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Pure Prayer

by Archimandrite Sophrony on Saint Silouan

The whole of Blessed Staretz Silouan's life was prayer. He prayed unceasingly, in the course of the day changing the mode of his prayer to accord with the circumstances of the daily round. He possessed, too, the greatest gift of mental prayer, to which he devoted chiefly the night hours, in the complete silence and darkness propitious to this form of prayer.

The question of forms or aspects of prayer is one of the most important there is in asceticism generally. It was for the Staretz, too, so let us pause and consider it.

Concerning the Three Forms of Prayer

Prayer is creation, the loftiest form of creation, creation par excellence, which makes prayer infinitely diverse. Nevertheless, it is possible to distinguish different modes depending on the situation or orientation of the main spiritual powers of the one who prays. This is what the Fathers of the Church do.

In this respect prayer corresponds with the stages in the normal development of the human spirit. The first impulse of the mind is outward-bound. The second, a return into itself And the third - ascent towards God through the inner man.

To accord with this progression the Holy Fathers instituted three forms of prayer. The first, because the mind is as yet incapable of attaining directly to pure vision of God, is marked by the imagination. The second, by meditation, and the third by rapt concentration. This last, the Fathers consider to be the only sound, proper and fruitful mode of prayer but taking into account the impossibility of such prayer for man at the outset of his pilgrimage towards God, they accept the first two forms also as normal and duly profitable. However, they do point out that if one is content with the first form of prayer, and cultivates it in his spiritual life, not only unfruitfulness but deep-rooted spiritual 111health may result. Concerning the second mode of prayer, though in many ways superior to the first, it still bears little fruit and does not rescue one from the constant battle against wrong thoughts, does not free one from the passions or, even less, lead to pure contemplation. The third, the most perfect form of prayer is when with his mind stationed in his heart, a man prays from the very depths of his being, without images, with a pure mind standing before God.

The first form of prayer imprisons man in constant error, in an imaginary world, in a world of dreams and, if you like, of poetic creation. The divine, and in general all that is spiritual presents itself in various fantastical aspects, following which actual human life, too, is gradually diffused by elements from the sphere of fantasy.

With the second form of prayer - when heart and mind are wide open to all that is extraneous - one is left continually vulnerable to the most heterogeneous influences from without, unable to discern what exactly is happening objectively. How do all these alien thoughts and conflicts arise in man, impotent, as he ought not to be, against the onslaught of the passions? Grace sometimes comes with this sort of prayer, putting him in a good frame of mind, but because his inner disposition is not right he is unable to continue in this grace. Having accumulated a measure of religious knowledge and achieved relatively decorous behavior, content with matters, he gradually takes to speculative theology, and in step with his success in this, so does his inner battle against the subtle passions - vanity and pride - in his soul decrease, and loss of grace is intensified. As it develops, this form of prayer, which is characterized by the concentration of attention in the brain, leads to rational, philosophical intuition, which, like the first form of prayer, opens the way to a contrived world of the imagination. True, this form of abstract conceptual imagination is less naive, less gross, and less far from the truth than the first.

The third form of prayer - when the mind is conjoined with the heart - Is, generally speaking, the normal religious state for the human spirit, desired, sought after, bestowed from on high. Every believer experiences this union of mind and heart when he prays attentively, 'from the bottom of his heart'. He knows it to a still greater degree when his heart is softened and he feels a sweet sense of Divine love. Tears of compunction during prayer are a sure sign that the mind is united with the heart, and that pure prayer has found its prime place - the initial step in ascent to God. This is why ascetics rate tears so highly. But now, in our given case, in discussing the third form of prayer, I am referring to something different and more important - the mind in prayerful attention stationed in the heart.

As a typical consequence, the virtue of this movement and installation of the mind within, the Imagination is curtailed and the mind released from all the mental images that have invaded it. In this state the mind becomes all ears and eyes, and sees and hears every extrinsic thought approaching from without, before it can invade the heart. Praying the while, the mind not only refuses to admit extraneous thoughts into the heart but positively thrusts them aside and preserves itself from association with them, thereby at the very outset cutting short the action of every passion in its initial stage. (This is an extraordinarily profound and complex question, and I can only give a very primitive outline of it here.)

On the Development of Intrusive Thoughts

Sin becomes sin after completing specified stages in its inner development.

The first stage is when some spiritual influence approaches from without, which may, to begin with, be quite vague and shapeless. The initial stage in formation is the appearance in the field of man's inner vision of an image - and as this does not depend on one's will, it is not regarded as a sin. Images in some cases appear to take on visible form, while others are mostly products of the mind, but more often it is a combination of the two. As visible images also generate some thought or other, ascetics label all images 'Intrusive thoughts'.

The man who is not in thrall to the passions can recognize the force of an intrusive thought and yet remain completely free from its power. But if there is some 'place' in one - some suitable soil for the development of the intrusive thought the thought will strive to take possession of one's psychic being - of the heart, the soul. It achieves this because it prompts a feeling of the delight to be afforded by one or another passion. The delight figures 'temptation'. But even the fleeting pleasure, though it testifies to man's imperfection, is not yet to be reckoned as sin. It is only a 'proposal' for sin.

The further development of a sinful intrusive thought can be portrayed roughly as follows: the mind is attracted by the delectation to be afforded by the passion, and this is an extremely important and crucial moment because the fusion of mind with tempting ideas provides fertile soil for passion. If the mind does not by an exercise of the will tear itself away from the suggested delights but continues to dwell on them, it will find itself pleasantly attracted, then involved and finally positively acquiescent. After that, the ever-increasing delight in the passion may take possession of - make captive - mind and will. Lastly, the whole strength of the one enslaved by passion is directed to a more or less determined actualization of sin, if there are no outside impediments or, where there are, to seeking ways of getting round them.

Such captivity may happen once only and never recur if it had come about because of the inexperience of someone engaged in the ascetic struggle. But if the enchantment repeats itself, passion becomes second nature, and then all man's natural forces are at its service.

The initial appearance of the delights offered by passion should start off a struggle which can continue through every stage in the development of a sinful thought. And at each of these stages the wrong thought can be mastered and so not transformed into deed. Nevertheless, the instant the will wavers, an element of sin enters, which must be repented of lest we forfeit grace.

The spiritually inexperienced man generally encounters sinful thoughts only after they have progressed, unnoticed, through the first stages of development - that is, after they have acquired a measure of strength - when the danger approaches of actually sinning.

In order not to let this happen, it is essential to stay the mind in prayer in the heart. This is an urgent necessity for every ascetic striver desirous, through true repentance, of consolidating himself in the spiritual life, because, as pointed out above, where the heart is so established sin is cut off at the very moment of conception. Here, perhaps it would be timely to cite the words of the Prophet, '0 daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed: happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones'.1- (The stones - the name of Jesus Christ.)

Shutting the doors of his heart, stationing his mind on guard like a sentinel, unfettered by imagination and cogitation but armed with prayer and the Name of Jesus Christ, the ascetic striver embarks on the struggle against all external influence, all thoughts from without. This is the essence of mental vigilance. Its purpose is to contend against the passions. In a wider and all-comprehensive sense victory over the passions is achieved by keeping Christ's commandments but now we are discussing an especial form of ascetic awareness which begins after the ascetic, having gone through the familiar stages of spiritual development, abandons the prayer of the imagination in its first form, and then in its second, having found by experience its imperfection also.

Preserving the mind and heart from all extraneous thoughts means prolonged struggle of an extraordinarily difficult and subtle kind. Subject to a multitude of the most varied influences and impressions with their perpetually shifting values, the ordinary man falls to grasp either their origin or their power. But the ascetic striver, the hesychast detached from all external influences, in his efforts, day and night, to reduce all outside impressions to the lowest possible minimum, shunning the outside world, deaf to all irrelevant discussions, reading no books, concentrates his whole attention on his inner being, and there engages in single combat with intrusive thoughts. This is the only way to discover the genus and power - colossal, sometimes - of intrusive thoughts. The man who is not sufficiently attentive within himself falls under the influence of an intrusive thought and becomes enslaved. By heeding the intrusive idea man comes to resemble - even identifies with - the spirit of the intrusive thought, and the energy contained in it. When his soul accepts a passionate thought - very often the consequence of demonic influence - he thereby becomes a tool for demonic action.

The mind deeply engrossed in prayer is sometimes aware of the approach of some spirit from without but if his prayerful attention is not disturbed, the intrusive thought departs without having been received, so that afterwards the one who was praying cannot say who, why or what had approached.

Sometimes something occurs in deep-set prayer that is difficult to explain. Lights appear around the mind, trying to attract the mind's attention to themselves, and if the mind refuses to pay attention, they, as it were, say to the mind, 'We bring you wisdom and understanding, and if you refuse us now, maybe you will never see us again.' But the experienced mind pays no attention whatever and they depart, not only unaccepted but even unacknowledged. The mind does not know for sure if it was an evil enemy or a good angel; but does know by experience that if it stops to consider the brilliant thought, it loses prayer, -and with great pains must seek it again. Experience shows that in the hour of prayer we must not listen even to good thoughts because if we do, other ideas will occur and, as the Staretz said, 'You will not continue undistracted.' Nothing can compensate for the loss of pure prayer.

In the struggle for freedom the ascetic's battle against intrusive thoughts is so intense as to be unimaginable without personal experience. In his inner battle against intrusive thoughts, in his downright opposition, the novice will often suffer partial defeat. But he may come out victorious and thus be able to analyze the nature of the thought so acutely that although he did not commit the sin suggested to him, he can recognize the action (energy) of the passion more profoundly, more compellingly, than anyone actually possessed by the sin. The latter may observe in himself and in others the energy manifested by one or other passion but to arrive at more basic knowledge it is essential to plumb the spiritual region where he dwells who prays according to the third form - that is, when the mind is united with the heart and sees every passion at the moment of conception.

This wondrous procedure, unimaginable to the idle majority, can only be adopted with great effort and by very few. It is not at all simple, not at all easy. (And 1, in my efforts to express it briefly but clearly shall be obliged, more than once, to approach it helplessly, from various angles, without hope, however, of capturing and presenting it satisfactorily.)

The substance of the Staretz' ascetic path can be expressed in a few words - preserving the heart from every outside, irrelevant thought by concentrating the inner attention, by eliminating every alien influence, to stand before God in pure prayer.

This is termed silence of the mind. It is bequeathed to us in the lives and writings of the Holy Fathers from the first centuries of Christianity up to the present day, and so it is possible to talk about the Staretz' ascetic way, as he himself did, in speaking of Orthodox monasticism in general.

The Blessed Staretz said, 'If you are a theologian, your prayer is pure. If your prayer is pure, then you are a theologian.'

The monk-ascetic is not a theologian in the academic sense of the word but in another way he is, since pure prayer is deemed worthy of genuine divine visions. Pure prayer starts with struggle against the passions. As it cleanses itself from the passions, so the mind becomes stronger in the battle with intrusive thoughts, and firmer in prayer and awareness of God; while the heart, freed from the dark passions, begins to see all that is spiritual more clearly, more plainly - convincingly.

The monk prefers this course to that of theological science. For him speculation, be it theological or 'metaphysical', leads man to the boundary where it becomes clear that our empirical notions and attainments cannot be applied to God. Speculation results in a state when the mind begins to be still. But this 'stillness of the mind' in the theologian-philosopher is far from always being real contemplation of God, though it may come near to it.

Attaining to real contemplation without a preliminary cleansing of the heart is impossible. Only the heart purified of the passions is capable of the especial feeling of awe before the inscrutability of God. The mind joyfully is silent, powerless before the majesty of the vision.

The theologian and the monk-ascetic approach the state of contemplation by different paths. The monk-ascetic never cogitates. Like a doorkeeper he is only concerned to watch that nothing extraneous enters the heart. The Name of Christ and His commandment are what heart and mind live on in this 'hallowed silence'. They live a single life, alert to everything happening within, not analyzing logically but applying an especial spiritual sense.

The mind when joined with the heart is aware of every movement in the 'subconscious'. (I employ this term from contemporary scientific psychology conditionally, since it does not comply with the notions of orthodox ascetic anthropology.) Stationed within the heart, the mind observes the images and thoughts that appear, that come from the sphere of cosmic being and strive to take possession of man's heart and mind. The energy of this or that spirit assumes the form of an intrusive thought - that is, a thought linked with this or that image. The pressure exerted by intrusive thoughts is extraordinarily strong, and to subdue it the monk must all day long force himself to avoid every single 'interested' look, not allowing himself to become attached to anything. His constant battle is to reduce outside Impressions to a strict minimum. Otherwise, when the hour comes for interior mental prayer everything that has made an impression will descend on the heart, causing great confusion.

The monk's purpose is to achieve continual vigilance of the mind in the heart; and when, after long years of such striving - which is the most difficult of all ascetic feats, harder than any other - the heart becomes more sensitive, while the mind, from much weeping, receives strength to thrust off the slightest hint of a passionate thought, then one's prayerful state can continue uninterrupted, and the feeling of God, present and active, becomes powerful and plain.

This is the way of the monk-ascetic, this the path that the Blessed Staretz trod.

The Areopagites took a different route. They gave priority to cogitation, not prayer. Those who set out on that track are often misled. Assimilating without difficulty intellectually even apophatic forms of theology, they content themselves with the intellectual delights experienced. Not attributing due significance to their unconquered passions, they easily imagine that they have achieved what the Areopagites teach, whereas in the overwhelming majority of cases, while apprehending the logical structure of this theological system existentially they do not attain to the One they seek.

Hesychasm, the Staretz understood neither as living like a recluse nor distancing oneself in the desert, but as uninterrupted dwelling in God. In view of the immense importance of this question, let us consider it in more detail.

The Staretz used to say that neither reclusion nor moving into the desert can be more than a help - never an end in itself. Both can help to eliminate external impressions and influences by distancing one from human intercourse and so encouraging pure prayer but only in cases where withdrawal from the world occurred under divine auspices - never from self-will. In the latter instance, reclusion and desert-life and every other form of asceticism will continue to be fruitless, because the essence of our life is not arbitrary asceticism but obedience to the Divine will.

Many people think silence in the desert to be the noblest form of life. Others would opt for reclusion. Some would say, being a fool for Christ's sake. Still others elect for pastoral service or scientific theological study. And so on. The Staretz did not consider that any of these types of asceticism manifested spiritual life at its noblest but each of them could be so for someone if it conformed to God's will for that person. And God may have an especial purpose for each of us.

But whatever God's will for each individual, when it comes to choosing one or other form of ascetic life, or place, or manner of service, the quest for pure prayer remains imperative.

The Staretz considered prayer to be pure when it was accompanied by a softening of the heart so that both heart and mind in harmony lived the words of the prayer, which in this state nothing can cut short - the attention cannot be distracted, no irrelevant thought can intrude. As we have seen, this kind of prayer is a normal religious condition, very productive for the soul. To one extent or another it is known to many believers but only in rare instances does it evolve into perfect prayer.

Another form of pure prayer is when the mind is enclosed in the heart and there in stillness, with no irrelevant thoughts and images, 'meditates in the Divine Name'.2- This kind of prayer is associated with continual ascetic striving. It is a process to a certain extent dependent on man's free will. It involves labour, austerity. All that has been said above concerning this wonderful form of mental prayer - that it enables one to perceive the intrusive thought before it introduces itself into the heart, to control one's 'subconscious', releases one from the turmoil provoked by influences of all kinds that spring up from the black depths of corrupt cosmic life - all this is the negative aspect of hesychastic prayer. The positive aspect transcends human conception.

God is Light inaccessible. His being is far superior to any image - not only material image but mental, therefore so long as the human mind is concerned with thoughts, words, conceptions, images, it has not achieved perfection of prayer.

When the created human mind, the created human persona, stands before the Supreme Mind, before the Personal God, it attains to genuinely pure and perfect prayer, but only when from love of God every created thing is set aside is the world forgotten - as the Staretz was fond of saying - and one's very body so ignored that there is no telling whether one was in the body or outside the body in the hour of prayer.

Such pure - pure in the primary sense - prayer is a rare gift of God. It depends in no way on human effort. Divine power comes and with elusive care and ineffable tenderness transports man into the world of Divine light - or rather,

Divine light appears and lovingly embraces the whole man, so that he can recall nothing, incapable of any thought.

This is the state the Staretz had in view when he said,
'He whose prayer is pure is a theologian.'

Without this practical knowledge, theology in the sense of beholding God is out of reach. The mind that has never known purity, that has never contemplated Divine light, however cultivated in its intellectual experience, is inevitably subject to the imagination, and in its attempts to know the Divine depends on conjectures, which, alas, only too often are mistaken for genuine revelation and divine visions.

Life of Saint Silouan and Archimandrite Sophrony

From St. Silouan the Athonite by Archimandrite Sophrony pp 131-142