The unthinkable is so often equated with the unspeakable that I hesitate to turn it in another direction, and yet the unthinkable for so many of us is that we might actually be able to manage more than we do, do more than we think, and… most surprisingly of all… even like it. Yes by now, I’ve become one of those people who love church and the Orthodox Church in particular. I used to dread my kind…the foamers. Used to put out the ol’ force field and everything… like they were some sort of bodysnatchers. And here I am…. and if I still dread myself, it’s in a whole new way… for which the Church – when it acts as the Church… offers the cure. That there might appear to be a self-reinforcing circular logic in this… I admit to the possibility but not as a defect; rather it seems a superabundance of energy… like some perpetual motion machine.
But the thing that brings this to mind is the whole notion of ceaseless prayer… because it seems unthinkable that we should be able to do it without becoming caught up in some sort of manic obsession. We seem to have been a number of crash-and-burns over this one, and equally a tendency towards surrender to the impossibility. Of the two, I’d admit more to the second temptation than the first, but the first has its attractions. My guess it that this doesn’t differ all too much from the notion of authentic love of another person of the sort we manage with our spouses… try too hard, become too self-conscious and the whole loses its authenticity, becomes awkward, inept and more of a sense of being in love with love… in a narcissistic way… for our own selfish purposes… for our own personal good rather than the good of the person we profess to love. And yeah, I would suppose that those more sophisticated among our atheistic detractors could point to this tendency as a flaw in our delusion if they weren’t so often similarly caught up in their own (see excerpts from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom’s “On God and Man” in archives here) pretense to pride in their virtue.
So how do we avoid all of these detours and nevertheless scoot down the road the right way? Beats me… or for a long time it certainly has had me buffaloed. I mean honestly, how in particular as sleepers come awake in our faith, are we ever supposed to develop a natural sense of prayer and grow into an unforced extension of ourselves beyond the mere seedlings and buds… to become the more fully developed Christians we’re meant to be… without panicking over our lack of progress or alternatively mustering some sort inhuman superhuman effort to get “somewhere”? How in other words do we simply remain faithful, obedient, and let God do the work?
Dunno. My bit so far has been to just try not to go crazy or give up. As my priest once said, “Just be faithful.” So I suppose what we’re looking for is something organic, good for you, and natural… and as any shopper knows, that’s just another sort of Holy Grail. I wonder in my better moments whether this desire is simply the “Thirsting and Hungering after righteousness” but not losing our minds about it… having faith and confidence that God will do His bit and offer it if in fact it is helpful, and withhold it if in wisdom it is better to do so. And so we seek by not seeking… want by not wanting… and by not accepting ourselves as we are, accept ourselves as we become or might become pleasing to God for His sake rather than our own, for the sake of that person next to us or over “there”.
Seems to me that others are able to turn off the voice in their heads and naturally become the Christians they were meant to be. My path seeks that inner silence… loudly. Turning again to our Traditionalist, Fr. David Cownie, he quotes his Metropolitan Cyprian at length on this in a way that seems helpful:
“The Faithful commonly offer this convenient excuse when we give them the brotherly counsel that they should cultivate ceaseless prayer: ‘How is it possible to pray unceasingly amidst the world and its distractions?’
Indeed, could it be that the injunction of St. Paul to ‘pray without ceasing,’ an instruction certainly not addressed only to monks and ascetics, but to newly-enlightened Christians living in idolatrous surroundings, is unattainable? Most assuredly not. Let us, then delve into this vital matter.
A basic error on the part of the Faithful, with regard to prayer, is that they think of prayer as being restricted to words alone. Our prayer, in fact, is an expression of our spiritual disposition, and it becomes constant and more ardent when accompanied by good works. The entire life of a renewed Christian is a prayer; his existence is an offering of glorification to our Lord and God. It is a material manifestation of yet another Apostolic command: ‘Whether ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.’
Thus it is that St. Basil the Great tells us to pray whenever we sit at a table. When you eat bread, thank Him Who gave it to you. When you drink wine, remember Him Who provided you with this gift, that your heart might be gladdened. Is your hunger satisfied? Do not forget the Benefactor. When you dress, thank Him Who gave you clothes, increasing your love for God, Who bestows upon us garments for both winter and summer. Is the day finished? Thank our Lord, Who gave us the sun, that we might do the works of the day, and Who gave us fire to serve the needs of the night. And again in the evening, raise up your eyes to the Heavens and the beauty of the stars, glorifying the Master Fashioner, Who made all with wisdom.
In this manner, without our perceiving it, our hearts are drawn close to God: we live in an atmosphere of Grace, we breathe God, we pray unceasingly. And certainly it is to this that prayer aspires – not only, then, to formal repetition of designated prayers at an appointed hour. Prayer and glorification on the road, at work, at meetings, on outings, everywhere and always: this is unceasing prayer.
The beginning of ceaseless prayer is, without doubt, difficult. But we have divine allies. These are the Holy Angels. As the Holy Fathers say, ‘the Holy Angels urge us on to prayer, accompanying us and delighting in the prayers for us.’ Let us not be negligent, contriving ‘excuses for sins,’ but let us press ourselves, that we might become living Christians, people of prayer, and dwelling places of the Holy Spirit.”
- pp. 18-19, “A Guide to Orthodox Life: Some Beliefs, Customs, and Traditions of the Church” by Fr. David Cownie and Presbytera Juliana Cownie; 1992 by Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, Etna California. Met. Cyprian’s excerpt quoted here in turn comes from ‘Words on Prayer’, Orthodox Tradition, Vol. 1, Nos. 4 and 5 (1984), p. 12.
Nicely put. Only trick to this… is doing it. Still hard, but at least a more approachable goal… even if still some ways out there (for me).