I finished The Authentic Seal on the plane to Nashville, and, as I reflected on it, I became struck with how seriously the author (and, indeed, Orthodoxy) takes prayer. For him, prayer is not merely conversation with God; prayer is communion with God. Moreover, prayer is the path to divination, the joining with God. Hypostasis.
There is one story of a monk who, after years of praying the Jesus prayer, goes to his window at night only to find his cell suddenly filled with light. Light from his own heart—the light in which God dwells. Then, he went through some time in a trance-like state, gazing on the Lord, in light.
Now, if this sounds foreign, it’s likely because the notion of divination is not widely discussed in the West. So I don’t understand it fully, because I’m only acquainted with it from the outside looking in. But it seems like a helpful way of understanding one’s telos in the world—i.e., to become one with God.
The closest thing, theologically, I can think of would be the Eucharist, which consumes us and transforms us into the body of Christ. At the Eucharist, we receive a foretaste of true oneness with God.
Returning to the book though, I think the chapters “Catechism on Prayer” and “The Prayer of the Holy Mountain: Yesterday and Today” were the most thought-provoking and inspiring. Both discuss prayer in the context of the Jesus prayer and Orthodox monasticism.
For Archimandrite Aimilianos, prayer—“the vehicle for the soul” (194)—goes through stages. First, prayer begins in struggle. It is a struggle to reach the invisible God who dwells in unsearchable light. So we have the “feeling of an insurmountable obstacle before” us (201), and we must wrestle, disciplining our spirit so that we can approach God. In this stage, according to Fr. Aimilianos, we are not involved in a dialogue but rather in a cry to God because”as long as I’m still struggling and still haven’t won, God is a long way off” (202).
(Now, a quick parenthetical: the language of God being far away, as well as other such language in the book, I think, tries to convey a point that gets lost in translation. For Aimilianos, God is wholly other, so we must turn ourselves—one thinks of the notion of metanoia, repenting—so that we can approach God. Understood as metanoia, I think it’s a healthy notion. I think the way some of the things in the books appear in translation could lead to some unhealthy sense-of-self issues if taken at face value. So, I wanted to try to insert this caveat before going any further, and appeal for us not to give up on ourselves.)
So, prayer is first a struggle.
Second, our cry becomes silence. “God is the God of those who live in tranquility and silence” (205). When we pray, the moments of silence are the moments we’re most open to God. The silent moment between breaths, as Aimilianos describes, is an especially important for listening. He says,
Unless I shout, I won’t learn such a simple and easy thing. If I shout, then I’ll discover that in this way my soul becomes attentive and God makes Himself audible. I’ll see that this is the most important thing: setting the ear in this way, in absolute quiet. So I have to learn to be silent, that is, I have to learn to listen. I have to learn to wait, to await the voice of God….The Holy Spirit supplies us with everything (206-207).
A lot of transformation—humility, attentiveness, etc.—takes place in these first two stages.
Third, being transformed, we start to understand the distance between us and God, the distance between creature and Creator. This stage calls for shattering one’s being (again, see my parenthetical above) as a nut-cracker shatters a nut (214). We have to get the refuse out of our hearts. This is the part of prayer, as I understand it, where we have to abandon our self-deceptions—the notions that we are in control, the notions that we are better than others. We must become weak, so that God’s strength can be manifested through our weakness.
This third stage is also the stage of compunction, where we cry because of our sins. The gift of tears, as so many have described it. In these moments,
God, Who’s always willing to respond to our prayer and never wastes a minute, rushes into my heart….[W]e experience God’s delay as something subjective. It always seems to us, when we pray, that God’s dawdling. In fact, God never delays—not for a minute, nor even an instant (215).
These first three stages are about transformation.
The fourth stage begins “prayer that is the quest for God” (216). This fourth stage is getting to know God and getting to know yourself as you’re known by God.
Fifth, we are filled with the light of the Holy Spirit.
Now we have the second crucial point where we are in danger. For now we see our self in all its facets, filled with light, and we see that what we call ‘Me’ doesn’t really exist. We have to submerge ourselves in the Divinity, in order to be able to live. In other words we have to become aware of what this means: ‘Whosoever loses his soul, shall find it.’ Whoever dies, will live. While whoever finds his soul, will lose it. And that’s when I feel my non-existence, the death of my self.
And if I have love for God—love is what’s required here, by fathers and brethern—if I love God, I’ll feel within me a pang of love and joy saying: ‘Yes, God!’ That’ll be the acceptance of my soul, of God. It’ll be the ‘yes’ I say to God. Now I’ll by saying ‘yes’ in full awareness; before [in the earlier stages of prayer] it was just childish shouts. Now, when I realize that my self has been lost (219).
All this, again, is in the context of the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The prayer contains praise, theology, petition, and anthropology. Praise—Jesus is Lord. Theology—Jesus is Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. Petition—We acknowledge our need for mercy. Anthropology—We are sinners in need of God. The prayer is the vehicle for transformation and for attaining oneness with God such that God becomes our life.
We then go forth to love and serve the world filled, in our bodies, with the Spirit of God.