What we must start with, if we wish to pray, is the certainty that we are sinners in need of salvation, that we are cut off from God and that we cannot live without Him and that all we can offer God is our desperate longing to be made such that God will receive us, receive us in repentance, receive us with mercy and with love. And so from the outset prayer is really our humble ascent towards God, a moment when we turn Godwards, shy of coming near, knowing that if we meet Him too soon, before His grace has had time to help us to be capable of meeting Him, it will be judgment. And all we can do is to turn to Him with all the reverence, all the veneration, the worshipful adoration, the fear of God of which we are capable, with all the attention and earnestness which we may possess, and ask Him to do something with us that will make us capable of meeting Him face to face, not for judgement, not for condemnation, but for eternal life.
Beginning to Pray is a slender book, but it’s slender in the same way a blade is slender: it can still get into the cracks of your heart and pry them open. The book is conversational, a short treatise on prayer written by the Orthodox archbishop Father Anthony Bloom. It does not have a central thesis except perhaps this, which is carried in much of the ascetic tradition of Orthodoxy: that prayer is difficult and that it must be directed inward at one’s own heart. That it is a dangerous labor that cannot be entered into lightly. That there is a cost.
Perhaps the most innovative point of the book (from the perspective of a former protestant) is that Bloom says prayer must be aimed into one’s own heart, that the door to the kingdom at which we must knock is within us and that we have to aim our prayers into our own hearts like an arrow. Prayers are not launched into the sky, hoping to hit God. He is closer than we know. So Bloom says we aim them into ourselves, hoping He meets us at the doorway of our heart. With that in mind, prayers must be words that are true and that can cut deeply. They need to be sound and strong, to get past the deadness of spirit and our own internal deafness. They have to pierce. Where does one find such prayers? They can, on occasion, be written, and (according to Bloom) they can very rarely be extemporaneous. But mostly they need to be mined from the scripture and the traditions of the Church.
The other aspect of prayer that Bloom emphasizes is the practice of silence. To truly be able to pray, one first must learn to be silent. I had a privilege this past summer of a three day retreat, alone with a lot of spare time, and among other things I read this book and savored (and attempted to practice) the invitation to silence that it extended. I immediately began a re-read upon returning back home into the hectic, busy world, but I found the words that before had been an invitation now seemed almost a rebuke. Prayer must be hemmed with silence, Bloom says, and the silence that is not simply the lack of noise. It’s built up through time and practice. Yet such a thing seemed, upon returning home, pretty distant and unattainable.
You need time with this book. I don’t feel I can do it justice in a summary, and I don’t really need to, as the book itself is brief and accessible. Instead I’ll just pull out a few of Bloom’s most relevant quotes:
On humility in prayer:
Humility [from the Latin ‘humus,’ fertile soil] is the situation of the earth. The earth is always there, always taken for granted, never remembered, always trodden on by everyone, somewhere we cast and pour out all the refuse, all we don’t need. It’s there, silent and accepting everything and in a miraculous way making out of all the refuse new richness in spite of corruption, transforming corruption itself into a power of life and new possibility of creativeness, open to the sunshine, open to the rain, ready to receive any seed we sow and capable of bringing thirty-fold, sixty-fold, a hundred-fold out of every seed.
On letting go of expectation and desire:
Outside the realm of “right,” only in the realm of mercy, can we meet God . . . Everything we taken into our hands to possess is taken out of the realm of love. Certainly it becomes ours, but love is lost . . . [A]s long as we have nothing in our hands, we can take, leave, do whatever we want.
On prayer and action:
We must each take up our own cross, and when we ask something in our prayers, we undertake by implication to do it with all our strength, all our intelligence and all the enthusiasm we can put into our actions, and with all the courage and energy we have. In addition, we do it with all the power which God will give us . . . Therefore prayer and action should become two expressions of the same situation vis-a-vis God and ourselves and everything around us.
On praying continually:
If we could be aware . . . that every human meeting is judgment, is crisis, is a situation in which we are called either to receive Christ or to be Christ’s messenger to the person whom we are meeting, if we realized that the whole of life has this intensity of meaning, then we would be able to cry and to pray continuously, and turmoil would be not a hindrance but the very condition which teaches us to pray.