That they may have life and have it abundantly.
- John 10:10
In these words the Lord speaks of what He desires for all of us; indeed of what He desires for the whole of His creation. What means has He given us to gain this life? He has given us the fruits of His own life, passion, death, and resurrection. But how do we make these our own? How do we enter into the mystery He holds out for us?...
By prayer? Yes, prayer is the only way. But only as we pray in the Lord's own Spirit of truth will our prayer be the doorway to abundant life. There are many artificial forms of prayer that lead us to dead ends. We can get so involved in the external mechanisms of prayer that we lose sight of the goal. It is possible even to worship ideas of prayer and lose the living God in the process.
Prayer is nothing other than bringing our whole self: heart, mind, and body, before God (cf. Matt. 22:37-38), that He may in turn fill us with His own abundant life. This is an effort that takes the whole of our lives and demands everything we can possibly bring to it. We must strive with every ounce of our effort, knowing that when we do so, it is God who is working within us (Phil. 2:12-13). We must train our bodies to worship God and serve our brethren. We must learn to walk in the ways of God-given virtue and morality. And we must learn to use our minds rightly.
The great saints and fathers of the Church, such as the theologians St. Basil, St. Gregory, and St. John Chrysostom, down to and including St. Gregory Palamas, the great champion of hesychastic prayer, had a solid foundation in secular studies. Their minds and consciences were each developed as well through the study of the Old and New Testaments, the lives and writings of the saints and the liturgical texts of the Church.
Until very modern times, study meant getting as much "by heart" as possible.1 Today, television and education may leave us nearly incapable of memorizing words, let alone knowing them so well that we continually ponder them in our hearts.2 Yet we must learn to do this. The liturgical services of the Church are a great school for this. If we try to participate in them with attention and understanding, we find ourselves disciplining our bodies and immersing our minds and hearts in the scriptures and hymns of the Church over and over again. We gradually allow our whole being to be filled with God-given truths. The Lord told us: "Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks" (Matt. 12:34). More and more, we should be able to speak from these riches rather than out of the poverty of our hearts. We will learn to test our hearts by hearing how busy our mouths are in "normal" conversations with our self-centered thoughts, complaints, and wishes rather than with the truth and beauty of God.
St. Paul tells us that we must take on the mind of Christ (I Cor. 2:16; Phil. 2:5). We cannot fathom the mind of God (I Cor. 2:16), yet we can try to learn from the Gospels about the human mind of Jesus. As we study the Gospel accounts, we will come to see that His was a mind that sought to learn about His faith from an early age (Luke 2:46-47). As was His custom, He went regularly to the synagogue and read and interpreted the scriptures (Luke 4:16). He lived His entire life as a conscious fulfillment of the history of Israel revealed in those same scriptures (Luke 24:27). By the end of His earthly life, He had made the words of the Psalms so much His own that as He was dying on the Cross, they were what came to His lips: "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (Matthew 27:46). We must try to do the same.
Even children can be taught simple ways of prayer such as calling on the Lord with a brief phrase such as "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Only as we are laying a Christ-like foundation of discipline, study, and life in the God-given context of the Church, however, can we safely take on the techniques of using such a phrase in advanced, hesychastic prayer. To try prematurely to quiet the mind and calm the passions and emotions by the incessant use of prayer ropes, breathing techniques, etc., without being grounded in godly study including obedience, can mean serious danger and even mental breakdown. There are times when we need to face our thoughts and emotions and struggle with them, not to anesthetize ourselves.
We must bring to all prayer the fullness of the faith of Israel - old and new, with its broad understanding of the God Who created and loves the whole universe - and not just our own fallen ideas and opinions. History teaches us that those who take on advanced techniques before they have reached a certain maturity do not become saints filled with the breadth of the love of the Creator, but narrow fanatics. Unfortunately, down the centuries, monastics have earned a reputation for such narrow fanaticism as often as they have for their true sanctity.3
For this reason, we have to be careful that we do not debase the ways of prayer that are available to us as Orthodox Christians. It is not only followers of exotic "eastern" cults who seem to despise or fear the mind and attempt to wipe out thinking and emotion with techniques of meditation such as the constant repetition of words or phrases called mantras. There are also Orthodox who seem to encourage prayer in a language people do not speak or understand, and tell people uneducated in the faith to use the Jesus prayer in place of the services of the Church in ways that come uncomfortably close to the misuse of mantras.
Even St. Anthony the Great and St. Pachomius, two great founders of monasticism, who did not have backgrounds in secular learning, insisted on the necessity of study. St. Anthony, who could not read, based his whole life on the impact of the scripture readings he heard and memorized from attending Church from the time he was a young child.4 St. Pachomius insisted that his monks be taught to read and that they spend every possible free moment memorizing the scriptures: the Psalms and the entire New Testament being the required minimum.5 They were to recite these as they worked, walked, and so forth,6 as modern monastics might recite the Jesus prayer.
Down through the ages, the specific disciplines of schools of prayer change and grow in order to lead men and women to the unchanging truths of God in human contexts altered sometimes drastically by the ravages of conquest and history. Although the training in prayer may not have changed over the centuries on the Holy Mountain, for example, the men who go there and are trained have changed. When St. Gregory Palamas was writing in defense of the hesychasts, even illiterate peasants who became monks were still speaking a language nearly identical to the language they heard in Church. They would arrive having spent many, many hours from infancy in Church, hearing and understanding the words of the services, including the Psalms and other readings from the Old and New Testaments. Such illiterate peasants were far ahead of many modern people "educated" in the secular sense, for they could memorize naturally and easily. . . .
Misuse of the prayer and devotion of the Church are rightly rejected by those who want to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. With the Psalmist, they want to cry, "How manifold are Your works, O Lord! In wisdom have You made them all!" (Psalm 104:24). With St. Anthony, they want to read the book of created things:7 the beauty of places, the grandeur of the desert.8 They want abundant life, not boxed religion. They want to call on the Lord in the context of this abundant life, which is His own. Any forms of prayer they use will be the means to this end; nothing more, nothing less.