Prayer – It’s Something Personal

refusing confession by RepinI have long been intrigued with the notion of our common responsibility, or rather, that I am “responsible for the sins of the whole world.” I think I first came across the notion in a quote from the Elder Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov. And even there, Dostoevsky was only putting on the lips of his fictional Elder the sentiments of the saints and the common teaching of the Church.

At one time I mostly thought about all of this as having something to do with the fact that there is only one human essence, that our common humanity is a sharing in one being (ousia). Though this is a way to think about it, I have come to believe that it is not the specific teaching of the Church. In a way, the Western notion of Original Sin is far more akin to this. There is only one essence, and Adam took us down with him – a kind of Federalism as it is known.

Instead, I tend to understand this now as something potentially centered in us as persons. There is a freedom involved in accepting the common reponsibility of humanity for all of its sins. I can say, “Yes,” to this, or I can refuse it. As Fr. Sophrony writes, our very refusal is a repetition of Adam’s sin, who refused to acknowledge any culpability in his own act. The problem, Adam argued, was with God, who gave him “that woman.”

It also centers the problem squarely within the realm of love (which can only exist where there is freedom). I am not utterly free, there are many givens within my life and situation. And yet there are many things that I can choose to embrace or refuse to acknowledge. This embracing or refusing is the action of our heart towards others and ultimately towards God (“inasmuch as you did it to the least of these my brethren”).

Thus I cannot argue on some objective ground that you are responsible for the sins of all. You may want to refuse that kind of unity with the whole of humanity. But if you do so, you will not be able to pray for them. You cannot pray for the other as though you had no connection to them. Praying as though you had no connection is mere noblesse oblige, our pride that somehow we are different (and superior) to those for whom we pray.

Prayer, in its final analysis, can only be accomplished as we stand in union with Christ, and Christ will not separate Himself from others. He has “become sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Thus if we are to pray in union with Christ, we will also have to pray as though “having become sin.” Thus we can honestly pray and say that we are the chief of sinners.

But this must not be something we embrace as theoretical. We cannot theoretically pray. God is not a theoretical God, but He Who Is. If we embrace others and accept responsibility for their sins, then we do so only as an act of love that unites us to them and to God who has so humbled Himself. If we refuse them then we can at best find ourselves lost in our own righteousness, which, before God, “is as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:5). But by embracing all, and becoming responsible for all, we unite ourselves with Christ “who is through all and in you all.”

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





32 responses to “Prayer – It’s Something Personal”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Revised from a February, 2007 post.

  2. Marion Avatar

    Bless Father,
    I have been following your blog for a couple of years now as I struggle towards conversion to orthodoxy from Roman Catholicism. Your recent posts are especially relevant to me. I work as a jailer on the night shift in our local county jail. There it is easy to see others as evil and ourselves as good. However, your posts and what I am learning of Orthodoxy help remind me of the Truth. When I examine my conscience, I know there is a very thin line between where I stand and where they stand. That line runs right through the Heart of Jesus and unites us all. Pray that God continues to heal my blindness.
    God bless and keep you in His Heart. Pray for us as we do for you.
    Your little brother in Christ,

  3. Andrea Avatar

    Ava Stephen: bless, but what if you are already crushed under the weight of your own sins and are still working on not taking over God’s role as Judge of you as you learn to accept His forgiveness and forgiving yourself? Would taking on this extra burden of ‘everyone’s Sin just make you even MORE neurotic and condemnation ridden (mind I did not say conviction there is a definitive line between the two I realize but I personally have dealt with being able to let go of my own sin and learn to forgive myself for a long time, I’m just getting to the point)
    A loaded issue I’m sure.
    Thanks be to God,

  4. Marsha Avatar

    Andrea, I’d be interested in hearing this, as well. I seem to vacillate in wanting to take on all sin, and taking on none. Both of course, are because I want the power. If it’s all my fault, I can fix it. And if it isn’t my fault, I can blame. Somewhere within the two….lies the Way, I am assuming.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    Andrea and Marsha,
    Neurosis is its own disease – for which less sin is not the cure. I’m not a psychologist, so I would hesitate to say too much about neurosis (a morbid sense of too much responsibility). I would think it important to gradually come to a healthier understanding of sin (less rooted in ‘things I do right or wrong’). Repentance does not consist in ‘learning to get it right’. Repentance consists in the state of the heart (‘broken and contrite’). I think one of the freedoms that can come with understanding the commonality of all sinners – is that I can quit competing and comparing (a neurotic response). Instead of worrying about self-improvement – we simply pray to be united to Christ – together with everything and everyone. It is in union with Christ that we’ll find forgiveness and healing and everything.

  6. Steve Avatar

    Father Stephen: If you don’t mind I’d like to direct a response to Marion as he seems to be struggling against undercurrents of some description.

    Marion: Firstly I’d like to start by asking God to bless you in whatever you decide to do. Marion, it is important that we understand the true meaning of “communion” for we draw spiritual life from all that we are “in communion” with. Father Stephen is very right when he says that what matters is union with Christ. Whatever keeps us away from union with Him (for he is in God), should be discarded at the earliest opportunity.


  7. Dusty Henry Avatar
    Dusty Henry

    How is it that one entitles his post as about prayer but then talks of sin? Very subtle. This switch alone speaks volumes.

    If I think of sin as my individual decisions, and of your sin as your individual decisions, then there is no common responsibility. But if I come to realize that I sin because I am sick then that changes things. I have to drop the notion that I sin because I want to. That is hard for us to do.

    But once I drop that notion then all becomes clear. Suppose that sin is a contagious disease? Not only can I not help myself but neither can any one else. And since I keep mucking about in the human race spreading this decease then I am responsible for every one else’s disease too. I purposely infect others. Perhaps the only real decision I make about sin is whether I am going to continue in it.

    As soon as I realize this about sin then real prayer begins. I stop praying for God to help me make better decisions and begin to beg for his mercy for I am totally undone. A terminally sick man. If Jesus does not save me than I will never be saved. Prayer becomes really personal then. One person begging another person for help. “Lord have mercy on me a sinner.”

    And it totally changes my attitude toward other people too. That “dirty bum” has the same sickness as I. And I am that “dirty bum” too. But as I receive healing because of my person to person prayer that healing balm is spread to all us bums. For if I am person in relation to The Lord then I can learn to be person to dirty bums too.

    So prayer becomes all the more personal when solidarity with the human race is the more realized. But then there is the solidarity with heaven too. No one prays alone. The communion of Saints!!! This makes prayer personal too. Other persons are involved in my prayers. My person is related to other. That’s what makes me a person.

    Oh! I better stop I’ve ranted enough. Forgive me Father. I am in over my head now.

  8. Steve Avatar

    Dusty Henry: When you understand that you are dead in sin, and that even your ‘good’ works are filthy rags and that you can do nothing except make yourself pliant to the will of God — that’s the point at which you’ll truly know God (which is eternal life).

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    You were on a roll! Outstanding!

  10. Steve Avatar

    Only just started Dusty. Trust me on this.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m not even sure we can “make ourselves pliant to the will of God.” “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me,” seems to be God’s work as well. I’m with Dusty, “Lord, have mercy,” is perhaps the high point of Christian prayer, particularly as God makes it more fully into prayer and works within me.

  12. mike Avatar

    ..father stephen..your response to Andrea and Marsha is so close to bringing me to a “revelation”…would/could you re-articulate the thought for me once again….

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    Mike, I’ll try.

    The very heart of sin is in seeking to live outside of communion with God (and communion with anyone else for that matter). So, how well we perform, get it right, etc., really doesn’t matter. A well-performing dead man is still a dead man. Christ did not come in order to make bad men good, but to make dead men live (I quote myself, forgive me).
    To seek to live in communion with Christ is everything. And He has so sought to restore communion with us that He even “becomes sin” (though He Himself does not sin) that “we might become the righteousness of God.” Thus even in my sin I am able to enter communion with Him (if communion with Him awaited my lack of sin, there’d never be any communion). Thus the question at Orthodox Baptism, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” and we respond, “I do unite myself to Christ.” This is everything.

    In my union with Him I find healing of sin (lack of communion) and the beginnings of transformation. I also find union with others (including all sinners) and seek no longer to live a life defined only by myself. Thus comparisons and the like mean very little if anything.

    “Apart from me you can do nothing,” Christ says. “Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood, abides in me and I in him.” He also says. Union with Christ is everything. Thus St. Paul can sum up God’s purpose (a fairly bold thought) as “that He might gather together into one all things in Christ” (Eph. 1:10).

    It is a revelation. Perhaps the revelation.

  14. Steve Avatar

    There’s a wonderful parable Father, where the master of a household assigns wicked servants a place with the hypocrites as reward for their evil deeds. By this Jesus means to tell us that God seeks out those who will in turn seek Him in their hearts, not through lip service which he likens to the whitewashing of tombs which is an exercise in futility, if ever there was one.

  15. Dusty Henry Avatar
    Dusty Henry

    I hate to hear some one quote “ your works are as filthy rags”. I’ve never found that very helpful. What helps me is the fact that I really can be pleasing to God. And that he rewards me. Will even give me a new name. I don’t mean self fulfillment. I mean the discovery of my real self, what I was created to be. In Christ we are that. Union in Christ is truly everything. In communion I am made. In sin I am un-made. Here’s the way Paul put it:

    10[For my determined purpose is] that I may know Him [that I may progressively become more deeply and intimately acquainted with Him, perceiving and recognizing and understanding the wonders of His Person more strongly and more clearly], and that I may in that same way come to know the power outflowing from His resurrection [which it exerts over believers], and that I may so share His sufferings as to be continually transformed [in spirit into His likeness even] to His death, [in the hope]
    11That if possible I may attain to the [spiritual and moral] resurrection [that lifts me] out from among the dead [even while in the body].
    12Not that I have now attained [this ideal], or have already been made perfect, but I press on to lay hold of (grasp) and make my own, that for which Christ Jesus (the Messiah) has laid hold of me and made me His own.
    13I do not consider, brethren, that I have captured and made it my own [yet]; but one thing I do [it is my one aspiration]: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,
    14I press on toward the goal to win the [supreme and heavenly] prize to which God in Christ Jesus is calling us upward. (Phil. 3, Amplified Bible)

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    It’s been years since I read the Amplified Bible. I agree with your point, indeed. But I’d like to make a side comment on a mistaken thrust of the Amplification.

    To know Christ is not to “become progressively more deeply and intimately acquainted with Him, perceiving and recognizing” this makes Paul’s use of the word to know into mostly a matter of the mind. I think it would be better understood in line with koinonia, communion. To know Christ is more like “to know” in the occasional Hebrew use of the word, in which to know is to participate in. It’s a pet peeve of mine – that too often the very strong sense of communion and participation that runs throughout St. Paul’s writing (and the whole of the NT) is downgraded in translations to mere perception or fellowship (thus creating a Biblical basis for the 2 storey universe and the character of discreet individualism in the protestant “relationship” with God).

    Thanks for the patience with my side-comment. Don’t mean to stray from your point.

  17. Dusty Henry Avatar
    Dusty Henry

    I know. I thought of making a caution about that my self. And also a caution about the Amplified Bible in general. It is chuck full of misleading theology. But in a few places it is helpful, I think. This is one of those few places that has been helpful to me in the past. And it does add ” the wonders of his person”, so points to the kind of knowledge one gains intuitively. As when one gets to know a person.

    Thanks very much for the love you show towards me. I greatly appreciate that. That you would let me comment at all is marvelous.

  18. mike Avatar

    ..very helpful fr stephen…thank you….now i must ponder this in quiet contemplation as i submit myself to a “deprogramming” in a manner of speaking..(im protestant)…

  19. fatherstephen Avatar

    Many thanks. We are all just commenting on the wonders of God.

  20. alyssasophia Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Chiming in here late, but as usual am amazing at the timing of your posts–just spent the weekend away reading Sophrony’s biography of St. Silouan (The Monk of Mount Athos–which you recommended to me upon my conversion almost 3 years ago!). What a lesson in prayer!

    Fresh in my mind, regarding sin, Sophrony says:

    “Sin is primarily a metaphysical phenomenon whose roots lie in the mystic depths of man’s spiritual nature. The essence of sin consists not in the infringement of ethical standards but in a falling away from the divine eternal life for which man was made and to which, by his very nature, he is called.

    Sin is committed first of all in the secret depths of the human spirit, but its consequences distort the whole individual. A sin will, inevitably, pass beyond the boundaries of the sinner’s own life to burden all humanity and thus affect the fate of the whole world. The sin of our forefather Adam was not the only sin of cosmic significance. Every sin, secret or manifest, committed by each one of us, has a bearing on the rest of the universe.” (pg 22)

    I guess it might be with this in mind that St. Paul could say humbly “Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”

    And a little later Sophrony says of love, speaking of the Staretz:

    “The ascetic learns the great mysteries of the spirit through pure mental prayer. He descends into his inmost heart, into his natural heart first and thence into those depths that are no longer of the flesh. He thus finds his deep heart–reaches the profound spiritual, metaphysical core of his being; and looking into it he sees that existence of mankind is not something alien and extraneous to him, but is inextricably bound up with his own existence.

    ‘Our brother is our life,’ the Staretz often said.

    Through Christ’s love all men are made an inseparable part of our individual, eternal existence. The Staretz began to understand the commandment, Love thy neighbor as thyself, as something more than an ethical imperative. In the word “as” he saw an indication, not of a required degree of love but of an “ontological community of being”–the commandment of Christ incorporates man in the whole Divine act of the creation of the world.” (pg 31)

    And while all of this is amazing to think about (especially because I am still in the early stages of what I expect will be a very long process of dumping out the old, wrong ways of thinking that my brain has learned over the last 20+ years, and absorbing the Orthodox way of life), what is even more incredible is actually doing it…living it…becoming it. Living in the One-Storey Universe. I have been impacted most by these two sentences in which Sophrony says of Staretz Silouan:

    “Fr. Silouan was a man in the proper sense of the word, made in the image and likeness of God. The world is beautiful–it is the creation of a mighty God. But there is nothing more beautiful than a true man, for man is the son of God.” (pg. 38)

    May we all be truly united with Christ! Pray for us Holy St. Silouan!

  21. Cheryl Avatar


    I’m struggling with this post–not because I disagree with it, but because it’s hard to live out.

    Part of it scares me a little bit, because I can’t help but think of my ‘kids’ [I mean children I’ve worked with in a ministerial capacity, not my own biological children] who have suffered abuse of various sorts: physical and sexual. Some of them grow up with such guilt as is, and we’re constantly telling them it’s not their fault.

    Forgive me if I’m misunderstanding. I just read a post like this, and my mind goes to those children and the guilt and shame and suffering they already feel…and I’m supposed to ask them to believe that they’re responsible for their abusers sin? That they’re in any way complicit? And that this is necessary to forgive? I can understand asking them to realize their abusers are humans: who have been hurt themselves, who live in a world of sin, and to have pity on them. I think this is the only way to come to a place of forgiveness…is this closer to what you mean?

    Please help me to understand. I don’t mean to ask just to be disagreeable, I ask because it’s one of the hardest things I’ve encountered in the teaching of the Orthodox faith. Yet I know it is valuable and worth wrestling with.


    And please pray for “my” children.

  22. fatherstephen Avatar

    It’s not a teaching for children. I think it’s an understanding that adults might come to at some point in their lives. It should also be noted that it is an act of freedom – an act that is not justifiable except for love. The children of whom you speak have had boundaries violated in the deepest sense of the word. Those boundaries need to be healed before they can begin to feel safe and to love as they ought. At some point in adulthood such a mystery might open itself to them. That is in God’s hands.

    Responsibility in this post does not mean believing that they are complicit or at fault in what their abusers have done. It would, at most, teach pity.

    Again, only in time and with healing, might they discover more than pity. There are many mysteries that are too “terrible” for children (in the original sense of the word). It does not undermine the truth of such mysteries but underlines the fragility of children in our world. May God bless your work.

  23. Luke Avatar

    I understand your answer to Cheryl, but what about adults that are confronted by extreme evil enemies like Hitler, Stalin, serial murderes or child molesters?
    How can we even accept them as human? Isn’t there a boundary that has been violated?

    I understan that there is a fear if we do somehow accept everybody unconditionally that they will somehow “contaminate” God’s kingdom.
    Is this fear rational?


  24. fatherstephen Avatar

    We know from St. Luke’s gospel that God is “kind to the unthankful and the evil” (6:32). Of course there are acts that are hideous and unthinkable, and yet we are not told that God is not kind to those who do such things. We are told that He is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:1). This does not indicate that all will come to repentance – this is known only to God.

    But it remains for our will to be united to God – thus we should want all to come to repentance (which I sometimes suspect that we don’t want some to come to repentance – we want them to be hurt, and for a very long time). But despite the great wickedness of some, they remain human and we cannot help the fact that we share a common human nature – and that mystically we bear many things in common.

    I do not think that everyone can hear this, nor that many will want to pray as the saints pray – for everyone and everything. I think many will do well to pray for the least of their enemies (though this is a good thing and a place to start).

    But because we cannot imagine prayer and mercy for some (or not very easily) we should at least confess that God has such mercy and that some are able to pray even for the worst – not making themselves better in their own judgment.

    Orthodox Christians confess that: “Of sinners, I am first,” echoing the words of St. Paul. But we evidently do not think so – imagining that whatever is true of me, at least I’m not Stalin or at least I’m not a child molester, or whatever form of sinner we find most repulsive.

    I’ll grant they are repulsive. But what are the words to mean, “Of sinners, I am first”?

    Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov wrestles with this in the form of a novel – with answers that are more existential than intellectual. But it is well worth a thoughtful read. His Crime and Punishment does some of the same thing and can be read similarly. I recommend the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation as the most accurate and best to read.

    Nothing can “contaminate” God’s kingdom. The very nature of His Kingdom is illumination and purification (though some would find this purification to be torment).

  25. Stephen Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I work as a social worker in an environment where people that I am trying to help are products of poverty and mental illness. For some it is a choice for others it is difficult to tell at best. I try not to make a judgment on that. I also try to say a prayer for them as I leave their company. I have often thought and wondered if this is not a judgment in itself- the great spiritual “me” praying for the lowly and wounded, mentally ill person. Can the fact that I choose to pray for someone be a judgment, in that I think they need prayer and I am worthy to pray for them? How does one avoid a superiority complex when praying for those who we deem or judge to have needs mentally and physically? It seems that one must be careful in how he/she views the needs, wounds and possibly sins of others.

  26. fatherstephen Avatar

    A good prayer in many situations, modeled on one used at the monastery of St. John in Essex England: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner, and on…(insert name). Amen.

  27. Lizzy L Avatar
    Lizzy L

    Stephen, everyone needs prayer. Why not assume that your clients are equally praying for you?

  28. Stephen Avatar

    Thanks Fr. Stephen, That’s sounds like a good prayer! It starts with an acknowledgment of ones own unworthiness and moves out in prayer for another. I also suppose at times there is nothing wrong with recognizing needs within certain living conditions and environments and praying accordingly, while taking action to help- we could also be the answer to a prayer- We can see in this that our brother or sister is suffering and also that we have been given much to be thankful for, possessing the ability to share of ourselves.

    Lizzy L, I hope my clients are praying for me. Wouldn’t that be wonderful because I can certainly use it.

  29. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Cheryl, the responsibility is not a legalistic formula. It is not as if the children ‘did something’ that tempted the abuser. Nor would I in such a situation even mention such a concept. I just know that without forgiveness the pain and the sin of the abuser is magnified and compounded in the one abused.

    IMO, it is nearly impossible for a human being to actually forgive someone else without some feeling of empathy for that person.

    The more we recognize the depth of our own sinfulness, the more easily forgiveness of others becomes. Not that we should beat ourselves up in some kind of self-flagellation and guilt, that is a sin too.

    I love the saying of Elder Sophrony I read recently (somewhat paraphrased): “Stand on the edge of the abyss as long as you can, then withdraw and have a cup of tea”. The abyss is, of course, the recognition of our own sins. Our balance on that edge is only maintained by our concomitent thanksgiving for all the wonders God pours into our lives each and every moment.

    It is a process of the enlargement of our hearts as Archmandrite Zacharias has pointed out. It does not happen all at once, and few attain to the perfection of love that St. Siloaun did.

  30. Aaroneous Avatar

    This image of the abyss and a cup of tea reminds me so much of a passage from “The Book of Tea” by Okakura Kakuzo:

    “The Taoists relate that at the great beginning of the No-Beginning, Spirit and Matter met in mortal combat. At last the Yellow Emperor, the Sun of Heaven, triumphed over Shuhyung, the demon of darkness and earth. The Titan, in his death agony, struck his head against the solar vault and shivered the blue dome of jade into fragments. The stars lost their nests, the moon wandered aimlessly among the wild chasms of the night. In despair the Yellow Emperor sought far and wide for the repairer of the Heavens. He had not to search in vain. Out of the Eastern sea rose a queen, the divine Niuka, horn-crowned and dragon-tailed, resplendent in her armor of fire. She welded the five-coloured rainbow in her magic cauldron and rebuilt the Chinese sky. But it is told that Niuka forgot to fill two tiny crevices in the blue firmament. Thus began the dualism of love–two souls rolling through space and never at rest until they join together to complete the universe. Everyone has to build anew his sky of hope and peace.

    The heaven of modern humanity is indeed shattered in the Cyclopean struggle for wealth and power. The world is groping in the shadow of egotism and vulgarity. Knowledge is bought through a bad conscience, benevolence practiced for the sake of utility. The East and the West, like two dragons tossed in a sea of ferment, in vain strive to regain the jewel of life. We need a Niuka again to repair the grand devastation; we await the great Avatar. Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.”

  31. easton Avatar

    father, when we talk about evil, how do you feel about mental illness? biology and genes and brain malfunctions and organic brain problems can make people do what they would not, if not ill. how can we label someone evil when the brain controls all, and the brain can be ill just like the body? for example, someone with schizophrenia is not evil. actions do not tell the whole story, and noone knows the biology of another person, or the path that person has been on. our society seems to label many as evil, and it disturbs me. only god knows.

  32. fatherstephen Avatar


    Mental illness and what accompanies it are not evil in the moral sense. They are a brokenness and manifest the fact that we are broken and in need of healing. But in an Orthodox understanding of these matters “evil” is not so much a moral category as a category of our opposition to God and our drive towards non-being (regardless of what powers it). It is in need of healing, not moral approbation.

    God alone knows what each of us needs in our healing. What we can know is that God heals (and forgives – which is often the same thing).

    The difficulty in such discussions is the fact that the whole question of “morality” is defined in our culture in a way that is not the same as in Orthodox thought – thus it’s possible to talk “past” each other.

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