We should not be surprised that for almost all of us the issue of intimacy becomes important and one point in our life or another. We are complex in our constitution. We are not easily explained. We are not merely animals, though we share some aspects of life in common with other creatures. But it is said of us by St Athanasius…
For God is good, or rather is essentially the source of goodness: nor could one that is good be mean spirited of anything: whence, grudging existence to none, He has made all things out of nothing by His own Word, Jesus Christ our Lord. And among these, having taken especial pity, above all things on earth, upon the race of men, and having perceived its inability, by virtue of the condition of its origin, to continue in one stay, He gave them a further gift, and He did not barely create man, as He did all the irrational creatures on the earth, but made them after His own image, giving them a portion even of the power of His own Word; so that having as it were a kind of reflexion of the Word, and being made rational, they might be able to abide ever in blessedness, living the true life which belongs to the saints in paradise.
Each of us is created in the goodness of God, not as if he sometimes does good things, as we do, but out of his boundless and essentially goodness and love. And in that unfailing and eternal goodness he made mankind more than another animal. He gave us a share of the divine power of his own Word. So, each of us contains a divine spark that makes us able to both desire and experience the life lived in union with God.
We are more than an animal, more even than a clever animal. We have been raised in our creation to be partakers of God’s life by grace, and as far as any created being is able, to reflect this divine life. It is not surprising that we cannot be fulfilled with the satisfaction of merely animal appetites. There is always something deeper and more essential to us which unceasingly calls out for gratification. This is not something religious, a matter of choice for those who become Christians. It is not something optional, for those who want a deeper spiritual life. But this is what it actually and truly and authentically means to be a human person. We are made with a spark of the divine life within us, and we are made to reflect the divine life so that our true life is found only in the experience of union with the source of this life, so that it is fanned into an all-consuming fire.
This deeper aspect of what it truly means to be a human is expressed by our Lord Jesus Christ, in a quotation from Deuteronomy, when he says to Satan, who is tempting him to satisfy his physical hunger…
Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.
This certainly does not mean that human persons do not need food and nourishment. The Lord Jesus does not say in this reference that man does not need bread at all, but that an earthly bread cannot satisfy all of the needs of man, or even the most essential and deepest needs. That can only come from the nourishment that God provides by the direct encounter with him. Later in the Gospels, the Lord Jesus describes himself as this divine bread, saying…
Do not labour for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him… My Father gives you the true bread from heaven… I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.
There are clearly two aspects to food and nourishment. One is the earthly and material food which will sustain our body but cannot sustain our inner life. While the other is a lasting and eternal, a spiritual food, which only God can provide. He provides this supernatural and essential nourishment in the very person of the Word of God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man without change. It is in a relationship with him that we are able to receive the interior and spiritual sustenance which is our true life. We may eat the food of the world around us, which is surely necessary, but when we come to believe that this can sustain our interior life, our true life, then we are bound to be disappointed and to come to harm and distress. Indeed, the more we seek after a fulfilment of our essential and interior needs by earthly means, the greater the consequences for ourselves, and the more significant the experience of what we could call interior malnourishment.
We are aware of this interior life, if we spend any time at all in reflection. Often it manifests itself in painful and distressing emotions and feelings. In a sense this represents the essential quality of the inner life, that it is what makes us truly human. If I am lost on the way to a destination, I may feel a variety of emotions, probably frustration and anxiety, especially if I am expected somewhere. But what if I feel lost in my inner-most being? What if I have no sense of direction or purpose? This affects every aspect of my being. I learn that there is something indeed more important than food and drink, even if these are necessary to my physical life. The lack of purpose, identity and direction makes me realise that I need to find meaning and understanding in my interior life, in the heart of me, if everything else is to have any value.
Maslow’s well-known pyramid of needs places the interior life at the top, as if it cannot and should not really be considered until all of the lower needs have been substantially fulfilled. But the Christian experience of union with God, as a practical and not just a theoretical framework, understands that the interior life is not an indulgence or an occupation for those who have time on their hands. But it is as necessary to authentic human life and experience as the physiological needs which he placed at the bottom of his pyramid.
A human being as a physiological individual, certainly needs air, food, water and to be within certain temperature limits that are compatible with physical existence. But Orthodox Christianity disputes that we are only physiological individuals. Rather we insist that we are human persons, and as human persons we also require an interior nourishment to flourish and survive as authentic human individuals with a unique personhood.
We can easily turn to the history of the Church, and even the modern history of Christians facing persecution and death to realise that even in a state of starvation or thirst leading to imminent death, it has been possible for Orthodox Christians to preserve what Maslow calls self-actualisation, as the experience of God himself and of the true identity of the self in union with God might be described. Even when Christians have been placed in the fiery furnace or left to stand on a frozen lake to death, this has not prevented the lasting experience of union with God, and the experience of true self-actualisation in the grace of God from being manifested. We can find these examples in our own Coptic Orthodox Synaxarium.
This means no more than that there is more to being a human than satisfying the physical needs which we have. These basic needs must be met of course, otherwise we will perish according to the body, or we will grow up physically harmed in one way or another. But we are more than a physical being, and we can have these needs adequately met and never become a true human person in an authentic manner, because we will not have discovered how to sustain and find nourishment for the interior life which is what makes us a human person, which represents what we were made for. Human existence is as a duality of body and soul, or body and spirit, and both of these elements have a fundamental and inescapable need for basic nourishment and satisfaction. The needs of the soul or spirit are as essential as those of the body. A failure to take care of either leads to sickness, whether of the body or the soul. The latter, appearing to be less visible, though just as important, is very often ignored as if we were only material beings.
For many people it still seems that the interior life is just something for an elite, or for those interested in such things, and not a necessary preoccupation for all human beings seeking to become authentic human persons. When we have satisfied our basic physiological needs – air: check! water: check! food: check! Then it seems best that we should spend most of our time looking after our emotional needs. Indeed, for many people with little or no sense of their deeper personhood this is all they become concerned with. Am I happy? Do I enjoy my work? Am I bored with you? Am I head over heels in love? Why doesn’t my wife/husband make me feel the same as before? Why is the Liturgy so tedious? Why don’t I have any exciting feelings about God?
Our emotions are the interface between our physiological and interior states. They are affected by both and do not reflect reality in themselves. We are not addressing those conditions of mental illness which may require additional medical and psychological support. We are not suggesting that every condition is a simple matter of the inner life. But we are certainly insisting that in all human beings the state of the interior life affects all other aspects of our life, just as our physical and psychological state is affected by and affects our interior state.
When we are tired or hungry or feel ill then our emotions are affected. When we are tired or hungry or feel ill then even our interior state is affected. If we are hungry, we may become more irritable than usual, but we may also find it harder to concentrate on both mental and spiritual activity. But equally, if we are very full of food, we may find it hard to concentrate on mental and spiritual activity, and we may feel much more sleepy than usual and less able to be interested in others. If we feel lonely, then even if we are well fed, we will not feel satisfied, and will not find pleasure in anything. We are complicated and complex creations of God. Our dual aspect of body and spirit affects everything about us, and when we concentrate only on the physical then we cannot experience life as God intends it for us.
It is interesting that when the Lord Jesus Christ speaks about the nature of the life which he wishes all mankind to experience in union with God he uses phrases such as – true life and abundant life. He says at one point…
I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.
This true life, this abundant life which God wants us to have, this life lived by participation in the divine nature, as St Peter says, is not a life lived on the surface of things and according to the material world view. It is the experience of the human being who is becoming a truly human person in union with God, and whose participation in the divine life is affecting positively every other aspect of life, while preserving the physical and psychological realities of human existence.
The one who is being increasingly united to God, truly united to God, not merely engaging in religious activities, is one in whom the physical and psychological aspects of life, though present in their integrity, are increasingly less able to disturb the interior state, and on the contrary, find themselves moderated by the development of a still state in the heart, where the experience of participation in the divine life takes place.
What do we mean? It is that as we grow closer to God in reality, and not merely emotionally or through commitment to religious activities, we truly begin to find a balance in our interior life, in the heart of us. St Paul speaks about the fruit of the Spirit, which is the effect of the union with God by the indwelling Holy Spirit on the human person growing in the experience of authentic human life lived in the grace of God. What are these effects? St Paul says…
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
We may believe that because the divine spark is present in all, and represents the image of God, and that because the grace of God works upon all of mankind, seeking renewal of the relationship with God, to some extent all of these fruits are present in some degree in all people, or have the potential to be. But in the Christian growing in union with God by the indwelling Holy Spirit, these become much more than occasional or partial expressions of God-likeness but become a living principle which is present in all thoughts, words and deeds to an increasing extent.
For the Orthodox Christian who is growing in union with God and in the experience of true and authentic human personhood, these are not representative of actions from time to time, or transient emotional feelings, but they become increasingly the representation of a stable and persistent inner, that is spiritual, state, which begins to moderate our psychological state and also influence the effects of our physical state.
Here is the problem, and it is at this point in this brief reflection that we may introduce the issue of intimacy. We are created for relationship. This is built into us all from our very beginning, and represents the purpose of God for us, that we live in an increasing and transforming relationship with him. But this same purpose is also intended to be expressed in personal relationships with others. This essential quality of finding true life and authentic humanity in relationship is what we find manifesting itself within us as the desire and need for intimacy. It means that we cannot become truly human, and cannot express our true personhood, without a growing relationship with God, and the experience of personal relationship with others.
This essential need for intimacy has physical, psychological and spiritual effects. At one level, it means that we feel a need for physical closeness with others, so that a warm hand-shake, a hug, an arm around the shoulder, a loving embrace, and the fulness of sexual relations, all have a meaning and value in the context of our need for intimacy, for relationship with others, for a unity and belonging outside of ourselves. They express and communicate in a physical manner the need which is found deep within us.
But on a second level, we also feel a need for emotional and mental closeness with others, so that a friendly letter or email, a warm conversation, a listening ear, the opportunity to speak honestly, the sense that someone understands us and cares about us, these all have a meaning and value also, in the context of our need for intimacy, since they also represent our relationship with others, even one other, which meets some aspect of our need for unity and belonging outside of ourselves. These all express and communicate in an emotional and psychological manner the need which is found deep with us.
For many of us, we stay at these levels. We try to fix our physical and emotional need for intimacy through a variety of means. It is certainly possible to do so to some extent. But since we have been created for something else, to try to fix only the symptoms of a deeper condition is never to find true healing, and authentic human personhood at all. True intimacy can only be expressed by authentically human persons. If we have not yet begun to experience what it means to be truly alive in relation to God, which is the substance of our personhood, then every other relationship we experience will be distorted and will less than authentic, less than truly human and truly filled with life.
But we persist in trying to fix or moderate the external problems, rather than dealing with the internal one. This does not mean that the physical and emotional aspects of intimacy are not important and do not exist. But if the source of these physical and emotional needs is found in the interior and spiritual nature of humanity, then dealing only with the exterior symptoms will not solve the underlying problem.
When we seek to enter into intimate relationships without having become a truly and authentically human person in union with God, then our relationships must be dysfunctional to a greater or lesser extent. Truly human relationships can only take place between authentically human persons. The greater the degree of authentic human personhood experienced in union with God, the greater the depth and degree of the relationships which are possible. When we enter into relationships, seeking to fulfill the desire for intimacy within us, when personhood in God has not been experienced, then we must enter into such relationships with an unmet need which dominates and undermines the possibility for authenticity. It must become, to some extent or other, a business transaction. We give of ourselves because we both expect and demand something from the other.
This fundamental dysfunction operates at all levels of human relationship when authentic personhood in God is not becoming more present. If we are not growing in union with God, then we are not growing in the fruit of the Holy Spirit, which are love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We may well make many efforts to reproduce some of these in our own strength, but they will be counterfeit, and will, to some degree or other, be merely the bargaining chips we use to gain what we need, a sense of intimacy with others.
These counterfeits operate at the emotional level, and we can easily mistake them for the real thing in ourselves and in others. They undoubtedly have an energy of their own, and they appear as that extravagant romantic infatuation we often call love. Or as an emotional sense of happiness. Or the sense of calm when nothing much is disturbing us at the time. Even our patience can be merely emotional, willing to put up with something for the time being because something better and more valuable is at stake. We can invest a lot of time and energy in sustaining these emotions. They are certainly truly experienced and can also cause us harm and distress. But our personhood, our experience of true and abundant life in God, is not measured by how we feel.
But these emotions are certainly real and not to be dismissed. Just as the effects of our emotional state can affect our physical health, and our physical health can affect our mental health. Nevertheless, when we are guided by emotions, especially in regard to the need for intimacy, we will be led astray if we have not discovered our human personhood in God.
We know that the satisfaction of the need for intimacy can lead to all manner of harmful behaviours. In the first place, we can take comfort from other situations and the satisfaction of other needs. We can eat too much, because eating does provide for many of us a sense of comfort. We have often had many positive experiences of eating with others. Eating can come to represent in a tangential manner, the relationships we have had in the past with friends and family at times of sharing food. So, we can find that in an essentially and ultimately harmful manner, we can come to try to satisfy our need for intimacy, for being in relationship with another by consuming food, too much food for our actual physical needs.
There is also the engagement with video games of various kinds, even the games installed on smart phones. These provide a response to us, which mimics the attention that real relationships of human persons provide and which we aspire to. I do something, and something responds. So, I feel that I matter and that the world notices that I exist. I may even be playing against someone else, and no matter what the trivial nature of the game, and even if the other person is only computer generated, for a few minutes it seems I am playing with another human being, and we have a connection. Many otherwise lonely and isolated people will play video games for hours at a time, simply because of the experience of almost being in a relationship, but it can never really satisfy the need within us for intimacy because it provides only a counterfeit that deals temporarily with some of the emotions produced by the need for intimacy.
In recent years the growth of social media has also developed into a counterfeit, a substitute, for true intimacy and the relationships between authentic human persons, who have begun to experience their personhood in union with God. We may have 5000 friends on Facebook, but have met none of them in real life, and perhaps never interacted with more than a handful online. Yet Facebook and other social media platforms tend to dominate our attention and social focus because the opportunity to join an almost unlimited number of conversations makes it seem as though intimacy is what is being offered. One of the reasons why social media interactions are often so heated and abusive is surely because we are encouraged to invest so much emotional energy into our participation. It really matters to us, because intimate relationships seem to be involved, or the possibility of intimate relationships. But this is not the purpose of Facebook and other social media platforms. The more we invest of ourselves in these counterfeit relationships with people we really do not know, the greater the sense of disappointment when we finally realise that we need something else altogether.
Even the relationships we do have with others can be badly affected by our interior need for intimacy, even when we think we have a busy social calendar and many friends. We can easily become bound by the need to service the relationships we have, so that they continue to meet our physical and emotional need for relationship and intimacy. We find that we have to act against our principles because we do not want to lose our friends. Or we have to allow other real relationships to suffer for the sake of relationships which appear to hold the promise for self-worth and intimacy. We can find ourselves continually worrying that these relationships are not working and have to put in great effort to make sure that we remain within the circle of friendship, and we are not left out. Even if we are participating in activities with others, we are often anxious and make a great deal out of every possible sign that we are moving to the fringes of our friendship groups, rather than staying in the centre. Even those around whom others want to congregate, are not free from the continuing anxiety that such popularity may not persist.
When we find ourselves needing relationships with others to satisfy physical and emotional needs, rather than as an expression of our authentic human person-hood, then we will start making calculations about what we need to do to sustain those relationships which we have, or to create those which we are lacking. This means that we will not encounter others as human persons also, as subjects in their own right by virtue of their own unique creation by God and their own potential for union with God. We will view others, whether knowingly or unknowingly, as objects who can meet our needs, and the most apparent needs we have are physical and emotional, and these can often be overwhelming.
When we want a physical intimacy, and especially when it seems this will satisfy the need for emotional intimacy, we may be willing to engage in all manner of activities, hoping that our distress, anxiety and sense of emptiness will be filled. Some people certainly engage in sexual activity, not out of any great desire, but because it seems to them that this will satisfy their need for intimacy. Some will turn to promiscuous sexual relations, because it seems that giving what others want is the only way to receive some degree of intimacy in return. Those who have been sexually abused in the past may engage in such activity because at some level it seems to them that this is what intimacy looks like. Others may find themselves developing a habitual addiction to pornography because this also seems to offer the possibility of intimacy, however false and empty it might be.
Many of us, in such circumstances, will imagine what could satisfy us, and will develop dreams of various fantastical relationships that hold out the promise of satisfying our physical and spiritual needs. It does not help when we see many around us, and on Facebook and other forms of social media, all seeming to find the relationships that will satisfy the need for intimacy. If everyone else has found the answer, why can’t I, we ask ourselves. Facebook can very easily present to us a fairy-tale account of other people’s lives. People rarely post about how much their partner irritates them, or what things their partner complains about. There are not usually pictures posted of washing left undone, or the dinner burned. It is easy on Facebook to make everything seem wonderful, and this deception makes it even harder for those who are aware of their urgent and constant yearning for intimacy.
From the perspective of the Orthodox Christian, it is the case that some will begin to ask whether sexual activity is really prohibited, since it seems that it might open the door to intimacy. Others will ask if it is really such a problem to develop a romantic relationship with a non-Christian, since intimacy seems at stake. But the real issue is that those struggling with all of these real problems, feelings and desires, are doing so without the interior and spiritual resources and experience which would allow them to be managed and moderated, brought into an order and balance, rather than acting out of control and overwhelming us.
If we do not have some experience of the fruit of the Holy Spirit as love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, then we are left to do our best to handle difficult feelings and emotions without the necessary interior stability. The emotional counterfeits of this fruit of the Holy Spirit are easily mistaken for the reality, but they serve only to feed and intensify the already disturbing feelings we are trying to cope with. If we mistake infatuation and romanticism for true love, then we will not be engaged in relationships between human persons but will be always considering what happy and exciting feelings the other person produces in us. Without meaning to, we will be using the other person for what they can give us, which is the romantic feelings we have confused with true love. This confusion between emotions and the authentic fruit of the Holy Spirit prevents us entering into truly intimate relationships of human persons.
In the same way, when we confuse happiness for joy, we will be content to chase after people who make us feel happy for a while, but in doing so we will discover the increasing anxiety of our happiness being subject to so many fluctuating circumstances. Happiness is an emotion, a response to our present situation and physical condition, but as soon as circumstances change for the worse, or our physical well-being is challenged, then the emotional state of happiness is lost. Joy, as a fruit of the Holy Spirit, does not come and go in the same way, but is an established interior state which has the power to moderate our emotions, whatever our circumstances or even our physical state.
This does not mean that our physical and emotional condition is not real, but it does mean that it is a mistake to focus only on fixing it with physical and emotional solutions or seeking to find fulfilment in relationships with others where we simply hope that they will be able to satisfy what is missing in us. We must be careful not to end up only focusing on the symptoms of our deeper need for intimacy, rather than on discovering the possibility and experience of true intimacy.
If we become truly human in the experience of an increasing union with God, and if this is what establishes our true human personhood, then we need to develop our relationship of intimacy with God, and seek the fruit of the Holy Spirit, both before and while we are seeking intimacy with others. The experience of true intimacy with God is what makes possible authentic intimacy with others, relating to them as human persons themselves, and not simply objects of our needs. But this introduces its own potential for misunderstanding. In the first place, the fact that our true experience of intimacy is found in God does not mean that our physical and emotional needs are not important. To become truly human in the way I am suggesting does not mean that we have no emotions or that we no longer have any physical needs. But it does mean that an increasing inner balance, brought about by union with God, leads to an increasing emotional balance and a greater sense of control in our physical condition.
In the second place, we should not imagine that what is required of us is a greater religiosity, as if this is what union with God represents. Many of those struggling with the desire for intimacy are already praying the Agpeya and attending services with a desire to be found to be doing the right things. But they have still not experienced intimacy with God or others. We need to become spiritual men and women if we hope to encounter God and participate in his divine life. We are not asked to become more religious, nor should we feel overcome with guilt and despair, as if having tried to be religious we have somehow failed and do not deserve intimacy with God or others.
But thirdly, we should not make God the solution of our emotional needs, as if he was himself to become the object of romantic and other feelings. God does not intend to become our best friend in any human sense, or even worse, some sort of boyfriend. These emotional and physical needs have, and are intended to have, a fulfillment in the human relations which become possible when we ourselves become truly human persons. But the relationship with God, and the experience of inner intimacy such union with him makes possible, while spiritual, is entirely real, and begins to transform rather than eliminate, our physical and emotional states.
If the transformation of our physical and emotional need for intimacy comes about through the experience of intimacy with God, then we need to consider how this is possible and what effects might be expected in our wider experience. If intimacy is not simply a matter of being more religious then what is required of us? I was watching a video of a brief interview with one of the hermit fathers who had lived from the beginning with Abouna Matta el Meskeen. He lives alone in the desert most of the time, and he was asked what he had learned there. He said…
We find in the desert the first love, the sincere love of Christ. We experience a personal friendship and intimacy with the person of the Lord Jesus. The inner feeling is very real, a very intimate life with the Lord saying – I am with you.
This is certainly the experience that the Lord desires for us all. It changes everything. But how do we begin to experience this?
The Fathers teach us that at the beginning of making any progress in the spiritual way we must abandon the reliance on our own strength and our own understanding since this has led us to the confused and dysfunctional state in which we find ourselves. We have already tried to find the path to satisfaction of our needs, and we have discovered that whatever temporary success we seem to have obtained, in the long term we find that we remain anxious about the lack of intimacy we experience. Even in the moments when we are busy with others we are still concerned about how others think of us, and how we need to act around others. So, the first step is to determine that we will try less to manage things ourselves and will begin to seek the divine grace of the indwelling Holy Spirit. We begin by praying, Lord, I have tried to work out your purposes in my life in my own strength and with my own understanding, now I ask that you will work out your purposes for me and give me the grace to serve your will and become the unique person you have created me to be.
Who is this God with whom we seek intimacy? It is the good God, the source of goodness and love, who has created all mankind for this purpose, and has called us uniquely into being for a relationship of intimacy that cannot be satisfied with anything else. He is not a God who demands religious service from us and threatens to punish us if we do not offer the correct words at the correct time. Nor is he a God with whom we can bargain, so that we offer a certain amount of prayer, and he promises to reward us with gifts of one kind or another. On the contrary, he is a loving God who has called us into being so that we might participate in the gift of himself, of his own life and love, and he asks no more than that we desire this true and abundant life of union with him. The experience of intimacy with God is already the reward for those who seek him, and no other reward is needed, or can satisfy.
This first step requires us to recognise that all of the initiative, all of the desire for intimacy, the gracious invitation, comes from the side of God already. This is not something we can demand of God, or need to organise for ourselves, but our very existence as a unique creation is already the sign that God desires this intimacy with us and for us. When we have tried to take control ourselves and have engaged in religious activities hoping that this would cause God to reveal himself to us, we have discovered that acting in our own strength and according to our own understanding does not lead to union with God. It cannot, because it represents a false idea of what God is like altogether.
When a small infant wriggles and fidgets and is unsettled it finds it hard to experience the intimacy with its mother which would settle it and sooth it. The more it wriggles and fidgets the more it unsettles itself, whatever the cause of its distress. It is only when the infant finally gives in to the soft touch of its mother, the gentle stroking and calming words, that it finds comfort and rest. Many of us are wriggling and fidgeting, and we have never allowed ourselves the stillness which would reveal to us the gentle touch and the calming voice of the Lord. But this is entirely what is required of us. Not that we do more, but that in a sense we do less.
This necessary stillness has its origins in something revealed about God himself. We read in the Old Testament, in 1 Kings 19:11-12, when the Lord appeared to Elijah…
Then He said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.
In the Septuagint ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, the text says…
And after the fire there was the sound of a light breeze, and the Lord was there.
We can rightly say that stillness matters in our experience, in the seeking after union and intimacy with God, because God reveals himself in stillness and silence, in the still small voice, and the sound of a light breeze. When we are immersed in the exterior noise around us and allow this exterior noise to overwhelm the interior place of the heart, when we are filled with distractions, then we cannot hear the voice of God, especially when we are trying to bring about the experience of God, or the satisfaction of our needs, in our own strength.
There is a time in the day when we pray with hurried words, and with only half-attention, as if God requires us to say words, rather than authentically meet and encounter him on the way, so that our hearts burn within us. But if we have made the effort to find a silent space in our lives then we should not waste it with the same hasty, distracted spiritual exercises that occupy us at other times.
We can suggest several different practices from the Orthodox spiritual tradition, as expressions of stillness, as the means of acquiring stillness, and as the means to encounter God more deeply in intimacy.
In the first place, if we have an exterior silence, and we are seeking an interior silence, then the words and prayers and psalms of the Daily Office, whichever one we use, gain a greater transforming power. We discover that we are able to begin to pray them with attention, and this is what true prayer, the authentic encounter with God requires. We can choose the prayers from the Daily Office for the time of day in which we are praying, and we can determine that we will pray them with attention, making them our own, even if we do not have the time on every occasion to complete them. We do not need to pray all the words. God is not pleased by the hurried completion of a rule. It is much better, if we want to have the possibility of experiencing God himself, that we pray less but with as much attention and warmth as possible.
Perhaps we pray the words of the Lord’s Prayer, more slowly than usual, and with more care and attention, but we discover that our mind wanders even so. This does not matter so much, as long as we are aware of our distraction and return to the stillness of prayer and attention focused on God, and as long as each time we pray, we use all of our attention as far as we are able, and as much as we are able. This is a journey we are engaged on. We have not arrived at the goal all at once.
In the second place, if we have an exterior silence, and we are seeking an interior silence, then this is the time to turn to the Scriptures, with whatever reading plan we have at hand. We are not trying to read as much of the Bible as quickly as possible. But we will want to make use of the exterior silence we have created so that our heart and attention can settle into the words we are reading. These also must become an experience and expression of prayer, so that we are reading in the presence of God and expect him to quicken some phrase or sentence especially to us, so that it becomes his speaking to us. This communication from God, hearing the light breeze of his voice, is an experience of this divine intimacy.
We discover silence in our use of the Daily Office and the reading of the Scriptures when we abandon all haste and hurry, when we do not have a target that we are trying to achieve as quickly a possible, and when all of our attention finds a stillness and a centredness in the words which we are using and studying and bringing within the heart, and not leaving only to occupy the mind.
This is not simply mindfulness, which has some psychological benefits in producing stillness, but it is a deliberate and definite turning of the attention to God, not to ourselves, and not even to silence and stillness. It is the discovery of a true stillness in the encounter with God. So we must be careful not to bring with us all the disturbance which lies outside the door of our heart, as far as we are able, and that which does intrude into our thoughts while we are in silent prayer and reflection can be stilled by returning the attention again and again to God and the prayers we are offering, the Scriptures we are prayerfully attending to.
There should be no urgency. It is the encounter with God which matters, even if our words are few indeed, and that passage of Scripture we reflect on in God’s presence is very short.
The Orthodox Church especially values the use of a short prayer, such as the Jesus Prayer, in times of silence and stillness such as we are describing. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. We do not use this as a mantra, but each time we repeat it, slowly and prayerfully, we intend it as a prayer of the heart, filled with attention and warmth. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. It is often very useful to have a prayer rope, or a string of beads, so that we do pray this prayer for a particular amount of time, not that the number matters so much, but because we are easily distracted. Having a prayer rope provides a physical activity for our hands to be occupied with, and the simple words occupy our mind, while the intention, the turning of the heart in prayer towards God, is fulfilled in the increasing experience of the presence of God.
The encounter with God in silence brings about a spiritual stillness and an intimate experience of God, however fragmentary, that begins to affect our daily life. We become quieter people, with an interior stillness, a spiritual stillness, that we bring into all of our activities and conversations. But this requires the effort from us to make silent times and spaces in our life, so that this divine stillness can take root and bear fruit. Be still and know that I am God. Everything in our modern world resists this stillness, but if we are willing to make the effort, to discipline ourselves and change the circumstances of our lives even for a short time each day, then we will encounter God as he promises.
The second step is to begin to live in the reality of each day and not in the constructed reality which we often create. When we are always expecting and hoping for something else then it is difficult to participate in the relationships that are open to us. We are always looking for something else and are concerned that the experiences of each day will be lost. Part of our anxiety around intimacy is created by expecting something else all the time. When we have already decided what intimacy looks like we are often liable to miss the opportunity to experience it when it is offered.
What would happen if we expected less, but experienced more? Too often we expect so much, or we expect things that are not real in themselves at all, and then we become disappointed that we do not experience what we have constructed in our mind and emotions. This can prevent us actually seeing what is already offered to us, from others and from God. It is as if we planted a seed but where always expecting a flourishing plant to appear all at once, so that we ignore the little shoots of growth that need preservation and nourishment, and after much disappointment we walk away from our garden sure that nothing could ever appear as we expect.
In relation to our experience of God, we need to seek and expect small signs of his presence with us to begin with. Not because he is not present with us in his fulness, but because we have not grown in our ability to participate in the divine life. When we are learning to walk, we should not be discouraged that we cannot run. When we are learning a new language, we should not be discouraged that we are not yet fluent. When we are learning a musical instrument, we should not be discouraged that we are not yet proficient. And in the same way, in our experience with God, we should look for the signs of our beginning to experience his presence, rather than be dismayed that we have not received all that we imagine or have seen in the experience of others.
We need to take each day at a time. We need to wait and persevere to hear and see what God is doing in our life today, and what experience of God is offered to us today. I’d like to suggest that this means a few things.
In the first place we must ask God to speak to us and reveal himself to us, in his own way, and in his time, without demanding or expecting how this might express itself. This requires an increasing degree of reflection and interior stillness. How can we become aware of God if we drown out his presence in our lives with so much noise and activity? We must begin to sit quietly as we have already described, and rather than trying to pray a great deal in many words, as if this must please God, we must sit and gently pray the Jesus Prayer, even in the form in which we find it in the Tasbeha – My Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, help me. We pray this gently, slowly, with attention and warmth, not as if trying to produce an emotional response, but as if we truly believe that God hears us. We wait for a spiritual response, a sense that we have connected with God. We do not rush. We do not demand. We do not expect more. But we prevail in this quiet prayer until we sense that our prayer is heard, whatever our feelings.
We must also read a small portion of the Gospel, the Gospel set for the day for instance, and this must also be read in a prayerful manner. What are we trying to achieve? It is not an emotion, but an experience of God. And so, we prayerful reflect on the small number of words we are considering from the Scriptures, and we ask, My Lord, speak to me, illuminate me, grant me a word from yourself for my healing and salvation. We find that phrase or sentence that comes alive to us. But we must not immediately close the Scriptures and get on with our daily life as if it means nothing. If we have asked God to speak to us, and some aspect of the Scripture comes alive to us, then we have to respond.
This is the word of God to us. This is a beginning of our relationship with him, of our intimacy with him. At the least we must thank God for speaking. We must continue to reflect on what has come to us in this time of quiet. We must let it make a difference. This is one of the early keys to developing a closer and more intimate life with God, so that everything changes. We must make use of what we receive from God. This is no more than we learn in the Parable of the Talents. Every small encounter with God, every sense of closeness, of intimacy, must be acknowledged and must make a difference.
This is the end of a first reflection on Intimacy. In a second part we will need to consider in more detail how we are able to grow closer to God, and what this means for our physical and emotional need for intimacy. We will also consider how the growth and increase in the experience of God affects and transforms our relationships with others, and makes possible a true intimacy with other persons.