When life becomes prayer:
and prayer becomes life
“The most beautiful and the greatest learning” says St. Clement, “is to know oneself; for whoever knows their self knows God; and if they know God, they will become like Him.”
The doctrine of being created in the image of God, means that our deepest “me” – the very ground of our identity – is a point of direct union and oneness with God.
Urging us to discover the extraordinary truth of who we are, St. Isaac the Syrian advises:
“Be at peace with your own mind; then heaven and earth will be at peace with you. Enter eagerly into the treasure house that is within you, and so you will see the things that are in heaven; for there is but one single entry to them both. The ladder that leads to the kingdom is hidden within your mind.”
We come to know God through coming to know ourselves. And all that obscures this knowledge is our preoccupation with the activity of thinking mind and the content of our moment-to-moment experience.
Learning to “be at peace with your own mind,” to form a new relationship with its activity and the content of experience, is the work of meditation, the way of silent prayer.
As we learn to look beyond this activity and content, we come to see where it all happens and enter “the treasure house” of awareness.
It’s very traditional in Christianity to speak of three degrees or levels of prayer.
We begin with prayer of the lips, oral prayer.
Next, comes prayer of the mind.
You will recognise this more inward way of prayer in our simple practice of meditation. The repetition of a prayer word in tandem with the flow our breath is combined with the energy of attention. “Contain your mind within the words of prayer” says St. John Climacus. Body and mind are brought together.
The final level of prayer is traditionally spoken of as “prayer of the heart” or “prayer of the mind in the heart” and is entirely a matter of grace. By “heart” is meant our deep centre, the ground of our being where God ceaselessly flows into us as the life of our life, our “deepest me.”
At this level of prayer, the thinking mind becomes so still that it forgets itself. When this happens, we are not consciously engaged in any activity called prayer. Forgetting itself, mind relaxes, opens and falls away. Prayer of the mind has blossomed into a spacious openness to life, a way of being. We have become prayer.
Just as a wave arises from and appears on the ocean, so thinking mind arises from and appears within the ocean of awareness.
Just as a wave relaxes back into the ocean from which it arose, the thinking mind that has been brought to stillness relaxes back into the ocean of awareness from which it arose.
Temporarily relieved of its activity, mind comes back to the heart-of-mind, to awareness. Prayer and life, life and prayer melt into one act, one harmonious flow. “When the intellect is no longer dissipated among external things or dispersed across the world through the senses,” writes St. Basil the Great, “it returns to itself; and by means of itself it ascends to the thought [knowledge] of God.”
Our meditation, our prayer, stops being “ours.” We are taken into the silent life of God, the life of all life.
Most if not all of us will have experienced moments when our thinking mind relaxed and fell away. There is nothing magic or esoteric about this. We are designed for it.
It might have been when we looked into the eyes of someone we adore, or received an unexpected kiss. It might have happened when we were lost in a piece of music – or in the moment of silence after the final note. Perhaps it happened when we were weeding the garden or lying in a warm bath after a tiring day.
This falling away of the mind in daily life (which happens more frequently than we might imagine) goes largely unnoticed and unrecognised. It is simply enjoyed. If we do notice, it is often recognised as the experience of peace, of connectedness and wholeness.
To know oneself is most beautiful and the greatest learning.
The twentieth century Trappist monk Thomas Merton used these radiant words to describe what we will know:
“At the centre of our being is a point…of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God…which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point…is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak his name written in us… It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it, we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely…The gate of heaven is everywhere.”
 St Clement of Alexandria, The Pedagogue III, 1 (1,1).
 St Isaac the Syrian, Ascetical Homilies 2, tr. Holy Transfiguration Monastery, p. 11 (translation altered slightly).
 Though we must remember that all progression in the spiritual life is essentially unchartable and beyond our sight, and we should be careful not to become preoccupied with our spiritual progress.
 St Basil, Letter 2, tr. Deferrari, pp. 12-14.
 Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Image Books, Doubleday, New York, 1968), p. 158.