In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
In this second session today I would like us to think about what it practically means to become those spiritual men and women who offer worship in spirit and truth.
St Cyril says,
Through the Gospel teaching the true worshipper, that is, the spiritual man, shall be brought to a life well-pleasing unto the Father, hasting unto union with God.
Here he says that the true worshipper is a spiritual man or a spiritual woman, and that the meaning of the Gospel is that they should be brought to union with God.
Now we should say at the beginning that a spiritual man or woman is not a person who simply does religious things. We know that in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, the Pharisee was certainly the one who performed all of the religious obligations laid on the Jews, but his prayers were not heard because he was not a spiritual man. It was the publican, for all of his sins and faults, whose prayers were heard, because he prayed from a repentant heart, and responded to the movement of the Spirit within him.
It would be possible, and this is a danger I am well aware, for me to be a priest serving in my own strength, performing all the services of the Church, and yet to be lacking in spiritual life. And we know that many of those who study what is called theology in the universities of the world do not have a faith in Christ at all. It is possible to be religious, and to be theologically literate, in at least an academic sense, and not be a spiritual man or woman.
Indeed, it has always been the case that some of those who have been the most spiritual and the most aware of the truth of the spiritual life, have been the simplest, uneducated and unlearned of Orthodox Christians. But if we are concerned about the spiritual life then it seems to me that we are already responding to the movement of the Holy Spirit within us, who wishes to lead us into a greater experience of union with God. The spiritual man or woman is, as we have already considered, one who has the fountain of life within their heart, the indwelling Holy Spirit. And out of this life of the Holy Spirit pours forth fruitfulness, holiness and acceptable worship in all the manner of spirituality that the Church has been taught by the Holy Spirit, who is our life, and which the Church teaches her faithful children.
I would like to talk in a practical manner this afternoon, and will begin by speaking about the means of our encounter with God, which is especially found in the practice of prayer. This is the personal and interior turning of the heart to God, though it may be expressed in spoken words, in the silent offering of those words and others from our heart, and even in the stillness of dwelling in God’s presence. But the essence of prayer is always found in the heart turning towards God, and this is the beginning of the experience of union with God in the heart by the Holy Spirit.
We have probably already begun this day with the experience of praying in some of the prayers from the Agpeya. Within this tradition of daily prayer there is the sense of prayer as liturgical or communal action. There is the sense of the connection between prayer and scripture. The sense of prayer as a rule or discipline. And of course most importantly the sense of prayer as the personal encounter with God in the heart.
St John Chrysostom says…
He who is able to pray correctly, even if he is the poorest of all people, is essentially the richest. And he who does not have proper prayer, is the poorest of all, even if he sits on a royal throne.
Prayer matters. It is the heart of the Christian experience and a Christian who does not pray is a contradiction in terms. It is not possible to be or become a spiritual man or woman without a rich experience of prayer, since prayer is a central aspect of union with God which is the goal of the spiritual life in Christ.
The disciples were able to ask the Lord Jesus Christ to teach them to pray, and he responded positively with the words which we know as the Lord’s Prayer. This seems to me to indicate that the practice of prayer is indeed something which is to be taught, and therefore to be learned. It is something which we can learn more about, and therefore practice with greater fruitfulness.
It is possible to be filled with zeal and a desire to serve God, and yet not know how to pray. I found myself in just such a situation as I was growing up in an Evangelical Protestant congregation. I was not taught how to pray. I was not exposed to any spiritual tradition of personal prayer, and in our worship as a community we absolutely and entirely rejected all prayers which were written down, and therefore I did not even have a model of prayer which I could follow. It was not until I started to discover the ancient spiritual tradition of the Apostolic Churches as a young man that I began to make progress in prayer. This does not mean that there might not have been many people in my Evangelical congregation who were advanced in prayer, but in my own experience, with no-one to teach me, and no means of learning, I was left to struggle on my own and make little progress. I was rather like the Ethiopian eunuch who was studying the Scriptures without much understanding and said to St Philip who was sent to him, ‘How can I understand, unless someone should guide me?’
To learn to pray is to consider the construction of the inner place of worship, this church of the heart. And as with any construction it is necessary to gain experience and practice in the skills which enable such a building to be solidly built on firm foundations.
In the English language there are, as in many other languages, three related senses or meanings for the word pray and prayer. There is, in the first sense, the actual textual content of a prayer. When we speak of the Lord’s Prayer we all know what we mean. It is that arrangement of words which begins, ‘Our Father, which art in heaven..’. Or we know the Trisagion, ‘Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal..’. Or the Gloria, which begins, ‘Glory be to God on high, and in earth, peace, goodwill towards men..’. We have collections of these prayers, of texts which are generally and widely l known and used, and these form the ordinary daily prayer of devout Orthodox and traditional Christians.
In this sense, a prayer is just a collection of words. It can be read and studied by someone with no Christian faith at all. It can be the subject of academic study and discourse, and one text can be compared with another as a matter of research and with no spiritual intent. But we understand that there is no real prayer in the mere existence of words on a page. We know that the existence of a book of prayers in our possession is not the same as the activity of praying at all.
In the second and more important sense of the word prayer we mean the use of these words, which are often written down, as well as our own spontaneous and extempore expressions, directed towards God as someone who hears them, and will, in some way, respond to them, whether words expressing love and devotion, worship and humble petition, intercessions and heartfelt emotion. In this sense prayer is not a noun, it is not an object on a page, but it is a verb, it is an action and activity of the one who uses these words with the intent of addressing God. Those who have no personal experience of the Christian spiritual life often fail to understand this sense of prayer as an expression of a personal relation with God, and are only able to focus on the external matter of the words and the form of prayer, as if it were intended only as some ritual. These words, which are often so familiar to us, are not an end in themselves, but a means of doing prayer, of engaging in praying, of turning our hearts towards God. The words of prayers become a means of prayer, by which it becomes possible to enter the presence of God.
And this leads to the third sense in which the word prayer could be used. This third sense goes beyond the mere words, beyond even the action of turning to God, and expresses the character of a person. The Orthodox spiritual tradition invites us to become those people who are pray-ers. Those whose habitual attention is directed towards God. To become a pray-er is to do more than pray quite often. It is to be more than one who is knowledgeable about the texts of prayers, or even someone who has a large collection of books or prayers. It is to become that person who lives always in the presence of God. And this is the goal of Orthodox spirituality and the end of the Orthodox Way of Prayer.
This philosophy is deeply rooted in the Orthodox spiritual tradition. St Theophan the Recluse, the great Russian spiritual master says …
There is a widely-accepted misconception among us that when one becomes involved in work at home or in business, immediately one steps out of the godly realm and away from God-pleasing activities. From this idea, it follows that once the desire to strive toward God germinates, and talk turns toward the spiritual life, then the idea inevitably surfaces: one must run from society, from the home—to the wilderness, to the forest.
But by turning yourself to God at all times, your work at home and responsibilities outside the house will not distract your attention from God, but, on the contrary, will keep you intent on completing all tasks in a God-pleasing manner. All will be performed with the fear of God, and this fear will keep your attention on God unswervingly.
This is, I hope, an expression of that which we will consider together today. How do we so learn to pray that our whole life becomes an offering to God, rather than simply words, or only occasions of praying? So that we become spiritual men and women, whose life is essentially that of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
The life of prayer is a means, and not the end itself. If we are to make proper use of prayer, and progress in prayer, then we must have in mind our ultimate goal, and the marks towards which we are always aiming.
The account of the disciples being taught the Lord’s Prayer appears in two passages in the Gospels. It can be found in the Gospel of St Matthew, Chapter 6, as well as in that according to the Gospel of St Luke, Chapter 11.
It is always important to look at the context in which these accounts of our Lord’s teaching are found. The Gospel writers were not simply trying to record a narrative history of our Lord’s life and ministry, but were producing a particular form of literature in which the narrative has a spiritual value and meaning. Each passage relates to the others around it for a reason.
If we consider the Gospel of St Matthew, we see that before the teaching on prayer is given there is found a series of instructions which also apply to the spiritual life, and which can be considered as the foundations of that life.
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. And so on…
After this we read the instruction about being Salt and Light in the world, and doing such good works that God is glorified. And then there is an extended passage about how our Lord has not come to abolish the Law, but so that we might live by a greater righteousness than that of the Scribes and Pharisees. But we are not to do good works so as to be praised by men.
Only at this point does St Matthew present us with the teaching of our Lord concerning prayer. It seems to me that the previous passages are all describing the spiritual character that Christ requires in those who follow him, and who are about to learn how to pray.
In the account in St Luke the verses which precede the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer are those in which it is written..
Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.
I do not believe for a moment that it is mere coincidence that St Luke introduces the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer at this point. On the contrary, it seems to me that just as in the case of St Matthew, he is choosing to say something about the spiritual character of those who pray.
Abba Moses, says of this…
This then should be our main effort: and this steadfast purpose of heart we should constantly aspire after; namely that the soul may ever be united to God and to heavenly things. Whatever is alien to this, however great it may be, should be given the second place, or even treated as of no consequence, or perhaps as hurtful. We have an excellent illustration of this state of mind and condition in the gospel in the case of Martha and Mary: for when Martha was performing a service that was certainly a sacred one, since she was ministering to the Lord and His disciples, and Mary being intent only on spiritual instruction was clinging close to the feet of Jesus which she kissed and anointed with the ointment of a good confession, she is shown by the Lord to have chosen the better part.
It seems to me that when we ask the Lord to teach us to pray we must understand that we are not asking for some formula of words, but for a means of entry into the presence of God. We should not, like Martha, be overly concerned with the mechanics, but should be concerned with the ‘inward frame of mind’ as Abba Moses expresses himself. If prayer is one of the means, the essential means, by which we approach God then it is necessary for us to have a knowledge of how to pray. But we must be sure that we are seeking after a true experience of prayer, and not merely knowledge about prayer. What is the inward frame of our minds? If we think that the practice of prayer is what the knowledge of prayer is about then we will be satisfied if we are introduced to a better collection of daily prayers, or if we are taught a little about the Jesus Prayer, or if we come to understand the structure of the Liturgy more comprehensively. But none of this will lead us to the kingdom. It is not a knowledge of prayer that saves us, but the proper use of prayer in the service of this inward frame of mind that seeks the kingdom.
In some of his other teaching Abba Moses instructs us further? He says that we must consider whether we are advancing in delight of virtue and in the knowledge of the truth. He says that we must consider whether we are conscious of a sense of loss when we turn our attention from God. He says that we must have a conscious sense that all things are less important than standing in the presence of God. He says that we must be growing in the experience of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
These signs and indications things matter, because it is all too easy to think that we are advancing towards the Kingdom because we are praying more Hours from the Agpeya. It is all too easy to confuse a use of the Jesus Prayer with a necessary growth in spirituality. It is all too easy to think that knowledge of prayers, hymns and chants, and attendance at Church Services is the same as being one who prays, who truly prays.
And so we need these other, necessary things to give us a reality check. I am sure that the Pharisee was regularly seen at prayer in the Temple precincts, but his prayer was not heard. It was not true prayer. Martha was occupied with so many things that she couldn’t cope with them all, but she had paid her divine guest no attention.
We must want to pray, we must want to learn to pray, because we love God and cannot bear to be without a sense of his presence. This is what is means to be seeking union with God as spiritual men and women. Everything in our life must be ordered so that we are able to pray truly, that is, so that we are able to enter authentically into God’s presence within our heart. We avoid sin because we want to be able to pray. We participate in the fasts as a means of praying more earnestly. We serve others as a practical expression of prayer. We turn off the TV, we don’t play on the Xbox for a while, and we put away all manner of blameless pleasures so that we can turn to God and be in his presence through prayer.
Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God. Do we think that prayer is anything other than the seeking after a spiritual vision of God? We cannot obtain this vision unless we seek after purity of heart. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. Do we think that the experience of the fullness of life in Christ is possible without a seeking after righteousness in our hearts and lives? We cannot obtain this fullness of blessing without seeking after righteousness. We cannot obtain all that we desire of God without making great effort.
St Theophan the Recluse teaches us…
You are having trouble controlling your thoughts; they scatter easily, and praying does not proceed as you wish; and in the midst of the day, in the midst of toil and association with others, there is little remembrance of God.
Instantaneous prayer life is impossible. You must make a strong effort to control your thoughts, at least to some degree. Prayer does not come about as you expect—by just wishing for it, and, suddenly, there it is. This is not how it happens.
Prayer begins with desire for God. It makes possible our experience of God. And it is itself the reward of those who seek after God. This desire for God above all is the first step, and the necessary step, in learning how to pray and this desire is what it is to be spiritual. Those who seek him will find him when they seek for him with all their hearts. This is the first lesson. We need to examine our hearts. Do we desire God? Do we desire God for himself or for the things we hope he will give us? Do we desire God above all the things we have, and all the responsibilities we bear? Is God first in our lives? If he is not, then we may easily confuse the activity of prayer with the knowledge of God. We may deceive ourselves and think that in praying we are offering God some gift that he lacks, rather than missing the divine invitation to spiritual communion with him in our heart. To focus our attention on God is to be in a position to receive grace from God as he wills. This encounter with God is what he desires for us, but we can only experience it as we also desire it above all things. God does not force himself upon us. To pray until we have some sense of God’s presence is to be as the person in the parable who keeps knocking on her neighbour’s door until there is an answer.
Again St Theophan says…
This is what you must do: When you pray, do not complete your prayer before arousing in your heart some feeling toward God—reverence, loyalty, thanksgiving, exaltation, humility, contrition, or assurance and hope in God…
To put God first is itself to begin to pray. Prayer requires us to fix our attention on the one whom we address in prayer. Mary had understood this at some deep level in her heart, and sat at his feet with her attention entirely fixed upon him. She chose the best part which would not be taken from her. Likewise, this state of attentiveness towards God is the natural and prayerful condition of the Christian according to Abba Moses, to which we recall ourselves when we are aware that we have lost that sense of being prayerfully in God’s presence. It is not essentially a matter of words, but of loving desire for God.
It is this state which must be our goal as we seek to learn to pray, however far from experiencing it we feel we are. But let us begin by asking God for such a desire for him that it might become the foundation of a life of prayer for each one of us. He promises to give that which we ask, and will not give a stone, when we ask for bread.
May the Lord our God grant each one of us that desire for him, that desire to be those who pray, that desire to be those who practice and experience the presence of God each moment so that we are willing to endure all manner of hardship, and engage in all manner of spiritual effort, so that we might only find ourselves always at his feet. This is the beginning of learning to pray. If we do not find such a desire within us, then let us ask God for such a desire. He will give it to us, if we ask with a sense of our own weakness and lack of strength. If we rely on that well of spiritual water is within us, and finding strength in the Holy Spirit ask for that which we lack, then we will receive.
Considering the unceasing prayer of the heart which is the object of Orthodox spirituality, and of which St Paul writes, saying, pray without ceasing. It seems to me that this represents 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 Orthodox 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? In a moment we will consider some of those in the Gospels who are examples to us of those who pray without ceasing.
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 various painkillers, 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.
Or we may have some meeting or presentation at work to prepare. If it is an important meeting, or perhaps one in which we think we may be disciplined, then it will also occupy all of our thoughts. We may not be able to sleep well at night. We will not be able to concentrate on the television, and reading a novel or the newspaper with attention will be impossible. The thought of the interview or presentation will always be there, affecting everything we do.
Or perhaps we have some major bill to pay, and don’t know where we will find the money to pay it. Perhaps the phone keeps ringing with various companies all trying to collect the money that is due to them, and we only have enough to pay for a few of them. We lie awake at night and wake up without any peace or rest, and it seems that everything in the world is grey because we have this pressure weighing upon us all the time.
These are just a few examples of how 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..
But even though these very human and earthly matters can stand in the way of our awareness of God they may also be the means of beginning to discover ceaseless prayer. There are a few particular examples from the Gospels that I would like us to consider. In the first place, in St Matthew Chapter 20, our Lord Jesus and his disciples are leaving Jericho with a great crowd of people, and as they pass along the roadside two blind men, when they hear that Jesus is approaching, start shouting out, Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David. The crowd tells them to be quiet, but they shout out even louder Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David. We see in this account that two men, who are bearing the unremitting burden of blindness, when they have some sense that Christ is near, begin to cry out, Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David. This is their prayer. They are still blind, and their blindness is the great occupation of their thoughts and causes most of their difficulties. But into the midst of their unceasing concern for their awful circumstances they invite Christ, and without ceasing, whatever the crowd says to them, they make their constant prayer, Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David. They have not forgotten their blindness, they are not transported to heaven with thoughts of worship and praise, but they turn to unceasing prayer from their hearts as the only solution to their physical and practical problems.
In the Gospel of St Mark we learn that one of these blind men was called Bartimaeus, and St Mark records that when he was told to be quiet, he cried the more a great deal. It was truly with unceasing prayer that they introduced Christ into their difficult circumstances.
A second example is found in the parable of our Lord, in St Luke Chapter 18, where he describes a widow who keeps troubling a judge, seeking justice for her case, and in the end he decides to deal with her problem so that she will stop bothering him. The Lord describes this parable as showing that indeed we should always pray and not give up.
Is God like a judge who has to be pestered into doing things for us? Not at all. The Lord asks us to consider that if this is how an unjust judge acts, roused to action by constant prayer, then how much more will God always be ready to act for those of his own elect, which cry day and night to him as the Gospel says. In the case of the widow in the parable, she prays without ceasing because of her problem. She wants it resolved, and in the case of the elect it is clear that they also cry out unceasingly in prayer, day and night, because of the weight of the burdens they also bear.
And finally, in St Luke Chapter 11, in another parable, we have the account of the man who has a late night visit from a friend, and he needs to be able to set some food before him, so he goes to his neighbour, knocks on the door and wakes everyone up, and after explaining his situation the neighbour tells him to go away. But he won’t give in. He still has the same situation, he needs to feed his guest, and so he keeps knocking, and eventually the neighbour can’t bear with this unceasing prayer and gives him some bread.
Again we might ask if God is like that? Will he send us away because we ask? On the contrary, our Lord Jesus teaches us that God is always ready to give to those who ask, but he also requires of us that constancy in asking. The Gospel continues,
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
The tense of these verbs in the Greek has the sense of a continuing activity. Keep on asking, and it will be given to you. Keep on seeking and you will find. Keep on knocking and the door will be opened.
It seems to me that we often imagine that the experience of unceasing prayer of the heart could only begin if we were removed from all our daily circumstances, and placed into some monastic setting where we were surrounded by holy people. On the contrary, wherever we go we take ourselves with us, and it is we ourselves who are the biggest obstacle to our own spiritual growth. In fact, the trials and tribulations we face are allowed by God to lead us into prayer, to draw us into a closer and more complete faith and trust in Him. We begin by sitting by the roadside, blind beggars dressed in rags, crying out, Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David. But this is how we become spiritual men and women, by experiencing the presence of God in our lives, and we have to begin where we are, and seek that presence in the middle of whatever difficult circumstances we face.
If we have overwhelming problems, then we should use these as a means of encouraging us to pray without ceasing. If we still think that we can solve all of our problems by ourselves then we are not yet ready to pray, we have not yet properly put our faith in Christ. But if we know that we have reached the end of our own natural resources then we are ready to turn to the only one who can help us and save us.
When everything is going well it is difficult to begin to pray with urgency and complete attention. It is indeed hard for a rich man to enter into the kingdom. But even a rich man can have desperate family and personal circumstances, and can be aware that for all his wealth he is beyond human help. When we have nowhere else to go it is easier to turn only to God. For many of us the problems which we face should not be seen as obstacles to prayer, but as opportunities. In my own life I have faced many such circumstances of one kind or another. And nothing has encouraged my own prayer as much as a sense that there is nothing else that can be done but to pray.
So it seems to me that if we are to obey the Scriptural injunction of St Paul, pray without ceasing, and of our Lord himself, that men always ought to pray, then we must begin where we are, and use the difficult circumstances which surround us as opportunities to turn to God, not obstacles to spiritual growth. We should also remember that Abba Moses taught that prayer and virtue go together. When we understand this then we will also seek to use each difficult circumstance as a means of growth in holiness and grace.
It is good, for instance, when we face a problem, to use it to turn our hearts often to God, but we will also find that if we reflect on our circumstances we will discover that there are elements of pride, self-will, anger and jealousy, together with many other faults, which are often exposed to us, and must be resisted prayerfully. It is good, for instance, to bring a situation before God very often, leading us to prayer, but it is better to also consider whether we are also at fault in the situation so that while we advance in prayerfulness, we also increase in repentance.
If we begin to pray more earnestly and constantly simply out of desperation, then this is at least a beginning. But as time passes we must experience a growth in peace and trust in God, or we will not have made any progress in our relationship with God at all. It is not easy to determine where we are along the continuum of spiritual growth, and this is one reason why we should make use of the spiritual insights of a father of confession. But we can see that if the beginning of constant prayer is found in our need, then the end of such prayer is found in God Himself.
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 him. 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 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. Blind Bartimaeus would not be silenced. His great need inspired him to constant prayer. And this same case applies to us all. We may also pray without ceasing, using every circumstance we face to recall us to the remembrance of God.
If we are willing, we can learn by experience to find causes for prayer and thanksgiving in all things. This doesn’t sound very exciting does it? But I am not sure that real prayer can be so easily subject to shortcuts. If prayer is relationship with God then it must grow and develop as a seed in the soil of our hearts and must suffer wind, rain, heat and cold before it becomes a substantial tree.
What have you given thanks to God for today? How often have the things you experienced led you to prayer over the last 12 hours? Has God done so little for us that we have nothing to thank him for, and have had no occasions to turn to him in gratitude, or rather have we been blind to the constant blessings he pours out upon us. There is an old children’s song I used to sing as a small child. It said in part…
Count your blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.
For those of us living in the world, seeking to begin to advance in constant prayer this is good advice. How will we turn to God in prayer if we neglect to thank him for each of his blessings towards us, indeed how can we turn to God in prayer if we do not even notice all his blessings towards us? Repentance and Thanksgiving are both aspects of the prayers which St Paul instructs us to offer continually. It seems to me that for most of us this is enough to be getting on with. Have you sinned in even some small and insignificant manner? Then immediately offer a prayer of repentance. It will perhaps surprise us how often we must offer such prayers. Have we received some small blessing, however insignificant? Then immediately offer a prayer of thanksgiving. It will perhaps surprise us how much we receive from God unnoticed, and unthanked. The breath we draw in the morning, the fact that we have clothes to wear, the water that comes out of our taps, the job or school that we set out to, the driver who lets us pull out in front of him, the greeting we receive from a colleague. If we thanked God for every good thing we receive then we would already be praying constantly, for …
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.
Let us not deceive ourselves. We do not pray constantly not because we have not yet learned the correct technique or words, but because we are not repentant enough and not thankful enough. There are countless opportunities each day for us to repent in prayer and countless opportunities to be thankful. But if we are seeking to become more observant of these opportunities, and if we are re-ordering our lives so that we can deliberately spend more time in the presence of God then Abba Isaac says something that will benefit us.
Before all things however we ought most carefully to observe the instruction, 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 make our prayers in secret and in closest relationship with 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…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 used. 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. This is why much of what I have said has not been about special words of prayer, but about the manner in which we live our lives. If we have begun to be repentant and filled with thanksgiving then we may also hear the words of Abba Isaac who describes the method of prayer which those who were committed to ceaseless prayer were taught to use and which is still used.
We are to find a silent space within our hearts. It is not always necessary that we be apart from others, but there must be a stillness within us. It seems to me that our modern society is not at ease with such stillness, and the TV and radio are constantly seeking to fill every moment with sound and noise. As far as it is possible we must intentionally disengage from the noise of the world and find the time and space to be quiet. But we can pray the prayer which Abba Isaac will describe in any place if we are quiet within, and if we are quiet within then we are always able to pray. If we have no stillness within us then it does not matter if we are in the market or the monastery, the interior noise will accompany us. So as far as possible we must choose to quieten ourselves so that when we are surrounded by noise we still have a quiet space within our hearts.
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 will become 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 moulded 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. 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. There are no special techniques. These all came very much later in a different situation and are problematic. The techniques of breathing and posture are not part of the authentic spiritual tradition of the Egyptian Desert. This is prayer. Simply prayer and a simple prayer. The turning of the heart towards God with attention, as much as we are able to give it.
We may determine if this is the case by considering our lives, as Abba Moses suggested in the first study. What is the mark or measure that we set ourselves so that we can see if we are making progress? It is not the number of the words of prayer we repeat, but how far we are advancing in holiness and devotion to God.
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, the prayers of the Agpeya, 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.
Let us seek then to pray without ceasing in the heart. Beginning with repentance, and asking God for a greater awareness of our weaknesses and sins. Continuing with thanksgiving, asking God for a greater sense of his daily blessings. And desiring above all things to fill each moment with a sense of God’s presence. This is possible for us all if we keep on asking, keep on seeking and keep on knocking. We must indeed use every circumstance of our lives to turn our hearts and minds towards God, creating prayerful habits, and in such a way we will be able, each of us, to experience a growth in the experience of unceasing prayer.
This is, it seems to me, what it means to become a spiritual man or woman. Not a man or woman of many words, but of much prayer. Prayer as the expression and experience, the means and the method of union with God. True prayer leads to union with God, as the gift of grace in the Holy Spirit. And union with God leads to fruitfulness in that same Spirit. We should not deceive ourselves. The life of prayer, and union with God, are inseperable from each other, and from the manifestation in our lives of the divine life of love, in holiness and humility, in peace and joy, in selfless service of others.
But the gift of God in the sacraments, and the fulfilment of this gift in prayer, is union with God, and is what it means to be and become a spiritual man or woman.
May we be such, in the grace of God, and offer him that worship which he desires, unceasingly and in spirit and truth, To the glory of God and for our salvation. Amen.