From Prayer and Holiness (Chapter 2)
By Dumitru Staniloae
In the previous chapter, Staniloae alludes to St. Maximos in saying that, upon reaching the upper echelon of spiritual maturity, theosis, there are no longer dueling dualities and fragmentation.
Building on the contrast between duality and unity, he introduces the practice of pure prayer or “prayer of the heart,” also known as the Jesus Prayer. This level of purity of prayer occurs only when your heart and mind are united.
Pure prayer is concerned with reuniting the mind (nous) and the heart. Neither mind nor heart can be allowed to remain alone.
When prayer comes only from the mind, he tells us, it is cold. We utter words, engage in thoughts and entertain ideas about God without experiencing a connection with him.
Yet prayer that comes only from the heart is also incomplete. It can veer toward sentimentality, such as the sentimentalization of the Christ figure without acknowledgment of his passion or understanding of theological foundations.
Or, as represented in many of today’s spiritual trends, one’s impatience to experience immersion in a mystical experience, bypasses a relationship with the person of Christ, and creates “the feeling of being lost in an impersonal infinity.”
Staniloae makes it clear that, far from being impersonal, pure prayer requires a direct and intimate relationship with God.
The union between heart and mind has a single direction—from the mind to the heart. The mind, itself, looks to the heart to find the rest it longs for.
This because the heart is the seat of love and “the infinity of God cannot be experienced apart from his love for us.” Far from being an abstraction “this infinity is the infinity of a God who is personal.”
During the prayer of the heart we come into a direct encounter with God and experience his reality. We “no longer encounter God through ideas but through the awareness of his presence which enables us to submit our thoughts to the test of reality In fact, “Thinking about God interrupts direct encounter with him.”
In the prayer of the heart we not only move from ideas to direct encounter but from solitary, self-induced thought to a relationship.
Staniloae makes us aware of the many obstacles preventing us from setting aside self and experiencing a total immersion in the love of God. For example, “physical sensations or to the imaginations which reflect them…” Being drawn to images that, while appearing to be good, are gateways to sin; attraction to sin, thoughts that are “considered as dangerous obstacle to the mind’s entry into the heart.”
Instead of temptations and circular thoughts Staniloae brings up examples from patristic writings.
Fathers speak of prayer as consisting or a single thought. Strictly speaking it is not even a thought, but rather an awareness in the reality of God.
This state of profound feeling is more adequately expressed by the wrong than by words for what is being expressed is beyond words. It is pure prayer, prayer if the whole being, in which the feelings have moved our beyond all things, all thoughts, beyond the very self, to the encounter with God.