A Method for the Practice of the Presence of God
There is an aspect or type of prayer that is not too clear in the usual teachings on prayer. In the usual outlines of the types of prayer we seek the categories of supplication, confession, thanksgiving and worship. In these we ask God for the things we want or need, we admit to our moral failings, we thank Him for the things God has given to us and we extol to God the things that He is. These are all aspects of prayer, but they do not quite get to the purpose of prayer that I have in mind, although, they all imply it. This aspect of prayer is the pursuit of the presence of God Himself. It has been called the practice of the presence of God, using Theocentric thought; with anthropocentric thought it is called the practice of unceasing prayer. In medieval Western Catholic terminology it has been called ‘contemplation’ or contemplative prayer. In the Orthodox Church it is called Hesychasm, or Stillness.
It is this method of prayer that I want to call attention to. All the other types of prayer, supplication, confession, thanksgiving and worship, to be properly prayer must be involved in the pursuit of the presence of God, implicitly; else they are not really prayer at all, but a man-centered attempt to manipulate the Divine by words that we control. But in the Christian world, prayer is not an end in itself, nor is it a means of controlling God, or expiating him, but a means to an end, and that is the experiential knowledge of God, and more precisely the continual experiential knowledge of God, whereby we live a life of love and holiness because we are in Communion with Him who is Love and Holy. So I am talking about prayer, a method of prayer whose purpose is to achieve unending communion with God.
In a famous Western Christian book, this has been called the practice of the presence of God, and it is the account of a monk who achieved a remarkable communion with God throughout his ordinary days, mostly as a washer of dishes in a monastery. In the Eastern Orthodox Church of which I am a communicant, it is most commonly ‘unceasing prayer’, after the admonition of the apostle Paul that we pray ‘without ceasing’, and in a complementary way, is called the unceasing ‘memory’ of God, in recognition of the times of Old Testament apostasy when men ‘forgot God’, and fell into moral ruin. In this instance the ‘memory of God’, is not thought about God in the past tense, but a present awareness of God, not conceptually, but an inner spiritual awareness of His Presence.
In all Christian communities that seek a continual awareness of the presence of God, it is universally admitted that it is not easily achieved. It is recognized especially in Eastern Orthodoxy that it is something deeper than thought, beyond thought, and perceived by a spiritual organ traditionally called the ‘nous’, which is more or less the organ of inner spiritual attention, and it is the return of the ‘nous’ from a sort of exile away from the heart of man, not the organ, but the spiritual heart, the center of his being, which made after the image of God is made, likewise to have unbroken communion with God, inwardly, and that the heart, is, in fact, a sort of Temple, a holy of Holies, where man beholds the invisible God, before the mercy seat, and where, in fact, one finds all the hosts of heaven, including the angels and the souls of just men made perfect, the Saints, and above of Jesus the author and perfector of the Faith.
Because this is not easily achieved, it is often the case for modern men, in their culture of instant gratification, do not often find their way into a continual awareness of the presence of God. We also mentioned briefly that the chief obstacle to finding a continual awareness of the presence of God is the exile of the nous from the heart. This is the state of fallen man, who, because of the inheritance of mortality is subject to sin and passions that distract the nous and attract it away from its proper focus and home. Mortality introduced into human beings the fear of non-being, and out of that fear emerged egoism, dedicated to the survival of the self, pride, its armor of self-justification, and the passions which are the attempts of the soul to find in material ways the things that were lost when inner communion with God was lost through the sin of Adam.
Because the practice of the presence of God is not easily achieved, various methods have been advanced in the East and the West , but they are hard to find and even in the testimony of brother Lawrence in the book, The Practice of the Presence of God, there is no method presented. He showed things that are at the core of the state of unceasing prayer, but he did not really present a method; he had a method, there is no doubt, but it did not become formalized in his book. Nor was it made very clear that the depths of the practice of the presence of God takes place in the experience of the presence of God that is beyond thought in a Stillness, where thoughts ‘about’ God or anything else for that matter simply cease. It is not the presence of emptiness, but is pregnant with the Presence that is revealed only as one’s thoughts cease. This is so, because God in His essence transcends anything created and propositional thought is of the created order. This is not to discount thought, nor Scripture that is written in propositions; but the words of doctrine and Scripture, point us beyond themselves to the experience of God that is also beyond the words. This de-rails many in the Reformed tradition because revelation for many of them is defined as propositions that are put forth in Scripture. Put another way, Jesus Christ is the revelation of the Father. Scripture is the words of the Church inspired by the Holy Spirit that point to the revelation of the Father in the person of Jesus Christ. There are well-meaning Fundamentalists who are also put off by this, thinking that the Stillness that is the Presence of God is the same thing as the emptiness to which Hindu and Buddhist meditations call people. It may have outward similarities for a practitioner- the outer stillness that is the prelude to the inner experience- but the experiences are totally different; for in one is the presence of the Father, revealed by the Spirit through Jesus Christ; the other is emptiness.
And the method for getting ‘there’ also is totally different. God is holiness and love and if we would seek to be in communion with Him we must ‘shed’ through repentance all that is in us that is not holiness and love. Repentance is not mere remorse for wrong-doing or wrong-thinking but is coming into agreement with God’s Spirit, that what we have done and thought is contrary to what God is like. As we come to repentance, God then gives us a greater measure of His Spirit, so that we have within us a similarity to God so that we can know Him. The Christian man seeks to grow in repentance through prayer, and through prayers. Faith is not contrary to effort, as Dallas Willard wrote, but contrary to merit. Sanctification is one piece with salvation, and the sanctification of our souls requires effort in response to the invitation of God to become partakers of the Divine Nature. Ignatius, third Bishop of Antioch, said, “those who know the word of Jesus must go on to know His Stillness so as to be perfect.” Prayers put into words the hungerings and aspirations of the heart of man seeking God, and in the Orthodox Tradition, the most common way to pray for one’s advance in the Christian life is called the “Jesus Prayer.” “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The Jesus Prayer is a Christian restatement of the prayer of the Publican in Scripture, “God, have mercy on me a sinner.” The Jesus prayer is a summary of who God is, and who we are, and what we need from God.
The Jesus Prayer for Eastern Orthodox is the M16, the basic weapon, for daily spiritual warfare. It is said with intention, each word being important, and with compunction. It is said slowly, and the ideal is for the Jesus Prayer to be said from the heart. In Orthodox Tradition, the spiritual director will prescribe a given number of Jesus Prayers to be said, in the daily rule of prayer, say ten or one hundred. Each repetition is said meaningfully. It is not vain repetition that Scripture warns against, because the idea of the repetition is not with numbers of prayers to force God’s hand, but to consolidate in us a change , and that is a constant inner gazing towards God for mercy. It is both an asking for mercy, and a training device that attunes our souls to the state of being that the Spirit wishes to draw us- into an inner constant looking towards the Lord, in the heart, for mercy, and mercy is chiefly the awareness of His Presence.
The Jesus Prayer and Manual Labor.
The Jesus Prayer is also used at other times during the course of a day. In times of waiting; in times of commuting to and from work; in times of temptation to impatience, or boredom, or lust or any other sort of temptation that comes our way either through the senses or through the thoughts and desires within. For those involved in jobs that have repetitive activity, the Jesus Prayer is an ideal ‘companion’. Just as brother Lawrence was deeply involved in the practice of the presence of God washing dishes, so people with work that does not require a lot of continual thought, will find an ideal time to practice the Jesus Prayer, and find themselves led imperceptibly to the practice of the presence of God themselves, the practice of unceasing prayer. ‘ Redeem the time for the days are evil’, say the Scriptures. In a wonderful way the Jesus Prayer while done inwardly during manual labor, improves the work quality because it summons us to live in the present, rather than be distracted by imaginations, and thoughts of the future and the past. It makes us present for our jobs!
At first the Jesus Prayer is difficult. It seems like it is accompanied by a heaviness, but through time, a change within us comes as God gives an increase of grace. As a convert to Eastern Orthodox from Evangelical Protestantism with a heavy emphasis on forensic justification, there was an emotional bias that I had to overcome. Something in me said, ‘but God has already had mercy on me.’ I discovered that it is not an either or situation; yes, God had mercy on me at the cross and applied it to me at my conversion. But the matter of the growth in grace calls for an on-going growth in faith and in God’s sustaining mercy. It is this for which we ask. We who have believed and been baptized have an inner deposit of grace. That grace must be worked out ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling.’ say the Scriptures.
After a period of time, we find that the Jesus Prayer is becoming an inward place of retreat away from the temptation of the world the flesh and the devil, and we find it a more and more desirable place to resort. The Traditional literature talks of three stages of the Jesus Prayer. The first is oral prayer; it is said with the mouth. After a while the mind becomes engaged and it is prayed with the mind; the third stage is the prayer with mind in the heart. Eventually this leads to an inward metaphysical shift that follows the repentances that the Spirit brings in response to the prayer. Our nous, our inner spiritual attention, descends in a perceptible manner, into the heart, and finds there the Presence of God that is a Stillness.
One must emphasize again, that it is totally different from the Emptiness sought by Hindu derived meditation practices. The idea of the Stillness has deep correspondence in Scripture. In the book of the Hebrews, the Apostle urges us to enter into the Rest that has been purchased for us by Christ. The practice of the presence of God is also the same as the call of the Apostle that we should ‘walk in the Spirit’ that we not fulfill the lusts of the flesh. It is involved in the call of Christ in the gospel of John to ‘abide’ in Him. It is analogous to the Old Testament injunction ‘they that dwell in the secret place of the Most High shall abide in the shadow of the Almighty.” It is not the renunciation of Scripture and of doctrine but Its consummation. It is also a command of Scripture “Be Still and Know that I am God.” As Christ said, ‘you look to the Scriptures think that in them you will find life, but it is they which speak of Me.’ Existentially it is the co-sitting of the believer with Christ at the right hand of the Father. Believers are first called to enter into crucifixion with Christ through baptism. And then from baptism they arise to newness of life, corresponding to the resurrection of Christ, by the reception of the Holy Spirit. And as believers progress they follow their Lord and enter into His Rest, at the right hand of the Father, that rest that completed the ascension, the offering of His blood on the mercy seat. We are called not to a forensic, or virtual, seatedness with Christ in the heavenlies, but a real one, an existential one, a metaphysical one. That is what the Stillness, the Hesychasm is about.