“Soundings” is a series of essays that, like the waves of a sonogram, explore issues in society, culture and the church in light of the Gospel and Christian understanding.
Christians of every stripe and from all traditions—Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant —have maintained that prayer is absolutely central to the spiritual life of the true believer in Christ. Many readers would, I am sure, be familiar with this statement, attributed to the Reformer Martin Luther: “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.”
Throughout the history of the Church, many spiritual writers have penned tomes on this subject, and together, their works are a rich and almost inexhaustible resource for Christians today. Regrettably, many modern Christians are not aware of these important spiritual texts and therefore have not benefited from the wisdom they contain.
Silence and watchfulness, specifically in prayer, are two important themes found in the works of the spiritual writers who belong to the Eastern Orthodox tradition.
Prayer in the modern Church can sometimes display the insatiable acquisitiveness that mirrors the consumerism and materialism of the prevailing culture. The works of the spiritual masters of the Orthodox tradition—especially those whose writings are included in the Philokalia—may perhaps provide a useful counterbalance to our current habits of prayer.
“Prayer,” writes fourth century monk and ascetic, Evagrius Ponticus (Evagrius the Solitary) “is communion of the intellect with God.”1 According to him, prayer is first and foremost a relationship between the believer and God, made possible by divine grace. Put differently, prayer is the believer’s personal encounter with God, the Creator who brought the world into being out of nothing, and the Saviour who reaches out to sinners in mercy.
In prayer, we stand before the fearsome God who is love. The appropriate response on the part of the wretched sinner in the presence of the holy and almighty God is not incessant chatter but silent adoration and profound gratitude. The Eastern fathers have much to say about the verbosity of prayer, which, regrettably, is a characteristic predilection of the prayers of many Christians today.
The sixth century monk, John Climacus, says that “intelligent silence is the mother of prayer. […] The friend of silence draws near to God and, by secretly conversing with Him, is enlightened by God.”2
This silence, the theologians of the east tell us, has to do, not with passivity, but rather with vigilance, attentive alertness and, above all, with submissive listening to the still, small voice of God. The eastern fathers have always taught that prayer not as a monologue—where the pray-er talks endlessly, making one request after another.
Rather, it is always understood as a dialogue in which the believer comes humbly before the Almighty—yes, to bring his requests and articulate his concerns, but more importantly, to wait upon him and to hear what he has to say by his Word and through his Spirit.
Finally, in the stillness and silence of prayer, the Christian learns how to be watchful. This theme occupies a significant place not only in the writings of the Orthodox monks, but also in the works of Western mystics, like St John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila.
To be watchful is to be ever alert to the thoughts and distractions that floods one’s mind during prayer. It is to learn how to brush aside these intrusions and to focus the mind on the task at hand, or, more accurately to the object of our prayer and adoration, God Himself.
“The beginning of prayer,” writes Climacus, “consists in banishing by a single thought the thoughts that assault us at the very moment they appear.”3
The practice of silence, stillness and watchfulness that is cultivated in prayer should follow us throughout the day, in the busyness of our activities and various occupations. Among the three, the fathers emphasise watchfulness, because it is key to being mindful of God’s presence and to being on guard over temptation and sin.
Prayer is the privilege of being in intimate fellowship (koinonia) with the most holy God. It should never be reduced to a technique or turned into a perverse game of quid pro quo.
1 Evagrius Ponticus, On Prayer 3, in Philokalia I, ed. and trans. GEH Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), 57.
2 John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent 11 (Brookline, MA: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2012).
3 John Climacus, On Watchfulness and Holiness 121, in Philokalia 1, 183.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg).
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