A Prolegomena to Prayer. Part VI-2.

A Prolegomena to Prayer. Part VI-2. June 17, 2010

Part VI-1

We have seen how our prayer begins as simple petitions to God. In such prayers, we express our hope in God. But such prayers are one sided, where we go to God only when we feel the need for some help from him. But, if we keep at it, and keep opening ourselves to him, love develops. While this love is probably found in all kinds of prayer, even in the most rudimentary stages of prayer, early on it is an indistinguishable love, where we might not even notice it in ourselves. As we become aware of it, we begin to present to God not just our desires, but also our yearning for him. We find ourselves desiring him and his presence above everything else. God’s beauty attracts us, bringing us to declare his grandeur in our prayers. We are drawn further and further out of ourselves.

Our prayer eventually opens us up to a new way of communicating. It is the communication of one heart meeting another; while our response might begin with and be mingled with words, we find our communication with God is not limited to those words. We find communion with God going on in the stillness of our hearts. It is then when we experience the fullness of prayer. “Man achieves the fullness of prayer not when he expresses himself, but when he lets God be most fully present in prayer.[1] Such experiences usually are momentary, but, as our spiritual life develops, they can be prolonged, eventually to one continuous experience, where all that we do continues to be done in the midst of that experience. Contemplative prayer can be a prayer without ceasing, where our whole life is one continuous dialogue with God. When we have become spiritually poor, when we have entirely emptied ourselves of all things which would distance ourselves from God, from all things which hide the presence of God from our spiritual vision, we find ourselves capable of being united with the loving grace of God. Even then, it is but a beginning, because one can continue to grow in that grace, to become a greater and greater instrument of it, finding greater and greater happiness and joy in the process.

It is once we have found ourselves uniting with grace in contemplative prayer that we can be said to be a true theologian. Here we come to know God, not just from the words of others, but for ourselves. “To look through God’s eyes at man and at the world means enduring both the openness of man and his contradictions, nor must we try to force them on to a Procrustean bed of dogmatism, but bring all within the sphere of the unity of God’s great plan. That man is right whose eyes behold more that is true than other men.”[2] Here we understand the world through the perspective of God himself, and see the roles each person has in the plan of God, the creative ways they can engage those roles, and the way each person and being in creation can work together and join together in one great chorus of love before God and with God. We not only come to see the real needs of others, but we willingly offer ourselves for them as vessels of God’s grace. Our works of charity become one with our prayer. Indeed, “Our goal is to become fiery flames of prayer, living prayers, comforting those in despair and warming those in need.”[3]

The deeper we move into the depths of God, the more we find ourselves purified of all delusions. That is, we find ourselves purified from our own limited thoughts, our own definitions, our own declarations about others, so that they can be revealed as they are, not as we think they should be. We end up letting God speak to us, and look at the world with the ways God has shown us to understand it. We will continue to express what is revealed in our own way, but what we say will be based upon a higher truth, and we will know the limitations of our declarations. Only when we have taken down the veils which we have put up to hide ourselves from others, and from God, veils we have put up to defend our fallen ego, can we achieve the openness needed to properly experience God and the world of his creation. Thus, Meister Eckart wrote:

Further, I say that if the soul is to know God, it must forget itself and lose [consciousness of] itself, for as long as it is self-aware and self-conscious, it will not see or be conscious of God. But when, for God’s sake it becomes unself-conscious, and lets go of everything, it finds itself again in God, for knowing God, it therefore knowing itself and everything else from which it has been cut asunder, in the divine perfection. If I am to know the highest good or the eternal goodness, then surely I must know it where it is good in itself and not where its goodness is separate. If I am to know true being, I must know it where it is being itself, and that is in God and not where it is divided among creatures.[4]

Sergius Bulgakov presents in his exploration of Orthodox mysticism that if we are not given by God something to base our speech upon, if we are not shown some image which we can use to help others understand our experience, it is best to remain silent, because anything else would lead others to expect something erroneous about the contemplative experience.  “Orthodox mysticism is without imagery; without imagery, also, is the way which leads to it, that is, prayer and meditation. These should not result in God’s being represented by human means, unless God Himself gives these images to man.”[5] This explains why mystics often find themselves at a loss of words to express their experience: even though they have attained such a transcendent experience, it cannot be expressed at all but through their silence. They might say enough to tell us that they have had an experience, but they will make it clear its transcendent nature makes it impossible to say much, if anything, about the experience itself.[6]

As our prayer life improves, we come to know who we really are, that is, we see ourselves as God sees us. We come to see ourselves as we exist in the great and beautiful symphony of creation. “Our prayers, and other free acts, are known to us only as we come to the moment of doing them. But they are eternally in the score of the great symphony. Not ‘pre-determined’; in the syllable pre lets in the notion of eternity as simply an older time. For though we cannot experience our life as an endless present, we are eternal in God’s eyes; that is, in our deepest reality.”[7] While we experience the grandeur of creation, we do so in a human fashion, according to our nature and capability. These abilities, however, are not static. They continue to increase as we continue to be united with God. The beatific vision in eternal life is said to be the ever-increasing experience of God through our ever-increasing ability to experience it. Everything will be continuously new for us, because everything will be continuously experienced in our ever-increasing abilities. This is why in the Apocalypse, Jesus says, “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev 21:5). He not only makes them new, but continually new. Indeed, it is not just our own progression we shall experience; we shall actually share in with the growth of others, experiencing things not just through ourselves, but through them; the beatific vision is not something which we take in for ourselves alone, but something which we share — we will rejoice not only in the glory of God for ourselves, but with and through others as well. Eternal life, therefore, will be the experience of this continuous newness, in a subjective sense, but also in an objective sense, where we will see and experience ourselves and others in such continuous positive growth. What happens in eternity is also manifested temporally in our prayer: as we grow in grace, we grow in reconciliation, not just with God, but with others, and not just with others individually, but communally, where we will come, united in love, to God. “Authentic prayer reveals a sense of togetherness, not as a comfortable feeling of self-complacency but rather as an experience of at-one-men or reconciliation with all humanity and all of God’s creation.”[8]


[1] Pope John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope. trans. Jenny McPhee and Martha McPhee (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), 18.

[2] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Engagement with God. trans.R. John Halliburton (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), 84.

[3] HH The Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew. Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today, 79.

[4] Meister Eckhart, “The Kingdom of God is at hand” Sermon 6 in Meister Eckhart, 131.

[5] Sergius Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church. trans. Lydia Kesich (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988), 146.

[6] St Paul has provided the Scriptural representation of this:

“I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows — and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2Corinthians 12:2-4). This passage is generally recognized as Paul talking about himself, and his own experience with Christ.

[7] C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1964), 110.

[8] HH The Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew. Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today, 77.

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  • Alex

    Hesychasm seems to work best with considerable self-abnegation.

    • Alex,

      I do get into hesychasm in the series (though of course, not in depth, because of the nature of this work) — but I had to bring it into the mix, being an Eastern

    • PS Alex — thanks for commenting; I’m glad to see some people are reading at least sections of this series. It’s a long one, and not everyone is interested in spiritual discussions, but I hope there is value to it for those who read it.

  • Ronald King

    Henry, I love reading this series and being reminded that praying without ceasing is something that can occur unconsciously after grace has been given to experience a moment of God’s Love and the internal transformation which does make everything new beginning with self and then extending outward.
    It is like the unconscious is so intensely touched by God’s Love that it is constantly seeking that Love every moment outside of my conscious awareness.
    It seems to draw me to others when I am in social situations with a desire to create something that gives joy rather than seeking something from the other. The internal prayer seems to seek to love when I remember that I am loved without doing anything to deserve that love.
    I don’t know if that makes sense.
    Keep it coming Henry.

    • Ronald,

      Yes, it makes sense, though I would also add, it becomes not just unconscious, but conscious — where we see how our whole life ends up being one long, continuous prayer; it begins unconsciously, but hopefully will end consciously — and not in a “quietist” way of exiting the world, but of integrating with it and seeing our actions as part of that prayer. But the unconscious element I think is a foundation, and one which is found even in the earliest stages of prayer.

      I’m glad to see more reaction and interaction — and I hope more people might make some comments — to supplement what I write. Prayer, imo, is a difficult issue to discuss — this text was written because I’ve been asked, for about seven years, to explain prayer to someone who is confused by it. My response through all the years is I’m not good enough in my prayer life, and the questions people raise are difficulties for me as well — though I ended up seeing a way forward to finally give an explanation, even if I think it is a mere prolegomena because I am still struggling in the path of prayer at a lower level of prayer life. Thankfully, I have had some brief experience beyond it which helps me engage what I’ve studied from the spiritual masters and relate what they have to say, in a secondary, derivative level.

  • Alex

    Um, thank you… My comment really should have had a question mark after it: it was my natural reaction to your discussion of S. Bulgakov and Eastern mysticism, before you explicitly acknowledged yourself as Eastern. I look forward to your next article.

  • marksdefrancisis

    Beautifully done, Henry!

    • Mark

      Thanks! I have tried to get all the important details in, even if many of them could be expanded upon in their own right. This is why the series is a long one (9 parts, with some of those parts divided due to their own individual lengths).

  • Alex

    Yes, I’m Byzantine Catholic; I look to and address theology from both the East and the West, though it is all through the lens of Eastern sources including St Gregory Palamas (with Bulgakov, Evdokimov, Florensky, Frank, and Solovyov being major modern influences).