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 & 52
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 Prayer" within 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: 1609ff)
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. p. 82
"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 false needs.
"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, 1985)
- 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)