Chapter 2 of the book is a collection of excerpts from the writings of St. Theophan the Recluse. In fact the bulk of this book is from Theophan, one of the most remarkable figures in Russian monasticism. He lived during the peak of the Hesychast renewal in 19th century Russia, and also he was one of the most educated men in Russian monasticism. For something like 20 years he lived as a recluse, but he guided hundreds if not thousands of people through correspondence. He also had an enormous library which included not only the Fathers of the Church but also western philosophy.
The chapter begins with a continuing theme: what is prayer? This may seem like a simple question, but in actuality it is a very complex and deep question. But St. Theophan has a difficult but practical objective to lead us into the depths of inner prayer: “What is prayer? What is its essence? How can we learn to pray?” The importance of the question is emphasized: “Prayer is the test of everything; prayer is also the source of everything; prayer is the driving force of everything; prayer is also the director of everything.” The spiritual life is the ground and foundation of all we do and all we are, and prayer is the foundation of the spiritual life.
Next St. Theophan points to “different degrees” of prayer. In a sense he starts with the outer layers and moves inward. The 1st degree has to do with our bodies–this involves reading, bodily posture, and movements like prostrations and kneeling, etc. This is not superficial stuff because we want to bring our bodies into this flow as it were. St. Theophan makes a point that this may be hard, especially when we “feel nothing” and don’t feel like praying. He tells us to have a “moderate rule” of prayer–meaning we should not pile up a lot of physical practices and put large demands on ourselves in terms of getting a lot of vocal prayer done. But to do something is important, and to keep at it is important because it will lead to a kind of focus on prayer. And that leads us to St. Theophan’s second degree of prayer. We are still here in the realm of active, maybe even vocal, prayer, but the important thing is that our attention and our focus is consistently on the reality of God as it unfolds through the words we say or sing. Then we come to the heart of prayer, the third degree. Now our focus and attention is continuous. This is the beginning of inner prayer. St. Theophan then alludes to an even deeper realm of prayer: “But there is, they say, [note he does not speak from his own authority–whether this be from humility or because he had not reached that state himself, we do not know], yet another kind of prayer which cannot be comprehended by our mind, and which goes beyond the limits of consciousness: on this read St. Isaac the Syrian.”
Again and again St. Theophan returns to discuss the “essence of prayer.” Some may find this repetitive, but you have to realize that the editors are simply taking snippets from his extensive writings and lumping it all together in this anthology. But you can see even from this that St. Theophan returned to this topic all the time. The essence of prayer is not easy to put into words, but for him and this hesychast tradition it has to do with a kind of turning of the heart toward God and abiding in his Presence. Let us recall that one of the chief characteristics of being human is “intentionality.” Intentionality is a kind of turning toward something, a reaching for something, etc. When we are hungry or tired we turn toward sleep or food–we have an intention to meet that felt need. When we are in the presence of a friend, we turn toward the person in our attention and relationality. Our intention is toward fostering that friendship. Intentions can also be misdirected. In any case, ultimately intentionality has to do with the core of our being, called “the heart” in this tradition. What is it turned towards? That is the key question. If we understand this, we will understand the real role of asceticism, liturgical prayer, solitude, silence, etc. We experience a phenominal world, sometime pleasureable, sometime painful; we have a myriad collection of fears, anxieties, desires roaming through our consciousness, we have an ego self, and all kinds of identity markers, both social and inner. Whatever be the nature of their reality, St. Theophan exhorts us to turn that core of our being toward the Presence of God. This is going to be real hard work! Precisely because of that whole phenomenal world that percolates in and around us. Modern life especially wants to capture our intentionality toward consumption and superficial surfaces–it denies the very existence of that “inner room” or it pleads a kind of agnosticism about it. Ok, so whether it be in St. Theophan’s time or our time, perhaps we will need hymns, vocal prayers, bodily gestures, meditative reading, etc at the start. The role of the Jesus Prayer comes into play here. Also, our Islamic brethren can teach us a lot here. They are called to turn toward Mecca 5 times a day in prayer. This physical gesture is a physical icon of what they(and we) are called to do at the heart level as we turn toward the Holy Presence. Once this intentionality of the heart toward that Holy Presence has been firmly established, it will begin to fill all else that we do during the day. It will also keep us from getting diverted into the superficial realm of modern consumerism.
While at first that turning may have been toward what felt like “nothing” and silence and emptiness, that “nothingness” eventually will become unveiled as a Presence beyond and without words, images, or thoughts. Then, and this is the big thing, that “turning,” that which we have called prayer, will live in us by a dynamic that is no longer of our own making or effort. At that point there is only One Prayer and only One who is Praying.
There is one more teaching that St. Theophan alludes to in this chapter, and this is extremely difficult to put into words precisely because it is so easy to misunderstand and misapply. If we reach that highest level of prayer, we will see that everything in our life is a gift from God. Everything, and we will accept everything precisely as that. Thus our sickness, our loss, that “slap in the face,” etc. etc. it is all from God. Now looking at that “from the outside,” this looks like the worst kind of determinism, a loss of common sense, an abandonment to a sick kind of passivity. And indeed to teach someone that message without that reality of prayer would be gravely irresponsible. Here also we touch base with our Sufi friends. But once we are in that realm of continuous prayer, we see all reality differently.
St. Theophan is also quick to point out to all of us what we have previously termed as “Hesychast’s heart, Beginner’s heart”:
“You must never regard any spiritual work as firmly established, and this is especially true of prayer but always pray as if beginning for the first time. When we do a thing for the first time, we come to it fresh and with a new-born enthusiasm. If, when starting to pray, you always approach it as though you had never yet prayed properly, and only now for the first time wished to do so, you will always pray with a fresh and lively zeal. And all will go well.”