Wednesday, August 21, 2013
ST. GREGORY OF SINAI - How to Master the Intellect in Prayer
In out last post, we looked at the teaching of St. Gregory of Sinai on fasting. In today's teaching, we will continue studying his works, this time focusing on two issues related to the life of prayer: mastering the intellect and expelling thoughts.
St. Gregory is a later saint of the 13th century who lived fully in the spirit and teachings of the early Desert Fathers. As a young man captured by the Turks in the late 1200, Gregory was eventually ransomed to Cyprus where be was tonsured a monk and then went to Mount Sinai shortly after where he became a full monk. He then went to Crete where he learned the art of prayer in obedience to the monk Arsenios. After some time, Gregory went to Mount Athos where he spent the next twenty-five years.
The Philokalia includes five works by St. Gregory of Sinai. One of these, "On Prayer," is the subject of our study today. Our text today is but a fraction of St. Gregory's entire text on prayer, but it is very useful for laypersons and monastics alike, depending on the degree to which we are able as individuals to follow his teaching.
HOW TO MASTER THE INTELLECT IN PRAYER
BEGIN -- No one can master the intellect 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. God immediately forgives everything to those who ask forgiveness in a spirit of humility and contrition and who ceaselessly invoke His holy name. As the Psalmist says, "Confess to the Lord and call upon His holy name" (Psalms 105:1).
-- Holding the breath also helps to stabilize the intellect, but only temporarily, for after a little it lapses into distraction again. But when prayer is activated, then it really does keep the intellect in its presence, and it gladdens it and frees it from captivity. But it may sometimes happen that the intellect, rooted in the heart, is praying, yet the mind wanders and gives its attention to other things; 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.
HOW TO EXPEL THOUGHTS
-- In the case of a beginner in the art of spiritual warfare, God alone can expel thoughts, for it is only those strong in such warfare who are in a position to wrestle with them and banish them. Yet even they do not achieve this by themselves, but they fight against them with God's assistance, clothed in the armor of His grace.
-- So when thoughts invade you, in place of weapons call on the Lord Jesus frequently and persistently and then they will retreat; for they cannot bear the warmth produced in the heart by prayer and they flee as if scorched by fire. St. John Climacus tells us, "Lash your enemies with the name of Jesus," because God is a fire that cauterizes wickedness (Deuteronomy 4:24 and Hebrews 12:29). The Lord is prompt to help, and will speedily come to the defense of those who wholeheartedly call on Him day and night (Luke 18:7).
-- But if prayer is not yet activated in you, you can put these thoughts to flight in another manner, by imitating Moses (Exodus 17:11-12): rise up, lift hands and eyes to heaven, and God will rout them. Then sit down again and begin to pray resolutely. This is what you should do if you have not yet acquired the power of prayer.
-- Yet even if prayer is activated in you and you are attacked by the more obdurate and grievous of the bodily passions -- namely, listlessness and lust -- you should sometimes rise up and lift your hands for help against them. But you should do this only seldom, and then sit down again, for there is a danger of the enemy deluding you by showing you some illusory form of the truth. For only in those who are pure and perfect does God keep the intellect steadfast and intact wherever it is, whether above or below, or in the heart. END
from The Philokalia: Volume IV, edited and translated by G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), pp. 276 - 278.