Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Theophan the Recluse: Stages of Prayer

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

I hope to provide some "lenten meditations" with some consistency as we pass through the forty days of the Fast. As I am now re-reading The Art of Prayer compiled by Igumen Chariton of Valamo, I will begin by drawing on that excellent source. This book is an anthology of texts on the meaning and practice of prayer as developed within our spiritual tradition. Most of the book is comprised of the writings of St. Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894) a nineteenth c. Russian bishop. With his profound grasp of the Holy Fathers from the earlier centuries, he was able to summarize and synthesize their teaching in a very accessible manner. He writes with clarity and depth about prayer, having been a man immersed in inner prayer for many years, and having corresponded with pious laymen and laywomen from all walks of life about the spiritual life. As a footnote, I would encourage every serious Orthodox Christian struggling to develop a mature prayer life to purchase a copy of this book, since you will be able to turn to it endlessly for guidance.

This first excerpt is rather longer than usual, but it is an excellent outline to the whole issue of how we must strive to deepen our prayer from its initial beginnings:


There are various degrees of prayer. The first degree is bodily prayer, consisting for the most part in reading, in standing, and in making prostrations. In all this there must needs be patience, labour, and sweat; for the attention runs away, the heart feels nothing and has no desire to pray. Yet in spite of this, give yourself a moderate rule and keep to it. Such is active prayer.

The second degree is prayer with attention: the mind becomes accustomed to collecting itself in the hour of prayer, and prays consciously throughout, without distraction. The mind is focused upon the written words to the point of speaking them as if they were its own.

The third degree is prayer of feeling: the heart is warmed by concentration so that what hitherto has only been thought now becomes feeling. Where first it was a contrite phrase now it is contrition itself; and what was once a petition in words is transformed into a sensation of entire necessity. Whoever has passed through action and thought to true feeling, will pray without words, for God is God of the heart. So that the end of apprenticeship in prayer can be said to come when in our prayer we move only from feeling to feeling. In this state reading may cease, as well as deliberate thought; let there be only a dwelling in feeling with specific marks of prayer.

When the feeling of prayer reaches the point where it becomes continuous, then spiritual prayer may be said to begin. This is the gift of the Holy Spirit praying for us, the last degree of prayer which our minds can grasp.

But there is, they say, yet another kind of prayer which cannot be comprehended by our mind, and which goes beyond the limits of consciousness: on this read St. Isaac the Syrian.

~ St. Theophan the Recluse - The Art of Prayer p. 52

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