Today, on the second Sunday of Great Lent, we celebrate the memory of Saint Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessaloniki, who lived in the fourteenth century. He is known for his defense of the Hesychasm of Athonite monks and the Orthodox understanding of prayer against the attacks of theologians who were influenced by Western scholasticism.
Most of us, living in the world as we do, know very little about the Hesychast controversy, the works of Saint Gregory, or about the practice of Hesychasm. This is not because Orthodox theology and praxis is somehow more complicated than other areas of human knowledge and experience. We are often very successful at learning highly complex subject-matters, mastering very sophisticated skills, and becoming experts in our area of work or study. Yet, when it comes to prayer, too many Christians spend very little time and effort to learn about it and to practice it. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that among the multitude of very accomplished experts on a variety of subjects that attend our churches, very few are experts in prayer.
We often think of prayer as a compilation of formulas that have to be pronounced or tasks that have to be fulfilled: certain prayers in the morning, others in the evening, and different ones before communion. The goal of such exercises is rarely very lofty—usually people say prayers to quiet their own conscience: “I have fulfilled my morning obligation or “I have fulfilled my pre-communion obligation”—and they feel better about themselves. When prayers are missed, we feel guilty: “I have not done what I was supposed to do.” Prayer becomes a life-long conversation with one’s own self, but not with God.
Sometimes we want something, so we remember that there is a God, and we decide to make a deal with Him. We say a certain formula and expect that God will feel obliged to deliver. If it is something that we really want and we are not sure that He will feel obliged enough, we may lengthen our plea by putting in some extra prayers and readings, by doing a little extra to get something a little bigger. We try to manipulate God in the same way that a dog tries to manipulate its owner into throwing an extra biscuit or two by doing an extra trick. The only problem is that God did not die on the cross in order to get Himself a pet.
Prayer is not a formula to manipulate God into doing something for us, nor is it an obligation that was placed on us to fulfill. God knows what we need for our salvation much better than we do, and He delivered us from all bondage, including the burdens and obligations of the Law. Yet we see that the saints of both the Old and New Testaments prayed to God, Christ Himself spent time in prayer every chance He had, and the Church teaches us to do the same. Why is prayer so important?
In the same way that we cannot manipulate God, He does not want to manipulate us. He wants us to enter into communion with Him; He wants to live in us (Gal. 2:20), and us to live for Him (2 Cor. 5:15) and with Him (Rom. 6:8); “the Son of God became man so that we might become God” (St. Athanasius, De Incarnatione Verbi Dei 54). He wants our hearts, not our tricks aimed at getting a few extra biscuits. He needs us to be co-laborers with Him in the task of our salvation (1 Cor. 3:9). He wants to give us life abundantly (John 10:10), but He needs us to live it. And the breath of life in God is prayer.
Prayer is the communion of the Person of God with the person of man; and without our participation in it, this communion becomes impossible. Just as a close relationship between two people is impossible when one gives all, but the other in only interested in exchanging Christmas cards, a life with God is impossible when He gives us all of Himself, but we are only interested in giving Him a few minutes of recitations each day. Prayer is not what is written on a page in a book, but that which is written in our hearts. Perhaps this is why the most common and most meaningful prayer has always been the simple Jesus prayer: “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”
Prayer is not a mindless recitation of printed symbols, but a devotion of mind and heart. When we read or hear about the prayer of the mind that enters the heart, we are faced with the rejection of a purely mechanical recitation of words. We would find it unacceptable to offer a mindless recitation of words to our friends and loved ones; how dare we offer it to God day after day?!
The experience of the Athonite Hesychasts shows that through prayer we enter into communion with the very uncreated energies of God, or the direct way that God relates to the world and acts in it—not through created mediators, but directly enters into a relationship with us. And it is our response that makes this relationship possible. Look at the prayers that the Church offers to us as the morning and evening rules. Pay close attention to the words. They were composed by people whose hearts were ablaze with love for God, who responded to God’s gift of life with giving their own lives to God. Their prayers are not offered to us for recitations, but to guide our hearts and lives in the same direction, in the footsteps of the Fathers. We are to take these words written by other people and make them our own, coming directly from our hearts.
But this is not yet the life of prayer. If prayer is the breath of life, then it is impossible to live just by breathing for a few minutes twice a day. Apostle Paul instructs us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). Many have said that this is impossible: how can one do anything without ceasing? But do we not breathe without ceasing? The saints who devoted their lives to God found that not only it is possible to pray without ceasing, but that it is unceasing prayer that makes life in God possible. The more we allow our soul to breathe prayer, the more alive in God it becomes.
Perhaps we cannot expect to spend our lives in solitude and contemplation, as do the Athonite Hesychasts. But we can and should make prayer both a state of our being and an active way of life in God. We do not have to study the works of Saint Gregory Palamas to make the simple Jesus prayer—“Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”—a part of everything we do throughout the day. We can apply effort to pay more attention to every word in our morning and evening prayers, to make them our own, and to try to pattern our own spiritual life after the model offered to us by the Fathers.
The breath of prayer is just as vital to the spiritual life as the breath of air is to the physical life. But just as a physical illness takes time and effort to heal, the spiritual illness caused by the lack of prayer will also take time and effort to recover. That is why it is so important to begin immediately, not tonight or tomorrow, but right now. When the Ethiopian eunuch learnt about Christ, he exclaimed to Philip: “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36) What hinders us from taking a breath of life this very moment?—“If you believe with all your heart, you may” (Acts 8:37).