In the introduction to his explanation of the prayer, "Our Father," St. Maximus the Confessor explains the meaning of prayer in connection with his very profound understanding of the nature of free will and its role in salvation.
Prayer, according to St. Maximus, consists ideally in petition for that which God desires to give us — or rather, for what He has given us and does give is in Himself through His Incarnation.
"Prayer is a petition for blessings which come from the Word Incarnate."
"Prayer is the petition that the one who observes [the commandments] be brought to the enjoyment of what they contain."
Since He knows us better than we know ourselves, He alone knows what is good for us. And so we learn from Him what we should ask for — i.e. what He in His goodness gives to us — and we increase our desire for it by asking Him for it!
The prayer, "Our Father," according to St. Maximus, is therefore presented to us as the perfect prayer, since it "makes request for whatever the Word of God himself wrought through the flesh in His self-abasement."
This is related to the mystery of free will! God created us in His own image, and our will is therefore essentially both free and good. This image was tarnished by our fall, but it is again restored in Christ.
The ultimate goal of our life lies in becoming like Him, as He created us to be! And this means that our free will, while remaining free, is once again inclined totally — and freely — to what is good. In this way, the many different wills of God and men become once again united in a single purpose, bringing harmony to creation.
Christ made this possible through His Incarnation, when he
"kept a free will [His human will] tranquil and undisturbed in the face of nature and did not allow it to become unsettled in its own movement in a way contrary to nature [meaning, desiring what is not perfectly good] even in the face of those who were crucifying him."
Even more, continues St. Maximus, he "broke down the middle wall of partition" (Eph 2:14) among us and between God and us, by enabling all of our free wills to once again strive in a single direction — that of good.
But attaining this state takes time, precisely because our will is free. Christ gives us the power to again choose good, but it is still in our power to choose not to. And so it behooves us to humbly submit to God, striving to align our own will with His. We can do this by following St. Maximus' advice (above) with regard to prayer.
"Thus, by confirming through prayer the grace of what is natural to seek after, he will join the will of the one who supplies the grace the free will of those who request it, by rendering it identical in a union of relation."
This is not always easy, for "the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force" (Matt 11:12). But in the words of St. Maximus: "the mystery of salvation belongs to those who desire it, not to those who are forced to submit to it."
Thank you for this article, Father Seraphim. May God grant you many years!
Thank you, Helen. This was actually me – sorry I forgot to sign it.