Sunday, September 27, 2009

Pure Prayer - The Struggle and Learning from the Saints

I have learned with difficulty that we advance in our spiritual growth when we are able to learn from the Saints. It took me some time to accept this and to not view the saints as relics from the "dark ages."  Sometimes it is hard to accept what they have to teach us because they almost always  ask of us something we have not been willing to give up to this point.  It often easier to retreat to our comfort zone and hide in the norms of our modern society that favors self-satisfaction and personal comfort.

Among the treasures of the Orthodox Church are the numerous accounts that record a saint's path to union with God.  One of these is given to us by Archimandrite Sophrony on the Life of Saint Silouan the Athonite.  Saint Silouan began life as a Russian peasant.  After completing his military service he came to Mount Athos where he remained until his death in 1938.  He was not a learned man, but through tireless strivings he was able to find an authentic personal experience identical with the early Desert Fathers.  Archimandrite Sophrony was one of his disciples. 

He tells us that we all have the calling and capability to find what he terms pure prayer.  He writes,
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.

Note how he sees pure prayer as an imperative. Why? So we are abel to act in obedience to Divine will.  I find this extremely difficult because my mind distracts me because of my desires for things of this world.  Not that the things of this world are bad or evil, for everything God created was good, but because I inappropriately choose to satisfy these personal desires rather than do the will of God, which is also seen as a life of virtue, a life of love and compassion.  Obviously, from the above statement he saw pure prayer as an imperative to live this life obedient to God's will. This I know I must pay attention to.

When is prayer pure?  He writes,
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. 
What does this softening of the heart mean?  I am still learning.  But I now know that I do not have one and my heart is hard.  I pray for it to be softened and I seek to further understand what this means.

He says on another place that pure 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.
He also says it is when "the mind is cojoined with the heart."
I am learning that pure prayer comes after much preparation, but it is a gift from God and not based on human effort.  It is something quite different that what is taught in non-Christain meditation techniques where it is our effort that is primary.

Such pure - pure in the primary sense - prayer is a rare gift of God. It depends in no way on human effort. 

And when it comes, one experiences the uncreated Light or Divine energies of God.
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.

He continues,
At this point where he engages in pure prayer he is given the capability to guard his heart and mind from thoughts that lead him to actions that are not in conformity with God's will.
Shutting the door of his heart, stationing his mind on guard like a sentinel, unfettered by imagination and cognition but armed with prayer and the Name of Jesus christ, the ascetic striver embarks on the struggle against all external influence, all thought 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...
Ahh... Attention is essential he tells us. Idle wandering of the mind is of no value.  I find this to be the most difficult and it does take my fullest of effort to keep my mind focused on my prayer.  

Finally he warns that this is very difficult.
Preserving the mind and the heart from all extraneous thoughts means prolonged struggle of an extraordinary difficult and subtle kind.
So, I continue my struggle but with hope.

From Chapter 6 in St. Silouan the Athonite by Archimandrite Sophrony, pp 131-142

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