The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert

The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert
The Monastery of St. Paul of Thebes, Red Sea Desert, Egypt (1990)

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Teachings of the 'Startsi' of Valamo Monastery on Prayer


Although this newsletter was supposed to begin a study of the writings of St. Isaac the Syrian, I want to share with you another small collection writings I came across in my readings on prayer, which I think are especially good. This small collection is not from the Desert Fathers, but rather from more recent fathers of the 18th and 19th century who lived at Valamo Monastery in Russia. As was usually the case with the monastic fathers of Russia before the revolution of 1917, these fathers lived very much in the traditions and spirit of the ancient Desert Fathers, even though they lived in "modern" times in the "desert" of the Russian north. The readings in today's passage give a very nice overview of prayers, both internal and external, and I think they are a nice follow-up to the teachings of Abba Dorotheus we have been reviewing.

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ORAL PRAYER 
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BEGIN: [Schema Monk Agapii] -- In the beginning the Jesus Prayer is mostly uttered with unwillingness and constraint. But if we have a firm intention to subdue all our passions, through prayer and with the help of divine grace, then with frequent practice of the Prayer and perseverance, as the passions grow less, the Prayer itself will become gradually easier and more attractive.

In oral prayer we must try in every possible way to keep our mind fixed on the words of the prayer, saying it without haste and concentrating all our attention on the meaning of the words. When the mind becomes distracted by alien thoughts, we must bring it back undiscouraged to the words of the prayer.

Freedom from distraction is not given to the mind quickly, nor whenever we wish it. It comes when we have first humbled ourselves, and when God chooses to grant this blessing to us. This divine gift does not depend upon the length of time we pray or the number of prayers we recite. What is needed is a humble heart, the grace of Christ, and constant effort.

From oral prayer recited with attention we pass over to inner or mental prayer. This is so called because in such prayer our mind is swept towards God and sees Him alone.

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INNER PRAYER (PRAYER OF THE MIND) 
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To practice inner prayer, it is essential to keep our attention in the heart before the Lord. In response to our zeal and humble striving in prayer, the Lord bestows upon our mind His first gift -- the gift of recollection and concentration in prayer. When attention is directed towards the Lord effortlessly and without interruption, this is attention given by grace, whereas our own attention is always forced. This inner prayer, if all goes well, in due time passes into prayer of the heart: the transition is easily made, provided we have an experienced teacher to guide us. When the feelings of our heart are with God and love for God fills our heart, such prayer is called prayer of the heart.

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PRAYER OF THE HEART 
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It is said in the Gospels: "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me" (Matthew 16:24). When we pray, then, we must first give up our own will and our own ideas, and then take up our cross, which is the labor of body and soul that is unavoidable in this spiritual quest. Having surrendered ourselves entirely to the never- sleeping care of God, we should joyfully and humbly endure the sweat and labor, for the sake of the true reward God will grant to the zealous when the right time comes. Then God, imparting His grace to us, will put an end to the wanderings of our mind and will place it -- together with the remembrance of Himself -- immovably within the heart. When this dwelling of the mind in the heart has become something natural and constant, the Fathers call it "union of mind and heart." In this state the mind has no longer any desire to be outside the heart. On the contrary, if outward circumstances or some long conversation keeps the mind away from its attention to the heart, it experiences an irresistible longing to return within, a craving and spiritual thirst: its one desire is to set to work once more with renewed zeal in building its inner house.

When this inner order is established, everything in a man passes from the head into the heart. Then a kind of inner light illumines all that is within him, and whatever he does, says, or thinks, is performed with full awareness and attention. He is able to discern clearly the nature of the thoughts, intentions, and desires that come to him; he willingly submits his mind, heart, and will to Christ, eagerly obeying every commandment of God and the Fathers. Should he deviate from them in any respect, he expiates his fault with heart-felt repentance and contrition, humbly prostrating himself before God in unfeigned sorrow, begging and confidently awaiting help from above in his weakness. And God, seeing this humility, does not deprive the suppliant of His grace.

Prayer of the mind in the heart comes quickly to some people, while for others the process is slow. Thus of three people known to me, it entered into one as soon as he was told about it, in that same hour; to another it came in six months' time; to a third after ten months, while in the case of one great staretz it came only after two years. Why this happens so, God alone knows.

Know also that before the passions are destroyed prayer is of one kind, and after the heart has been purified of passions it is of another kind. The first kind helps to purify the heart of passions, while the second is a spiritual token of future bliss. This is what you should do; when you can actually feel the mind entering the heart and are consciously aware of the effects of prayer, give full sway to such a prayer, banishing all that is hostile to it; and so long as it continues active within you, do nothing else. But when you do not feel thus carried away, practice oral prayer with prostrations, striving in all possible ways to keep your attention in the heart before the face of the Lord. This manner of praying will also enable the heart to acquire warmth.

Watch and be sober, and especially during the prayer of the mind and heart. No one pleases God more than he who practices the prayer of mind and heart aright. When outward surroundings make prayer difficult, or when you have no time to pray, at such times, whatever you may be doing, strive to preserve the spirit of prayer in yourself by all possible means, remembering God and striving in every way to see Him before you with the eyes of your mind, in fear and love. Feeling His presence before you, surrender yourself to His almighty power, all-seeing and omniscient, in worshipful submission laying all your activities before Him, in such a way that in every action, word and thought you remember God and His holy will. Such, in brief, is the spirit of prayer. Whoever has a love for prayer must without fail possess this spirit, and, as far as possible, must submit his understanding to God's understanding by means of constant attention of the heart, humbly and reverently obeying the commands of God. In the same way he should submit his wishes and desires to God's will, and surrender himself completely to the designs of God's providence.

In all possible ways we should combat the spirit of arbitrary self-will and the impulse to shake off all restraint. It is a spirit that whispers to us: This is beyond my strength, for that I have no time, it is too soon yet for me to undertake this, I should wait, my monastic duties prevent me -- and plenty of other excuses of like kind. He who listens to this spirit will never acquire the habit of prayer. Closely connected with this spirit is the spirit of self-justification: when we have been carried away into wrong-doing by the spirit of willful arbitrariness and are therefore worried by our conscience, this second spirit approaches and sets to work on us. In such a case the spirit of self-justification uses all kinds of wiles to deceive the conscience and to present our wrong as being right. May God protect you against these evil spirits.

[Igumen Varlaam] -- The Apostle writes: "For our rejoicing is this, the testimony of our conscience" (II Corinthians 1:12). Simeon the New Theologian says: "If our conscience is pure, we are given the prayer of mind and heart; but without a pure conscience we cannot succeed in any spiritual endeavor."

[Igumen Nazarii] -- With reverence call in secret upon the Name of Jesus, thus: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner."

Try to make this prayer enter ever more deeply into your soul and heart. Prayer the prayer with your mind and thought, and do not let it leave your lips even for a moment. Combine it, if possible, with your breathing, and with all your strength try through the prayer to force yourself to a heart-felt contrition, repenting over your sins with tears. If there are no tears, at least there should be contrition and mourning in the heart. END

From "The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology," compiled by Igumen Chariton of Valamo, translated by E. Kadloubovsky and E. M. Palmer, (London: Faber & Faber, 1966, pp. 275 - 279

As most of readers know by now, the "Philokalia" (currently published in four volumes in English) is the best overall source of spiritual guidance on prayer and spirituality that is available. However, this one-volume collection from the Philokalia is, in our opinion, the best book to get if you can only purchase one book.