Prayer of the Spirit and Inner Freedom: St. Sophrony

From his book, His Life is Mine, chapter #6

Allusions to “prayer” are heard almost daily, even by our politicians who assure us they will pray for whatever disaster has befallen us.  

“Prayer” connotes for most of us a series of requests made to God, especially during difficult circumstances such as loss, economic misfortune or illness.

Sophrony, however, points out to us that there is a different type of prayer—the prayer of the spirit—which he contrasts to the prayer of petitions. Unlike petitions, spiritual prayer does not focus on the fulfillment of our needs and desires but on our relationship with God. This is an essential distinction.

The prayer of the spirit is “fastened on eternity.” It is transformative, not because of our changed circumstances, but because of our changed perception. Everything we see and experience “will take on a different character.”

Sophrony does not speak of esoteric truths or cosmic visions of heaven as the results of the prayer of the spirit. He describes, instead, a complete transformation of our perception and experience of everything, no matter what the circumstances and place, including minute details of our daily life.  This is because prayer of the spirt, eventually, becomes the “normal state of the soul” and, thus, alters and renovates our lives.

The man of prayer beholds the surrounding scene in another light. Concern is quickened and the quality of life enhanced. In time, prayer will penetrate our nature until gradually a new man is born of God.

This state of prayer cannot be attained through our own means alone, but with the grace of the Holy Spirit which “may visit [our souls] suddenly, inscrutably, bringing a foretaste of eternity.”

Though we cannot achieve Grace alone, the Holy Spirit cannot dwell in us without our consent.  

The Holy Spirit comes when we are receptive,” Sophrony writes. God does not impose it on us “without our consent.” This is because “God respects and does not constrain man.”

Freedom through consent and cooperation undergirds the state of spiritual prayer.

Sophrony understands our all-consuming need for praise and acceptance; the fear of making the wrong impression, revealing vulnerabilities or loss of status and, hence, losing others’ respect and admiration. He also understands the context of the world we live in. Being a man of God, after all, could immediately brand you as weird or “behind the times” by your colleagues, clients or “sophisticated” neighbors.

The prayer of the Spirit, however, frees us from our dependence on others’ approval or material things to feel that our lives are worth living.

Don’t be afraid that others may perceive you as odd or even dislike you, he advises. The goal is for God, rather than man, to accept you. Popularity and the praise of others means nothing if God does not abide in us.

Immersion in the love of God frees us from aimless speculations and obsessive thoughts:

…a man in love with Christ has no desire to philosophize. He only wants one thing—to love for all eternity.

Prayer of the spirit, unlike a prayer of requests, focuses us on our true priorities. It does not remove us from worldly life but gives us the discernment to put things in perspective, in light of eternity.

Those who are graced by the Holy Spirit “perceive in their prayer that every single moment of our life is enveloped in divine eternity.

Sophrony is a modern man who understands our difficulty to achieve prayer of the Spirit in today’s environment.

It is no simple matter to preserve inspiration while surrounded by the icy waters of a world that does not pray.

He gives practical advice: pray with your heart and all your attention. Ask God’s help to ignite the fire within you.

…(Pray to God) to fire our hearts so that we not be overcome even by the cosmic cold, that no black cloud blot out the bright flame.”

Sophrony places the fruits of spiritual prayer in the modern context. He acknowledges, and does not dismiss, the benefits of science and art but puts them in the right order. However inspiring and thrilling artistic creation or scientific discovery may be, they operate on a different realm than prayer and “cannot be compared to [the state] of the man of prayer brought face to face with the Living God.”  Art and science may reveal glimpses of truths about us but do not aspire to the “integral knowledge of being, in the deepest and widest sense” as the prayer of the spirit does. They do not transform the state of our soul and lives.

To maintain the state of prayer of the spirit and, thus, the closeness to God, we need to achieve inner freedom. We must not allow our spiritual state to fluctuate between the highs and the lows that depend on others’ approval or disapproval.  

The only imperative is to preserve this loving tie with God. We shall not care what people think of us or how they treat us. We shall cease to be afraid of falling out of favor. We shall love our fellow men without thought of whether they love us…The end result of prayer is to make us sons of God, and as sons we shall abide for ever in the house of our Father.

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