I Prayer as Ascetic Discipline: To Lutheran SHT, Buffalo, MN, July 2007

Delivered to the Lutheran Society of the Holy Trinity

Buffalo, MN

July, 2007

I’ve been asked to address you on the discipline of prayer from an Orthodox perspective, to share with you some wisdom from the Orthodox Tradition, ancient maps of wisdom of which you may not have heard or forgotten.



In Orthodoxy, prayer is both

¨      an ascetic discipline and

¨      a gift from God.


This afternoon, we’ll focus on prayer as ascetic discipline. This evening, we’ll turn to consider prayer as a gift.


As ascetic discipline, prayer includes

¨      the establishment and the maintaining of a rule of prayer in our closet, for the purpose of

¨      repenting – changing the mind’s habits, its orientation, by retraining it in unceasing prayer and the constant remembrance of God.

¨      fasting with our senses, our body, our mind, our soul;

¨      self-examination and the sincere confession of our sins,

¨      worship in the communion of saints, which culminates in

¨      the partaking of the divine nature in Holy Eucharist.


These disciplines of prayer are centered on practicing Christ’s commandments – in other words, obedience, submission. As a discipline, prayer is both communal and personal; each is inextricably connected to the other. But my focus in these presentations is on the personal aspect of prayer.


As both ascetic discipline and gift, true prayer proceeds from faith.

The Work of Faith

The Orthodox Christian Tradition teaches us that faith is the beginning of love. This is clear from the teaching of St Paul when he sets forth faith as the first in the triad of faith, hope and love (I Cor 13:8) As St Maximus the Confessor says, commenting on this triad, faith is the foundation of hope and love. The Lord himself commands us: “If you love me, keep my commandments.” Accordingly, St Maximus the Confessor says somewhere that faith, rightly expressed, is the practice of the commandments of Christ.

Through the practice of Christ’s commandments, we express our desire to love God. If we are not striving to practice Christ’s commandments, we show that we love ourselves and we do not love God. We show that we have no faith, and we deceive ourselves if we believe that we are believers.

Even if we have faith as small as a mustard seed – even if our love for God is still very small, like a seed buried in the field of our self-love, our love for the pleasures and comforts of the flesh and for praise from men – if we practice that seed of faith or love by practicing obedience to Christ’s commandments in accordance with our strength (i.e. the strength of our love for God), our faith will grow, our love for God will grow.

Let’s acknowledge the fact that we do not want to sell all that we have to follow God. We are the rich man who didn’t want to give up all that he had in order to follow Christ, and who therefore went away sorrowful. He showed in this that he loved himself completely. He showed that even the commandments he had kept from his youth he had kept as an expression of self-love, self-esteem. When he came to Jesus asking what he still lacked, it is clear that he wasn’t asking Jesus to tell him what he still lacked. He wanted Jesus to praise him for being such a righteous person.

 So also, we are Pharisaical, we are self-righteous. We do not love God as he commands us. We love ourselves more than we love God. We practice religion more out of self-love than out of love for God. We love the wisdom of our own opinions more than we love submission to the Wisdom of God. We do not want to obey God and submit to his holy Church. We must acknowledge this and confess it. The irony of the Gospel is that so long as we think we are the Prodigal or the Publican or the Sheep, we are in fact the Elder Brother, the Pharisee, the Goats. But as soon as we see and acknowledge from the heart that we are the Elder Brother, the Pharisee, the Goat, only then do we begin to pray from the heart the prayer of the Prodigal or the Publican or the Sheep. Only then, do we begin to awaken to the tragedy of our soul: that we have sold our birthright to the devil, that deep in our own heart, even beyond where we ourselves are able to see, we are in cahoots with the Evil One. We are double agents, praying with our lips, Our Father, Thy will be done, but in the depths of our hearts we are following after our own will, our own interests, and becoming resentful and deeply angry when our will is not followed, when we don’t get our way. Only when our inner eyes open to see how deeply we are enmeshed in this self-love and pride of the Evil One do we begin to awaken to the danger we’re in, to the awful realization that we have betrayed Goodness and compassion. Only then do we feel even the slightest trace of contrition. Only then do we begin to cry out from our heart, Lord save me!

Therefore, when we come to Jesus like that rich man and ask him what must we do to be saved, we must ask this question from the heart: in humility, in fear and trembling, in contrition, and in a genuine desire to be saved. So that when the Lord tells us, sell all that you have and follow me, we do not turn away in sorrow with the rich man, but we line up behind the father of the sick daughter, who fell to his knees in a broken and contrite heart and cried out from the depths of his soul: “Lord, hear me when I call to Thee. Lord, I believe; help my unbelief. Lord I love you, but I love myself even more. But, Lord, I desire to love you. The seed of that desire is there, but it is buried beneath fear of the suffering that must come with uniting myself to a death like yours to die to my self-love. Therefore, Lord, teach me your ways. Lead me on a gentle path. Illumine the eyes of my heart with the light of your commandments.”

One of the rites in the Orthodox Christian baptism service beautifully illustrates this evangelical lesson of faith and love. The priest comes with scissors in his hand to the newly baptized and chrismated at the rite of tonsure. The priest snips off some hair of the newly baptized and he places it in the flame of a burning candle. The hair is a very ancient symbol of life, like rays emanating from the sun. I understand the rite to signify giving a portion of one’s life to the fiery flame of the Holy Spirit, represented in the candle. It is like a first-fruit, offering to the Lord a little of oneself, which is perhaps as much as one has the strength or the desire to give at this point. Rare is the one who is willing at the very beginning to sell all that he has. (And indeed, even to sell all that we have – as anyone who has done a garage sale knows – takes a great deal of time and preparation. St Anthony, before he went out into the desert to begin his life as a monk in his response to this call of the Gospel, didn’t sell all that he had at once. He spent several months bringing it about.) And so, I take the rite of tonsuring to signify the evangelical precept of cultivating the seed of faith that has been planted in our soul in our baptism. This is the seed of love for God. We give as much as we are able and willing. If we do it from the heart, realizing that we are very far from keeping the commandment perfectly, we will not be so likely to fall into the self-satisfaction and pride of the rich young ruler, believing that we have kept all the commandments from our youth up when in fact we have given only a very small offering of a very small part of ourselves. By giving what we can in the awareness that we are not yet giving everything, we do not fall into pride on the one hand, nor do we turn away in sorrow like the rich man on the other. (Our holy fathers would call this despair, a symptom of pride and vanity.) Rather, we are lining up with the sick daughter’s father and asking the Lord to help us in our weakness. We are saying, Lord, I am afraid and I am weak because I am still bound by self-love. In my fear and weakness, I am not willing to sell all that I have. But I do want to follow you. Will you take this little bit and teach me your way and help me to grow to that stature of full manhood, when I attain to the likeness of God and can empty myself from the heart in love for You as you emptied yourself completely in your love for us.

I want to insert here the teaching of the Church that we are made in the image and likeness of God. God is love. Therefore, we are made in love; love is what is natural to us. To love is to give yourself to the other. Therefore, if we are not willing or able to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind; if we are not willing or able to sell all that we have in order to follow Christ, it means that we are still enslaved to that which is unnatural to us, to sin, which the fathers define as that which is against our nature. And St Maximus says that the root of sin is self-love. Where no self-love exists, no trace of evil is present, says St Maximus. When we therefore pray to God to take what little bit we can give, we are asking him to take hold of our hand and lead us out of our bondage to the darkness of vanity and pride that is unnatural to us and to bring us into his marvelous Kingdom of Light. And so it is vital that we never turn away in sorrow because we are not willing or able to follow a commandment of the Lord. We must rather always bow in contrition and humility and pray the prayer of the sick daughter’s father: “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”

I am speaking here to the aspect of prayer as ascetic discipline. The point I am leading up to is this, that in the ascetic discipline of prayer, we understand that we are not yet praying. We are preparing ourselves for that moment when we receive the gift of prayer.

Prayer is communion with God. Communion is of love. That’s why we are not yet praying truly at the beginning in the discipline of prayer; for we do not yet love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind. We have not yet emptied ourselves for his sake and our neighbor’s as he emptied himself for us.

In the discipline of prayer, we are taking up our Cross for the purpose of setting about the work of crucifying our self-love, our love of carnal comforts and pleasures, our love of human praise. We are beginning our journey to Golgotha. This is the journey to our death in repentance: i.e., in mindfulness of God and of his commandment to sell all that we have to follow him, to give up our life for his sake and the Gospel’s. At our death, we will give up all that we have, whether we want to or not. How we live our life while on this journey to our grave will determine the character of that moment of our death, whether we will experience it as St Simeon when he held the Lord in his arms and softly prayed: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,” and as an ineffable “sweetness,” as St Diadochus of Photiki described it, or whether we will experience our death as an unfair robbery, when the Grim Reaper sets upon us like thieves and strips us of all that we have – viz., this fleshly life that we sold ourselves to – and leaves us lying in the road for dead. Death for St Simeon and St Diadochus was experienced as an ineffably sweet peacefulness because they saw it as the moment when we pass over into God, the Beloved. It is therefore that moment when the lover of God gladly sells all that he has.

In the illuminating vision of the love of God, one sees that what one has is this flesh that has grown out of the soil from the seed of the fruit of the tree of good and evil. Along with the good wheat, evil tares also have been sown into the body of this flesh, producing carnal lusts and desires that are the law of sin that is so active in this flesh and that make us enemies of God and of one another, in a life filled with murder and deceit. (Rm 7) Death, in the vision of divine love, is seen as that moment when we are finally rid of these thorns and thistles. These, in effect, are what we are selling in order to obtain the precious pearl.

The discipline of prayer, then, is preparing ourselves for the moment of our death. It is the extension of our baptism into our everyday life, by which we practice dying to ourselves in the keeping of God’s commandments. In this baptismal setting of the discipline of prayer, dying is revealed to be the movement of loving or of emptying ourselves out in love to God; and in this, it is experienced as being born “from above,” (a“nwqen), being raised up into the bliss of divine love. The discipline of prayer, then, is the work of faith: the work of cultivating and growing the seed of love for God that was sown in our hearts at our creation (when God breathed into Adam the breath of life) and in our baptism.


The Work of Freedom

St Paul writes; “Do not let sin reign in your mortal bodies that you should obey its carnal lusts.” (Rm 6:12) Listen closely to St Paul and you can hear him teaching that in our heart we are free to choose whom we will serve; but that we are truly free only when we are, in terms he seems to relish, “slaves” of God; for, when we are servants of sin, we are slaves of hatred, anger, corruption and death. When we choose to place ourselves in bondage to God, we are enslaving ourselves to love, mercy, light and life.

The mind in antiquity was called the ruling principle, the governor of body and soul. By nature, it was made to rule over soul and body. On this principle, Apollinaris in the fourth century concluded that Christ could not have assumed a human mind because if he had, there would have been an internal conflict between two ruling principles. St Gregory the Theologian wrote against Apollinaris that the mind is the most essential part of our nature. He pointed out that while the mind was made to be the ruler over the body and the soul, the mind itself was made by nature to be subject to God, and that it was only in this subjection to God that the mind realizes the perfection of its natural freedom in God. Therefore, there is no conflict in Christ because he has a human mind. There are not two subjects willing independently of one another. There are two natures, two wills, divine and human that are in complete union in love, which is according to our nature. According to its very nature, then, Christ’s human mind – our human mind – is subject to the Father as to its Creator and Lord.

St Peter of Damaskos writes:

“Man stands at the crossroads between righteousness and sin, and chooses whichever path he wishes. But after that the path which he has chosen to follow, and the guides assigned to it, whether angels and saints or demons and sinners, will lead him to the end of it, even if he has no wish to go there. The good guides lead him toward God and the kingdom of heaven, the evil guides toward the devil and age-long punishment. But nothing and no one is to blame for his destruction except his own free will. For God is the God of salvation, bestowing on us, along with being and well-being, the knowledge and strength that we cannot have without the grace of God. Not even the devil can destroy a man, compelling him to choose wrongly, or reducing him to impotence or enforced ignorance, or anything else: he can only suggest evil to him. Thus he who acts rightly should ascribe the grace of so doing to God, for along with our being he has given us everything else. But the person who has opted for the path of evil, and actually commits evil, should blame only himself, for no one can force him to commit it, since God created him with free will. Hence he will merit God’s praise when he chooses the path of goodness; for he does so, not from any necessity of his nature but as befits a being that God has honored with the gift of intelligence.” (Philo III, p. 79-80)

We are fundamentally free precisely because, made in the image and likeness of God, we are beloved - lovers. The fathers of the Church teach that only one thing is impossible for God. He can not make us love him precisely because he is love, and we are made in his image. Love that is not freely chosen is not love. If God were to force us to love him, he would destroy our nature. The truth of this teaching is proved by its Christological implications. The Nicene Creed says that Christ was conceived of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. The Definition of Faith of Chalcedon teaches that Christ is the Word of God “born from the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, as touching the manhood.” Note here the importance of the Theotokos in Orthodox Christology, indicated by her presence in the Nicene Creed and in the Chalcedonian Definition of Faith. The Chalcedonian Definition of Faith goes on to say that Christ is one person in two natures, each nature preserving completely its integrity in the union, and yet, even as they are without confusion, without change, without division, without separation, they are truly united in the Person, in the Thou, of the Divine Logos. Our nature is whole and perfect in its union with Christ precisely because it was not taken by Christ, but because it was given to him freely and in love by the Blessed Virgin when she said to the Archangel Gabriel: “Let it be done to me according to your word.” (Lk 1:37)[1] 

We become what we truly are – beloved-lovers of God not when we are unto ourselves but only when we become one with God in the mystery of the unconfused and unmixed union of the Incarnation – what the Orthodox Tradition calls the Spiritual Marriage in what I believe is a conscious reference to the pagan sacred marriage. The sacred marriage is rooted in the belly and in the carnal desire of sexual lust. Its rational expression is in the many philosophical variations of monism, which is personal fusion – the dissolution of the many into the One, the essence or the what that makes each of the many to be what it is. The Spiritual Marriage is rooted in the heart (Prov 4:23) and in the spiritual love of persons. Its rational expression is given in the theological mystery of koinwniva, a mystery of personal communion, in which each of the many become one with the One even as they remain who and what they are. They are not whats but thous: beloved-lovers, loving-beloveds united not with That Which Is, to… o[nta; but with He Who Is, oÓ w«n.

Precisely because we are made by God as lovers, we are free to choose whom we will serve. In the irony St Paul seems to relish, we are free to choose to whom we will be enslaved: either to the pleasures of the flesh, which are enslaving because they reduce us to a what; or to the freedom and love of God that raises us up into the thou that each of us is in the principle of our being as made in the image of God. (Origen had said that the principle of our being is our having been made in the image of God. Origen was condemned (rightly so) but in this he spoke truth. He is bearing witness to the teaching of Orthodoxy that our what is itself a capacity for personal communion, so that our what points beyond itself to the thou that we are.)

Because we are free in the depths of our heart, we therefore have no excuse before God in our bondage to sin. We are in bondage to sin because we choose to be. This is both deeply disturbing and terribly encouraging. It is disturbing because it takes away my excuse, my justification. I can’t claim I’m a lover of God if I am serving sin even a “little” bit. If I am serving sin – envy, pride, vanity, anger, greed, lust – even a little bit, it means I am choosing to love that sin/passion more than God. But, it is terribly encouraging because it means that I can be freed from it; I can learn to love God if I want to. I need only to descend into my heart to the core of my ego where I am choosing who I will serve. If I am still serving sin, it means that I haven’t gotten yet to the core of my heart to lay hold of my desire to offer it to God.


The Work of Baptism

Therefore, to take up the discipline of prayer is to enter into the fullness of our baptism. In the rite of baptism, we descended into the waters. We do not repeat our baptism because our whole life long is a baptism in which we are descending into the waters of our soul to lay hold of ourselves at the core of our desire, where our love originates in our heart. This is the work of prayer as confession, self-examination.

In this work, we are striving to strip ourselves of the fig leaves we wove for ourselves in the Garden and to get naked before God. St Athanasius, for example, interprets the nakedness of Adam and Eve to signify their absolute honesty with one another, their candor; there was nothing between them and God. Nakedness, intimacy, is of love. This part of the discipline of prayer, which is the work of confession or self-examination, then, or of stripping ourselves of all the fig leaves of shame that we’ve woven for ourselves and with which we’ve clothed ourselves, is the work of laying hold of our desire and our love in order to offer it to God.

Where this work is not taking place, there is no prayer whether as gift or as discipline; and, where there is no prayer, there is no love, and where there is no love, there is no faith.


The Work of the Heart

This is to say that that the discipline of prayer proceeds not from the mind but from the heart. Faith, as the seed of love, proceeds not from the mind but from the heart.

In Orthodoxy, we are taught to descend with the mind into the heart. We do not pray by giving reign to our intellect’s fascination for discursive reasoning. We pray by directing our mind to take up its bed – its love to examine, analyze and parse everything to death – and go to our home: the ontological center of the heart, the seat of our personhood, our “thou”, to wait for the Bridegroom who comes at Midnight: i.e., who comes at that moment when the old man has died and the new man is ready to be born.

This is not to say that faith is mindless.

Faith does not proceed from the mind because it is not the work of rational discourse. It is the movement of the heart, the ontological center of our personhood that, according to Orthodox Christology, transcends the mind. True knowledge of God is not rational knowledge; it is the union of lover and beloved in the bridal chamber of the heart, in which each knows and is known by the other, heart to heart. It is the communion of the creature with the Created in a communion of love in which we know God as we are known by him.

St Maximus writes: “Faith is knowledge that cannot be rationally demonstrated. If such knowledge cannot be rationally demonstrated, then faith is a supranatural relationship through which, in an unknowable and so undemonstrable manner, we are united with God in a union which is beyond intellection.” [2nd C Var.Txt §12, p. 190] St Silouan of Mt Athos (d. 1938) knew that the One whom he had seen when he was granted the gift of prayer was Christ and his Holy Mother, the Theotokos. He knew this in the Holy Spirit. He knew it in the bridal chamber of his heart.

Faith is not mindless; but neither is it centered in the mind. It is centered in the heart. In the mind, the mind is in union with itself; it thinks itself, it nurtures itself, to the point that it can mistake itself for the principle of all that is. The image of the religion of the mind is the uroboros, the serpent swallowing its own tail.

But in the heart, the mind comes out of itself. The serpent of the uroboros is swallowed by the Serpent of Aaron’s rod, the Lordly Serpent who is Christ God. The mind is raised out of itself and it is given not its own substance to feed upon, but the divine nature to partake of, to paraphrase the words of St Peter. (II Pt 1:4)

Therefore, faith is not mere intellectual assent that something is true. Faith is not “a blind leap;” nor is it “believing something that common sense tells you not to.” Faith is not without substance. As St Paul says, it is the substance of what is hoped for: that substance hoped for is God whom we know not as a Thing but as Thou in the Thou of the Son, who is the face, the glory of the Thou of the Father, whom we know in the Thou of the Holy Spirit. In this communion of love, faith is knowledge that proceeds from a loving union of persons rooted in the love of the heart.

Do you know your wife rationally or heart to heart? (Is anyone’s wife rational?) This is how we can perhaps get some sense of the kind of knowledge that faith is that comes from love, not from cold dialectical intellection. The latter, in fact, is the knowledge of this world. It is dark and empty and lifeless. It is foolishness in the eyes of God, because it is the uroboric mind feeding on the wisdom of its own opinions as though they were divine insights.


The Work of Love

It is therefore granted to some – and in the Church we have been granted reports of some of these some, as a witness, a testimony to strengthen our own resolve to take up the Faith of Christ, the Cross of Christ in the ascetic work of prayer – that they are granted to see God, even in this life. That means that they have, even in this life, died to sin. In their bodies, sin is still active, but they have in prayer, in the work of faith, descended into hell with Christ. They have descended into the tomb, the bridal chamber, their heart. There, they have subjected themselves to the fires of hell that their pride and vanity may be burned away. This, at least, is how Archimandrite Sophrony records the words of St Silouan to him. The chaff of their pride having been burned away, they come upon the pearl of their own being created in the image and likeness of God. This pearl of our own heart, so St Gregory of Nyssa writes, was created from nothing out of the love of God. In its pristine “state” it is permeated with the light and love of God, like two torches becoming one; so St Gregory the Theologian describes it. According to St Dionysius, our being is itself not a static something but it is a kind of moving stillness. It is still in its unchanging hypostatic identity. This would be the pearl. But precisely in its stillness, the pearl moves, because in its hypostatic identity it is a lover created in the image of the Word of God who himself longs to be longed for, thirsts to be thirsted for, loves to be loved. (St Dionysius in St Maximus: 5th Cent. Various Texts, §84, Philo II, p. 281) Therefore, as a lover it is “itself subject to movement since [as lover] it produces an inward state of intense longing and love in those receptive to them; and it moves others since by nature it attracts the desire of those who are drawn towards it.” (Ibid) This movement of erotic love is being or essence. Being is communion – it is not a static thing; it is the movement of lover and beloved giving and receiving each other in the union, the personal communion, of love.

Through the discipline of prayer, we are working to lay hold of our love, the natural movement of our being, in order to offer it to the Heavenly Bridegroom. St Dionysios writes: Christ is the “Beautiful One whose beauty is identical with his Goodness, the One whose beauty and goodness all things seek at every opportunity, and there is no being that does not participate in his beauty and goodness.” (5th C Var Txt, §83, p. 280). Except that we have given our love to the fruit of good and evil, the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, the pride of life, and so we have come to live in the erotic pleasures of the belly when we were made to live in the heart (Prov 4:23, guard the heart for from it flow the springs of life: the Tree of Life, the Cross). And so we have fallen back into the dust, and from the ground of our soul grow thorns and thistles.

When we hear the Church teaching us that true prayer proceeds from faith, then, we understand her to mean that true prayer proceeds from love. It proceeds from knowledge that proceeds from a relationship, a communion, of lover and beloved in the bridal chamber of the heart.

Even at the beginning stage of discipline, then, when prayer is still a seed, prayer actualizes that love that is natural to us, the principle of our being. For even though it may be as small as a mustard seed, prayer proceeds from a faith that is the beginning of love, because it is out of love for God in some measure, even if it is only the measure of a seed, that we choose to subject our souls and our bodies to the pain of the ascetic discipline of prayer rather than to sit comfortably on the couch watching TV, or playing video games, or daydreaming, or indulging in mindless fantasies.

As gift, prayer proceeds from the love of God for those who love him. It is given to those who want the gift, i.e. those who love God, and who have prepared themselves to receive it by willfully choosing to crucify their flesh and its carnal desires through the ascetic disciplines of prayer to the degree they are able, recognizing in humility that they are unworthy servants because they have sinned and because they still do not love God as they should. Yet, such is God’s goodness, that he does not withhold his gifts. Even before we have sold all that we have, he gives us a taste of his goodness and love in accordance with our love; or as he says to those whom he heals in the Gospels, in accordance with our faith. Even as we are struggling to maintain our discipline of prayer, we may begin to experience in our soul the growth of that seed of love for God that was washed clean in our baptism, and that received in itself the seed of God’s Holy Spirit. One’s priorities begin to change. Even as one becomes more aware of one’s own self-love, one becomes more aware of how many blessings God bestows on us who are unworthy of them because we have followed after our own ways. Even as one becomes more aware of one’s own sins, or rather precisely as one’s inner eyes are opened to behold the depth of our enslavement to the passions that we have willfully chosen, one discovers a deepening desire to be liberated from the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life, and a growing desire to know the love of God in faith.

I close this portion of my reflections with words of St Peter of Damaskos:

“Let him who wants to act rightly entreat God in prayer, and at once knowledge and power will be given him. In this way it will be evident that the grace bestowed by God was justly given…No praise, however, is due to the man who accepts the air by means of which he lives, knowing that without it life is impossible; rather he himself owes thanks to his Creator, who has given him a nose and the health to breathe and live. Similarly, we should also thank God because in his grace he has created our prayer, our knowledge, our strength, our virtue, all our circumstances and our very selves.” (Philo III p. 80)

[1] In the Greek, the Archangel does not say to Mary, “With God nothing will be impossible.” He says: “No word that proceeds from God is empty/powerless.” [oujk ajdunathvsei para… tou: qeou: pa:n rJh:ma.] Elsewhere, one does not find the phrase, “Nothing is impossible with God.” One finds several times, however, “With God, all things are possible.” Understood together with the biblical truth that God is love, as well as from the context in which this phrase occurs, there is ample room for the Orthodox teaching that all things are possible with God to those who love him.