More On Orthodox Prayer
“Every prayer must come from the heart, and any other prayer is no prayer at all. Prayer-book prayers, your own prayers, and very short prayers, all must issue forth from the heart to God, seen before you. And still more must this be so with the Jesus prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me).”
– St. Dimitri of Rostov
“The Jesus prayer is not some talisman. Its power comes from faith in the Lord, and from a deep union of the mind and heart with Him. With such a disposition, the invocation of the Lord’s Name becomes very effective in many ways. But a mere repetition of the words does not signify anything.”
– St. Theophan the Recluse
I’ve been reading “The Art of Prayer”, an orthodox anthology by Igumen Chariton of Valamo. Most of the writings in it are by St. Theophan the Recluse, a man who by the end of his life was spending his days in the following way: he would first celebrate the Liturgy and take communion, in complete silence, concelebrating with the angels as they said, for he was to appearances alone. Then he would answer letters from people all over Russia and the world, giving people (many of them laypeople and even housewives) advice on how to progress in their quest for true spiritual life in Christ.
I’ve read bits of the Philokalia, and while I found some of the writing helpful from a technical standpoint (i.e. figuring out how the human being is constructed, which is important for my systematizing brain) in every other respect it was utterly discouraging. If you listen to the Fathers of the Philokalia, it might seem that “the rest of us” are nothing but louses in human form, absolutely, hopelessly destined to burn for all eternity. I won’t say there isn’t truth to this, only that to those who have been highly sanctified their own sins must appear in such a horrible light that the rest of us simply can’t bear the vision of it.
God cleanses us from our sins through Jesus Christ. It is important to cling to this thought and believe it with whatever strength God has given us.
However, if we cannot bear (as I cannot) to listen to the Fathers of the Philokalia, we ought at least to listen to someone who has borne it, and has brought us back something for our own spiritual stage and statures. Such a one is the blessed Theophan, may he pray for me, and such ones are St. Gregory Palamas, and St. Dimitri Rostov and the others quoted here. They tell you what to do right now where you are at, for your very next step. They explain spiritual truths by means of psychological and natural metaphors. It is grievous that such things are necessary, but they are.
Well, first of all.
No Calvinist could be more insistent than these writers on the utter ineffectualty and sinfulness of human actions apart from grace. However, where the Calvinist will insist that human depravity is entirely responsible, the Orthodox teacher recognizes the presence of demons and man’s self-induced servituted to God’s enemies (for he who commits sin makes himself a slave to it.) The Orthodox spiritual world is one of persons, not forces. Even grace is not a force, but is the very Presence of God, revealed in us for a specific work.
“When grace does not dwell in man, demons curl like serpents in the depths of his heart, completely preventing the soul from desiring good; but when grace enters the soul, then these demons are blown about like dark clouds from one part of the heart to another, transforming themselves into sinful passions or distractions, in order to eclipse the remembrance of God and draw the mind away from discourse with grace.” (St. Dimitri Rostov again.)
Remembrance of God is both the path and a very important goal. It is the way that man chooses to show his desire to walk always in the Light of God’s Presence.
St. Theophan is especially insistent on this. To a monk he writes:
“The principal monastic rule is to remain constantly with God in the mind and heart, that is, to pray unceasingly. To keep this endeavour alight and warm, definite prayers are laid down – the cycle…But the chief thing is to possess a constant feeling for God. It is this feeling that constitutes our rule. So long as this feeling is there, all other rules are replaced by it. If it is absent, no amount of strenuous reading can take its place. Prayers are meant to feed this feeling, and if they fail to do so they are no use: they are only labour that bears no fruit – like a outer garment with no body inside or like a body that has no soul. O my God, what severity is here! But one cannot describe things except as they are.”
And to another, less advanced it would seem:
“This short prayer to Jesus has a higher purpose – to deepen your remembrance of God and your feeling towards Him. These callings out of the soul to God are all too easily disrupted by the first incoming impressions and besides, in spite of these callings, thoughts continue to jostle in your head like mosquitoes. To stop this jostling, you must bind the mind with one thought, or the thought of One only. An aid to this is a short prayer, which helps the mind to become simple and united; it develops feeling towards God and is engrafted with it. When this feeling arises within us, the consciousness of the soul becomes established in God, and the soul begins to do everything according to His will. Together with the short prayer, you must keep your thought and attention turned toward God. But if you limit your prayer to words only, you are as sounding brass.”
“When remembrance of God lives in the heart and there maintains the fear of Him, then all goes well; but when this remembrance grows weak or is kept only in the head, than all goes astray.”
But what about the distinction between natural and gracious? How does a human person pass from one to the other?
Unlike the Calvinist, the Orthodox practicioner of experimental religion would not so sharply distinguish between natural and gracious. That is, he says that it us possible to arive at a warm feeling toward God that is not truly spiritual, only natural and affectionate, but is not in itself sinful either. One should use this feeling to make oneself keep praying and seeking God, if it is all one has. Of course, it’s important not to mistake the natural for the spiritual, and the person who has only this natural feeling for God has not yet been delivered from his sins in actual experience. One should always considered himself as having attained nothing, says St. Theophan – cf Paul’s statement “I do not consider myself as having attained, but press toward the mark…” – and as being still poor and blind and wretched, weak, and naked. However, we must remember that our very being with all its powers and affections have been given by God and are therefore not to be considered evil (nor to our own credit.) Sin is the cancer, the unnatural infection. Grace “cleaves a man in two,” showing him what is natural and what is unnatural in himself, and urging him to winnow the wheat of God’s creation from the chaff of sinful addition.
“At this stage it is only with his will and intention that he (the newly converted sinner) has left the domain of alien unnaturalness, rejecting it, and aiming at the naturalness which he expects and desires. But in fact his whole structure remains as before – that is, saturated with sin; and passions dominate his soul in all its faculties and his body in all its functions, just as they did before – with only this difference, that formerly he chose and embraced all this with desire and pleasure, but now it is not desired or chosen, but is hated, trampled one, rejected. In this state a man has emerged from himself as from a putrefying corpse: he sees how the reek of passion flows from different parts of himself against his will, and sometimes he experiences the stench given off by himself so strongly that it stifles his mind.
Thus the true life of grace in man is in its beginning only a seed, a spark; but a seed sown amongst tares, a spark constantly smothered by ashes. It is still only a feeble candle glimmering in the densest fog. Man by his consciousness and will has attached himself to God, and God has accepted him, has united with him in this self-awareness and point of free choice, within his mind – what is termed ‘spirit’ in St. Antony of Egypt (251-356 A.D.) and St. Makarios the Great. And this is the only part of him which is healthy, agreeable to God and saved. (my note: cf Christ’s statement about his disciples who disappointed him in the garden that night, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”) All the other parts are still held prisoner and do not want and cannot be obedient to the demands of the new life: the mind as a whole does not yet know how to think in the new way but thinks as before; the will does not yet know how to desire in the new way, but desires as before; the heart does not know how to feel in the new way, but feels as before. It is the same in the body in all its functions. Consequently man is as yet wholly impure except at one point which is the conscious power of free choice within his mind – what we termed the spirit. God, being wholly pure, enters into union only with this one part; but all the other parts, being impure, remain outside Him and estranged from Him. He is ready to fill the entire man, but does not do so because man is impure. Afterwards, as soon as he is cleansed, God makes known His full dwelling in him.”
Theophan explains that the first place at which God cleanses us and unites us to himself as at this point of choice, thus freeing us to choose God where we could not before. This is regeneration, and it often comes upon people without any action of their own, as in infant baptism, and certainly always comes without any meritorious action on the part of man. Thus far is the Reformer in his theory agreed with the Orthodox in his experience.
We are then left, for a time, to struggle “by our own endeavors” toward God. First of all, this is necessary in order to reverse the effects of Adam’s sin in us (now that Christ has removed the law of sin in our members, reversing the curse and the penalty.) For Adam chose pleasure instead of God, and we chose after him. But now we must choose God instead of pleasure, and the act of choosing is the act of faith by which we live.
Secondly, it is necessary in order for us to discover by practical experience what we have already been taught by theoretical doctrine: namely, that our own efforts avail us nothing. Here the adherent to Keswick sanctification theology will find something to agree with.
During this stage, when we seem to be left alone to struggle toward God (although grace is secretly helping us); in other words:
“Before the birth of inner life – before the palpable manifestation of the action of grace and union with God – it frequently happens that a man still acts on his own initiative, up to the limit of his powers. But when he is exhausted by the failure of his efforts he at last casts aside his own activity, and whole-heartedly gives himself up to the all-embracing action of grace. Then the Lord visits him with his mercy, and kindles the fire of inner spiritual life in him, and he knows from experience that it is not his own former efforts which have effected this great transformation. Afterwards, the more or less grequent withdrawals of divine grace teach him by experience that the sustaining of this fire of life is likewise not dependent on his own efforts.”
“To begin with, during the first stage on the path of prayer, we are left to pray solely by our own efforts.” (He goes on to explain what he means by this:) “Without doubt, the grace of God helps anyone who prays in sincerity, but it does not reveal its presence. During this period, passions hidden in the heart come into play, and lead the man who prays to a martyrdom in which defeats and victories alternate ceaselessly, and man’s free will and weakness are clearly exposed.”
This inner martyrdom, I perceive, in which one suffers in struggling against sin, is forced to attack his own way of thinking and feeling in the effort to subject every thought to Christ, and is both slain and slays his enemy – this must be his “own cross” which Christ calls us each to take up and follow him.
“During the second period, the grace of God makes its presence and action felt tangibly, uniting the mind with the heart, and making it possible to pray without dreaming or distraction, but with a heart that weeps and has warmth. At this point sinful thoughts lost their power to over come the mind.”
He goes on to explain that after this change a man still has to labor in the Lord’s vineyard (his own being) seeking God, but now his labours are fruitful because they are gracious, where before they were barren, a test or a training of sorts, I suppose.
What about good works?
The Orthodox teacher, like the Catholic, will insist on the necessity of good works as we seek full salvation. Like the Protestant, he will also insist that good works are not meritorious and until they are given by grace are in fact ineffectual and corrupted by sin. Orthodox Christians are taught constantly to pray: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner, for I have never done anything good in your sight.”
“The essential mood of the penitent is this: ‘In the way Thou knowest, O Lord, save me. For my part I will labour without hypocrisy, without deviation and misinterpretation, but according to a pure conscience, doing everything that I understand and that lies in my power.’ Whoever can truly feel this in his heart, is accepted by the lord, who then comes to rule as king within him.
God is his teacher, God it is who prays in him, God it is who wills anda cts in him, God it is who bears fruit in him. God is his ruler. Such a state is the seed and the heart of the heavenly tree of life within him.”
So why, then must we do good works? My own priest told me last Sunday that we do good works, meaning acts of mercy, as an outward expression or symbol of our inner union with God, for God’s heart beats in mercy. We cannot know God without partaking of his nature, and his nature is love.
Theophan explains in more detail that we must build “channels” of grace from the point at which God has united himself to us, that is, our point of consciousness and free choice, to the other elements of our being. But these elements, or powers, are in their God created nature active powers – they are not so much objects as functions or activities. Human beings are dynamic, not lumps. So to unite grace, for instance, to our power of desiring, we must subject our power of desiring, at some point, to God. We fast, in order to subject our desire for food to the Love of God.
Our act of fasting will not in itself make us spiritual. But the act of fasting, if inspired by grace, will allow grace to enter our will, or power of desiring, and from then on it begins to be transformed by grace.
“Remembrance of God is something that God Himself grafts upon the soul. But the soul must also force itself to persevere and to toil. Work! making every effort to attain the unceasing remembrance of God. And God, seeing how fervently you desire it, will give you this constant recollection of Himself.”
Orthodox spirituality is nothing if not practical.
Where does one begin?
By uttering the name of God with attention, banishing thoughts and images, and returning again and again to the remembrance of God until it becomes habitual. Theophan recommends that a person should never cease praying until they have aroused a warm feeling toward God in their heart. These actions are good-faith actions on our part. They look forward to the day when God, seeing whatever it is he sees in the heart of someone who labours in repentance, grants us the full gracious virtue which we have been so poorly and sadly striving after.
As my priest is always telling me, it’s up to God when and how to give a person the grace of true prayer, and we simply cannot earn this gift. God loves us; he will give us whatever he can; but we must be ready for the gift so that it will not undo us, and he alone sees this moment of readiness. The great thing is to pray, to bring the mind back again and again, to constantly kindle a feeling of contrition and awareness toward God while always recalling that you have achieved nothing. Theophan says that if you come to prayer with zeal, prayer itself will teach you how to pray. This must be for the reason that, in our very intention to pray, God is secretly present. We must become aware that all which we do, all that we have, ever favorable impulse toward God, is a gift, has been bestowed upon us by the Lord.
We must believe:
“The Jesus prayer is like any other prayer. It is stronger than all other prayers only in virtue of the all-powerful Name of Jesus, Our Lord and Saviour. But it is necessary to invoke His Name with a full and unwavering faith – with a deep certainty that He is near, sees and hears, pays whole-hearted attention to our petition, and is ready to fulfil it and to grant what we seek. There is nothing to be ashamed of in such a hope. If fulfilment is sometimes delayed, this may be because the petitioner is still not ready to receive what he asks.
Praying without ceasing is indeed possible with God’s help.
“Some godly thoughts come nearer the heart than others. Should this be so, after you have finished your prayers, continue to dwell on such a thought and remain feeding on it. This is the way to unceasing prayer.”
Often some verse of scripture, some Prokeimenon from the service, some scrap of a prayer in a prayer book or something that came from a confession will remain with me, and I will repeat it throughout the day. I know everyone else does the same thing, for they make oblique references to such things as a matter of course. Such prayers, in a sense inspired in us by God, effect death to self in us at the same time that they solace us. It’s a very odd feeling, and extremely reassuring. The words sink down into the heart, I hope, and begin to prepare the way for the Lord’s royal entry there. At least, I fervently hope and believe that this is so, but I cannot assert this based on experience.
“Lay up treasure in heaven.”
As is so often the case the Orthodox practitioner arrives at the end where the Protestant practitioner wants to begin:
“To raise up the mind towards the Lord, and to say with contrition: ‘Lord, have mercy! Lord, grant Thy blessing! Lord, help!’ – this is to cry out in prayer to God. But if feeling towards God is born and lives in your heart, then you will possess unceasing prayer, even though your lips recite no words, and your body is not outwardly in a posture of prayer.”
“As you begin to accustom yourself to praying as you should with prayers written by others, your own prayers and cries to God will well up in you. Never neglect these aspirations to God that manifest themselves in your soul. Every time that they arise, be still, and pray with your own words; nor think that in so praying you do harm to prayer itself. No: it is just in this way that you pray as you should, and this prayer ascends more quickly to God than any other. For this reason there is a rule applying to everyone: whether in church or at home, if your soul wishes to pray in its own and not in other men’s words, give it freedom; let it pray, even if it prays thus during the whole service, or leaves undone its own rule of prayer at home and has not time to fulfil it.
Both forms of prayer are pleasing to God…Only perfunctory prayer is displeasing to Him, when someone reads the prayers at home or stands in church at the service without attending to the meaning of the words…the thoughts wander who knows where. There is no prayer here. But while both forms are pleasing to God, the prayer that is not read, but is your own, is nearer to the heart of the matter and much more fruitful.”
But he comes back again to the Orthodox insistence on practicing one’s faith in the seeking of salvation:
“It is not enough, however, just to wait for the desire to pray. To achieve spontaneous prayer, we must force ourselves to pray in a particular way – with the Jesus Prayer – not only during the church service and during prayer at home, but at all times…
At first this saving prayer is usually a matter of strenuous effort and hard work. But if one concentrates on it with zeal, it will begin to flow of its own accord, like a brook that murmurs in the heart. This is a great blessing, and it is worth working hard to obtain it.”
This reminds me of Paul’s quotation of that Old Testament end-times prophecy, where the holy Prophet Joel says that in the Day of the Lord, when everything is cataclysmically ending and beginning and the Spirit of the Lord descends, it will come to pass that “whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” To say “we call upon your name, O Lord” was for the Old Testament saint a way of saying that Jehovah was the God he prayed to, and that he prayed in the name of Jehovah as a continual practice.
Paul quotes this passage and says this this, now, is the day of the Lord, that is, the day of salvation, of which the Prophet had spoken.
Evangelical Protestants since the 1830’s have taken Paul’s use of this verse to say that a person only needs to pray in the name of the Lord once in his life, saying “Lord Jesus, I have sinned, save me” and eternal and full salvation is henceforward assured for such a person. “Calling on the name of the Lord” is seen as a single prayer, and “today is the day of salvation” is taken to mean that everyone has everything they need at any given moment of hearing the gospel to pray this single saving prayer – do it now!
For those who grow up “in the world” (i.e. not in a Christian home) this pattern of events often works out well, and they have a single moment of turning to the Lord in prayer, accompanied by great power and marking the turning of the tide in their spiritual existence, from sin toward God. However, for people who grow up believing in The Sinner’s Prayer, it is different. As children and young adults, we are usually afflicted by doubts about whether we prayed sincerely “that one time” (or that five or six times when we really ‘got saved’…again) or whether we “really meant it” or prayed with true attention or repentance or with real faith.
Isn’t it really the person who labors as Theophan is telling us above, that is the one who calls on the name of the Lord? The one who seeks until he finds, and knocks until the door is opened? Didn’t the Lord tell us it would be this way? Faith is active, and it acts primarily in constant calling upon God.
And finally, lest we forget:
“The principal thing in prayer is a feeling heart.“