When we prepare for prayer, we usually think of what to say: what to ask forgiveness for, what petitions to make, what to be thankful for.
In the apophatic theology of hesychasm, we think of shedding: relinquishing oneself, the world, delusions, even the effort of forming words and thinking of how to use them to persuade and communicate. This is what St. Peter calls “pure prayer” which is “the highest form of prayer.” It is a prayer that leaves behind words, images, or sounds to enter a complete and mystical union with of God.
Through the eighth stage of contemplation, we are led upwards to the vision of what pertains to God by means of the second kind of prayer, the pure prayer proper to the contemplative. In it the intellect is seized during the transport of prayer by a divine longing, and it no longer knows anything at all of this world, as both St Maximos4 and St John of Damaskos confirm. Not only does the intellect forget all things, but it forgets itself as well.
As long as we direct and edit our prayer, we maintain control. Evagrios, quotes by St. Peter, makes the point “that so long as the intellect is still conscious of itself, it abides, not in God alone, but also in itself.”
How do we free ourselves from ourselves so that we can dwell in God rather than only speak to him? Through humility, St Peter declares. Humility in thought requires the acknowledgment of the limitations of our intellect: “recognition of the inadequacy of human language to describe God.”
How could we, humans, understand the essence of God through our intellect alone, when he cannot be contained within, and be limited by, human experiences and capabilities? God lies beyond the content of words; beyond the analogies or images we conjure up to describe him.
In our ignorance, however, we should not identify God in Himself with His divine attributes, such as His goodness, bountifulness, justice, holiness, light, fire, being, nature, power, wisdom and the others of which St Dionysios the Areopagite speaks. 2 God in Himself is not among any of the things that the intellect is capable of defining, for He is undetermined and undeterminable… For He is beyond intellection and thought, and is known only to Himself, one God in three hypostases, unoriginate, unending, beyond goodness, above all praise.
Instead of trying to fit God into what we know and understand, we enter pure prayer–quieting the thoughts that crowd our mind, relinquishing the control of how to best communicate and persuade, forgetting about ourselves and the world.
St. Peter warns us of the danger of delusion and falsehood when knowledge is not accompanied by humility.
When we read the scriptures, for example, we may see the text rife with the conflicts and contradictions we have always experienced in our world. This is because our understanding of what we read is limited by our own values, motivations, opinions, and experiences. If we remove our personal opinions and impressions, however, we will be able to perceive that, as St. Peter tells us, there are no contradictions in the scriptures. The spiritually advanced sees no contradictions because he/she detects the hidden connections among segments that appear contradictory and sees in the larger scheme of things, how everything is mutually supported and linked toward the same purpose.
But he whose intellect is still unenlightened thinks that the Holy Scriptures are contradictory. Yet there is no contradiction in the Holy Scriptures: God forbid that there should be.
The appearance of contradiction is due to our ignorance. We ought not to find fault with the Scriptures, but to the limit of our capacity we should attend to them as they are…
St. Peter gives the Greeks and Jews as examples of intellect divorced from humility:
For the Greeks and Jews refused to admit that they did not understand, but out of conceit and self- satisfaction they found fault with the Scriptures and with the natural order of things and interpreted them as they saw fit and not according to the will of God. As a result, they were led into delusion and gave themselves over to every kind of evil.
The result of the 8th stage of contemplation is not a body of knowledge but a state of theosis—complete union with God.
“The person who searches for the meaning of the Scriptures will not put forward his own opinion, bad or good,” St. Peter tells us.
Do you ever wonder how much of our understanding of the world around us is delusional– reading our opinions and desires into others?
When we write an analytical text or present an argument, we typically formulate a hypothesis, based on our understanding of things we observe and know from experience, and look for quotes that back it up. Don’t we all look for support of our opinions, tastes and ideas when picking friends, choosing a channel or publication? Don’t we sometimes become impatient, wishing that the other party could hurry up and finish a sentence so we can express our views that, surely, will put theirs to shame?
St. Peter asks:
What kind of knowledge can result from adapting the meaning of the Scriptures to suit one’s own likes and from daring to alter their words? The true sage is he who regards the text as authoritative and discovers, through the wisdom of the Spirit, the hidden mysteries to which the divine Scriptures bear witness.
Without humility and the shedding of self, we cannot advance beyond our own assumptions and experiences, to understand and connect with others and dwell in God.