Now we plunge into the bulk of the text, and the first chapter is an excerpt from a late medieval Russian hesychast, St. Dimitri of Rostov. He is a figure almost unknown in the West. His spiritual writings bridge that span when Russia crosses over from the medieval into its own early modern period. It is a time before the great hesychast renewal inaugurated by the translations of Paisius Velichkovsky of the Greek compilation known as the Philokalia. The hesychast tradition was alive and well in the small sketes and hermitages in the Russian wilderness and in certain of the large monasteries, but the general populace and most monks and priests were not much “into it” as we would say today. Thus St.Dimitri tells us of the paucity of knowledge about inner prayer among people in his time (and this may surprise some or they may consider it an exaggeration). We might want to say to St. Dimitri that you don’t know how really bad it can get! And Merton in his The Inner Experience echoes such sentiments.
There is a lovely book on Zen called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. There is the sense that what St. Dimitri is talking about is not only a description of a certain situation in his own time, but more like a state of mind that one should have at any time in approaching the reality of inner prayer. In a sense, he is saying that we all need to have this attitude of being beginners as far as inner prayer goes. A clumsy adoption and adaptation of the Zen title would be: Hesychast’s Heart, Beginner’s Heart. Andre Louf, a Trappist monk and a hesychast teacher of prayer, also points to this as an essential attitude and state of heart as we approach the reality of inner prayer. St. Dimitri: “Therefore some idea of inner training and spiritual prayer is given here for the instruction of beginners….” Make no mistake about it, we are all beginners as far as this awesome reality of inner prayer and communion with God goes. And if we want to make progresss, we will always be beginners–that is the great spiritual paradox.
The title of the chapter is “The Inner Closet of the Heart,” and the word “closet” is a poor translation of the word from the Gospel of Matthew that is often translated simply as “room.” Nevertheless the idea is the important thing, and St. Dimitri and the whole hesychast tradition relies heavily on this text about prayer. There we find this call to go into a secret room, an inner room, in order to pray. Obviously this is not a physical space as such but a whole understanding of the human makeup. For St. Dimitri and many others, there is this anthropology of “dual spaces” as it were: the “inner man,” and the “outer man.” This is found all over in classic Christian spirituality and it has its roots in the Gospel and St. Paul. If one does not misunderstand it, if one does not take it too literally but sees the metaphorical nature of such language, if it doesn’t become a rigid structure of fixed ideas about the human, it will prove to be helpful and clarifying. For there is such a thing as outer prayer, for example, and inner prayer–as St. Dimitri points out. In outer prayer we say a lot of words, we use books, we use gestures, we sing hymns, etc. The world of inner prayer is quite different. However, this kind of breakdown of the human world into two parts can also be very misleading. In a sense there is no outer or inner with regard to prayer. In fact the hesychasts themselves, as we shall see later, want to lead us to a place where prayer suffuses everything, penetrates everything, fills up everything that we are and we do.
In the hesychast tradition the world of inner prayer has to do with the heart, and this word “heart” is actually a very rich and complex term. It does not have a simple reference to that physical organ by which our bodies function. The “heart” here of course refers to the very depths and center of a human person. It is the place where you and God are one in love and freedom. We say “in love” because you and God are not physically one, but one in terms of love. God’s love for you is absolute and infinite and always there–otherwise you would cease to exist. That stranger over there who is a stranger to you is also loved infinitely by God and walks in His Light–unawares though he may be. So by the mere fact of your existence you are totally one with God in His Love. What of course is called for is that you respond to this love with your whole being. That’s the point of the First Commandment. We also say “in freedom” because tragically enough we can say “no” to this Love. Nevertheless our freedom (and this we shall have to discuss at length at some point because of its pop misuse), our freedom is already a sign of God’s Presence to us–it is that Divine Life flowing in us of which we are normally so oblivious.
In a sense the very meaning of inner prayer is to abide in that Love and that Freedom, and to abide in it constantly with awareness. To live by it. This is the “true bread” “in the desert.” Our existence itself is a kind of desert. Because we are scattered creatures filled with varying and diverse desires, fears, anxieties, an outer structure of prayer is very much needed to help us focus. Furthermore, as St. Dimitri points, a brief, oft-repeated prayer, like the Jesus Prayer helps one focus on that Presence in the heart. There will be much more about this in later chapters by other authors. Suffice it to say that St. Dimitri points us in the direction of “continual prayer,” or “unceasing prayer,” which is really a conscious, gentle abiding in the Love and Freedom that brings one existence from moment to moment and every gift moment to moment. There is nothing that is without that Love, whether it be a trillion stars in the thousands upon thousands of galaxies spread over unimaginable space where light takes billions of years to travel through, or it be a blade of grass, an ant, a little flower, a drop of rain rolling down your window, etc. In the end you will discover that there is ONLY the Presence of Love, and inner and outer are just temporary terms.
But in the meanwhile let us turn to that inner place and place our attention there and hear our name being called as we are called into existence from moment to moment out of pure emptiness and into the Fullness of Love and Freedom. As St. Dimitri puts it: “Man needs to enclose himself in the inner closet of his heart more often than he needs to go to church….”