Self-Emptying Prayer

Archpriest Stephen Freeman | 02 November 2021

We are told that Christ “emptied Himself” in His death on the Cross (Philippians 2:5-11). Further, we are told that this self-emptying is to be the “mind” that we ourselves have. It is possible to grasp that such self-emptying can be practiced in our dealings with others when we place them above ourselves – when the “other” is our greater concern. But how is this possible in prayer? How do we empty ourselves, when the largest component of our prayerful attention is unavoidably our very selves? Some might suggest that we should give our attention to God rather than to ourselves. And while this sounds salutary – just try it. Indeed, the problem deepens when we realize that giving our attention to God can easily mean nothing more than giving our attention to our idea of God. In which case, our prayer becomes well-intentioned delusion. What do we do?

In an earlier article, I described two types of prayer:

Consider two kinds of prayer: in the first, we have a sense of the prayers that we plan to pray (say a morning service) and the psalms and readings for the day and we struggle through. It is quite possible to do this without reference to God. We are present to our prayers, but our prayers are not present to God. The heart can be completely untouched. We speak but we don’t weep.

In the second, we struggle for words. We are aware of just how unaware we are of God.  We do not flee our emptiness or our brokenness, but we embrace them. And there in that place where we can do nothing of ourselves, we call on God who can do all things. And this is the restoration of our true relationship with God and our proper existence as human beings.

Acknowledging our emptiness and brokenness, our failures and weakness, is an exercise in confronting shame. It can be quite painful – something we either avoid or cover over with self-loathing. Shame is not self-loathing. Indeed, the energy behind our self-loathing is simply pride (ϕιλαυτία). Self-loathing is consumed with the self and driven by its unwillingness to be that person. Bearing our shame is the willingness to acknowledge the truth of ourselves and our lives as a simple fact, without protest or promise of reform. It is enduring the simple fact of our lives, how we live them, how we fail, how we really do not love God or others, etc. It is not an exercise in comparative failure – it does not matter whether our weakness is similar to anyone else’s. Such comparisons are merely another exercise in self-justification, an avoidance of the fact, the shame, of our lives.

It is in the awareness and presence of that simple shameful fact that we can pray in a manner of self-emptying. We should not imagine ourselves to be engaging in a noble action, a triumphant Christ-like self-emptying. Again, this is simply pride. We acknowledge the fact of our shame (in all its reality), and there we pray.

We do not need to imagine God (which is what most “thought” about God amounts to). We simply call on His name. The Jesus Prayer is used by some in this manner.

Do not imagine or promise that you will do better or try to improve (you were already doing that in one manner or another and it didn’t work). As your mind wanders (and it will), bring it back to the point of acknowledging your shame, and call on the name of God for mercy.

I have nothing against the written prayers of the Church. However, we often read them and don’t mean them. The meaning of those prayers, if you examine them, is precisely what I have described above. They proclaim our weakness and our failure and call on God for mercy. From that same point, they ask God’s mercy for others. But, since they are the Church’s prayers, they are often rather generic in form. They represent a model of prayer – but the content and meaning must be our own. The generic shame of humanity can be an all too easy shield from the reality of our own shame. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” rolls off of us like water from a duck’s back.

There is a tendency, I think, to conceive of our prayer life as an effort that somehow gains us something. Like so much in our lives, we imagine prayer to belong to the realm of cause and effect. “If I do this…then this will be the result.” There is no causation in the spiritual life, at least not in any manner we can imagine. God alone is the Cause, and He “causelessly” causes – we can never truly observe His causation: it remains out-of-sight. Self-emptying is an embracing and acknowledging of the complete futility of our efforts. We cannot cause anything in our spiritual life. We cannot add a “single cubit” to our span of life; we cannot make our hair white or dark. God is the cause of our existence and is alone the source of eternal life and blessing.

Someone might protest that this denies the notion of “synergy,” that we “cooperate” in the work of salvation. It does not. The self-emptying I have just described is what synergy looks like. Others might complain that this sounds like “passivity,” doing nothing. This can only be a complaint from someone who has yet to acknowledge and embrace the truth of their shame and failures in the presence of God. It is not passivity. Rather, it is extremely difficult. The Elder Sophrony characterized this self-emptying as “standing at the edge of the abyss.” He advised that we do so, until we could bear it no more, and then, “Have a cup of tea.”

I can recall years ago that in my very first confession as an Orthodox Christian, the priest told me to pray: “Apart from You, I can do nothing.” I did, but I misunderstood it for many years. My twist was quite subtle. When I prayed this I meant, “I can’t do anything without your help.” This is somehow not the same as “I can do nothing.” The first kept directing my attention to the “anything” I could do if God helped me. However, my attention needed to be on the “nothing.” It is our emptiness and failure that bring us face-to-face with our shame, and in that moment, face-to-face with the God who alone can truly cover our shame and comfort us.

In the history of the Jesus Prayer, it is generally acknowledged that the Prayer had a predecessor, drawn from the Psalms: “O God, help us!”  It is the cry of a drowning man. The Jesus Prayer, rightly understood, says the same thing.

Do not hide your face. This is the promise of God:

But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2Co 3:18)

God will do this.

Oh. And don’t forget the tea.

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