The Relationship between Prayer and Theology

What is prayer? In simple terms, it is talking to God and listening to Him. It may be spoken, it may be sung, it may be celebrated in ritual. But always at the base of it is the silence of a repentant heart. If that is not there it is not prayer. The lips may speak, but the heart does not. God may speak and does speak in the hymnography and prayers of the Fathers, and eminently in the Holy Scriptures; or in the simple, silent prayer of someone saying the Jesus Prayer or performing some podvig or ascetical exercise. But if that ground, that base of silence is not there, the heart does not hear God.

Now, what is theology? In simple terms, again, it is saying, articulating in words, what we have heard God say to us. It is nothing else than that. If it is anything else than that, it is not theology. To put it to modern scientific terms, it is inductive reasoning: we experience the phenomenon and we make our "report. Neither the real scientist nor the real theologian speculates about something he has not seen for himself.

When prayer and theology are separated from each other, both go wrong. Prayer separated from theology wanders into an excessive subjectivism or an undisciplined emotionality that deludes the soul and leads it into prelest or spiritual delusion of some form. We see this in many of the more "free-spiritual" forms of non-conformist Protestantism or in the "charismatic" movement still active across the broad spectrum of contemporary Christianity.

Theology separated from prayer begets rationalistic "systems" that never penetrate to the "mind of the heart", the nous as the Fathers call it, that centre of awareness and of knowing that operate only in the silence of the heart. Rationalism blocks out that noetic knowledge with a kind of mental static so that such theologians can't hear what's coming in at that level. As a result, they drift off into heresies of one sort or another: false distinctions between nature and grace, grace and free will, predestination, and various dilemmas that the rational mind, unaided by the nous (the mind of the heart) creates for itself. These are the "theologies" which the medieval Western scholastics, and later, Calvin and Luther and the 16th and 17th century Jesuit theologians, spun out for themselves.

What happens when prayer and theology are united? You then have a theology of the heart and a prayer of the mind. This union can take place very simply in a soul that does no more than say the Jesus Prayer or stay faithful to some ascetical podvig all his or her life. Such people are "taught by God." They have an instinctual sense of the Faith and a knowledge of things that can only come from the Holy Spirit. This noetic knowledge, i.e. knowledge experienced by the nous, is what makes the difference between Orthodox and Catholic theology.

Medieval Western Scholasticism worked along a set of logical deductions made from the basic dogmatic principles of the Faith -- as they understood the Faith. Even an infidel could be a theologian- so they thought -- if he was willing to play this intellectual game with Christian dogma. So completely did theology become separated from prayer.

Orthodox theology -- when it is being true to itself -- is based on phenomena (as we have pointed out), Divine phenomena which the theologian saint himself observes. It's not deductive reasoning but inductive, far more akin to the discipline of modern science than to the reasonings of the medieval Western mind. To be a theologian one doesn't have to be a saint, though that undoubtedly helps. But one has to have the simple, humble mind of someone "taught by God." The "teaching by God" is the only real theology there is. It has to issue from prayer. That's an essential condition for true theology. This is not to say that theology is non-intellectual or, worse yet, anti-intellectual. Your theologian saint is a theologian as well as a saint. What we are saying is that he intellect must be steadied and guided by the nous, or we have the aberration already mentioned.

Now, Orthodoxy possesses a fantastically successful combination of prayer and theology in the Daily Cycle of its services. This is a vast and beautiful -- aesthetically and spiritually-- river of prayer that flows continually from one end of the year to the other and beyond, until Christ comes again. It is high prayer, and it is the Orthodox Church's catechesis. The heart and mind that immerses itself in this river acquires the Orthodox Phronema, the mind-set. It is this that keeps us from heresy. It is this that keeps us alive, for heresy is a sickness of the mind that can kill the soul. A Russian starets of the 19th century said: "Even an innocent soul will be corrupted if it accepts a falsehood."

When I began my solitary life 28 years ago as a Greek Catholic Uniate, I resolved to celebrate the Services daily. It was the services that led me to Orthodoxy. My gradual realization, over the years, was that Roman Catholicism and Eastern Christians speak two different languages. Despite the extreme self-assurance of Catholics about their own theology, it has some strange blank spots in it that they don't notice. I was beginning see more and more of these, and I was troubled by them. Finally I realized, as clearly as 2+2=4, that the root of the problem is their flawed theology of the Holy Trinity. And I didn't get this from reading Lossky, et al. I got it from singing my way through the Octoechos, Triodion and Pentecostarion. I got it by having the reality of Christ's resurrection drilled into my soul by reading of it Sunday after Sunday at Matins, then bringing the Gospel book out of the altar on to the analoy and kissing it and singing "Voskresenie Christovo vydivše" -- "Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ." That is what brought me back to Holy Orthodoxy, along with the kind offices of Fr. Maxym Lysack, Fr. Joseph Lee (formerly of our diocese) and Vladika Nicholas.

Unfortunately, we North American Orthodox of today have a problem with all this, in that we have diminished the number and quality of the services offered in our churches. The primary service that is offered in parishes today is the Diving Liturgy. However, the bulk of our catechesis is in Vespers and Matins, not in the Divine Liturgy, as it is in the Roman Catholic Church. Even in parishes where Vespers and Matins are served, the majority of the faithful have fallen out of the habit of attending these services. Some have the wrong idea that these `extra' services are only for monastics. Others have rationalized away these extra services as a mere attempt to re-live Old Russia. Or some people may see these extra services as gathering points for a holier-than-thou clique, which could lead to a divided parish. Perhaps these are sometimes the motivation behind having fuller services. But there can be a more genuine motivation: simply the desire to pray the prayer of the Church and to acquire Her mind. Unfortunately we are seeing the loss of an Orthodox phronema here in America, the loss of an Orthodox way of thinking. Such a loss will ultimately lead to the loss of our reason to exist. We need more prayers not less prayers. The society in which we live is a battleground in which we are struggling against demonic forces -- principalities and powers.

What is the solution to our problem? I do not have one. It's up to you who know the scene, the market place, the feel and the potential of your own parishes. The Western Church has always tried to "adapt" to the contemporary culture. Historically, Orthodoxy has never attempted to "adapt" to any culture. It is a culture itself, and that is why it has survived so many cataclysmic tribulations that the West has been spared. But the West is sick unto death and Orthodoxy will sicken with it if it loses its culture. Krushchev's remark, "We will bury you", is prophetic. He saw our sickness in the 1960's, and the illness has advanced even more since then. The West is dying and its end will be violent. Many innocent bystanders-- including us- will suffer from its violence. But where Orthodoxy has preserved its reason for existence, we will survive.


Presented as a Spiritual Reflection at The Priest's Synod
of The American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese of the U.S.A.

May 9, 2000