One of the important Russian Orthodox spiritual teachers of the 19th century was a man who was known as Theophan the Recluse (1815–1894). Trained as a priest and taking monastic vows, Theophan was elevated to the office of Bishop, but his heart was not in the administrative running of a diocese. He was a teacher and a spiritual guide, a man especially adept at the work of the spiritual formation of others, and so Theophan resigned his office and withdrew into a life of silence and solitude where he tended to matters of the soul, writing books and providing spiritual direction to the countess pilgrims that made their way to him for spiritual direction.
As a Russian Orthodox Christian, Theophan’s spiritual life was shaped by the externals of ritual and liturgy. He prayed “by the book.” A Disciple would likely regard so much of what he did as being “mechanical“and actually forbidden by what Jesus said about prayer in the Sermon on the Mount –
5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.
So, how did Theophan become such a spiritual giant when he was so tightly tethered to what we would most likely regard to be the stultifying externals of his spiritual tradition? How did the spiritual practices of that tradition not become a matter of just piling up empty phrases and being seen of others? And this is where I find Theophan to be such a helpful teacher, because as free as our spiritual tradition is, we still have our externals – the hymns we sing, the Lord’s Prayer, the Doxology, the Gloria Patri, weekly Lord’s Supper – any and all of these forms can be just as spiritually stultifying as any ritual or liturgy that Theophan ever performed. His spiritual tradition doesn’t have the market on rote worship where people just go through the motions, unthinking, unfeeling, and uninvolved. No, this happens just as often here at Northway on a Sunday morning as in any Orthodox Cathedral. It is easy to be “religious” without being “spiritual,” to be “outwardly in” the church and at a worship service without being “inwardly in” the Spirit of it, engaged with the truth and reality of that with which it is making contact. Theophan understood how easily this occurs with us as human beings, and so he taught people how to avoid it.
Theophan taught that there are three ways to pray – with the lips, with the mind and with the heart. To pray with the lips is to say, or in the case of Theophan’s tradition that used prayer books, it is to read the prayers. This is what Theophan observed about praying with the lips –
Prayer with the lips is simply the physical repetition of the words of the prayer. This by itself is empty. If we mindlessly repeat the words of prayer or if we just mindlessly “babble” spontaneous words, then this is not true prayer and not pleasing to God. Prayer of this nature has at best no effect on the soul, however, it is more likely damaging to the soul because he who prays this way deceives himself and thinks that he is praying.
Notice that Theophan not only criticized the way that his own tradition could fall prey to the emptiness of this kind of praying by “mindlessly repeating the words of prayer,” but how our own tradition was just as susceptible to that same kind of emptiness by “mindlessly ‘babbling’ spontaneous words.” Praying with lips alone is not enough.
The second degree of prayer according to Theophan was praying with the mind. Praying with the mind involves two things. First of all it requires that the prayers that are about to be prayed be understood. And so Theophan told people –
Make an effort in your spare time to read the prayers you are going to pray with extra care, attention and feeling, so that when you are at prayer, you will be familiar with the holy thoughts and feelings contained in them. Praying does not mean repeating a certain number of words of prayer; praying is reproducing the contents of the prayers within ourselves, so that they flow as if from our own mind and heart.
Second it requires that the one who is going to pray comes to terms with just exactly Who it is that is about to be addressed.
Thus, going to pray, in the morning or in the evening, stand for a moment, or sit, or walk, and strive in this time to focus your thoughts, casting off from them all earthly activities and objects. Then call to mind the One to Whom you are praying, Who He is and who you are, as you begin this prayerful petition to Him. From this, awaken in your soul the feeling of humility and reverent awe of standing before God in your heart. As you stand piously before God, all of this preparation may seem small and insignificant, but it is not small in meaning. This is the beginning of prayer and a good beginning is half the work.
This is praying with the mind – understanding both what is to be prayed, and to whom the prayers are directed.
Prayer with the mind is the second “stage” of prayer and is (and should be) coupled with prayer of the lips. Whenever we say a prayer, whether mentally or verbally, the mind should be wholly involved in the prayer. This is what the fathers call “attention” in prayer. It is the mind’s involvement in concentrating on and attending to the words of the prayer. Prayer with the mind gives understanding and meaning to the prayer of the lips and these two together form most often the type of prayer that we offer to God and is beneficial but not yet perfect.
Finally, Theophan told people that if their prayer was to be truly “spiritual” then it was going to have to finally move to the heart. This was Theophan’s definition of the highest degree of prayer –
The essence of prayer is therefore the spiritual lifting of the heart towards God. The mind in the heart stands consciously before the face of God, filled with due reverence, and begins to pour itself out before Him. This is spiritual prayer, and all prayer should be of this nature. According to the church fathers, this is the most intimate form of prayer. Prayer is no longer simply words we say or thoughts we ponder, but rather the moving of God’s Spirit within our spirit. This is the goal of all prayer.
Describing how this “standing with the mind in the heart” kind of praying actually worked, Theophan wrote –
Having begun to pray, recite a memorized prayer or psalm and ponder every word, not only in your mind, but in your heart. If your own prayer begins to grow from a word in the psalm or prayer, don’t cut it off, let it flow. Do not worry about reading this many or that many prayers, but stand at prayer for an appointed length of time, regulated either by the prayer rope or the clock. Haste in prayers is useless. Perhaps you may read only a single prayer or one psalm during the entire time. There was one person who was able to recite only the Lord’s Prayer during his regular prayer time; each word transformed itself into a whole prayer. Another person, having been told about this acceptable manner of praying, revealed that he had stood all through Matins reciting Psalm 50, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy”—and ran out of time before he could finish.
Every Sunday morning in worship our lips are invited to pray. But if all you bring to church is your lips, then the whole exercise will be futile. Your mind and your heart must come along to church as well. In fact, I believe that our worship as a community of faith would be revolutionized if we did what Theophan counseled, that is, coming to the weekly time of congregational worship and prayer with minds prepared and hearts that were open. But for this to happen, there must be effort. As Theophan explained –
Prayer does not come about as you expect—by just wishing for it, and, suddenly, there it is. This does not happen.
No, for prayer to be powerful and worship to be dynamic, we must come to church prepared and expectant, as participants and not spectators. As Theophan counseled –
Though we make painstaking preparations for every other task (no matter how trivial), we do not prepare for prayer. We take up prayer with flighty thoughts, willy-nilly, and rush to get it over with, as if it were an incidental, though unavoidable, bother—and not the center of our life, as it should be.
Without preparation, how can there be a gathering of thought and feeling in prayer? Without preparation, prayer proceeds shakily instead of firmly.
No, you must determine to… under no circumstance allow yourself to come to prayer with your heart and mind unprepared, your thoughts and feelings scattered in a dozen directions. …Consider prayer the central labor of your life and hold it in the center of your heart. Address it in its rightful role, not as a secondary function!
Toil! God will be your helper. …Strive to experience the sweetness of pure prayer. Once experienced, pure prayer will draw you on and enliven your spiritual life, beckoning you to more attentive, more difficult, and ever-deepening prayer.