One of the things which made me wonder about dear old Luther when I was being taught about the Reformation at College was learning that he thought that the Epistle of St. James was an ‘epistle of straw’. In all fairness, it should be noted that Luther himself retracted that opinion after 1522, and later praised the contents of the Epistle; still, it is a reminder of the fallibility of all humans.
I have always loved the Epistle of St. James, and my favourite verse is this one:
Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.
St. James, known as ‘the Just’, knew what seems so hard for many to grasp, that if we are inspired by the Holy Spirit, if we are truly His, then we have no choice but to show it in what we do. It is not, as some allege, that we are in any way ‘saved’ by works, it is more that the two are inseparable. Faith without works is ‘dead’ – it is of no use and might as well not exist; indeed it does not exist.
‘Works’ come in as many forms as there are people. I am delighted to know that there are orders of Religious whose primary work is to pray for us. Prayer is a real act of love, a genuine ‘work’, and it is wrong to underestimate its effects. We may not see its results, because we may be expecting some particular thing to happen, but that does not mean God has not heard us.
For my beloved St. Isaac the Syrian, the conversation of the mind with God is the highest and most important spiritual activity of a Christian, and cannot be compared with any other endeavor: ‘Just as nothing resembles God, so there is no ministry or work which resembles converse with God in stillness.’ [II/30,1.] St. Isaac’s definition of prayer is worth quoting:
Every good care of the intellect directed toward God and every meditation upon spiritual things is delimited by prayer, is called by the name of prayer and under its name is comprehended; whether you speak of various readings, or the cries of a mouth glorifying God, or sorrowing reflection on the Lord, or making bows with the body, or the alleluias of psalmody, or all the other things from which the teaching of genuine prayer ensues. I/63 (303)]
Prayer is the basis of our spiritual life. St. Isaac tells us that it is:
the refuge of help, a source of salvation, a treasury of assurance, a haven that rescues from the tempest, a light to those who are in darkness, a staff of the infirm, a shelter in time of temptations, a medicine at the height of sickness, a shield of deliverance in war, an arrow sharpened against the face of the enemies, to speak simply: the entire multitude of these good things is found to have its entrance through prayer. [1/8 (68)]
In another place, he defines prayer as ‘the mind’s freedom and rest from everything of this world and a heart that has completely turned its gaze toward the fervent desire belonging to the hope of future things’. [I/71 (345)]
So, far from being in any way a fruitless activity, prayer is one of the best ways we can practice pure religion.