We Must All Work Out Our Own Salvation

We Must All Work Out Our Own Salvation March 20, 2017
Trappist monk praying by © Daniel Tibi |. Some rights reserved. (Own work) [CC BY 2.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
Trappist monk praying by © Daniel Tibi |. Some rights reserved. (Own work) [CC BY 2.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

A brother said to Abba Anthony, “Pray for me.” The old man said to him, ” I will have no mercy upon you, nor will God have any, if you yourself do not make an effort and if you do not pray to God.”[1]

At first glance, this saying of Anthony appears to be very harsh. Why would Anthony say he give no mercy to someone asking for his help, that is, imply that he would not pray for a brother monk when he was asked for such a prayer?  Is that not what we should do for each other, that is, pray for each other?

Certainly.

But we must not rely upon the prayers of others. We must not assume by their prayer, we will be reformed and made holy. They can help, but in the end, we must cooperate with the grace which is sent to us from such prayers so as to make the effective. If we want to receive a share of the blessings which comes from the holiness of others, and receive the fruit of their labors, we must incorporate that blessing into our lives. We must work out our salvation with much fear and trembling, taking the grace which is established in and through such prayers, and unite ourselves with it, so that through such synergy, we find our lives transformed and made holy as well.

If we expect to be made holy purely on the accomplishment of others, no matter how much prayer is said for us, we will end up rejecting grace, finding ourselves outside the reach of the mercy which grace generates. We must not rely solely upon the prayer of God by others, even the great saints, without also praying to God and trying to interact with him ourselves. The prayer of the saints will help us. Their work for us will help establish the crutch which we need to get back on our feet, but what use is that crutch if we are unwilling to get up and walk? So, likewise what use was Anthony’s prayer if the one who asked for it was unwilling to pray themselves? Anthony here is critical of spiritual laziness, of sloth, reminding the monk who asked him for prayers that he cannot become holy so long as he seeks it in sloth.

The message of this saying is not that we should avoid asking others for prayers, nor that we should deny prayers for the sake of others if they should ask, but the reminder that with all grace and help which comes from such prayers, there is still the need for the one being prayed over to properly receive the grace which is being invoked if they want it to be effective.

We cannot rely upon the prayers of others for our spiritual journey. There comes a time when we must do things for ourselves. There comes a time when we must pray for ourselves. This is not to say that everyone will need to engage the same kind of prayer life.  Different people will be called to different kinds of spirituality, so that for some, they will be called to the contemplative life with silent meditation, while others will be called to a more active life, praying more for others than themselves. The key is to realize we must pray to God, to open ourselves in one fashion or another to God, if we want to be saved.

St. Symeon the New Theologian, therefore, pointed out that we must preserve God’s grace through our actions:

The roof of a house rests on its foundations and walls; correspondingly the foundations themselves are laid in the manner required for them to serve as support for the roof.  A roof cannot stand without foundations, and foundations without a roof serve no living or practical purpose. Similarly, God’s grace is preserved through the practice of the commandments, while the practice of the commandments as it were the foundation for the divine gift. The grace of the Spirit will not remain with us without the practice of the commandments, nor will the practice of the commandments serve any useful purpose without the grace of God. [2]

Fundamental to our work with God is our prayer. We are to “pray constantly” (1 Thes. 5:17 RSV), so that we set within ourselves the foundation for God’s Spirit to come to us with grace. It will reside with us so long as we open ourselves to God to reside in us as his temple. Through the Spirit in us, the great treasury of blessings, we are given the means by which we can preserve God’s holy temple within even as we build it up, making it greater, so that God can be greatly glorified through us. But if we let the temple to suffer the decay of sin and  fall apart from within, if we ignore its upkeep, then the Spirit will leave. The prayer of others helps, but we still have the primary duty to make sure our life follows God’s expectations for us. If we do not, then the grace invoked for our favor will have no ground in which to reside, and so will slow vanish, unless we correct ourselves and restore the temple of God within.

Anthony, therefore, was concerned with the brother who came to him. His direction here was at once particular, because he understood the intention of the monk who sought his aid, but also worthy of repetition so we can learn the lesson as well and do not find ourselves floundering in our spiritual life, looking for others to do what we need to do ourselves. Anthony guided the monk for his own benefit, and what initially appears to be harsh, is actually done out of love. If and when people ask us for prayer, if we are not working with them, if we do not have the intricate knowledge of their spiritual life, we must not assume we can repeat what Anthony said and tell them to go away and we will not pray for them. We must pray for them unless we have specific insight and wisdom which suggests otherwise; we must pray for them, and if we do not, we must work for them and correct them out of love so that they come to the stage where our prayers can be effective. For we must remember we are called to pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ, and if we do not, then we have ignored the commands of God, and have shown ourselves to be an unfit temple for God.


 

[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 4.

[2] St. Symeon the New Theologian, “Practical and Theological Texts” in The Philokalia. The Complete Text. Volume IV. Trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, Kallistos Ware et. al (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), 42.

 

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