This last weekend, I led a retreat on prayer. I wanted the retreat to be about the experience of prayer, not the theory of prayer or someone’s ideas about prayer. However, my personal experience of prayer is quite puny, at least compared to what I read of the experience of others. Therefore, I entitled the retreat, “Prayer For Beginners,” thinking that by choosing that title I’d keep everyone’s expectations low and I would feel more comfortable saying things like, “Well, I have read about such experiences, but I really have no idea what they are referring to because I have never experienced it myself.”
In fact, one of the points I wanted to make about prayer and reading about prayer is that different writers often use different words to refer to the same experience, the same spiritual psychology, if you will. I have found that I have read some writers and understood very little, only to reread them five or ten years later and understood much more. And here I do not mean “understood” in the sense of intellectually categorize. I mean understood in the sense of knowing what the author is talking about–knowing in my knower, as my foster mother used to say. Having this shared experiential knowledge, I could say things like, “What St. Theophan means when he says ‘heart’ in a particular passage is (I think) equivalent to what St. Maximus means when he says ‘intellect’ in the common English translation of the Philokalia.
However, I must also be quick to point out that much, but certainly not all, of the spiritual writings of the Orthodox Christian spiritual tradition are to some degree scalable, or I might even say qualitative. That is, St. Isaac the Syrian, for example, might write about the spiritual experience hermits praying in the deserts (hermits whose spiritual heights I will never even see from afar, much less attain), yet the principles or the pattern or the schema of what he is describing is scalable down, way down, to the level of the experience of a beginner. And thus as a beginner in prayer, I can begin to recognize the way. I can begin to understand the experience of prayer: what to expect, how to struggle, how to begin to learn to discern, where to look for help, what not to trust in myself, and much more.
I referred to an example of this scalable wisdom from a very experienced spiritual writer to address a topic that came up several times over the weekend. The topic was the experience of the withdrawal of Grace. I referred to a short passage by Elder Sophrony, disciple of St. Silouan, from his book called On Prayer. I will paraphrase the passage because I don’t have the book with me. Elder Sophrony said that he has had, in prayer, the experience somewhat like the experience he had as an artist before he became a monk. In depicting something beautiful, he would experience a moment when he felt he had gotten it right, when what he depicted on the canvas truly reflected the beauty he saw in his mind. At that moment he felt such joy and a sense that everything would now be well, that he would be able to express on his canvas the beauty he saw in his mind. However, soon he would be overcome with doubt, with fear that he could never convey the beauty he saw in his mind to the canvas before him. Elder Sophrony likened this experience as an artist to his experience in prayer, to his experience of the Grace of God and the loss of Grace.
Even a beginner at prayer, I think, can recognize this pattern, this experience. Although most beginners have not experienced the overwhelming Grace of God that, for example, St. Silouan experienced, and neither the depths of hell at the withdrawal of Grace. Nevertheless, I think most, even those just beginning to learn to pray, have experienced ups and downs. Times when prayer seemed effortless, and times (perhaps extended times) when prayer seemed like a thirsty climb up a desert mountain. Knowing that such highs and lows in prayer are common–even for experienced monks–I think helps us beginners. We have the examples of those who have indeed climbed the heights before us, that water, that Grace, will be supplied, that if we keep climbing, and we learn to repent and humble ourselves, God will indeed come to us. We are not the first to walk this trail.