Gregory of Sinai: On Stillness: Fifteen Texts
Two Ways of Prayer
1. There are two modes of union or, rather, two ways of entering into the noetic prayer that the Spirit activates in the heart. For either the intellect, cleaving to the Lord (cf I Cor. 6:17), is present in the heart prior to the action of the prayer; or the prayer itself, progressively quickened in the fire of spiritual joy, draws the intellect along with it or welds it to the invocation of the Lord Jesus and to union with Him. For since the Spirit works in each person as He wishes (cf. I Cor. 12:11), one of these two ways we have mentioned will take precedence in some people, the other in others. Sometimes, as the passions subside through the ceaseless invocation of Jesus Christ, a divine energy wells up in the heart, and a divine warmth is kindled; for Scripture says that our God is a fire that consumes the passions (cf. Deut. 4:24; Heb. 12:29). At other times the Spirit draws the intellect to Himself, confining it to the depths of the heart and restraining it from its usual distractions. Then it will no longer be led captive from Jerusalem to the Assyrians, but a change for the better brings it back from Babylon to Zion, so that it says with the Psalmist, Tt is right to praise Thee, God, in Zion, and to Thee shall our vows be rendered in Jerusalem' (Ps. 65:1. LXX), and 'When the Lord brought back the prisoners to Zion' (Ps. 126:1), and 'Jacob will rejoice and Israel will be glad' (Ps. 53:6). The names Jacob and Israel refer respectively to the ascetically active and to the contemplative intellect which through ascetic labor and with God's help overcomes the passions and through contemplation sees God, so far as is possible. Then the intellect, as if invited to a rich banquet and replete with divine joy, will sing, 'Thou hast prepared a table before me in the face of the demons and passions that afflict me' (cf. Ps. 23:5).
The Beginning of Watchfulness2. 'In the morning sow your seed', says Solomon - and by 'seed' is to be understood the seed of prayer - 'and in the evening do not withhold your hand', so that there may be no break in the continuity of your prayer, no moment when through lack of attention you cease to pray; 'for you do not know which will flourish, this or that' (Eccles. I 1:6). Sitting from dawn on a seat about nine inches high, compel your intellect to descend from your head into your heart, and retain it there. Keeping your head forcibly bent downwards, and suffering acute pain in your chest, shoulders and neck, persevere in repeating noetically or in your soul 'Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy'. Then, since that may become constrictive and wearisome, and even galling because of the constant repetition - though this is not because you are constantly eating the one food of the threefold name, for 'those who eat Me', says Scripture, 'will still be hungry' (Eccles. 24:21) - let your intellect concentrate on the second half of the prayer and repeat the words 'Son of God, have mercy'. You must say this half over and over again and not out of laziness constantly change the words. For plants which are frequently transplanted do not put down roots. Restrain your breathing, so as not to breathe unimpededly; for when you exhale, the air, rising from the heart, beclouds the intellect and ruffles your thinking, keeping the intellect away from the heart. Then the intellect is either enslaved by forgetfulness or induced to give its attention to all manner of things, insensibly becoming preoccupied with what it should ignore. If you see impure evil thoughts rising up and assuming various forms in your intellect, do not be startled. Even if images of good things appear to you, pay no attention to them. But restraining your breathing as much as possible and enclosing your intellect in your heart, invoke the Lord Jesus continuously and diligently and you will swiftly consume and subdue them, flaying them invisibly with the divine name. For St John Klimakos says, 'With the name of Jesus lash your enemies, for there is no more powerful weapon in heaven or on earth.'
3. Isaiah the Solitary is one of many who affirm that when praying you have to restrain your breath. Another author says that you have to control your uncontrollable intellect, impelled and dispersed as it is by the satanic power which seizes hold of your lax soul because of your negligence after baptism, bringing with it other spirits even more evil than itself and thus making your soul's state worse than it was originally (cf Matt. 12:45). Another writer says that in a monk mindfulness of God ought to take the place of breathing, while another declares that the love of God acts as a brake on his out-breathing. St Symeon the New Theologian tells us, 'Restrain the drawing-in of breath through your nostrils, so as not to breathe easily': St John Klimakos says, 'Let mindfulness of Jesus be united to your breathing, and then you will know the blessings of stillness.' St Paul affirms that it is not he who lives but Christ in him (cf. Gal. 2:20), activating him and inspiring him with divine life. And the Lord, taking as an example the blowing of the physical wind, says, 'The Spirit blows where He wishes' (John 3:8). For when we were cleansed through baptism we received in seed-like form the foretaste of the Spirit (cf. 2 Cor. 1:22) and what St James calls the 'implanted Logos' (Jas. 1:21), embedded and as it were consolidated in us through an unparticipable participation; and, while keeping Himself inviolate and undimmished. He deifies us in His superabundant bounty. But then we neglected the commandments, the guardians of grace, and through this negligence we again fell into the clutches of the passions, filled with the afflatus of the evil spirits instead of the breath of the Holy Spirit. That is why, as the holy fathers explain, we are subject to lassitude and continually enervated. For had we laid hold of the Spirit and been purified by Him we would have been enkindled by Him and inspired with divine life, and would speak and think and act in the manner that the Lord indicates when He says, 'For it is not you that speak but the Spirit of My Father that speaks in you' (cf. Matt. 10:20). Conversely, if we embrace the devil and are mastered by him, we speak and act in the opposite manner.
4. 'When the watchman grows weary,' says St John Klimakos, 'he stands up and prays; then he sits down again and courageously resumes the same task.' Although St John is here referring to the intellect and is saying that it should behave in this manner when it has learnt how to guard the heart, yet what he says can apply equally to psalmody. For it is said that when the great Varsanuphios was asked about how one should psalmodize, he replied, 'The Hours and the liturgical Odes are church traditions, rightly given so that concord is maintained when there are many praying together. But the monks of Sketis do not recite the Hours, nor do they sing Odes. On their own they practice manual labor, meditation and a little prayer. When you stand in prayer, you should repeat the Trisagion and the Lord's Prayer. You should also ask God to deliver you from your fallen selfhood. Do not grow slack in doing this; your mind should be concentrated in prayer all day long.' What St Varsanuphios wanted to make clear is that private meditation is the prayer of the heart, and that to practice 'a little prayer' means to stand and psalmodize. Moreover, St John Khmakos explicitly says that to attain the state of stillness entails first total detachment, secondly resolute prayer - this means standing and psalmodizmg - and thirdly, unbroken labor of the heart, that is to say, sitting down to pray in stillness.
Different Ways of Psalmodizing
5. Why do some teach that we should psalmodize a lot, others a little, and others that we should not psalmodize at all but should devote ourselves only to prayer and to physical exertion such as manual labor, prostrations or some other strenuous activity? The explanation is as follows. Those who have found grace through long, arduous practice of the ascetic life teach others to find it in the same way. They do not believe that there are some who through cognitive insight and fervent faith have by the mercy of God attained the state of grace in a short time, as St Isaac, for instance, recognizes. Led astray by ignorance and self-conceit they disparage such people, claiming that anything different from their own experience is delusion and not the operation of grace. They do not know that 'it is easy for God to enrich a poor man suddenly' (Eccles. 11:21), and that 'wisdom is the principal thing; therefore acquire wisdom', as Proverbs says, referring to grace (4:7). Similarly St Paul is rebuking the disciples of his time who were ignorant of grace when he says, 'Do you not realize that Jesus Christ dwells within you, unless you are worthless?' (cf 2 Cor. 13:5) - unless, that is to say, you make no progress because of your negligence. Thus in their disbelief and arrogance they do not acknowledge the exceptional qualities of prayer activated in some people by the Spirit in a special way.
6. Objection: Tell me, if a person fasts, practices self-control, keeps vigils, stands, makes prostrations, grieves inwardly and lives in poverty, is this not active asceticism? How then do you advocate simply the singing of psalms, yet say that without ascetic labor it is impossible to succeed in prayer? Do not the activities I mention constitute ascetic labor?
Answer. If you pray with your lips but your mind wanders, how do you benefit? 'When one builds and another tears down, what do they gain but toil?' (Eccles. 34:23). As you labor with your body, so you must labor with your intellect, lest you appear righteous in the body while your heart is filled with every form of injustice and impurity. St Paul confirms this when he says that if he prays with his tongue - that is, with his hps - his spirit or his voice prays, but his intellect is unproductive: 'I will pray with my spirit, and I will also pray with my intellect' (cf. I Cor. 14:14- 15). And he adds, 'I would rather speak five words with my intellect than ten thousand with my tongue' (cf. I Cor. 14:19). St John Khmakos, too, indicates that St Paul is speaking here about prayer when he says in his chapter on prayer, 'The great practitioner of sublime and perfect prayer says, 'I would rather speak five words with my intellect. ' ' There are many other forms of spiritual work, yet not one in itself is all-sufficient; but prayer of the heart, according to St John Klimakos, is pre-eminent and all-embracing, the source of the virtues and catalyst of all goodness. 'There is nothing more fearful than the thought of death,' says St Maxnnos, 'or more wonderful than mindfulness of God,' indicating the supremacy of this activity. But some do not even wish to know that we can attain a state of active grace in this present life, so blinded and weak in faith are they because of their ignorance and obduracy.
7. In my opinion, those who do not psalmodize much act rightly, for it means that they esteem moderation - and according to the sages moderation is best in all things. In this way they do not expend all the energy of their soul in ascetic labour, thus making the intellect negligent and slack where prayer is concerned. On the contrary, by devoting but little time to psalmodizmg, they can give most of their time to prayer. On the other hand, when the intellect is exhausted by continuous noetic invocation and intense concentration, it can be given some rest by releasing it from the straitness of silent prayer and allowing it to relax in the amplitude of psalmody. This is an excellent rule, taught by the wisest men.
8. Those who do not psalmodize at all also act rightly, provided they are well advanced on the spiritual path. Such people have no need to recite psalms; if they have attained the state of illumination, they should cultivate silence, uninterrupted prayer and contemplation. They are united with God and have no need to tear their intellect away from Him and so to throw it into confusion. As St John Klmiakos says, 'One under monastic obedience falls when he follows his own will, while the hesychast falls when he is interrupted in his prayer.' For the hesychast commits adultery in his intellect when he sunders it from its mindfulness of God: it is as if he were being unfaithful to his true spouse and philandering with trivial matters.
To impart this discipline to others is not always possible. But it can be taught to simple uneducated people who are under obedience to a spiritual father, for such obedience, thanks to the humility that goes with it, can partake of every virtue. Those, however, who are not under this kind of obedience should not be taught it, regardless of whether they are unlearned people or educated: they may easily be deluded, because people who are a law unto themselves cannot avoid being conceited, and the natural result of conceit is delusion, as St Isaac says. Yet some people, unaware of the harm which will result, counsel anybody they happen to meet to practice this discipline alone, so that their intellect may grow accustomed to being mindful of God and may come to love it. But this is not possible, especially for those not under obedience. For, because of their negligence and arrogance, their intellect is still impure and has not first been cleansed by tears; and so, instead of concentrating on prayer, they are filled with images of shameful thoughts, while the unclean spirits in their heart, panic-struck by the invocation of the dread name of the Lord Jesus, howl for the destruction of the person who scourges them. Thus if you hear about or are taught this discipline, and want to practice it, but are not under spiritual direction you will experience one of two things: you will either force yourself to persist, in which case you fall into delusion and will fail to attain healing; or you will grow negligent, in which case you will never make any progress during your whole life.
9. I will add this from my own small experience. When you sit in stillness, by day or by night, free from random thoughts and continuously praying to God in humility, you may find that your intellect becomes exhausted through calling upon God and that your body and heart begin to feel pain because of the intense concentration with which you unceasingly invoke the name of Jesus, with the result that you no longer experience the warmth and joy that engender ardor and patience in the spiritual aspirant. If this is the case, stand up and psalmodize, either by yourself or with a disciple who lives with you, or occupy yourself with meditation on some scriptural passage or with the remembrance of death, or with manual labor or with some other thing, or give your attention to reading, preferably standing up so as to involve your body in the task as well.
When you stand and psalmodize by yourself, recite the Trisagion and then pray in your soul or your intellect, making your intellect pay attention to your heart; and recite two or three psalms and a few penitential troparia but without chanting them: as St John Klimakos confirms, people at this stage of spiritual development do not chant. For 'the suffering of the heart endured in a spirit of devotion', as St Mark puts it, is sufficient to produce joy in them, and the warmth of the Spirit is given to them as a source of grace and exultation. After each psalm again pray in your intellect or soul, keeping your thoughts from wandering, and repeat the Alleluia. This is the order established by the holy fathers Varsanuphios, Diadochos and others. And as St Basil the Great says, one should vary the psalms daily to enkindle one's fervor and to prevent the intellect from getting bored with having to recite always the same things. The intellect should be given freedom and then its fervor will be quickened.' If you stand and psalmodize with a trusted disciple, let him recite the psalms while you guard yourself, secretly watching your heart and praying. With the help of prayer ignore all images, whether sensory or conceptual, that rise up from the heart. For stillness means the shedding of all thoughts for a time, even those which are divine and engendered by the Spirit; otherwise through giving them our attention because they are good we will lose what is better.
10. So, lover of God, attend with care and intelligence. If while engaged in spiritual work you see a light or a fire outside you, or a form supposedly of Christ or of an angel or of someone else, reject it lest you suffer harm. And do not pay court to images, lest you allow them to stamp themselves on your intellect. For all these things that externally and inopportunely assume various guises do so in order to delude your soul. The true beginning of prayer is the warmth of heart that scorifies the passions, fills the soul with joy and delight, and establishes the heart in unwavering love and unhesitating surety. The holy fathers teach that if the heart is in doubt about whether to accept something either sensory or conceptual that enters the soul, then that thing is not from God but has been sent by the devil. Moreover, if you become aware that your intellect is being enticed by some invisible power either from the outside or from above, do not trust in that power or let your intellect be so enticed, but immediately force it to continue its work. Unceasingly cry out: 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy', and do not allow yourself to retain any concept, object, thought or form that is supposedly divine, or any sequence of argument or any color, but concentrate solely on the pure, simple, formless remembrance of Jesus. Then God, seeing your intellect so strict in guarding itself in every way against the enemy, will Himself bestow pure and unerring vision upon it and will make it participate in God and share in all other blessings.
What is of God, says St Isaac, comes of itself, without you knowing when it will come. Our natural enemy - the demon who operates in the seat of our desiring power - gives the spirit-forces various guises in our imagination. In this way he substitutes his own unruly heat for spiritual warmth, so that the soul is oppressed by this deceit. For spiritual delight he substitutes mindless joy and a muggy sense of pleasure, inducing self- satisfaction and vanity. Thus he tries to conceal himself from those who lack experience and to persuade them to take his delusions for manifestations of spiritual joy. But time, experience and perspicacity will reveal him to those not entirely ignorant of his wiles. As the palate discriminates between different kinds of food (cf. Eccles. 36:18,19), so the spiritual sense of taste clearly and unerringly reveals everything as it truly is.
11. 'Since you are engaged in spiritual warfare,' says St John Klimakos, 'you should read texts concerned with ascetic practice. Translating such texts into action makes other reading superfluous.' Read works of the fathers related to stillness and prayer, like those of St John Klimakos, St Isaac, St Maxmios, St Neilos, St Hesychios, Philotheos of Sinai, St Symeon the New Theologian and his disciple Stithatos, and whatever else exists of writers of this kind. Leave other books for the time being, not because they are to be rejected, but because they do not contribute to your present purpose, diverting the intellect from prayer by their narrative character. Read by yourself, but not in a pompous voice, or with pretentious eloquence or affected enunciation or melodic delectation, or, insensibly carried away by passion, as if you are wanting to please an audience. Do not read with inordinate avidity, for in all things moderation is best, nor on the other hand in a rough, sluggish or negligent manner. On the contrary, read reverently, gently, steadily, with understanding, and at an even pace, your intellect, your soul and your reason all engaged. When the intellect is invigorated by such reading, it acquires the strength to pray harder. But if you read in the contrary manner - as I have described it above - you cloud the intellect and make it sluggish and distracted, so that you develop a headache and grow slack in prayer.
12. Continually take careful note of your inner intention: watch carefully which way it inclines, and discover whether it is for God and for the sake of goodness itself and the benefit of your soul that you practice stillness or psalmodize or read or pray or cultivate some virtue. Otherwise you may unknowingly be ensnared and prove to be an ascetic in outward appearance alone while in your manner of life and inner intention you are wanting to impress men, and not to conform to God. For the devil's traps are many, and he persistently and secretly watches the bias of our intention, without most of us being aware of it, striving imperceptibly to corrupt our labor so that what we do is not done in accordance with God's will. But even if he attacks and assaults you relentlessly and shamelessly, and even if he distracts the bias of your will and makes it waver in spite of your efforts to prevent it, you will not often be caught out by him so long as you keep yourself steadfastly intent on God. If again in spite of your efforts you are overcome through weakness, you will swiftly be forgiven and praised by Hun who knows our intentions and our hearts. There is, however, one passion - self-esteem - that does not permit a monk to grow in virtue, so that though he engages in ascetic labors in the end he remains barren. For whether you are a beginner, or midway along the spiritual path, or have attained the stage of perfection, self-esteem always tries to insinuate itself, and it nullifies your efforts to live a holy life, so that you waste your time in listlessness and day-dreaming.
13. I have also learnt this from experience, that unless a monk cultivates the following virtues he will never make progress: fasting, self-control, keeping vigil, patient endurance, courage, stillness, prayer, silence, inward grief and humility. These virtues generate and protect each other. Constant fasting withers lust and begets self-control. Self- control enables us to keep vigils, vigils beget patient endurance, endurance courage, courage stillness, stillness prayer, prayer silence, silence inward grief, and grief begets humility. Or, going in the reverse order, you will find how daughters give birth to mothers - how, that is to say, humility begets inward grief, and so on. In the realm of the virtues there is nothing more important than this form of mutual generation. The things opposite to these virtues are obvious to all.
14. Here we should specify the toils and hardships of the ascetic life and explain clearly how we should embark on each task. We must do this lest someone who coasts along without exerting himself, simply relying on what he has heard, and who consequently remains barren, should blame us or other writers, alleging that things are not as we have said. For it is only through travail of heart and bodily toil that the work can properly be carried out. Through them the grace of the Holy Spirit is revealed. This is the grace with which we and all Christians are endowed at baptism but which through neglect of the commandments has been stifled by the passions. Now through God's ineffable mercy it awaits our repentance, so that at the end of our life we may not because of our barrenness hear the words 'Take the talent from him', and 'What he thinks he has will be taken away from him' (of. Matt. 25:28-29), and may not be sent to hell to suffer endlessly in Gehenna. No activity, whether bodily or spiritual, unaccompanied by toil and hardship bears fruit; 'for the kingdom of heaven is entered forcibly,' says the Lord, 'and those who force themselves take possession of it' (Matt. 11:12), where 'forcibly' and 'force' relate to the body's awareness of exertion in all things.
Many for long years may have been preoccupied with the spiritual life without exerting themselves, or may still be preoccupied with it in this way; but because they do not assiduously embrace hardships with heartfelt fervor and sense of purpose, and have repudiated the severity of bodily toil, they remain devoid of purity, without a share in the Holy Spirit. Those who practice the spiritual life, but do so carelessly and lazily, may think that they make considerable efforts; but they will never reap any harvest because they have not exerted themselves and basically have never experienced any real tribulation. A witness to this is St John Klimakos, who says, 'However exalted our way of life may be, it is worthless and bogus if our heart does not suffer.' Sometimes when we fail to exert ourselves we are in our listlessness carried away by spurious forms of distraction and plunged into darkness, thinking we can find rest in them when that is impossible. The truth is that we are then bound invisibly by unloosable cords and become inert and ineffective in everything we do, for we grow increasingly sluggish, especially if we are beginners. For those who have reached the stage of perfection everything is profitable in moderation. St Ephrem also testifies to this when he says, 'Persistently suffer hardships in order to avoid the hardship of vain sufferings. ' For unless, to use the prophet's phrase, our loins are exhausted by the weakness induced through the exertions of fasting, and unless like a woman in childbirth we are afflicted with pains arising from the constriction of our heart, we will not conceive the Spirit of salvation in the earth of our heart (cf. Isa. 21:3; 26:18). Instead, all we will have to boast about is the many profitless years we have spent in the wilderness, lazily cultivating stillness and imagining that we are somebody. At the moment of our death we will all know for certain what is the outcome of our life.
15. No one can learn the art of virtue by himself, though some have taken experience as their teacher. For to act on one's own and not on the advice of those who have gone before us is overweening presumption - or, rather, it engenders such presumption. If the Son does nothing of His own accord, but does only what the Father has taught Him (cf John 5:19-20), and the Spirit will not speak of His own accord (cf. John 16:3), who can think he has attained such heights of virtue that he does not need anyone to initiate him into the mysteries? Such a person is deluded and out of his mind rather than virtuous. One should therefore listen, to those who have experienced the hardships involved in cultivating the virtues and should cultivate them as they have - that is to say, by severe fasting, painful self-control, steadfast vigils, laborious genuflexions, assiduous standing motionless, constant prayer, unfeigned humility, ceaseless contrition and compunctive sorrow, eloquent silence, as if seasoned with salt (cf. Col. 4:6), and by patience in all things. You must not be always relaxing or pray sitting down, before it is the proper time to do so, or before age or sickness compels you. For, as Scripture says, 'You will nourish yourself on the hardships of your practice of the virtues' (cf. Ps. 128:2. LXX); and, 'The kingdom of heaven is entered forcibly' (Matt. I 1:12). Hence those who diligently strive day by day to practice the virtues that we have mentioned will with God's help gather in the harvest at the appropriate time.