A Hymn to the Theotokos
Open to me the gate of repentance, O Gate of Light; and close the entrance of the passions to my humbled soul, O Virgin. (The Theotokion of the Canon of Repentance from the Octoechos, Tuesday Matins, Ode Three)
Methods in Prayer
In this post I will continue to share things I have learned from contemporary monastics by speaking about methods in prayer. So I want to concentrate on the strain of thought I was exposed to in two spiritual families, that is, the spiritual children of Elder Ephraim and those of the late Archimandrite Sophrony.
I believe it is of interest to first define the word method. It is a technique, maybe a procedure or even systematic body of procedures and techniques characteristic of a particular field of discipline. In applying this to the JP, as I said, I am going to speak of two spiritual families I have had some affiliation with and as a starting point I will refer to the “grandfathers” of these families. So first I mention the names of St. Silouan the Athonite and the Elder Joseph the Hesychast. The Elder Ephraim of St. Anthony’s Monastery in Arizona has expressed the belief that these two fathers were the most important elders on Athos in the 20th century, and he is, as we know, a disciple of the latter.
If we go to his monasteries, which are known for the practice of the Jesus Prayer, what is it that we find stressed in relation to this prayer? There is a prayer rule assigned with a certain number of Jesus Prayers, a number of Prayers said making the sign of the Cross, and again a numbers of Prayers said with prostrations. Also an oft repeated short intercession to the Theotokos is usually added. On top of this there is the reading of spiritual books that support prayer, and one is also told to say the Prayer as much as possible during the day. It is encouraged to do this latter orally.
Breathing methods are often suggested while saying the Jesus Prayer in one’s cell. One can say half the prayer while inhaling and the other half while exhaling or perhaps one complete prayer while both inhaling and exhaling. Again there is a technique of breathing in and holding your breath while simultaneously saying the Jesus Prayer and then exhaling. All this has a purpose, it helps one understand where the attention should be during prayer, which is in the upper part of the heart and so it can facilitate the union of mind and heart.
I think there is a lot of talk about this, that is, union of mind and heart or prayer of the heart and the experience of grace through prayer. This seems to be a goal stressed and sought after by many today and everything that has been mentioned about method up to this point is employed as an aid with this aim in mind. There are some of the Holy Fathers who have made a science and art out of prayer and this is a major school of thought we see today. When under proper direction this does bear much fruit.
Now I want to quote Archimandrite Sophrony: In his book His Life Is Mine, in the Chapter entitled “The Jesus Prayer Method”, he writes:
I purpose to devote this chapter to setting out as briefly as possible the more important aspects of the JP and the commonsense views regarding this great culture of the heart that I met with on the Holy Mountain.
Year after year monks repeat the prayer with their lips, without trying by any artificial means to join mind and heart. Their attention is concentrated on harmonizing their life with the commandments of Christ. According to ancient tradition mind unites with heart through Divine action when the monk continues in the ascetic feat of obedience and abstinence; when the mind, the heart and the very body of the ‘old man’ to a sufficient degree are freed from the dominion over them of sin; when the body becomes worthy to be ‘the temple of the Holy Ghost’ (cf. Rom. 6:11-14). However, both early and present day teachers occasionally permit recourse to a technical method of bringing the mind down into the heart. (p. 112)
After explaining a breathing method as has been mentioned above he continues:
This procedure can assist the beginner to understand where his inner attention should be stayed during prayer and, as a rule, at all other times, too. Nevertheless, true prayer comes exclusively through faith and repentance accepted as the only foundation. The danger of psychotechniques is that not a few attribute too great significance to the method itself. In order to avoid such a deformation the beginner should follow another practice which, though considerably slower, is incomparably better and more wholesome—to fix the attention on the Name of Christ and the words of the prayer. When contrition for sin reaches a certain level the mind naturally heeds the heart. (p. 113)
Unless this path of mortification of the old man is achieved in some degree then whatever one may attain to, whatever grace or heart-prayer one may experience is more man-made than God-given and artificial and temporary rather than something real and lasting. This is because the grace of God cannot take root in the passionate heart. It can visit a man in some degree for a little while but it cannot take root. Grace takes root in the heart in proportion to the mortification of the passions that one has undergone.
There is, however, another method which Fr. Sophrony alluded to in the last sentence quoted above, which is very productive and I think more sure. In order to explain it I need to go off on a bit of a tangent.
We are called to follow Christ Who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life”. Yet we are fallen and a consensus of the fathers tells us clearly that the essence of Adam’s sin is pride and disobedience. Having come to heal us, Christ showed us above all the way of obedience and humility which are absolutely true and certain and lead to life. Concerning the first He declares; “I came not to do mine own will but the will of Him that sent me” (John6:38). In reference to the second I believe the dismissal of Holy Thursday is quite interesting: “May He Who in His surpassing love showed us the most excellent way of humility…” So we must have in ourselves this mind which was also in Christ Jesus, “Who being in the form of God thought it not robbery to be equal to God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon himself the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross” (Phil. 2:5-8)
We should add to this that Christ our God even went to hell for us as St. Paul points out in such manner: “When He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. Now that He ascended, what is it that He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth” (Eph 4:8-9). So having become man, before ascending back to heaven, He went to hell. This is the one whom we are called to follow, and through following His way of humility we are healed and saved.
For us, to follow Christ is to offer Him a humble repentance, to humble ourselves as much as possible in repentance. We must take up an interior Cross of looking at our sinful condition, mourning over it and the mistakes and sins we have committed which have led us into this condition. This mourning must be coupled with hope because our sinful condition is primarily a thing of the past and something which God is in the process of healing. This should be our aim and way of contemplation, this is our method of prayer, this is the way to unite the mind to the heart. Fr. Sophrony has said, “Strive for tears for when there are tears the mind and the heart are united”. And this is the essence of the words of our Lord to St. Silouan: “Keep thy mind in hell and despair not”.
One of Fr. Sophrony’s disciples—Fr. Symeon—wrote an article concerning St. Silouan in which he said that the Saint did not follow any techniques. And continued to comment that in his path he had directed his efforts to the root of all sin which is pride. And so the Saint followed the humble path of Christ to the utmost by sentencing himself to hell. This crushes the heart and in this state the mind unites with the heart and bears fruit. The mind unites with the heart, not in an effort of ours to ascend but in an effort to follow the descent of Christ.
To follow this path so intensely as St. Silouan could lead many to despair but another way to tread upon this path has been pointed out by another of Fr. Sophrony’s disciples, Fr. Zachariah: to increase one’s love for God by looking as all the blessings He gives—both to man in general and what he has given to one personally. Then to thank Him with love and gratefulness and consider one’s self unworthy.
In summary, according to Fr. Zachariah, Fr. Sophrony does not like methods. We could say, however, that his method is alluded to in all that has been said above and can be summed up in these words of Fr. Sophrony: “Seek humility, the Holy Spirit loves the humble soul”.