In the pre-dawn darkness, broken only by candle light, I felt a tap on the shoulder. "The 'yerondas' will see you now," said a voice from behind, speaking Greek. I turned to follow him out of the Church, where we had already been praying for half an hour, and across the compound to another of the monastery's buildings.
As I entered the abbott's humble quarters, he rose to introduce himself in a very warm and welcoming way, as is typical on Mount Athos, a penninsula jutting into the Aegean off the Greek mainland, where only Orthodox Christian monks have lived for the last thousand years.
Though we were both multi-lingual, we quickly settled on French as the easiest form of communication for us and began to talk about various things. I told the abbott I would soon be teaching theology at the university level for the first time and asked his advice.
"The most important thing is the heart, " he said. "Theology is not primarily dates, events and facts. It's primarily the transmission of a living experience. You need 'the prayer' - it's the key to everything. The more you get a grip on 'the prayer', the greater the effect of your teaching."
Hmmm... not "prayer" generically, but "the prayer". An enigmtic expression, yet very clear to the two of us conversing in the candle-lit darkness of the Athonite wilderness.
What is "The Prayer"?
We've already talked this week about the importance of prayer to your personal resilience and how to begin a life of prayer that gets results and increases your faith in the process. Today, though, we're going to talk about the highest form of prayer, the "real chocolate" of spiritual life.
It's sometimes called "unceasing prayer" because it becomes eventually a state of being. And it's technically called "noetic" prayer because it's the prayer of the nous, as opposed to the rational mind. The nous is the ancient Christian term for your deep, intuitive mind - it's a form of intelligence within you that knows reality directly and not through concepts, the way the rational mind does.
To clarify, this isn't prayer in the sense of "give me, give me" or "save me from the consequences of my own stupidity". This kind of prayer is about achieving a living communion, an assimilation of being, with the Absolute Reality.
We build our resilience by remaining as far as possible integrated into the Absolute (God), under His influence and open to His energies (the energies of God, by the way, is a technical term that goes back at least to the 4th century), and the only way to do this is to cultivate a meditative state of openness and inner stillness.
What's the catch? Your mind stream, that internal dialogue that locks you up into an individual, isolated and ego-centric perception of reality is what prevents this. The more active the mind stream, the more we identify ourselves with our thoughts and fall under the sway of delusive thinking and powerful emotions we don't control. The Absolute can't act within us under these circumstances.
Your real self is not your thoughts or your emotions. So the more you're under the mind stream's influence, the more you lose track of who you are, until finally you totally identify your self with your personality, which is little more than a collection of reactions to past experiences, to cultural brainwashing, to media propaganda, as well as of numerous other influences, including fluctuating hormones, biorhythms and phases of the moon. In the end, you're totally controlled by your environment and lose your inner freedom.
Noetic prayer frees you from all that and enables you to become who you really are. It also opens you up to the Absolute and keeps you that way. You begin to perceive the world in much more vibrant colors, so to speak, than other people do.
One master of noetic prayer, the famous elder Porphyrios of Athens (d. 1991), knew everyone's name, could communicate with animals and, if you came to see him from overseas, he might tell you clairvoyantly to fix the front step of your house in California and to make sure your sister in Florida sees a specialist for her bad knee. Such is the power and effect of noetic prayer.
On my visit to Athos in 1998 I was too late to meet him in person, but we talked to his senior disciple for several hours about the old man. When another spiritual guide had once told an inquirer to consult Porphyrios, the inquirer protested. The spiritual guide said, "My child, Father Porphyrios is like a color TV set; I am just a black and white one."
Beginning to Practice Noetic Prayer:
There are many different approaches that can work for different people. For modern Western people, it's often best to use basic meditation as a starting point, since this is a very effective way to gain a direct experience of the nous and to separate your self from your mind stream - your thoughts and emotions.
Just use your mental attention to follow your breath in and out. When thoughts and emotional states arise and try to dominate your inner attention, just ignore them and return your attention to your breathing. This is called "watchfulness" - using the nous (your mental attention) to keep your mental continuum free of clutter.
The more you do this, the more you'll discover that the centre of your noetic energy is in "the place of the heart." The place of the heart is in the upper chest, and not everyone experiences it in exactly the same location. For most, it's in the upper chest, above the physical heart and slightly to the left, no doubt related to the heart chakra plexus of yogic anatomy.
Now it's time to request the divine presence, and there are several ways to do this. The continuous repetition of a short prayer text is one of the most often used methods. In ancient Christianity there were several in use that we know of, including various psalm verses, snipets of hymns, etc.
Eventually the formula that dominated and virtually replaced all others was the now famous "Jesus Prayer". And when the abbott above talked about "the prayer", this is what he meant. The text of the Jesus Prayer is "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me." It's also called the "five word prayer" because in the original Greek, it's only five words.
Repitition of the words, which can be done aloud or just mentally, is often combined with the breathing, though not always.
However, it's possible to pray noetically and request the divine presence with no words at all.
So it's not an accident the ancient Christian spiritual tradition (paradoxically the best documented and least known or understood spiritual tradition anywhere!) has always been called "hesychasm" - the practice of stillness or silence. Note that this "silience" is interior and has nothing at all to do with whether you talk or not.
By keeping your mental attention in the place of the heart, and more generally inside your physical form, you eventually learn how to defeat the disordered emotional drives of your past, as well as all outside influences, so that you experience an extreme inner peace.
Noetic prayer is, on the one hand, like candy - you can't taste it just once. You want to stay there always and you experience a great compulsion to do that. On the other hand, it's really tough to master and takes continuous and regular practice. This includes times you set aside to just practice this, because, without separate practice times, your efforts to remain in prayer during the hustle and bustle of the day won't likely bear fruit.
Ultimately, this kind of prayer leads directly to a direct encounter with the one, true and living God. This is often called theoria (vision) or the vision of the Uncreated Light. This experience confers real knowledge of God, erases all possibility of doubt in the existence of God, and leaves you in what St. Isaac the Syrian used to call "awstruck wonder".
It is an experience far beyond anything the human imagination can possibly dream up. All I'll say about it is this, quoting another great master of noetic prayer from the 20th century...
"Compared to the Divine Light, all the lights of this world, even of the sun at high noon, are nothing but darkness. At that time there takes place a union, a communion of the Infinite and Uncreated with human beings, who are created and limited. By His energie, the latter are truly transformed into children of the Most High. It is then and only then that you can be assured in all your being that you really are created in the image and likeness of God. Every limitation of time and space disappears, you soar above duration and space and find yourself immersed in peace."1
~ Dr. Symeon Rodger
1. from The Living Witness of the Holy Mountain, ed. Alexander Golitzin, p.157.