So this week I'll do my best to answer and to help you make sense out of all this by talking about prayer. We're going to do this in three parts. First we'll talk about some of the basics. Then, in mid-week, we'll talk about prayer in the sense most people are familiar with, as a request for a specific outcome. And finally, on Friday, we'll get to the "real chocolate" of spiritual life - prayer as a continuous spiritual communion with the Absolute reality.
"I Know Lots of People Who Pray... and Most of Them Are Wackos!"
If that statement describes the way you feel, believe me, you're not alone. I'm a priest of the Orthodox Church and I feel the same way!
So yes, you'll find lots of deluded people who "pray" frequently. The Taliban folks pray. Your Aunt Mildred who keeps beating you over the head with the Bible prays. The TV evangelist who tells you God wants you to send him your money prays too. Of course, all these people are praying more to their own delusions than anything else. Prayer can transform you life into paradise on earth, but... if you stubbornly persist in delusion, it can destroy you.
Back in late 19th century Russia, someone asked a holy man named Theophan the Recluse why so many "religious" people were plain nuts. The old man, who was a great teacher of prayer, replied that when you put yourself in contact with the Uncreated Being, you either accept that power into your life or you resist and distort it. If you accept it, you become more like the divine - more loving, more peaceful, more integrated and more whole on every level. If, however, you resist, you become the opposite of all that. In short, if you're trying to use prayer to build up your ego instead of get past it, you're on the path to self-destruction.
We, however, are presumably interested in prayer for the right reasons - to feel spiritually connected to the source of life, to fill our hearts with love, gratitude and joy, and to radiate compassion to those around us. As long as this is our aim, and as long as we're genuinely trying to distinguish truth from falsehood, we're not in any danger of joining the wackos mentioned above.
Do I Need Prayer to Become Resilient?
What If I'm Not Sure About God?
That's okay. If you grew up in a "religious" milieu, you may still be struggling deep down with the idea that God is a cosmic despot with a significant anger-management problem, that He demands blind conformity to what some institution has told you and that if you don't believe in Him 100%, He's already really ticked off with you.
Nonsense! Without getting into the particulars, the whole idea of the angry God is a false teaching, according to the original Christian tradition. There's some more information on this in The 5 Pillars of Life, as well. Here's an example of what the early Christian tradition really learned about the divine being. I suggest you read the following very carefully...
"God is good. He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him. But if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness, we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked, we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in some arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to the demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him change, but that through our actions and our turning to God we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God's goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind."(1)
St. Silouan of Athos, a great Orthodox Christian spiritual teacher of the 20th century, once said there are only two kinds of spiritual people - those who believe in God and those who know God. The latter are those who have had a direct, overwhelming encounter with the Uncreated.
So if you're not too sure if God exists or what God / the Absolute reality is like, that's okay. You need to be honest with yourself. There is very little difference between you and the person who, to use Silouan's words, just "believes" but doesn't yet "know". That person has simply taken a different ideological stand than you have. However, he or she is still in the dark, in a manner of speaking.
And yes, there are lots of Christians who'll be happy to tell you they "know" God, but their "knowledge" of God unfortunately has nothing to do with "knowing God" as the ancient mystical tradition taught and still teaches. And Silouan was a typical example of that tradition.
Finally, you may also be struggling, even unconsciously, with the whole idea of God as "father" or parental figure. This can be especially troubling for people who have grown up in dysfunctional family environments where the parental role models were incompetent, if not overtly toxic. It's no secret that how you related to your parents can have a huge effect on how you conceive of God. Fortunately, there's an antidote.. a very old antidote that works wonders...
You see, unlike the Christianity of the West over the last millennium, the ancient tradition explicitly taught that you should not take verbal descriptions of God too literally. Using what we now call "apophatic" theology or "theology by negation", the ancient tradition says that if we say, for example, that God is "good", then we also have to say that God is not "good" as we imagine that word, but good in a way that goes beyond our usual concepts. And likewise, is we refer to God as "He", using the masculine pronoun (a huge stumbling block for many, given the historical shortcomings of most cultures), then we must also add that we do NOT mean "male as opposed to female" in the sense of human gender.
So if you find yourself hung up on some of the traditional language about God, know that it was never intended to be taken in the simplistic way you were probably taught, and you can cheerfully dissociate your mental image of God from your parents.
As Silouan said, after a particularly intense encounter with the Absolute Reality, "God is love insatiable." When one of Silouan's contemporaries was asked by a younger person why he was always weeping, he answered, "My child, when God appears to you, all you can do is weep for joy!"
What's Coming Up Next:
Next time, we'll talk about putting your requests out there in prayer and how to do it so you get results. In ancient times, prayer was referred to as "the art of arts and the science of sciences" and there's more to it than you ever imagined...
~ Dr. Symeon Rodger :-)