Orthodox Churches using the modern calendar began the 14 day fast observing the Dormition of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary = “she who bore God) this past Sunday. Wise Christians of old often taught that we should remember our own mortality as we live and that we will have to face the Lord’s dread judgement seat. Thus, our prayer times should not be taken lightly as periods and places to puff ourselves up. As we are in God’s presence, everything that we have done, thought, and capable of doing should be mournfully confessed that we may receive His forgiveness.
An example of this humility and it’s benefit in prayer is found in Luke 18:9-14. Our Lord describes a tax collector, regarded as a traitor to ancient Judean society, standing at a distance from the more pious Pharisee in the temple at prayer. Instead of looking up into heaven, he beat his chest crying only for God to have mercy and defining himself as a sinner. There is no biblical or traditional record of the tax collector cheating or extorting money. For all we know, he may have been a completely honest man in a dishonest profession. Perhaps, just being in such a profession with all sorts of temptations and so far from a part of the righteous community, he knew that by thought or word, if not action, he was a sinner. Perhaps he knew he was capable of sins. In either state, the tax collector approached God in self accusation. By such humility, he left the temple blessed.
This is the state of our fallen humanity. None of us can claim perfection. Even if our sins haven’t been grievous and public, God knows our hearts and minds. Self-accusation prevents us from trying to hide anything from the One who knows all things. The opposite of this is to excuse our sins by pointing out others as being less worthy and elevating our pious acts. Prayer with this frame of mind is rejected by God. It is an attempt to appease Him with our self-righteousness. With such a great difference in attitudes and outcomes, the seventh century Syriac monastic Martyrius offers this advice: “Prayer requires great attention and needs a proper awareness.“* Let’s be careful in God’s presence this Dormition season and all of our lives.
*From The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, pg. 208