On Prayer and Theology

St. Maximus the Confessor ca. 580-662

Prayer is higher than theology. For the one theologizes about the divine based on past events, whereas prayer joins the soul, in an unknowable and ineffable way, to God Himself. (Question and Doubts, Question 46)

St. Barsanuphius of Optina on the Jesus Prayer

St. Barsanuphius of Optina 1845-1913

“The other day one of our skete schema-monks came to see me. ‘I’ve fallen into despondency, Abba, since I don’t see in myself– in one who bears the exalted angelic habit– a change for the better. The Lord calls one strictly to account if he’s a monk or schema-monk only according to his clothing. But how can I change? How can I die to sin? I sense my total feebleness.’

‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘we’re absolutely bankrupt, and if the Lord judges according to works, He will find nothing good in us.’
‘But is there hope for salvation then?’
‘Of course there is. Always say the Jesus Prayer, and leave everything to the will of God.’
‘But what kind of benefit can there be from this prayer if neither the mind nor the heart participates in it?’
‘Enormous benefit. Of course, this prayer has many subdivisions, from simple utterance to creative prayer. But for us, even if we were to be on the bottom step, it would be salvific. The powers of the enemy run from one who utters this prayer, and sooner or later he’ll be saved all the same.’
‘I’ve been resurrected!’ the schema-monk exclaimed. ‘I won’t be despondent anymore.’
And so I repeat: say the prayer, even if only with your lips, and the Lord will never abandon you. The utterance of this prayer doesn’t require the study of any kind of sciences. Count Leo Tolstoy was a man of well-rounded education, but he didn’t have Christ in his soul– and he perished. Earthly knowledge didn’t help him. He rejected the Holy Church– and was rejected.” (Elder Barsanuphius of Optina, pgs. 454-456)

On Hesychasm and the Priesthood

St. Ambrose of Milan ca. 338-397

Now what ought we to learn before everything else, but to be silent, that we may be able to speak? Lest my voice should condemn me, before that of another acquit me; for it is written: By your words you shall be condemned. Mat. 12:37 What need is there, then, that you should hasten to undergo the danger of condemnation by speaking, when you can be more safe by keeping silent? How many have I seen to fall into sin by speaking, but scarcely one by keeping silent; and so it is more difficult to know how to keep silent than how to speak. I know that most persons speak because they do not know how to keep silent. It is seldom that any one is silent even when speaking profits him nothing. He is wise, then, who knows how to keep silent. Lastly, the Wisdom of God said: The Lord has given to me the tongue of learning, that I should know when it is good to speak. Justly, then, is he wise who has received of the Lord to know when he ought to speak. Wherefore the Scripture says well: A wise man will keep silence until there is opportunity. Sirach 20:7

Therefore the saints of the Lord loved to keep silence, because they knew that a man’s voice is often the utterance of sin, and a man’s speech is the beginning of human error. Lastly, the Saint of the Lord said: I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I offend not in my tongue. For he knew and had read that it was a mark of the divine protection for a man to be hid from the scourge of his own tongue, Job 5:21 and the witness of his own conscience. We are chastised by the silent reproaches of our thoughts, and by the judgment of conscience. We are chastised also by the lash of our own voice, when we say things whereby our soul is mortally injured, and our mind is sorely wounded. But who is there that has his heart clean from the impurities of sin, and does not offend in his tongue? And so, as he saw there was no one who could keep his mouth free from evil speaking, he laid upon himself the law of innocency by a rule of silence, with a view to avoiding by silence that fault which he could with difficulty escape in speaking. (On the Duty of Clergy Bk. 1: Chap. 2.5-6)

On Being Still

St. Maximus the Confessor ca. 580-662

What is this said in the Psalms, “be still and know that I am God?”

There are six stillnesses by which, if we achieve them, we are able to know God fully: first, from sinful activity; second, from an exciting way of life; third, from a place of mingling with those who live in an unguarded way; fourth, from pursuits unsuitable for the life according to God; fifth, from an existence subject to slander and to many distractions of the nous by many things; sixth, the [state of] not having one’s own will – completely. And this is both a renunciation and a subordination, both true and according to God. (Various Questions and Selections from Various Passages That are Perplexing, Question I, 45)

On Eschatology and Hesychasm

Fr. John Romanides 1928-2001

Those who really speak about the end times are those who practice hesychasm, not relaxation. Genuine Orthodox eschatology is hesychasm. (Protopresbyter John S. Romanides, Patristic Theology: The University Lectures of Fr. John Romanides, trans. Hieromonk Alexios [Trader] pg. 108)

St. Augustine and the Prayer of the Heart

Blessed Augustine of Hippo ca. 354-430

I entered into my inward self, Thou leading me on; and I was able to do it, for You had become my helper. And I entered, and with the eye of my soul (such as it was) saw above the same eye of my soul, above my mind, the Unchangeable Light. Not this common light, which all flesh may look upon, nor, as it were, a greater one of the same kind, as though the brightness of this should be much more resplendent, and with its greatness fill up all things. Not like this was that light, but different, yea, very different from all these. Nor was it above my mind as oil is above water, nor as heaven above earth; but above it was, because it made me, and I below it, because I was made by it. He who knows the Truth knows that Light; and he that knows it knows eternity. Love knows it. O Eternal Truth, and true Love, and love Eternity! You are my God; to You do I sigh both night and day. When I first knew You, You lifted me up, that I might see there was that which I might see, and that yet it was not I that did see. And Thou beat back the infirmity of my sight, pouring forth upon me most strongly Your beams of light, and I trembled with love and fear; and I found myself to be far off from You, in the region of dissimilarity, as if I heard this voice of Yours from on high: I am the food of strong men; grow, and you shall feed upon me; nor shall you convert me, like the food of your flesh, into you, but you shall be converted into me. And I learned that You correct man for iniquity, and You make my soul consume away like a spider. And I said, Is Truth, therefore, nothing because it is neither diffused through space, finite, nor infinite? And You cried to me from afar, Yea, verily, ‘I Am that I Am.’ And I heard this, as things are heard in the heart, nor was there room for doubt; and I should more readily doubt that I live than that Truth is not, which is clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made. Rom. 1:20 (Confessions Bk. 7.10)

Communion With God

Saint Symeon the New Theologian 949 -1022 A.D

I know that the Immovable comes down; I know that the Invisible appears to me; I know that He who is outside the whole creation takes me within Himself and hides me in His arms, and then I find myself outside the whole world.

I, a frail, small mortal in the world, behold the Creator of the world, all of Him, within myself; and I know that I shall not die, for I am within the Life, I have the whole of Life springing up as a fountain within me.

He is in my heart, He is in heaven: both there and here He shows himself to me with equal glory.

Hymn 13, ed. Johannes Koder, vol 1

On the Power of Silence and Fasting

St. Isaac of Syria died ca. 700

Silence is a mystery of the age to come, but words are instruments of this world. A faster endeavors to liken his soul to the nature of spiritual beings. Through silence and continual fasting a man sets himself apart so as to perservere in his divine labor within his hidden self. In these very mysteries the invisible hosts perform the liturgy that is filled with divine mysteries and the holiness of the Supreme Being Who rules the ages. Some of the saints set themselves apart in order to enter into the mysteries of God and were marked by this seal; some were entrusted with the governance of a strong people; others were entrusted to receive authority over the elements and by a great wonder the natures of created things were obedient to the command of their words; and some of them were entrusted to reveal hidden things, concealed in the secret silence of the Lord, for the renewing of those who are in the middle state. Indeed, it would not have been fitting that such mysteries should be administered by men whose belly is full and whose intellect is confused because of intemperance. The saints, however, did not dare to converse with God or raise themselves toward His hidden mysteries, unless their limbs were weak, their color pale by reason of gnawing hunger, and their intellect quiet in its perceptivity through renunciation of every earthly thought. (The Ascetical Homilies, Homily 65)

St. Seraphim on Stillness

St. Seraphim of Sarov 1759-1833

Many explain that this stillness refers only to worldly matters; in other words, that during prayerful converse with God you must ‘be still’ with regard to worldly affairs. But I will tell you in the name of God that not only is it necessary to be dead to them at prayer, but when by the omnipotent power of faith and prayer our Lord God the Holy Spirit condescends to visit us, and comes to us in the plenitude of His unutterable goodness, we must be dead to prayer too.

The soul speaks and converses during prayer, but at the descent of the Holy Spirit we must remain in complete silence, in order to hear clearly and intelligibly all the words of eternal life which He will then deign to communicate. Complete soberness of both soul and spirit, and chaste purity of body is required at the same time. The same demands were made at Mount Horeb, when the Israelites were told not even to touch their wives for three days before the appearance of God on Mount Sinai. For our God is a fire which consumes everything unclean, and no one who is defiled in body or spirit can enter into communion with Him. (St. Seraphim of Sarov: A Spiritual Biography by Archimandrite Lazarus Moore, Chap. 8)

St. Patrick on Pure Prayer

St. Patrick the Enlightener of Ireland ca. 397-493

But after I reached Ireland I used to pasture the flock each day and I used to pray many times a day. More and more did the love of God, and my fear of him and faith increase, and my spirit was moved so that in a day [I said] from one up to a hundred prayers, and in the night a like number; besides I used to stay out in the forests and on the mountain and I would wake up before daylight to pray in the snow,in icy coldness, in rain, and I used to feel neither ill nor any slothfulness, because, as I now see, the Spirit was burning in me at that time.

And another night– God knows, I do not, whether within me or beside me– … most words + … + which I heard and could not understand, except at the end of the speech it was represented thus: ‘He who gave his life for you, he it is who speaks within you.’ And thus I awoke, joyful.

And on a second occasion I saw Him praying within me, and I was as it were, inside my own body , and I heard Him above me– that is,above my inner self. He was praying powerfully with sighs. And in the course of this I was astonished and wondering, and I pondered who it could be who was praying within me. But at the end of the prayer it was revealed to me that it was the Spirit. And so I awoke and remembered the Apostle’s words: ‘Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we know not how to pray as we ought. But the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for utterance.’ And again: ‘The Lord our advocate intercedes for us.’ (Confessio)