It is good to know what we are after in the spiritual life. Where are we headed? What is the goal? It is good to examine our hearts, our intentions; to ask ourselves some honest questions and search within our hearts for honest answers. Why do I pray? What am I seeking? Such questions enable us to come face-to-face with ourselves and provide the opportunity for us to purify our hearts of any wrong intentions.
In St. Matthew's Gospel (Mt. 6: 5,6, 16,17) Jesus gives us the example of folks who stand on street corners to pray so that they may be seen by men. He then goes on to speak of others who make themselves look gloomy and downcast while they are fasting so that others will know they are fasting. He then goes on to warn us that these people have had they're reward. Why do you pray? Why do I pray?
These examples may seem a little far-fetched to us today. How many people do you see standing on street corners and praying so that they might be seen and obtain the favor of men? How many people do you know who perform intense fasting and go about announcing it to others? Although such things are rare today, they still exist. Examine your own heart and discern whether they exist in you. We are all in need of constant purification.
So what do we seek in prayer? Over the past week I have been examining books and videos on the Jesus Prayer, and some of what has been presented I have found disturbing to say the least. The Jesus Prayer is often presented as an end in and of itself. To it is often attributed a power that it does not have in and of itself. Sometimes it is presented as if all we need to do is pray the Jesus Prayer and everything in our spiritual life will turn out right. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the writings of St. Theophan the Recluse, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, or any of the other great Fathers of the Byzantine East know that this is not the case.
For other people the Jesus Prayer is a means to some sort of "mystical experience." Saying the Jesus Prayer gives them some sort of transcendent experience that has an ethereal or surreal quality about it. It takes them to the "mystical" in the sense that it removes them from themselves and from the world for a moment. It helps them escape from the world.
For still other folks saying the Jesus Prayer is about stillness, inner peace. Saying the Jesus Prayer calms their mind. All of us know how our thoughts can at times run away from us. Our mind just races out of control until all we want to do is pull out our hair. We often wish we could just flip a switch and shut our brain down for a bit. For some people, the Jesus Prayer is that switch.
But these things are not what the Jesus Prayer - or any other prayer for that matter - is all about. The Jesus Prayer is about communion, just as all prayer is about communion. We seek communion with God. We seek to enter into relationship with God. We seek the face of God. We seek to know God. True prayer, as the saints point out, isn't about the words that we pray, but about developing a relationship with God. The words that we pray, in a sense, mediate that relationship. The words lay the foundation for building our relationship with God. But at some point, the words must cease, even if only for a moment. St. Isaac (the Syrian) if Nineveh points out that the highest form of prayer moves beyond words, to the point that the words of prayer themselves can become a distraction. This is not a permanent state, and one eventually has to return to the words of prayer, but at the moment that the soul moves beyond words all words must cease otherwise prayer itself ceases.
Prayer is about communion with God Who dwells in us by virtue of our Baptism. As we work to deepen this communion, as we struggle to remain always in God's presence, then we are given the gifts mentioned above. Prayer, true prayer, can lead to inner peace, stillness, "mystical experiences," a drawing up out of the troubles of this world, but these things are not the goal of prayer themselves and they cannot be forced. Peace, stillness, transcendence, etc., are all gifts from God. Our duty is not to seek those gifts, but to seek the Giver. Prayer is the struggle to seek the Giver, to seek an ever-deepening relationship with the One Who is "all in all."
Ultimately prayer leads us back into ourselves and purifies us, because in drawing closer to the fire of God's love all that is imperfect must be melted away. Prayer too leads us back into the world so that, ignited by the fire of God's love, we can be the light in the world and set the world on fire, as Jesus so desired. Prayer doesn't lead us away from ourselves, from others, from the world. Prayer, rather, makes us more sensitive to our need for the purifying fire of God's love in our lives and throughout the world. The power of the Jesus Prayer, as Fr. Lev Gillet points out in his wonderful little book, On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus, is that through it we can invoke the name of God upon all of mankind and all of creation. Invoking God's name is the same as invoking His very presence. And so by invoking the name of Jesus in our lives and in all of creation, we invoke the very presence of God, thereby transforming all of creation into prayer, into relationship with God.
We seek God's presence. We seek his presence in our lives and in our world. God's presence will purify our hearts. His Presence will purify our world. Only the presence of God will bring peace, joy, love, and unity. Only His presence will bring His kingdom. And how blessed is the kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit! May heaven consume us.