Prayer makes up a significant part in every major religious tradition. Thus, if a cross-section of Chaplain Corner readers were asked, “What is prayer,” a variety of definitions would likely emerge. Many would possibly resemble the one I remember from my childhood catechism: “Prayer is the lifting of our minds and hearts to God.” Prayer can be active or passive, individual or communal. Many of the different forms of prayer may contain aspects of worship, petition and thanksgiving. Our Eastern Church Spiritual Father St. Mark the Ascetic tells us: "There are many different methods of prayer. . . . No method is harmful. . . .” (Philokalia I). St. Dorotheos of Gaza (Wheeler, 1977) reflects the common teaching of the Eastern Fathers that for prayer to be effective it has to be done with a pure heart.
The 19th Century British statesman Benjamin Disraeli was quoted as saying: "Moderation is the center wherein all philosophies, both human and divine, meet."i Certainly, in the Hebrew and Christian tradition we see moderation lauded. In the Proverbs of Solomon (25:27) we read: "As it is not good for a man to eat much honey, so he that is a searcher of majesty, shall be overwhelmed by glory." Other religious traditions also praise moderation. Buddha, for example, describes the middle way as a path of moderation between the poles of extreme indulgence and deprivation.ii To accomplish this one would also have to follow the path of wisdom.iii
Cognitive psychotherapist Albert Ellis (1962) notes that "there is something about the nature of human beings more than others . . .which makes it horribly difficult for them to take the middle ground . . .instead of having moderating behavior." The beneficent effects of moderation in the areas of health, such as eating, drinking, exercise and various psychological domains are well known. In dieting, for example, "the goal is to obtain balance, variety, and moderation. People sometimes do not realize that they can eat the foods they enjoy, but the intent is to do it in moderation."iv
Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (1975) puts forth the idea that religion can be defined "as man's search for ultimate meaning." This implies a spiritual vision of the universe. A science without God would posit that the cosmos is nothing but something that exists in space or space-time. However, as Eastern Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov (2001) notes, such a position "offers no constructive explanation to deal with existence." To put it another way, it begins and ends with the question: Is this all there is?
Spiritual perception, however, would begin the search for meaning by looking at the universe and seeing that the meaning of life permeates, from within, the cosmos that we inhabit. In the words of the Psalmist: "The heavens shew forth the glory of God, and the firmament declareth the work of his hands." (Ps 18: 2). But there is another way of knowing God that is beyond any glory possible to be conceived by man, because God is so much greater than the limits of man's perception. The other path for intuiting God is the path of negation. Unknowingly, this is the path many who deny God have stumbled upon. For those with spiritual perception, such knowledge could be described as a mystical path, an antinomy that is knowledge-beyond-knowledge. The Hebrews had a sense that no word can capture God. They referred to Him as Adonai (Lord) rather than a word they would not speak, YHWH (Yahweh). St. Gregory of Nyssa (1978), describing Moses, said that when "he grew in knowledge, he declared that he had seen God in the darkness, that is, . . . he had come to know that what is Divine is beyond all knowledge and comprehension." The Book of Exodus (20: 21) tells us, "But Moses went to the dark cloud wherein God was." And David the King and Prophet writes of God: "He made darkness His hiding place; as His canopy around Him." (Ps 17: 12).
In the mid 1960’s there was a popular folk song that played the airwaves: The Sounds of Silence. It was originally written in the wave of national grief that followed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. However, this song actually reaches far beyond the historical event and touches a fountain of great spiritual depth. Consider a couple lines from the song: "Hello darkness, my old friend I've come to talk with you again . . .The words of the prophets are written. . .And whispered in the sounds of silence." A very appropriate reflection for the start of Spring comes from the saintly Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “We need to find God, and He cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature - trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence. . . .We need silence to be able to touch souls.”
The value of silence cuts across so many religious traditions. The prophet Habakkuk (2: 20) instructed the Jews: "But the Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him." Buddhists find in silence the meaning of the universe: "When a man knows the solitude of silence, and feels the joy of quietness, he is then free from fear and he feels the joy of the dharma [basic principles of the cosmos].i In the Islamic tradition Rumi notes: "I implored the sage in earnest last night to unveil the mysteries of the universe. He whispered softly in my ear, "Silence! It is something to perceive but never to say."ii
One of the most revered contemporary Spiritual Fathers of the Eastern Church, Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain (1924-1994), gives an insight that can be applied to a tragic event that is fresh in the minds of many around world today. The Elder counseled us to have well-disposed thinking toward those around us. He told his spiritual disciples to see the "good things" around them and not focus on the evil people do.
In the spirit of the counsel of Elder Paisios I want to focus on the report of the good done by one of the Chaplains on board the severely damaged cruise-liner that went aground and partially sank off the coast of Italian Tuscan island of Giglio, Italy in January 2012. The horror of the plight of those passengers who were trapped was well documented by the media in text and video. As the ship was sinking the Chaplain radioed his headquarters, the Apostleship of the Sea, whose function in part is “to promote the spiritual, moral and social development" to those at sea, that it was his intention to "stay close to the crew and the passengers to comfort them at this moment of great confusion." The Chaplain also shared his thoughts at the very beginning of the disaster "There were so many children, I took a little girl in my arms. I asked that she be sent first with her mother and her evacuation took precedence." [http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/chaplain-costa-concordia-crew-showed-personal-sacrifice/]
I remember the first time I met Scott Hakim, a United States Marine who had grown up attending St. Anthony’s Orthodox Church in Bergenfeld, New Jersey. I was assigned to that parish while attending St. Vladimir’s Seminary, and he was just coming back from Iraq; I had been invited to his coming-home party at his family’s house on a Sunday afternoon. The thing I remember best is being lost – his father Jerry Hakim could tell you how many times I called, just to find the house!
Ever since then, it feels like I have been trying hard to find him in one place or another. Soon after he left New Jersey that Sunday afternoon to head back to Camp Lejeune, I received orders from the Navy Chaplain Corps, stationing me with the Marines, actually right down the street from him. Our command buildings were less than half a mile from each other, but getting together was not so easy – we stay pretty busy in the Marine Corps. Through a series of phone calls and near misses over my first six weeks at Camp Lejeune, we finally got together on the base, and my wife and I eventually got him over to our house for dinner. He also became a regular at my little Orthodox Chapel at nearby Camp Johnson.
In October of this past year I realized I hadn’t seen him in a couple of weeks, and called his cell phone. There was no answer. It turned out he was at a training exercise across the country. As he returned, I traveled west for training, missing him again. And then I was deployed to Afghanistan in January.