This is a presentation I gave in prayer at Moorlands Bible College, the Evangelical Seminary where I studied for three years, when they recently invited me to speak about prayer.
Good morning to you all. My name is Peter Farrington, and I am a graduate of Moorlands Bible College. I think I finished my three years of study here in 1988. I completed the Moorlands Diploma and then stayed to take the Advanced Diploma in Mission Studies. I am from an evangelical background in the Brethren, but I became Orthodox in 1994, and was ordained a priest and pastor of the Orthodox Church in 2009. I belong to the British Orthodox Church, a small missionary community within the much larger Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and I am an Orthodox missionary supporting the development of new communities of Orthodox Christians in various places around the UK.
I am grateful for the opportunity to consider some aspects of the Orthodox perspective of prayer with you this morning. Indeed to a very great extent the reason I became Orthodox was because throughout my youth and into adulthood I was always seeking for a deeper spirituality and for a more fruitful experience of the life of prayer.
My time here at Moorlands was very significant in respect to my own spiritual pilgrimage. It was in my first year that we studied Richard Foster’s interesting book, The Celebration of Discipline. This opened up a whole new perspective on the spiritual life for me. While here at Moorlands I began to go on retreat with the Anglican Society of St Francis at Hilfield in Dorset. I spent several periods with Brother Ramon, the Anglican spiritual writer, at the Anglican Monastery of Glasshampton in Gloucester, and corresponded with him for some years. I began to use Anglican, and Catholic and eventually also Orthodox, collections of daily prayers. I stopped attending the evangelical community I had been assigned to for Sunday worship, and started attending the local parish here at Sopley for their early morning communion. I even started an Evening Prayer meeting using the Anglican service, and a Meditation group. I can reasonably say that my time here at Moorlands played an important part in my eventually becoming Orthodox, not least because one of the lecturers here was very supportive of my interest in a more traditional spirituality.
If you have read the paper by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, and of course his famous introduction to Orthodoxy, The Orthodox Church, was one of the books I read while still here at Moorlands, then you will have already been introduced to Evagrius. His most well-known saying is this…
If you are a theologian you truly pray. If you truly pray you are a theologian.
Evagrius. On Prayer. Chapter 60.
Studying here at Moorlands, and then in my own independent studies to the present day, it is easy to imagine that a theologian is one who knows a lot about God, one who can speak easily about the development of doctrines and heresies, and one who can write in a particular language and with a particular jargon. From Metropolitan Kallistos’ description of Evagrius and his emphasis on the intellect we might imagine that he held such a view of theology and theological studies. But as Metropolitan Kallistos makes clear, such mental activity is not what Evagrius has in mind. Evagrius would agree, it seems to me, with that evangelical distinction we used to make between head knowledge and heart knowledge. What Plato calls dianoia, we would perhaps call head knowledge. This is knowledge about God, as if he were a subject of study. Of course it has a necessary and important place. But it is possible for even an atheist to become skilled in theology if it is treated only as the understanding of certain principles and propositions.
When Evagrius says,
If you are a theologian you truly pray. If you truly pray you are a theologian.
He is reflecting that sense he has that there is a richer and more significant means of knowledge, beyond the activity of the mind, which comes about through the direct encounter with God in prayer. Metropolitan Kallistos translates this as intellect and explains that he does not mean the activity of the mind, but that knowing which comes by experience.
It is interesting that Metropolitan Kallistos refers to T.S Elliot’s line about music. When we experience music we do not break it down into its constituents, although that is one aspect of the formal study of music. We do not constantly engage our minds in mental activity, otherwise we become like the audience at a modern rock concert who do not actually see anything of what is happening in front of them because they are too busy videoing it on their phones. When we are captivated by a piece of music we simply experience it as a whole and perhaps we lose track of time because we are transported into the music and it we become one with it in our experience.
This is something of what Evagrius means. That we encounter God in true prayer and that it is this encounter with God which especially informs our spiritual lives. This is why within Orthodoxy it is not those who have the most academic qualifications who are treated as spiritual authorities, but those who have the most evidence of being those whose lives are filled with prayer.
Even in our daily lives we recognise the difference between knowing about a person and actually knowing that person. It is possible for us to have read a biography and follow the latest news describing events in a prominent person’s life. But to actually know that person and to share their life in an intimate manner expresses an entirely different kind of knowing.
When I was here at Moorlands there was a young man from Northern Ireland, about the same age as I was. He would speak about Ian Paisley and insist that the man he knew well was not the same as the man who was presented on the TV and in the newspapers. He knew the man personally while I only knew things about him.
This is the goal of prayer in the Orthodox perspective. That we might encounter God Himself, and be transformed by that encounter. The one who can speak about God is only the one who has encountered God in prayer.
But within the spirituality of many of these early Fathers we see a commitment to an apophatic approach. Much theological development in recent centuries has tended to make God an object of study and to categorise every aspect of his being, as if he could be completely described like any other material subject. Of course we are still unable to describe our own humanity with any great comprehension. The spiritual Fathers recognised that as we approached God and were granted an encounter with him, it was not one which granted knowledge about God, but an encounter that was communion with God.
Apophatic means by denial, and has the sense of meaning that there are important things we must say about God which can only be expressed by negative statements. An expression of this can be found in the works of John Scotus Erigena, an Irish theologian from the 9th century who said,
We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being.
St Cyril of Jerusalem, teaching those preparing for baptism in the 4th century said to them as part of their instruction,
For of God we speak not all we ought (for that is known to Him only), but so much as the capacity of human nature has received, and so much as our weakness can bear. For we explain not what God is but candidly confess that we have not exact knowledge concerning Him. For in what concerns God to confess our ignorance is the best knowledge.
In terms of prayer and spirituality this approach describes the sense that the closer we get to God the less he stands as the object of mental analysis and activity. Prayer becomes simpler and less filled with words because we know less and less what we should say. We experience a shadow of this in some of our own relationships. When we are first meeting someone we perhaps have a busy conversation and are trying to fill every silence with words. But when we have a deep and loving relationship with someone we may sit for an hour and say nothing at all but nevertheless express that relationship very richly.
Some of the earliest teachings on prayer are found in the Conferences of John Cassian which helped to communicate the monastic spirituality of the East into the West during the early 5th century, and also in the Paradise of the Fathers, written about the same Egyptian monastic communities.
John Cassian was born in about 360 AD, and probably in the region which is now Romania. He travelled with a friend, Germanus, to Palestine, where they became members of a monastic community for three years. Then they journeyed on, into the deserts of Egypt, where they visited many of the monastic fathers. In about 399 AD he left Egypt and found himself in Constantinople, and then in 404 AD was sent to Rome. In about 415 AD he was invited to establish a monastery himself, near Marseilles, and through his writings and monastic institution he had a great influence on figures such as St Benedict.
His volume of the Conferences essentially records conversations with the great spiritual teachers he found in the Egyptian desert. We will consider some of the passages which relate directly to prayer, though it is interesting that the book contains instructions on a much wider range of spiritual topics. These spiritual teachers were realists. They understood well that although the goal might be to be granted the experience of unceasing prayer, nevertheless each one of those seeking to offer their life as a prayer had to begin where they were, and face the complex spiritual and psychological realities of their lives.
In one of these Conferences, Cassian and his friend Germanus meet with Abba Nestoros, who teaches them about knowledge. This is a useful way into the study of prayer in this context since it links in with the Evagrian idea of the nous ascending to a direct knowledge of God through intellection. But this conversation also reminds us that the desert Fathers were not abstract philosophers but men engaged in discipling others for the hardships of the spiritual journey into God.
Abba Nesteros begins by noting that all of the things of the world, whether useless or not, have some science and system behind them, and that this is no less the case for those seeking to be engaged in the greatest and most important endeavour of all, the Christian spiritual life. He describes a twofold methodology. One which is practical and to do with what we might call sanctification, and the other which is contemplative and to do with the experience of God and the knowledge of divine things. These are called in the Greek, praktikh and qewrhtikh>. Theoretike does not have the modern English sense of theoretical, but means contemplation, the gaining of knowledge and insight through reflection.
Here is what Abba Nesteros says about the relationship between the practical spirituality and the contemplative..
Whoever then would arrive at this theoretical knowledge must first pursue practical knowledge with all his might and main. For this practical knowledge can be acquired without theoretical, but theoretical cannot possibly be gained without practical. For there are certain stages, so distinct, and arranged in such a way that man’s humility may be able to mount on high; and if these follow each other in turn in the order of which we have spoken, man can attain to a height to which he could not fly, if the first step were wanting. In vain then does one strive for the vision of God, who does not shun the stains of sins: “For the spirit of God hates deception, and dwells not in a body subject to sins.”
I must say that when I first read these words, long before I knew much about the Orthodox tradition, I was encouraged by the sense that here was man who believed that there was a science and system to the spiritual life, and that perhaps that science and system could help even me become a more prayerful and spiritual person.
What is the nature of this practical experience or knowledge that Abba Nesteros speaks of. He says,
But you should know that we must make an effort with a twofold purpose in our exertion; both for the expulsion of vice, and for the attainment of virtue. And this we do not gather from our own conjecture, but are taught by the words of Him who alone knows the strength and method of His work: “Behold,” He says: “I have set thee this day over the nations and over kingdoms, to root up, and to pull down, and to waste, and to destroy, and to build and to plant.”
Abba Nesteros is quoting from Jeremiah 1:10 in this passage. This early spirituality, which is still so essentially the foundation of the Orthodox understanding of the spiritual life, begins with struggle for self-control. He says,
And therefore if you would prepare in your heart a holy tabernacle of spiritual knowledge, purge yourselves from the stain of all sins, and rid yourselves of the cares of this world.
This is no more than an expression of so many Scriptural passages, which Nesteros himself uses to encourage John Cassian and Germanus, such as, Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God and in the verse already quoted, For the spirit of God hates deception, and dwells not in a body subject to sins. (Wisdom 1:4-5)
Does this teaching establish some sort of works righteousness? I think not. Indeed in the preceding conference to this one on the need for practical spirituality, is a conversation with Abba Chaeremon where he discusses the relationship between free will and grace, and insists that,
The God of all must be held to work in all, so as to incite, protect, and strengthen, but not to take away the freedom of the will which He Himself has once given.
Metropolitan Kallistos is quite correct to discover the aim and goal of prayer in the writings of Evagrius and others as a union with God that transcends mental activity in some manner, and is a direct experience of communion. But for most of those living in the desert, and in the ancient world of Alexandria, the spirituality of prayer was bound up in the effort, the ascesis, of overcoming sin and establishing virtue by the grace of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit.
This is in rather direct opposition to movements that stress an immediate experience of God which can be received whatever the state of a person’s life. Indeed there is a definite resurgence in recent decades of the teaching that the imputed righteousness of Christ makes the search for personal holiness a secondary matter altogether and that all sorts of experience of God are to be expected whether we sin or not. This was not the teaching of the desert Fathers. They taught quite explicitly that there was connection between the state of the soul and the experiential knowledge of God.
When they read, Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God, they understood this as meaning that those who wish to have the noetic vision of God, that inner direct encounter with God, must become pure, by effort and with grace. Of course they did not understand this in a narrow sense, that there would be no spiritual consolation until a soul was perfect. Nor did any of these spiritual teachers consider themselves perfect in any way when all those around them saw their sanctity. But as part of the Bible based science of prayer which developed very quickly in the history of the Church, the connection between personal and practical holiness and spiritual growth seemed clear.
This was why the spiritual practices described in Richard Foster’s book, Celebration of Discipline, were useful to these early Christians and still are essential within Orthodox spirituality. They were not an end in themselves, but were the means to establish that practical spirituality that was the basis for contemplation of God.
Pseudo-Dionysius, writing in the 6th century describes the spiritual life as three stages which are both concurrent and successive. These are purgation, illumination and union. The same stages are found in Clement of Alexandria and Origen, and then in Evagrius, who used the terms practike, practike theoria, and theologia. These all refer to the stages of practical effort, of the beginning of an enlightened spiritual way of living, and of the experience of union with God.
We can see from this that Evagrius understood theology to be the highest and most sublime experience of union with God. It was the end and goal of the spiritual life and it was essentially prayer and not mental activity.
While I was here at Moorlands we often used the concept of the now but not yet Kingdom of God, that sense that in the eschaton there was a fullness and a fulfilment of that which was promised and experienced as a foretaste and a first fruit. As a young Christian, seeking a deeper and richer life of prayer, I did not believe that I had yet experienced that union which will be fulfilled in the eschaton. I was aware that my spiritual life was not yet filled with illumination and I had much purgation to undergo. Reading this more ancient categorisation of the spiritual life resonated with me.
I like the Scriptural analogy of the athlete. It might perhaps be possible in some alternate universe for me to be made a member of the British Olympic cross country team. But simply being made a member would only be the beginning of things. I would need to start with a process of gaining some physical fitness that would include lots of exercise and a restriction of my diet. I would no longer be able to do whatever I wanted but must submit to my coach. It would not be enough to point to my being on the team, I would now need to do what was necessary to fulfil my membership on the team. After many months of fitness training I might perhaps start to enjoy aspects of the regime I was committed to. I might even be entered into some junior races and have some fleeting experience of what it might be like to actually compete and win at the Olympics. But much effort would be required, both from me and from my coach before I started to see much blessing in all the hard work.
Here is what it is said that Abba John taught about one aspect of this effort, from the Paradise of the Fathers,
If a King wishes to subdue a city belonging to enemies, he first of all keeps them without bread and water, and the enemy in this way becoming harassed by hunger becomes subject to him. It is the same in respect of the hostile passions, for if a man endures fasting and hunger regularly, his enemies become stricken with weakness in the soul.
And it is said of Abba Daniel that he would teach,
In proportion as the body is grows, so the soul becomes enfeebled. And the more the body becomes lean, so the soul flourishes.
Perhaps we are thinking that we should be considering prayer and not fasting, but for the early desert Fathers, and for all Christians through much of Church History, there is such a definite connection between the way we live and our spiritual life, that considering prayer is impossible without considering the disciplines of the spiritual life.
In this last passage from Abba Daniel we might think that he is going too far and is being extreme, but we would not say this of a cross country runner for whom leanness of body is a necessary physical attribute for success. We would not expect to see an overweight Olympic athlete, and would not suggest that being aware of the role of diet in athletics was extreme. Within the context of early Christian spirituality it was not an extreme obsession either. Experience had taught these spiritual athletes that a life without discipline could not easily become a spiritual life.
The spiritual man was assailed by various passions all the time, and these passions sought to prevent him from gaining that spiritual illumination which might lead to the experience of union with God. This desert spirituality sought to teach the control of the passions, not so that the Christian would become inhuman, but so that they might become more properly human as God created us.
They understood that it was not human at all to be so driven by lusts and appetites and self-will that we were more animal than rational. To become a spiritual person did not mean ceasing to be human, but it meant reordering the inner person so that the spirit dominated the mind and the mind dominated the flesh rather than the flesh dominating the mind and binding the spirit.
St John Chrysostom, the famous 4th/5th century Archbishop of Constantinople writes about this with a joyful tone saying,
When the fast makes its appearance, like a kind of spiritual summer, let us as soldiers burnish our weapons, and as harvesters sharpen our sickles, and as sailors order our thoughts against the waves of extravagant desires, and as travelers set out on the journey towards heaven. Lay hold of the pathway which leads towards heaven, rugged and narrow as it is. Lay hold of it, and journey on.
This sense of the necessary spiritual fitness, both in regard to the rejection of sin and the establishment of virtue, as the foundation of prayer and the experience of God is universal in the teachings of this time. Here is what Abba Isaac says to John Cassian on prayer,
The aim of every monk and the perfection of his heart tends to continual and unbroken perseverance in prayer, and, as far as it is allowed to human frailty, strives to acquire an immovable tranquillity of mind and a perpetual purity, for the sake of which we seek unweariedly and constantly to practice all bodily labours as well as contrition of spirit.
Here again we see this connection between the practical spirituality which is found from Origen onwards, through Evagrius, John Cassian and Maximus the Confessor, and the possibility of continual, that is unceasing, prayer. This practical spirituality is concerned with personal purity, with developing an inner tranquillity, and is brought about as God wills, through bodily effort and a repentant heart.
Abba Isaac continues.,
But yet these things when prepared will be of no use nor allow the lofty height of perfection to be properly placed upon them unless a clearance of all faults be first undertaken, and the decayed and dead rubbish of the passions be dug up, and the strong foundations of simplicity and humility be laid on the solid and (so to speak) living soil of our breast, or rather on that rock of the gospel, and by being built in this way this tower of spiritual virtues will rise, and be able to stand unmoved, and be raised to the utmost heights of heaven in full assurance of its, stability.
This description appears once more, of a clearing away of faults and the passions being overcome to some extent, while a foundation is laid, upon which the tower of the virtues can be constructed, reaching up towards heaven. This is the process we see described over and over again in the sayings and lives of the desert Father. These interesting, challenging and sometimes shocking little anecdotes reveal to us a world where the central work is that of becoming those people in whose hearts this tower of virtue was being formed, reaching up to heaven.
But it would be a mistake to think that the emphasis in this spirituality was on the active exertions of fasting and standing for long hours in prayer. There are accounts and sayings relating to these of course. But the Paradise of the Fathers, that early account of the lives of these men and women, gave much more space to their teachings about watchfulness, about love and hospitality, and about humility.
St Moses the Black, a bandit who had become a committed Christian and desert father, said,
If what we do does not correspond to what we pray, then we pray in vain. And a brother asked him, What is the correspondence of what we do with what we pray? And he said, He who prays for the forgiveness of his sins must not then be negligent.
Here was a man who was the antithesis of the educated philosopher represented by Evagrius. But he had gained a wisdom that was not of this world, and he understood that how we live affects how we pray. We cannot become spiritual in this tradition of prayer, while we are negligent.
Let us assume then, this foundation in practical spirituality without which no advancement was considered possible. How was the one who was serious about the Christian life to make progress.
It was the unceasing prayer of the heart which was the object of this early desert spirituality, and remains the focus of Orthodox spirituality, representing as it does that perpetual living in the presence of God which is our life and salvation. Within Orthodoxy the heart is the place where each of us may meet God within us. It is the centre of our being and to pray with the heart is to pray truly. The prayer of the heart is unceasing prayer since it is not the action of the mind or will but the disposition of one’s whole being towards God.
We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, your will be done, and this is the essence of the prayerful heart. Filled with a desire for God’s will to be done. These same sentiments are used by the Virgin Mary at the beginning of the incarnation when she says, Behold the handmaid of the Lord, let it be unto me according to your word. And by our Lord Himself just before the passion, when speaking for all mankind, and being obedient as the Second Adam, just as Adam had been disobedient as the first, he says, Not my will but yours be done.
We see that prayer is not all about us. It is not about techniques, nor even about certain formulas of words. It is above all about the heart seeking after God. Our Lord teaches us Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added to you. And in his own prayer he asks us to pray, Your kingdom come, and at the beginning of his public ministry it was said of him, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent, and believe the gospel’.
In a real sense this is the entire substance of prayer. It is repentance, a turning away from self and sin, and it is belief, a trust in God and in his Word, so that the kingdom of God, the rule and reign of God, gains authority over every aspect of our lives.
It is easy to say this, but more than a lifetime of effort stands before the one who wishes to experience the life of unceasing prayer of the heart. One of the great strengths of the this spiritual tradition is that those who have lived such lives have left a record for us, and we may sit at their feet as disciples and learn from them. Nor should we be ashamed to do so, as if prayer should come naturally to us.
We may well have a desire to live a life entirely consecrated to God, and we may well wish to enter into an experience of prayer which fills and fulfills our hearts and lives, but most of us will have to ask, where do I begin?
We know from our day to day lives that when something is very important to us it occupies all of our thoughts. If we have a bad toothache then it often seems that nothing else in the world matters. We may take paracetemol and ibuprofen, we may rub cloves on our tooth, we may wish that somehow we could just pull the tooth out ourselves. The pain dominates our lives. Even when we are at work, or with family and friends, we cannot easily escape the thought of it.
We know that it is possible for our attention to be constantly fixed on some problem or situation. It seems to me that this indicates clearly that we could make the prayerful awareness of God the central aspect of our lives if we committed to do so, and if we sought the grace of God to make it so. The fact is that we allow many other matters to crowd God out of our lives. It is not that it is impossible to remember God, it is rather that we choose not to.
St Anthony would often be lost in prayer for so long that he was only disturbed in his prayer by the rising of the sun as he stood with attention fixed on God through the night hours. He was not caught up in prayer for earthly needs, but was transported by the presence of God within his heart. Indeed we know that in the life to come our constant prayer will not be inspired by the needs of the flesh, since there will be no lack of anything that we might need, but will be entirely drawn from our hearts by love of God.
The one who seeks to pray in the heart without ceasing will certainly have the example of saints such as St Anthony before them. But it would be a mistake, it seems to me, to make the best the enemy of the good. I mean that it would be wrong for us to say that because we cannot immediately be like St Anthony we cannot even begin the journey of prayer, or must consider prayer for ordinary people to be no more than the offering of set prayers at particular times. St Isaac describes the method that was taught in the deserts in this early period.
Before all things however we ought most carefully to observe the Evangelic precept, which tells us to enter into our chamber and shut the door and pray to our Father, which may be fulfilled by us as follows: We pray within our chamber, when removing our hearts inwardly from the din of all thoughts and anxieties, we disclose our prayers in secret and in closest intercourse to the Lord. We pray with closed doors when with closed lips and complete silence we pray to the searcher not of words but of hearts. We pray in secret when from the heart and fervent mind we disclose our petitions to God alone, so that no hostile powers are even able to discover the character of our petition. Wherefore we should pray in complete silence, not only to avoid distracting the brethren standing near by our whispers or louder utterances, and disturbing the thoughts of those who are praying, but also that the purport of our petition may be concealed from our enemies who are especially on the watch against us while we are praying… Wherefore we ought to pray often but briefly.
Now Abba Isaac is about to speak of the short prayers which the monks of the Egyptian desert were wont to use. But we must surely remember that the use of such prayers is built upon a foundation and experience of beginning with repentance and thanksgiving. It is not a substitute for it. And it requires a preparation in prayer. There must be some quiet place to which we can retire. For the monk in the desert this was his cell, but for those of us in the world it must be whichever place is best suited. Those who are experienced may find this quite place within their hearts wherever they are, but for most of us a real place of stillness is required.
He continues in his teaching, saying,
This formula then shall be proposed … which every monk in his progress towards continual recollection of God, is accustomed to ponder, ceaselessly revolving it in his heart, having got rid of all kinds of other thoughts; for he cannot possibly keep his hold over it unless he has freed himself from all bodily cares and anxieties. And as this was delivered to us by a few of those who were left of the oldest fathers, so it is only divulged by us to a very few and to those who are really keen. And so for keeping up continual recollection of God this pious formula is to be ever set before you. “O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me,”
We see that even at the earliest times there was use made of a short prayer which was intended to still the heart, and allow the thought of God alone to occupy the heart. In this early period in Egypt the prayer which the Fathers used was O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me, which was taken from the Scriptures. Slowly the use of the Jesus Prayer, also rooted in Scripture, came to predominate, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy, or, have mercy on me a sinner. The exact form of words has not been most important. The prayer may even be shortened to Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy.
It is, after all, not the words themselves which are prayer, but the heart turned towards God. These words have always been considered to have great value, and to express the whole substance of the Gospel, reminding us that the one we address is the Son of God, and God Himself, who became man for our sake, Jesus Christ. We ask him to have mercy on us because we are sinners in need of a Saviour, and because we are confident of his mercy towards us.
Abba Isaac says of the prayer as he knew it, although his words apply equally to the Jesus Prayer…
We must then ceaselessly and continuously pour forth the prayer of this verse, in adversity that we may be delivered, in prosperity that we may be preserved and not puffed up. Let the thought of this verse, I tell you, be thought over in your breast without ceasing. Whatever work you are doing, or office you are holding, or journey you are going, do not cease to chant this. When you are going to bed, or eating, and in the last necessities of nature, think on this. This thought in your heart maybe to you a saving formula, and not only keep you unharmed by all attacks of devils, but also purify you from all faults and earthly stains, and lead you to that invisible and celestial contemplation, and carry you on to that ineffable glow of prayer, of which so few have any experience. Let sleep come upon you still considering this verse, till having been molded by the constant use of it, you grow accustomed to repeat it even in your sleep. When you wake let it be the first thing to come into your mind, let it anticipate all your waking thoughts, let it when you rise from your bed send you down on your knees, and thence send you forth to all your work and business, and let it follow you about all day long.
This then is the ancient means by which Christians who have begun the journey of constant prayer, of the unceasing recollection of God in the heart, have been taught to make progress. They say that we should pray as much as possible the words of the Jesus Prayer, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy. Or the ancient desert prayer, O God make speed to save me, O Lord make haste to help me. As far as is possible these words offered as prayer with attention should become our constant companion. As with all human activities, it is possible for the practice of the constant repetition of these words to become habitual. This is a positive development, but we must not confuse habit with true spiritual progress. It is possible for these words to become habitually present in our minds, and not be an expression of prayer from our hearts.
The one who is truly praying by this method will also be more aware of the need to repent, and more conscious of the opportunities for thankfulness. Equally, the one who is growing more truly repentant and thankful will also make most use of the Jesus Prayer, or some other prayer like it. We cannot separate prayer from the manner in which we live our life, nor the manner in which we live our life from the quality of our prayer.
The use of the Jesus Prayer is not a shortcut to spiritual growth for those of us living in the world, but it is a tried and tested means of growth for those who are making use of the other means of grace. It is part of the armoury of our salvation, and to the extent in which we truly pray these words, rather than simply saying them, we may hope to see a development in our relationship with God as he wills. It must become part of a culture of prayer which we seek to encourage in ourselves, and which includes faithful and regular participation in the Eucharist, in the prayers of the Church, and in service to others.
For those of us in the world, living complicated lives, we may begin by adding this prayer to our usual devotions, perhaps praying with attention for a certain period of time, or for a certain number of repetitions. But we should also seek to use it through the day as we go about our business. Those who begin to use it will discover for themselves how necessary it can quickly become. But it is not some magical formula. It is always prayer, the turning of the heart towards God. Its value is in its brevity and the words of which it is made up. It does not require great mental activity, indeed it stills the mind and draws the heart to find peace in the name of Jesus. But it is not separate from the rest of our lives, especially for those of us with jobs, and families and studies and competing duties and responsibilities.
There is more to the practice of unceasing prayer than this one form. We are not absolved from repentance and thanksgiving if we use it. And these other aspects of prayer remain part of our experience of unceasing prayer as we pass each day aware of our weakness, and of God’s great blessings. But it is an important and useful tool in our armoury, and it helps us to develop a habit of prayer which is not so easily disturbed by the situations around us.
But if we do practice these forms of prayer, then we must also always be reflective about our spiritual state. Pseudo-Macarius, another of those mentioned by Metropolitan Kallistos, gives this warning,
The fruits of sincere prayer are simplicity, love, humility, fortitude, innocence, and other things similar to these. Such fruits which precede the heavenly fruit are developed in this life by a man eager for prayer through hard labor. Prayer is adorned with such fruit. Who lacks such fruit undertakes in vain laborious tasks. This applies not only to prayer, but also to every path of philosophy, which is born out of such a growth process.
These early fathers were clear that if there was no spiritual fruit then what was being done was not spiritual at all. Merely adopting any form of words is not the same as standing before God in humility in the heart. Pseudo-Macarius expresses the same connection between the way we live and our life of prayer. He says,
If one does not strive to be good, does not possess the virtues already mentioned and has not even prepared himself for them, he loses the grace which he has acquired and falls because of pride, or he does not make progress nor increase in the grace that came to him because he does not give himself purposefully to the Lord’s commandments. For the dwelling place and the repose of the Spirit is humility, charity, and meekness and the other commandments of the Lord.
These are perhaps the key elements of this early spirituality of prayer. There is a need for effort to be made, both to resist sin and to acquire grace and virtue. The measure of our progress is not how much we pray but whether the fruits of the Spirit are evident in our life. The goal of our prayer is union with God in the heart as he wills, and that this union is not experienced with many words and much mental activity, but as the divine presence in a spiritual communion that is beyond comprehension.