Put Prayer First - A Sermon on the Feast of St. Herman (2022)

Put Prayer First - A Sermon on the Feast of St. Herman (2022) - Holy Cross Monastery

It’s a curious fact of God’s Providence that the firstfruits of Orthodox sanctity in North America sprang from the humble, prayerful labors of a single, dedicated monk. Through all of the setbacks, difficulties, tragedies and untimely deaths that beset the first North American mission, the luminous figure of St. Herman shines brightly more than two-hundred years later, lighting the path for Orthodox Christianity in America today.

What relevance does St. Herman’s life have for us Christians, and especially us monks, of the 21st century? What lessons can we learn from it that apply to our own situation? Consider this remarkable instance of God’s Providence, that when the first group of missionaries travelled to this continent in 1794, they brought with them one of the first printed editions of St. Paisiy Velichkovsky’s Slavonic edition of the Philokalia. These volumes remained in St. Herman’s personal library for the course of his more than forty years of missionary monastic labor. The same texts, the same spiritual lineage that revived Orthodox monasticism in 19th century Russia and led to the flowering of eldership in places like Glinsk and Optina, was also instrumental in planting Orthodoxy in the New World.

As American Orthodox Christians, we are the spiritual heirs of St. Herman. We should look to his activity as a guide for our own, we should drink from the same spiritual fountains that he drank from in order to slake our own spiritual thirst. When we look at his life, in one sense there is nothing remarkable—we simply see the image of a true monk, of a man who through a life of assiduous prayer and ardent love for God has recovered the primal image and attained to the same stature as all of our great Fathers in the monastic life. We don’t see what many Western Christians would consider an exemplary missionary. He didn’t spend all of his time preaching, founding churches, spreading the Gospel; he didn’t give himself over wholly to outward activity. Certainly, he labored in some of these ways. He worked the land to provide for his needs, and helped support the native Aleuts as he was able. But the very heart of his missionary activity was his monastic activity. His outward labors were guided, shaped, and constrained by his primary effort to remain rooted in the prayer and stillness spoken of at length in the Philokalia.

Our circumstances in Appalachia in the 21st century are different in many ways from those in which St. Herman found himself. But the basic lesson of his devotion to prayer and stillness applies to us all the same. It’s fitting that his feast day falls on the day when most of the rest of the world is celebrating the Nativity of Christ. I will spare you the cliched critique about how this great holy day has become so commercialized in our culture, because the fact is that our own business is just as beholden as any other to the imperatives of the “holiday sales season.” But St. Herman’s example still provides a necessary counterpoint to the busyness and frivolity that characterize this time of year for so many people in the world. We have to strive not to let that same worldly spirit infect us as monks. Even in the midst of our various activities and responsibilities, we have to prioritize prayer.

It may not coincide with the Christmas holiday season, but there is almost always some season or time of the year when our obediences in the monastery make greater demands on our time. Or perhaps we feel more or less constantly under pressure from our responsibilities, and regularly struggle to find quality time for prayer. Perhaps we’re still managing to pray, to check off all the right boxes, but we squeeze it in at the end of the day, after we’ve exhausted ourselves at our work and no longer have the energy to focus and pray wholeheartedly. Or perhaps we make it to the end of the day and fail to make even such a basic effort at prayer.

When we find ourselves in these kinds of situations, we have to ask ourselves why we really came to the monastery. Was it to run a successful business? To make lots of money? Was it to keep bees? To be a five-star chef? To plant the most exquisite flower gardens? To make pounds and pounds of candles? To be a world-class singer? To take care of guests? To give tours? To raise chickens and have them lay the best eggs? The answer in every case should be a resounding “no”. If we’ve come to the monastery, it was for one reason, and one reason alone: to repent and be united to Christ.

Of course, we achieve that union in part through obedient service, and we should exercise due diligence to complete our tasks zealously and responsibly. There are even times when it is perfectly appropriate to cut short our normal rule of prayer for some urgent necessity. But if we allow our outward responsibilities repeatedly and consistently to deprive us of prayer, then something is gravely amiss. If our labors are not endued with a spirit of prayer, then our obedience simply becomes a job; and sooner or later we burn out, and our job becomes a chore. We find ourselves in a state of perpetual stress and exhaustion, scarcely able to say a single “Lord, have mercy,” and so the demons rejoice.

If we find ourselves in such a state, or if we see that we’re in danger of slipping into it, or if we simply wish to avoid it altogether, the solution is simple—put prayer first. The hours in the day are few, and our time in this life is fleeting. We have to make the time for prayer. If we’re busy, we can’t always excuse ourselves with the thought that we’re laboring for the monastery after all, so we’re justified in neglecting our prayer.

Put prayer first. Literally. Make it the first activity of the day. Rise early out of the night, as the prophet Isaiah sings in his canticle, and like a thirsty stag, drink from the fountain of stillness that God only proffers when the rest of the world lies asleep. Christ hallowed those hours of the day during His earthly life, when He would go out at night to desert places and converse prayerfully with His heavenly Father; and all of our Fathers in monastic life followed His example.

Put prayer first. Never let a single day in the monastery pass where you knowingly, willingly let some other activity take the place of prayer in the cell. Our desire for communion with God in prayer should be such that we miss it only out of great necessity, and even then with a feeling of loss and disappointment.

Put prayer first. This is what Christ means when He tells us to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. This is that good part that Mary chose, and which will never be taken away from us if we choose it too. Let us avoid Martha’s mistake of getting cumbered by many cares. God Himself promises us that He will supply our earthly needs when we seek His kingdom first and foremost. What greater assurance do we need? Which of the saints was ever put to shame when they entrusted themselves entirely to God?

Put prayer first. When we avail ourselves of the comfort of prayer, then we can see clearly how to arrange our earthly responsibilities, and we receive the strength from God to complete them. But if we foolishly neglect prayer for the sake of our earthly engagements, our fallen carnal mind has a way of elaborating or complicating the tasks in front of us, so that they take longer to finish than they otherwise could have. Or else, we will proliferate our commitments, or extend ourselves in too many directions, and so dissipate our vital energy. When our mind is enlightened through prayer, we go about our daily tasks with a lamp to guide our path; but if we deprive ourselves of its light, we stumble about left to our own devices and our own strength, which is slowly sapped by earthly cares. Neglecting prayer when you’re busy is like holding your breath while sprinting uphill, when your body needs oxygen the most. In the same way, we need prayer to sustain all of our activities in the monastery—especially when they make extra demands on us. Otherwise we become just another worldly organization, full of busybodies running about to no purpose.

We live at a moment of great promise in the life of our monastery and in the history of American Orthodoxy. We are raising up a temple in the heart of America, a temple that has the potential to be a beacon of Orthodoxy to our native land and even the whole English-speaking world. In this, we carry on the missionary labors that St. Herman began over two centuries ago. So we also have a responsibility to assimilate the same spirit of prayer that animated his life and activity. Let us strive with all our might then, brethren, to put prayer first in our lives. If we do, I have no doubt that God will bless all of our endeavors, and speedily raise up our new temple, and prosper our monastic life, to the glory of His holy name, of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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