I’ve not been real big on prayer during this lifetime.
It always felt either like: 1) talking to myself in my head while pretending an invisible God or Person was listening to me, a minuscule human being amongst 5 billion others on this tiny third stone from this tiny star on the far edge of a small galaxy in a universe filled with countless super-galaxies; or 2) talking out loud in a roomful of people, reciting memorized formulas that, no matter how hard I try, never feel like they’re coming from the heart — mine or theirs.
On the other hand, I’ve always thought that there’s something to prayer, if by “prayer” we mean “communion” with the Infinite. In this sense, meditation can be prayer. Singing can be prayer. Nature walks, art, poetry, love-making, dish-washing — it can all be thought of as prayer.
The Orthodox tradition, with its Jesus Prayer as an all-day meditation or mindfulness exercise, has always intrigued me. So, I was not surprised to stumble upon an exposition on prayer from the Orthodox perspective — a perspective that resonates in me, a lowly ecstatic contemplative whose hunger for God diminishes not:
There is a story told in the Gerontikon, the sayings of the desert Fathers, about a visitor who goes to see three monks. And they talked all the afternoon. Suddenly the visitor realizes that the sun has set. “It is time for vespers;” says the visitor, “it is time for us to pray together.” And the monks answered, “But we have been praying together all the last four hours.” Prayer, in their experience, was not just occasional but continual; not just one activity among others, but the activity of their entire lives. It was a dimension present in everything else that they did. St. Gregory of Nazianzos says, “Remember God more often than you breathe.” Prayer, ideally, should be as much part of us as our breathing.
Sometimes people talk about having a “prayer life,” but is that not an odd phrase? We do not have a distinct and separate breathing life; we breathe as we live. But how are we to attain prayer of this kind: all-embracing, ever-present, prayer of the total self?
That brings me to another question: What is prayer? Evagrios of Pontos says in a famous definition, “Prayer is communion of the intellect with God.” So Evagrios sees prayer as an activity of the intellect (nous). Nous, like pathos, is a word that is hard to translate into English.
Another writer of the fourth century, contemporary with Evagrios (in Syria rather than in Egypt), the author of the Spiritual Homilies attributed to Macarios, has a slightly different approach to prayer. “It may be,” he says, “that the saints sit in the theater and watch the delusion of this world, while with the inner self, all the time, they are speaking to God.” There we see, as in the story I told from the desert Fathers, that prayer aims to be continual; not so much something we do from time to time, but something that we are all the time.
Also, we see from the Spiritual Homilies of Macarios that prayer is something that goes on in the inner self (o eso anthropos). This is a biblical phrase, used for example, in Ephesians: “May God according to the riches of His glory, grant that you are strengthened with the power of the Holy Spirit in the inner self so that Christ dwells in your heart by faith” (3:16-17).
There we see that the inner self is associated with the indwelling of Christ and the Holy Spirit. And also we see in Ephesians that the inner self is identified with the heart. So for Macarios, prayer is something that we offer with the inner self, that is, with the heart. Where Evagrios emphasizes the intellect, the Macarian Homilies emphasize the heart (cardia).
These two approaches are combined in a definition of prayer given by the nineteenth-century Russian writer St. Theophan the Recluse. “To pray,” he says, “is to stand before God with the intellect, in the heart, and to go on standing before Him day and night until the end of life.” So, prayer is something that goes on with the intellect in the heart, and it is continuous. St. Isaac the Syrian even says that the saints are praying while they are asleep. Sometimes when I am lecturing, I notice that members of my audience close their eyes. But then I think that perhaps they are saints, and though they are sleeping, they are also listening.
C. G. Jung, in his book Memories, Dreams, Reflections, recalls a conversation he had with an American Indian, one Ochwiay Biano. [Mr. Biano is also known by the English name “Mountain Lake.”] Ochwiay Biano said,
“How cruel the whites are: their lips are thin, their noses sharp, their faces furrowed and distorted by holes. Their eyes have a staring expression. They are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something, they are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want, we do not understand them, we think that they are mad.” I asked him why he thought the whites were all mad. “They say they think with their heads,” he replied.
“Why, of course. What do you think with?” I asked him in surprise.
“We think here,” he said, indicating his heart.
Now, Ochwiay Biano is coming very much closer to what Scripture and much of the Patristic tradition meant by the heart.
Mark the Monk of the late fourth or early fifth century (also known as Mark the Hermit or Mark the Ascetic) gives a particular explication to this theology of the heart – a sacramental application. He says that through baptism, Christ and the Holy Spirit enter the innermost secret and uncontaminated chamber of the heart. By virtue of our baptism there is an inner chamber, a central shrine within us where grace dwells and where evil cannot reach. Mark believes that from our baptism there is a point or spark within us that belongs entirely to God, that is the pure glorious God in us. “By the good treasure of the heart,” says Mark, “Scripture means the Holy Spirit who is hidden in the heart of the faithful” – hidden through baptism.
So the aim of the spiritual life, according to Mark, is that we should become consciously aware of this secret presence of the baptismal Christ Who is already in our hearts, mystically. The Christian journey, for him, is a journey from baptismal grace, present secretly in the heart, to baptismal grace, experienced in the heart with full conscious awareness.
Where have I heard this before?
Oh, yes… in just about every contemplative tradition known to humanity, that’s where.
I know that, from the Traditionalist perspective, it is important to choose a Path and stick to it, so as to benefit from the religious Mystery embedded in that particular Path. I understand the wisdom in this perspective and want nothing other than to honor it.
At the same time, when I read the concluding paragraph in the collection of snips above, I am reminded that there really are many, many Paths leading to the same place.
We should celebrate this fact, rather than always seeking to convert everyone else to our particular perspective.