Christianity is replete with seemingly unachievable teachings. For example, on the one hand, Christ comes to seek and save sinners not the righteous, and yet, on the other hand, the membership of the Church is to be the holy people of God. The foremost of sinners and the least among the saints at the same time! We are to pray without ceasing, love our enemies, be perfect as God the Father is perfect, and love others as Christ loved us.
All of these teachings belong more to Wisdom teachings than to law giving. All of them require discernment and the guidance of the Holy Spirit in understanding how we are to fulfill them. According to Scott Cairns, St. Isaac of Syria writes:
“The love of God… proceeds from our conversing with Him; this conversation of prayer comes about through stillness, and stillness arrives with the stripping away of self.” (THE END OF SUFFERING, p 11)
We see the need for wisdom in helping us to fulfill St. Isaac’s teaching that we are to converse with God in “stillness.” Usually we think of “conversing” as an activity. St. Isaac calls us to stillness, an inner peace and quietness, as the means for conversing with God. We learn to converse with God not by endlessly chattering to Him, but by learning stillness of heart when we are in His presence. Stillness and silence are forms of prayer – the very means by which we learn to stand in God’s presence.
And requiring even greater wisdom, we come to realize that prayer does mean “stripping away of self.” Prayer is not self-love, but our love of the other: the love of God and the love of neighbor. Prayer involves self-denial. Prayer requires a self-emptying, also known as kenosis in the Orthodox tradition. Christ engaged in kenosis, self-emptying when He became incarnate and then obediently suffered death on the cross (Philippians 2:4-8). This is the love that we are to engage in as we approach Christ. As St. John the Forerunner said, “He must increase. I must decrease.”
“Prayer is mystery that goes beyond technique, which is a relief, really. We needn’t be worried about getting the techniques absolutely right, so much as being absolutely honest and sincere before God. What happens after that is God’s business.” (Monks of New Skete, IN THE SPIRIT OF HAPPINESS, p 96)
Though in prayer we become more important to the world because we become mediators of God to His creation, in prayer we also humble ourselves and make ourselves to be servants of God and one another.
“The aim [of prayer] is the constant direction of the mind toward God […]. The worst obstacle to prayer is sin. The next is worry or anxiety about the material circumstances of life—sex, food, money, irritations with colleagues, levity. The next obstacle is pride; humility is an opening of the heart. […] The man who is not prayerful as he goes about his daily life will be less prayerful when he gets on his knees. And no one can be prayerful during his daily life unless he is in the quest for purity of heart. …prayer will contain certain attitudes or aspirations.
It will contain resolution, even if that is wordless – a wish to be something, even a vow to be something.
It will contain penitence.
It will contain intercession, for you cannot pray without remembering need in other people, whether you remember only the people within your affections or whether you reach outward toward the world and its peace, its kings and its governments.
It will contain thankfulness. To pray is to be in the presence of God. To be in the presence of God is to be aware, wordlessly or not, of His goodness to humanity.”
(John Cassian, Conferences, pp 11-12)
Next: Praying (III)