THE JESUS PRAYER: St. Sophrony

From his book, His Life is Mine, chapter #14

In the last two chapters of his book, Sophrony focuses on the Jesus prayer.

The Jesus Prayer, also known as the prayer of the heart, is a short prayer that is repeated constantly in the course of the day: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Through repetition and contemplation, Christ descends from the theoretical level of our mind to our experience of him in our hearts.

Monks in the Hesychastic ascetic tradition repeat it constantly, even as they go about their day and performing menial tasks. It serves to cleanse the mind, remove us from earthly concerns and open the way to inner peace and likeness to God—first by opening the mind and then the heart.  

For many it is reminiscent of the mantras chanted in Hinduism and Buddhism. Yet, though all these meditative practices use repetition to help practitioners concentrate and facilitate meditation, and though they lay out a mystical path to inner stillness, the Jesus prayer is completely different than a mantra. Inner peace is not its sole objective, but its starting point for slowly building a personal relationship with a personal God.

Invoking the name of God has immeasurable power. Far from treating it as a formulaic exercise—a mere means to an end–Sophrony asks us to “approach the invocation of God’s name with awe,” and to understand God’s attributes and their significance.

Instead of just losing ourselves, we maintain personhood and actively develop a personal relationship with him. We use our intelligence to advance our knowledge of God and meditate on the meaning of God’s name which we invoke in prayer.

The practice itself does not confer instant bliss and illumination.

“The content or meaning of the Name of God,” Sophrony writes, “is imparted to us only gradually”

It takes a great deal of time for Christ to increasingly reveal his true character to us. Sophrony refers us to parallels in the Bible.

Thus, at first God revealed himself to Moses as the one true I AM, with attributes still unknown. The subsequent revelation disclosed the properties of this I AM—God gracious and merciful…forgiving but also punishing. But this too was vague, and Moses recognized that the knowledge given to him is incomplete.

Knowledge of God is neither emotional nor purely rational. We “know” God through prayer and meditation, most especially through the Jesus prayer. We know him holistically, with every component of ourselves, through reason and faith, intelligence and mystical experience, mind and body.

And within us the bliss in our heart is combined with the light of intelligence, then, and only then, do we approach perfection.

 The “fleeting invocation” of Christ’s name may give us a moment of joy, perspective but is not the end of our journey. The Jesus Prayer is not a task to be checked off a list but a constant state of our soul, an accompanying and constant drone behind every thought and action. The Jesus prayer is not an event in time but a gateway to knowledge of God to which we should devote every waking hour of the day. Yet the reward is great:

How radical the change when we decide to accept Christ’s summons! Every instant of our lives becomes valuable! Both suffering and joy are linked in a miraculous way with this new ascetic effort. The ladder to heaven is set up before us.

THE PRAYER OF GETHSEMANE: LOVE AND PAIN, St. Sophrony

From his book, His Life is Mine, chapter #13

In the previous chapter, Sophrony introduced us to the concepts of liturgical prayer and eucharistic life, even outside liturgy.

In this chapter he calls on us to learn from Christ’s prayer of Gethsemane.

Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.

The common assumption is that, when Christ asks his father to remove the cup from him, he refers to his physical suffering and humiliation.

Sophrony invalidates this assumption. For him the “cup” signifies the pain that profound love for others emanates. 

He descended into hell, into the most painful hell of all, the hell of love.

He does not make light of physical suffering. He simply reminds us that, after all, as we all know from experience, “the soul can be more dreadfully wounded than the body.”

It is so much easier for us to understand a moment of hesitation and fear as Christ contemplates the martyrdom ahead of him. We can immediately identify with this fear. Yet this is, according to Sophrony, because “we lack existential knowledge of such love and so its permanent significance is hidden from us.”

Just imagine then, how much of God’s nature and the full experience of love are hidden from us.

As parents, we get a small glimpse of the experience of pain, generated by too much love. We agonize over the possibility of harm, danger or illness befalling our children. And there are moments when we are so much filled with love for them that it hurts us to contemplate their fragility and to understand the limits in our ability to protect them from all evil.  

Multiply this love by millions and millions to begin to get even a tiny glimpse into the magnitude of the love Christ has for us. Yet even such small glimpse, or even the desire for it, paves our path to theosis.

What then is this love we strive to experience through prayer?

Sophrony describes this experience as “light that cannot be extinguished;” a connection with all men since our heart is moved by empathy for them.  

In St. John’s version of the prayer of Gethsemane, Christ’s becomes united with the entire human race, rather than frozen and isolated in his fear:

“Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, so that your Son may glorify you— just as you have given him authority over all humanity, so that he may give eternal life to everyone you have given him.

Such perfect love may intimidate others, Sophrony states:

There is nothing more dreadful than Christ – Truth

Fear, in fact, might be the source of their rejection of Christ:

… a peculiar animal instinct of the flesh quickly tells us that to follow     him involves a readiness to be crucified for love of him…

We, ordinary mortals, instinctively avoid physical pain, discomfort, rejection, and sorrow. The radicalism of Christianity is the rejection of all these human habits, instincts, and assumptions. In essence, as Sophrony tells us, Christ calls for “a radical Altering of our whole life…”

But the rewards are great:

Sophrony juxtaposes heart to mere theory. “Christianity,” he says, “so far surpasses the ordinary understanding that the praying heart does not venture to preach the gospel word.”  In trying to explain logically the mystery of Christ, people “reduce him to dimensions of their own making, which debases the Gospels to the level of moralistic doctrine.”

This is where prayer comes in. Instead of fitting Christ into our limited understanding of him, we enter the prayer of Gethsemane and become Christ-like. When….

 “a shadow of a likeness to the Gethsemane prayer is granted him, man then transcends the boundaries of his own individuality and enters into a new form of being—personal being in the likeness of Christ. By participating in the suffering of his divine love we, too, in spirit can experience a little of his death and of  the power of his resurrection.”

LIFE AS PRAYER, ST. SOPHRONY

From his book, His Life is Mine, chapter #12

Sophrony calls this chapter “liturgical prayer” referring to the priest’s prayers during liturgy.

Liturgical prayer is not merely the recital of words or performance of rituals.  To “live this sacrament to the full,” Sophrony says, the priest who celebrates the Divine Liturgy must “transmute his entire life into prayer.” “Preparing himself in awe” he will enter a deep state of prayer through which he “will be drawn into the domain of the divine.”  

Sophrony here introduces the concept of life as prayer that later on takes us beyond the liturgical context.

There is another component in the transformation of self into prayer, and that is love. The priest, we are told, ascends to the kingdom through mourning for the suffering of mankind and, thus, through love. His heart, Sophrony writes, must be opened wide “to embrace a multitude of lives and eons of time.”  

In fact, the more the priest grieves “the mightier the healing power dispensed to the world through his prayer.”

Alexander Schmemann talks of love through sacrifice:

The Church, if it is to be the Church, must be the revelation of that divine Love which God “poured out into our hearts.” Without this love nothing is “valid” in the Church because nothing is possible. The content of Christ’s Eucharist is Love, and only through love can we enter into it and be made its partakers.” Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World

The greatest eucharist of all, Sophrony tells us, is the one that the Lord performed. Liturgical prayer then is eucharistic in nature. The priest is called to be Christ-like, sacrificing himself for others out of his great love for them.

Sophrony has already alluded to the applicability of deep, liturgical prayer for all men and not just priests.

In the first place, taking part fully in liturgy teaches us to participate in “Christ’s Gethsemane prayer.” This is why “deep prayer comes gradually,” according to Sophrony. It cannot be swiftly achieved through academic study alone. It requires, what he calls, “the noble science of the spirit.” That is, liturgical prayer “…demands the whole being.”

Through deep prayer we become transformed. Little by little we “gradually perceive the eternal meaning and especial character of his sufferings.”

Life lived to the full potential God has endowed us with, is eucharistic in nature, says Alexander Schmemann.

The only real fall of man is his noneucharistic life in a noneucharistic world. 

He continues:

In its self-sufficiency the world and all that exists in it has no meaning. And as long as we live after the fashion of this world, as long, in other words, as we make our life an end in itself, no meaning and no goal can stand, for they are dissolved in death. It is only when we give up freely, totally, unconditionally, the self-sufficiency of our life, when we put all its meaning in Christ, that the ‘newness of life’ – which means a new possession of the world – is given to us. The world then truly becomes the sacrament of Christ’s presence, the growth of the Kingdom and of life eternal.” ― Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy

If we enter a life of “liturgical prayer,” our lives themselves—in or outside the church—become sacramental and eucharistic.”

…For eucharist—thanksgiving and praise—is the very form and content of the new life that God granted us when in Christ He reconciled us with Himself. The reconciliation, the forgiveness, the power of life—all this has its purpose and fulfillment in this new state of being, this new style of life which is the Eucharist, the only real life of creation with God and in God, the only true relationship between God and the world.”

Alexander Schmemann

EXPERIENCING ETERNITY THROUGH PRAYER, ST. SOPHRONY

From his book, HiLife is Mine, chapter #11

…. appear unto us, O Light of the world,

To reveal unto us the mystery of the ways of thy salvation,

That we may become sons and daughters of thy light.

————————-

It is with this prayer that Sophrony starts this chapter.

We are of course sons and daughters of God but becoming what we were created to be is different from just being. “Becoming” means comprehending and fulfilling this potential. This is not automatic. It requires both God’s intervention and our ability to focus our lives on him.

Stay your mind upon God, and the moment will come when you feel the    touch of the Eternal spirit in your heart.

Fulfilling our potential, “lifts the spirit into the spheres of uncreated Being and pierces the mind with a new vision of all that is. Love streams like a light on all creation.”

Yet even if we experience God’s light in this way, we cannot take it for granted because it can suddenly leave us. Having experienced the fulness of light, its departure leaves us bereft and empty.

Our study group questioned the idea of God departing from us. Hasn’t he promised that he will never leave us? Yet experiencing the presence of God within us is different from God simply dwelling in us, without us even perceiving it.

Experiencing eternity, as a member of our group remarked, does not refer to a sustained, emotional high. This is the mistake we often make, resorting to forced or artificially induced emotional highs. Light is not a state of emotion but a state of being in which we become transformed and see the world differently, with absolute clarity.

While we cannot count on when and in what form “the character of [God’s] coming” will appear to us, we can make its absence increasingly rare by resorting to prayer. Sophrony talks about “one spiritual adventure after another” to refer to the frantic and aimless pursuit of meaning without God. I remember the constantly changing face of my pursuit that exhausted and frustrated me—from hippie “farmer,” to ironic intellectual, conflicted mother and urban professional.

Sophrony tells us that for a Christian, a prayerful life encounters steep obstacles but has a steady goal and direction as we “press on toward the goal shown us by Christ, not dismayed but inspired by the magnitude of the task before us.”

Sophrony grieves for a modern world in which Christ is forgotten and seems irrelevant.  Why isn’t everyone burning with the desire to reach God and attain a higher level of being? asks Sophrony and answers his own question.

I suggest,” he says, “that it is less because the testimony is false and does not correspond to actual fact than because majority of us, satisfied with the things of the flesh, feel little desire for higher knowledge.” He concludes with a quote from the Corinthians:

“…flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption” (I Cor 15.50)

As Westerners, we may be moved by the artistry of a single move by a ballerina, while remaining indifferent to nuanced moves in, say, Thai dancing, or the hard-to-discern tonal modulations of Indian music. These non-western art forms, in fact, may strike us as “weird,” cacophonous and irrelevant to our entertainment.

To fully appreciate the beauty of a piece of art or the brilliance or a scientific concept, Sophrony suggests, one must have some training or familiarity with these fields. It is the same with the Spirit.

Man is an enigma, torn by the contradiction between the pull for the stopgaps of superficial comfort and the “everlasting glory” many of us do not dare to even consider. Yet, having forgotten the meaning and “vocabulary” of eternal life in Christ, we cannot visualize, or converse with, that realm.  Sophrony advises to exert ourselves, in order to become proficient in this higher “language.”

He urges us to think of a huge, old tree whose branches seemingly reach into the sky. He asks us to contemplate its roots and realize that they are at least as deep as the tree is high.

He concludes that “to contemplate this glory we must needs be in glory. Otherwise, we cannot see. To apprehend even dimly “Who this is” (Matthew II 11.27), we must become like him.”

It is through prayer that we experience Eternity, Sophrony concludes. And it is by descending into humility like the roots of a large tree that we will ascent to the glory of God.  

Through Dark to Light, St. Sophrony

From his book, HiLife is Mine, chapter #10

Sophrony makes clear in his very title that to get to the light, one must traverse the darkness. Yet he probes beyond that, starting with the question of why desire light in the first place. Why is it worthwhile to devote our lives to the hard and perilous journey toward light?

It is because we are the pinnacle of God’s creation, he explains—”more precious than all the rest of the cosmos.” We were intended to be perfect so that, unless we strive toward the light of perfection, we will never know our true, authentic selves. Man, in fact, “is more than a microcosm—he is a microtheos.”

Yet man is not simply the crown of creation in the sense of a created object that, once made, is independent of the creator. Instead, there is what Sophrony calls, commensurability—complete synergy between creator and his creation of man.  

If man by the nature of his spirit is not “like unto God,” then neither could God have been made man.

We can only grasp our likeness to God, and understand our proper relationship with Him, when we have abandoned darkness for light:

In prayer we glimpse into ourselves divine infinity, not yet actualized but foreknown.

As we ascend toward the light, all becomes clear and “the image of Man eternal is revealed to us as we become more sharply aware of our benighted state.”

Darkness, on the contrary, obscures not only goodness but our own, true identity.

Instead of clarity and stability in our relationship with God, we experience “perpetual instability,” which Sophrony sees as the “tragedy of creation.”

We are torn by internal conflicts, anguish and uncertainty and often feel “fake” as our “narrative” does not match reality. We rise and fall based on external factors, such as career success and others admiration, and keep changing directions in search of the right one. St. Paul aptly describes this state of instability:

15 For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. 16 But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. 17 So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. 19 For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. 20 But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. (Romans 7:15-20).

Sophrony considers pride as the gateway to darkness and the “root of every sin.”

Somehow what are considered “sins” in Christian thought, define normalcy in our world:” pride in our wealth, appearance and achievements; control and domination that allow us “wins;” competition, self-promotion, prioritization of work, material ease and admiration of others over love, spiritual progress and humility—all these are considered the norm and denote strength.

If you think about it, Christianity proclaims a radical departure from “business as usual.” Humility, far from being a weakness, is our greatest strength and a prerequisite to reaching the light while external shows of strength and achievement are weaknesses and indications of loss of one’s true self and direction. As Sophrony puts it:

Christ began by preaching on earth by a call to repentance—to a radical alteration in our approach to life.

This is why, Sophrony tells us, Christ “is the one and only solution of the apparent insoluble conflict.”

Christian “radicalism” embraces suffering rather than devoting an enormous amount of effort to prevent it and make our lives as comfortable as possible.

In fact, our “pilgrimage” from darkness to light “must start with a descent into the pit of hell.” This was the course of Christ’s journey from life to death to eternal life. Sophrony has made clear in other chapters that it is through suffering that we hone our faith and character, acquire empathy for others, humility, patience and the resourcefulness of transforming suffering into joy.

By embracing suffering, the early Fathers of the church did not mean apathy, resignation or despair. Quite the opposite. Unlike resignation, we are filled with hope and faith that allow us patience. We know that a disaster or hardship may hide somewhere a blessing, though we do not know what it is and when it will manifest itself.

However, in Christianity’s radical approach to life, we do not need to exert our will and live lives of anxiety and anguish to reach the light.

The light that follows darkness comes mysteriously, unexpectedly and independently of our will.

This divine light, hidden, mysterious by natura, imparts new life to the soul…

This Light is the Light of Divinity. Ineffably tender, one is unaware of its approach. It may come in the night watch. Or at bright noonday As even light, entire, it is the breath of love, It brings peace, It brings and experience of resurrection, The spirit of man enters the realm where death is no more. Time is at a standstill. The world   hitherto devoured by death, comes to life.

This is another manifestation of the synergistic relationship between God and man. It is the Holy Spirit that allows us to cross from darkness to light, but it is our efforts at patience, the shedding of passions, humility and hope that enable the Holy Spirit to act within us. ‘’

Sophrony, explores the psychology of human soul and anthropology of Christianity to make his thesis applicable to all—Christians and non-Christians, faithful and atheists. We all struggle with darkness and long for the light.

But his message is clear and irrefutable:

Christ is the light of the world.

……………………………..

Before Christ’s coming the whole world, all the people of the earth walked in darkness, ignorant of the way which leads to the kingdom of God and our Father.   

The Choice of Inner Freedom: Sophrony

From his book, His Life is Mine, chapter #9

In life we have become skilled in hiding our dark thoughts and deeds, even from ourselves. In fact, as the early fathers tell us, we have so justified, misinterpreted or concealed our sins that even distinguishing evil from good is extremely difficult.

Upon our death, however, our entire earthly life will be entirely visible and concise. No dark corner, no matter how small, will be hidden.

Hence, we must see our lives as preparation for that moment of complete nakedness; journeys in which we must gradually excise darkness from within us, so that we can stand before God without fear.

While we cannot enter God’s presence with the burden of our sins, He has given us the precious gift of confession and repentance. All sins will be forgiven in the face of true repentance.

To avail oneself of God’s gifts requires more than mere acceptance. It requires cooperation.

Though God grants us opportunities for repentance, we can only avail of them through the exercise of our free will. We must freely choose spiritual warfare over consent to sin, repentance over justification of, or indulgence in, it.

God does nothing with man without man’s cooperation.

The spiritual warfare required to clear our inner darkness and replace it with light is enormous. Sophrony, like a skilled behavioral therapist, lays out a battle strategy that targets our motivation and creates new habits of thought and action.

Straight forward resistance is not always the most successful way of trying to defeat wicked or simply idle thoughts,” he tells us.

Instead of only resisting, he suggests, try being inspired. For example, we are unmotivated when we are unable to see in ourselves “permanent virtue.” We give up all too easily, justify sins with the thought that it is only “human to sin,” and behave toward each other like “jungle beasts.”

What if we kept at the forefront of our conscience a higher goal to work toward?

When we are faced with various possibilities our choice should be conditioned by the final aim that we have in view: the kingdom of the father.

What if we always kept alive in our memory that God meant the world “to be perfect?”

We would derive encouragement and inspiration from the realization that permanent virtue within us is the natural mode of being.

To belittle God’s initial idea for us is not just mistaken: it is a sin.

Repentance from sin is not the same as paying a traffic fine and being relieved of the penalty. We must remember that sin is not a transgression to be punished by law but the distance from God that brings about the death of our soul. Conversely, abstinence from sin or repentance is not a transaction through which we reserve a seat in Paradise. It brings about profound transformation, the pinnacle of which is deep, inner stillness and peace.

The first sign of emancipation,” Sophrony tells us, “is a disinclination to impose one’s will on others.”

This sentence stopped me in my tracks. How many times have I patted myself on the back for my spiritual progress, when my behavior toward others remained the same? How profound is our need to control others and how often do we use euphemisms to disguise it?

It’s not control! It is my duty as a parent to guide my children and their choices.

I am not trying to manipulate others’ impressions of me. I am only stating facts when I list the names of all the important people I met.

I had to try to change his mind. His politics are dangerous and misguided.

If my sister made the right choices, I wouldn’t need to send her articles and clippings every day, trying to make her change her behavior.

The other side of the same coin — what Sophrony calls the second sign of emancipation — is “an inner release from the hold of others on oneself.” If you are constantly under pressure to impress, direct and force the outside world to conform to the narrative you constructed about it, it means that you are dependent on this world for your life to feel worth living. You are, thus caught in an endless up-and-down course that is determined by others.

Those who are possessed by the lust for power cloud the image of God in themselves. When the Holy Spirit by its gentle presence in our soul enables us to master our passions, we realize that to look down on others is contrary to the spirit of love.

The ultimate purpose of repentance is not entrance to an elite group in Paradise but the achievement of true spiritual freedom that will enable us to unite with God.

Spiritual freedom is a sublime grace. Without it there is no salvation…

In us lies the freedom of choice to let our soul die or accept God’s gift of life:

For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Romans 6:23

Suffering and the Bliss of Knowing the Way: St. Sophrony

From his book, His Life is Mine, chapter #7

Sophrony acknowledges the shared human need for inner peace by both Christians and non-Christians. We both share, in a way, a longing for heaven; something beyond ourselves. We have a need to know the way.

He empathizes with those who seek to escape the “banality and emptiness of contemporary world” and understands why so many are turning to Eastern religions and meditative practices.

Sophrony, however, draws a distinction between Christian mysticism (such as the Hesychastic tradition of the Eastern Orthodox church), and non-Christian forms of meditation, many influenced by Eastern mysticism.

Like other meditative traditions, Hesychastic practices aim at achieving inner stillness through dispassion, the practice of virtues and a life of prayer. This is a journey of continuous ascendance and transformation until we finally reach theosis—complete union with God and participation in his divinity.

Sophrony calls this a “profound mystery.”

He tells us that we are “blessed,” as Christians, because “His life is become ours.” We do not simply gain knowledge or divine attributes but participate in his essence. Because we now see the world through his eyes, we can truly see and hear what was hidden from us before, and perceive the unity where there were once only contradictions.

Blessed are your eyes, for they see and your ears, for they hear. (Mt 13.16-17)

While Christians share with all humans the longing for freedom and the quest for peace and joy, there are major differences between Christianity and other spiritual practices, especially in their view of suffering. The problem Sophrony sees in many of these practices is the underlying desire to leap directly to the result—joy and peace—and bypass any pain or suffering.

By contrast, Christianity embraces rather than avoid suffering. It sees the divine wisdom of a complex ecosystem in which opposites and equals have a synergistic relationship with each other, when seen in the right order and perspective.

Suffering, for example, produces humility and empathy, as we understand our shared humanity with all human beings.

An enhance recognition of human suffering begets intense prayer, which transfers all things into the realm of the spirit

Spiritual knowledge, in fact, cannot be achieved without humility. We cannot “empty” ourselves from passions and allow God to dwell within us if our minds are preoccupied with self-generated, rambling and obsessive thoughts of resentment, jealousy, ambition, fear, self-pity or the pursuit of others’ admiration. We cannot be open and receptive to seeing the world through new eyes, if we are attached to our own opinions and proud of our achievements and life choices.

When we become so conscious of our frailty that our spirit despairs, somehow, in an unknown fashion, a wondrous light appears, proclaiming life incorruptible. When the darkness within us is so appalling that we are paralyzed with dread, the same light appears, proclaiming life incorruptible. When the darkness within us is so appalling that we are paralyzed with dread, the same light will turn black night into bright day.

The man “with a humble opinion of himself will be given greater knowledge of the world to come.”

The way to love, Sophrony tells us “lies through the depths of hell.”

Thus the first vision of darkness and mortality changes to a vision of light and light indestructible.

There is no greater tragedy, Sophrony concludes, than the conflict between our world and Christ. He suggests turning on their head our criteria for assessing the quality of our lives. What if, instead of considering pleasure, the absence of discomfort and pain and pleasant or intense emotions as the signs of the good life, we judged our lives by our ability to discern truth and achieve inner peace.

If we assess the quality of life not by the extend of the quality of life not by  the sum of agreeable psycho-physical sensations but by the extent of our awareness of the realities of the universe and, above all, all of the First and Last Truth, we shall understand what lay behind Christ’s words “My peace I give unto you (Jn 14-27)

Those who achieve a state of theosis do not enjoy only positive feelings and a constant state of ecstasy and enlightenment. Both the senses and the soul, good and bad, pain and joy co-exist but they are no longer pulling us in different, contradictory directions. In the light of the truth that we are capable to see, these no longer seem contradictory and, thus, we are not torn by doubt, ambivalence, hesitation or the tumult of being constantly blown in different directions. Our world is whole.

…the soul will be eventually be able to contain within herself at the same time sorrow and joy; despair and hope. There is no more alternating between elation and depression, since all states are gathered into a simple whole. Through knowledge of God the soul has acquired profound peace.

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.

Renewal through Contemplation: St. Sophrony

(His Life is Mine, chapter #5)

True contemplation,” Sophrony tells us, “begins the moment we become aware of sin.

This awareness, along with the choice to repent, is essential to our understanding of who we truly are and our ability to participate in God’s nature.

It is important to first understand Sophrony’s concept of sin. The conventional way of defining sin is in terms of transgression of a set of rules. Sin, in this broad conceptual framework, seems largely removed from our daily lives. After all, as long as we do not kill, steal or disrespect our parents we should be fine with God.

Yet the true, Christian definition of sin is far from a mere violation of regulations. It refers to our submission to the thoughts, habits or actions that put a distance between us and God.

Sophrony, like Alexander Schmemann, adopts a more psychological approach to delve into the soul of man and casts sin in a context that resonates with our times. This means that we are now shifting from the external to the internal, and from flagrant violations to the state of the “inner man.”

The New Testament transferred the concept of sin to the inner man.

We are alert to the nuances of thought, feeling and action that do not appear, in themselves, to be sinful. This makes it harder to identify. As the seemingly innocent slips — moments of laziness, control, indifference, a sense of entitlement, jealousy, daily small indulgences and justifications—take hold of us, they turn to obsessions and are, eventually, crystallized into habits that take control of our lives. Over time, God is no longer present within us, and we become prey to fear, despair, hatred, anger and isolation.

 While most sins start innocently and imperceptibly, without identifying and stopping them, they become avalanches we can no longer control.

This is why, contemplating sin involves daily examination of any sickness of the soul, no matter how it is manifested. We thus become spiritually aware and live in the presence of God.

…we know where we stand spiritually at the particular moment.

Contemplation, Sophrony tells us is quite different from intellectual or philosophical contemplation. This is because contemplation goes beyond theoretical understanding to an existential experience.  

Sin is not merely a legalistic concept but an experience of pain and loss as we become cut off from the love and light of God.

We become acutely conscious of sin as a sundering of the ontological sense of our being.

The dismayand devastation we experience,” Sophrony tells us, “is so large that it brings repentance.”

Though contemplation of sin and repentance involve pain and fear, they are also our opportunities for renewal. We experience exultation as we “enter into the domain of divine eternity.”

In fact, it is contemplation and repentance, and a personal relationship with God, that enable us to fulfill our potential and find our authentic selves.  

An exquisite flower unfolds within us: the hypostasis—persona. …The persona transcends earthly bounds and moves in other fears.

It is not the lack of perfection that dooms us, then, but the lack of contemplation and repentance.

Only sin can stifle the divine breath within us.

Paradoxically, sin also becomes the springboard to renewal and deification when it brings about repentance. It is through repentance that we rise to our hypostasis and can participate in God’s nature.

Through contemplation we travel from external to internal, from “appearance” to the heart.

Persona “is the hidden man of the heart in that which is not corruptible… (1 Pet. 3.4)

Without contemplation we are a collection of fragments that do not coalesce or connect with God. With contemplation and repentance, we become whole and unite with God.

Man as hypostasis is a principle uniting the plurality of cosmic being; capable of containing the fulness of divine and human life.

This divine revelation is “startingly authentic,” and occurs on a palpable, existential level. We experience a transformation as grace is increased within us and freedom from the tyranny of attachments and obsessions.

With repentance and the consequent increase of grace within us, the reality of the Divine World preponderates over the visible cosmos. We contemplate the First Reality

The Tragedy of Man: St. Sophrony

From his book: His Life is Mine, chapter #4

For Sophrony, the true tragedy of man lies beyond physical suffering, natural disasters, or economic injustice. “The tragedy of our times,” he says, “lies in our almost complete unawareness, or mindfulness, that there are two kingdoms, the temporal, and the eternal.

If our world is limited to only what we can see and feel through our senses, it will close in on us sooner or later. Without an eternal perspective, things like a job promotion, having the last word in an argument, finding the right answer to a perceived insult or the proper house and social status become all-consuming preoccupations. They clutter our lives leaving no space for God and no sense of inner peace.  We become frantic and exhausted as we run through life checking items off our list. Sophrony mourns the loss of the kingdom and our unfulfilled potential.

Adam lost the kingdom for all of us through his disobedience to God. Sophrony sees the dynamics as well beyond disobedience and punishment.

It is not that God and Adam had different plans for mankind. It is that Adam wanted to achieve them on his own, without God. In the end, his longing was not for God but, as Sophrony puts it, for “self-divinization.”

His sin was to doubt God, to seek to determine his own life in independently of God, even apart from him …. Herein lies the essence of Adam’s sin—it was a movement toward self-divinization…he sinned in seeking this divinization not through unity with God, but through rupture.

Sophrony believes that the “seeds of tragedy” are sown when a man is “captivated by some ideal.”  He is not suggesting abandoning all goals or ideals. Instead, he admonishes us not to use them as substitutes for God.

When we become self-divinized, we fill the holes in our heart—emptiness, loneliness, unrequited desire, fear, longing—with substitutes of our own choice.

We may be completely consumed by efforts at career advancement, a political or humanitarian cause, an idea or artistic creation, to such an extent that there is no lomger room left for intimate, personalized relationships with God, family or friends.

“Self-divinization” is a gradual process of substitution and forgetfulness of the things that most matter. The longing for God is replaced with the search for causes and ideals which, often, aim at self-glorification rather than union with God. This is our tragedy, according to Sophrony.

Sophrony makes an important and startling distinction between the tragedy of self-divination and suffering. His definition of tragedy is a state that “can be found solely in the fortunes of the man whose gaze has not gone beyond the confines of this earth. He applies this definition to Christ’s suffering and concludes:

Christ himself by no means is tragedy…. He lived the tragedy of all mankind; but in himself there was no tragedy.

We live in an age in which avoidance of pain and suffering is considered the path to happiness and fulfillment. We guard ourselves from pain and suffering at all costs. Everything around us—products, philosophies, therapies, services, marketing slogans—promise ease, convenience, pleasure and the elimination of all hassles and pains.

We have, thus, lost the capacity of gratitude and humility because we now consider happiness, pleasure and convenience our birthright. We become infuriated when unpredictable events interfere with our “right” to a hassle-free and happy life and blame others for them. This is what Sophrony would call the tragedy of self-divination and of paradise lost.

For Sophrony, the greatest of evils is not suffering but emptiness and despair. He quotes Matthew:

Fear not them which kill the body but are not able to kill the soul. (Mt 10.28)

Commitment to self-made ideals, no matter how noble, will not unite us with God and broaden our perspective beyond the realm of the physical and visible.

This is how it is with the Christians: for all his deep compassion, his tears and prayers for the world, there is none of the despair that destroys.

It is when “the prayer of divine love becomes our very being, our body” that  will allows us to rise above physical life and participate in God.