How the devil taught Maxim to pray

There is a saint of Greece called Maxim, a young man, who went to church one day and heard the reading of the Epistle in which it says that we should pray unceasingly. It struck him in such a way that he thought he could do nothing else than fulfil this commandment. He walked out of the church, went into the neighbouring mountains and set out to pray unceasingly. Being a Greek peasant of the fourth century, he knew the Lord’s Prayer and some other prayers. So he proceeded, as he tells us, to recite them, again and again and again. Then he felt very well. He was praying, he was with God, he was elated, everything seemed to be so perfect, except that gradually the sun began to go down and it became colder and darker, and as it became darker he began to hear all sorts of worrying sounds — cracking branches under the paws of wild beasts, flashing eyes, sounds of smaller beasts being killed by larger beasts, and so forth. Then he felt that he was really alone, a small, unprotected thing in a world of danger, of death, of murder, and that he had no help if God didn’t give it. He no longer continued saying the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed; he did exactly what Bartimaeus did, he began to shout ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’. And he shouted like that all the night because the creatures and the flashing eyes didn’t give him a change to go to sleep. Then the morning came and he thought, because all the beasts had gone to sleep, ‘Now I pray’, but by then he felt hungry. He thought he would collect some berries and he started towards a bush, but then he realised that all those flashing eyes and savage paws must be hidden somewhere in the bushes. So he began to make his way very softly and at every step said ‘Lord Jesus Christ, save me, help me, help me, save me. O God, help me, protect me’, and for every berry he collected he had certainly prayed several times.

Time passed and after many years he met a very old and experienced ascetic who asked him how he had learnt to pray unceasingly. Maxim said ‘I think it’s the devil who taught me to pray unceasingly.’ The other man said ‘I think I understand what you mean, but I would like to be sure that I understand you right’. Maxim explained how he had gradually become accustomed to all these noises and dangers of the day and night. But then temptations came upon him, temptations of the flesh, temptations of the mind, of the emotions, and later more violent attacks from the devil. After that there was no moment day or night when he did not shout Godwards, saying ‘Have mercy, have mercy, help, help, help’. Then one day after fourteen years of that, the Lord appeared to him; and the moment the Lord appeared, stillness, peace, serenity came on him. There was no fear left — of darkness or of bushes, no fear of the devil — the Lord had taken over. ‘By then’ Maxim said ‘I had learned that unless the Lord Himself comes, I am hopelessly and completely helpless. So even when I was serene and peaceful and happy I went on praying ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’, because he knew that only in the divine mercy was there any peace of heart and peace of mind and stillness of body and rightness of will. (Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray, pp. 73-4)

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