St. THEOPHAN the Recluse, 1815–1894 a well-known monk and saint in the Orthodox Church, said, “The principal thing is to stand before God with the mind in the heart and to go on standing before him unceasingly day and night until the end of life.” To pray is to stand before God. It is not necessary to always be asking for things or to always be using words. Deep prayer is contemplative. Deep prayer is to wait on God. Deep prayer is to listen to God. Prayer may be a request at times but at its deepest it is a relationship. “To pray is to stand before God with the mind in the heart.”
In Orthodoxy, the mind and heart are to be used as one. St Theophan tells us to keep our “mind in the heart” at all times. The heart is the physical muscle pumping blood, and our emotions/feelings, and the innermost core of the person, the spirit. Heart is associated with the physical muscle, but not identical with it. Heart means our innermost chamber, our secret dwelling place where God abides in us.
St. Macarius says, “The heart is but a small vessel; and yet dragons and lions are there, and there poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There likewise is God, there are the angels, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace; all things are there.”
There is within us a space, a field of the heart, in which we find a Divine Reality, and from which we are called to live. The mind then is to descend into that inner sanctuary, by means of the Jesus Prayer, and to stay there throughout our active day and evening. We descend with our mind into our heart, and we live there. The heart is Christ’s palace. There, Christ the King comes to take His rest.
Then Bishop Theophan said a third thing, “to go on standing before him unceasingly day and night until the end of life.” Here St. Theophan is thinking of the words of St. Paul in 1 Thess 5:17, “Pray without ceasing.” He does not just say pray morning and evening or 7 times a day but pray without ceasing. This text from Paul has played a very important part in the spirituality of the Christian East. From the fourth century onwards, the idea has been firmly established in the monastic tradition of the East that prayer is not merely an activity restricted to certain moments of the day, but something that should continue uninterrupted for the life of the monk or nun. The point is briefly expressed in one of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers: “A monk who prays only when he stands up for prayer is not really praying at all.” (Anonymous) With the same idea in mind a Palestinian monk of the seventh century, Antiochus of the Monastery of St. Sabbas, alludes to the words of Ecclesiastes 3:1-7: “To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under Heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die… a time to weep, and a time to laugh.. a time to keep silence and a time to speak.” And Antiochus comments, “There is a proper time for everything except prayer: as for prayer, its proper time is always.”
There were a group of monks called the Messalians, (in Greek, Euchite – meaning “praying ones”) a movement widespread in the Syria during the 4th and 5th centuries, who interpreted St. Paul’s injunction with uncompromising literalness. They did nothing but pray. They thought that to pray was to say prayers so they did not cook, garden, wash up, clean their room or answer letters.
It is pretty impossible to do nothing but say prayers all the time. There was a monastery in Constantinople called the “Sleepless Ones” who prayed in shifts. But these examples are departures from the normal flow of Orthodoxy and did not last long. Clearly there was a need for balance and diversity in the program of a monk’s daily life. Abba Anthony fell into discouragement and a great darkening of thoughts, he said to God, “Lord, I want to be saved but these thoughts do not leave me alone what shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?” A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, Anthony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, “Do this and you will be saved.” At these words, Anthony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he was saved.”
The pilgrim in the Way of the Pilgrim begins his search to discover what this means to pray without ceasing and finds no acceptable answer until he is taught the Jesus Prayer. St. Gregory the Theologian (Nazianzus) said, “remember God more often then you breathe.” Prayer is to be as natural to us as breathing, or thinking, or speaking. Sometimes people talk about having a prayer life but Bishop KALLISTOS Ware says that nobody talks of having a breathing life distinct from the rest of what we do. Prayer is to be not merely one activity among others but THE activity of our life – present in everything we do. And not merely something we do but something we are. St. Issac the Syrian of the 7th century says that the saints even when asleep have not stopped praying. Because even when asleep the Spirit is praying within them.
This is our aim. It is not enough to be a person who says prayers from time to time but to be a person who is prayer all the time. St. Theophan sets before us a high aim – but how is this possible? How can we enter into the mystery of prayer as Bishop THEOPHAN describes it?
COMING UP: The Jesus Prayer and Silence