Saturday, April 20, 2013

Movements of the Spirit

Lately as my spiritual reading I have been reading a lovely work entitled The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life. I cannot recommend this work highly enough. It is a collection of short (ca. 5 pages) passages from the great mystics of the Syriac tradition - for those who don't know the Syriac tradition embraces the Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara and Maronite traditions among others. I love the fact that this book, like The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, is also simply a collection of short passages. That makes it possible to read an inspiring piece of advice from a great saint in the morning or evening and then carry that advice with you for the rest of the day.

Contained in this collection is a passage from the writings of Evagrius. Although never canonized, Evagrius is probably the most influential spiritual author in the Eastern and Oriental traditions. Recognized for his brilliance, his works are studied by almost the entire East and Orient alike: Greek, Syriac, Coptic, Slavic, Assyrian, etc. You name it. The passage contained in The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life I found particularly interesting. Although Evagrius himself wrote in Greek, this passage survived only in a Syriac translation - many Evagrius' more speculative theological works were later condemned by the Church and the Greek editions were subsequently destroyed.

The particular passage translated in this lovely book contains many gems of advice, but there was one in particular that struck me. Evagrius says that while we are praying, should we be inspired by some insight from the Holy Spirit, or should the Spirit move our mind to some beneficial thought, we should cease our prayer and focus on the movement of the Spirit. He says that this is more beneficial to our souls than plodding through our prayers for the sake of finishing an allotted number of prayers.

I found this advice particularly interesting because I have read the same piece of advice from almost every great mystic across the traditions of the East and West. St. Teresa of Avila, St. Theophan the Recluse, St. John of the Cross, etc., etc., etc. all say that when we are at prayer or spiritual reading we need to be attentive to these movements of the Spirit. This was one of the reasons St. Theophan recommends allotting a certain amount of time to prayer rather than a certain number of prayers to say. Often when we are at prayer, a word or a phrase catches us, it grips our hearts, and we are led into deeper spiritual insights. Were we to ignore these movements then it is the same as telling God that what we have to say to Him is more important than what He has to say to us. It also stops us from really assimilating the prayer, its content and meaning, into our hearts and making the prayer our own.

The only exception I've seen given to this rule is while one is praying the Liturgy of the Hours. St. Teresa of Avila, if memory serves me correctly, pointed out that when such a movement strikes our hearts during the celebration of the Hours, we ought not to pause over it for fear of disrupting the movement of the prayers. Rather, we ought to make a mental note of the word, phrase, or prayer that struck us, and then go back later on and reflect further on that prayer.

For me personally, this advice from the saints is very difficult to implement both in my prayer time and in my spiritual reading. When praying I want to get through all my prayers before my time is up. And I have so many books that I want to read that should I stop to reflect on every passage that struck a cord in my heart, I would never make it to the end of a single book. But this is one of the most common and profound ways in which the Holy Spirit speaks to us through the prayers of the Church and the writings of the saints. Great patience is needed; patience and the ability to shut up and listen (something that I struggle with). May God grant us all the grace of being attuned to the movements of the Spirit in our hearts during our times of prayer and spiritual reading.


1 comment:

  1. Evagrius was canonized by the Armenians, if memory serves.