Let us now consider together the unceasing prayer of the heart which is the object of Orthodox spirituality, representing as it does that perpetual living in the presence of God which is our life and salvation. Within Orthodoxy the heart is the place where each of us may meet God within us. It is the centre of our being and to pray with the heart is to pray truly. The prayer of the heart is unceasing prayer since it is not the action of the mind or will but the disposition of one’s whole being towards God.
We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, your will be done, and this is the essence of the prayerful heart. Filled with a desire for God’s will to be done. These same sentiments are used by the Virgin Mary at the beginning of the incarnation when she says, Behold the handmaid of the Lord, let it be unto me according to your word. And by our Lord Himself just before the passion, when speaking for all mankind, and being obedient as the Second Adam, just as Adam had been disobedient as the first, he says, Not my will but yours be done.
We see that prayer is not all about us. It is not about techniques, nor even about certain formulas of words. It is above all about the heart seeking after God. Our Lord teaches us Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added to you. And in his own prayer he asks us to pray, Your kingdom come, and at the beginning of his public ministry it was said of him, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent, and believe the gospel’.
In a real sense this is the entire substance of prayer. It is repentance, a turning away from self and sin, and it is belief, a trust in God and in his Word, so that the kingdom of God, the rule and reign of God, gains authority over every aspect of our lives.
It is easy to say this, but more than a lifetime of effort stands before the one who wishes to experience the life of unceasing prayer of the heart. One of the great strengths of the Orthodox spiritual tradition is that those who have lived such lives have left a record for us, and we may sit at their feet as disciples and learn from them. Nor should we be ashamed to do so, as if prayer should come naturally to us.
We may well have a desire to live a life entirely consecrated to God, and we may well wish to enter into an experience of prayer which fills and fulfills our hearts and lives, but most of us will have to ask, where do I begin? In a moment we will consider some of those in the Gospels who are examples to us of those who pray without ceasing.
We know from our day to day lives that when something is very important to us it occupies all of our thoughts. If we have a bad toothache then it often seems that nothing else in the world matters. We may take paracetemol and ibuprofen, we may rub cloves on our tooth, we may wish that somehow we could just pull the tooth out ourselves. The pain dominates our lives. Even when we are at work, or with family and friends, we cannot easily escape the thought of it.
Or we may have some meeting or presentation at work to prepare. If it is an important meeting, or perhaps one in which we think we may be disciplined, then it will also occupy all of our thoughts. We may not be able to sleep well at night. We will not be able to concentrate on the television, and reading a novel or the newspaper with attention will be impossible. The thought of the interview or presentation will always be there, affecting everything we do.
Or perhaps we have some major bill to pay, and don’t know where we will find the money to pay it. Perhaps the phone keeps ringing with various companies all trying to collect the money that is due to them, and we only have enough to pay for a few of them. We lie awake at night and wake up without any peace or rest, and it seems that everything in the world is grey because we have this pressure weighing upon us all the time.
These are just a few examples of how we know that it is possible for our attention to be constantly fixed on some problem or situation. It seems to me that this indicates clearly that we could make the prayerful awareness of God the central aspect of our lives if we committed to do so, and if we sought the grace of God to make it so. The fact is that we allow many other matters to crowd God out of our lives. It is not that it is impossible to remember God, it is rather that we choose not to. Abba Isaac speaks about this and we will listen to him in a moment.
But even though these very human and earthly matters can stand in the way of our awareness of God they may also be the means of beginning to discover ceaseless prayer. There are a few particular examples from the Gospels that I would like us to consider. In the first place, in St Matthew Chapter 20, our Lord Jesus and his disciples are leaving Jericho with a great crowd of people, and as they pass along the roadside two blind men, when they hear that Jesus is approaching, start shouting out, Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David. The crowd tells them to be quiet, but they shout out even louder Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David. We see in this account that two men, bearing the unremitting burden of blindness, when they have some sense that Christ is near, begin to cry out, Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David. This is their prayer. They are still blind, and their blindness is the great occupation of their thoughts and causes most of their difficulties. But into the midst of their unceasing concern for their awful circumstances they invite Christ, and without ceasing, whatever the crowd says to them, they make their constant prayer, Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David. They have not forgotten their blindness, they are not transported to heaven with thoughts of worship and praise, but they turn to unceasing prayer from their hearts as the only solution to their physical and practical problems.
In the Gospel of St Mark we learn that one of these blind men was called Bartimaeus, and St Mark records that when he was told to be quiet, he cried the more a great deal. So it was truly with unceasing prayer that they introduced Christ into their difficult circumstances.
A second example is found in the parable of our Lord, in St Luke Chapter 18, where he describes a widow who keeps troubling a judge, seeking justice for her case, and in the end he decides to deal with her problem so that she will stop bothering him. The Lord describes this parable as showing that indeed we should always pray and not give up. Is God like a judge who has to be pestered into doing things for us? Not at all. The Lord asks us to consider that if this is how an unjust judge acts, roused to action by constant prayer, then how much more will God always be ready to act for those of his own elect, which cry day and night to him as the Gospel says. In the case of the widow in the parable, she prays without ceasing because of her problem which she wants resolved, and in the case of the elect it is clear that they also cry out unceasingly in prayer, day and night, because of the weight of the burdens they also bear.
And finally, in St Luke Chapter 11, in another parable, we have the account of the man who has a late night visit from a friend, and he needs to be able to set some food before him, so he goes to his neighbour, knocks on the door and wakes everyone up, and after explaining his situation the neighbour tells him to go away. But he won’t give in. He still has the same situation, he needs to feed his guest, and so he keeps knocking, and eventually the neighbour can’t bear with this unceasing prayer and gives him some bread.
Again we might ask if God is like that? Will he send us away because we ask? On the contrary, our Lord Jesus teaches us that God is always ready to give to those who ask, but he also requires of us that constancy in asking. The Gospel continues,
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
I understand that the tense of these verbs in the Greek has the sense of a continuing activity. Keep on asking, and it will be given to you. Keep on seeking and you will find. Keep on knocking and the door will be opened.
It seems to me that we often imagine that the experience of unceasing prayer of the heart could only begin if we were removed from all our daily circumstances, and placed into some monastic setting where we were surrounded by holy people. On the contrary, wherever we go we take ourselves with us, and it is we ourselves who are the biggest obstacle to our own spiritual growth. In fact the trials and tribulations we face are allowed by God to lead us into prayer, to draw us into a closer and more complete faith and trust in Him. We begin by sitting by the roadside, blind beggars dressed in rags, crying out, Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David.
If we have overwhelming problems then we should use these as a means of encouraging us to pray without ceasing. If we still think that we can solve all of our problems by ourselves then we are not yet ready to pray, we have not yet properly put our faith in Christ. But if we know that we have reached the end of our own natural resources then we are ready to turn to the only one who can help us and save us.
When everything is going well it is difficult to begin to pray with urgency and complete attention. It is indeed hard for a rich man to enter into the kingdom. But even a rich man can have desperate family and personal circumstances, and can be aware that for all his wealth he is beyond human help. When we have nowhere else to go it is easier to turn only to God. For many of us the problems which we face should not be seen as obstacles to prayer, but as opportunities. In my own life I have faced many such circumstances of one kind or another. And nothing has encouraged my own prayer as much as a sense that there is nothing else that can be done but prayer.
So it seems to me that if we are to obey the Scriptural injunction of St Paul, pray without ceasing, and of our Lord himself, that men always ought to pray, then we must begin where we are, and use the difficult circumstances which surround us as opportunities to turn to God, not obstacles to spiritual growth. If we remember also that Abba Moses, in our first study, taught that prayer and virtue go together, then we will also seek to use each difficult circumstance as a means of growth in holiness and grace.
It is good, for instance, when we face a problem, to use it to turn our hearts often to God, but we will also find that if we reflect on our circumstances we will discover that there are elements of pride, self-will, anger and jealousy, together with many other faults, which are often exposed to us, and must be resisted prayerfully. It is good, for instance, to bring a situation before God very often, leading us to prayer, but it is better to also consider whether we are also at fault in the situation so that we advance in prayerfulness, but also in repentance.
If we begin to pray more earnestly and constantly simply out of desperation then this is at least a beginning. But as time passes we must experience a growth in peace and trust in God, or we will not have made any progress in our relationship with God at all. It is not easy to determine where we are along the continuum of spiritual growth, and this is one reason why we should make use of the spiritual insights of a father of confession. But we can see that if the beginning of constant prayer is found in our need, then the end of such prayer is found in God Himself.
St Anthony would often be lost in prayer for so long that he was only disturbed in his prayer by the rising of the sun as he stood with attention fixed on God through the night hours. He was not caught up in prayer for earthly needs, but was transported by the presence of God within him. Indeed we know that in the life to come our constant prayer will not be inspired by the needs of the flesh, since there will be no lack of anything that we might need, but will be entirely drawn from our hearts by love of God.
The one who seeks to pray in the heart without ceasing will certainly have the example of saints such as St Anthony before them. But it would be a mistake, it seems to me, to make the best the enemy of the good, as the saying goes. I mean that it would be wrong for us to say that because we cannot immediately be like St Anthony we cannot even begin the journey of prayer, or must consider prayer for ordinary people to be no more than the offering of set prayers at particular times. Blind Bartimaeus would not be silenced. His great need inspired him to constant prayer. And this same case applies to us all. We may also pray without ceasing, using every circumstance we face to recall is to the remembrance of God.
If we are willing, we can learn by experience to find causes for prayer and thanksgiving in all things. This doesn’t sound very exciting does it? We still haven’t started considering special prayers that will lead us quickly to constant prayer. But I am not sure that real prayer can be so easily subject to a shortcut. If prayer is relationship with God then it must grow and develop as a seed in the soil of our hearts and must suffer wind, rain, heat and cold before it becomes a substantial tree.
What have you given thanks to God for today? How often have the things you experienced led you to prayer over the last 12 hours? Has God done so little for us that we have nothing to thank him for, and have had no occasions to turn to him in gratitude, or rather have we been blind to the constant blessings he pours out upon us. There is an old children’s song I used to sing as a small child. It said in part…
Count your blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.
For those of us living in the world, seeking to begin to advance in constant prayer this is good advice. How will we turn to God in prayer if we neglect to thank him for each of his blessings towards us, indeed how can we turn to God in prayer if we do not even notice all his blessings towards us? Repentance and Thanksgiving are both aspects of the prayers which St Paul instructs us to offer continually. It seems to me that for most of us this is enough to be getting on with. Have you sinned in even some small and insignificant manner, then immediately offer a prayer of repentance. It will perhaps surprise us how often we must offer such prayers. Have we received some small blessing, however insignificant, then immediately offer a prayer of thanksgiving. It will perhaps surprise us how much we receive from God unnoticed, and unthanked. The breath we draw in the morning, the fact that we have clothes to wear, the water that comes out of our taps, the job or school that we set out to, the driver who lets us pull out in front of him, the greeting we recieve from a colleague. If we thanked God for every good thing we receive then we would already be praying constantly, for …
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.
Let us not deceive ourselves. We do not pray constantly not because we have not yet learned the correct technique or words, but because we are not repentant enough and not thankful enough. There are countless opportunities each day for us to repent in prayer and countless opportunities to be thankful. But if we are seeking to become more observant of these opportunities, and if we are re-ordering our lives so that we can deliberately spend more time in the presence of God then Abba Isaac says something that will benefit us.
Before all things however we ought most carefully to observe the Evangelic precept, which tells us to enter into our chamber and shut the door and pray to our Father, which may be fulfilled by us as follows: We pray within our chamber, when removing our hearts inwardly from the din of all thoughts and anxieties, we disclose our prayers in secret and in closest intercourse to the Lord. We pray with closed doors when with closed lips and complete silence we pray to the searcher not of words but of hearts. We pray in secret when from the heart and fervent mind we disclose our petitions to God alone, so that no hostile powers are even able to discover the character of our petition. Wherefore we should pray in complete silence, not only to avoid distracting the brethren standing near by our whispers or louder utterances, and disturbing the thoughts of those who are praying, but also that the purport of our petition may be concealed from our enemies who are especially on the watch against us while we are praying… Wherefore we ought to pray often but briefly.
Now Abba Isaac is about to speak of the short prayers which the monks of the Egyptian desert were wont to use. But we must surely remember that the use of such prayers is built upon a foundation and experience of beginning with repentance and thanksgiving. It is not a substitute for it. This is why so much of the material in this study has not been about special words of prayer, but about the manner in which we live our lives. If we have begun to be repentant and filled with thanksgiving then we may also hear the words of Abba Isaac who describes the method of prayer which those who were committed to ceaseless prayer were taught to use. We are to find a silent space within our hearts. It is not always necessary that we be apart from others, but there must be a stillness within us. It seems to me that our modern society is not at ease with such stillness, and the TV and radio are constantly seeking to fill every moment with sound and noise. As far as it is possible we must intentionally disengage from the noise of the world and find the time and space to be quiet. But we can pray the prayer which Abba Isaac will describe in any place if we are quiet within, and if we are quiet within then we are always able to pray. If we have no stillness within us then it does not matter if we are in the market or the monastery, the interior noise will accompany us. So as far as possible we must choose to quieten ourselves so that when we are surrounded by noise we still have a quiet space within our hearts.
This formula then shall be proposed ... which every monk in his progress towards continual recollection of God, is accustomed to ponder, ceaselessly revolving it in his heart, having got rid of all kinds of other thoughts; for he cannot possibly keep his hold over it unless he has freed himself from all bodily cares and anxieties. And as this was delivered to us by a few of those who were left of the oldest fathers, so it is only divulged by us to a very few and to those who are really keen. And so for keeping up continual recollection of God this pious formula is to be ever set before you. “O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me,”
We see that even at the earliest times there was use made of a short prayer which was intended to still the heart, and allow the thought of God alone to occupy the heart. In this early period in Egypt the prayer which the Fathers used was O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me, which was taken from the Scriptures. Slowly the use of the Jesus Prayer, also rooted in Scripture, came to predominate, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy, or, have mercy on me a sinner. The exact form of words has not been most important. The prayer may even be shortened to Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy.
It is, after all, not the words themselves which are prayer, but the heart turned towards God. These words have always been considered to have great value, and to express the whole substance of the Gospel, reminding us that the one we address is the Son of God, and God Himself, who became man for our sake, Jesus Christ. We ask him to have mercy on us because we are sinners in need of a Saviour, and because we are confident of his mercy towards us.
Abba Isaac says of the prayer as he knew it, although his words apply equally to the Jesus Prayer...
We must then ceaselessly and continuously pour forth the prayer of this verse, in adversity that we may be delivered, in prosperity that we may be preserved and not puffed up. Let the thought of this verse, I tell you, be thought over in your breast without ceasing. Whatever work you are doing, or office you are holding, or journey you are going, do not cease to chant this. When you are going to bed, or eating, and in the last necessities of nature, think on this. This thought in your heart maybe to you a saving formula, and not only keep you unharmed by all attacks of devils, but also purify you from all faults and earthly stains, and lead you to that invisible and celestial contemplation, and carry you on to that ineffable glow of prayer, of which so few have any experience. Let sleep come upon you still considering this verse, till having been molded by the constant use of it, you grow accustomed to repeat it even in your sleep. When you wake let it be the first thing to come into your mind, let it anticipate all your waking thoughts, let it when you rise from your bed send you down on your knees, and thence send you forth to all your work and business, and let it follow you about all day long.
This then is the ancient means by which Christians who have begun the journey of constant prayer, of the unceasing recollection of God in the heart, have been taught to make progress. We should pray as much as possible the words of the Jesus Prayer, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy. Or the ancient desert prayer, O God make speed to save me, O Lord make haste to help me. As far as is possible these words offered as prayer with attention should become our constant companion. As with all human activities, it is possible for the practice of the constant repetition of these words to become habitual. This is a positive development, but we must not confuse habit with true spiritual progress. It is possible for these words to become habitually present in our minds, and not be an expression of prayer from our hearts.
We may determine if this is the case by considering our lives, as Abba Moses suggested in the first
study. What is the mark or measure that we set ourselves so that we can see if we are making progress? It is not the number of the words of prayer we repeat, but how far we are advancing in holiness and devotion to God.
The one who is truly praying by this method will also be more aware of the need to repent, and more conscious of the opportunities for thankfulness. Equally, the one who is growing more truly repentant and thankful will also make most use of the Jesus Prayer, or some other prayer like it. We cannot separate prayer from the manner in which we live our life, nor the manner in which we live our life from the quality of our prayer.
The use of the Jesus Prayer is not a shortcut to spiritual growth for those of us living in the world, but it is a tried and tested means of growth for those who are making use of the other means of grace. It is part of the armoury of our salvation, and to the extent in which we truly pray these words, rather than simply saying them, we may hope to see a development in our relationship with God as he wills. It must become part of a culture of prayer which we seek to encourage in ourselves, and which includes faithful and regular participation in the Eucharist, in the prayers of the Church, and in service to others.
For those of us in the world, living complicated lives, we may begin by adding this prayer to our usual devotions, perhaps praying with attention for a certain period of time, or for a certain number of repetitions. But we should also seek to use it through the day as we go about our business. Those who begin to use it will discover for themselves how necessary it can quickly become. But it is not some magical formula. It is always prayer, the turning of the heart towards God. Its value is in its brevity and the words of which it is made up. It does not require great mental activity, indeed it stills the mind and draws the heart to find peace in the name of Jesus. But it is not separate from the rest of our lives, especially for those of us with jobs, and families and studies and competing duties and responsibilities.
There is more to the practice of unceasing prayer than this one form. We are not absolved from repentance and thanksgiving if we use it. And these other aspects of prayer remain part of our experience of unceasing prayer as we pass each day aware of our weakness, and of God’s great blessings. But it is an important and useful tool in our armoury, and it helps us to develop a habit of prayer which is not so easily disturbed by the situations around us.
Let us seek then to pray without ceasing in the heart. Beginning with repentance, and asking God for a greater awareness of our weaknesses and sins. Continuing with thanksgiving, asking God for a greater sense of his daily blessings. And desiring above all things to fill each moment with a sense of God’s presence. This is possible for us all if we keep on asking, keep on seeking and keep on knocking. We must indeed use every circumstance of our lives to turn our hearts and minds towards God, creating prayerful habits, and in such a way we will be able, each of us, to experience a growth in the experience of unceasing prayer.