Preparation for the Nativity: Enter within
What follows is a sermon given during the Nativity Fast.
Since we are less than a month away from the feast of the Nativity, let us ponder the question of how we might acquire a deeper, more heartfelt understanding and perception of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ in the flesh? On my first visit to the Holy Mountain I was there for the feast of the Nativity. I asked one father what one might read in order to prepare for this feast. He replied,”Rather than reading something that you think will prepare you for the feast it is more beneficial to go deeper into prayer during the fast. In this way your heart will be more receptive to the meaning of the hymnology of the feast.” This is a natural consequence because the meaning of the feast is a spiritual knowledge and spiritual knowledge is something that we experience in prayer. So let us speak a bit about developing a deeper prayer life which will help to prepare us to more fully comprehend the meaning of the Incarnation—God becoming man. Specifically let us concentrate on this particular question: How do we enter within?
As a starting point we can begin by looking at something St. Theophan the Recluse wrote concerning degrees of prayer:
There are various degrees of prayer. The first degree is bodily prayer, consisting for the most part in reading, in standing, and in making prostrations. In all these there must be patience, labor, and sweat; for the attention runs away, the heart feels nothing and has no desire to pray….
The second degree is prayer of attention: the mind becomes accustomed to collecting itself in the hour of prayer, and prays consciously throughout. The mind is focused upon the written words to the point of speaking them as if they were its own….
The third degree is prayer of feeling: the heart is warmed by concentration so that what hitherto has only been thought now becomes feeling. Where first it was a contrite phrase now it is contrition
itself; and what was once a petition in words is transformed into a sensation of entire necessity. (p.52)
This quote of St. Theophan is from the book, “The Art of Prayer”. In the introduction to this book Bishop Kallistos writes thus about degrees of prayer thus:
1 Oral or bodily prayer 2 Prayer of the mind 3 Prayer of the heart (or ‘of the mind in the heart’): spiritual prayer.
Summarizing this threefold distinction, St. Theophan observes: “You must pray not only with words but with the mind, and not only with the mind but with the heart, so that the mind understands and sees clearly what is said in the words, and the heart feels what the mind is thinking. All these combined together constitute real prayer, and if any of them are absent your prayer is either not perfect, or it is not prayer at all.”
The first kind of prayer—oral or bodily—is prayer of the lips and the tongue, prayer that consists in reading of reciting certain words, in kneeling, standing, or making prostrations. Clearly such prayer, if it is merely oral and bodily, is not real prayer at all: besides reciting sentences it is also essential for us to concentrate inwardly on the meaning of what we say, to ‘confine our mind within the words of prayer.’ Thus the first degree of prayer develops naturally into the second: all oral prayer, if it is to be worthy of the name ‘prayer’, must be in some measure inward prayer or prayer of the mind.
As prayer grows more interior, the outward oral recitation becomes less important. It is enough for the mind to pray the words inwardly without any movement of the lips; sometimes, indeed, the mind prays without forming any words at all. Yet even those who are advanced in the way of prayer will still pray orally, but their oral prayer is at the same time an inner prayer of the mind.
It is not sufficient, however, merely to reach the second degree of prayer. So long as prayer remains in the head, in the intellect or the brain, it is incomplete or imperfect. It is necessary to descend from the head to the heart. (pp. 21-2)
So this is what it means to “enter within”, and it is this that we should hope for. In other words, we should aspire to develop interior prayer. Since such prayer empties the heart of the things of this world and it makes us receptive to God by making a place for God in our hearts. Then we can acquire a spiritual knowledge of the feast by pondering the hymns of the Church for the Nativity. May these hymns touch our hearts this year in a deeper way than ever before, and if this takes place then each of us in our own little measure can perceive—as the prophet Isaiah says—that we “are taught by the Lord” (Isa. 54:13).
May God grant us to grow in the knowledge of Him and in our Wcomprehension of the great mystery of His dispensation for the salvation of mankind which was wrought through the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ to Him be glory, together with His Father Who is from everlasting and His all-good and life-giving Spirit, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.