The Experience of Prayer

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.

dmitri-petrovthe-prayer-of-an-expectant-mother-2005There 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.

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60 Responses to “The Experience of Prayer”

  1. zoe Says:

    Father Bless,

    Thank you for more illumination on the subject of prayer.

    Zoe

  2. Irenaeus of New York Says:

    The oldest icon in the world was just recently discovered beneath the altar of St. Peters basilica in Rome. The image is believed to be of St Peter, as it is his tomb. You can see it on the vatican website.

  3. Lucian Says:

    Well, here’s a more sobbering thought:

    youtube.com/watch?v=YjsTfFlNXv4

  4. elizabeth Says:

    Father Stephen,

    I found these words curious and wonder if you would explicate further: “Those who speak a great deal about spiritual experiences are either in delusion or far worse.” You do comment further on in the post, but I still do not understand completely. Do you mean that we should not share with others the way God touches our lives or us, or are you speaking exclusively about prayer? (I would understand the latter for that is pretty personal.) What about group prayer, however? That gets somewhat personal, too, and I notice that when people join our prayer group, it takes some time before they become comfortable in joining into the praying; it takes confidence that the group is non-judgmental and fully supportive no matter what. And what about two people (friends) praying together? That takes on a very intimate, bonding character. Would you rule out both dyadic and group prayer as being unholy, or am I reading something into your post that you did not mean? Help!

  5. fatherstephen Says:

    Elisabeth,

    I had in mind the common practice within charismatic and pentecostal circles in which sharing experiences of “what happened when I was praying” is just commonplace. I think when treated in such a manner, these experiences lead to greater and greater delusion.

    There are many reasons that Orthodox prayer has developed the way it has for 2000 years – much of which is sobriety and the treatment of the holy. There are many relatively new practices that are questionable. Much of what people share about how they have been touched is quite subjective, or based on what they think to be the case rather than know to be the case. Some of this is sober, some not. I think it is hard to get too specific without more concrete information (hard to do on a website). But that the general principle of sobriety, and the guarding of intimacy are important. It is fine to pray in groups or even by twos. But what is served by then talking about what we perceive to be happening when we pray?

    If the purpose is to share about “answered” prayer, I think this is misguided, turning prayer into “answered and unanswered” which is mistaken, if prayer is ultimately about communion with God. We make intercede and ask, but doing so in union with God is the point. God will do what God will do. It may even be salutary for us to “agonize” in our prayers – but not because we value the outcome more than the presence and communion of God. But sharing that with others, would seem to me to have gone beyond the bounds of intimacy. We easily make the point of the prayer the one who is praying and this sets up confusion in the mind of others.

    It is particularly difficult to compare Orthodox prayer practices with those of contemporary evangelicalism, because they have so many assumptions that are different. I suppose I am here sharing Orthodox assumptions and conclusions, and describing what I think is the tradition of prayer in Orthodoxy. Forgive me if I create confusion.

  6. fatherstephen Says:

    Lucian,
    Yes.

  7. elizabeth Says:

    Thank you. Fr. Stephen. It is now clear. I have only once run into a charismatic group. They attended our prayer group, and their manner of praying was so different from ours that I had significant problems processing their messages; they were not like anything I had ever experienced, but who am I to judge them? I just never interacted with them again not because I gained nothing from it (I did not) but because it all felt so odd that I balked at participating in their activities. I got a queasy feeling, and I usually follow that feeling. Our prayer group’s prayers are very simple; most of the members are from the working class Latino community and they are simple people. (Were I so simple!) As for religious persuasion, I am a converted Catholic (converted from decades of atheism), but of a traditional bent: our priests are Mexican and Irish (oh, and also we have one Latin mass each week). Although I don’t fully understand the differences between Orthodox and Catholic, I am comfortable at Russian Orthodox services, having attended quite a few during my days in Russia. (I am not at all familiar with the American version of Orthodoxy, if indeed there is any difference.)

    And no, I don’t talk about prayer the way you mentioned. It would feel like I was

  8. elizabeth Says:

    … [comment was truncated] … it would feel like I was sullying a very special relationship, so now, thanks to your clarification, I “get” what you meant.

    Thanks again!

  9. Lucian Says:

    “Yes”, indeed, Fr. Stephen… but it’s the kind of “yes” that makes me cry out “noooo !!!” from the top of my lungs…๐Ÿ˜ฆ

  10. fatherstephen Says:

    It’s not the yes we would choose.

  11. Lucian Says:

    Itโ€™s not the yes we would choose.

    “Yes”, as in “yes, we can”; and “choose” as in elect (to an office) ?๐Ÿ˜€ Amen to that, Father!๐Ÿ˜‰ [Just because I suffer doesn’t mean I’ve lost my sense of humor…]๐Ÿ™‚

  12. Greg Says:

    Irenaeus – could you post a link to the icon of St. Peter? I know many people were interested in the 4th century icon believed to be of St. Paul, as well as his relics, which were recently announced.

  13. Stephen Says:

    Fr. Stephen, I apologize in advance for the muddy thinking and writing but my time is limited and there are so many things to say and ask on the subject of prayer. I am a little confused about intercessory prayers since we make them during the liturgy. For example seasonable weather and other external things. (it would appear that the weather proceeds the same if we pray for it or not. We could be praying for sun so that we can have a successful church picnic and a farmer down the road could be praying for rain because their life depends on it. It may not rain and the person going to the picnic could think that their prayer was answered and if they had any idea, they would not trivialize God with such superficial matters.) Some ask for prayers that they might sell there house, etc. (maybe not selling the house ends up being the best thing). Meanwhile we may see the prayers of a dying child, with thousands of people praying for this child, seemingly go unanswered. All this to say that I find it difficult to pray for anything other than healing to fragmented lives and intercessory prayer seems selfish. I am not saying here that I have such a lofty view of prayer, but only that these thoughts come from experience and a sense of being let down when praying for specific outcomes. I just can’t pray for any specific event, whether for someone to sell there house, get a new job or find physical healing.

    If it is all about communion with God and He will do as He wills, than why ask for anything other than ones own salvation, family and the rest of the world and let God work out the details?

  14. Irenaeus of New York Says:

    Hi Greg,

    I may have misspoke as to whether the icon was of St Peter or St. Paul. I will have to find the article again. However, the vatican website has a virtual tour of the necropolis below St Peters and you can see the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles below the basilica, which is not far from where in Rome St Paul is buried in any case. I sometimes confuse the archaeological activity at both sites in my head.

  15. Irenaeus of New York Says:

    Lucian, Fr Stephen,

    Please forgive my ignorance. But can you explain what you mean by your comments on the video of the late President Kennedy?

  16. Lucian Says:

    Sorry, Irenaeus, but since You’re a Roman-Catholic, and since that particular confession of faith has its religious capital situated in the Vatican, which is in Rome, which is in Italy, where the Mafia is, then You must already know that the mobsters have a saying… and it goes like this: Cosa Nostra!๐Ÿ˜‰๐Ÿ™‚

    P.S.: Why does America need Orthodoxy when it already has Kennedy? (And Aeschylus).๐Ÿ˜€

  17. Ryan Says:

    The picture on the news anyway was of St Paul, and the main significance was that it was the 1st image of him that we have. We have archaeological examples of images of Christ and Mary, as well as of OT patriarchs, that precede the 4th century, and probably date back well into the 2nd. Many Lukan icons supposedly exist, but we may not have the originals. We hear of a painting of St John made from life, but he apparently did not approve (“it’s a dead picture of the dead” – what exactly does that mean Father?)
    Having been to both of those esteemed Apostles’ tombs, I must confess that Paul’s was more moving – one can actually see the coffin in which he lay.
    The Vatican virtual tour is excellent, Irenaeus!

  18. Irenaeus of New York Says:

    Lucian,

    Sorry, I honestly still donโ€™t understand. Even with the 360 degrees of separation between Kennedy and Rome.๐Ÿ™‚ I do have an open ear.

    As you may know, Kennedy is an American hero both in terms of his service in WWII and his central role in preventing a nuclear holocaust that would have surely destroyed life on earth. His overcoming Roman Catholic bigotry to become president doesnโ€™t mean he possesses faculties in teaching Catholicism or that he was good roman catholic (which is plainly obvious that he wasnโ€™t). I was wondering if your objection was to the phrase “aweful grace” in the video or to Aeschylus himself? Though I canโ€™t be sure exactly what you and Fr. Stephen are objecting to. Again, please excuse my ignorance.

  19. Irenaeus of New York Says:

    Thanks Ryan. I guess it was the oldest known icon of St Paul. I didnt read that article carefully enough. Life is too busy:)

  20. Lucian Says:

    We’re not objecting to anything. Objections are raised by lawyers and attorneys in a court of law; but Orthodoxy isn’t legalistic.

  21. Irenaeus of New York Says:

    I dont think my post went through, hoopefully it doesnt duplicate..

    Ryan,

    thanks for clarifying what I said. I didnt read the article carefully enough. It was the oldest icon of St Paul. Life is too busy for me:)

  22. Irenaeus of New York Says:

    Hi Lucian,

    I dont really have an opinion on your 4:39pm post with regards to Eastern Orthodoxy.

    Too clarify my words… could you kindly explain what the “sobering thought” was in the video then?

    Many thanks

  23. Lucian Says:

    … besides the obvious references to pain, despair, and the like, You mean?๐Ÿ˜

  24. fatherstephen Says:

    Ireaneus,

    The sobering thought for me was simply that wisdom does indeed sometimes flow from suffering – and that the grace of God can be “awful” in its original sense. I’m not entirely certain what the video had to do with the posted article – except for the “sobering” connection.

    Lucian,
    Just a word of caution. Communication is very difficult in the setting of comments (and almost anywhere on the net). Comments that are too terse or paradoxical, etc., make for interesting conversation face to face but can create confusion or simply failed communication in this setting.

  25. Irenaeus of New York Says:

    Lucian,

    I guess I thought you were trying to say something more profound as I was unable to relate it to Fr Stephens use of the word “sober”. My bad.

  26. Lucian Says:

    Iโ€™m not entirely certain what the video had to do with the posted article โ€“ except for the โ€œsoberingโ€ connection.

    Some people pray for lavish “wonders”, some people pray for their lives. And people experiencing such states as those described in the video are more prone to prayer during those times than they are in others. That’s all. (And I’m one of them).

  27. fatherstephen Says:

    Ah – that’s helpful. It’s also true that some are simply crushed by such things and cannot pray at all – though I sometimes think that even that inability is something of a prayer in itself.

  28. J.D. Says:

    Irenaeus,

    John Kennedy, an American hero, tell that to Joe Dimaggio!

  29. Lucian Says:

    I’ve experienced such moments myself..๐Ÿ˜ฆ but only rarely, thank Heavens..!๐Ÿ˜ Crushed with the strength of a hundred men!

  30. Stephen Says:

    Fr. Stephen, I had a question awhile back that seems to have got lost in a sea of comments on Kennedy, the Catholic Church and lost icons. Not sure what those things have to do with the original post? Anyway my questions are about intercessory prayer and how we are to understand their purpose when asking for specific things?

  31. Irenaeus of New York Says:

    Lucian, Fr Stephen,

    Thanks for explaining.

  32. fatherstephen Says:

    Stephen,

    Sorry. I had not lost the comment, I’ve been gathering my thoughts on the question. My efforts to write about prayer as communion are partly to place prayer in, I think, its proper context and somewhat removed from the “cause and effect” model that most hold in their mind when thinking about intercessory prayer.

    Our prayers are not unrelated to what goes on around us – nor is it simply “God will do what He wants anyway” (of course He will – though this fails to state the mystery of both what He wills and of what role we play in what He wills).

    Two things come to mind.

    First is the mystery of cause and effect. Cause and effect is useful for physics but is not entirely useful when thinking about God’s relationship with the universe. I don’t mean to sound too subtle – but when I thinking of God as “casue” I think more in terms of “causelessly causing.” His relationship in which all things are sustained in and by Him remains beyond critical observation. If it was the subject of such observation then Richard Dawkins would go out of business.

    In our communion with God we enter into that “causelessly causing.” I pray as the prayers of the Church teach me to pray. And without trying to solve the big picture, I give thanks for all things.

    I recall asking the intercessions of St. Elijah before a daughter’s wedding (with an outdoor reception) on a day that had been stormy and part of a succession of stormy days. The weather was fine. I don’t know how it was down the road, and trust that God took care of all things. We don’t have to manage the world. But it is right for us to gather up our concerns for all these things around us and unite them to Christ in our prayer. And give thanks at the end of all things because He is good.

    But I do not fear or think that my prayers will cause anything. I also trust that what God causes will remain about as hidden to prying eyes as pretty everything He does is. But in my thanksgiving I see Him at work in all things and marvel at the mystery of it all.

    Having said that – I will say that some prayer and what follows feels almost like cause and effect. By the same token, some prayer and what does not follow feels almost like nobody is listening. And so we push deeper into the mystery of God – knowing that neither feeling is quite accurate.

  33. Fr. Vasile Tudora Says:

    Fr. Stephen, Stephen,

    I think the intercessory prayers problem is less complicated than that. It is obvious that we cannot force God into fulfilling our little and petty needs. There are however times in our personal prayer life when we ask for more tangible things beside peace of the world and the salvation of our souls.

    In this case the most important thing is not to press a certain answer, but present a problem and let God solve it in a way He sees fit, not according to our selfish interests but according to His will.

    One of the morning prayers to the Mother of God illustrates this very point :

    O my gracious Queen, my hope, Birthgiver of God, who receive the poor and help the travelers; joy of those who sorrow, shelter for the oppressed; Behold my affliction and see my needs. Help me as you would one in despair; feed me as you would a stranger. You know all my troubles, absolve them according to your will, for I have no other help but you, no other ready shelter or comfort but you, O Mother of God, to help me and protect me unto ages of ages. Amen.โ€ (Morning Prayers)

    A similar question is present also in the wisdom of the Holy Fathers. Here are two stories about what is and what is not acceptable to pray for

    Story 1: What we should not pray for
    The brothers said, “What kind of prayer is that which is not acceptable before God?” The old man said, “The prayer for the destruction of enemies. When we ask that evil things may come upon those who do harm to us, and for bodily health, and abundance of possessions, and fertility in respect of children, these requests are not acceptable before God. If God beareth with us, who are sinners and who offend Him, how much more is it right that we should bear each with the other? It is, then, not meet that we should ask for the things which concern the body, for the wisdom of God provideth everything necessary.”

    Story 2: What we should pray for
    The brothers said, “In what way ought we to pray before God?” The old man said, “For the repentance of sinners, the finding of the lost, the drawing near of those who are far off, friendliness toward those who do us harm, love towards those who persecute us, and sorrowful care for those who provoke God to wrath. And if a man doeth these things truly and with a penitent mind, the sinners will often gain life, and the living soul will be redeemed.

    Now the prayer which our Lord delivered to us as to the needs of the body is one which applies to the whole community, and it was not uttered for the sake of those who are strangers to the world, and with whom the pleasures of the body are held in contempt. He in whose life the kingdom of God and His righteousness are found lacks nothing, even when he asks not.” END

    from “The Paradise of the Holy Fathers,” vol. II, translated by E. A. Wallis Budge, (Seattle: St. Nectarios Press, 1984), p. 332-333.

    Just my 2 cents.

  34. fatherstephen Says:

    Fr. Vasile,

    Yes – I agree it is as simple as the fathers indicate.

    My suggestion about “causelessly causing” is for those who press the question and are troubled by the thoughts that arise from thinking of these matters in a “cause and effect” manner. The mystery is deeper than our language – though the practice is quite simple – as you aptly cited.

    Thank you, my brother.

  35. Jen G. Says:

    Fr. Vasile,

    Re. story #1 – how is praying for children not acceptable to God?

  36. Grace Little Says:

    Fr. Stephen, I copied and pasted the utube url, maybe somehow it was highjacked. I see by followup comments, that others have viewed the site and it must have been legitimate.

  37. fatherstephen Says:

    Grace,
    I found that I had to type www. and then paste the url for it to work. I checked it again and it still seems to work (even without the www). The problem you mentioned must have been some sort of highjack. Internet is a dangerous place!

  38. Grace Little Says:

    Thank you!

  39. fatherstephen Says:

    Jen,

    I’m not certain about that. There are many places in Scripture where the righteous pray for children. There are also many wonder-working icons and relics and the like known in Orthodoxy (such as the sash of the Theotokos) that are specifically associated with blessings of child-bearing. Thus, I cannot think why it is wrong to pray for children. Nor, considering the prayers of the Church for health, can I understand that it is wrong to pray for health. What is wrong is to desire these things rather than God, or to treat God simply as a “santa claus” figure. It is this that I hear in the elder’s words.

  40. Steve Says:

    Let prayer always be directed by the fire of God’s love. There’s nothing worse than an incoherent ramble (happens to the best of us). I find it’s better to “be still” and seek God in silence if at a loss for words.

    One particular verse stuck me during prayers this evening:

    “Then said he (John) to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father… And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees, every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire” Luke 3:7–9.

    Wow. Fruit worthy of repentance. What was it that Jesus said about angels rejoicing in heaven when the lost sheep return to the fold?

  41. Fr. Vasile Tudora Says:

    Jen,

    I had similar doubts when I first read the stories. Here are some possible explanations, although the saying of the Fathers are not as “open” to simple explanations.

    The Story #1 should be read in the context of the monastic life in the Desert of Egypt. All the fathers that were struggling there were committed to a way of life that emphasized the spiritual over the physical at a higher level than the laity of the cities. From their perspective the body, although important, was considered secondary and had to be taken care of only as it was necessary for the fulfillment of their monastic duties. The extreme fasting regime, all night vigils, prostrations, sleeping on stone etc. were means that helped them to control the body and its passions deemed detrimental for the prayer life.

    Regarding the children, it is unclear to me also, but, I agree with Fr. Stephen in the sense that sometimes some people are so driven in their desire of having children that this completely clouds all the other blessing received already from God. The confusion comes from the fact that people often mistake the purpose of marriage with having children, while the children are not a purpose in themselves but a blessing that God bestows on the couple according to His will. The purpose of marriage is primarily salvific and sometimes the fruits of the couple are not the children but a higher life in Christ expressed in the marital union.

  42. Fr. Vasile Tudora Says:

    Fr. Stephen,
    The mystery is indeed above words!
    Christ is in our midst!

  43. fatherstephen Says:

    Thank you, Father, well put. I thought about the monastic context on the first story as well (after I posted my comment). The abandonment to the Divine Will is quite complete in the practice of many monastics – in which you would ask nothing for yourself. But it differs from the general rule of life (though it points us beyond our own self-will).

  44. Stephen Says:

    Fr. Stephen, thanks for the thoughtful response. My questions generate from a true desire to transcend cause and affect into a real relationship with God. Yes, I agree with what you say and am certain that I am a product of a world very much attached to cause and effect. Old habits die hard and it is difficult to erase certain patterns of thinking from the mind, then again that is part of the problem because we have delegated issues of the heart to the mind instead. The question is where do we go from here? How to free the heart from the mind? Partially through prayer I would assume but how do we find the energy and the true desire to pray? Another part of the problem seems to be the need for experience. For how can we know anything of God unless we experience it? But what if there is no experience or it is severely lacking? It seems one must always return to mystery. One keeps pressing and coming up against this wall of mystery. This gives the feeling of separation from God and a feeling of isolation. When we make a break from cause and affect into mystery, which can not be explained, there is no longer any feeling of a solid place to stand and with out the personal knowledge and experience of God than it becomes difficult to know if one has created a fabrication in their mind. I am quite certain that this is all somewhat redundant and this Blog has repeated these issues many times over but I for one am someone who needs to hear things many times before it sinks in. Thanks.

  45. fatherstephen Says:

    Stephen,

    It is very difficult, I agree. But there is no experience except that we blunder forward. And so I go along, praying, learning, and praying. It gets better.

  46. Sea of Sin Says:

    Stephen,

    This mystery, mixed with faith, can also become a powerful impetus to “press in and press on”. For if it was all clear and easy, then we would be better called magicians instead of Christians. As it is we cast all our cares on Him, He who is called the Good Shepherd, He who turns our water into wine.

  47. Jen G. Says:

    Frs. Stephen and Vasile,

    Thanks for your responses – it makes more sense to me when viewed within those contexts. When I first read the quote I had difficulty reconciling it with the multitude of instances within Scripture and within the prayers of the Church (particularly the wedding service) that seem to indicate praying for children is a good thing.

  48. Andrea Says:

    Stephen and Fatherstephen,
    In reference to the wall of mystery .As a catechumen trying to overcome 25 years of Protestant theology I am in just that place right now. FatherStephen if you could speak more to that issue of hitting that wall I would appreciate it because just ‘blunder forward’ is at best leading me into a chasm of sadness and despair.
    How does one ‘stand in the presence of God’ in the heart/mind when one prays if one is not supposed to engage ones imagination….I am a visual thinker….there is a piece here I am missing but it is crucial. It is hurtful and frustrating in the extreme because I feel like a close connection I had with God has been sundered. Please speak to this is you have a chance.

  49. fatherstephen Says:

    Andrea,
    I think the use of icons in prayer has been the best way I know “across the wall.” The difficulty with imagination (as with thought itself) is that these things have no true control – nothing that grounds them in reality. Thus to pray to God, “as I imagine Him,” is interesting, but easily misleading. I would be particularly alert to the hurt and frustration and the chasm of sadness and despair. It is tremendously important to be speaking with your local priest where the conversation is so much more complete than we can have here. If you do not have a local priest, then I’d back off and use the imagination for a while.

    The elder Sophrony once said about prayer, “Stand at the edge of the abyss until you can take it no more. Then have a cup of tea.” I do assure you that the close connection with God has not been sundered. But only be careful in all of this.

    Familiar patterns are hard to change and we need to approach it slowly.

  50. Supernova Says:

    But why not stand on the edge of the Abyss and just step off in Faith? You can always have a cup of tea later.

  51. fatherstephen Says:

    Context. It is the abyss (Hades) of which he speaks in that passage. If you know the reality, you cannot just glibly do anything.

  52. The Ignatian Examen Says:

    Father Stephen

    Are you saying that Elder Sophrony had to be taken to the brink of Hell to experience something Heavenly in Prayer? This seems a bit ‘upside down’.

    “The elder Sophrony once said about prayer, โ€œStand at the edge of the abyss until you can take it no more. Then have a cup of tea.โ€

    Why do we have to go through Hell to then take a break and have a cupof tea, in working on our prayer Lives? Is this an appropriate suggestion for someone who has just told you they want to stand in the presence of God and they feel like thier efforts in Prayer are leading them into a chasm of despair and sadness? This just seems an odd context – obviously saying something glib like “jump off” is unhelpful, but how does it help if you are going through Hell to gaze into Hell, hoping to see something Heavenly?

  53. fatherstephen Says:

    It is necessary to read him to get the context. His elder, St. Silouan, is famous for year spent in the greatest suffering, enduring Hades, and yet finding comfort from Christ, as he learned to empty himself and entering into that frightful existential place and offer prayers for the whole world. There are places to be gone in prayer that are difficult. Fr. Sophrony’s words were those of encouragement to another such man of prayer. I see them as words to tell us to pray up to a point, and in need be, take a break for prayer. There is nothing “necessary” in any of this, only the free following of Christ where He has gone.

    To know the love of God it is necessary sometimes to walk in union with Him into the depths of that love. It will take you to some strange places. It is also important to understand Orthodox accounts of Hades, versus the Westernized notions. There rather different.

  54. Lillies of the Valley Says:

    Yes, But Father, St. Silouan was in agony and nearly went mad from the experience – are you saying we should take similar risks in the pursuit of Holiness? This sounds like an Alice in Wonderland trip and having tea with the Mad Hatter – to say we descend into Hell to ascend into Heaven seems to be taking risks with Psychology and the risk of a breakdown. What would you do, if at Confession you were told you need to take a vacation and you should consider a road trip to Hell?

  55. fatherstephen Says:

    It’s a voluntary journey. By prayer you only get there because you’re following Christ. Of course I meet people there all the time in the parish life – it’s at the confessional.

    It is not a normative description . Nothing to worry about. The point, is that even if we find ourselves in the most difficult of places. Don’t be unreasonable. Take a break as needed, have a cup of tea. Do not apply a Dantean model onto this description. It’s quite a different matter. Certainly not Alice in Wonderland. It’s the inner landscape. Read the following post as well.

  56. Lillies of the Valley Says:

    Father Stephen

    If my Inner Landscape was a Vision of Hell, I really would need acup of tea and not just one.

  57. fatherstephen Says:

    It is language used in a very existential manner. When we find ourselves in prayer for others (even for ourselves) and find ourselves in great anguish, there is something of the experience of which Fr. Sophrony described. And yet if we love someone, we may very enter into such suffering in order to pray for them.

    It is not an experience we choose to do for experience’ sake. I dare say your inner landscape has a number of very dark places into which you would prefer not to enter. We all do. I wouldn’t go there ever except in the light of Christ. It is someplace He may take us to heal us.

    But these are very deep matters. And I should not discuss them so…

    If you are interested in its meaning. Read, Father Sophrony’s We Shall See Him As He Is. It might be insightful.

    If this whole discussion is unhelpful or frightening. Please forget it completely. I am only an ignorant man.

  58. Lillies of the Valley Says:

    Father Stephen

    Yes, this makes sense from the way Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane:

    “It is language used in a very existential manner. When we find ourselves in prayer for others (even for ourselves) and find ourselves in great anguish, there is something of the experience of which Fr. Sophrony described. And yet if we love someone, we may very enter into such suffering in order to pray for them.”

    As for inner Landscapes I do not confuse Church with a Psychiatric institution – only an act of ignorance would do that – and you are not ignorant Father or you would not have been permitted to undergo the Sacrament of Ordination.

  59. Thomas Hermansson Says:

    Somewhere I read something by the same man, and I think perhaps they are connected:

    “To pray is to bleed”.

    Very profound words…They also remind me of something I think an ancient martyr said: “Give blood, and receive the Spirit!”.

  60. Thomas Hermansson Says:

    Correction: I don’t remember if it was Silouan, or Sophrony who said the above cited words. But I don’t think it would make a difference.

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