It is by the ascesis of faith that a man conquers egotism, steps beyond the bounds of self, and enters into a new, transcendent reality which also transcends subjectivity. In this new reality new laws rule; what is old has passed away and all is made new. Plunged into the unknown depths of this new reality, the ascetic of faith is led and guided by prayer; he feels, thinks, and lives by prayer.
Tracing this path of faith in the intellect of man, St Isaac notes that the intellect is guarded and guided by prayer, every good thought being transformed by prayer into a pondering on God. But prayer is also a hard struggle, calling the whole person into action. Man crucifies himself in prayer, crucifying the passions and sinful thoughts that cling to his soul. Prayer is the slaying of the carnal thoughts of man’s fleshly life.
Patient perseverance in prayer is for man a very hard ascesis, that of the denial of self. This is fundamental to the work of salvation. Prayer is the fount of salvation and it is by prayer that all the other virtues – and all good things – are acquired. This is why a man of prayer is assailed by monstrous temptations from which he is protected and saved only by prayer.
The surest guardian of the intellect is prayer. It drives away the clouds of the passions and illumines the intellect, bringing wisdom to the mind. Unceasing abiding in prayer is a true sign of perfection.
Spiritual prayer turns into ecstasy in which are revealed the mysteries of the Holy Trinity, and the intellect enters that sphere of holy unknowing that is greater than knowledge.
Begun thus by faith, the healing of the organs of understanding is continued by prayer. The bounds of human personality are pushed wider and wider, self-centeredness being progressively replaced by God-centeredness.
Some of my reflections on the above text:
One of the greatest takeaways I have from St. Justin’s teaching on prayer is that it is an ascetic effort. We rarely think of prayer as a form of asceticism. The latter word usually makes us think of monks in total silence, fasting for days, or performing other great works.
For us laypeople today, prayer is perhaps the most important form of asceticism. We tend to think that prayer is only true prayer when it is a pleasant experience, when we have a feeling of warmth, or perhaps even tears of joy or repentance.
The abbot of a monastery I often visit advised me that during those times that we are distracted, our feet hurt, our backs ache, we have tasks awaiting us after prayer, and we just can’t easily stay focused – during those times, when we force ourselves to stay in prayer or the church service and constantly reign our minds in to the present, we reap more spiritual benefit than the times that we are in tears or other ecstasy.
Our technological culture has created entire generations of people who are accustomed to being entertained or “engaged” in some manner at every free moment. In other words, our minds are used to constant stimulation, which is not a sign of cognitive maturity, but a lack thereof.
When we try to pray, we starve our minds of the unhealthy stimulation that it is accustomed to and it grows restless. We find that we battle a barrage of thoughts, many are “innocent” looking distractions while others might be blasphemous in nature, all of which come from our untamed minds and the demonic realm.
During times that we force ourselves to pray despite distractions, despite frequently “failing,” despite bodily aches and groans, we enter into the ascetic life of the Church and experience an invisible step in spiritual growth as we combine asceticism with the holy mysteries of the Church (particularly confession and holy communion).
So, let us not surrender simply because prayer is difficult. Even before our technology-fried brains were an issue, prayer was considered a cross and a form of asceticism. How much more so now. But let us persevere!
The text in the first section is from Saint Justin Popovich’s essay The Theory of Knowledge of Saint Isaac The Syrian. This is the third of several installments. I am splitting up parts of his essay into short reflections.
The quoted text is taken from Orthodox Faith and Life in Christ, which is a collection of essays by St. Justin Popovich, compiled and translated by Fr. Asterios Gerostergios.