Prayer and Worship in Eastern Orthodox Christian Mysticism
by Byron Belitsos
A child strolling in the park with her father races away for
a moment to chase some doves in the grass. Suddenly she bounds back to him
and grabs his huge hand. She looks up at him in an awed innocence. "Daddy,
can I...." He gazes back, listening affectionately as she recites her
simple desires. Finishing, she looks up at him for a moment in silent awe...and
races away again to play in the grass.
"Except as you turn about and become more like this child...."
(UB: 1761) To enter in God's presence, we become humble and trusting and innocent
and playful. Stay true to such childlike purity and we will be blessed with
a vision of God: "Happy are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."
(See UB: 1574 and Mt 5:8)
The pure of heart are blessed, but the mind is the gateway to
the heart. Therefore, purity of heart implies purity of mind. "The divine
nature may be perceived only with the eyes of the mind. But the mind that
really discerns God...is the pure mind." (UB:1105)
But how? How does one achieve this childlike purity of mind
and heart? Only by continual practice. That is, by practicing the presence
of God always, by becoming familiar with the ways of God, by striving for
unbroken prayer and communion. " The secret of his unparalleled religious
life was this consciousness of the presence of God; and he attained it by
intelligent prayer and sincere worship -- unbroken communion with God ...(UB:2089)
"Unbroken communion" means that the mind is pure in
its focus on God. "Undistracted prayer is the highest act of the intellect...The
state of prayer can be aptly described as a habitual state of imperturbable
calm." 1 1 Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos Chapters On Prayer. c. 34
Two practices in particular support the undistracted awareness
of the presence of God: meditative relaxation, and consecration of will. "
The spiritual presence of Divinity...is determined by the spiritual capacity
for receptivity and by the degree of consecration of the creature's will to
the doing of the divine will." (UB: 64)
It is especially in the relaxation of worship that ever-deepening
channels of spiritual receptivity are created. Says Rodan: "The secret...is
wrapped up in spiritual communion, in worship. From a human standpoint it
is a question of combined meditation and relaxation. Meditation makes the
contact of mind with spirit; relaxation determines the capacity for spiritual
receptivity." (UB: 1777)
Consecration of will means a willingness to continually discern
the divine will. Meditative relaxation -- or hesychia -- empties the mind
of irrelevant thoughts so that the divine will can be sought without distraction.
"When through inner attention, the mind or heart attains hesychia or
rest from passionate thoughts, it [is] able to contemplate God unceasingly.''
1 1 George Maloney, S.J., Prayer of the Heart, p. 31
"Words are irrelevant to prayer..." (UB: 1616) "Happy
is the spirit that attains to perfect formlessness at the time of prayer."
1 1 Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos Chapters On Prayer. c 117
"They asked Abbot Macarius: How should one pray? The old
man answered: There is no need to waste time with words; it is enough to
hold out your hands and say: 'Lord, according to your desire and to your
wisdom, have mercy."' And this teaching of Macarius, one of
the first teachers of "pure" prayer in the desert tradition of
Christianity, that is at the origin of the development of the "Jesus
the hesychast tradition. Quoted in John Meyendorff, St. Gregory Palamas
and Orthodox Spirituality, p 24
Faithful prayer eventually empties the heart of all concerns
and even all thoughts, so that it may be filled by communion with the One.
Once the child has asked for all she wants, once she turns all her desires
over to her father, her mind is prepared to contemplate him in silent awe.
In the early hesychast tradition, one simply calls on Jesus' presence to enter
silently into one's heart, continually. 1 1 See Meyendorff, pp. 20-40.
But what if our young girl comes of age in a world built on
false needs and inflated desires? Then her desires are no longer so simple.
What then will she ask of her Father? Will there be an end to her desires
and her troubles? How then can she achieve undistracted prayer, even unbroken
communion with God?
Jesus taught that slavery to the desires of the flesh -- the
bondage of self -- is an obstacle that must be overcome not by suppression
and self-denial, but by a return to simple faith in the indwelling spirit
with repentance. "It is the very goodness of God that leads men into
true and genuine repentance." (See "Lesson on Mastery", UB:
The Greek root for repentance is penthos. According to the hesychast
tradition, true penthos is accompanied by "the gift of tears" --
the heartfelt experience of sorrow over misspent passion which truly cleanses
the soul. "Pray first for the gift of tears so that by means of sorrow
you may soften your native rudeness...Pray with tears and your request will
find a hearing. Nothing so gratifies the Lord as supplication offered in the
midst of tears." 1 "The desert tradition claims a great deal for
the power of tears." 2 1 Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos Chapters On
Prayer. c. 5, 6 2 Alan Jones, Soul Making -- The Desert Way of Spirituality.
"Happy are those who weep, for they shall receive the spirit
of rejoicing ." (UB: 1570) "The cry of the righteous...opens the
door of the Father's storehouse of goodness..." (UB: 1639)
"God is distressed because of the image which has been
lost to him. A soul is far dearer to him than the rest of his creation. Through
sin it becomes dead, and you, sinner, think nothing of this! You should grieve
for the sake of the God who grieves for you. Your soul is dead through vice;
shed tears and raise it up again!" 1 1 St. Ephrem, quoted in Alan Jones,
Soul Making -- The Desert Way of Spirituality. p. 97
Tears enlist the love of the Father. "Behold, Mercy waits
for your eyes to shed tears, to purify and renew the image of the disfigured
soul.'' 1 "The cry of the righteous...opens the door of the Father's
storehouse of goodness, truth, and mercy..." (UB: 1639) 1 St. Ephrem
in Jones, p. 97.
What of our child, the burdened one who has now come of age?
Her tears, one at a time, will show her the difference between her true and
"Weeping, then, has a triple function. It softens the hardened
and dried-out soul, making it receptive and alive. It clears the mind. It
opens the heart. Tears soften, clarify and open. We weep all the more when
we see what and who we are in the light of what we are called to be."
1 1 Alan Jones, Soul Making -- The Desert Way of Spirituality. p. 96
Once the heart is softened by repentance, it is made pure. Now
one may consecrate the will. Prayer and thanksgiving will quickly escort the
heart toward worshipful communion, for the mind is no longer distracted. This
was the teaching of the hesychast tradition, in which mind and heart are made
pure by penthos and by meditative worship (or hesychia). 1 1 See Maloney,
S.J., Prayer of the Heart, chapters 3-5.
The Urantia Book makes a helpful distinction at this point:
Prayer is not in itself worship. Unlike prayer, worship makes no request for
self; it is the antidote to the urge of self. The praying heart is still distracted
by the concerns of self, but worship is the true communion of the pure heart
with its Maker. " The moment the element of self-interest intrudes upon
worship, that instant devotion translates from worship to prayer... "
(See UB: 65)
Prayer is a ladder to a higher vista. But the best view comes
after the summit is achieved. "Prayer is indeed a part of religious experience,
but it has been wrongly emphasized by modern religions, much to the neglect
of the more essential communion of worship." (UB:1123)
Worshipful communion is the ultimate relationship, an effortless,
restful, soulful, and delightful sharing of love for its own sake. (See UB:
1616 ) "Hesychia is continual adoration of the ever-present God."
1 1 St. John Climacus, quoted in Maloney, p. 32.
- Alan Jones, Soul Making -- The Desert Way of Spirituality. (HarperSanfrancisco,
- George Maloney, S.J., Prayer of the Heart, (Notre Dame: Ave
Maria Press, 1981)
- John Meyendorff, St. Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality,
(New York: St. Vladimir's Press, 1974)
- Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos Chanters On Prayer. trans.
by John Eudes Bamberger, (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1981)