As a foolish man I go so far in this post as to speak of the experience of prayer. I write this not to speak of great experiences but, if possible, to quiet our minds, and to speak a word of peace in a culture that is full of madness and spiritual delusion.
There are many wonderful spiritual stories to be found in the lives of the saints and elders. Many people, having read such stories, easily develop expectations that such things as visions and ecstasies are normative for the spiritual life. They are indeed, not normative, but quite the opposite. Such experiences, though occasionally genuine, are far more often born out of our own imaginations and delusions or even demonic deceit. Orthodox writings on the spiritual life (such as St. Ignatius Brianchaninov’s The Arena) are abundantly clear about this.
There is an entire “spiritual industry” that caters to the desire for spiritual experience and related states of consciousness. The so-called New Age Movement is largely concerned with this. A significant segment of contemporary Christianity is enmeshed in this with deep confusion and delusion about spiritual experience. Compared to such things – the hallmark of the Orthodox spiritual life is sobriety (nepsis) in all things. Despite Orthodoxy’s reputation as among the most “mystical” forms of Christianity – it is also among the most cautious about the inner life. The reason for this is two-fold: Orthodoxy believes that God is truly real. It does not require constant reassurance from miracles and visions to believe what it knows to be true. But because it knows God to be real it is quite cautious about those things that are not or may not be real. The second reason is also quite simple: human beings, as sinful, spend most of their life in some form of delusion. The clarity required for the spiritual life is something that usually comes with time, much prayer, and not a little asceticism. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
So what is normative for the spiritual life? What should someone expect? The first thing any Christian should expect in prayer is to struggle and to fall. “Prayer is struggle to a man’s dying breath,” says one of the desert fathers. When asked what the monks do all day in the monastery, one of the fathers replied, “We fall down and get up, fall down and get up, fall down and get up again.”
Having said that – there still remains something more that is a reasonable expectation. This, however, is the most difficult of things to describe. God is real and true and He does not begrudge us the knowledge of a living relationship with Him. Here I beg the reader’s patience, I will be a little technical for a moment or two. The fathers teach that “icons make present what they represent.” This “presence” is further explained as a “hypostatic representation,” that is a presence of the person represented in the icon. There is an awareness of such a presence – but not an awareness that presses other things out of the way or that imposes itself upon us. It is a very quiet, even subtle awareness that we are not alone. It should not seem frightening or haunting or any such thing – simply there. Our attention (mind in the heart) is so weak that such an awareness often comes and goes. It is not God or the saints who come and go – it is our attention.
And here I add a few words of caution:
The quiet presence of person we may know in prayer is not a public thing – it is an intimate matter of the heart and does not belong in the public converse of our lives (just as other intimate parts of our lives should remain intimate and not public). What you find in prayer should generally remain between yourself and your confessor. Even the little I have shared here is more than I would generally care to. Those who speak a great deal about spiritual experiences are either in delusion or far worse. They should be avoided as guides for daily living. They can be the source of great confusion and sadness.
I have mentioned icons in prayer. This is normative for Orthodox prayer – particularly on this side of the 7th Ecumenical Council (787 A.D.). To pray in the presence of icons is an Orthodox Christian’s proclamation of the dogma of that council: “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” For an Orthodox Christian to purposefully pray without icons can also be seen as a repudiation of that council and its affirmation of the character of the doctrine of Christ’s incarnation (there are, of course, many occasions in which we pray in which it is not practical to have an icon present). On this side of that great council it can be said that we make icons because the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” It is understandable that non-Orthodox who have no experience with icons are reluctant or hesitant about the entire subject. I am not concerned about such a hesitancy and do not suggest that the non-Orthodox rush out and buy an icon. I only mean to describe what is normative in Orthodox Christian prayer.
There is also the experience of better than a millennium and a half of such prayer. Those who warn of the dangers of idolatry (with icons) fail to see that Orthodoxy does not confuse an icon with the one whom it represents nor has it made such a confusion. This is the subtle point of “hypostatic representation” (which subject will have to be covered in another post). Christ is personally (hypostatically) present in his icon – which is not to say He is materially present in His icon. Christ does not become the icon and the icon does not become Christ. It is a place of personal encounter.
There is something perverse about the commercial culture of America (I cannot speak for other lands in this matter). Americans like to own things. I have remarked (with some levity) that Americans want all of the shoes of Imelda Marcos and the inner life of Mother Teresa. Thus we have the common example of people running about with lives of conspicuous consumption dashing to spiritual assemblies where they have wonderful experiences to share with friends over coffee. This is just delusion.
The experience of God is a sober thing and a sobering thing. It pushes us towards quiet and stillness and abhors the violation of intimacy. God is not a “high” (as in, “I am high on Jesus”), nor does God exist for the sake of our endorphins. Rather, we exist for the praise of the glory of His grace.
Those who regularly stand in the presence of the Person of Christ will gradually find that they themselves have become more truly personal (in its theological sense), though it is a mark of such personal existence that we are less and less concerned with what we have become: Christ is everything.