The Art of Prayer

Higher Prayer
(Added on 19th February 2013)
(Click here for PDF)

Article 1. - Prepared by Father Seraphim, March 2007


There is a poem by Antoinette Adam that reads:

How shall the mighty river

reach the tiny seed?

See it rise silently

to the sun’s yearning,

Sail from a winter’s cloud

flake after silent flake

piling up layer upon layer

until the thaw of spring

to meet the seedling’s need.

 

Make tender, Lord, my heart:

release through gentleness

Thine own tremendous power

hid in the snowflake’s art.

Antoinette Adam connects God’s power working in our hearts with the same power hidden in the snowflake’s art. In both there is beauty, and the art of prayer is to call forth that beauty which is God. When we call forth that beauty, then all that we “touch” with all our senses is transfigured. It can be a temptation when thinking about prayer to do precisely that: to “think” rather than pray. We need to remind ourselves that we are not angels, but human beings made of flesh and blood. When we pray we need to be totally present before God, not only with our minds but also our bodies, souls and hearts.

At the centre of the art of prayer is the heart. The heart consists of two words: “He” and “Art”. Art is the human skill and agency, and the other part is the beloved “He”. Our part in prayer is to be totally present to Our Saviour the Lord Jesus Christ. If we make one step towards us He will take ten, if not more steps towards us. In reality He has already done so, and our skill, our work, is to focus all our loving attention on Him. We need to remember that, “we are but dust”, and by doing so even the earth can teach us something, as the following prayer from a Native American shows us.

Earth teach me stillness

as the grasses are stilled with light.

Earth teach me suffering

as old stones suffer with memory.

Earth teach me humility

as blossoms are humble with beginning.

Earth teach me courage

as the tree which stands all alone.

Earth teach me limitation

as the ant which crawls on the ground.

Earth teach me freedom

as the eagle which soars in the sky.

Earth teach me resignation

as the leaves which die in the fall.

Earth teach me regeneration

as the seed which rises in the spring.

Earth teach me to forget myself

as melted snow forgets its life.

Earth teach me to remember kindness

as dry fields weep with rain.

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, in his book, the Orthodox Way, tells us much about our relationship to creation as human beings, as well as our inner being and calling. He says, “Man is the priest of the creation through his power to give thanks and to offer the creation back to God, and he is king of creation through his power to mould and fashion, to connect and diversify.” (The Orthodox Way, page 70)

Not only do we belong to the earth, but we are also made in the image of God. St. Clement of Alexandria said, “The greatest of all lessons is to know oneself, for if someone knows himself, he will know God, and if he knows God, he will become like God.”

However, to enter into the heart, we need to repent and cleanse the image covered over by worldly concerns and passions. This path, as Metropolitan Kallistos says, consists of three stages. Firstly it begins with repentance. Here we work to fulfil the commandments with all our might. The second stage consists of the contemplation of nature where we see created things as they are, as well as becoming aware that God is present in all things. The third stage is the direct vision of God (who transcends all of creation whether visible or invisible) in a union of love. Metropolitan Kallistos writes, “No one, then, can ever claim in this life to have passed beyond the first stage. The three stages are not so much successive as simultaneous. We are to think of the spiritual life in terms of three deepening levels, interdependent, co-existing with each other.”

Metropolitan Kallistos, on speaking about the journey, presupposes several important aspects of this path. They are (A) the seeker is a member of the church (B) that they have a life in the sacraments, and (C) that the path is evangelical, that is that they are faithfully following the gospel teachings of Our Saviour the Lord Jesus Christ. Finally, the path presupposes that our biblical gospel teaching is interpreted within the Orthodox Tradition, which is the life of the Holy Spirit in its deepest sense.

Metropolitan Kallistos underlines the necessity of the major qualities of repentance, watchfulness, discrimination and the guarding of the heart in the active life of purifying the heart. However, our inner efforts do not mean that we can command God to do our bidding, or that we can grasp God in the palm of our hands, as it were. Our whole being needs to remember that we are but dust. Our task is to do the commandments and place ourselves into the hands of God. He will recreate us; we cannot do it ourselves. As C.S. Lewis says, “You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage, but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.” When we begin to open ourselves to Our Saviour the Lord Jesus Christ, then this dust, this clay of ours can be sanctified and begin to be permeated by the perfume of His grace and word.

What is the heart of prayer? Surely it is love. St. Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians, 1 Corinthians 13, reveals to us the nature of love. We need to ask ourselves, how do we love? What or who do we love? Why do we love? Love is a gift, but there is a cost. There is a twofold dynamic between the lover and the beloved.

There is a poem by an American poet, Mary Oliver, called “Mockingbirds”. It can be seen as a parable of our relationship to God in prayer.

Mockingbirds

 

This morning

Two mockingbirds

In the green field

Were spinning and tossing

 

The white ribbons

Of their songs

Into the air.

I had nothing

 

Better to do

Than listen.

I mean this

Seriously.

 

In Greece,

A long time ago,

An old couple

Opened their door

 

To two strangers

Who were,

It soon appeared,

Not men at all,

 

But gods.

It is my favourite story—

How the old couple

Had almost nothing to give

 

But their willingness

To be attentive—

But for this alone

The gods loved them

 

And blessed them—

When they rose

Out of their mortal bodies,

Like a million particles of water

 

From a fountain,

The light

Swept into all the corners

Of the cottage,

 

And the old couple,

Shaken with understanding,

Bowed down—

But still they asked for nothing

 

But the difficult life

Which they had already.

And the gods smiled as they vanished

Clapping their great wings.

 

Wherever it was

I was supposed to be

This morning—

Whatever it was I said

 

I would be doing—

I was standing

At the edge of the field—

I was hurrying

 

Through my own soul,

Opening its dark doors—

I was leaning out;

I was listening.

The old couple had almost nothing to give, but the “gods” loved them and blessed them simply because of “their willingness to be attentive.” We too have little to give except our loving attention. Like the old couple, we too can bow down and ask for nothing but the “difficult” life which we have already, that is the life we have received by God’s providence.

This work, or Art of prayer, is an inner work that must begin as soon as possible. St. Theophan the Recluse says, “What is required is a constant aliveness to God – an aliveness present when you talk, read, watch or examine something. What God asks for is the heart. (Prov.23.:26), and it is enough that it should stand before Him with reverence. Standing always before God with reverence is unceasing prayer. Such is its exact description, and in this regard the rule of prayer is only fuel for the fire, or the throwing of wood into a stove.”

When we begin to have the sense of the omnipresence of God and His omniscience, then our spiritual eyes will see God in His providence in all that we do. We cannot but begin to show love towards mankind. What is needed is contrition and self surrender to the God who is love. The sense of God’s loving kindness as we walk in His presence will bring about inward peace in the soul.

St. Theophan the Recluse said, “With regard to spiritual prayer, take one precaution. Beware lest in ceaselessly remembering God, you forget also to kindle fear and awe and the desire to fall down as dust before the face of God – our most merciful Father, but also our dread judge. Frequent recollection of God without reverence blunts the feeling of the fear of God, and thereby deprives us of the saving influence which this sense of fear – and it alone – can produce in our spiritual life.”

What then is our task as regards the Art of Prayer? St. Theophan puts it simply. “It is clear to everyone that the advice of the Apostle (Paul) is not carried out merely by the practice of established prayers at certain set hours, but requires a permanent walking before God, a dedication of all one’s activities to Him who is all seeing and omnipresent, an ever-fervent appeal to heaven with the mind in the heart. The whole of life in all its manifestations must be permeated by prayer. But its secret is love for the Lord, As the bride, loving the bridegroom, is not separated from him in remembrance and feeling, so the soul, united with God in love, remains in constancy with Him, directing warm appeals to Him from the heart.”. “He that is joined unto the Lord is one Spirit.” (1 Cor. 6:17)

May prayer be our joyful task.


Article 2. - Prepared by Father Yves, March 2007

This book teaches us the Prayer of the Heart, or Jesus Prayer. It is an anthology, mostly of extracts from letters by Saint Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894), a Bishop who spent the last 25 years of his life as a recluse, seeing no-one, serving alone in his small oratory, yet staying in touch with a large number of people by correspondence.

The Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, is called the Prayer of the Heart because it requires that we bring our mind down into our heart, into our chest, and pray from there: reducing thought to the words of the Prayer, being aware of what goes on in our heart (impulses, resentments, distractions), but even more importantly, aware of standing before God, and aware of God’s presence in the heart.

There is a direct link between the teaching of Saint Theophan and the Macarian Homilies.

The knowledge of God grows within us on two conditions: living within the Church (rooted in the Faith, fed by the Holy Mysteries) and struggling with our passions. Neglecting either will deprive us of the knowledge of God.

God is not a finite object: ‘Whoever sees nothing in his prayer, sees God.” Concepts and images are of no use because God cannot be contained in them. On the other hand, warmth of heart, tender compassion, are an important help in prayer.

A beginner must pray slowly, attentively, calmly, without working herself up. Patience is essential. Going back to a beginner’s mind throughout life is indispensable.

Quotations

Those who only hear about spiritual meditation and prayer and have no direct knowledge of it are like men blind from birth, who hear about the sunshine without ever knowing what it really is.

Training must be outer and inner; outer in love of wisdom, inner in love of God; outer in keenness of intellect, inner in warmth of spirit; the exterior mind is ‘puffed up’ (1 Cor. 8: 1), the inner humbles himself; the exterior is full of curiosity, the inner pays attention to itself.

No unity with God is possible except by an exceedingly great love.

To kindle in the heart such a divine love, it is necessary for a man to pray often, raising his mind to Him.

The Saviour commanded us to enter into our closet and there pray to God the Father in secret. This closet means the heart.

Sometimes we pray by using the words of prayers already composed; at other times prayer is born directly in the heart, and from there rises to God.

The principal thing is to stand with the mind in the heart before God, and to go on standing before Him unceasingly day and night, until the end of life.

You must never regard any spiritual work as firmly established, but always pray as if beginning for the first time.

Every day keep turning over in your mind some thought which has deeply impressed you and fallen into your heart. Unless you exercise your powers of thought, the soul becomes numb.

Constant repetition is not required. What is required is a constant aliveness to God.

Inner prayer begins when we establish our attention in the heart, and from the heart offer prayer to God.

I entreat you for the love of Christ always to be still and silent, since these virtues enrich remembrance of God within us.

Frequently approaching the icons, bow down or prostrate yourself according to the movement and demands of your heart.

This is how lukewarmness arises: it begins with forgetfulness. God’s gifts are forgotten.

The fruit of prayer is the concentration of attention in the heart accompanied by a feeling of warmth. This is the natural effect. Everyone can achieve it.

Do not become attracted by inner sweetness: without the Cross it is unstable and dangerous.

Consider everyone to be better than yourself. Without this thought even a worker of Miracles is far from God.

As soon as humility decreases, coolness enters.

Divine action is not something material; it is invisible, inaudible, unexpected, unimaginable, and inexplicable by any analogy taken from this world. It advent and its working within us are a mystery. First, it shows a man his sin, magnifying it in his eyes, and keeping the horror of sin constantly before his sight.

Pray to God that He may finally grant you a ‘soreness’ in the heart.

Descend into the depths of the heart and there track down these three powerful giants – forgetfulness, laziness, and ignorance.

High opinion of ourselves gives rise to two things: blowing our own trumpet and censuring others. These three make up the evil ‘troika’, which drives us full speed to perdition.

With your own dead in the house you will not trouble about other people’s funerals.

Self-gratification is the cause of all evils.

Permit yourself what is constructive, but never what is destructive.

When you talk to someone, above all refrain from upsetting him by aggressiveness.

Avoid equally speaking of spiritual things in order to display your own wisdom.

A sense of our own righteousness does us great harm.

A soul untried by sorrows is good for nothing.

There will be non success so long as you are full of self-indulgence and self-pity.