Stunning and Whirling Prayer

Mount Athos
Mount Athos (Greece)

I recently finished Kyriacos Markides’ enchanting memoir, The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality. It recounts his experiences visiting Mount Athos, that heavenly vestibule in Greece, home to twenty Eastern Orthodox monasteries. Mount Athos is famous for its otherworldly sanctity and has become a popular pilgrimage site.

Markides’ book is mysterious, full of enigmatic stories that pleasantly haunt you for days. Many of them involve Father Maximos, Markides’ spiritual guide and a legendary patriarch of Mount Athos. When you hear Fr. Maximos speak you discover a monk deeply convinced that prayer is the strongest power in the world.

For example, one day Markides said to Father Maximos, “It’s hard to imagine how anyone can spend an entire life on a remote mountain doing nothing but praying”. Father Maximos snapped back, with a smile but deeply serious, sharing a story about his own spiritual mentor, a saintly monk name Paisios:

“Old Paisios always wondered how people could live their lives without continuously praying.”
“Just to give you an example of how important prayer was for him,” Father Maximos went on, “during the Gulf War he shut himself in his cell, cutting off all contact with visitors. That went on during the entire duration of the war. In fact, he intensified his prayers so that the war, as he told me later, would not get out of control and become even more destructive.”
“Did he really believe that his prayers made a difference? That they truly affected the war in the Gulf?” I asked, and gave Father Maximos a puzzled look. In spite of my many years of exposure to mystics, healers, and hermits, in spite of being a witness to spectacular healing phenomena, and in spite of recent scientific research on the possible efficacy of “intercessory prayer,” the academic skeptic always lurked at the back of my mind, ever ready to jump to the front seat.
“But of course, Kyriacos!” Father Maximos replied in earnest, implying that I should have known by then the power of prayer. “That is why holy men, like elder Paisios, constantly pray. Do you think they are fools? Why does that surprise you? Whether people recognize this fact or not, the prayers of saints for the good of the world are extremely valuable and very, very effective.”
“God listens to them,” Stephanos volunteered from the backseat.
According to the Athonite spiritual tradition, when a human being eradicates personal desires completely and reaches the state of apathia [liberation from egotistical passions], they become a “vessel of the Holy Spirit.” Then whatever that person wishes is given because it is what God actually wishes. The consciousness of the saint is fully attuned with the spirit of God.

That passage reminded me of a scene from another of my favorite books, An Ocean Full of Angels by Peter Kreeft. Kreeft is well known for his writing on apologetics and philosophy, but I think this book, his first and only novel, might actually be his best.

In one mesmerizing scene, the main character, Isa, wakes up at midnight to a strange vision. It involves his matriarchal mentor, Mother, who is a large black women with a weighty faith—sort of a cross between Aunt Jemima and St. John of the Cross:

“I was going upstairs to go to bed, and as I passed the door to Mother’s bedroom, I noticed that the door was open an inch, and I could not help seeing her through the crack as I passed. She was on her knees, praying. Nothing surprising about that.
But then the house suddenly seemed to spin around her like a whirlpool. The boards of the house looked like waves, then all the other houses on the street became bigger waves, then all of Nahant became one enormous wave, whirling round in a whirlpool that kept expanding until it included the whole planet. The whole universe was turning around this place and this event, like the whirls on the soapstone spindles in the Norse myth of the Norns.
Everything turned around that center, as if everything depended on it. I thought that the world would abruptly end if I had been so foolish as to have interrupted Mother’s prayers.
It seemed to me that events thousands of miles away were dangling at the ends of the threads she twirled in her hands, so that if she said one prayer too few, a nuclear war might break out.”

Those stories hit me like a 2×4 when I first read them. They exposed my frivolous attention to prayer, which stemmed from overlooking its power. Whenever my devotion to prayer dwindles it’s almost always because I doubt its effects.

But prayer is potent. And I don’t mean that in a vague, cliche, “put it on a cat poster” way. I mean prayer has the power to alter history and shape destinies.

The whole world spins on the axes of prayerful saints.

So dive back into the whirlpool of prayer and stir it up. The world depends on it.

“The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” – James 5:16