The Three Methods of Prayer

In her talk to the Norwich Contemplative Forum, Cynthia Bourgeault quoted from The Three Methods of Prayer of St Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), which is included in the Philokalia (a compilation of the work of the Desert Fathers). One online tranlsation calls it The Three Ways of Attention and Prayer, a key difference. I don’t know what the Greek says, or even whether the essay has a title in Greek.

In this essay St Symeon talks about the dangers of spiritual practice. In the preface, the editors write:

The central theme in The Three Methods is the need to guard the heart. The first two methods of prayer described by the author are in his view defective, and indeed potentially dangerous, precisely because they neglect the need for such guarding. It should always be remembered that when the word heart is used in this and many other texts, it signifies not merely the emotions and affections but the spiritual centre of the person of the human person viewed as a unified whole, the heart, as the author states here, is where all the powers of the soul reside.

Philokalia IV, pp64-66

The Three Methods of Prayer

There are three methods of prayer and attentiveness, by which the soul is either lifted up or cast down.
Whoever applies these methods at the right time is uplifted, but whoever employs them foolishly or at the wrong time is cast down.

Immediately St Symeon points out that prayer is closely related to attentiveness – something we have forgotten in the West. His second line calls to mind the Hermetic maxim: For the right man, the wrong methods work in the right way: for the wrong man, the right methods work in the wrong way.

Vigilance and prayer should be as closely linked together as the body to the soul, for the one cannot stand without the other. Vigilance first goes on ahead like a scout and engages sin in combat. Prayer then follows afterwards, and instantly destroys and exterminates all the evil thoughts which which vigilance has already been battling, for attentiveness alone cannot exterminate them.

Here I take the joining of attentiveness (vigilance) and prayer of which St Symeon speaks to be nothing less than the joining of human and divine powers (grace). With our own human power, we are to still the mind. But this alone cannot accomplish what needs to be done. We need also the help of God, and this is accomplished by adding prayer to attentiveness.

This, then, is the gate of life and death.

The First Method of Prayer

The distinctive features of the first method of prayer are these. When a person stands at prayer, he raises hands, eyes and intellect heavenwards, and fills his intellect with divine thoughts, with images of celestial beauty, of the angelic hosts, of the abodes of the righteous. In brief, at the time of prayer he assembles in his intellect all that he has heard from Holy Scripture and so rouses his soul to divine longing as he gazes toward heaven, and sometime sheds tears.

The first way is the way of imagination.

But when someone prays in this way, without him realizing it his heart grows proud and exalted, and he regards what is happening to him as the effect of divine grace and entreats God to allow him always to be engaged in such activity. Such assumptions are signs of delusion.

We become deluded – unable to distinguish fantasy from reality – and addicted to spiritual phenomena; something that buddhist schools have often pointed out. At best, we make no progress, and at worst descend into madness.

The Second Method of Prayer

The second form of prayer is this. A person withdraws his intellect from sensory things and concentrates it in himself, guards his senses, and collects all his thoughts; and he advances oblivious of the vanities of this world. Sometimes he examines his thoughts, sometimes pays attention to the words of the prayer he addresses to God, and sometimes drags back his thoughts when they have been taken captive; and when he is overcome by passion he forcefully strives to recover himself.

Doesn’t this sound like so much of what we understand as the spiritual path?

One who strives in this way, however, can never be at peace or win the crown of victory. He is like a person fighting at night… he cannot escape his noetic enemies, but is worn out by them. For all his efforts, he gains nothing.

Such are the characteristics of the second method of prayer, and everyone striving after salvation can see what harm it does. Yet this second method is better than the first, just as a moonlit night is better than a night which is pitch-dark and starless.

The second method depends only on our human faculties. As Dostoevsky says, we cannot save ourselves from the world by sheer effort. Even if it succeeds in stilling the mind, it fails as a method of prayer.

The Third Method of Prayer

The third method is the prayer of the Heart.

Above all else you should strive to acquire three things, and so begin to attain what you seek.

The first is freedom from anxiety with respect to everything, whether reasonable or senseless – in other words, you should be dead to everything.

Secondly, you should strive to preserve a pure conscience, so that it has nothing to reproach you with.

Thirdly, you should be completely detached, so that your thoughts incline towards nothing worldly, not even your own body.

Then sit down in a quiet cell, in a corner by yourself, and do what I tell you. Close the door, and and withdraw your intellect from everything worthless and transient. Rest your beard on your chest, and focus your gaze, together with the whole of your intellect, upon the centre of your belly or your navel. Restrain the drawing in of breath through your nostrils, so as not to breathe easily, and search inside yourself with your intellect so as to find the place of the heart, where all the powers of the soul reside. To start with, you will find there darkness and as impenetrable density. Later, when you persist and practice this task day and night, you will find, as though miraculously, an unceasing joy. For as soon as the intellect attains the place of the heart it beholds itself entirely luminous and full of discrimination. From then on, from whatever side a distractive thought may appear, before it has come to completion and assumed a form, the intellect immediately drives it away and destroys it with the invocation of Jesus Christ. From this point onwards the intellect begins to be full of rancor against the demons and, arousing its natural anger against its noetic enemies, it pursues them and strikes them down. The rest you will learn for yourself, with God’s help, by keeping guarding over your intellect and by retaining Jesus in your heart. As the saying goes, Sit in your cell and it will teach you everything.

Philokalia IV, pp72-73

Note the instruction to place the beard on the chest. This means releasing the neck and the jaw – something we have spoken about earlier in relation to the door of speech.

These texts come from Volume IV of the Faber & Faber translation of the Philokalia. You can see it on Google Books.


~ by scalambra on September 19, 2011.

One Response to “The Three Methods of Prayer”

  1. Lots of useful links and thoughts in this post ! Have always rated the Philokalia as a valuable theological source. Thanks.

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