Sermon given on the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas
by David Vermette
Delivered at St. Mary Orthodox Church, Cambridge, MA
Sunday, March 23, 2003
Many years ago I began to read the books about Orthodox Spirituality that talked about something the Fathers called Prayer of the Heart. This was a type of prayer – or stage of prayer, if you like – which the Fathers said is prayer in its truest sense, for which other forms of prayer are preparatory. It was said that the person who had Prayer of the heart prayed at all times, no matter what they were doing. Someone who has been granted prayer of the heart, so the books said, even prayed while they were sleeping, and some of the Fathers cited in support of this a passage from the Song of Songs that said, “I sleep but my heart is awake.” Around this time I met someone who told me about an elder he had met in Cyprus who followed this way of prayer and about whom it was said, “He walks with God every day.” All of these things made a deep impression on me. There was something in these teachings that spoke to me like nothing else ever had, and I sensed that this form of prayer was not just a pious practice, but a mystery that was very close to the meaning of life itself.
Father Ephraim Peters referred to this prayer of the heart a few Sundays ago when he spoke of the Fathers who said that in prayer we must descend with our minds into our hearts. But what does that even mean? How does one do this?
I read a number of books on this subject, but the ironic thing is that these books themselves say that you can’t learn this from books alone. Only experience can teach this. It’s like falling in love; you can’t learn that from a book. You have to experience it. And, these books also said, it is very much advised to question those who have more experience in these matters. So I started asking around a little bit. One of the people I asked was a Metropolitan in the Greek Church, quite renowned for his scholarship, called Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos. Some years ago, I had an opportunity to ask about him about Prayer of the Heart. My question was: “What is prayer of the heart, and specifically, what does it mean to descend with your mind into your heart? And how can someone make a beginning with this?”
“Well,” he said in Greek through an interpreter, “this is a very big thing you are asking about.” And then he gave a few very brief comments on this subject one of which I’d like to share with you. “Let me tell you what Prayer of the heart is like,” the Metropolitan began, “Prayer of the heart, is like a mother who has a child on the verge of death…a child who has been in an accident or who has a terminal illness and stands on the brink of death…and she holds that child and prays to God and says ‘have mercy on me…Lord have mercy on me…have mercy on me!’”
“This prayer,” said the Metropolitan, “is very close to prayer of the heart.”
A saying like this is like an icon, an image, not in paint but in words. So let’s take a minute to look into this image of the mother with the dying child. If her prayer is close to prayer of the heart then what is her prayer like? First of all her prayer is undistracted. At that moment when she holds that dying child, is that woman thinking about a problem she has with someone at work, or a home improvement project, or a bill she needs to pay? Probably not. This prayer is also fervent. It has some heat in it. She isn’t just reciting a prayer – her prayer is not an obligation, it is an urgent need. Her prayer is also a prayer of longing. It longs for the presence of God, for His intervention, His manifestation. It is also continuous. During the time that she’s praying you can hear her prayer continuously bubbling up from within. She doesn’t stop even for a moment. The prayer of the woman with the dying child is also a prayer that unifies her whole being in the presence of God. You can see in your mind’s eye that her posture, her voice, her face reflects her prayer. All of her emotions are centered around this prayer. She has no other thought than this plea to God. She prays with her whole heart, her whole soul, her whole mind, and with all her strength.
But there’s a great deal more in this image. You’ll notice that the Metropolitan did not say that Prayer of the Heart is like the joy at the birth of a child; nor did he say that it’s like the joy a mother feels when her sick child is restored to health. And, I believe, he might have made those analogies, but he doesn’t. He says that Prayer of the Heart is like a mother praying for her dying child. To illustrate the character of this prayer, he chooses one of the most tragic events in human life – the loss of a child. I’m sure some of you have experienced this loss. Maybe you have prayed this prayer. My Father died when I was still a teenager. My wife went through the same thing. And dealing with losing someone who is that close is another thing you can’t learn from a book. When my Father died I felt something that I would not admit at the time, but is fairly common. In among the feelings of loss and grief, I felt relief. Not only relief that his suffering was over….not only relief that at least my family was now certain of the outcome…but there was something else: a relief – a temporary release – from my ordinary self. All of the things that just a couple of days before my father’s death, I thought were so important were shown to be meaningless. The enormity of such a loss crowded everything else out and for a brief window of time, I was allowed to see the distinction between what is transitory and what is eternal. And there was, if I can really tell the truth here, through the grief and loss and shock, a brief taste of liberation.
There’s something about suffering and loss that stirs us from our waking sleep where we dream the dream of our private concerns and distractions and hopes and desires that make up what we call our ordinary lives. There’s something about difficult times that strips away everything that’s false and whatever is hidden in the heart is revealed. Recently I went through a difficult time and I went to talk to Fr. Antony about it and after we had talked for a while, he said, “I have to say, you’re more real now than I’ve seen you in a while.” And he was right, because I had been stripped of at least some of my pretensions and pride. My usual mask that says, “I’m fine, and everything’s great…so just leave me alone”…That mask didn’t fit anymore.
The effect of this stripping away is described in a passage from the 19th Century Russian spiritual father, the Elder Leonid when he wrote, “If you were as simple in heart as the Apostles were, you would not hide your human faults, would not appear pious and would live without hypocrisy. This way…is the shortest way to salvation and attracts Grace…unless you become as little children, you cannot enter the Kingdom of God.”
So what does this have to do with St. Gregory Palamas Sunday? A great deal, I think, because St. Gregory taught that the whole ascetical tradition of the Church that he defended is about stripping off the layers of falsehood to reveal the true self that lies buried underneath – and this true self is the human Person as it was created by God. Is this Orthodox Faith of ours about self-sacrifice or is it, like some New Age and modern psychological teachings, about self-realization? Reading St. Gregory suggests to me that it’s both. We sacrifice the old man, not just for the sake of it, but to become the new man. As St. Paul says, we crucify the old self with its passions, and we are transformed into the radiant beauty of the transfigured and deified self. But this path is a much different thing and much longer and more difficult than what I imagined when I was just reading books, those many years ago.
So in closing, let me tell you, in my own words, a little story that comes from St. John of the Ladder – a story about someone who walked this path, and began to discover his true self. St. John tells of a rich and powerful man named Isidore who wished to become a monk. But when he first arrived in the monastery he was arrogant and troublesome. And so the abbot stepped in to deal with him and said to him, “Isidore, the first thing you must learn in the monastery is obedience, so here’s what I want you to do, go down to the gate of the monastery and every time someone passes through that gate I want you to do a prostration in front of him and say ‘Father pray for me for I have an evil spirit.’” So Isidore went down to the gate and did this for a whole day. And the next day he did the same thing, and the next day, and the next, until a year had passed, and then another and another. Only after 7 years, the abbot said to Isidore, “Now you’re able to become a monk.” And St. John of the Ladder says that he asked Isidore, “What were you thinking about all of those years?” And Isidore said, “The first year I felt as though I had been sold into slavery. The second year my heart was no longer full of grief and I began to think that God would reward me. But in the third year I began to see that I am unworthy to be here and to receive the Mysteries with these Fathers. And then I began to sincerely ask each and every person who passed through that gate for their prayers.” And Isidore asked St. John to intercede for him with the abbot. He no longer wished to be a monk, but wanted to pass the remainder of his life doing what he had been doing those past 7 years.
Like the treasure buried in a field for which we sell everything else that we have Isidore found his true calling and began to find his true self. Through the prayers of our father among the saints Gregory Palamas, may all of us through God’s Grace do likewise during this season of Great Lent.Copyright 2003, David Vermette. All Rights Reserved. Do not reproduce without permission from the author