Thesis: Unceasing prayer, as defined in the New Testament, supported by the Fathers of the Church, expanded and explained in Orthodox Literature, is an extremely significant aid and a very efficient accelerator for our personal spiritual growth. As it develops, it engenders a direct, clear and constant relationship with God, which is a necessary and sufficient condition for our theosis.
This work focuses on the unceasing, continuous prayer, especially the “Jesus Prayer,” or “Prayer Of The Heart” - its origin, evolution, approach and results. The text mirrors the structure of the Thesis statement.
I. Unceasing prayer is defined in the New Testament, supported by the Fathers of the Church, expanded and explained in Orthodox Literature
Prayer is our attempt to speak with God and establish a personal connection with Him. As Orthodox Christians, we know that we are expected to maintain a powerful, direct and personal relationship with God through prayer and receive the divine grace that flows from it. The union that follows is the ultimate gift from God and our birthright. In the words of St John Climacus: “Prayer is by nature a dialog and a union of man and God. Its effect is to hold the world together. It achieves a reconciliation with God.” (R14 p274).
Ever since the Fall, humans have tried to keep their connection with God alive and functioning through prayer (1). However, an integrated prayer in God’s name could not be offered until His Incarnation (including His Crucifixion and Resurrection) was complete. After that point, the faithful can rely on His promise that He will make sure our legitimate, and properly placed, requests are fulfilled (2). Christ has pledged that He will act on our behalf, that He will be our personal Intercessor (3,4) which is something the prophets of the Old Testament never had. Our prayers are now blessed by the value of Christ’s human experience, including His sacrifice and victory over death and He has promised to respond to our requests made in His Name. We also know that prayer was a big part of Jesus’ life and that He prayed very frequently, as we read throughout the New Testament. For example, the Gospel of Saint John, chapter 17, contains a deeply moving prayer that Jesus offered to His Father. This long prayer was tailored to the circumstances He was facing at the time, but it can also be seen as a grand template of a multi-faceted divine invocation that addresses many of the general issues and principles of His mission as a human (5).
In the following several paragraphs, the first part of the Thesis statement above is addressed, ie,
(a) Unceasing prayer is defined in the New Testament and supported by the Fathers.
Christ taught us to pray with faith, sincerity, and humility in our hearts. Having faith is perhaps the most fundamental Christian quality, because without it we cannot communicate with God, please Him or get anything back from Him. Words may be flowing, but they are empty because our deeper mind and heart are fighting and belittling this activity (6). As logic is a good yardstick for our endeavors in this (created) universe, faith in God is our guide towards (and in) His uncreated sphere of existence. We must have faith in His love, His power, and His infinite wisdom (7,8,9.) A common expression, paraphrasing Christ Himself, is “All things are possible to those who believe.” Jesus stressed the value and power of prayer in faith as an integral part of His overall teaching (10,11,12,13,14). In addition, our prayer should be sincere (15), and not like that offered by many Pharisees who did not pray from the heart (16) and whose lives were not lived in accord with their prayers (17). This is an absolute requirement for successful prayer that He will respond to, because God must be approached in spirit and in truth (18). As we know from the Old Testament, many of the Psalms demonstrate the urgency that the faithful feel when approaching God (19). This deep desire and sense of urgency is also shown in the parable of the persistent friend (20) and in the desperate pleadings of the Syro-Phoenician woman on behalf of her sick daughter (21). Last, we should be humble in praying (22), like any servant would be when asking for a great favor of a powerful master (23). Sincere humility is expected (24,25) from all Christians, and the difference between true, humble prayer vs. just bragging about our hypothetical goodness is aptly demonstrated in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Lk 18: 9-14). Jesus abhorred pride and arrogance because He is simple (26) and meek Himself. Humility (27) is the companion virtue of repentance and obedience (28), but is also very synergistic with a host of other key virtues (29, 30, 31).
Christ taught us to pray in obedience, repentance, and forgiveness for all, especially our enemies. Being obedient to His will is a very important “sine qua non” for good prayer (32, 33) as we must all gradually move our lives in the direction of our petitions (34). In this way we honor God as our Lord (35, 36, 37). Towards this goal, Christ urged us not to pray with arrogance but to first focus on keeping His Father’s commandments (38). Of course, Jesus’ personal example throughout His ministry on Earth, especially His deeply moving prayers towards the end of the Last Supper (Jn 17) and in the garden of Gethsemane (39) during the night of his betrayal and arrest, can serve as excellent guidelines here. With obedience comes repentance, which is another key requirement to successful prayer, as explained clearly in the parable of the prodigal son (40). Because sin separates us from God, if we want to get closer to Him, we must turn back, repent (41, 42). This is shown in both the Old and New Testaments (43, 44, 45). Connected with repentance is confession (46, 47, 48) for our prayers to be heard and answered (49). Christ was very clear that if we want forgiveness from God (50), He expects us, as a prerequisite, to forgive others who may have hurt us (51); a requirement that is also clearly stated in the Lord’s prayer. In giving us this prayer, He wanted us to understand His fundamental rule and spiritual law: if we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven. Following His example in forgiving those who hurt us is the apex of our obligation to Him. As we forgive, we are truly His disciples (52, 53, 54, 55, 56), and many of Christ’s parables center on this important point (57). On His Sermon on the Mount, Christ repeated that theme several times (58). We are really like Him when we let go of negative feelings, and even forget, about other people abusing us. Forgiveness is the precursor to detachment, which is absolutely necessary for clear, effective prayer. Furthermore, the combination of forgiveness and detachment from passions (apatheia) grows into love for all, even for our enemies, which is the one virtue without which all others are valueless and useless (59). In agreement with these points, several Fathers taught that humble, prayerful obedience (60) is the mother of all virtue, as will be discussed later on.
Christ taught us to pray in privacy, with fasting, and untiring persistence. In teaching the need of privacy in our praying, He told us not to pray at the street corners for others to see and admire us, but in our own room with the door closed (61); and He also gave us several examples of Himself praying in solitude (62). Fasting is another very useful practice, which enhances and confirms our lack of blind dependence on, even freedom from, our passions and the physical world in general. Christ often emphasized prayer augmented by fasting (63, 64, 65) because their combination is truly powerful, as mentioned in many passages of both the Old Testament (66, 67) and the New Testament (68, 69, 70, 71, 72). Following this line of thinking, prayer added to fasting and obedience is even more powerful (73) because these virtues reinforce each other; and so on. He also taught us to pray with persistence (74), like in the parable of the friend asking for bread at midnight (cf note #20) and also in the parable of the unjust judge (75). In the same way that Jacob did, we must pray until our prayer is answered (76), because, as we persist, the Holy Spirit gradually teaches us how to remove impediments (eg, pride, impatience, lack of faith) to true connection with God. For this reason, we need to stay the course (77) and He is happy to see us do that (78, 79). Job, Abraham, Jacob, David, Elijah, Bartimaeus and the Canaanite woman are excellent examples here. However, our prayers are not answered because of what we do [although, avoiding sin (80, 81) empowers them (82)] but because, seeing our effort, He extends His grace and accepts them, when He chooses. The need for persistence is also embedded in the Lord’s prayer (“ give us this day our daily bread ” indicating that this prayer should be repeated at least once per day.)
Last, Christ taught us to pray in alignment with the Divine Will because when our human actions are in tune with His plans, all requests are granted (83). We must desire only the Divine Will and not our own (84), both in asking for something good for our soul and in receiving what God decides to give in return. We should be moved to prayer because God desires us to pray and not because we have things that we need Him to provide. In this way, our main intent (in both our mind and heart) should be to unite our will with the will of Christ, obey Him in everything, and in no way attempt to bend His will towards our own. Our petitions must be for the glory of God (85), or else they are weak; selfish or evil desires must be shunned. We must have His mind (86) and act in accord with His will and in harmony with His commands (87). As we live in communion with Him, our will is His will, which is the will of the Father (88), and our prayers are offered to the entire Holy Trinity (89). One of the best ways to align our prayers with the Divine Will, is to use Jesus’ name in them (90, 91, 92, 93, 94) like the Apostles who knew the power of using Jesus’ name in prayer (95, 96, 97). In using His Name, we show our frame of mind and we don’t just use a form of rote speech (98). We show that we, on our own, have no right to ask for anything from the Father, but that the Son authorized our request. In addition, we must pray in the Holy Spirit (99, 100) [as elaborated in section IIIa] because in this way He is praying within (and through) us, establishing the conditions for the Holy Grace to be extended to us (101). The Holy Spirit empowers and blesses true prayer that emanates from our spiritual essence, our heart, asking that we be accepted back in the place which God has already prepared for us. In this way, the Holy Spirit makes us sensitive to our weakness and sinful tendencies, and encourages the transformation (in repentance and humility) that strengthens our bond with God even further. As our mind clears up, our human, rebellious thoughts atrophy, slow down and stop. Then, our unceasing supplication to Christ rests in our heart, fully aligned with the Holy Spirit, and our Father in Heaven hears our silent prayer and makes Himself known to us (102).
The Jesus Prayer, or Prayer of the Heart, is comprised of the following statement: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This is a form of non-iconic (103) prayer (104) (ie, no visual representations (105) are allowed in our mind) which is easy to use unceasingly. It is also an authentically apophatic means to deification (106), in that it allows us to go beyond any preconceived (107), limiting notions about God (108) and helps us focus on an extraordinary goal: a direct, permanent and personal union with Him. Through it we don’t try to understand, but just accept Him, in His infinite strength, wisdom and variety.
The first two parts of the prayer combine our Orthodox Christian faith of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and of the Holy Trinity (109) in that they acknowledge the Father and the Son within the power of the Holy Spirit [in addressing Jesus as Lord (110).] This is the “praise” part of the prayer. The words “have mercy on me a sinner” complete the picture in terms of our relationship with God, adding the surrender and petition part, which is meant to invoke God’s Holy Grace and to “energize” the prayer, turn it from “neutral” or “passive” to “active.” Prayer of the Heart really means cultivating the purity of our spiritual center or heart (111), a process that involves an unconditional surrender to His will, in all circumstances. Therefore, this short prayer integrates praise and penance very efficiently, as it acknowledges the greatness of God and asks for help, forgiveness and the extension of His holy Grace to us – ie, it addresses every key aspect of our life in faith. What’s more, it is highly practical in that it is designed to be repeated mentally, or even within our silent mind after it sinks into our heart, allowing us to carry out our various tasks and accommodating our need to interact with others and earn our daily bread.
The practice of praying continuously has extensive support in our Scriptures, (eg, 112, 113, 114, 115, 116, 117) , with St Paul as a major contributor: when he spoke of prayer, he most often used words conveying the meaning of “constant,” “always” and “continuously.” For him, prayer was as natural and as essential as breathing. Now, in order to appreciate how the phrase “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” took root, here are some references (118, 119, 120) of the many that are sprinkled throughout the Scriptures. We should always pray, as St Paul instructs us: “Continue earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving.” (Col 4:2). In this way, God is inclined to listen to us, recognize our effort and dedication, and grant what we ask for. Actually, it was Jesus Himself Who taught us how to do this, in the parable of the widow who would not give up until she received her just request: “Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart, ” (Lk 18:1). Given this, when we pray for something and think that God is slow in responding, we should continue to pray, trusting that He is listening. However, His response may be unexpected, as we often ask for things that are not good for us, while, other times, our prayer can only be heard when we have overcome spiritual impediments that we didn’t know were there. And yet, His giving us only gifts that are good for us and His helping us cleanse ourselves spiritually, are excellent rewards and blessings in return for our prayer. By keeping our prayer active past these two phases (that tend to be close to the start of our journey to Him) we stand a very good chance of overcoming all obstacles and eventually uniting with Him. Therefore, it is right for us to believe that prayer never goes unheard, and that we should always keep praying as best we can. We should also remember that the Church establishes all objective conditions for our theosis; the Prayer of the Heart helps us create the corresponding subjective conditions. In this way, the human-divine co-operation (synergia) functions in full force - the ultimate result being our accepting the Holy Spirit and entering into union with God.
(b) The Prayer of The Heart has been expanded, explained and commented on by a number of the Fathers (121) of the Church and other significant Orthodox writers.
Following the early days of the Church, a tradition of “pure prayer” was established around the fourth century and continued to our days. Some of the Fathers shaped it in their own way, but the fundamental concept of unceasing prayer focused on the Name of Jesus Christ has persisted through the centuries in the context of our Orthodox mysticism. St John Climacus expertly summarized (R3 p239) the whole process: “The beginning of prayer is to banish oncoming thoughts as soon as they appear. Its middle stage is to keep the mind contained in the words we say or think. The perfection of prayer is ravishment to the Lord (122, 123).” True prayer is never merely “mental” but emerges from the center of our being, our heart, a process which, if we are submissive to God, is constantly renewed and augmented by the Holy Spirit. Through prayer, we return to our heart and open its door to the presence of God, Who is the source of our being, and meet Him there by constantly calling out to Jesus, with faith and love. True prayer is not just a good religious pastime, but an open and humble attitude to faith, reverence, awe, trust, hope (124) and joy. These virtues fill our deeper self and tell us that we are in the presence of Christ, our God, Whom we get to know in “unknowing” and see in “unseeing”, by faith at first, and direct, mystical experience later.
There have been several short prayers taught by the Fathers of the Church. For example. St Cassian wrote that the most popular prayer in Egypt of his time was the first verse of Psalm 70: “Make haste, O God, to deliver me! Make haste to help me, O Lord!” On the other hand, St Joanniky repeated the following prayer, which is still part of our holy services: “The Father is my hope, the Son is my refuge, the Holy Spirit is my protection, Holy Trinity glory to You.” Another form of a popular short prayer was: “Being a man I have sinned; but thou, being God the Compassionate, have mercy on me.” Starting from the first years of Christianity and gradually gaining momentum and widespread acceptance, the following prayer has become the most commonly used by a great number of spiritual seekers: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Indications of its use can be found from the fourth century on, with St Ephraim the Syrian, St John Chrysostom, St Isaac the Syrian, St Hesychius of Jerusalem, Sts Barsanuphius and John of Gaza, and St John Climacus. Later on it spread out widely and became very well known, especially with the influence of respected Orthodox writers, like St Gregory Palamas, and prestigious Orthodox books, like the Philokalia, whose message reaches a broad audience to this date.
In reality there are as many ways of praying as there are people, given that true prayer is a connection of two persons, God and myself. This connection is always expressed in a unique and personal way. But, while many short prayers are very helpful, the Jesus Prayer is considered to be the most effective because, in the context of acknowledging the Holy Trinity and admitting our sins, it unites us with the Lord Jesus Christ, Who is the gateway to our Union with God, the ultimate aim and fundamental hope of our prayer: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (Jn 14:6). Therefore, when we practice it correctly with all our heart, we have behind us the full force of Christ’s Incarnation, in which our salvation rests. Here is a short passage on the Jesus Prayer from the renowned Orthodox book “The Way of a Pilgrim”, R8 p163 (but remember that most Fathers suggest extreme caution in using our imagination): “The constant inner prayer of Jesus is an unbroken, perpetual calling upon the Divine Name of Jesus with the lips, the mind and the heart, while picturing His lasting presence in one’s imagination and imploring His grace wherever one is, in whatever one does, even while one sleeps. This prayer consists of the following words: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!’ Those who use this prayer constantly are so greatly comforted that they are moved to say it at all times, for they can no longer live without it. And the prayer will keep on ringing in their hearts of its own accord ”
According to the instructions given to us by St Gregory of Sinai (R2 p275, R3 p74, 84), this is how to pray: “Sitting in your cell, remain patiently in prayer, according to the precept of the Apostle Paul (125). Collect your mind into your heart and send out thence your mental cry to our Lord Jesus, calling for His help and saying: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me’ until you are tired. When tired, transfer your mind to the second half and say: ‘Jesus, Son of God, have mercy upon me!’ Having many times repeated this appeal, pass once more to the first half. But you should not alternate these appeals too often through laziness; for just as plants do not take root if transplanted too frequently, neither do the movements of prayer in the heart if the words are changed frequently. Compel yourself by any means to do this work, for ‘the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force’ (Mt 11:12) as the Lord said showing that this attainment demands severe labor and spiritual struggle. When you notice thoughts arising and accosting you, do not look at them, even if they are not bad; but keeping the mind firmly in the heart, call to Lord Jesus and you will soon sweep away the thoughts and drive out their instigators – the demons – invisibly scorching and flogging them with the divine Name. Thus teaches St John Climacus, saying: ‘With the name of Jesus flog the foes, for there is no surer weapon against them, either on earth or in heaven.’” These instructions sound simple, but St Gregory of Sinai has a clear warning (R14 p281) for those who may think that learning to pray is like anything else we learned before: “You cannot discover from the teachings of others the beauty of prayer. Prayer has its own special teacher in God, ‘He Who teaches man knowledge.’ (Ps 94:10) He grants the prayer of him who prays. And He blesses the years of the just.” (126)
St Gregory of Sinai has given us a lot of guidance on this topic. For example, (R13 p69) he spoke of the effort involved in prayer, with words similar to those above: “No bodily or spiritual activity without pain or toil ever brings fruit to him who practices it, because ‘the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.’” (Mt 11:12). Here, theologians agree, the word pain means remorse and contrition of spirit. For those who are weak physically, weeping and mourning for our sinfulness take the place of physical effort. For people with stronger bodies, it takes physical discipline for the heart to acquire the peace needed for prayer: “to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak.” (1 Cor 9:22). He also stated (R13 p71) that the mind of those who are experienced in prayer must concentrate on the heart (127), “If your heart has opened.” This should be done with great fear of God, because the union of the mind and heart (which precedes our union with God) is granted by divine grace, at God’s discretion: “The great gift of prayer is usually preceded by some special sufferings and upheavals of the soul, which lead our spirit to realize the extent of our poverty and nothingness (as St Isaac the Syrian wrote.) To be worthy of this gift of Grace we need faithful humility and purity, shown by the rejection of every sinful thought at their first appearance. It is to the faithful, pure and humble that the gifts of the Spirit are given.” (cf Lk 16:10-12).
To learn how to pray effectively means to let go of hardness and torpor of the heart and grossness of the mind, traits due to spiritual arrogance and deeply rooted (perhaps subconscious) rejection of God’s will. Sometimes we don’t feel like praying - a trap set by the devil in the form of mental sloth and fear of spiritual scrutiny. Therefore, we should force ourselves to pray over and above the hesitation of our mind and resistance of our body, as stated before (in quoting Mt 11:12). This means that we will not be able to obtain salvation without persistence. If we see such difficulties in our praying, we should pray even harder, perhaps go back a level or two and start all over with the invocation of the name of Jesus Christ aloud, or with fasting, vigils and prostrations. As warm, heartfelt prayer returns, we should use this opportunity to remember our commitment to repentance, charity, spiritual humility and obedience to our spiritual father. And when the demons see our resolve and method of dealing with such problems, they tend to leave us alone from fear that the net result of their attacks might be additional good credit for us in heaven (128).
When we are ready to sit in prayer and ask God for a gift, we need to prepare ourselves with firm faith (129), against all traces of unbelief and doubt (130). No one should ever expect to obtain from God anything that was asked with a doubting heart, as He Himself said: "And all things, whatever you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive” (Mt 21:22) and “if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Mt 17:20). However, to those who doubt, He will not grant their requests. Sometimes we are insensitive to the words used in prayer, because of unbelief (131) due to pride and lack of remorse for our sinful condition (132). So, the more warmth, forgiveness, and contrition we feel in prayer, the better we are praying. During prayer, our attitude should be intentional, deliberate and extreme humility, because this is how we repulse the demons. Because of our hidden pride, we often think: “this sin is not one of mine, because I am good.” Only humility can get us out of that trap, especially with the help of a spiritual director. And always remember that, when practicing the Prayer of the Heart, we do not seek understanding or signs or visions or information of any kind, but are purely engaged in sacred invocation and supplication of our God. Pure prayer is neither some sort of abstract nor of analytical thinking but a direct and personal encounter with our Creator.
The essence of the unceasing Prayer of the Heart is the search for a valid, personal vision of God, granted to our whole being, not to the intellect alone. St Gregory Palamas worked long and hard at the doctrinal foundation of the fact that it is only the entire person that can receive grace, not any part (ie, soul, or mind, or body) acting alone. Therefore, he warns against corporeal visions (corporeal only!) or mental ones (mental only!). Both are demonic temptations that undermine the unity of our whole being, the unity that Christ came to re-invigorate by giving us immortality. Our body, mind or soul cannot receive the grace of Christ (that was put on us during Baptism) alone, but only in working together can they help us reach the goal of unceasing prayer, which is to obtain a true vision of God. This is discussed further in section Iia.
The Jesus Prayer follows closely our Scriptural model of our relationship with God, and is effective because it is centered on the Son of God Incarnate. This purely Orthodox tradition survived and prospered for almost two millennia, not because it was somehow imposed on the people, but because it is faithful to the substance of our faith. Therefore, we can see it as a direct outcome of the essence of our spiritual lineage. Yes, it does ask us to expend considerable effort, like many of the Fathers who went through extraordinary struggles to kindle the correct spirit of prayer. However, when it matures, it becomes self-sustaining, sinks into our heart, and develops into a strong and immediate link between us and God. Across that link, God’s divine grace flows to those that are ready, effecting the merging of the individual with God’s divine energies, a process called deification or divinization or theosis.
Many Fathers have written extensively about the meaning and significance of the Prayer of the Heart (133, 134, 135, 136, 137, 138, 139, 140, 141, 142, 143, 144, 145, 146). The essence of their message is that, although we cannot force our mind to slow down and become idle, what we can do is simplify and unify its activity by introducing, and focusing on, the Jesus Prayer (147). In the beginning, other thoughts will persist, but with the help of the prayer we can gradually detach ourselves from them and let them go: gently, repeatedly, just let them go. In their place, slowly at first but more assertively as time passes, the single, commanding and utterly satisfying thought of Lord Jesus emerges and takes over our mental workings (148), with all the spiritual happiness and fulfillment that that entails (149). Then, we don’t rely any more on any of our own weak efforts, but accept with gratitude and relief the helping protection of the all-powerful Divine Name and the abundant Holy Grace that is generously offered to us.
To close this segment, let me quote our greatest mystical teacher, St Gregory Palamas, R8 p164, who said: “Not only should we ourselves in accordance with God’s will pray unceasingly in the name of Jesus Christ, but we are bound to reveal it and teach it to others, to everyone in general, religious and secular, learned and simple, men, women and children, and to inspire them all with zeal for prayer without ceasing.”
II. Unceasing prayer is an extremely significant aid and a very efficient accelerator for our personal spiritual growth.
In his many letters, St Theophan the Recluse spoke of three levels in this process of spiritual growth: (a) the prayer begins as an external action in which the words are spoken repeatedly and, to the extent possible, our attention is focused on that recitation; (b) gradually, the prayer is established deep in the mind which prays without distraction, in parallel with other thoughts that are devoted to everyday tasks; (c) eventually, and with God’s blessing, the prayer is lived, silently, through the entirety of our spiritual essence, our heart. Words may be spoken or thought or felt, but they are not necessary, as the prayer is no more what we do but who we are. Like the Prodigal Son, we have returned to the Father. Such wholehearted dedication to prayer is a gift of the Holy Spirit (150). St Theophan also wrote that “growth in prayer has no end.” Even beyond the point where the prayer is established in our heart and it is silent and automatic, the process of divinization that follows is endless, as lack of spiritual growth means the end of life. From an Orthodox, apophatic perspective, as God is beyond limits and finite attributes, so is endless growth in the process of merging with Him, facilitated by Prayer of the Heart. We believe that this process of continuous growth in the presence of the Lord will never end, even beyond His Second Coming.
Following St Theophan’s scheme (cf note 122), we will first address how unceasing prayer guides our spiritual progress at the early stages, and then how its help compounds and accelerates as we advance. The third stage, which leads us to the experience of spiritual visions and the Divine Light, and then on to close communion with God that culminates in theosis, will be discussed in the next section of this work.
(a) The Prayer Of The Heart is an extremely significant aid for our personal spiritual growth. Actually, prayer is considered the primary virtue, because, from it, all others emerge and find strength. For example, here is a passage written by St Gregory of Sinai, R2 p259: “The energy of the Holy Spirit which we have already mystically received in baptism, is realized in two ways. First through arduous and protracted practice of the commandments Secondly, it is manifested to those under spiritual guidance through the continuous invocation of the Lord Jesus, repeated with conscious awareness, that is, through mindfulness of God. In the first way, it is revealed more slowly, in the second more rapidly, if one diligently and persistently learns how to dig the ground and locate the gold Let our aim be to make the energy of prayer alone active in our hearts, for it brings warmth and joy to the intellect, and sets the heart alight with an ineffable love for God and man.” This saint spoke frequently of the primacy of prayer among virtues (151, 152). Along the same lines, St Macarius of Egypt taught (R19 p216) that prayer, being the mother of all virtues, should be thought of as first, before all the others: “Let the prayer be preferred and zealously pursued and chosen by you before the rest of the Commandments.” At the same time, he believed that prayer cannot stand alone, because it “is the head of all habits, but it is dead without the rest of the members of virtue.” There are five key virtues, he said: “first prayer, then temperance, alms, poverty, patience.” His teaching was that all the virtues are necessary aspirations for a good Christian life, and are all intertwined with, and based on, prayer, in a strongly synergistic relationship. In agreement, St Gregory Palamas, drawing from, and extending, the teachings of other Fathers (eg, St Isaac the Syrian, et al) spoke of two approaches to theosis (R4 p409). They are (a) the cultivation of virtues (eg, through strict adherence to God’s commandments, good works and a sacramental life) and (b) unceasing Prayer of the Heart. The former purifies and prepares us for Union with God, and as such is of extreme importance to all spiritual seekers. However, it is the latter that actually provides the context for this sacred process to be completed – a fact that he and other Fathers make abundantly clear. At the same time, they all agree that a life of true prayer is always founded on a virtuous Christian life within the Church (153), as discussed later in this section. Also, they remind us that all we can do is supplicate God, ie, ask that He grant us union with Him, if He chooses to, and that we cannot achieve this lofty state on our own. That being said, the supremacy of unceasing prayer from among all virtues is well established in the teachings of many other mystical Fathers as well [eg, St Gregory of Nyssa (154), St Hesychius of Jerusalem (155), Sts Callistus and Ignatius (156), St Mark the Monk (157), St Nil Sorsky (158), St Barsanuphius (159), St Maximus the Confessor (160), Evagrius of Pontus (161), and others (162, 163)].
According to Sts Callistus and Ignatius, R3 p268, the Fathers call the mode of life that is based on the Prayer of the Heart by many names, eg, the sane way, praiseworthy doing and true contemplation, most spacious prayer, sobriety of mind, mental doing, activity of the life to come, angelic life, heavenly life, divine conduct, the land of the living, mysterious vision, most complete spiritual feast, paradise created by God, heaven, kingdom of heaven, kingdom of God, the darkness beyond light, secret life in Christ, vision of God, the most supranatural deification, and many other similar names. And (R3 p201) St John Climacus wrote: “In quality, prayer is communion (synousia, merging into one being) and union of man with God. In action, it is what the world stands by, reconciliation with God, the mother of tears and again their daughter, propitiation for sin, a bridge over temptations, a wall against sorrows, the cessation of warfare, the doing of angels, the food for all incorporeal spirits, the future bliss, a doing without end or limit, the source of virtues, the seeker and finder of gifts, invisible achievement, food of the soul, light of the mind, the sword cutting off despair, the evidence of hope, the loosing of the bonds of sorrow, the riches of monks, the treasure of hesychasts, the gradual decrease of anger to naught, the mirror of achievement, the measure of a man’s degree, the evidence of spiritual state, the foreteller of the future, the sign of glorification. For a man who truly prays, prayer is the torture chamber, the court of justice, and the throne of the Lord even before the throne of the future. Prayer is the estrangement from the world both visible and invisible.”
It is important to remember that no real progress in prayer can be accomplished without progress and improvement in our Christian life (164). Not only is it important that all our evil behaviors be stopped and sins be confessed, but also it is imperative that our good works (eg, charity, humility, obedience) be multiplied to the extent possible. In this way, the burden on our soul is lessened and our faithful disposition is improved. Of course, all care must be taken that our love for God, coupled with our zeal for salvation and theosis, be kept burning, in all things great or small. In this spirit, we should always come to prayer bringing deeds that correspond favorably to our petition, and constantly work hard to become worthy to receive the grace and virtue that our heart desires (165). Prayer becomes most effective when it is accompanied by an attitude of self-compulsion, as we exert all of our efforts towards what we ask for. The correct spiritual order is a healthy alternation between asking for a spiritual gift in prayer and trying to acquire it through our own meager efforts. Then God blesses us and multiplies the results of our work. If we pray for some spiritual virtue and at the same time neglect any attempt at getting it on our own, then God does not have anything good to bless and guide to fruition. Following this misguided approach, we tempt God rather than pray to Him, which is a grave sin. Speaking on this from a positive perspective, the Scriptures say: “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” (James 5:16). St Maximus the Confessor tells us that what makes the request most effective is when someone asks a saint to pray for them, and at the same time they pray for it themselves, in addition to really trying to do everything they can to obtain the result of the request through their own natural efforts. And according to St Ignatius Brianchaninov, R13 p98, an essential pre-condition of the Jesus Prayer is to keep His commandments (166). “Abide in My love” (Jn 15:9) He said to His disciples, meaning to remember Him always, in union with Him in spirit. True prayer without keeping God’s commandments is dead: “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love.” (Jn 15:10). In other words, if we obey Him, we are able to pray all the time (167). And the other way around: being united with Him in spirit through prayer, we long for Him with our whole being and naturally act as He expects us to. As we get to know (through unceasing prayer) the virtues of Jesus, and how sweet it feels to be close to Him, we direct all of our actions (168) by faith and respect for His commandments (169).
We, Christians, are never isolated, but we are members of a sacred family whose central method of safeguarding its cohesion, marshaling its strength, and bringing salvation to the world, at the personal and the group level, is to praise and supplicate God, with both words and deeds. We know that we are sinners, but we also know that God is eager to have us back, and where there’s sin there’s redemption too, which is the promise that our prayer reminds us of. For us, prayer is not a way to find God, but a way of taking refuge in Him, Whom we have found, because He came after us to remind us that He loves us and wants us to be saved. In this context, unceasing Prayer was never thought as pulling us away from the Church, but, instead, as being instrumental in binding us to it permanently. This is due to the fact that the people who pray to their God and Savior, by invoking His divine name constantly, can only find Him in their hearts to the extent that they are faithfully connected to His Church by both, the Sacraments (eg, Baptism, Confession, Holy Eucharist) and good works. The Jesus Prayer, as the Fathers developed it, is the fullest realization of a truly Orthodox Christian life, both personal and communal, and never a replacement for the latter. In this way, it provides a lasting solution to the question of how to balance individual spiritual discipline and devotion, with good works and well rounded, active participation in the Christian community.
It is important to understand that our effectiveness in praying with warm spiritual desire is proportional to our willingness and ability to marshal perfect attention in our mind (170). If we fail to watch our mind carefully, we cannot be close to Jesus, especially if we try to approach Him through effortful reasoning that strains, but does not purify, our thinking process. Perfect spiritual attention, devoid of low-level desires (171) and pre-conceived notions of what should be or could be, coupled with warm Prayer of the Heart (172), fills the mind with spiritual light. On the other hand, being without sobriety and without constant invocation of Jesus, makes the mind dark. This can be verified through direct experience on our part, especially under the direction of a spiritually accomplished Elder (which is discussed later in this section). As the Fathers taught, clear, solid attention of the mind is a necessary condition for successful Prayer of the Heart, because it allows us to perceive God revealing Himself to us (173). With attention, our mind stands firm and does not wander, because stray thoughts are cut off. In this way, we enjoy uninterrupted remembrance of God, which becomes the fountain of our faith, hope and love. Then we can see that the kingdom of heaven is within us; and as we see that, we are encouraged to strive even harder to keep the door open. Everything external is then seen as unworthy of our notice and utterly undesirable.
The way that attention is helping our prayer is to watch for approaching passionate thoughts (174), or, as spiritual progress is made, any type of involuntary thought, and, eventually, any thought that is not from the Holy Spirit. When such spiritual enemies are sighted, the attention’s function is to silently alert the heart to not attach itself to that thought, if not repulse it with sacred zeal and exclusive focus on prayer. As this is done, the heart, in one and the same spiritual movement, ascends to God in prayer, calling for His help. The Holy Spirit intervenes, strengthening our heart’s focus on the Lord, and the battle subsides (175). As the demons see that [undesirable to them] outcome, they learn to avoid bothering us in prayer, for fear that our benefit be greater than if they just stayed away (176). The only risk is that they may come back in through a different door, perhaps a pernicious sense of false pride that our prayer is magnificent. As will be discussed below, our Elder then has to help us regain a measure of humility and proper perspective on the spiritual lay of the land of prayer and our relationship with the Divine. We should always remember that God wants one thing from us: that we purify our hearts (177) by means of attention not to allow sinful thoughts (178), but stay focused on Him and fill ourselves with prayer (179) in an undivided effort throughout our life. Therefore, prayer should be combined with attention like our soul is linked to our body. First comes attention enlivening the mind, and when the enemies attack it with sinful thoughts, Prayer of the Heart (180) faces them and destroys the opposition (181), because attention alone cannot do it all. On this continuous battle (attentive prayer against sinful thoughts) depends the life and death of our soul (182). By using attention to keep our prayer pure, we make spiritual progress (183). Conversely, lack of attention leaves our prayer unprotected, which then gets weakened, corrupted and extinguished from our hearts.
The Fathers are unanimous that, through unceasing prayer, our mind is guided to become disciplined, focused and silent. For example, Isaiah the Hermit says: “Restrain the unrestrainable mind, scattered and dispersed as it is by the power of the enemy, who, through our negligence, has once again, since Baptism, returned to our slothful soul, along with other more evil spirits; as the Lord said: ‘The last state of that man is worse than the first’ (Mt 12:45).” Also, St John Climacus advises: “Let the memory of Jesus combine with your breath – then you will know the profit of silence.” And, to show what happens after our mind-chatter yields to an ever stronger prayer and devotion to God (184), Apostle Paul asserts that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” (Gal 2:20). To help us silence our mind, the Jesus Prayer allows us to weaken and eliminate passionate thoughts (185, 186), while, at the same time, demonstrate our devotion to God through persistence at uniting with Him. If we are eager to reach spiritual perfection, we will distance ourselves from evil deeds, passionate thoughts and unclean imagination (187), as in Gal 5:16: “Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.” Even more, we will ultimately withdraw from all involuntary thought. The mind is not strong enough to subdue passionate imagination by itself, because the demons are expert at deceiving it and they introduce impure thoughts (188) from mental angles that are unexpected to all but the most experienced among us (eg, memory, senses, false logic, etc). However, the faithful invocation of Jesus will expel them if we persist at it. According to St Gregory of Sinai, the origin and cause of the ever-flowing thoughts in our mind is that we have lost the single and simple memory of God. What we must do is bring our mind back to its original simplicity. Our disobedience to God did not only discontinue our simple memory of good, but also corrupted our soul’s power and diminished its natural disposition and desire for virtue. The original simple, good, memory can be re-established by uninterrupted remembrance of God, effected by unceasing Prayer of the Heart. In this way, our mind and body are imbued with the Holy Spirit. When thoughts appear uninvited, we should call to our Lord Jesus often and patiently, and they will flee the warmth (189, 190) of the heart produced by prayer (191). Actually, as stated before, St John Climacus instructs us to flog our foes (evil thoughts) with the name of Jesus, “for our God is fire devouring evil.”
A key task to be accomplished is to diminish and tame the passions, eg, by using attention to guard our heart from evil desires while our prayer purifies and sanctifies it (192). As our heart becomes indifferent to sin, passions are subdued and our whole being begins to long for God and union with Him. To achieve that, we improve and increase our prayer, which strengthens our mind, and so forth. As a simple example of how to tame the passions externally, the Fathers teach that those who practice Prayer of the Heart should not eat a lot, because when the stomach is heavy the mind is clouded and the purity and firmness of our prayer diminishes. Similarly for a lot of sleep, many earthly interests and possessions, etc. Fighting the passions internally is an even greater battle (193), true spiritual warfare (194), during which the demons attack our soul but are repelled by our warm and attentive prayer and the grace that comes to us for our dedication and effort. By the name of Jesus and our love for Him, the Fathers tell us, passions are dissolved like wax in a flame. Yet, demons try to re-enter the mind, and then the heart, eg, through thoughts or senses. But, if our attention is focused and sharp, and our prayer calm and warm, the evil spirits have no power to disturb us, and they go away. This of course happens to the very best, most perfect in the Prayer of the Heart (195), those who have renounced all temptations of this world (196) and whose attention remains always intact.
To summarize the above, in the same way that we cannot survive without food and water, our soul cannot please God in being free of inner sin without constant guarding of the mind and purification of the heart (197, 198) through unceasing prayer (199, 200, 201). Regardless of how much we fear future punishment, we cannot reach God by just trying to refrain from committing sins, which is the negative approach, without true sobriety (202) and constant remembrance of Christ (203), which is the positive, spiritually assertive way. The Fathers teach us that in order to win the war of our mind, heart and soul, and chase our spiritual enemies away, we need constant supplication to Christ, with humility and untiring persistence (204). Not doing that would be like going to battle unprotected by armor and weapons (205), or attempting to swim across the sea fully clothed and carrying a heavy load, or trying to live without air, water and food.
Turning our attention now to what can help us, our isolation from God (brought about by prideful disobedience) can be cured through continuous prayer to Him, assisted by our humble submission to the spiritual guidance of an experienced Elder (206, 207). Those who strive to attain pure prayer in silence, must seek the guidance of those who are familiar with it (208). The reason is that as we make progress towards the gifts of the Spirit, eg, humility, Satan looks for opportunities to undermine our efforts and bring us back under his control. Our spiritual father can help us see what’s happening and face these challenges in a safe way; he can guide us through the difficulties of cleansing our heart and remaining steadfast in prayer. From his independent viewpoint, he can detect any demonic threats to our efforts, perhaps pride disguised as piety due to an early success. He can help us avoid self-conceit; then we can experience prayer free of prelest (ie, misguided beliefs, planee) which is fire that scorches passions and brings joy (209) and quiet to the heart. Without guidance, we cannot discern between demonic suggestions and authentic instructions from above. To follow the correct path and reach our goal we need the help of someone who knows how to get us there. To that end, his suggestions should be followed without question, especially when he warns us against practices or experiences which are detrimental to our progress. His job is not to teach us a secret method of prayer, but to help us resist demonic attacks, stay humble and focused on our spiritual objective, and recognize the true grace of God when He rewards our efforts. Even Saint Paul sought the guidance of his fellow Apostles on several occasions “lest by any means I might run, or had run, in vain” (Gal 2:2). What’s more, we have the words of Christ Himself as He gives us a glimpse into the inner workings of the Holy Trinity, related to following directions, each Divine Person trusting the others in all humility: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me” (Jn 6:38); and also “However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come.” (Jn 16:13).
St Gregory Palamas warned us to be very careful when coming across flashy spiritual experiences, in the sense that some early success (eg, an occasional fleeting experience of the Divine) may delude us to believe that we are already accomplished saints (210). In this way, we risk missing the forest for the trees and falling victims to pride, thereby losing our way towards the correct next steps that will lead us to theosis. In St Gregory’s words, our conceit will “open wide the doors to him who is ever trying to seduce us.” The correct action is to never feel proud or over-confident, but stay the course of pure prayer with the help of a trusted Elder (211). Then, God will help us see our imperfections, which will enhance our humility and contrition and help us control our sinful tendencies. This can be done with repentance and confession, good works, sacramental life, attention and continuous prayer. The result will be even more pure prayer, leading to more stable openness of heart and back to the same sacred cycle (contrition, repentance, attention, better prayer, openness of heart) again. When our impurities are mostly cleared, we are able to accept the Holy Spirit working in our heart (212, 213), praying for us, and guiding us to theosis (214).
St Gregory Palamas also insists that the Jesus Prayer is not an easy and mechanical way of obtaining grace: “Any one who considers as abominable the beginning of prayer that prayer accompanied by tears and repentance which comes from grief truly felt in fasting and vigilance, and the care with which novices are taught to lift up their divided minds, in uniform and harmonious prayer, the man who scorns all that, should be consistent enough also to scorn the end pursued in prayer ”(R7 p 145). Such comments show that he considered the Prayer of the Heart to be a systematic and demanding spiritual discipline that helps the person collect their mind by attention and purify it, under expert supervision, through repentance and humility, in order to advance towards their end objective, theosis. Prayer cannot cause our deification through some sort of blind mechanical repetition of a prayer-like formula, because it is based on a personal (215, 216) interaction between us and God, where we consciously appeal for His mercy and help. As He listens and takes pity on us, He helps us reach Him. In this way, prayer represents our best means to pull ourselves towards Him (217), like someone in a small boat pulls desperately on a rope tied to a lighthouse on the shore, trying his best to save himself from the storm. Each tug on the rope is not a casual exercise, but a conscious effort to reach safety. (Mechanization of prayer is discussed further in section IIIa.)
(b) Unceasing prayer is a very efficient accelerator for our personal spiritual growth, because it acts quickly to reaffirm our identity in God. Without care for dogmatic particulars, we seek a direct existential grasp of the link between us and God, a personal pathway that was put in place by Him at the beginning of this world so that we can find our way back to Him. This link can be reclaimed only in deep silence (218), after we have been purified enough to be able to hear the spiritual whispers that the Holy Spirit utters in our heart; which is a key aspect of our relationship with God and very important for the process of unceasing prayer. The help of the Holy Spirit is mentioned throughout this work and is discussed later in this section, and even more in section IIIa. Under His guidance, we open up to experiencing God’s will directly, determined to accept it in humility and obey His every command (219). This kind of intimate communication is way beyond the usual petitions of external prayer that we’ve been taught since childhood.
Through prayer we re-discover God’s image planted deep inside us (R19 p219). Each time we pray, He unveils His presence (220) a little better and more clearly (221). At the end, passionate thoughts are removed, unable to withstand the power of God’s image which is being illuminated through prayer (222). In this way, we advance towards His likeness (223), until He takes possession of our whole being - the communion we all aspire to. When the process is ready to complete, visions of the Divine Light usually take place, as elaborated in section IIIb. At the end, we are lifted into union with Him, like the Holy Trinity is One: “That they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one.” (Jn 17: 22-23).
In other words, our goal is a permanent state of Prayer of the Heart, where we become what God intended us to be, by re-establishing our natural relationship with Him, which is our birthright. According to Bishop Kallistos Ware, R11 p99, while praying, we return from multiple thoughts to a single thought, God, a process that leads us to our goal, ie, union with Him (cf footnotes #148, #267, #278 and St Gregory Palamas’ quote on top of page 36). This is not easy, because thoughts fly constantly through our mind, like flies buzzing all around us, as St Theophan the Recluse said. This instability of our mind and inability to “be here and now” is one of the most drastic consequences of the Fall, because that’s when humans lost (or abandoned) direct, single-minded focus on God - which is when fear of death entered our lives. In order to overcome this fundamental impediment, the first way is to confront our undisciplined streams of thought and expel them, one by one, by sheer force of will. This is practically impossible because the only tool or weapon we have to operate inside our mind is thought itself, which may replace the thoughts we don’t want but will ultimately refuse to die on its own accord, keeping the busy, thinking mind vulnerable to the attacks of the demons (224). Such a negative strategy is very exhausting and doomed to failure, because, thinking to ourselves “stop thinking” is about as feasible as telling ourselves “stop breathing”: it just can’t be done. In the end, we cannot eliminate darkness from a room by using another type of darkness to overcome it. Eventually, we all come to the simple realization that, for darkness to disappear, the light has to be turned on. And any thought that is not focused on, and derived from, God, is an instrument of darkness in some way. The positive method to eliminate darkness is to introduce light, especially the Source of Light, where we avoid direct confrontation of thought-against-thought and look elsewhere, towards a dominant, luminous presence that can keep the mind focused because of its immeasurable sweetness and clarity: God Himself. The latter is a spiritual strategy that can succeed, where the former, because of its futility, fails. This is the approach recommended by the Fathers, eg, Sts Barsanuphius and John of Gaza, R29 p130: “Do not contradict the thoughts suggested by your enemies, for that is exactly what they want and they will not desist. But turn to the Lord for help against them, laying before Him your own helplessness; for He is able to expel them and to reduce them to nothing.” The Jesus Prayer is the supreme way to combat this buzzing-thought morass that captivates and pollutes our minds, by helping us focus directly and exclusively on God.
When spiritual purification, with the help of the heart prayer, is practiced, together with watching and guarding the mind, all passions and evil thoughts are uprooted (225) and replaced by contrition, mourning, tears, knowledge of ourselves and our sins, memory of death, true humility and obedience. As our mind becomes firmly established in the heart, with pure, unwavering attention and the prayer of Jesus (226), it becomes impenetrable to suggestions from the devil (227). In this way, we are led more and more to longing for God. And as we persist in prayer, with strong desire and focus, a whole host of new virtues spring from our heart and become manifest (228), eg, charity, joy (229), hope, silence, peace and endless love for God (230, 231), our fellow human beings and everything around us (232). In addition, all of our petitions to the Lord are answered in the name of Jesus Christ (233). Here, the Fathers suggest that those who have attained perfect Prayer of the Heart and enlightenment should remain in the silence of the Holy Spirit, because they are now united with God and they should not tear their minds and hearts away from Him for any reason (eg, a monk leaving the monastery to help his relatives.) The Holy Spirit will help those in need, in His own time and in His own way.
We should accept the fact that grace and mercy, although always available to those who approach Him with humility and devotion, are only given to us from God, Who, in His love for us, renews them from moment to moment at His discretion. Therefore, the grace that comes to us through Prayer of the Heart is a gift and not the automatic result of some accomplishment. Although the perfect unceasing Prayer of the Heart, and corresponding deep level of connection with God, is offered only to the most advanced, even they can’t take it for granted. Instead, they have to desire it, ask for it, keep it, honor it and live up to it every moment of their lives (234). Given that pride is a great threat to spiritual seekers, true Prayer of the Heart is always accompanied by the deepest sense of humility, repentance, and obedience to His will. The Fathers say that our own efforts in prayer can take us only up to a certain point, even counting the good works that our prayer inspires us to do. Beyond that, only the grace of God can help us advance if we allow the Holy Spirit to work in our hearts. Throughout this process, our greatest danger is any form of self-contentment that may raise its head, especially as we see some spiritual progress or external confirmation, like a specific prayer getting answered. Here again, the guidance of an experienced Elder is key.
This process of theosis is the same as the process of inviting and accepting the Holy Spirit to establish Himself inside our heart, our spiritual essence (235). In that sense, while speaking with Motovilov, St Seraphim of Sarov said: “’Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’ Let all your attention and training be on this. Walking, sitting, doing and standing in church before the divine service, coming in and going out, keep this unceasingly on your lips and in your heart. In calling in this manner on the name of God, you will find peace, attain to purity of spirit and body, and the Holy Spirit, the origin of all good things, will dwell in you, and He will guide you to holiness, to all piety and purity.” Also, St Gregory Palamas wrote (236) that when the person who is experienced in achieving and maintaining communion with God frees his soul from every attachment and unites his peaceful (thought-free) mind with unceasing prayer, he rises by mystical ascension to heaven and surveys all created things from above, through stillness and silence: “He unites his ‘nous’ with unceasing prayer to God. Through this, he is rapt within himself, and finds a new and mysterious way to rise to the heavens: what one could call the impenetrable darkness of the original silence. With joy indescribable, he remains mysteriously enraptured in spirit, in veritable rest and in silence, full of sweetness; and he flies over all created things.” In that same passage he also wrote: “It is of this that the Fathers speak when they say, ‘The end of prayer is to be snatched away to God.’ This is why the great Dionysius says that, through prayer, the mind gradually abandons all relation with created things, ‘first with all things good and bad, then with neutral things capable of conformity to either good or ill, according to the intentions of the person using them ’” And, “Purity of the passionate part of the soul effectively liberates the mind from all things through impassibility, and unites it through prayer to the grace of the Spirit; and through this grace the mind comes to enjoy the divine effulgence, and acquires an angelic and God-like form.” The role that the Holy Spirit plays in our unceasing prayer is a very significant aspect of the whole process, as was mentioned above, and is presented in more detail in section IIIa.
Here again are some more of St Gregory’s words (R4 p409) about the process just discussed, from a slightly different perspective: “When a man abides in this collected state of mind and in this soaring to God, then, curbing his volatile thoughts by intense effort of self constraint, he mentally approaches God, meets with the ineffable tastes of the life to come, and knows by spiritual apprehension how good is the Lord, as the Singer of Psalms says, ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good.’ (Ps 33:8).” In order to achieve that threefold (guarding, being guarded and praying at the same time) but still totally unified, simple state, which is a prerequisite for uniting with the One God, it takes dedication, faith and persistence. Understandably, only the most experienced aspirants are able to maintain this transcendent state for long without being distracted by the indescribable waves of heavenly bliss that pour out of their heart and tend to re-ground them on the physical realm through “good” (but “multiple”) thoughts that emerge automatically. This re-grounding process is somewhat reminiscent of Saint Peter’s experience of losing faith (ie, a totally confident, single focus on the Divine) after only a few seconds of walking on water towards Jesus, and sinking back down until He reached out and pulled him up to safety (Mt 14: 24-31). Working on any other virtue is almost trivial and easily accomplished as compared with reaching and maintaining securely this transcendent state of union. For this reason, St Gregory and other Fathers insist that those who do not focus on the virtue of prayer, miss their chance to receive the best spiritual gifts available to humans (237). On the other hand, those who work patiently with the Prayer of the Heart are given the greatest access to the Divine (238) and are granted angelic, supernatural powers, eg, “But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Is 40:31).
To summarize the above, in paraphrasing St Theophan’s (and other Fathers’) classification, we all begin with fear of God, faithful commitment to His commandments, and strong desire to detach ourselves from all external things, either good or bad. We grow by trusting Christ and abiding in prayer, as pure and undistracted as we can make it, cleaving to Him to the extent of our abilities (239) and aligning our will to His. We enter into perfection through unceasing Prayer of the Heart, and when it becomes securely established, warm and natural, our involuntary thoughts become clean, tame and slow, until they disappear altogether. Then, by grace, our mind remains still (240), full of God (241), serene, bright and clear (242). At that point, the divine silence fires up our love for God in our heart, where we find perfect peace, “??????”, fulfillment, ecstasy, wonder, rapture, pure “??????”, and, ultimately, union with Him, the destination and focus of all of our desires and spiritual movements. As shown in R40 p75, according to St Isaac the Syrian, this is the condition of the future age where “the saints will not pray in prayers, but their minds will be overflowed with the Holy Spirit, and with wonderment they will reside in the ever-spreading glory of God.”
III. As Unceasing Prayer develops, it engenders a direct, clear and constant relationship with God, which is a necessary and sufficient condition for our theosis.
Many Fathers have written extensively about the extraordinary role prayer plays in deification. For example, Sts John Climacus, Isaac the Syrian, Gregory Palamas, and Gregory of Sinai stressed the primacy of prayer among all virtues (243), and how indispensable it is to achieving theosis. Others, eg, Sts Symeon the New Theologian, Macarius of Egypt, Gregory Palamas, and Seraphim of Sarov, spoke of the fact that those who have excelled in unceasing prayer are inundated by uncreated light, the same light that is mentioned in the Gospel passage on the Transfiguration. These points are discussed in the following few paragraphs.
(a) The Prayer of the Heart engenders a direct, clear and constant relationship with God.
It is a great privilege for humanity that those who wish to cleanse their heart and soul, for their personal salvation and the glory of God, can get help directly from Him (244). Unceasing Prayer of the Heart is a wonderful gift that brings with it all of God’s blessings (245), as it purifies us and guides us closer to God, helping us unite with Him. It leads us away from lust for things of this world, and focuses our mind to think nothing but Him (246) – at which point we are firmly grounded on memory of God alone (247). The more we become dead to the flesh and to the trappings of this world through prayer, the more we become alive, free, spiritually aware, and helpful in the workings of the Spirit (248). At the physical and psychological levels, we experience well being, emotional balance, appreciation of nature, love for others and for God. At the mental level comes sharper attention, absence of passionate thoughts, and, eventually, silence. At the spiritual level comes humility, repentance, mourning, tears, and a clear conscience. As a result, a newfound love for our Lord emerges and engulfs us whole. This pure, but human, love brings to us Divine Love (249) which fills us with deep devotion to God, makes our mind spiritually wise and opens us up to the mysteries of this world and of the heavens, as St Theoleptus of Philadelphia said (R3, p398): “For God, the Word, invoked by Name in the praying heart, takes out discursive reason like a rib, and gives knowledge. Putting right order in its place, He bestows virtue, creates light-giving love, and brings it to the mind withdrawn into ecstasy, asleep and at rest from every earthly lust.” Love for God helps detach the mind from anything sinful (250), as it incites us to divine wisdom, and urges us to demonstrate our innate disposition towards virtue (251).
In other words, according to the Fathers (252), the beginning of spiritual perfection is purity of mind (absence of involuntary thoughts; start of silence) combined with attention (253) and detachment, all based on strict adherence to God’s commandments and a sacramental life within the Church. These virtues are driven by relentless effort to pray diligently (254), culminating in unceasing prayer, which sets the heart in motion (255) and produces in it warmth - like a furnace (256) – a condition that eliminates passions, expels demons, and purifies the whole human being (257, 258, 259, 260, 261). A deep spiritual desire for Christ arises that brings about repentance, thankfulness, faith, hope and love, which further cleanse and enrich our body and soul (262, 263, 264). As our heart becomes free from passionate fantasies (265), it begins to manifest divine thoughts, continuous remembrance of God (266), stillness and innocent, spontaneous prayer (267), subtly introduced (268) and maintained by the Holy Spirit (269). As discussed later in this section, He is then the one praying in us: “And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’” (Gal 4:6). Endless peace and spiritual stillness follow, and from these comes, by divine grace, bright illumination beyond all understanding pulling us towards union with God, ecstasy (270) and dwelling in Him (271). This is the new, sacred relationship with God (272) that we are all encouraged to pursue (273). Although this relationship is just a preamble of a future glorious state, it is constant (ie, stable) and direct (ie, immediate), unless we ourselves decide to abandon it. Its onset means that we are now clearly invited to live in Heaven (after this life) where we will be seeing God face to face and enjoying Him, forever.
Saint Gregory Palamas speaks (R4 p409) of our union with God, the Holy Trinity in this way: “When the single mind is threefold, while yet remaining single, it is united with the Divine Threefold Oneness, closes the door to all prelest, sin and error and becomes above flesh, above the world and above the prince of this world. Having thus escaped their snares, it remains wholly enclosed in itself and in God, tasting the spiritual joy (274) which flows from within.” By the expression “single mind is threefold while yet remaining single” he is referring to the process by which our mind focuses within, becomes purified through prayer and transcends itself. In other words, through prayer, our mind stops resisting the divine impulses and becomes able to receive the message of the Holy Spirit and rise to God (eg, St Isaac’s Q&A, next page). The first part, ie, the mind returning and focusing on itself with extreme attention, is done so that our mental processes quiet down and be guarded against thought-attacks by the demons. The second part, ie, the mind accepting the silent impulses of the Holy Spirit and rising to God in perfect happiness, which means achieving the level of “??????” and going beyond it towards a direct, utterly enjoyable connection with God, is facilitated through very gentle, almost silent Prayer of the Heart. This is the process of going above all our familiar experiences, either outside or inside the mind, and receiving union with God, with all the wonderful spiritual feelings that that entails (cf note #326), aided by our continuous prayer which is being offered in the context of our total acceptance of the Divine response.
In order to attain pure Prayer of the Heart, we must first pass through the stage of purification of the intellect, as St Gregory Palamas wrote (R7 p141): “Illumination appears to the pure intelligence to the extent that it is liberated from all concepts and becomes formless.” And “All vision having a form to the intelligence, that is to say, to act on the passionate part which is the imagination comes from a ruse of the enemy (275).” Many have attained pure prayer, and helped others do the same (276) (also see St Gregory’s quote at the end of section I of this paper), through “purity of heart (277)”, by eliminating passionate thoughts. Here, St Gregory Palamas shows his closeness to the ascetic tradition of St John Climacus. As evidenced repeatedly throughout this work, the central pillar of St Gregory’s teachings, the acquisition of grace in Jesus Christ, focuses on the “monological, uninterrupted prayer” (278) ??????????????????????, ???????????). This prayer is a “memory of God”, a conscious, positive, personal, continuous supplication addressed to God: “We supplicate with this continual supplication” St Gregory wrote, “not to convince God, for He acts always spontaneously, not to draw Him to us, for He is everywhere, but to lift ourselves up towards Him.” In other passages, St Gregory mentions that continuous prayer is a thanksgiving, always a communion with a personal God (279). This responsible and active concept of unceasing prayer shows that Orthodox spirituality does not advocate any mechanization of prayer, as was also discussed in section IIa.
Those of us who practice the Prayer of the Heart diligently for some time reach the point where the individual words disappear and merge into the faint, prayerful impulses of the Holy Spirit, which can now be clearly perceived because of the spiritual silence that awakens within us. Through prayer we learn to descend into our own nothingness, and, by calling out to Him, to also experience His protective hand pulling us back to His side, over and over again - a rhythm that is similar to continuous alternations between life and death. This can be seen as a kind of healing dialog between us and God, which gradually convinces our ego-driven deeper self to trust Him, open our heart, and let go of any last bit of resistance keeping us apart from the Holy Spirit. In this way, we enter the new realm that opens wide for us, the kingdom of God. According to St Ignatius Brianchaninov, R13 p61, when we consciously accept God’s grace, our prayer becomes truly spiritual, superceding the more common bodily prayer which is driven by our own efforts. And St John Climacus taught that the onset of authentic spiritual prayer is marked by abundant weeping, and, as we enter our heart, palpable joy and thankfulness.
Along these lines, for St Isaac the Syrian (280), the advanced Prayer of the Heart is not so much “our” prayer (as if we were acting on our own) as it is the Holy Spirit praying within us: “The disciple: what is the culmination of all the labors of asceticism, which a person, on reaching, recognizes as the summit of his course? The teacher: This happens when he is counted worthy of continual prayer. When he has reached this point, he has attained the end at which all the virtues aim, and henceforth he possesses a dwelling-place in the Spirit. If a person has not received in all certainty the gift of the Comforter, it is not possible for him to accomplish unceasing prayer in quiet. When the Spirit makes its dwelling-place in someone, he does not cease to pray, because the Spirit will constantly pray in him. Then, neither when he sleeps not when he is awake, will prayer be cut off from his soul; but when he eats and when he drinks, when he lies down or when he does any work, even when he is immersed in sleep, the perfumes of prayer will breathe in his heart spontaneously. From this point onwards he will not possess prayer at limited times, but always; and when he has outward rest, even then prayer is ministered to him secretly. For as a man clad in Christ has said, the silence of the serene is prayer, for their very thoughts are divine impulses. The motions of the pure mind are quiet voices, secretly chanting psalms to Him who is invisible.” This point is repeated often in this paper.
True Prayer of the Heart (281) involves the entirety of our body (282), mind, soul and spirit, and focuses on the spiritual center of our being, what we call “the heart.” This is what links us to God, the seat of our conscience, the place where the Divine dwells in us. According to St Gregory Palamas, (R20 p7), unceasing prayer is based on the center of our spiritual essence (283): “Heart is The innermost body within the body The shrine of the intelligence The chief intellectual organ of the body It is the ruling organ, that which gives to our human personhood purpose and meaning It is the throne of grace.” Therefore, those who are advanced in this kind of prayer, in accepting His grace, experience the Holy Spirit praying for them from inside their heart. As mentioned before, the Fathers insist that it is the whole human being that is saved and not just the soul, as some heresies and other religions postulate. For example, St Gregory Palamas, R7 p143, understood the difference between our Gospel and Platonic philosophy, in that our body is not the cause of evil: “This body united to us has been joined to us by God as our collaborator, or rather put under our dominion; we must therefore suppress it, if it revolts, and accept it, if it behaves as it should.” In essence, he believed that thoughts which are associated with pleasure of the body are bodily in nature and are pulling our mind and attention lower, into the physical and sensual realm. However, thoughts that come from our soul when it is full of spiritual joy are spiritual in nature and do not get corrupted even if they act on the body. Instead, they uplift us towards the spiritual realm: “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (Jn 3:6-8). To recapitulate this important point, how the body, mind and soul work together towards theosis, St Gregory Palamas wrote (R7 p144) that “Following the Fathers, one can easily purify the mind, but it easily relapses from purity. True prayer cleanses the whole of soul and body in tandem, creating a condition where our mind can remain pure for long periods of time, which makes us receptive of deifying grace.”
(b) In the context of successful unceasing prayer, this relationship with God is a necessary and sufficient condition for our theosis. According to the Fathers, deification is not an abstract concept, promised far in the future or limited to some very few fortunate ones, but it is a concrete, mystical experience, whose initial phases are available to all Christians during their lifetime on earth. Theosis is granted to us by the Holy Spirit and takes place through God’s own power. Although several Fathers discuss its various aspects in their writings, they all consider it essentially indescribable, even unutterable. In essence, theosis “can be identified only by those who have been blessed with it.” (St Gregory Palamas, R23 p127). As discussed before, this ultimate human experience is linked by many of the Fathers with the successful practice of unceasing Prayer of the Heart, through which we establish a live communion with the Holy Trinity. In its advanced stages, unceasing prayer leads to a state of fulfillment in God’s presence, characterized by a purified (ie, devoid of passionate thoughts) mind, which is, for the most part, silent (284), experiencing perfect joy, abundant love for God (285) and all creatures (286), and a spontaneous vision of uncreated light. This light is a manifestation of God’s energies, emerging out of His essence [which remains forever unapproachable to us (287).] When this Divine Light is granted to a saint, it serves as a concrete pledge of the life to come, which will be an eternal coexistence with God (288). Therefore, theosis opens us to the ultimate, and most fulfilling, knowledge of God (289) that we can have in this life (290).
St Gregory Palamas calls prayer the “divinizing virtue”, meaning that it is the most we can do to prepare ourselves for deification (291), if and when God decides to grant us this gift of gifts. Sin causes us to forget God and distance ourselves from Him; while prayer helps us remember our divine heritage and draw near Him (292), through spiritual desire, word and deed. Unceasing, or perpetual, prayer, when it is achieved, can be seen as God’s presence in man, “in the sense of an aptitude disposing him to receive God, and as bringing about the indwelling through incessant petition.” (St Gregory Palamas, R23 p88). Through perpetual prayer, we purify our intellect (293, 294) and integrate it with our heart, abandon all passionate thoughts (295) and open ourselves to God’s grace. “This is the nature of prayer: it raises man from earth to heaven and, surpassing every celestial name, eminence, and dignity, it presents him to God (296) Who is above all things.” (St Gregory Palamas, R23 p89). In this way, Prayer of the Heart is our best method and most practical tool to enter into a real communion with God (297), and it is enabled to operate at full force when He blesses our perseverance and heartfelt desire, and grants us the gift of continuous prayer (298). Therefore, true prayer is not just a human endeavor, but a living example of human-divine collaboration or “?????????”, where the Holy Spirit hears our supplication, sees our resolve, and consents to pray for us, within us (299).
After our heart has been cleansed (300, 301) and passionate thoughts have been removed, we are open to God’s grace through continuous prayer. At this point our past has been purified through repentance and forgiveness, our present is sharply focused on the Lord, and our future is joyfully anticipated with faith and hope in Him. Therefore, we are finally ready to accept the workings of the Holy Spirit in us, like Prophets of the New Testament (R43 p111), and receive His uncreated impulses as they act beyond, or, across, time. This is a crucial level in our spiritual development, because here our own efforts reach a plateau, beyond which there is nothing more we can do but keep praying, more and more deeply as time goes on. At this point of our relationship with God, two things usually happen: first, our own, purified, thinking quiets down to a silent prayerful intention and the Holy Spirit takes over our prayer (302); and second, we feel the onset of a powerful mystical experience that leads us to theosis (303). This experience is characterized by a sense of warmth of heart (304) and rapidly increasing (often exploding) love for God (305, 306); and also by vision of the Divine Light (307, 308), accompanied by great joy (309) and spiritual knowledge of God’s mysteries (310, 311).
God’s uncreated light is the symbol of the grace that is being poured upon us as a gift from the Holy Spirit (312), and the main theme of our experience at this stage (313). It is a symbol that is familiar to us from the Scriptures. For example, divine light appeared several times in the Old Testament, as it guided the Israelites away from Egypt, illumined Moses’ face after he came down from Mount Sinai, and accompanied Prophet Elijah up to Heaven; also, King David addresses the Lord in this way (Ps 36:9): “For with You is the fountain of life; In Your light we see light.” In the New Testament, God is called Light which is foreign to all darkness: “And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (Jn 1:5). Also, Jesus said about Himself: “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” in Jn 8:12. Later He said something similar to His Apostles “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5: 14-16). And: "While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” (Jn 12:36). Light emanated from St Stephen’s face during his martyrdom; and light stopped and rehabilitated St Paul on his way to Damascus. Later, St Paul wrote in 2 Cor 4:6: “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” A few centuries after that, the Creed called Christ “Light of Light; true God of true God ” Many other examples of the significance of light exist in our Scriptures and Holy Tradition (314). Correspondingly, similar expressions and paradigms have been incorporated in our hymnography (315), iconography (316) and overall language about salvation, which, as St Gregory Palamas wrote, is “man’s reassumption of his vestment of light, which he put off in disobeying God.”
Pure prayer leads us to this enlightened state of ultimate receptivity of God’s will and grace, characterized by the vision of His uncreated light (317), the same one that Sts Peter, James and John witnessed up on Mount Tabor (318) (Mt 17:1-8; Mk 9:2-10). According to the Fathers, the Prayer of the Heart leads us to the vision of light in two ways: At the intellectual level, working hard to purify our mind, we experience the created light of our humanity that becomes brighter as sinful thoughts are abandoned and unceasing prayer takes its hold. After prolonged and successful practice of the Jesus Prayer, a second vision of Light emerges (319), that of the uncreated light that was perceived by the Apostles on Mount Tabor, during Christ’s Transfiguration. This Divine Light is God’s energy and grace (320) and illumines the Way for all humans (321), until, one day, after we have made the requisite effort ourselves through prayer and accepted His will fully, it enlightens us, ie, it permanently envelops us and dwells in us. While His divine essence remains forever unapproachable to us (322), His energy, which is God Himself, manifests as uncreated light and allows Him to unite with us (323), giving us a small taste of the fullness of our union in the age to come (324). This is the same Light that will shine upon Christ’s Second Coming (325), in which the saints among us are allowed, by grace, to participate even during their life on earth (326), here and now (327).
The fact is that most thoughts enter the heart through the imagination of something sensory, with the result of diminishing the spiritual clarity of our mental processes (328). Therefore, God’s uncreated light, whose perception depends on total spiritual purity and receptivity, begins to be experienced mainly when our mind is freed from thoughts and contains no pre-arranged representation of any size, shape or form (329) - which means no anticipation whatsoever - but only pure acceptance of the divine impulses (330). In other words, sacred illumination manifests in a mind which is already purified, when all thought-based expectancy has been eliminated and we remain in a state of innocent, newborn-infant-like, openness, as Jesus explained “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (Jn 3:3). From a subjective point of view, praying unceasingly means that the words are thought, or listened to, all day and night, automatically. In essence, praying consists of focusing our silent (from other thoughts) mind on our heart, and then standing there in the presence of God (331) with as much warmth and love as we can muster, with spiritual desire, contrition and true humility. This new relationship with God is what we all aspire to.
In other words, St Gregory Palamas and the other Fathers of the Church teach us that there is a direct and personal communion between the Holy Trinity and us, which is attainable by all, and which will be in its fullest expression at the Second Coming and beyond. This union is preceded by a relationship with God (in this life) which is dominated by unceasing Prayer of the Heart made constant by grace (pulling us closer and closer to God) and is firmly grounded on impeccable Christian living and absence of passionate thought. As our acceptance of the Holy Spirit takes hold deeper and deeper (332), our relationship with God is characterized by silence and spiritual vision of His uncreated light (333), with all the corresponding re-creative and deifying results (334). This uncreated light, being God’s energy and, therefore, God, is the divinizing means of the Holy Spirit, the divine grace with which He blesses us. No one can reach theosis without going through this series of experiences (335, 336, 337, 338, 339, 340, 341) while, the believer who follows this path to successful fruition, meets, with God’s permission, the requirements for deification (342, 343, 344, 345). Impeccable Christian living, crowned by faithful, warm, and, ultimately, silent, continuous Prayer of the Heart, is our contribution to this process (346) which the Holy Spirit takes over and completes for us.
St Gregory Palamas makes it clear that, although the Divine Light is everywhere, we can only see it if and when the Holy Spirit makes us able to. When we are ready, God empowers our spirit and physical eyes to perceive His Divine Light - and this experience can be relatively subtle, or absolutely clear, or even totally transcendent, depending on our degree of purification. This is what happened to Sts Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor: the three Apostles were suddenly made capable of seeing Christ the way He always is, in His all-luminous, uncreated glory. At that time special dispensation had to be granted to them to be able to see Christ’s light. However, baptized Christians who participate in the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist are already empowered to enjoy this privilege when they are prepared through prayer and willing to accept the Holy Spirit (347). What we need in order to perceive God’s uncreated light, and divine visions, is purification of our intellectual vision (which is then based on our dispassionate intellect) and an illumination from God. This illumination is the spiritual equivalent of normal light and is given to those who succeed in unceasing prayer, a gift that enables us to see in ecstasy through the Holy Spirit (348). Ecstasy here is not an intellectual, incorporeal phenomenon, but the transcendence of our normal capabilities reached through our intellect’s purification (which generates abundant love for God in us) and enlivened by grace through divine illumination (349) (an expression of the infinite love that God has for us.) Therefore, according to St Gregory Palamas, the ecstasy we experience is always coupled with a reciprocal ecstasy experienced by God at the same time, just as physical action is always matched by a similar reaction.
Through this repetitive process, which marks our close relationship with God at this stage, powered by unceasing Prayer of the Heart, our intellect is gradually deified and passes on the divine gift to the body, so that our whole being enters theosis. Our unceasing prayer becomes silent, carried out by the Holy Spirit on our behalf, and gradually evolves into a mystical communion with God, effected through grace and allowing us to have direct and personal knowledge of His uncreated energies. The more we accept our deification [a process infinite in duration and scope, in this life and the next (350)] the more complete becomes our knowledge of God. And as stated before, a faithful life within the Church, continuous prayer, and the mystical vision of Divine Light, prepare us, through grace, for union with God (351). Once this sacred process is established, we can say that we start to understand, or at least appreciate, Theology.
Many Fathers taught that unceasing prayer leads to deification. In addition to St Gregory Palamas, examples here include St Symeon the New Theologian (352, 353, 354) and St Macarius of Egypt (355, 356, 357). Another Father, St Seraphim of Sarov, a well known adherent of the Jesus Prayer (358), had been granted the gift of Uncreated Light, which, for him, was externally visible (witnessed on several occasions), enlightening his face and body. Here (R8 p161) is the famous “Conversation with Motovilov” where St Seraphim expounds our Orthodox mysticism of light, as taught by St Symeon the New Theologian and St Gregory Palamas: “We are both together, son, in the Spirit of God!” “ I cannot look, father, because lightning flames from your eyes. Your face is brighter than the sun and my eyes ache in pain! ” “ Fear not my son; you too have become as bright as I. You too are now in the fullness of God’s Spirit; otherwise you would not be able to look on me as I am. Come son, why do you not look me in the eyes? Just look and fear not! The Lord is with us!” “After these words, I looked at his face and there came over me an even greater reverential awe. Imagine in the center of the sun, in the dazzling brilliance of its midday rays, the face of the man who talks with you. You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel someone grasp your shoulders; yet you do not see the hands, you do not even see yourself or his figure, but only a blinding light spreading several yards around and throwing a sparkling radiance across the snow blanket on the glade and into the snowflakes which besprinkled the great Elder and me.”
In summary, all of us Christians are called to become God-like (359), a process in which prayer plays a dominant role. To that end, we need to keep Christ very close to us (360), always obey Him (361), and work to unite with Him (362). In return, Christ enlightens us with His glory, filling our whole being with the Holy Spirit, through Whom we learn to pray (363) calling God “Father”. In this way, a strong link is established between us and the Holy Trinity, through which we pray and also listen to His words that He makes audible to those with a pure heart. This is especially important as we cleanse our mind and make it still (364, 365), or as we approach death and no other action is possible (366). In both cases, our silent prayer becomes the sacred bond, a powerful spiritual connection, between us and God. The Fathers insist that those who desire perfection should descend into the center of their being, their hearts (367), and constantly (368) pray (369), purely and with no distraction, without imagining that something spectacular should happen, listening only to the words of the prayer and going deeply into them: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” In this way, the mind is gradually illumined in the heart, as St Diadochus of Photice says: “Those who constantly keep this holy and glorious name mentally in the depths of the heart are able, in the end, to see the light of their mind.” The Jesus Prayer, or Prayer Of The Heart, is the best spiritual method we have to actualize this connection. It is a simple, but extremely powerful practice, rooted deeply in our scriptures, commented on and expanded broadly in our Holy Tradition. It starts by being a focal point of our life in faith, and gradually becomes the means to approach God by subordinating our actions and thoughts to His will. The ensuing close relationship with the Holy Trinity becomes the divine bridge across which theosis is granted. St Nicephorus of Mount Athos calls it “the art of arts and science of sciences,” since it provides us with knowledge infused directly by the Presence of God. All other sciences give us just human knowledge. Therefore, unceasing prayer is the highest school of real Theology.
In lieu of an epilogue, I will close with a moving story of Abba Joseph of Panephysis, from the “Sayings of the Desert Fathers,” as quoted in R20 p15: “A monk came to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba, I try my best. I say a few prayers each day, I make prostrations, I keep the fasts, I try not to lose my temper with my brothers. What more can I do?’ And Abba Joseph rose to his feet, and he lifted his hands to heaven, and his hands became like ten blazing torches of fire. And he said to the monk, ‘If you will, you can become all fire.’ So may each of us, through the Divine mercy, become a living flame of prayer.” Amen.Go to Bibliography and Footnotes