Prayer of Spirit

By Archimandrite Sophrony

Misfortune in the shape of reduced circumstances, illness or the death of a loved one often drives people to prayer. But if the situation alters for the better, not only does their impulse to pray abate - prayer itself may seem pointless. But there is a different kind of prayer, prayer of the spirit, fastened on eternity, and here no external well-being can heal the sufferings of the soul who sees herself falling short of the sought-for eternal. Then prayer becomes the normal state for the soul, and the grace of the Holy Spirit may visit her, suddenly, inscrutably, bringing a foretaste of eternity. For this visitation integrity and faithfulness are the essential prerequisites. I have before me a remarkable document, a letter from a former rabbi.

‘Why did I, a former rabbi, become a Christian?’ he writes. ‘The question sounds strange in my ears. Did I, of myself, become a Christian, following a plan, a purpose, after due consideration? No, the grace of God made me Christian. My conversion is a mystery to me before which I bow my head in awe. It was the Holy Spirit, He alone transfigured me. When I accepted Christ the laws of Deuteronomy ceased to be a means of drawing near to God…I feel myself all the time filled through and through with Divine love. Of a sudden, unexpectedly, independently of any effort of mine, light shone upon me- the light that in the old days when I was a devout Jew was only a far-off glimmer. All at once I beheld in myself the Holy One, the Mystery of Mysteries and yet the clearest of all that is clear… As for religious ethics, they are much the same in Judaism as in Christianity: the commandments concerning morals are often expressed in identical terms. In practice, however, they differ vitally. The Christian ethic is given from on High, by the Holy Spirit, Who came to us only after Christ’s resurrection. It is the same Spirit that pious Jews dream of to this day: they feel Him, see Him, but only from afar. But the true Christian lives in the Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit captivates even our body with the sweetest love, liberating it from thraldom to the passions until the body itself longs to dissolve in the Spirit. And so it was not I of myself who became Christian- it was God Who sent down the grace of the Holy Spirit and made me so…The Spirit reposes within the true Christian and encircles him round about. And all this happens through faith in Christ. This is the process: faith attracts the Holy Spirit, while the Holy Spirit strengthens faith, cares for you, sustains you, encourages your ardent desire for the Kingdom of God…To those who have not yet savoured true grace, my words will be unintelligible. The process of true conversion cannot be described or explained: it is something that the eye cannot see, that the ear cannot hear. Filled with Christian sentiments, I heard my soul speaking within me, telling me of my new birth in Christ; but she spoke in the language of silence which I cannot find words for. I do know, though, that my soul sang a new song, a sweet song of love which lifted the power of the past from me. And this song transfigured me and gave birth in me to a new will, to new yearnings. Now I am as it were in love with Christ, and, you know, a man in love with Christ has no desire to philosophise. He only wants one thing- to love for all eternity. Do you want to understand? Would you like to experience the grace of Christ? Then seek this grace from Him Who can bestow it. If it seems that it is not for you, since you cannot believe, my advice is to set your heart on believing and you will be able to believe. Through faith you arrive at faith. Persist in wishing for faith and it will be granted to you. When I was a Jew I, too, had God and knew it. But it was a God Whose attitude changed according to man’s conduct. But through Christ, through the Holy Messiah and Son of God, I was led into the sphere of unconditional, steadfast Divine love. This can only be understood if you already live in grace. Christianity is the richest of treasures equal to satisfying each and every soul. ‘In Christ is Truth, to which the Holy Spirit bears witness. And all who believe heed His testimony.’

I have quoted this triumphant cry of a soul who found the Christ-God because, though many have had a similar experience, few find words to express the well-nigh inexpressible.

The Holy Spirit comes when we are receptive. He does not compel. He approaches so meekly that we may not even notice. If we would know the Holy Spirit we need to examine ourselves in the light of the Gospel teaching, to detect any other presence which may prevent the Holy Spirit from entering into our souls. We must now wait for God to force Himself on us without our consent. God respects and does not constrain man. It is amazing how God humbles Himself before us. He loves us with a tender love, not haughtily, not with condescension. And when we open our hearts to Him we are overwhelmed by the conviction that He is indeed our Father. The soul then worships in love.

St Gregory of Sinai goes so far as to say that prayer is God Himself acting in us. ‘Do Thou Thyself pray in me,’ was the constant appeal of Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscow in the last century. We also have the witness of St Paul: ‘And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father’ (Gal. 4,6).

Fired by the vision of our high calling, we strain to accomplish our purpose – our yearning for Divine Love to dwell in us for ever. Without this preliminary rapture of faith, without this fervent reaching towards the loving God Who continually inspires us, we cannot help falling beneath the massive pressure of the contemporary world which does not know prayer.

Life-giving faith consists in unquestioning belief in Christ as God. Only when Christ is accepted as perfect God and perfect Man does the plenitude of spiritual experience described by the apostles and fathers become possible. Christ is now the cornerstone on which we must construct our entire life, both temporal and eternal. The nature of the gifts which such faith entrains declares their supernal provenance.

The Lord said: ‘But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly’ (Matt. 6.6). True prayer operates in our innermost depths which we learn to hide from outside eyes. If I now venture to touch on matters sacred for each of us, I am urged to do so by the tragic atmosphere of tension throughout the world, and, more especially, by my consciousness that we belong together in Christ. Let us, therefore, as true brethren, share what it has been given us to know by a gift from on High. (I would ask you to pray as you read, as I pray God to inspire me with words pleasing to Him.)

Christ gave us the word that He had received from the Father (cf. John 17.14). He spoke of Himself as the stone which will break all who fall on it and will grind to powder those on whom it falls (cf. Matt. 21.44). What then? Is it we who have fallen on this great and wondrous stone, or has the stone fallen on us? We do not know. But however that may be, we are precipitated into a world of realities whose existence we did not suspect before. In the old days when life for the majority flowed in the broad channels of established tradition, the word of Christ was so presented as not to disturb. But now, with the whole earth full fraught with man’s despair, with the protest of consciences outraged, with violence threatening to wipe out all life, we must make our voices heard. In our present peril decorous words which commit us to nothing are not enough. All of us today are in vital need of a firm faith in Christ’s eternal victory, that we, too, may become spiritually invincible. A very great deal depends on ourselves – to remember, for instance, that at the baptismal font we received new birth from on High, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Those who are baptised ‘with the Holy Ghost and with fire’ (Luke 3.16) perceive in their prayer that every given moment of our life is enveloped in Divine eternity. At all times and in all places we are held in the invisible Hand of our Heavenly Father.

It is usual for the Christian to be aware concurrently of the presence of the never-fading celestial glory and of the brooding cloud of death hanging over the world. Though the feeling of death torments the soul, it cannot extinguish the fire of faith. The prayer throbbing within us sets us on the frontier between two worlds, the transient and the one to come (cf. Heb. 13.14). This painful rending forces us into still more fervent entreaty. We recognise our sickness - the mortal power of sin working in us- and plead for a physician. Then He Who said that He was ‘not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’, adding that ‘they that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick’ (Matt. 9.12,13), does indeed answer our appeal. He heals our souls from every ill, giving new energy, enlightening with an undying light. The age-old experience of life in the Church has proved irrefutably that for prayer- that is, for God- no sickness of spirit is incurable. We may be born into the most unfavourable circumstances. We may grow up in ignorant, rough, even criminal surroundings, and be attracted by the general example. We may suffer every kind of deprivation, loss, injury. We may be deformed from birth, and know what it is to be despised, wounded, rejected. All that is unfortunate in the contemporary world may make its mark on us, possess us, even; but from the moment we turn to God, resolved to follow His commandments, a process of basic healing begins. And not only are we healed of our wounds or passions - even our outward appearance may alter. This happened often on the Holy Mountain. Men would arrive broken and reduced to a pitiful state by many years of depraved living, yet after a brief period of profound repentance their faces were good to look upon, their voices changed, they moved differently- and the spirit shone luminous within them. If any of my readers is suffering from some psychological wound occasioned by failure in life, he can attain to a regal freedom of spirit and radically change his whole life if he turns to God every day with a personal prayer such as this, for example:

Prayer at Daybreak

O Lord Eternal and Creator of all things, Who of Thine inscrutable goodness didst call me to this life; Who didst bestow on me the grace of Baptism and the Seal of the Holy Spirit; Who hast imbued me with the desire to seek Thee, the one true God: hear my prayer. I have no life, no light, no joy or wisdom; no strength except in Thee, O God. Because of my unrighteousness I dare not raise my eyes to Thee. But Thou didst say to Thy disciples, ‘Whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer believing, ye shall receive’ and ‘Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do’. Wherefore I dare to invoke Thee. Purify me from all taint of flesh and spirit. Teach me to pray aright. Bless this day which Thou dost give unto me, Thine unworthy servant. By the power of Thy blessing enable me at all times to speak and act to Thy glory with a pure spirit, with humility, patience, love, gentleness, peace, courage and wisdom: aware always of Thy presence. Of Thine immense goodness, O Lord God, shew me the path of Thy will, and grant me to walk in Thy sight without sin. O Lord, unto Whom all hearts be open, Thou knowest what things I have need of. Thou art acquainted with my blindness and my ignorance, Thou knowest my infirmity and my soul’s corruption; but neither are my pain and anguish hid from Thee. Wherefore I beseech Thee, hear my prayer and by Thy Holy Spirit teach me the way wherein I should walk; and when my perverted will would lead me down other paths spare me not, O Lord, but force me back to Thee. By the power of Thy love, grant me to hold fast to that which is good. Preserve me from every word or deed that corrupts the soul; from every impulse unpleasing in Thy sight and hurtful to my brother-man. Teach me what I should say and how I should speak. If it be Thy will that I make no answer, inspire me to keep silent in a spirit of peace that causeth neither sorrow nor hurt to my fellow. Establish me in the path of Thy commandments and to my last breath let me not stray from the light of Thine ordinances, that Thy commandments may become the sole law of my being on this earth and in all eternity.

Yea, Lord, I pray Thee, have pity on me. Spare me in mine affliction and my misery and hide not the way of salvation from me.

In my foolishness, O God, I plead with Thee for many and great things. Yet am I ever mindful of my wickedness, my baseness, my vileness. Have mercy upon me. Cast me not away from Thy presence because of my presumption. Do Thou rather increase in me this presumption, and grant unto me, the worst of men, to love Thee as Thou hast commanded, with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my mind, and with all my strength: with my whole being.

Yea, O Lord, by thy Holy Spirit, teach me good judgment and knowledge. Grant me to know Thy truth before I go down into the grave. Maintain my life in this world until I may offer unto Thee worthy repentance. Take me not away in the midst of my days, nor while my mind is still blind. When Thou shalt be pleased to bring my life to an end, forewarn me that I may prepare my soul to come before Thee. Be with me, O Lord, at that dread hour and grant me the joy of salvation. Cleanse Thou me from secret faults, from all iniquity that is hid in me; and give me a right answer before Thy judgment-seat.

Yea, Lord, of Thy great mercy and immeasurable love for mankind, Hear my prayer.

To pray like that every morning is not easy. But if we pray from our heart, with all our attention, the day will be stamped by our prayer and everything that happens will take on a different character. The blessing that we have sought from the High God will beget a gentle peace in our soul which will have a miraculous effect on the way we see and interpret the world. The man of prayer beholds the surrounding scene in another light. Concern is quickened and the intrinsic quality of life enhanced. In time prayer will penetrate our nature until gradually a new man is born of God. Love for God, Who verily sends His blessings upon us, liberates the soul from extraneous pressure. The one 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 favour. We shall love our fellow men without thought of whether they love us. Christ gave us the commandment to love others but did not make it a condition of salvation that they should love us. Indeed, we may positively be disliked for independence of spirit. It is essential in these days to be able to protect ourselves from the influence of those with whom we come in contact. Otherwise we risk losing both faith and prayer. Let the whole world dismiss us as unworthy of attention, trust or respect- it will not matter provided that the Lord accepts us. And vice versa: it will profit us nothing if the whole world thinks well of us and signs our praises, if the Lord declines to abide with us. This is only a fragment of the freedom Christ meant when He said, ‘Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free’ (John 8.32). Our sole care will be to continue in the word of Christ, to become His disciples and cease to be servants of sin. For ‘whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. And the servant abideth not in the house for ever: but the Son abideth ever. If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed’ (John 8.34-36). 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. ‘Our Father which art in heaven…’.

Real prayer, of course, does not come readily. It is no simple matter to preserve inspiration while surrounded by the icy waters of the world that does not pray. Christ cast the Divine Fire on earth, and we pray Him so to fire our hearts that we may not be overcome even by cosmic cold, that no black cloud blot out the bright flame.

Of all approaches to God prayer is the best and in the last analysis the only means. In the act of prayer the human mind finds its noblest expression. The mental state of the scientist engaged in research, of the artist creating a work of art, of the thinker wrapped up in philosophy- even of professional theologians propounding their doctrines- cannot be compared to that of the man of prayer brought face to Face with the living God. Each and every kind of mental activity presents less of a strain than prayer. We may be capable of working for ten or twelve hours on end but a few moments of prayer and we are exhausted.

Prayer can accomplish all things. It is possible for any of us lacking in natural talent to obtain through prayer supranatural gifts. Where we encounter a deficiency of rational knowledge we should do well to remember that prayer, independently of man’s intellectual capacity, can bring a higher form of cognition. There is the province of reflex consciousness, of demonstrative argument; and there is the province where prayer is the passageway to direct contemplation of divine truth.

There is a pronounced tendency among scientists of the present century to claim integral knowledge of the natural world. ‘The sum total of all that is already known emphasises the unlimited capacity of the human mind, and proves that every natural phenomenon is cognizable’, declared a Russian scientist in 1958. We, Christians, similarly aspire to integral knowledge of being, in the deepest and widest sense. The world of matter does not yet encompass plenitude of being. Without belittling the importance of experimental science, of vital necessity, perhaps, in the struggle for existence, we still cannot overlook its limitations. I once heard the following story of a professor of astronomy who was enthusiastically discoursing in a planetarium on the nebulae and like marvels. Noticing an unpretentious priest who had joined his group of students, the professor asked him:

‘What do your Scriptures say about cosmic space and its myriad stars?’ Instead of giving a direct answer the priest in turn posed a question. ‘Tell me, Professor,’ he said, ‘do you think that science will invent still more powerful telescopes to see even farther into the firmament?’ ‘Of course progress is possible and science will always be perfecting apparatus for exploring outer space,’ replied the astronomer. ‘There is hope, then, that one day you will have telescopes that can show all there is in the cosmos, down to the last detail?’ ‘That would be impossible- the cosmos is infinite,’ replied the scientist. ‘So there is a limit to science?’ ‘Yes, in that sense, there is.’ ‘Well, Professor,’ said the priest, ‘where your science comes to a full stop, ours begins, and that is what our Scriptures tell of.’

Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov (2001) (2nd ed.) His Life is Mine. Chapter 6: Prayer of the Spirit. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Read also by Sophrony Jesus Prayer: The Method