08. From St Gregory
Have we become Christians only in name? Saint Gregory of Sinai teaches us how to be active and living in Christ.
For some, Holy Baptism becomes the beginning, and the end, a mere “badge” of a Christian living without walking in the ways of Christ. In the Philokalia, Saint Gregory of Sinai gave us his thoughts on how to avoid being such a Christian, but to act and live according to how Christ have commanded, and how He lived.
Saint Gregory mentioned that after our Holy Baptism and Chrismation, we should maintain a conversation with our Lord Jesus Christ. What is this conversation? Is it simply asking for favors from God? No. Saint Gregory mentioned this conversation as the pure prayer of the heart. What is pure prayer of the heart? It is a simple heart with no desire other than loving God, without expecting anything from God, but pleading simply for His mercy.
We should also, according to Saint Gregory, keep the laws of God diligently (St Matthew 4:17). Keeping the laws of God should not be a carnal passion of self-torture. It should be a joyous keeping of His laws because it will open our eyes and hearts to sensing His gifts to us better and better, and to be closer and closer to Him. God is purity, and in our defiled state it is impossible for us to draw near to Him, much less be near Him. Therefore, the more we keep to His laws with a pure and joyous heart, the closer we can walk to Him without getting blown away by His sheer brilliance and power.
Saint Gregory mentioned that on top of keeping God’s laws, the second, and more powerful method, is to invoke unceasingly, the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. The more we attend to prayer, the more the prayer displaces our passions, akin to filling up our cup with vintage wine of God’s salvation, than the filth from the drains due to our passions. The prayer, when prayed with a pure heart, also calls on the comfort of the Holy Spirit, which helps us draw our active mind into the heart, and stills it. Saint Gregory mentioned that the more we pray the Jesus Prayer, the more the prayer will warm and ignite our hearts to love our Lord even more.
Next, Saint Gregory gave recommendations to praying the Jesus Prayer. He recommended a very low stool to sit on, and breathing naturally to aid our easily distracted mind, and say, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. Saint Gregory also mentioned that when thoughts arise, we are to ignore them whether they are good and bad.
This in itself is both an encouragement for us to tend to praying the Jesus Prayer, as well as a description of what the fruits of pure and orthodox prayer should be – that of growing a pure and simple love for our Lord. Do not be persuaded by any other sign other than a pure heart of loving our Lord. Even if signs should arise, return to the prayer of the heart.
But, alas, we are no saints, and we are easily distracted by aches from sitting on the stool for too long (or even a short while). Saint Gregory asked us then, if pains and distractions become too much, to stand up and chant the Psalms or a passage from the Holy Bible, or even tend to an uncommon chore or work. However, Saint Gregory warned us against reading books in conflict with the inner prayer, because our minds are active and will be distracted. For example, if we are praying the Jesus Prayer, we may not want to read complex books related to our profession or trade, or distracting magazines on secular and material issues.
Saint Gregory asked us not to abandon prayer books. Some people might imagine just praying the Jesus Prayer is sufficient. No extreme is good. Everything should be done in moderation. Saint Gregory mentioned prayer books, the Holy Bible and writings of the Holy Fathers, as means to strengthen us during moments of weakness.
A very important thing Saint Gregory warned us to guard against is “prelest”, or spiritual deception of the evil one (Revelation 12:9). As we have frequently read or heard before, the devil is full of deceit and hatred. The closer we attempt to draw near to God, the harsher and more determined he will be to destroy us and our nascent faith. How does prelest arise? It is when we attempt to pray beyond our capabilities, and even beyond what grace and mercy we deserve, the devil may present spiritual signs to us to trick us into believing we are at that special place of the inner prayer of the heart. Often, it is far from it. Therefore, the Jesus Prayer serves two great purposes, (1) calling on the miraculous power and infinite strength of Jesus Christ our Lord and Redeemer, and (2) more importantly, confessing our terribly fallen state as a sinner. Nothing weakens the devil more than our pure and true confession of our sins (2 Ezra 10). Saint Gregory calls this state “joyful sorrow”, because we have found the joy of the Lord through invoking His name and bringing our mind into our heart, and we are sorrowful because we recognize our fallen condition. But, our Lord gave us solace and comfort, and told us to have courage, because He is with us all of the days.
I find praying the Jesus Prayer a great comfort throughout the day in between moments of time: At work, during meals, walking, in a vehicle, in the washroom, almost anywhere where I can turn inwards (even during a boring meeting). And I keep praying the Daily Rule, and tend to other prayers as much as I can as a servant still in the world. Let us pray:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”