“Prayer is nothing else than union with God.” (St. John Vianney)
I do not know how to pray. Sometimes I like to think that I do but that is only because I am prone to the sin of pride.
This sin of pride is not so much that I strut around thinking that I am holy and wise. I know to be on the watch for such obvious foolishness.
Where I get taken in is when God, in His great love and generosity, pours out a wondrous gift upon me. At first I am grateful and full of joy. But after a little time passes, it starts to feel like the gift is mine, that I brought it about by something I did.
Hence, if God in His great mercy allows me even a little taste of the glorious sense of union with Him of which St. John Vianney speaks, at the moment, I know it is a gift. How could it be anything else?
But I am a sinner and so I imagine myself better than I am. After a while, I imagine that I was sitting the right way, breathing correctly, saying the right words (or not saying words at all) – that I had through my years of practice learned how to pray.
So, knowing your author to be such a fool, you may be wise to quit reading now. However, I will continue to write, on the chance that God might use me tonight to communicate some blessing He wishes to offer you, despite my flaws.
Because I don’t know how to pray, if there is to be any hope for me, I must ask God to help me. It is natural that I turn to the Holy Spirit because of Jesus’ promise about the Paraclete, “He will teach you everything…” (John 14: 26)
It is comforting for us to know that the Spirit intercedes for us “with inexpressible groanings”… “when we do not know how to pray as we ought” (Romans 8: 26). When I don’t know how to pray or I cannot express myself before God, the Spirit is there as my helper.
And yet there is something puzzling about this teaching. I can understand the Spirit teaching me. But interceding? Does God (the Spirit) need to intervene with God (the Father) on my behalf?
This seems much like the perplexing question of Jesus needing to pray in private while on earth. Why would God (the Son) need to talk to God (the Father), except for our benefit? Do they not share all in common?
This is, of course, part of the great Mystery of God that is beyond fathoming.
Yet there is one aspect of this Mystery that strengthens me and helps me stay the course while on the often confusing path of prayer.
The words of St. John Vianney remind me that, in prayer, I am invited to receive the gift of union with God, an experience he further describes as “a most beautiful thing” and “a happiness that we cannot understand”.
In my very feeble understanding of the Holy Trinity, I see the union of love I am invited into. I do not mean, of course, that I will “become God” in His uncreated Essence. But I am invited to share fully in His life.
As I think of Jesus communing with His Father in a lonely spot, I get a glimpse of this Union as an outpouring of love that is dynamic – for there is no such thing as static love. Similarly, the Spirit who has been given to me, is loving the Father and Son in a fully personal way as He teaches, guides and intercedes for me. The relationship within Trinity is fully alive, fully loving and thus perfectly One.
How does this rudimentary understanding help me?
It helps me because I do not know how to pray.
Most often, I suspect, you and I would not define prayer as union with God. We would define it as the effort we make to bring ourselves to attention so that we can talk to God or praise Him or listen for Him. We think of it as something we do.
It is not wrong for us to be conscious of the work we must do. Of course, our effort is always necessary. But it is also true that our effort is never sufficient of itself. (Remember my sin of pride…)
In contemplating the Union of God in Trinity, God inviting me into union and God dwelling in me in the Spirit, suddenly prayer does not seem so hard.
I am not saying I know how to pray. But I trust that the Spirit will pray in me and with me if I ask Him to. I trust He will teach my heart to always be at prayer if I so ask. It is not for me to know how or at what rate He is teaching me. I simply trust that He does.
Much of my work, as I wrote in my previous post The new life, is to empty myself to make room for the Spirit to fully occupy my life. And, of course, not knowing how to do this either, I pray again for His help.
If I might, I will say a word or two about the Jesus Prayer as well. Before doing so, however, I would first add that I do not believe that there is any “method” of prayer that is right for all people at every stage of their lives. The way I pray at 60 years old is necessarily different than how I prayed at 6 – and not automatically better. Thus, my reflection is only what I see at this moment in my life and may mean nothing more.
I began saying the Jesus Prayer with my breath, without any particular guidance – although I am sure that God must have been protecting from the serious errors that I have since read can occur. It was almost like a “mantra” for me at first, a place to come “home” to when my mind inevitably wandered while at prayer.
Of course, it had to become more than a mantra. Even the weakest Christian cannot call on the name of Jesus and have it mean nothing. Over time, my wandering or troubled mind increasingly learned to return to this special “home” when it needed safe harbor, learning most likely because of sheer repetition – and sheer grace.
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” As these words move with my breath, they slow me. I suppose they slow me much as any breathing exercise would, except that Jesus is there. Sometimes the words slip into the background, as the mind yields to the heart.
The words are my effort. The loss of the words in the Presence is the gift.
I do not know how to pray. But the Spirit within me is always “praying” in loving Union.
Oh that I might stay with the work of emptying myself to make room for Him!
Here is an “audio re-blog” of a profoundly moving reflection by St. Tikhon of Zadonsk (an Orthodox saint of Russia).
I contemplate how frightening it would be to realize that all that we think, say and do occurs before the eyes of God – if we were not immediately assured that we can always approach Him, as readily as a young child comes to a gentle Father. And that He wants nothing more than to love us and help us in our troubles.
Text: (Thanks again to Mark Armitage at Enlarging the Heart for finding and sharing this passage that I might share it with you here.)
Living faith is inspired in the human heart by contemplation of the word of God and by the Holy Spirit.
For this reason we should read and heed the word of God and pray that God Himself ignite the lamp of faith in our heart.
The fear of God arises most often from contemplation of the omnipresence of God and His omniscience.
God is in essence everywhere present; and wherever we may be, He is with us; and whatever we may do, say, think, and undertake, we do, say, think, and undertake all before His holy eyes.
And He knows our deeds far better than we do ourselves. Think about this, O Christian, and heed it, and with God’s help the fear of God will be born in you.
[…] Keep God, then, before your spiritual eyes and you will have the fear of God, imitating the Psalmist, “I beheld the Lord ever before me” (Ps. 15:8).
[…] While standing in church attend diligently to the reading and singing. This gives birth to compunction, true prayer, heartfelt singing and thanksgiving.
Avoid, then, standing bodily in church while wandering outside the church in mind, and standing bodily before God while wandering about in spirit in worldly affairs, lest that saying be applied to you, “his people draweth nigh unto Me with their mouth, and honoureth Me with their lips; but their heart is far from Me” (Mt. 15:8).
While standing bodily in church, then, stand with heart and spirit as you stand before God. When you look upon the icons of the saints, call to mind that One is the Creator that created them and you, and that His purpose was the same for them as it is for you, that is, to save both them and you.
They are glorified, and before you lies the same glory, only imitate their lives and you shall be saved.
Prayer consists not only in standing and bowing before God in body, and in reading written prayers, but even without that it is possible to pray in mind and spirit at all times and in everyplace.
You can do it while walking, sitting, reclining, among people, and in solitude. Raise up your mind and heart to God, and so beg mercy and help from Him.
For God is everywhere and in every place, and the doors to Him are always open, and it is easy to approach Him, not as with man.
And we can approach Him with faith and with our prayer everywhere and at all times, and in every need and circumstance. We can say to Him mentally at any time, “Lord, have mercy, Lord help!” and so on.
Tikhon of Zadonsk (1724-1783; Russian Orthodox): extract @ Kandylaki from Journey to Heaven: Counsels On the Particular Duties of Every Christian by Our Father Among the Saints, Tikhon of Zadonsk, Bishop of Voronezh and Elets (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 2004).
Three years ago this month, a very curious thing happened to me while in an MRI machine having my brain scanned. It was the opening of one of those doors I wrote about in the prayer of my last post.
The MRI was routine because of migraine. But the experience of a brain MRI is itself anything but routine. The head is immobilized, earplugs are put in place and one’s entire body is inserted into a long tube where one must lie completely still while random sounds (resembling jackhammers) come from all directions.
And so I was prepared and inserted into the tube in July of 2012.
To move through the experience, I had planned to prayerfully meditate. I began the meditation by being on a mountain and soon learned that it was a Holy Mountain. The Lord was there with me. I do not recall making an effort to imagine this nor was it a dramatic mystical experience; I was simply there and He was with me.
As the noise of the MRI grew intense, we climbed further up the Mountain, leaving the commotion down below so that it was not so loud or bothersome. Little by little, we moved higher and higher up the Mountain. It was a peaceful and beautiful time with my Lord.
Then came the words that I have never forgotten:
“And He sang to my heart.”
I was taken aback – indeed, overcome with both the tenderness of these words and my unworthiness to receive them. What did they mean?
After the test was over and I had returned home, I continued to ponder these words. It occurred to me that I didn’t recall ever hearing a reference to God singing.
Reflecting further, I did recall that Aslan, the mighty Lion of the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, sang as He was bringing a new world into being.
I decided to Google “Aslan singing”. What resulted from that online search was a door opening, a life-changing movement of God in my soul.
Through Google, God led me to an article by Fr. Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest I had never heard of – I had barely heard of Orthodoxy – and his blog glory2Godforallthings.
As I started reading, I was intrigued. It was not so much that what I was reading was new or different but that it was true. This is not to say that what I had learned about Christianity up to that point had not seemed true. Rather, it was that the words before me expressed the Truth with such clarity that I could not stop reading them.
At that same time, I “met” through comments on Fr. Stephen’s 7/12/12 article, Fr. Aidan and Christine Kimel, who had just lost their dear son, Aaron, to suicide. Though I knew nothing about them, I felt compelled to share with them the words given to me on the Holy Mountain of my meditation. The words were intended for them.
This moment of sharing was so blessed that it seemed to transcend time and space. I could feel a door opening in my soul but, at that point, I had no idea where it was leading. I only knew that I had to step over the threshold to the other side.
For the next two or more years, I became a regular reader of Fr. Stephen’s blog, frequently commenting as I struggled to integrate into my soul what I was learning about the Christianity that I thought I knew.
Further, I became consumed with reading the Orthodox books suggested by members of this online community, thus becoming acquainted with contemporary elders and saints that won my soul to Christianity all over again. Reading the words and biographies of such great souls as Sts. Silouan, Porphyrios and Paisios of Mt. Athos, I discovered that what I had thought was a solid faith in my soul was but a tiny flicker.
This door-opening had another dimension as well, one so beautiful that it almost defies words. I will attempt to write of it a bit later…
I am back and will try to write again. May God help me.
One of my earliest readings in Orthodoxy was Christ the Eternal Tao, by Hiermonk Damascene. My first attempt to read this book was slow and I ended up becoming distracted and set it down, something that often happens with spiritual books I am not ready to read.
However, I was moved to pick it up again later and then could not put it down. One of the many gifts this book gave me was a broader understanding of God’s movement across human history and cultures, an understanding derived from the work of Fr. Seraphim Rose. This is something I’m sure I do not understand adequately nor can I summarize it – but I have a reason for citing it here.
It seems as though approximately five thousand years before the birth of Christ, there were two great thinkers in two different ancient cultures who could not have had any knowledge of one another.
Heraclitus, one of the earliest philosophers of ancient Greece, wrote of the “Logos” (a word meaning the “Word”) which he described as “…the first principle of existence, that unity of the world process that sustains it as a process.”*
At approximately same time, in ancient China, Lao Tzu wrote of the Tao (a word meaning the “Way”) which is “the Pattern of Heaven, the Course that all things follow.” He admitted, “I do not know its name.”*
It occurred to me, as I read this, that God saw all of the people of the world as His own – and they were lost because of the ancestral sin. He wanted them to know Him again and so He revealed Himself. He did not reveal Himself in just one time or place. It was as though He was laying a sort of groundwork throughout the world.
However, it seems that the most that even the wisest of us humans were ready to accept at this early point in history was an Idea. There was some sort of pattern, principle or order to life.
Much more time passed before God’s revelation found a readiness in humanity for something more: an openness to understanding Him not just an idea or pattern but as Person. Moses heard God speak and he asked His name. One does not talk to an Idea – only to a Person.
And God confirmed His Personal nature to Moses, “This is what you will tell the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you” (Exodus 3:14). “I AM” is a statement of Being, of Personal Being.
While this exchange still left a great deal unknown about God, who will always be mystery beyond our knowing, it began an era of understanding God as wanting a relationship with His people. He was not a distant or indifferent Being. On the other hand, with the exception of holy leaders like Moses, the relationship was with His people as a community rather than as individuals.
With the Incarnation of Christ, the ultimate revelation occurs. The Word (the “Logos”), written of so long ago is made flesh to live among us. The man, Jesus, now declares, “I am the Way” (the “Tao”). All that was foreshadowed across cultures is now fulfilled in human history.
As incredible as this is, still something more has happened with this development. God is now more than just Presence guiding His chosen people. He is Being with and among us. He may, in fact, be sitting right next to me, eating, drinking and conversing with me as one person to another.
Even though He now has billions of people on the earth, through the human personhood of Jesus, the God-man, He might choose to converse with me as an individual.
He can look at me, touch me, call me by name. He can look into my eyes and tell me my sins are forgiven. He can heal the diseases of my body, my mind, my soul with a word or a touch.
I write in the present tense because God, having entered human history in Christ, never leaves it. Though historical Jesus has ascended, with Eucharist and the gift of the Spirit, the presence of God remains a Person so personal that there can remain no doubt of His desire to touch me as an individual, personally and intimately.
It is late. I will take another break and return.
I have returned, to edit and write some more, by the grace of God…
Jesus knows He is about to be betrayed and killed. His disciples do not fully understand this but they know that He is in danger and that this Passover is different from all of the others. Jesus is sharing deeply with them – washing their feet, breaking the bread – it is His body? And now this…
“I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15: 15, NIV)
He has always made it clear that He loved them. He was Master and Teacher. But mostly they could not resist following Him because of His love. Yet these words – these words were the ones that bound their hearts to Him and one another like nothing before.
He called them friends and was speaking to them plainly. He was revealing the Father in and through Himself:
“Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me…” (John 14:11)
Not long ago, I published a post about being God’s servant, with a recording from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (To be God’s servant). I ended by proclaiming, “Yes, I want to be His servant…”
And, of course, I do. But I entitled this post “Servants no more” because we are invited to so much more. We are not like those those compelled or employed to do a duty. We are like those in love.
As God revealed Himself to His lost children, at first He was perceived to be an Idea, then an Almighty Deity who wanted to lead His disobedient people back to the Truth. And these perceptions were not wrong so much as they were incomplete.
In Christ, He has revealed Himself as Lover, intimate Lover of our souls.
It is the way of lovers that they find joy in serving one another. And He taught us this while in the flesh.
For He did not demand to be served but delighted in serving each and every individual He encountered, no matter how damaged he or she was by sin or disease.
And He invites us all to be lovers as well. Lovers of Him, lovers of each other. There cannot be one without the other… Lovers whose hearts overflow with an abundance of Divine love.
Once again, it is late and I must rest. I believe there is a bit more to be written…
Once again, I return, asking God to help me write of things I know not how to write of…
Up till now, I have been writing more in generalities than is my usual way. Perhaps I have needed to tell some of what I have learned in ideas first. How else can I explain it?
I will try, knowing my words will be most inadequate.
I have come to know – I am just beginning to understand – that the Lord does indeed sing to my heart.
The God who was taught to me as a little girl, first as an idea, gradually becoming known to me as Creator, as good God…that God has now revealed Himself as the intimate Lover of my unworthy soul.
I hesitate to write this, for fear that I give the impression that God has singled me out for some special experience that others do not have.
The reality is that God has been revealing this continually, to every one of us, from the beginning of time. It is only that now, by His grace and mercy, my eyes are starting to open to get a glimpse of how great is His love.
How great is His love for my small, broken and disobedient soul. I cannot fathom it. That He should call me by name and take me, me as an individual to be His love – it is almost too much to bear…
Please pray for me. I am so unworthy.
I will conclude with a recording (and reprint) of the words of St. Catherine of Genoa, one who knew far better than me what it meant to enter into the Love of Christ. (In the Catholic tradition, when we are confirmed, we choose a saint to be our guide and protector. St. Catherine of Genoa is my saint.) **
Text from Spiritual Dialogues 1, 8 **, by St. Catherine of Genoa:
When God wills to purify a soul from self-love, he first sends her his divine light, that by it she may discern a spark of that pure love wherewith he loves her, and how much he has done and still does by means of this love.
[…] He also reveals to her that our sins can never excite his anger so far that he ceases to do us good while we are in this world.
Rather does it seem that the more our sins remove us from him, so much the more does he seek to draw us toward himself by many incentives and inspirations, in order that his continued love and his benefits may keep us still in his love.
The better to effect this, he uses countless ways and means, so that every soul, beholding what he has done for her, may exclaim, full of admiration:
“What am I that God seems truly to have no care for anyone but me?”
And, among other things, he reveals to her that pure love with which he created us;
and how he requires nothing of us but that we should love him with that same love wherewith he has loved us;
and that we should remain ever with him, expecting no return except that he may unite himself to us.
[…] God, moreover, made known to this soul that he had created man for the highest good, namely, that with soul and body he might enter into his heavenly home.
He also showed her how great an evil is sin, into which she had herself fallen, and for which there was no remedy but another manifestation of his love….
And he further instructed her in that ardent love for us of which our Lord Jesus Christ gave such proof on the earth.
[…] He allowed her to see the great patience with which he had waited for her, and borne with so many of her sins, in which, if she had died, she would have been lost forever.
[…] He also reminded her of the many inspirations he had given her to save her from sin.
Although she had not only disregarded, but even gone contrary to his will, yet in his goodness, he did not cease to send them, now in one way, now in another.
He allured her free-will in such a way that he had, as it were, forced her to do that which in his goodness he required.
And this, too, he did so gently and patiently, that no example of human love was ever known on earth, which could compare with it.
* Quotes and information about the work of Fr. Seraphim Rose were found in Christ the Eternal Tao, by Hiermonk Damascene. Citations for original texts are available there.
** Thanks to Mark Armitage and his blog, enlargingtheheart, for helping me find this particular text from St. Catherine of Genoa.