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, August 4, 2013

ST. THEOPHANES THE RECLUSE - The Hermitage of the Heart: Different Kinds of Feelings in Prayer

In this issue, we will look at a very nice text from St. Theophanes the Recluse, a 19th century Russian father who became steeped in the early Desert Fathers during the seven years he spent in Palestine as a monk in the middle of that century. Although not strictly a Desert Father in the chronological sense, St. Theophanes is very much in their tradition in the spirituality of his teachings. These teachings are usually in the form of letters written to disciples.

Our text today is about prayer; or, as St. Theophanes puts it --


You dream of a hermitage. But you already have your hermitage, here and now! Sit still, and call out: "Lord have mercy!" When you are isolated from the rest of the world, how will you fulfill the will of God? Simply by preserving within yourself the right inner state. And what is this? It is a state of unceasing remembrance of God in fear and piety, together with the remembrance of death. The habit of walking before God and keeping Him in remembrance -- such is the air we breathe in the spiritual life. Created as we are in the image of God, this habit should exist in our spirit naturally: if it is absent, that is because we have fallen away from God. As a result of this fall, we have to fight to acquire the habit of walking before God. Our ascetic struggle consists essentially in the effort to stand consciously before the face of the ever- present God; but there are also various secondary activities, which likewise form part of the spiritual life. Here too, there is work to be done, in order to direct these activities to their true aim. Reading, meditation, prayer, all our occupations and contacts, must be conducted in such a way as not to blot out or disturb the remembrance of God. The seat of our consciousness and attention must also be concentrated on this remembrance of God.

The mind is in the head, and intellectuals live always in the head. They live in the lead and suffer from unceasing turbulence of thoughts. This turbulence does not allow the attention to settle on any one thing. Neither can the mind, when it is in the head, dwell constantly on the one thought of God. All the time it keeps running away. For this reason, those who want to establish the one thought of God within themselves, are advised to leave the head and descend with their mind into their heart, and to stand there with ever present attention. Only then, when the mind is united with the heart, is it possible to expect success in the remembrance of God.

This, then, is the aim which you should now set before yourself, and towards which you should begin to advance. Do not think that this task is beyond your strength; but also do not think that it is so easy that you have only to wish it, and it will be immediately accomplished. The first step in attracting the mind to the heart is essentially to be moved with sympathy, entering with your feelings into the meaning of the prayers which you read or hear; for it is the feelings of the heart which usually dominate the mind. If you take this first step as you should, these feelings will change according to the content of the prayers. But besides this first kind of feelings there are others, far stronger and more overwhelming -- feelings which take captive both our consciousness and heart, enchaining the soul and giving it no freedom to continue reading, claiming its attention wholly for themselves. These are special feelings; and as soon as they are born, the soul too gives birth to prayers which are their very progeny. You must never interrupt these special feelings and prayers which are born in the heart - - do not, for instance, go on reading, but stop at once -- for you must leave them freedom to pour out until they are exhausted and emotion returns to the level of the more usual feelings during prayer. This second form of prayer is more powerful than the first, and sends the mind down into the heart more quickly. But it can only act after the first form, or together with it.

From The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, by Igumen Chariton of Valamo, trans. By E. Kadloubovsky and E. M. Palmer, (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), pp. 185 - 186