Spiritual Letters is a collection of letters written in the early part of the twentieth century by a Roman Catholic priest—and I highly recommend it to English speaking Orthodox Christians who want to be encouraged in prayer.
The priest, Abbot John Chapman, was a very well educated Oxford graduate and devout Anglican who converted to Roman Catholicism in his mid twenties. As a Roman Catholic he became a Benedictine monk, then a priest and eventually, near the end of his life, the abbot of Downside Abbey in Wales. Although the collection of letters called Spiritual Letters has at some points a heavy Roman Catholic flavour, and consequently a certain amount of discernment is called for, most of what I find in his letters could have easily been written by a devout Orthodox Christian priest giving advice on prayer to an English speaking inquirer in the early twentieth century. Some of the terms require a bit of translation into contemporary English Orthodox idiom. For example, ‘contemplation’ needs to be understood as something like theoria or noetic prayer. But, by in large, his letters are, in my opinion, pretty good, practical advice on prayer.
To whet your appetite, I’d like to copy here one of his letters and comment on it a bit as we go. I think the advice he gives here on prayer is both Orthodox and very practical.
April 11, 1929
My Dear …
As to advice, I can only tell you what I think.
I recommend you prayer, because it is good for everybody, and our Lord tells us to pray. As to method, do what you can do, and what suits you.
This is such a huge matter in prayer: One must pray in whatever ways one can. One of the greatest hinderances to prayer, I have found, is the expectation that I should pray a certain type or method of prayer. That is, I may find peace in saying the Jesus Prayer, for example, but somehow condemn myself because I do not find life in Akathist prayers or the hours. The case may, however, be exactly the opposite. One may find grace in Akathists or in praying the hours but not make much progress in the practice of the Jesus Prayer. The important point is not this or that method of prayer. The important thing is to pray, pray however one can, and not to stress out about ways you can’t seem to pray.
It seems obvious that most spiritual reading and meditation fails to help you; The simplest kind of prayer is best. So use that. [Meditation here means western style use of imagination in prayer—a practice that almost no Orthodox spiritual writers recommend. However, that prayer should be simple is highly recommended in the Orthodox tradition.] But prayer, in the sense of union with God, is the most crucifying thing there is. One must do it for God’s sake; but one will not get any satisfaction out of it, in the sense of feeling “ I am good at prayer” [or] “I have an infallible method.” That would be disastrous, since what we want to learn is precisely our own weakness, powerlessness, unworthiness. Nor ought one to expect “a sense of the reality of the supernatural” of which you speak. And one should wish for no prayer, except precisely the prayer that God gives us—probably very distracted and unsatisfactory in every way!
It is very difficult for most of us to grasp, even as a mere concept, much less as a working principle of our spiritual lives, that real and effective prayer is not measured by how I feel about it. We read of saints finding consolation in prayer and expect ourselves to find that same consolation without also going through the same experience of withdrawal of Grace or dark night of the soul (as a very rough western equivalent) that the saint we are reading about went through both before and after he or she experience consolation in prayer, we nonetheless expect to experience consolation in prayer. Rather, the fight to continue in prayer despite distraction and unsatisfactory feelings is, often, the beginning of the struggle for real prayer in the sense of union with God.
On the other hand, the only way to pray is to pray; and the way to pray well is to pray much. If one has no time for this, then one must at least pray regularly. But the less one prays, the worse it goes. And if circumstances do not permit even regularity, then one must put up with the fact that when one does try to pray, one can’t pray—and our prayer will probably consist of telling this to God.
The more one prays, the easier it gets; the less one prays, the harder it gets. However, regularity is more important than amount. Prayer is much more effective if you have a regular time and place and a regular “rule”: that is, a regular prayer or set of prayers that you say. It can be a very short rule. In fact, short rules are almost always better than long ones. You can say your short rule on a busy day and be at peace. If you have more time, you can always linger in prayer and say more. However, if your rule is long, you are continually feeling condemned that you don’t complete it and quickly are tempted to give up altogether. And especially on days—or perhaps for seasons—when you cannot seem to prayer at all, your prayer needs to be the prayer of confession: “Lord, have mercy, I cannot make myself pray!” This, you will find, is a very effective prayer if it breaks your heart, brings you to tears and humbles you.
As to beginning afresh, or where you left off, I don’t think you have any choice! You simply have to begin wherever you find yourself. Make any acts [of prayer] you want to make and feel you ought to make; but do not force yourself into feelings of any kind.
In other words, whether you start your prayer rule from where you left off last time, or start at the beginning again does not matter in the slightest. Do whatever you think best, whatever you like, but pray. And when you pray, don’t try to feel or force yourself to feel anything in particular. Just say the prayer or make the prostration or light the candle before the icon and stand in silence. Whatever it is you do to pray, just pray.
You say very naturally that you do not know what to do if you have a quarter of an hour alone in a Church [or alone anywhere else for that matter]. Yes, I suspect the only thing to do is to shut out the Church and everything else, and just give yourself to God and beg Him to have mercy on you, and offer Him all of your distractions.
As to religious matters being “confused and overwhelming,” I daresay they may remain so—in a sense—, but if you get the right simple relation to God by prayer, you have got into the centre of the wheel, where the revolving does not matter. We can’t get rid of the worries of this world, or the questionings of the [rational] intellect; but we can laugh at and despise them so far as they are worries.
Ever yours affecly,
H. John Chapman.
Begging God for mercy, in my experience, is at the centre of the Christian experience, at the centre of the Church. And the wonderful thing is that you can be completely distracted and confused and even lacking in faith and still beg God for mercy. In fact, it is when the Church and its bureaucracy and the world and all its insanity crowd in most on us, it is then we can most earnestly beg God for mercy. This is what Praying in the Rain is about: Praying when the world rains on the picnic we had hoped our life would be, when the priest or the bishop rains on the straight forward simplicity that seems so obvious to me and that I had expected to be be reinforced by the Church, praying in the rain means begging God for mercy at the centre of the wheel, at the centre of my heart, allowing the politics and misfortunes of the Church and of life in general to rotate around me even as I in my heart, in the silence of the night or in the church or in my room alone as I hear the rain pounding outside, I, in my heart, beg: Lord have mercy.