“Any conversation held secretly – inwardly – and any consideration of a positive attitude about God, as well as any reflection on the spiritual” (Definition of prayer by St. Isaac Syrian, quoted in “The Byzantine Ascetic and Spiritual Fathers”, Georges Florovsky, Vol X, p. 234)
What is prayer? St. Isaac, an expert instructor, offers a broad definition: “Any conversation” [with God] that is secret, inward and positive, and any “reflection on the spiritual.” To be a true conversation, it has to include the Other. It’s not a prayer if it’s a monologue, when the one praying is not listening for a response. At first reading it may appear that the sacred saint includes just about anything one thinks of as praying. For all its faults, America is still a nation filled with believers. Public prayer is being challenged, but private prayer is possible, and man will “say a little prayer” for others and self. By secretly, he means intimate, heart-felt and deeply meaningful. Inwardly insists that the words framed in the mind sink into the soul through the heart. Regardless of the determination by government, media and public education to marginalize believers and drive away religion from the arena of society in our nation, human beings made in God’s image feel the Holy Spirit within them that cries out from their souls the awareness of the Lord’s presence. We are not whole until we are in touch with the living God within our souls.
When that God-awareness happens and the light of the Spirit illumines the mind, the reaction is one of awe, followed by repentance. Why had I not seen it before, the person wonders. Have I been wandering in the darkness of ignorance and did not know it? O Lord, I’m so sorry – says the conscience to the mind. Repentance is a precious gift, the beginning of the journey of the soul to the Lord. Like the Hebrews leaving Egypt, repentance is an exodus from the former attitude to society and self. The penitent is not sure where he or she is going, not even the direction – except that it is a constant putting behind of the old attitudes, freeing up the mind and will for what happens next. The process is a change, and the journey an adventure towards self-discovery by the Holy Spirit of God’s glory. Some signs that affirm the sense that we are in touch with the living God: a) the joy of freedom, a liberation from entanglements of passion, obsession, depression and anger towards self and others; b) a positive attitude, knowing that all is well, and all will be well; “any consideration of a positive attitude about God,” which stands to reason, because a negative attitude contradicts the meaning of prayer; c) seeing the goodness in others.
Purification follows repentance as a natural sequence. One lightens the load of passions and old ways of thinking. One cleanses the body by fasting, the mind by reading the sacred writings and the soul by prayer. The eye looks out at the world with a new, cleaner vision. The world comes into focus, and the mind sorts out what before had been murky and foggy images, but now is clearly good or evil, true or false, helpful or harmful to the struggle towards union with God in Christ Jesus. We realize how we had been deceived and led into blind alleys and dead ends of life, not thinking much of it at the time. The crossroads on life’s journey are not arbitrary. There is only one right way that leads to paradise.
Silent inner prayer is part of that process of salvation from the initial enlightenment into repentance, through purification and on to the third stage of the journey, which is perfection, described by St. Isaac as the “silence of the mind.” Even there prayer never ceases but continues in a new form, the awareness of being in the presence of the Lord.