Prayer without thoughts

[The following was presented at the House of St Michael the Archangel Devotional Conference in January of 2012]

Attentiveness is the heart’s stillness, unbroken by any thought. […] If we have not attained prayer that is without thoughts, we have no weapon to fight with.

– Hesychios

Prayer without thoughts.

What does it mean to have prayer without thoughts?

Has anyone ever told you that you need to learn to pray without thoughts before?

Most of the instruction I have received in my life has involved prayer with words – words of thanksgiving, confession, petition, intercession. Prayer, as it has been introduced to me in most of my Christian education, has involved talking to God. The question at the heart of this teaching was, “What should the Christian say to her God?”

For our teacher this evening, however, prayer is not fundamentally conversation. For Hesychios, the launching pad of prayer is not address, but presence.

Prayer without thoughts. We’re going to undertake and experiment. I want everyone in the room to close their eyes and stop thinking. I’m serious. We’re going to sit for a minute and do our best to clear our minds – to have, and to keep, them free from thoughts. Begin.

[Pause.]

Time’s up. How did it go? Did you hear, as some translators render Elijah having heard on the mountain, the sound of sheer silence? Or was it more like a hospital on the nightshift ­– supposedly still for the repose of the sick, but really – still and always – bustling quietly, doctors writing late orders, housekeepers scrubbing lately emptied rooms for 2AM admissions, nursing making rounds to pass the midnight and 3AM meds, the occasional sound of alarms. I know that my mind at rest sounds much more like the hospital where I sometimes work at night than a Carthusian monastery where all the monks have taken a vow of silence.

What were all those voices running around in your head? All those images and ideas? Worries. Fantasies. Shopping lists. Memories. Plans. Wants. Lusts. Cosmically significant musings and wrestling. (And I’m serious about that last. Each and every thought that crosses your mind really, really matters.)

Do you know your own thoughts? Perhaps it is time that you met them. Or, if you’re already acquainted, found out what they’re up to for the purpose of the next 20 hours of devotion.

The second exercise is like the first. Close your eyes and stop thinking. Only this time you know, if you didn’t know before, that you’re likely to fail. And so this time, when your thoughts make their inevitable appearance, take note of them. Find out what they’re up to. Make a list of them – but not more than two or three. Our purpose is noticing, not active engagement. Clear your mind and begin.

[Pause.]

Time’s up.

Do you have a list?

Or at least one thought you caught sneaking through?

Now comes the hard part. Those thoughts are the enemies of your prayers. Even if they were boring: “Tomato soup for lunch tomorrow or chicken noodle?” Even if they were pious: “Perhaps I will go to India and be a missionary.” No matter what sort of thoughts they are, thoughts are the enemies of the sort of prayer Hesychios is trying to teach us.

The trouble with talking to Jesus is that – although He sometimes grants us glimpses of Himself in dreams and visions, although He is the visible image of the invisible God – He is, generally, not available for us to see with the naked eye. And we tend to do a pretty poor job of talking to people we can see. We do an even worse job of just being with people we can see. And being, I would like to posit, is the best precursor to real talking. Real being with – real, deep presence – leads to true conversation. Or, even better, to that which transcends talking: communion, the calling and meeting of deep and deep.

Tim and I had a conversation the other day that was pretty scattered. I was sitting in the kitchen of the house where he lives, working on this talk. He came down from the upstairs, where he had been working on his dissertation, to make a pot of coffee.

Tim: Lisa Sayre.

Lisa: Hey, Tim.

Tim: How’s it coming?

Lisa: Not so good. Work was rough last night, and I didn’t sleep well, and I’m having a hard time concentrating.

Tim: (Obviously to himself) Where are the coffee filters? Are we out? Oh, Caroline said she bought some new ones. Where are they? (To Lisa) Yeah, that’s hard.

Lisa: How’s your dissertation coming?

Tim: I don’t know. Plugging along.

Lisa: By the way, we’re out of toilet paper down here.

Tim: Oh, yeah. (To himself, measuring scoops) One. Two. Three. Four. (To Lisa) I’ll get some.

Lisa: Thanks. (To herself) I hope he gets it soon. I really have to pee. And I hope he’s making enough coffee to share. And I hope he goes away soon because I was about to have a really important thought. Even though it’s, like, his house.

Not the most profound exchange of inquiries that ever passed between two friends. Not that every conversation you have with your friends – or your spouse, or your coworkers, or your parents – has to be the most profound conversation you’ve ever had. But if that was the only kind of conversation Tim and I ever had, we wouldn’t be very good friends. But we have had conversations that involve communion of the heart, that involve drawing near to those things of which sighs speak clearer than words. It is those conversations that allow our more passing exchanges to pass for communication and to be, in their own way, sustaining.

And so – and more so – with God. For there is a limit to how close Tim and I can be and to how close it is proper for us to be. Even Time and Caroline, who have become one flesh in their marriage, are still separated by flesh and bone. Tim may say that Caroline is close to his heart, but she does not actually dwell there. But God dwells within us and desires that we should dwell in Him. And while Tim doesn’t have the right to come first in anyone’s thoughts – although he may be near the top of Caroline’s – the Lord, as Creator, is by the right the foremost of all that is and He demands that nothing come before Him. He desires you and wants no veil between Himself and your heart.

Prayer without thoughts.

Your thoughts are the enemies of your prayers.

How is it when we come to God? Are we so busy thinking about what we should say, or saying what we have already decided to say – or thinking about other things, or measuring scoops of coffee – to really notice the other Person in the room? If our truest prayers are prayed in the Spirit, then the heart of prayer is not thought or talk but availability to the One who knows both our hearts and the heart of God. Just as Tim and I can’t talk deeply unless we are able to set aside our thoughts and listen to one another, so we are not able to truly listen to God save in the absence of thoughts. It is in the place beyond words that the Spirit intercedes for us and the mind of Christ is born in us and we learn to have the thoughts of Christ and to speak the words of God.

What are we to do then? We who need to dwell in the presence of the Lord and yet who have such busy minds? We are, according to certain wise teachers of the ancient Church, Hesychios among them, to call on the name of Jesus.

“Attentiveness in the heart’s stillness, unbroken by any thought. In this stillness the heart breathes and invokes endlessly and without ceasing only Jesus Christ”: this is the end to which we have gathered for these two days, that our hearts might learn, or be deepened in their ability, to breathe and invoke without ceasing the precious name of Jesus.

We are to breathe the name of Jesus because His Name is oxygen which sustains and intensifies the fire of our souls.

We are to invoke Him – or call Him – because the name of Jesus is like no other name. I may speak Tim’s name without commanding His presence. But Jesus is the name of the One who is the Son of God and Himself God, and God is neither divided nor divisible. To speak the name Jesus is to mediate with your very breath, voice box and tongue the presence and power of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Kingdom present and the Kingdom to come, the One who fills all things, the One from Whom, and to Whom, and through Whom all things exist. To Him be the glory, for ever and ever. Amen. To say the name Jesus is not merely to refer to the subject of our liturgies or to mention a Jewish rabbi who died in Palestine long ago. It is both to beg and, by God’s mercy, to bring about the increasing revelation of One who is present in this very room. One who desires, like Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present, that we may come and know Him better.

We are to call on the name of Jesus without ceasing because, as we have already seen, we are very inattentive creatures. Speak the name of Jesus and something in the air changes. Something in the heart changes. The bit of the universe which you inhabit becomes a bit more true. But speak the name of Jesus once and within ten minutes – or, if you’re like me, within two minutes – the power of that speaking will, likely as not, have dissipated. Not because Jesus or His power are ever less, but because the fires of our hearts blaze not without the Spirit’s blowing. To come to truly know a person, you must spend time with them. To come to the bottom of a thought, you must dwell upon it. And so with our prayers. My prayers must not be Jesus. Chicken soup or tomato? Jesus. What will I do tomorrow? Jesus. I need to return that call. But Jesus. Jesus. Jesus. Jesus. Jesus. Jesus. Jesus.

The third exercise is like the first two – only better. Close your eyes and empty your mind that it might be filled with the name and presence of Jesus Christ. When your thoughts show up, put the name of Jesus between those thoughts and your heart. No thought should ever be nearer your heart than Jesus Christ. And at the presence of Jesus, those thoughts that cannot bear His gaze will flee, those thoughts that cannot be molded to fit the image of His name – which is the image of the indivisible God – will be broken, and only that which is Himself and of Himself will remain. Begin.

[Pause.]

Time’s up – or, well, not really. For the state in which our minds just stood, or tried to stand, is the state in which Hesychios would always have them to be, says that they must be if we are to have true hearts. I don’t have an exercise to teach you that sort of day-in-day-out, every-waking-moment-and-even-in-your-dreaming sort of prayer – only a promise that time spent in intentional stillness has a tendency to creep and spread so that one’s heart, by grace, begins to find quiet in the midst of even the busiest and hardest parts of one’s days. It’s gardening God’s up to. He planted the seed and if you keep watering, it will grow – and grow beyond your wildest expectations.

So, how was it? Did you feel the presence of the Lord? If so, praise God for His goodness and mercy. If not, don’t feel too badly. Even Hesychios admits that it’s difficult. In a passage that we will read tomorrow, he writes: “To human beings it seems hard and difficult to still the mind so that it rests from all thought. Indeed, to enclose what is bodiless [that is, the infinite God] within the limits of the body does demand toil and struggle, not only from the uninitiated but also from those experienced in inner spiritual warfare. But he who through unceasing prayer holds the Lord Jesus within his breast will not tire in following him.” The journey is hard, but there is food for the journey, for our work and our reward is to cling to the one who is manna for our souls.

Pray then, tonight and tomorrow, the name of the Lord Jesus, that He might come to dwell before all in your heart and all your thoughts might be subject to Him. For tonight, do not come to Him asking the redemption and healing of yourself and the world. Do not come to him asking favor or gifts. Come to Him and call Him to come to you simply as He is, Himself Favor and the Gift and the rightful Lord of all. Be still, and you will know that He is God, and having sought nothing but Jesus, you will find yourself in possession of all things. Amen.

Comments

  1. avatar Heather Hyde Jennings says:

    Great instruction Lisa. Remembering last years conference today and looking forward to meeting again in January.

    With you in the Spirit of God,
    Heather

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