombs and of the offerings for the dead is an ancient ritual which the Orthodox people practice with deep piety and emotional involvement.

Priest professor dr. Ene Braniste, General liturgic, volume II, Basilica Publishing House, Bucharest, 2015, pp.350-352)

He did not cry for two years

A true story

Helena was living in Karpenisi and had a very tough husband. He hit her for the most insignificant thing, as the children hit the ball on the playground.

The hardships of life made her serve in the monastery of Theotokos, Prusiotissa on each Fast of Dormition.

There was a time – she relates – when I was also working as a cleaning woman at a gynecologist, who paid me very well but was just as tough as my husband. One day I took the dustbin to empty it and I suddenly heard a whimper. Reaching the place where I had to empty the bin, I opened the lid and I saw inside a small baby full of blood.

Holy Mother of God, what am I going to do? I cannot go back to the doctor with him because he threw him. If I take him home, my husband will stab him as if he were an Easter lamb.

But I took him, I kissed him, I wiped off all the blood and held him tight to my breast, cause it was a very cold winter. When I got home, there was nobody.

God is with me, I thought. After I washed him, I wrapped him in one of my old gowns. Then I made the sign of the cross over him, praying with these words: Holy Mother of God, Prusiotissa, please, help him not to cry! And the miracle happened.

The baby did not cry for two years. I fed him stealthily and hid him to sleep under our bed. When my husband came home my heart was beating very fast. The time went by and the child started to crawl. Thus one day at noon when we were eating, the child showed up and came under the table where we were sitting. When my husband saw him, his eyes glittered as if he were a wild lion.

What is this? he asked me. Then I made the sign of the cross and told him the secret.

He was deeply touched when he heard the story and treated him as if he were his own child. This boy has married now and he works in Karpenisi. He is the only one who brings me a glass of water, while my own children don’t bring me anything.

How to prepare for the evening prayer?

Archimandrite Ioachim Parr

I don’t want to pray in the evening. How to prepare for the evening prayer?

You don’t want to pray in the evening because you only utter the prayers with your lips, but in fact you don’t pray from the heart. That’s why you see it as a burden.

You have no desire to be with the one you love, because the only one you love is you. That’s why you don’t want to pray. Because you are tired and you seek rest and comfort for yourself. So you don’t want to do it. It is your own time, the time when you take care of your own self. You did so many things for so many people during the day, so now you have no more time, you are too tired.

Do you remember how it was when you thought you were in love with someone? No matter what you had done during the day, you were so eager to see that person at the end of the day.

You didn’t care if you had slept or not, if you stayed in the snow to talk to that and you froze, you still didn’t want to leave. And even if you knew you had to wake up in the early morning, you didn’t care how long you stayed with that person, because you thought you loved him/her.

You would pray if you loved God! You would run home to be with Him…instead of saying Oh, I have to pray again…

If you had thought about Him all day, there wouldn’t have been any problem for you, but you thought only about yourself all day long. And you see God as if He were someone else you had to take care of before enjoying some time with yourself!

The well received prayer of the tax collector

May my prayer be set before you like incense. A prayer like this it’s impossible not to be heard. But our prayers – especially mines – are those which do not receive any answer. Why? Because when we pray, our mind is not there.

A pagan priest said to some monks:

“When you pray to your God, does He answers to you?”

“No”, answered the monks.

“My God answers to me.” “If He doesn’t answer to you, it means you have bad thoughts.”

“That’s quite true”, answered the monks.

Of course it was the devil who answered to that pagan priest, but these monks realized that he said the truth.

When we pray our mind is wandering to and fro and we don’t know what we say. And as long as we don’t understand, how could God understand our prayer?

That’s why when we pray it is necessary to become aware of our own sinfulness, to feel that deeply and come before God with humility and grieving heart. And when our sinfulness becomes a feeling of our heart, then the wandering of the mind ceases. This will create the disposition for a focused prayer. Then our words will have echo.

As we see at the tax collector and the Pharisee. The Pharisee prayed more than the tax collector and said: I fast, I give tithes…and all the others, but I am not like this unjust tax collector who does dishonest deeds and many other things [1]. The Pharisee considered himself an honest man, because he did apparently good deeds, he fasted, he kept vigils, he gave alms to be seen, he prayed at the corners of the streets where he lifted his arms, he washed his hands before eating and kept all the other stipulations of the Law and he imagined that according to his conscience he was in a good condition.

The tax collector didn’t pray much. What did he say? God, have mercy on me, the sinner. He didn’t say much but what had his prayer? It had something special. What was that? He admitted that he was a sinner. The tax collectors in those times were considered unjust and sinful, because they stole. So the tax collector was aware of his sinfulness. How could he raise his head and say: I give tithes from what I have, I fast twice a week or do good deeds and many others? Seeing the darkness of his unfairness and sinfulness, he fell down to earth and didn’t dare to raise his eyes, because he considered himself the last of all men, the biggest sinner. However, this bending of his neck, caused by the fact that he didn’t dare to look up, it was a prayer in itself which shook the throne of the divine mercy. And the tax collector went back home justified before God and the Pharisee, sentenced.

This humility, this bending of the head, the shame he felt, the reproof of his consciousness, all these contributed to the fact that he went home justified before God, meaning he was forgiven by God.

Especially this parable of the tax collector teaches us, enlightens our path, offers us the opportunity to muse, to see how it is listened the prayer of the one who prays. Let us examine ourselves and see: when we prayed and our mind wandered all over and we didn’t understand anything from what we said, did we feel any change inside ourselves? We felt dryness as if we hadn’t prayed at all. This was the answer we got. I knew this from practice. But when like this tax collector we pray on our knees, with tears in the eyes, with humility, with self-knowledge we can be sure that our prayers will receive answer.

[1] Luke 18, 9-14.

Excerpt from the book The Art of Salvation by archimandrite Ephrem Philoteos, to be released by Evanghelismos Publishing House.

The value of our soul

Christ’s Incarnation and Crucifixion show the endless love and mercy of God, Who came from heaven on earth to save us, the sinful, the ungrateful. Then it shows us the great valour of our soul, the image of God, which we leave, out of our ignorance or carelessness, devoid of honor and virtue, hurt, while for the body which we’ll leave here, we do so many things and take so much care of it!

Our soul is the one that matters, because due to it our body lives. But we don’t pay any attention to our soul, we don’t offer it pure and true nourishment and that’s why we get spiritually sick cause of the sin and by poisoning our life we deprive ourselves of God’s grace and we encounter a lot of pains, which are the reward of our estrangement of God.

 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?Matthew 16, 26

Why does God punish me?

We know that patience is a precious virtue which makes us please God. But the exercise of patience is not easy at all. It is necessary a full mobilization of our spiritual powers. It is necessary to have a fervent zeal and a lot of prayer so that the grace of God would come and strengthen the soul. But the spiritual reflections are also needed so that the soul would receive comfort and strength.

I shall tell you a story about something that happened once and this offers the opportunity for a lot of reflection in order to find an answer for the question: why does God allow hardships in our lives?

Once, on a winter night a small fishing boat was wrecked on the shores of Canada. The fisherman and his son, the only people in the boat, reached the shore by swimming, but they had wet clothes and were in a pitiful condition.

They had escaped the drowning danger but now they were to die because of the cold and of the frostiness caused by their wet clothes. The father was overwhelmed by despair but he saw in the heart of the forest which was before them a dim light. It was their only hope. The place was desert and unknown. There could be seen no house at all. The father and the son started to walk towards that light they saw in the forest, shivering because they were soaking wet. If they could reach that place in time and find assistance they would escape from certain death.

But while going ahead the son started to stiffen because his wet clothes froze. His walk became very slow and there was the danger that his legs might have got stiffened and then he couldn’t have walked anymore.

The father tried to strengthen and encourage his son to continue his walk. But unfortunately the stiffening of his legs grew and he walked harder and harder.

Then the father thought of the following solution: he broke a branch from a tree near him and started to hit the legs of his son with that because he couldn’t walk anymore. The son at first opposed resistance to the blows from his father but this one with a grieving and loving voice said:

My son, you have to go on walking! Overcome the stiffening of your legs and go further!

I can’t, father! cried the child. My legs are stiffening even harder!

Then the father started to hit even harder the legs of his son. His son’s legs covered with blood but he was forced to gather his last strength and resume his walk. In the end, hobbling and after strenuous effort they reached the house where was the light they had seen.

The legs of the boy were bloody and wounded from the blows and the child himself was in a terrible state of exhaustion…but they had reached that place. There they immediately found an assistance full of affection. And thus they saved their lives.

What did the father do? Hard duty! He had to hit his son so hard so that they could reach the house of their salvation. The method was painful but life saving.

Many times in life it happens the same. God, our Father who loves us, wants for sure our salvation. Sometimes we, people remain careless and even deaf to His voice. Then God, out of His love for men allows us be hit and thus we wake from the stiffening of our soul which is like death. God allows troubles and trials for our spiritual benefit.

 For whom the Lord loveth, he chastiseth: and as a father in the son he pleaseth himself.[1]

The cup of pain is bitter but life saving.

Nothing is adventitious. The fact that God allowed this trial you are facing it means that He has a wise plan. Obey the will of God. Pray to God to save you from the trial and pain. And pray over and over again with perseverance and faith so that God would free you from your pain. But if His kindness does not free you from your trouble, then prove patience and obedience. You said in your heart: God, Your will be done. Not as I will but as You will.

There are so many people who saved themselves from a sure spiritual destruction due to this spiritual awakening brought by a trial in their life. I heard some saying: I lost the health of my body but I found the health of my soul. And I am happy. Or: I came to know God due to this pain of the trial. I was in the depth of the sin and God allowed losing my wealth and experiencing poverty. My eyes opened at the light of faith! And now I am living much more poorer but much more happier.

[1] Solomon’s proverbs 3, 12.


Pieces of advice for prayer from the Athonite elders

The main thing in what regards the prayer is not the breath, nor the position but the repentance and the brokenness of heart. If you pray with the rosary and your thoughts wander all over, then stop everything, both your prayer and thoughts, so that your mind remains empty for a while. It is as if you lied down to earth when the enemy shoots bullets on you. Then start again your prayer.

For making progress in prayer we should have no worries, only obedience, renunciation at our own will and abstention. First we should cut off our will, then the love for pleasures and selfishness. Then the prayer will be fruitful.

You cannot learn the Jesus prayer, this is given to you as a gift. When you say this prayer all the time, after much perseverance and asceticism, it enters the heart alone and does not get out of it anymore.

We may say all the time the Jesus prayer but if our life is not good, we can do no good. The prayer is light. Then how we say the prayer but we do the things of the darkness?

The tears are its climax but if we don’t have tears, let’s pray with humility at least.

The best prayer is made during night, after sleep, because the mind is refreshed and focused.

When the prayer canon is made before the church service (Midnight Office) it is of gold, after the service it is of silver and during day it is of copper.

The prayers are never lost, even if at the beginning it seems they are without result and they are not heard by God.

Do you want to reach a high spiritual level? Strive first to be obedient then to pray and all the others.

During the holy services the beginner should rather listen than say the Jesus prayer. He should learn the Typikon, the celebrations, the holy services and then he should say the Jesus prayer.

The prayer is received by God when we feel it.

Humility is the foundation for any beginning and work. It is the condition required for bringing offering in the church.


The stray mule

N.Dramudianos relates a wonderful experience he lived in 1940, during the war:

Our regiment got the order to conquer a height for using it as a bridgehead. We made barricades among the rocks and after we finished everything it started to snow. It snowed for two days uninterruptedly so the snow reached even two meters height in certain places. We got stuck there and each one of us had food supplies in his bag for one day only. Because of the cold weather and the hunger we did not save anything for the next day and remained without food.

From that moment on it started our martyrdom. We quenched our thirst with snow but many died because of hunger. We spent five days and five nights in this way. We lost so much weight that we looked like some skeletons. We kept our spirit high but nature has its own limits. Some of us died. We expected to die in the same way for Faith and Homeland. Then our commander had a saving thought. He took out a paper icon of the Theotokos, he put it on an escarpment, he called us all around him and told us:

My braves, in this critical situation only a miracle can save us. Kneel down all of you and pray to the Holy Virgin, to the Mother of God to help us!

We all knelt down, raised our arms in the air and prayed ardently. No sooner we got up than we heard some jingling bells. We were surprised and put our hands on the weapons. We were ready to shoot.

After a moment we saw coming towards us a big mule with a huge load. We were startled. A stray animal to cross the mountain on a one meter high snow? This was quite unusual.

Then we understood: The Holy Mother of God guided him there. We thanked her and we sang in an undertone but from the bottom of our hearts: Our Lady Defender and other holy chants dedicated to her. The mule had an entire supply of food: loaves of bread, cheese, preserves, coniac and many others.

We experienced many unbelievable sufferings during war but this one remains unforgettable because it had no explanation. The Holy Mother of God gave the explanation herself.

From the book: The visions and miracles of the Theotokos, Holy Monastery Paraklitou


Learn how to pray (II)

In the end the dawn broke. He thought that as long as the beasts went to sleep he could rest. But he was hungry. He wanted to pick some blackberries to eat. He went to a bush but all of a sudden he imagined that all those wild eyes and claws might have been hidden somewhere in the bush. So he resumed his walk very carefully and at every step he said: Lord Jesus Christ save me, help me, help me, save me! Oh, my Lord, help me, protect me! For each berry he picked he prayed many times.

The time passed and after many years he met an experienced hermit who asked him how he learnt to pray without cease.

 Maximus said: I think that the devil taught me to pray without cease.

The elder answered: I understand what you mean. But I want to make sure that I understand you well.

Then Maximus explained to him how he had got used little by little with all the noises and dangers of the day and of the night. Then he got carnal temptations, spiritual temptations, temptations of the senses and after that very powerful attacks from the devil. After all this there was no moment during the day or night when he did not cry to God: Save me, save me, help me, help me!

One day after 14 years of ceaseless prayer, he had a vision with God. From that moment on his soul filled with peace and joy. There was no more fear – of darkness, of bushes, of the devil – God reigned in his soul.

Then I learnt that if God doesn’t come I am very helpless. So I continued to pray when I was peaceful and happy, saying: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, help me! – Maximus said. Because only the divine mercy brings peace of heart and mind, bodily health and power of will.

Thus we cannot say that Maximus learnt how to pray in spite of the trouble which overwhelmed him but because of that trouble, since his trouble was a real danger. If we could become aware that we are in a great trouble ourselves, in danger and the devil is lurking us, trying to catch us and destroy us, then we would pray without cease.


Learn how to pray (I)

If our despair springs out from the depths of our soul, if what we ask, if what we say aloud is so essential that can cover the needs of our life, then we find the right words to pray and in the highest moment of our prayer, we can meet God.

I would like to add something more about the `cry` of our prayer. Blind Bartimaeus cried out loud. But what does the Gospel say about the people who were around him? They tried to make him shut up. We can imagine those good worshipers, who had good sight, good legs, who were healthy and who surrounded Christ and talked about great things, about the coming Kingdom of God, about the mysteries of the Holy Gospel, how they turned to Bartimaeus and said: Can’t you just shut up? Your eyes, what matter your eyes when we talk about God? Bartimaeus seemed as if he were a stranger and all of a sudden he went in the middle and without paying attention to what was happening around him, was desperately asking from God what he needed. And he did this despite of the fact that his cries spoiled the harmony of those traditional discussions taking place around. Those who were bothered could have pushed him away and made him shut up. But the Gospel says that even if those men wanted to make him be quiet, he insisted because what he wanted was of a very high importance for him.

The harder they tried to make him shut up, the louder he cried.

Here is my message. In Greece there is a saint called Maximus. He was young when one day he went to the church and heard the reading from the Apostle, who says that we must pray ceaselessly. This impressed him so much that he thought he couldn’t do anything else but try to keep this commandment.

When he got out of the church he decided to go to the nearest mountain and there in silence to start praying in the way he heard in the Gospel. As a Greek peasant from the fourth century, he knew the our father prayer and some more others. And as he confesses himself he started to say them one after another then started all over again. He felt very well. He prayed, communicated with God, rejoiced. All things seemed perfect to him. But the sun was about to set and it got cold and dark.

It was complete darkness when he heard around him many strange noises. He heard the branches which were crushed under the feet of the animals, he saw the glittering eyes of the wild beasts, he heard the cries of the small animals which were eaten by the big ones. He heard all the noises which are commonly heard in a forest.

Then he felt he was alone. Alone indeed, a small defenceless creature in the middle of a world of danger, death and pain. He felt he had no aid if God didn’t offer him His Own. He didn’t continue to say his prayers but did exactly what Baertimeus had done. He started to cry out loud: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me! And he cried like this all night, because the wild beasts and their glittering eyes didn’t give him any rest.