By Father Cleopa
Now, why have I told you about these prayer levels. In all, prayer has three main steps: “prayer of the mouth, prayer of the mind, and prayer of the heart”. All the other steps in between are connected to one another, just like the steps of a ladder. A perfect prayer [the person] will go through all these prayer steps, by the grace of God. It is not in man’s power to climb these steps by himself. What man has is his willingness alone. So what depends on him is to want and to pray to God to the best of his abilities; for as to becoming worthy of such higher prayers, that lies only with the divine work, which is entirely dependent upon God’s grace.
So during these prayers, the mind should unite with the heart. This is a prayer of the mind that takes place inside one’s heart – and it’s pure heart prayer. But you should know that as it descends into the heart to unite with it, the mind comes across two “toll points” – or obstacles. What are these toll points? Well, the first one is the toll of one’s imagination and the second one is the toll of reason, which stands right at the gates into one’s heart.
As it descends into the heart, the mind comes across the first toll point – the imagination. Have you noticed how sometimes when you are praying, suddenly all sorts of things come to mind – something that you imagine, or someone who has upset you, or someone who has confused your mind with some passion. And then our mind will stop there – at the toll of imagination – during prayer, on its way to the heart.
That is the first “station”. St. Nilus the Ascetic says, in the Philokaly: “Happy is the mind that has come to pray to Christ without imagination; without a ‘shape’ [to picture its object]!” Our Savior’s mind was imagination-free – all the holy theologians say it. Because He was the New Adam and He had come to restore the old Adam to his initial state – just as he had been in Paradise.
Adam, too, as created by God in Paradise, had no imagination, did not “picture” things in his mind. Satan fell because of imagining, because he wanted to be like God, as Isaiah says: For you have said in your heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. And as soon as he imagined that, God threw Lucifer down from Heaven, for having imagined that he could be like Him and having ignored that he was His creation. As God made him by His thought only and can crush him in a flash.
The same with Adam – when he fell, he did so by thinking. What did Satan tell him? You will not surely die […] and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil. And as soon as he imagined himself like God, he fell off from the grace that had been given to him and was chased out of Heaven. This is why the Holy Fathers call imagination the “bridge of demons”. No sin passes on from one’s mind to one’s feeling (heart) if man doesn’t picture it in his imagination, first.
So, during prayer, you may not imagine anything. Neither holy images, nor Christ Himself on the Holy Cross or on the Judgement Throne! Nothing. As all imagination is outside of one’s heart and if you stop to worship any of these, you won’t worship Christ.
The mind needs to descend into the heart, as the heart is the chamber (“closet”) of the mind. This is the closet that Christ talks about: But you, when you pray, enter into your closet, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father which is in secret; and your Father which sees in secret shall reward you openly. What – did you think that “closet” means a room made of wood, a house? If you take it like that, you take the literal meaning. Because the way that the Holy Fathers understand this is completely different: One needs to lock three doors, when praying: the wooden one – to keep out people; the door to your lips – to keep out words, so that you won’t talk with anyone but God; and the door of your heart – to shut off the spirits, so that you can descend your mind into the closet of your heart. For our heart is our mind’s closet.
Listen to what Holy Father Isaac the Syrian says: Man, descend thy mind into the chamber of your heart and you will have reached heaven. As that one, too, is the chamber of heaven, of the Kingdom of Heaven. But who told us that the Kingdom of Heaven is in our hearts? Christ. Didn’t He say: The Kingdom of God is within you? So there, we have the Kingdom of Heaven in our hearts! And when our mind arrives in our heart, we have reached the Kingdom of Heaven.
So on its way into the heart, during prayer, the mind comes across the two toll points: first, the toll of imagination and then, that of reason – which stands at the gate into one’s heart. A wise man will pass through both of them in no time.
While praying, the shortest rule of thumb is not to imagine anything. Imagination is of three kinds: bad, good, and holy. Do not accept any kind. Because if you stop at the imagination level, you cannot enter with your mind into your heart at the time of prayer. And at the toll-point of reason (which, again, is at the gate into one’s heart), the mind encounters more evil spirits. Let me give you an example, so you can understand better.
At the toll-point of reason, our mind is met by the theologians of darkness and the philosophers of hell and present the mind with spiritual arguments. According to St. Basil’s testimony, the specific feature of our mind is to permanently produce thoughts, good or bad. The problem isn’t what springs forth from the mind, as this “mill” will grind away whatever we pour in it. We are the ones who decide whether we should let thoughts in, or not.
Sometimes, when you pray, whether you’re on your knees or standing or sitting or a chair or a [rural house] bench – because where you’re old or ill, you can pray even while lying down, as St. Gregory the Sinaite says: “The old and the sick may lie down with their head on a pillow, if they cannot stand; they just need to pray”. God doesn’t ask man for a certain position of his body, but for a certain position of his mind and heart.
Once you start praying, you will find that before long, words start popping up into your mind – but not evil words, but words from the Scripture, like the ones of Satan when he tempted the Savior on the Mount of Carantania: Cast Thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning Thee: and in their hands they shall bear Thee up, lest at any time Thou dash Thy foot against a stone.
You see? – their job is to tempt you, based on the Scripture. That’s what they do to our mind, too, when it tries to descend into the heart, during prayer. And at the toll-point of reason, which is at the gate into the heart, you find for example words such as these come to mind: You have raised Your horses from the sea, troubling many waters; or: Sheep will miss the feeding, when the oxen are not near the manger.
What is that! – it’s from the Gospel, isn’t it? [And you start wondering:] Who are the oxen? Who are the sheep? What’s the meaning of all this? And it drives your mind straight to St. Maximus’ interpretation: the rational oxen – since oxen are “higher” than sheep, right? – are the Apostles, the Bishops, and the Priests – the counseling Church – the Hierarchs. Who are the sheep? The “listening Church”, the people. How many times hasn’t Christ called the people, sheep? talking sheep! Now, what is the manger from which oxen and sheep feed? Christ’s Church. As both the teaching Church and the listening Church take their nourishment from the Most-Pure Mysteries, from the teachings of the Holy Fathers, of the Holy Old and New Scriptures and from all the dogmas and explanatory comments on the Gospel. Where do all these things come from? From the manger that is the Church.
But what does the Holy Spirit say, here: Sheep will miss the feeding, when the oxen are not near the manger? It means that the people of Christ will be absent in the Church, when its shepherds are with it no more. Because the oxen, as higher rational creatures, are the shepherds of the Church. — So there! These are the kind of genuine and elevated arguments that come to our mind during prayer! But let me tell you, the enemy doesn’t mind it a bit when he sees you reasoning away. He couldn’t be happier! It’s a good thing that you are spinning away theological thoughts like that, while you pray!
Brothers. These things have nothing to do with praying! St. John the Chrysostom says: “When you pray, don’t theologize, because you’re only making yourself the mockery of devils!” When you pray, you must have a broken and humbled* mind, an aching heart for your sins, and humbleness. That mystery pertains to God, Who is the Spring of rational minds in Heaven and earth.
So – when you pray, it is not allowed to even think theological thoughts. Because entertaining spiritual considerations at the time of prayer – even if they were from the Holy Scriptures – isn’t prayer, but theological discussion. In other words, we think something about the words of the Scripture. Since this toll-point stands at the gate to one’s heart, you are not to utter even one word of the Scripture, during prayer. Rather, what you are to do is to descend into your heart with a prayer that is made of one thought only. That is, thinking only about the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
So, it will be with this thought only that we will descend into our heart, by saying this: Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. You have no business doing that while accompanying it with any other kind of thought. As I was saying earlier about the toll-point of imagination (that no imagery, no matter how holy, resides in one’s heart, but outside it and will “pull” our mind out of the heart, too), the same applies for these kinds of thoughts.
Because [again,] the aim of the devil – also called the theologian of darkness and philosopher of hell, is to give our mind theological stuff to reason/think about. He will bring up the whole Scripture, during prayer, if you wish! – as he is a very old theologian in the trade indeed! and knows it by heart. Everything, to prevent you from praying! He knows that prayer will burn him.