In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Over the last month or so, I have been reading to you from a booklet titled, On Prayer, which the monastery has written and edited simply to sell in order to raise funds so we may repair the roof of our 1755 church on the Isle of Mull. Today I shall read to you the last sections of this booklet. If you would like to have the booklet itself, you may order it on the monastery website, mullmonastery.com. This last section concerns the role of the body in our life of prayer.
Prayer is a very practical thing. Prayer is something we do rather than something we talk or we think about. This may seem obvious, but the implications of this platitude are not always as obvious and definitely not always embraced with open arms. Practicality implies doing things, and doing things has to involve our physical bodies. This opens up the whole question of the role of the body in our life of prayer.
To reduce your prayer to the mind alone, with no participation of the body is just as alienating as to reduce your prayer to what the body can do, with no involvement of the mind. To say that one can pray without the body is just as wrong as to say that one can pray without the mind. If you do not involve your body, you are never really praying, not in the sense that it affects the quality of your prayer, but that it is never you who is praying, because you are this wonderful unity between body and soul.
Think about it. Is a corpse a human being? Or can a disembodied being, such as a spirit, for instance, be truly human? Christ himself says, “Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Handle me and see, for a spirit has no flesh and bones as you see me have.” If you apply that to prayer, answer these questions. Are people in a dream praying? because they are, after all, doing more physical exercise than most modern ascetics. Similarly, are philosophers the teachers of prayer? for they are doing more thinking than most modern contemplatives.
I’ve lived the first half of my monastic life in a traditional monastery in Bucovin, in northern Moldavia, and the later half in western Europe. Very few things differ as much as the attitude towards physical effort and its role in one’s life of prayer. Most of us seem to alternate between an exaggerated understanding of the importance of bodily prayer, that is, what these physical exercises are meant to be, and the opposite extreme of completely ignoring it. It is usually young people and those who find it still difficult to pray with their hearts and minds who exaggerate bodily prayer. The other “team” is made up of intellectual Christians who believe they have moved by now beyond these physical “low” exercises and have dedicated their efforts to a more contemplative “high” type of prayer.
What I’ve learned so far is that both teams are wrong, because, as usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle. We are human beings. We are neither spirits, lacking a body, nor corpses, lacking a soul. We are neither walking brains nor robotic flesh. By definition—by God’s definition for us humans—we are beings made of body and soul. Any other composition is simply not human. This is basic Christian dogmatics, something I believe we all have in common.
The direct implication of this is that our prayer, too, must necessarily come from our souls and our bodies. If my prayer is reduced to my brain, that simply is not prayer; even worse, it isn’t even entirely human, because it does not involve the body. Of course, no matter how much we try to attain a purely spiritual prayer, it’s impossible, because our senses are determined by the physicality of our bodies regardless of our intention. The point is that when we ignore the body we pray with only half our humanity, if such a thing is possible.
The other extreme is also possible. I’ve met many good people who exaggerate the role of the body. The result is that their prayer is reduced to a bodily exercise, with very little emotional—I shan’t even mention spiritual—value. I always wonder how this sort of blindness is possible. A human being without a soul is a corpse, not a human being.
As bad as my prayer may be, I’d rather be who I am and stay away from the prayer of a corpse. I am neither a spirit nor a corpse. I am who God made me: body and soul, a human being as God intended and created me. I pray as God’s creation. I pray as a human being: with my soul and with my body.
I have told you at the beginning of this recording that this will be the last reading from our booklet on prayer. Before I end these brief notes, I want to share with you a small treasure, a small piece of advice which, of course, you are free to take or to leave as your heart tells you to do. I offer it with love, and I pray you benefit from it a hundredfold.
Dear brother, dear sister, pray by night. Pray by night. Pray alone. Pray using no book, no image, no thought. Just force yourself to stay awake for ten minutes after you wake up to have a glass of water, after your child or a nightmare wakes you up. Stand there in the dark and make no move or sound. Make time stand still with you. Capture that moment and bring it before Christ as your humble offering. “Christ, this is me. This is who I am. This is who you must save.”
In fact, it may be useful to even forget that you need to pray. Most of us have such terribly deformed ideas about what prayer is that it is better sometimes to simply forget that you are meant to pray. Just stand there and look into the darkness outside your window. Other times, make a prostration and even close your eyes while you are still lying on the floor. And stay there, wait there. Keep your body in a state of tension, but your mind empty. Say nothing, think nothing, imagine nothing. Do not pray. Do not move. Just wait for Christ’s presence. Wait for him to notice your silence, your stillness, your death. Wait for Christ, and Christ will come, because love forces him.
This is the advantage of praying at this time. Night is a shield against thoughts, against images, against feelings. Try to be present in that moment. Try to become aware of the stillness and the silence that surrounds you. Let the void of that darkness embrace you. Let it enter you and fill you with its peace and silence. There can be something almost sacramental in this hidden silence and stillness before Christ. This darkness, this solitude, this instinctive awareness of one’s mortality—they all force one to open up in ways which would be impossible by daytime.
Be aware that you are awake before Christ while the world lies asleep, defenseless and vulnerable. You are awake before Christ, fighting for the world. You have become an intercessor for this fallen, sleeping world which is one with you and for which Christ has died.
Ten minutes alone with Christ, night after night, will change your life. When you wake up and you face the worries of the new day, there is something hidden in you that rejoices. For you and Christ now share a secret. You and Christ now share a fight. Your soul knows that it has been fed, and it also knows that, whatever happens during the day, the night will always return with its silence and its stillness. You will live through the day, waiting for the night, because when the night falls, you will once again bring yourself as an offering before your Creator, and your Creator will feed you once more.
I thank you for your prayers. I thank you for your help. If you can, consider making a donation to support the establishment of our monastery, the first Orthodox monastery dedicated to the Celtic saints in the Celtic isles of Scotland in over 1,000 years. All of you, one by one, may you be blessed. Amen.