As was the case with many young men who grew up during the 80’s and 90’s, I went through a period of deep fascination with Kung-Fu movies. There was something intrinsically appealing about a story where a young man could spend a few days with a Kung-Fu master or read an ancient scroll and henceforth become invincible and able to battle evil! I also loved that the Kung-Fu Masters gave their Artreally cool names such as, “the Art of the Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow”.
How often we grow up yet carry with us the dreams of our youth! In many ways and for many years, I unconsciously approached prayer in the same way. I thought that if I could only spend a few days with a “master”, prayer would become easy, or if I just read the right book, I would be able acquire the art of prayer. I read dozens of books on the topic. I just needed to find the right words to inspire me, to give me the proper technique…
Perhaps it goes without saying, but we do well to remember that prayer is not Kung-Fu. The realization came to me when I was confronted by an Elder who told me, with seemingly harsh words but in a gentle way full of love, that, “If you spent half as much time praying as you do reading books about prayer you might actually have done some good.”
This was the beginning of a slow realization: to learn to pray one must in fact pray. I am not saying that the direction given by a Spiritual Father is not important or that such marvelous books as the Philokalia do not assist us as we pray, but in the end we must simply pray, and pray in all simplicity.
Elder Aimilianos reminds us that, “Any teacher is nothing more than a poor voice… He should make us understand that he can’t teach us anything, so that we will say: Spirit, where are you for goodness’ sake. You teach me.”
Prayer is not an “art” like Kung-Fu that can be taught and it is not a science in which we exercise our learning and skill. There is not a recipe to follow that tells us, “A little bit of this, a pinch of that, and voilà you are now a man or woman of prayer!” In fact, prayer is something entirely other, holy, and unique. Abba Isaac, the great Saint who lived prayer and tasted that which is beyond prayer, reminds us that:
“When you approach God in prayer, become in your thoughts as an ant, as the creeping things on the earth or as a lisping child. And do not speak anything in knowledge before God, but draw near to Him with the mind of an infant, that you may be accounted worthy of His fatherly providence.”
These ancient words of Abba Isaac are echoed by St. Porphyrios who says to us, “We must go on our own in simplicity and artlessness of heart.” There is a moving and poignant image of this artless heart in prayer in Step 5 of St. John Climacus’ Ladder, where he tells us:
“Others stood in prayer with their hands tied behind their backs like criminals, their faces, darkened by sorrow, bent to the earth. They regarded themselves as unworthy to look up to heaven. Overwhelmed by the embarrassment of their thoughts and conscience they could not find anything to say or pray about to God, how or with what to begin their prayers. But as if filled with darkness and a blank despair, they offered to God nothing but a speechless soul and a voiceless mind.”
This is one of the great blessings that Abba Isaac offers us: rather than teach us how to pray, he gently pushes us to pray. His words do not give us a map to ascend to the heavens but they remind us that when we descend into humility, God Himself will raise us up to the heavens.
In all artlessness let us walk in the way of the ant and together with Abba Isaac pray:
“Grant me to know You and to love You, Lord, not with knowledge that comes from the exercise of study accompanied by dispersion of mind; but make me worthy of that knowledge in which the mind beholding You glorifies Your nature in the contemplation which steals from the mind awareness of the world.”