A Prolegomena to Prayer. Part VI-3.

A Prolegomena to Prayer. Part VI-3. June 18, 2010

Part VI-2.

Because of the vast, incomprehensible nature of God, as well as the diversity of personal capabilities found amongst us, there are various ways our union with God can be experienced. Sometimes we will find authors expressing one aspect over another, because it is what they have come to experience. At other times, we will find authors which appear to differ from each other, but ultimately end up offering explanations of the same type of experience. We must understand, however, that there will be times when the experiences of different people are quite different, and this does not mean there is anything wrong with one experience or another, because when we find a diversity of experiences, there will still be elements which unite them together. They will be complementary, sometimes paradoxically so, but nonetheless authentic. This explains why there are a variety of valid spiritual traditions which deal with and explain mystical experiences. They hold God and God’s grace in common, but they come to experience God in different ways. If we follow the spiritual guidance of one tradition, we will likely be led, through grace, to receive its experience of God’s glory; if we follow the spiritual tradition of another, we will be likely led to experience the glory of God according to its example. We must not believe anyone is limited to the experience of the tradition they follow, for God’s grace transcends technique and one’s subjective nature will be different, but these traditions help form the person so as to become similar to their master and so likely to experience the glorification similar to the one leading them on the path to God. Two such examples we can mention are the teachings associated with St Gregory Palamas, on the one hand, and Meister Eckhart, on the other.[1]

St Gregory Palamas describes our union with God in relation to the transfiguration of Christ; the light which the Apostles saw coming from Christ reveals the bodily glory we are capable of receiving through our participation in the uncreated energies of God. It is very incarnational, because it reflects upon the participation of God within the body, and indeed, presents a more “technical” approach by which one can purify oneself and wait, with patience, for God’s grace. One learns to unite one’s breath with prayer, to focus on one’s body as a place for God’s grace. Our experience with God is seen as enlightenment, with our intellect illuminated by the Holy Spirit:

Our power of perception shows us that we are being formed into the divine likeness; but the perfecting of this likeness we shall know only by the light of grace. But no one can acquire spiritual love unless he experiences fully and clearly the illumination of the Holy Spirit. If the intellect does not receive the perfection of the divine likeness through such illumination, although it may have almost every other virtue, it will still have no share in perfect love. [2]

It is nonetheless important to point out that this illumination affects us in our whole being. The light of grace which comes to us in our mind is also the grace which purifies and perfects our body:

The intellect that has been accounted worthy of the light also transmits to the body that it is united with it many clear tokens of the divine beauty, acting as an intermediary between divine grace and the grossness of the flesh and conferring on the flesh the power to do what lies beyond its power. This gives birth to a godlike, unmatched and stable state of virtue as well as to a disposition that has no or little inclination to sin. It is then that the intellect is illumined by the divine Logos who enables it to perceive clearly the inner essences — the logoi of created things and on account of its purity reveals to it the mysteries of nature. [3]

Palamite theology is intricately connected to the tradition of the “Jesus Prayer.” He was not its founder (it is uncertain how far back it goes), but he became one of its greatest exemplars. The notion is that we are to unite ourselves in contemplative prayer through the elimination of all distraction and to focus on the name of Jesus — either by a constant recital of his name, or a recital of a prayer which focuses on it, such as “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner.” We unite our very being to the prayer, opening ourselves up to the presence of Christ which is found in the very recital (verbal or mental) of his name. Because it focuses on the experience of the presence of Christ which comes with his name, it requires great purity of heart, a great stillness of being, in order to properly see and experience that presence. And it must be a prayer said of the heart, in love, open to Jesus in the pronunciation of his very name, waiting for that presence to be appreciated by the work of the Holy Spirit in one’s soul.

Meister Eckhart, reveals a different approach to God; it is apophatic, and tells us that we should remove our focus on everything which is not God until we find and experience God and then return to all things as they exist in God. We lose ourselves only to find ourselves because we exist in God. We lose the world, only to find it in God, where we love it following the love God has for it. Thus, ascetic practices were created as a way to help remove us from all that would separate us from God, such as our body. They can work, though the process is slow. Love, on the other hand, can combine with them and speed them up, because love helps put God in the focus and easily avoids such distractions. Thus:

The whole of a life of penitence is only one among a number of things such as fasting, watching, praying, kneeling, being disciplined, wearing hair shirts, lying on hard surfaces, and so on. These were all devised because of the constant opposition of the body and the flesh to the spirit. The body is too strong for the spirit and so there is always a struggle between them — an eternal conflict. […] This is done to bring it to subjection, but if you wish to make it a thousand times more subject, put the bridle of love on it. With love you may overcome it most quickly and load it most heavily.[4]

Through love, we focus solely on God, and the body finds itself so little a distraction, that those things which are normally practiced to put it in check are not needed. The greater our love, the less we need to focus on ascetic discipline, because we have achieved the state of purity that discipline seeks to provide. Nonetheless, that does not mean there is no work. We must forget all things, even ourselves, through such love until the only thing we know is God and what we come to know in our experience of God:

When the soul is kissed by the Godhead, it is then completely perfected and blessed and embraced by the unity [of God]. When God has touched the soul and rendered it uncreaturely, it is then as high in rank as God himself, after he has touched it. Contemplating the creature, God gives it being, and contemplating God, the creature receives its being. The soul has an intelligent, knowing essence and therefore, wherever God is, there is the soul, and wherever the soul is, there is God![5]

God, however, is in his eternity happy, and enjoys himself and not just himself, but all things he has created through himself by making room for them in himself. And because they exist in and through him, he knows them according to himself, in himself as participants of his divine life — they are, in that way, God, because they reflect God back to God, though they are also themselves:

God enjoys himself. His own inner enjoyment is such that it includes his enjoyment of all creatures not as creatures, but as God. His own inner enjoyment includes everything. Even the sun  sheds its rays on everything and they are absorbed by all they fall upon and yet the sun does not lose its radiant power. […] Thus the reflection of God from the soul is also God; and still the soul, like the mirror, remains what it is.[6]

In this way, we can understand what he means by saying we enjoy the world and all that is in it, that we love the world, and all that is in it, through our unity with God. We come to know all things in and through God, because we all things exist in and through God, including ourselves. Because of this, we come to love them as God loves them — which is as God loving God. Obviously, describing the spiritual experience here is not meant to be pantheism, but as panentheism. And it is because it is panentheism, all things are capable of existing in themselves while also in God, and God remains greater than all that participates in existence through him. The point, nonetheless, is that we are to clear ourselves from all things which distract us from God only to find them in and through God, and in this new way of experiencing them, we experience them as they are, and can love them properly, without being led astray by them so as to turn away from God. The contemplative experience thus returns us to the world, but our understanding of the world is transformed from our experience with God. “But to seek nothing and to set out only for God himself, is to discover God who gives the seeker all that is in his divine heart, so that it will be as much his as God’s — and neither more nor less, if he sets his heart directly on God.”[7]

There is much more which can be said of contemplative prayer, of the methods of contemplative prayer and the kinds of experiences reported by them, but they transcend the nature and scope of this work. Instead, the point is to show where our prayer is leading us, either in this life, or, if not then, hopefully in the life to come.[8] But, as we progress in this life, seeking after God, we still will have more questions. What, for example, does sin put into the equation? And why is it that we can understand the idea behind prayer, but do not seem to experience God or his benefits because we pray? While these questions have been explored, in brief, it is best to explore them a bit further, now that we have a glimpse of what prayer itself is and what its purpose actually is (to lead us into a loving dialogue with God and to see the world and ourselves in accordance to our dialogical relationship with God).


[1] We could discuss many others, such as, though not limited to, those found around St Francis of Assisi, those found around St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila, and those found around Vladimir Solovyov and his followers.

[2] St Gregory Palamas, “To the Most Reverend Nun Xenia” in The Philokalia. Vol. 4. trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), 318.

[3] ibid., 318.

[4] Meister Eckhart, “Eternal Birth,” Sermon 4 in Meister Eckhart, 123.

[5] ibid., “Get beyond time,” 214.

[6] ibid., “Creatures seek God through me,” 225.

[7] ibid., “When God shows himself,” 154.

[8] Those who have not attained a pure, loving experience of God, but yet are aiming themselves toward God, will continue their journey and purification until they are ready for the beatific vision; this otherworldly process, however it is accomplished, is what is meant by purgatory.

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  • Alex

    The problem with seeking gnosis through continuous prayer or anything else lies, as the Eastern tradition is well aware, in the danger that one’s perception falls prey to spiritual delusion (Slavonic “prelestĭ”), and the techniques in the Philokalia are not usually to be attempted without spiritual guidance. If I’m not mistaken, you seemed to allude to this danger in your previous article.

    • Alex

      Right, I have pointed out, in some of the sections, the need to find an authentic tradition with an authentic spiritual guide. Prelest is a major danger, even with such a guide.