Aug 03 2013

Part 14: The Aim and Means of Orthodox Spirituality: 2- The Way of Orthodox Spirituality (contn3)

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Dr. Nos’hi Abdel-Shaheed

Part Fourteen


The Aim and Means of Orthodox Spirituality (contd.)


(2) The Way of Orthodox Spirituality (contd.)

C- Prayer and Contemplation:

Prayer is the main activity in Orthodox Spirituality, and is simply the experience of being in the presence of God.  And as St. Basil the Great said, it is the adherence to God in all the moments and incidences of life.  In the Tradition of Orthodox Spirituality, prayer is considered a necessary instrument of salvation; and as is well known, prayer is the foundation of all the different aspects of Christian life and its activities, especially in church services and individual worship.

Levels of prayer:

The desert fathers distinguished three degrees of Christian prayer:

1-supplication (for oneself)

2-intersession (for others)

3-thanksgiving or praise

These three degrees of prayer constitute in themselves a whole program of spiritual life. It matters little whether prayer is vocal or mental; the most loving prayer, either vocal or mental, is always the best.  What really matters is that prayer should be full of love and sincerity to The Lord; so that whether prayer was vocal or mental, being extended with love makes it best.


In contrast with prayer, contemplation is not necessary for salvation.  But, as a general rule, true and constant fervent prayer becomes contemplative.

What is contemplation?  Contemplation is not synonymous with high intellectual speculations or extraordinary insight, which are the property of certain rare and specifically chosen souls.  According to the classics of spiritual life, contemplation begins with the “prayer of simplicity” or “prayer of simple regard”.

The prayer of simplicity consists in placing yourself in the presence of God and maintaining yourself in His presence for a certain time in an interior silence which is as complete as possible, while you concentrate upon the divine Object, reduce to unity the multiplicity of your thought and feelings and endeavor to keep yourself quiet without words or argument.  This prayer of simplicity is the frontier and the most elementary degree of contemplation.  It is not difficult. Anyone who is even to a slight degree accustomed to pray is sure to have experienced this form of contemplation, for a few minutes at least.  For those who have experienced this prayer it is fruitful and marvelously joyful and is like a shower of rain falling on the garden of the soul.  It gives most powerful assistance to the efforts which we make in the moral order to avoid sin and accomplish the divine will.

It is good to make acts of contemplation.  But to live a contemplative life is better still.  We must not imagine that the contemplative life means a life in which one does nothing but contemplate.  Were that so, the contemplative life would be possible only in the desert or cloister, while it is, as a matter of fact, open to all.

Life of contemplation is simply life directed towards contemplation, a life organized in a certain way so that works of contemplation are fairly often possible in it, not too many times, but at least few times, and they form the summit of this life.  If you give a few minutes every day to the prayer of simplicity; if you can seclude your inner self to a certain degree from other people and other things, so that you can go to your inner soul and not allow other people or other things to dominate you; and if, in your thinking and your reading, you bring with you a certain preoccupation with God and attentiveness to His presence, you are already beginning to lead the contemplative life, even if you are still in the world and not in the desert.

Contemplation is described as “acquired” if acts of contemplation are the result of personal effort.  It is “infused” or “granted”, if the acts of contemplation are produced by divine grace without, or almost without, human effort.  Acquired contemplation belongs to the ascetical life.  Infused contemplation belongs to the mystical life.  This last one is the normal culmination of the contemplative life.1

There are many forms and stages of contemplative life in the Eastern Fathers:

The “prayer of simple regard“, the “prayer of quiet“, and “full union” are degrees of “hesychia2 (or peacefulness), which is, in one form or another; the introduction to the Eastern Fathers’ contemplation.  Above the hesychia comes the “ecstatic union“, of which instances are found in the new testament3 and which are described exactly by the desert Fathers and by St. Dionysius The Areopagite  (in their theory of the ekstasis and of the circular movement, kyklike kinesis, bringing the soul back to God).  But what is called in the Western spirituality “the transforming union“, or the “spiritual marriage“, we find it described by Eastern Fathers who conceive spiritual life as a deification (theosis) and those who lay stress on nuptial (i.e. of marriage) relation between the soul and her Lord (like Origen and Methodius the bishop of Olympus in the third century).

In addition to those stages or degrees, there is an unnoticed transition or an uninterrupted chain of middle stages that connect those states together.  Thus it happens, in Orthodox practice that the name of Jesus (which is truly the essence of “Jesus prayer” and its strength 4), may be used not only as a starting point in the contemplative life, but also in continuous support of mystical states from hesychia to ekstasis.

What was said about mystical life must also be said about contemplative life.  They are not the privilege of certain exceptional souls.  Although it is completely true that monastic life provides specially favorable conditions for practicing contemplation, but it is also true that it is open and available to everyone.  Marriage, family life, a profession or a trade does not exclude in any way the ability for contemplative prayer and mystical graces.  An outer situation, whatever may be the distraction it causes, will never in itself prevent the ability of contemplative prayer.  It is well known that the medical profession may require concentration on worldly cares more than many other professions.  But, despite that, the book of “Sayings of the Desert Fathers” tells us about a physician in Alexandria who was spiritually equal to St. Anthony who was the greatest of the Christian ascetics: “Abba Anthony of the desert was informed that, in the city, there is one that is as him, and is a  physician who gives the needy everything that he can give; and he daily praises God saying the thrice holy hymn (i.e. holy, holy, holy) with the angels.5

Conversely, the contemplative or the mystic is a very special source of overflowing blessing for the environment where he lives.  Leaving aside some of the more elevated mystical states like ecstasy and the spiritual marriage, we can say that prayer of simplicity and the spiritual stages following it like the quiet prayer and non-ecstatic union prayer – we would, according to the Eastern terminology, rather say, the “initial hysichast states” – are the normal end of any habitual and loving prayer-life that has as its object the keeping of the Savior’s teachings; and is accompanied by faithfulness to them.   Contemplation is often the best means of becoming faithful to those teachings.  For contemplation increases love, and love makes us able to keep the commandments.  Therefore we can move from love to the keeping of the commandments, but the converse is hardly possible.

We must say and repeat many times, that we should not consider contemplation equal to perfection because perfection is charity (love).  But contemplation which would be the utmost exercise of love, would also be the acme of perfection.  Such a contemplation would constitute a goal to which it would indeed be worth subordinating all human life.

(This ends Chapter 2 of the Book)



To meditate on the Cross, making peace between earth and heaven


(To be continued)

Saint Mark’s Orthodox Fellowship urges you to study the Bible and encourage others to do the same. Please feel free to make copies of these notes to distribute them. The Fellowship welcomes any questions, comments or additional references, whether for publication in these “Short Notes” or in private correspond­ence. Write to us:
PO Box 6192, Columbia, MD 21045


  1. For more details see “Orthodox Prayer Life” by Fr. Matthew the Poor, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, NY, USA.
  2. A Greek word that means quietness or peace.
  3. See for example Acts 10:10, 11:5, and 22:17.
  4. See “The Way of a Pilgrim”, a classic of Orthodox spirituality in the form of a story of a Russian hermit, and “The Jesus Prayer” by a monk of the Eastern Church. Both books are available from Light and Life Publishing Co., MN, USA.
  5. A. P, alphabetical collection, Antony 24. See “Orthodox Worship and Constant Prayer” by Bishop Kallistos Ware, translated by Dr. Noshi Abd El Shahid in the article “constant prayer”, p. 39, published by The Center for Patristic Studies”, March 2005 (Arabic).

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