Now that we are well into Great Lent and have, I hope, pushed ourselves a little in fasting and prayer, it’s probably time to take stock of what is really happening. I imagine most of us are failing miserably. Even if we have managed to keep a strict diet, obeying to the best of our ability the outer guidelines of the fast and even if we have attended most of the extra services, still I’m pretty sure most of the people reading this are frustrated or disappointed with their actual performance on a spiritual level, that is, their actual ability to draw near to God in the Fast. And so, what I am about to say may seem pretty depressing, but stay with me, it gets encouraging toward the end.
St. Isaac the Syrian, in his homily twenty-three, speaks of prayer, what prayer is, what pure prayer is and what is even beyond pure prayer. Most of what he says in this long homily has no application whatsoever to my life at this point, or to the life of anyone I know living in the world. He speaks of pure prayer leading to a state of being swallowed up by the Spirit so that one no longer prays but merely dwells “with awestruck wonder” “in that gladdening glory.” Most of us never dwell anywhere near such a place. Most of us consider ourselves immensely blessed if we can experience just a brief moment of pure prayer now and then, that is, prayer without distraction. As to what holy Saints experience beyond pure prayer, I just have to take St. Isaac’s word for it. I have never experienced it. When I pray, I certainly do not dwell in a place of awestruck wonder in gladdening glory.
But despite the fact that most of what St. Isaac says in this homily is way out of my league, one thing he says does indeed comfort me quite a bit. It comforts me in that he tells me that I am not unusual in my struggle to pray. It comforts me in that he lets me know that my experience of distracting thoughts and wandering mind in prayer is indeed the beginning of genuine prayer—in fact, it is itself genuine prayer. There are many ways to pray. We pray in Church, we pray at home. We pray chanting and reading, bowing and prostrating. We pray while reading spiritual books and with inarticulate sighs and cries. We pray with petitions and with praises and by reciting the mighty acts of God in history. All of these and more are ways of prayer. And all of these ways of prayer, according to St. Isaac, are controlled by the authority of our free will. We decide if we will pray and, often, how we will pray (although here it seems we have less freedom: we don’t so much pray however we like, as we pray however we can, however we are able). We pray because we want to pray—or better yet, because something in us wants to pray.
And here’s the rub. Something in us wants to pray, but much in us doesn’t. But that’s not even it. It is more a matter that so much is running around in our mind unattached and uncontrolled, random and scattered. We don’t even know where it all comes from. When we want to pray, we must create a bit of quiet in ourselves and into this quiet floods all of the things I had forgotten to remember; random and petty thoughts, judgements, accusations; memories I hadn’t thought about for years; and a seeming limitless supply of filth, anger, resentment and envy. It all shows up when I start to pray.
And so, St. Isaac says, prayer is a matter of the free will. It is something one has to choose, and having chosen to pray, one must continue to choose to pray all throughout the prayer. Prayer is a choice one makes and keeps making; and for this reason, St. Isaac says, “there is a struggle in prayer.” This struggle in prayer, or this struggle to pray when you’re saying prayers, is, according to St. Isaac, the norm. In fact, one of the elders that St. Isaac himself consulted on this matter told him (back in homily twenty-one), “Reckon every prayer, wherein the body does not toil and the heart is not afflicted, to be a miscarriage, for it has no soul.”
This is, I know, sort of back-handed encouragement, but it does encourage me. By this elder’s standard, my prayer has lots of soul. My feet and back and sometimes my head often ache in prayer. My heart is often afflicted by its struggle with distracting and impure thoughts in prayer. In fact I sometimes wonder if I have wasted my time, if I have just done nothing for an hour while others were doing the actual praying. Or if my little prayer rule at home was just a joke because nothing seemed to happen—nothing more than me spending the whole time trying to pull my mind back into the prayers I am saying with my mouth. I wonder, “Is this really prayer?”
Well according to St. Isaac, it is really prayer. In fact, according to one of St. Isaac’s spiritual fathers, this very struggle means that the prayer is alive, that it has a soul. That very struggle is the pain of childbirth—of prayer-birth. We give birth to prayer.
There is, St. Isaac tells us, prayer beyond struggle. He calls this pure prayer, prayer that does not wander, where no foreign thought enters. But St. Isaac also tells us that this pure prayer is the regular experience of only one in thousands (not one in a thousand, but one in thousands). The point he seems to make is that only through regular and disciplined struggle to pray as an act of the free will is one able eventually to train one’s thoughts in obedience and as a gift of Grace (for all progress in the spiritual life is a gift of Grace) one is able to be at one with his or her prayers. That is, one is able to attain pure prayer. But this is not the common experience of prayer. Far from it. Most of us experience prayer as struggle, as something we must choose and continue to choose.
That only one in thousands attain this state of pure prayer, according to St. Isaac, is to me quite an encouragement. I have never been a one in thousands kind of guy. I don’t win contests (unless it is a free weekend in Las Vegas—I keep seeming to win those without even entering the contest). No, I’m no headliner. I’m always striving just to work my way up to the middle of the pack. And so for me to know that struggle in prayer is normal, that it is indeed prayer itself as I will mostly experience it, that for me is encouraging. Something isn’t wrong with me. It’s not “supposed to be” different. It’s supposed to be labour, like giving birth. My will is fighting to pray, my will is fighting to pray and this very fight according to St. Isaac is prayer. Yes! Man, I sure pray a lot, because prayer is never easy for me.
But having said this, I want to be quick to add that even though prayer is mostly struggle, it is not and should not always be a terrible struggle. In fact, if prayer is always a terrible struggle for you, you probably need to talk to your spiritual father or mother or someone whom you think might help you because you might just need to try some different ways to pray. There are means of prayer, what St. Isaac calls “modes” of prayer that work better for some people than they do for others. My wife is an iconographer. She paints as prayer. I paint as torment. What works amazingly well for one person, can be nothing but torment for another. Some people find Life by chanting alone in the middle of the night, others pray better in a choir at church. Some pray akathists hymns, others find it works better just to say the Jesus Prayer. And then there are physical prayers such as prostrations and manual labour for the needy (including, by the way, vacuuming, washing dishes and fixing the plumbing at the Church). Some find Life in reading spiritual books, others journal as prayer. We each probably need to try lots of different modes of prayer until we find ways of praying that actually help us pray. The Church is a storehouse full of various modes of prayer. Don’t give up on prayer just because you can’t stay awake during the all-night vigil. There are lots of ways to pray.
And one more thing. There is such a thing as sweetness in prayer, which is not the same as pure prayer, for the experience of sweetness in prayer occurs in the midst of our struggle to pray. Sweetness in prayer, according to St. Isaac, is that experience when a particular verse or phrase or idea stays with you and evokes a small amount of joy or wonder that captivates you for a moment in prayer. You repeat the phrase, you stay on the thought, you read or repeat the line over and over again as though you were sucking the juice out of it. As though suddenly you have come across a sweet, plump raisin in a bowl of really dry granola. And when we have these experiences of sweetness in prayer, St. Isaac tells us that we should stop praying, or stop our outer activity of prayer and dwell for as long as we can on that sweet word or thought that has been given us, for here we have been given a gift from the One we are petitioning in prayer. Now is the time merely to receive the gift, asking is no longer necessary, the words of our prayer can, for a moment, be set aside.
However, soon the thoughts start to wander again. Soon my hyperactive mind is in analysis mode, trying to figure out how I can apply or interpret or explain to someone else the little treasure that was given me. And so the sweetness slips away, and I must return to the work of my prayer, my reading or whatever it was I was doing. I return to the discipline, to the exercise of my will to focus my thoughts, to pay attention, to turn away from all of the thoughts that suddenly seem so very important. I return to birth giving, to the labour of giving birth to prayer.