What did Saint Symeon the New Theologian mean by praying in the Face of God to achieve freedom of all cares and passions?
Saint Symeon the New Theologian taught us about a prayer of purity, that only very few could attain. To the saint, only if our minds are free from everything, can we have the heart to examine the lures of the evil one, and then to repel these illusory temptations.
To put it in perspective, if we are praying and our heart wanders into thinking what God might grant us in terms of spiritual capabilities, the devil seizes this impure thought, and presents us with the possibilities of a deceptive “attainment”. And if we are praying the Jesus Prayer and our mind begins to sink into the passions of the material world, the devil also senses that and quickly presents us with the deception that if we pray to God, our material needs will be fulfilled; when in fact, it will be the devil who will transplant God’s presence due to our own passions, and begin to seduce us to simply sinking into material passions. Imagine if we are to die this minute and meet God’s Face, would our thoughts be pure from sin, our love only upon God and His creation? Or are our minds defiled with lots of distracting thoughts of passions that has no place in front of God?
Therefore, Saint Symeon was very clear, our minds must be free from ALL thoughts, other than the simple devoted prayer of the heart, so that our mind can guard our hearts, and we will receive the grace and mercy of God, to be able to discern, and act against the deception of the devil (St Matthew 17:4).
Often, when we visit a neighborhood food center, we have to be lenient when ordering and eating food there. This is because all too frequent, the utensils and plates are not clean. However, the economy and convenience of eating at these places far outweigh the labor of cooking our own, or the price tags of more expensive (and sometimes cleaner) environments. Therefore, it is the same with us. We not only clean ourselves on the outside, to look presentable to others, but we should also tend to our hearts through our minds, to keep our hearts loving and pure (St Matthew 23:26).
Saint Symeon mentioned 3 important things: (1) freedom from all cares, (2) a clear conscience, and (3) total dispassion.
What is freedom from all cares? This is a pristine state of condition that we are free from caring for the good and the bad, or what the Fathers called, “dead to all things”. This means that while many of us would consider freeing our beings from bad things, we tend to gravitate to good things. Remember, the evil one is strong and cunning, and can take our passion for good things against us. If we have desire of good things, the devil will deceive us by drawing us closer and closer to the slavery of such “good things”. Whether good or bad, many of us are stuck in this lack of freedom, because of our pride and vanity. If we examine all things without a sense of self-importance, we can quickly uncover that many things are simply a clinging on to our egos.
A clear conscience is difficult, for all of us are fallen, and we are constantly falling and getting up, falling and getting up. It is difficult for us, mere sinners, to stay in that pristine state of clear conscience. And yet, if we imagine what we do as building-sized billboards, then our sins are also these super-sized billboards, seen by all, and especially by God. Can we afford to stand in the Face of God with large ugly billboards that advertise our impurities? Therefore, we are told by our Lord to be perfect as our Father is perfect (St Matthew 5:48). We are not arrogant enough to imagine we are saints, but it is a clear instruction to us to keep our eyes of the laws of God, out of love, and not just out of posterity or fear.
Total dispassion is challenging to us because we who are in the world, deep in it, are bombarded by many stimuli. And yet, Saint Symeon advised that only with total dispassion so that our mind does not regard or behold anything, can our heart be empty enough to be filled with the prayer of the heart towards God, and God can fill us with the tranquil love that is untainted by any other defiled things.
When we attempt to regulate our breathing and pray the prayer of the heart, we will frequently be met with inner conflict, temptations, distractions, and noise. Saint Symeon also mentioned that as we pray, we may find a certain hardness or darkness of our hearts, because the evil one will be hard at work to break our prayers down. We who pray are simple bricklayers, brick by brick do we build up our house of prayer. And the devil has a bulldozer or a big sledgehammer and is hell bent to breaking our humble attempts down. Therefore, Saint Symeon said we should keep on praying, until we find an unending joy, which is a pure love for our Lord. Remember, the evil one will cause “prelest” or spiritual deception to harm you always, and so you must discern what is true joy and love, from what is a cheap imitation. All the Fathers advised that one should always keep a spiritual director close, and abide by the advice of the spiritual director when attempting inner prayer.
Saint Symeon the New Theologian described the process of unceasing prayer as one of the Name of Jesus destroying any distracting or tempting thought that comes across, returning the heart and mind into the prayer again. So my beloved, let us pray:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”