"Be Still and Know that I am God": St. Gregory of Sinai on Prayer
In a culture that thrives upon and craves constant stimulation of the senses and imagination, the spirituality of the Christian East presents the Western mind (as noted in a previous post) with something of an enigma. With the exception of a few rare instances, the ascetic struggle and the manner of praying that is part of that struggle, notably the practice of the Jesus prayer, the Philokalia presents a spirituality that is “apophatic”. While it allows to a certain extent a place for the feelings and for the meditation on things Divine through the liturgy and praying the psalms, the spirituality of the Philokalia and of St. Gregory of Sinai whose work “On Prayer” we will be considering in this post, avoids any trace of sentimental emotionalism and carefully warns against the ever-present danger of delusion by false visions of light and of indiscriminately trusting one’s own judgment in regards to spiritual realities. “In the West, there is a strong tradition of using images (kataphatic prayer), as well as imageless (apophatic) prayer. In the East, however, and especially in the Athonite spirituality contained in the Philokalia, the use of images is strongly discouraged. . . .Imageless prayer is seen as superior to the use of images in prayer and as necessary to unceasing prayer” and to defeat the devil’s attempt to distract us from the pure and inner prayer of the heart. This can often be challenging for those in the West who are given to understand that words and images are integral to the practice of prayer. The stilling and purifying of the intellect (nous), that is the eye of heart, is essential in the Philokalic tradition. “Unceasing prayer is an inner activity of the intellect, and the lack of outward expression does not mean that it has ceased.” Rather, the goal is to open the heart fully and completely to the indwelling presence of Christ: “The aim of the Jesus Prayer, as of all prayer, is to reveal in a conscious and dynamically active way ‘the energy of the Holy Spirit, which we have already received in baptism.’ Through the invocation of the Holy Name, we are enabled to pass from the stage when baptismal grace is present in our hearts merely in a hidden and unconscious manner, to the point of full awareness at which we experience the activity of this grace directly and consciously.”
As we shall see in the writings of St. Gregory, this is a labor of love that requires patience, endurance, humility and, most of all, the grace of God.
“No one can master the intellect (nous) unless he himself is mastered by the Spirit. For the intellect is uncontrollable, not because it is by nature ever-active, but because through our continual remissness it has been given over to distraction and has become used to that. When we violated the commandments of Him who in baptism regenerates us we separated ourselves from God and lost our conscious awareness of Him and our union with Him. Sundered from that union and estranged from God, the intellect is led captive everywhere; and it cannot regain its stability unless it submits to God and is stilled by Him, joyfully uniting with Him through unceasing and diligent prayer and through noetically confessing all our lapses to Him each day. . . ; for the mind is brought under control only in those who have been made perfect by the Holy Spirit and who have attained a state of total concentration upon Christ Jesus” (Philokalia, Vol. 4, 277).
With the help of God, in the spiritual battle we are to expel thoughts that would pull us away from this concentration upon Jesus. Quoting St. John Climacus, St. Gregory tells us to “lash your enemies with the name of Jesus, because God is a fire that cauterizes wickedness.” When embattled and overcome, we are to call out to God who will be prompt to help and “will speedily come to the defense of those who wholeheartedly call on Him day and night” (Ibid., 277).
As mentioned earlier, in this battle one may make use of praying the psalms. In fact, St. Gregory states, “to psalmodize often is appropriate for novices in the ascetic life, because of the toil it involves and the spiritual knowledge it confers” (Ibid., 278). “Psalmody is given to us because of our grossness and indolence, so that we may be led back to our true state”; that is, the stillness wherein one can pray “to God with travail of heart, eschewing all conceptual images” (Ibid., 278) and shedding all thoughts whether of sensible or of intelligible realities.
Such prayer, St. Gregory states, involves the whole self and so requires disciplining the body as well; in particular, the control of the belly - the “queen of the passions”. Gregory writes: “If you can deaden or half-deaden it, do not relent. . . Through it we fall and through it - when well disciplined - we rise again. Through it we have lost both our original divine status and also our second divine status, that which was bestowed on us . . .through baptism, and have lapsed once more, separating ourselves from God through our neglect of the commandments . . . .” (Ibid., 280). To humble and still the intellect, one must humble the body. Though our bodies and needs vary greatly, those who seek such inner stillness and pure prayer should “always eat too little, never too much. For when the stomach is heavy the intellect is clouded, and you cannot pray resolutely and with purity . . .To eat again after reaching the point of satiety is to open the door to gluttony, through which unchastity comes in” (Ibid., 281).
Admittedly, such discipline of mind and body, such a desire to foster a radical stillness and purity of heart, may seem foreign and enigmatic to those of the West and perhaps inhuman. But according to St. Gregory this “mindfulness of God, or noetic prayer, is superior to all other activities. Indeed, being love for God, it is the chief virtue” (Ibid., 282). It is love and no other reason that drives one to seek and foster such stillness - for it is there that the Beloved is found, as He Himself tell us, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46).