(This is the sixth article in a series written for Lent. I’m a bit slow in my writing so here we are, well into the Easter season. But this is, I think, a good thing… Once again, I have borrowed my title for this article from Met. Ware’s chapter title in his book, “The Orthodox Way”. However, unless otherwise noted, the content is mine.)
I finally understand why God led me to Met. Ware’s book “The Orthodox Way” for my Lenten/Easter reflection.
When I first started reading the book, I had begun to wonder whether I had misunderstood the signs and selected the wrong book.
However, I persisted in reading and decided that I would use the chapter titles for my posts – since they were what had first drawn me to the book.
Certainly I’m not suggesting that this is not a fine publication. It just wasn’t quite what I had expected.
From the chapter headings, I had imagined the book to be perhaps a bit more mystical in nature. Yet, up to this point, I had experienced it as being a bit more informational, i.e. a guide to the Orthodox faith.
But now, having encountered Chapter 6, I understand why God wanted me to read this book now. Wow.
I must say I was, from the beginning, intrigued by the notion of “God as Prayer”. Like most, I am accustomed to thinking of prayer as a human activity, not something that God is. Hmm…
Allow me to lay a bit of groundwork, before leading you to what spoke to my heart.
Met. Ware first outlines the customary three stages of the spiritual Way: first, practice of the virtues; second, contemplation of nature; and third, contemplation of God Himself.
He notes that these stages should not be considered too literally nor are they necessarily sequential, requiring one to be mastered before proceeding on to the next.
My spiritual life is first and foremost a living relationship, my small person relating to the fullness of divine Person.
Mine is a life of repentance. It is necessarily sustained by the sacramental life of the Church. It is a life of love.
Such a dynamic interplay between my small efforts and the grace of God cannot be dissected and classified without something vital being lost. Yet words are all we have to help us conceptualize and share – so we use them, aware of their inadequacy.
I will not attempt to summarize all the Met. Ware has written, but to say that practice of the virtues involves our struggle, with God’s help, to break free of all that enslaves us.
And that contemplation of nature enables us to know the Creator as we recognize each created person, material object and moment as a unique and holy sacrament of God.
Met. Ware writes much that is beautiful on these topics. But there is more…
I have long experienced an affinity for the Jesus Prayer – well before God gave me an up-close introduction to Orthodoxy.
Whether one calls it contemplative prayer or prayer of the heart, something deep within me has always longed to know God, to experience Him, to gaze upon Him, to rest in Him.
When I think back, I am astonished to think how much He has loved me, drawing me to Himself, when I have been so undeserving and lacking in gratitude.
All of my life He has been calling me to union with Him, courting me, enticing me with glimpses of His glorious beauty.
And I have been so slow to answer.
It is not that I haven’t prayed or attended church. But there has always been something of a decision being made, a choice of doing something when I feel like it.
And when I don’t feel like it, I do something else. Not something bad necessarily but something that is for me, not for us.
After all I can’t be praying all of the time, can I? I must work and certainly it is normal to want to play now and then.
Or so I thought until I came face-to-face with the counsel to “pray without ceasing”.
The thought of praying without ceasing lights my heart afire with joy.
But I confess that I have not understood it – not really.
I have learned that I must be watchful lest I interpret this admonition as meaning that I must always be doing “religious” things – compulsively attending every church service available, reading only spiritual books and resenting anything that pulls me away from these observances.
I may not know what it means to pray without ceasing – but I know that this is not what it means. At least for me, such compulsivity is more likely feeding some aspect of my ego, luring me into imagining myself to be holy – and holier than thou. Ugh…
And so it was with considerable interest that I read Met. Ware discussion of the Jesus Prayer, contemplation of God and union.
He predictably notes that it begins as a prayer of the lips which gradually “grows more inward”, becoming a mental prayer or prayer of the intellect. The intellect then “descends” into the heart and becomes united with it, so that it becomes a prayer of the heart.
All of these things I have read before, particularly in the lives and writings of the saints. But it was what Met. Ware wrote next that opened a door of understanding for me:
At this level it becomes prayer of the whole person – no longer something we think or say, but something we are: for the ultimate purpose of the spiritual Way is not just a person who says prayers from time to time, but a person who is prayer all of the time. The Jesus Prayer, that is to say, begins as a series of specific acts of prayer, but its eventual aim is to establish in the one who prays a state of prayer that is unceasing, which continues uninterrupted even in the midst of other activities.
“A state of prayer that is unceasing…” Unceasing even through my variable moods, energy levels and motivational lapses?
Or perhaps I am not supposed to have those anymore?
No, I am human and they will always attempt to disrupt my communion with God until, in the end, He grants me complete liberation from them.
But I suspect that, if God so wills that I ever experience this state, I will pay a lot less attention than I do now to these surface ripples on the ocean of my heart’s prayer.
And yet Met. Ware takes me a step further:
Beyond this there is a further stage, when the hesychast’s prayer ceases to be the result of his own efforts, and becomes – at any rate from time to time – what Orthodox writers call “self-acting” and Western writers call “infused”. It ceases, in other words, to be “my” prayer, and becomes to a greater or lesser extent the prayer of Christ in me.
I can think of no greater joy: Christ our risen Savior, resting in the Father’s love, communing in their Spirit, all from my poor and lowly heart.
Quite naturally, Met. Ware does not tell me what I am to do in order for this to come about.
It is not something I can do or that I have any control over. And that is good…
It is completely and utterly up to God what He allows, what He brings about, in the life of my spirit.
And it is completely up to me to follow Him, whether He allows my heart to grow dull and dry or He grants me a glimpse of Christ loving Him from within me.
He who knows both my longings and my weakness will set me on the path that leads unfailingly to Him.
He asks only that I give Him myself, my entire will and being, trusting in the fullness of His love.
May it be so…