By night on my bed I sought the one I love; I sought him, but I did not find him – H.H. Pope Shenouda III

By night on my bed I sought the one I love; I sought him, but I did not find him. (Song of Songs 3:1)

The story recounted in the Song of Songs is the spiritual life story of the human soul that has experienced life with God, one in which it has tasted the sweet and sour and undergone the good and the bad. This human soul has witnessed Gethsemane. Yet, it has also experienced the Mount of Transfiguration. It has tasted the bitterness of being alienated from God, but it has also experienced the sweetness of His companionship and His nearness. It has undergone many different states and feelings.

This human soul has experienced kindness and thoughtfulness. It is the voice of my beloved! He knocks, saying, ‘Open for me, my love, my dove, my perfect one,’ (Song 5:2). It has also encountered rejection and denial, I sought him, but I did not find him, (Song 3:1). It has experienced, I am my beloved, and my beloved is mine, (Song 6:3), and, His left hand is under my head, and his right hand embraces me, (Song 2:6). However, it has also encountered deprivation and abandonment and has been much afflicted by the guards. It has been depicted as black, yet, it has also been portrayed as beautiful, (Song 1:5). It has been subjected to humiliation and disgrace from her mother’s sons who called her keeper of vineyards, (Song 1:6). On the other hand, she has also been exalted and praised by her bridegroom, Behold you are fair, my love! Behold, you are fair! You have dove’s eyes, (Song 4:1).

Such is the condition of the human soul as it experiences living with the Lord, as it savours things that may be sweet or sour, and as it goes through difficulties and happiness. It is a long road in which man marches with the Lord. There are failures, difficulties and hardships along the road, but there are also triumphs and successes.

I have told you many times before and I still maintain that one of the most telling verses that reflects spiritual life is the last verse in chapter right of the book of Genesis. After the Flood, we read, While the earth remains, seed-time and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, and day and night shall not cease (Gen 8:22). In your lives, my beloved, there is day and night, cold and heat, summer and winter. No man leads an exclusively happy, easy and comfortable life. Every man is bound to encounter periods of darkness and difficulties, if only temporarily. Even the righteous children of light  are occasionally subjected to phases of darkness and difficulty.

This virgin reminisces and recounts those phases of abandonment, deprivation, and the many attempts made to seek the Lord. Throughout it all, she has always felt the love that has so tightly united her with the Lord. In the midst of those stages of abandonment when she sought but could not find him, she would be searching and enquiring, Have you seen the one I love? (Song 3:3). She would make an effort to find him, I will rise now…and go about the city; in the streets and in the squares I will seek the one I love, (Song 3:2). Even though the relationship with the Lord has been severed, she has not lost that love.

Love is forever in her heart. Love for the Lord is the foundation of this relationship. It is not founded on formalities, false pretences, mere rituals, commandments or fear. Rather it is based on love; it is based on strong foundations and profound feelings.

[H.H. Pope Shenouda III, Have You Seen the One I Love]

Does God receive the penitent? – Apophthegmata Patrum

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And old man was asked by a certain soldier if God received a penitent man.  And after heartening him with many words, he said to him at the last,  “Tell me, beloved, if your cloak were torn, would you throw it away?”  He said, “No, but I would patch it and wear it.”  The old man said to him, “If you would spare your garment, shall not God have mercy on His own image?”

[Apophthegmata Patrum]

I will not let You go unless You bless me – H.H. Pope Shenouda III

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Come back to God once more. Come back to him with prayer. And what is prayer? Pour out your heart before God and say to Him: 2O Lord, I want you. I want to come back to You. Please rescue me from my state and draw me back to You once again.

Without you I am nothing. When I lost you, I lost my life. I lost my happiness and delight. My life became without any meaning or interest.”

Pour yourself out before God and say, “I want to come back to you, O Lord”, but “my enemies are stronger than me ” (Ps. 38:9). “Many are they who say of me, ‘There is no help for him in God.'”. (Ps. 3:2).

Come back to God and say, “Lord, You carry me. And return me to You once more.” Tell him, “I lost my strength when I went far away from You. Give me some of Your strength. Please give me the divine assistance to help me to return to You.”

Many people say, “We want to return to God. How do we return?” Cast yourself before Him.

Cast yourself before the Lord and wrestle with Him and say to Him: ‘I shall not get up from here unless I have received Your special blessing and feel that You have taken me back and counted me among your children.

I do not just want You to forgive my sin, I want You to remove from my heart any love of sin, once and for all.”

Tell him, “Lord I cannot come back to You, if there is any love of sin in my heart. Take the love of sin from my heart. It’s not that I will leave sin and come back to you, its that You will come and remove the love of sin from me. If it were within my power to abandon the love of sin, I would have returned to You long ago.

But I want you to make me leave it. I want You to give me power. I want You to lead me in the procession of your victory.

Take any desire to sin from my heart and remove any domination which sin might have over my will. “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” . (Ps. 51:7).

Just as you have given me the instruction to return, O Lord, give me the strength to carry it out.

Believe me my brethren, the person whose is successful at prayer is the person whose repentance succeeds.

Mar Isaac was truly right when he said, “If anyone believes there is a path to repentance except through prayer, he is deceived by demons.” Because through prayer you receive the power to return to God.

Therefore, force yourself in prayer more than in any other work. Because through prayer, you remove the separating wall between you and God, so that you may return to him once more.

It is amazing how many people prefer the service more than prayer. And reading more than prayer. And contemplation more than prayer. And attending religious gatherings more than prayer. That is why they fail in their relationship with God.

They therefore pray, read, have a service and attend their meetings, but are separated from God. There is no relationship.

Instead, come back to God.

Come back to God and take from Him.

Some people think that in prayer, you are the one giving to God. You give him words, you give him time, you give him emotions.

But in reality, prayer in its true depth is a process of taking from God. He is the Giver, not the taker.

The person who prays and feels that he has taken from God, is the one who succeeds in their prayer.

The person who prays and feels that he has received power from God, is the one who succeeds in their prayer.

The person who prays and receives blessings from God, is the one who succeeds in their prayer.

The person who prays and receives repentance from God, is the one who succeeds in their prayer.

The person who prays and receives holiness in their life from God, is the one who succeeds in their prayer.

The person who prays and receives a spiritual connection between themselves and God, is the one who succeeds in their prayer.

This is prayer.

God is telling you to come, come and pray so that I may give to you. And you stand for two minutes, and get bored, and get frustrated, and leave your prayer without taking anything from Him. And God looks at you and marvels, my son, why did you leave so quickly without taking? I was about to give to you. Why did you leave so quickly? Why did you leave before I could give to you?

You got bored and left. Thats fine, leave. But then you start looking for God, and cannot find Him.

And not only did you leave without receiving anything; you left thinking you had given God a few minutes of your time. You go to your spiritual chart for the day and check off “prayer.” This is not prayer. What did you receive from God?

You need to hold onto God and tell Him, “I am not leaving You.” 

This is why prayer needs patience. Without patience, you do not receive anything. You have to be patient in your prayers.  Tell him, “Lord I’m standing before You, and I don’t want to leave You until You’ve given me what I want. If I don’t receive, I will keep holding onto You. I will not let You go, unless you bless me. I held Him, and did not let Him go.

This is what struggle is in prayer.

People haven’t learned how to pray. They think prayer is to say a couple of words and then you’re gone. Or to pray as you walk away. No, this won’t work my beloved.

Pray to God and receive from Him. And if you don’t receive? Say to Him, “I’m not leaving You today. No matter what, I’m not leaving You. I won’t leave You. They say you’re the kind and compassionate God, and they say to ask and you shall receive – well, I’ve asked, and I won’t leave until I receive.”

Keep this contest between you and God, and this struggle in your prayers. And so, you will receive comfort from your prayers, and your heart will be filled with love, and you will become fervent in your prayers without “repeating vainly like the Gentiles.” Instead you will pour yourself out as an offering before God. 

Just as Hannah the mother of Samuel used to pray. She used to pray a prayer, and weep a weeping, and vow a vow, and she did not leave the temple until she had received a promise that she would have a son.

David the Prophet did not leave God until he had received. He used to pray saying, “Lord, why have they who afflict me multiplied?” (Psalm 3:1) And then he would say, “Turn away from me all you who do iniquity, for the Lord has heard the voice of my weeping. The Lord has accepted my prayer.” (Psalm 6:8-9).

But didn’t you said before, “Lord do not rebuke me with your anger and do not chasten me with your wrath” (Psalm 6:1)? Not this, was at the beginning. “Why have they who afflict me multiplied” was before. But now I have received. 

He said, “I laid down and slept then I arose because the Lord is my helper. I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people who arise against me.” (Psalm 3:5-6). Why? Because I’ve received power. In the beginning I said they who have afflicted me have multiplied, but now I have received power. I’ve received reassurance. I haven’t left God.

[H.H. Pope Shenouda III, Return to God] 

Your door is open, my Lord, and there is no one who enters – The Spiritual Elder

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O Christ, whose pure blood has paid the debt which our foolish will owed, open the eyes of our minds that we may know where we are proceeding. May your light, which like the sun enlightens the legions of your Holiness, bring me unto You. May your Spirit, my Lord, place me among them even here below and in the world of light. And may your Spirit teach me their language, so as to extol with them inaudible praise of You. Create me, my Lord, as a new creature resembling your beauty and may we forget and disregard our previous nature.

Glory to the abundance of your ineffable love! Your door is open, my Lord, and there is no one who enters. Your glory is manifest and there is no one who contemplates it. Your light shines in the pupils of the eyes and we do not want to see. Your right hand is stretched out to give and there is no one who takes. You entice with compliments and we do not obey. You frighten us with terrors mixed with tenderness and we do not flee to You.

O our good God, have pity on our wretchedness! Our sweet Creator, bind up our brokenness! Our Father full of mercy, You Yourself persuade and compel us and draw us near to You; because of ourselves we are unwilling to beseech You. Lead out our soul from the prison (Ps 141:7) in which we have imprisoned ourselves to your true light, even when we are not willing. May your power, my Lord, prevail over us and draw us from the drowning for which we are headed!

Remove, my Lord, from before our sight all the veils with which the view of our soul is obscured from seeing your true light. In this light let us always stand stripped without interruption, with unveiled faces, and let us persist in the desire and in the delight of its beauty, forever and ever, Amen.

[John of Dalyatha, Letter 5]

The path to heaven is both wide and narrow – H.H. Pope St. Cyril VI

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The path leading to heaven is both wide and narrow. It is wide because it can accommodate the worst sinners of this world. However, it is narrow because if you desire to walk in it you cannot bear to carry even one sin.

[H.H. Pope Cyril VI, 116th Pope of Alexandria and the See of St. Mark, Christian Behaviour]

Remember – H.H. Pope Shenouda III

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Remember your weakness, so that you are more cautious and will not submit to the thoughts of pride and false glory.

Remember the loving kindness the Lord has bestowed on you, and you will always live the life of thanksgiving. Faith will grow in your heart as well as the trust in God’s love and work.

Remember other people’s love and their good history with you. Should you doubt their sincerity or discover they have wronged you, their old love will intercede for them and your anger will fade away.

Remember death, so that all worldly temptations will disappear and you feel that all is vanity and grasping for the wind (Eccl 1:14).

Remember that God is standing before you, looking at you, and you cannot sin because you see Him.

Remember God’s promises, and you will be comforted in all your troubles. But if you forget them, say with David the Prophet: Remember Your word to Your servant, in which You give me hope. This comforted me in my humiliation, for Your teaching gives me life. (Psalm 118:49-50).

Remember the Blood of Jesus which was shed for your sake and you will certainly appreciate the value of your life; it will become dear in your eyes, so that you will not waste it in prodigal living, for you were bought at a price.” (1 Cor 6:20).

Remember the vows you made to God at the Baptistery, which your parents took on your behalf: to renounce Satan and all his evil works, all his thoughts and traps and all his forces and powers.

Remember always that you are a stranger on the earth and that you will return to your heavenly home, then you will not put all of your hopes in this world.

Remember that the narrow gate leads to the Kingdom of Heaven. If you see the wide gate open before you, escape and keep away from it as all those who have gone in by it have perished.

Remember your eternity and work for it at all times.

Remember that you are a child of God and ought to have His image. Walk as is fitting for the children of God who are seen by others.

Remember that you are a temple of the Holy Spirit, and do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God within you. Be always a holy temple.

Remember all that you have read on this page, and if you have already forgotten, please read it again.

[H.H. Pope Shenouda III, Words of Spiritual Benefit, 104]

Open my heart, O my God, by your grace – Mar Isaac

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Hold me worthy, O Lord, to behold your mercy in my soul before I depart from this world; may I be aware in myself at that hour of your comfort, along with those who have gone forth from this world in good hope. Open my heart, O my God, by your grace and purify me from any association with sin.

Tread out in my heart the path of repentance, my God and my Lord, my hope and my boast, my strong refuge, by whom may my eyes be illumined, and may I have understanding of your truth, O Lord.

Hold my worthy, Lord, to taste the joy of the gift of repentance,
by which the soul is separated from cooperating with sin and the
will of flesh and blood.  Hold my worthy, O Lord, to taste this
state, wherein lies the gift of pure prayer.

O my Saviour, may I attain to this wondrous transition at which
the soul abandons this visible world, and at which new stirrings
arise on our entering into the spiritual world and the experience
of new perceptions.

[Mar Isaac the Syrian, Ascetical Homilies]