We should not imagine that the practice of unceasing prayer and the unfailing awareness of the presence of God is to be reserved only for a very few of the great monastic pioneers. That would be like saying that there is no point in trying to get physically fit unless we can compete at an Olympic level. Certainly such practice must develop through great commitment and effort, but the experience of the divine presence is salvation itself. It is the abundant life which our Lord Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, says that he has come to give to those who are his spiritual flock. Therefore, it is to be the constant goal and desire of all who have been born again into Christ.
It would be a mistake to think that when St Paul instructs us to pray without ceasing, and when our Lord Jesus tells several parables about prayer so that we would pray always and not give up, he was either speaking only to a very small elite of Christians, or meant that we should have to adopt the monastic life to achieve such a state. On the contrary, St Paul is addressing the Church in Thessalonica, a congregation of ordinary believers, and his instruction to them is given to us all, just as the word of the Lord, to pray always and not give up, was not only for those who heard him 2000 years ago but for us all, in every time and place.
What is prayer? It is not the offering of words to a distant God. It is not always asking for things. It is not a religious practice that will keep us in God’s favour. The English word – pray – meant only to ask. And in Shakespeare’s plays it is used many times indeed and not usually in any religious sense. But in the context of the Christian spiritual life it has the sense of entering into God’s presence, to meet with him in the heart, and to commune with him. True prayer already produces that which the heart desires, the experience of union with God and the fruit of the Holy Spirit. We do not need to ask for these things, rather our turning to God in prayer and seeking to enter his presence is already answered by his light and love in which we find ourselves immersed when we pray.
What does our Lord Jesus teach…
When you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.
This secret place is the heart. It is that aspect of our humanity which was created for union with God, and to be the place where the Holy Spirit dwells within us. It is that deepest part of our being and identity, which reaches out unceasingly for God even when every other part of our life is filled with distractions and overwhelmed with difficulties and sin.
If the heart is restless until it finds it rest in God, then it is only in union with God, unceasing communion, that we find peace and experience what it means to be truly human. The pneumatikoi, the spiritual man or woman, is not one who has ceased to be human, but united with God in Christ by the indwelling Holy Spirit in the the heart, is one who has become and is becoming truly human as God intended in his creation.
This union with God cannot be achieved by occasional prayer and worship. The Psalmist David says…
With my whole heart I have sought You.
I will praise You, O Lord, with my whole heart.
I cry out with my whole heart.
and the Prophet Jeremiah says…
Then I will give them a heart to know Me, that I am the Lord; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God, for they shall return to Me with their whole heart.
And our Lord Jesus Christ himself teaches us that the first commandment is this…
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.
This wholeheartedness doesn’t simply mean that we put quite a bit of effort into seeking and knowing God, rather it represents a union with God. The whole heart is to become transformed into the throne of God, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. To the extent that we give ourselves entirely to God we experience union with God, but when we withhold the heart from God then we cannot participate in the divine life of grace as God wills and desires for us.
It is while we cry out with the whole heart, our broken, weak and easily distracted heart, that God himself does a work of healing that is beyond us and begins to renew his likeness in us, even as he has already renewed his image in mankind by the incarnation of Christ. This becoming the likeness of God is the work of grace throughout a lifetime, but we begin to experience union with God as we give ourselves to him for this transformation as best and completely as we are able.
How do we begin? In the first place we must come to understand that salvation is not found in doing good things to please God in the hope that he will let us into Heaven when we die. We must understand that salvation is not performing religious practices to try to turn away God’s anger and wrath and avoid his punishment. Salvation is no less than to begin to experience the divine life of the indwelling Holy Spirit and union with God now, in this life. If this is our goal then the spiritual Tradition of our Orthodox Church begins to make sense.
We are baptised to be made new in union with God by the grace of the Holy Spirit. We receive divine life and energy in communing in the divine and immortal mysteries of the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ. And we follow the fasts and we pray as unceasingly as possible, so that this divine grace might be worked out in an increasing union with God.
The lengthy services of the Church are not to be considered an obligation, but an opportunity. We do not attend to please God, but to enter into his presence, which is true and abundant life. We need this life. We are not giving God anything he needs, though he loves us to be in his presence and receive gifts from him. To prayerfully make the words of the Liturgy our own, to humbly receive Christ himself from the hands of the priest, this is salvation for us. This is divine life and energy, a spiritual medicine for every spiritual illness and sickness.
The Agpeya is not a boring routine, but an invitation. If we understand its purpose, to bring us into God’s saving presence, then we turn to the words of our spiritual tradition with great eagerness and attention. We make them our own words, or they are of little value at all. God does not demand that we say them. But when we pray them he gives himself to the faithful heart in overwhelming measure when we persevere. If we wish to experience union with God then this is one of the means. We should not easily abandon it.
And St Paul instructs us to offer intercessions and supplications, to be thankful at all times, and to repent quickly when we have sinned. All of these are also a means of entering often into the divine presence within the heart until we have made it our home. We should intercede earnestly every day for those close to us, and those known to us with needs of various kinds. These are not words offered to the four winds, but in true prayer we are invited to bring the needs of others into the very presence of God in the heart. Likewise, our prayers for ourselves should bring us humbly and with great intensity into God’s presence, where we discover that to be in the place where he dwells, within the heart, is already to have our prayers answered. And if we are very often thankful for every good gift that God gives us, and learn to turn to him in grateful prayer then we will find that we are again often in his transforming presence. While even our sins and weaknesses should drive us to repentance and lead us to growing closer and more careful in our union with God by the Holy Spirit.
And finally, the Fathers have taught us from the beginning, that the means of experiencing union with God in an increasing measure requires the use of a constant calling out to God, and the most widespread form of this constant prayer has been and become the Jesus Prayer – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me or have mercy on me, a sinner. All of these other forms and means of entering into the presence of God in the heart are necessary to one degree or another, but when we fill our heart and mind with the name of Jesus, and offer unceasing prayer in this way, then there is the possibility for an unbroken communion.
This prayer should both be offered at set times in our spiritual rule, but should also be offered as unceasingly as possible while we go about our daily life and service. If we persevere it will become habitual, but this is not quite the same as prayer. It is a mental habit. But as we find the words of this prayer rising up in our consciousness we discover it as a constant invitation to make the words our own and to enter into the presence of God within the heart in prayer.
More must be said, but the desire for an unceasing communion with God in the heart is increasingly fulfilled in the seeking after unceasing prayer of the heart. This is the meaning of salvation. Not some future blessing if we are good, but union with God now, by the divine life and energy of the indwelling Holy Spirit which heals all our spiritual sickness, produces fruit of the Holy Spirit, and fills us with light and love.