Archimandrite Zacharias Zacharou
All the inspiration to attain the Kingdom of Heaven comes from the awareness of our spiritual poverty, which helps us humble our spirit and depend our life on Him Who is able to save us. In the crisis we are now going through, we perceive the fragility and vanity of this life, which the wise Solomon expressed with lofty words (Eccles. 1:2). This very important awareness will enable us to take the right step and seek for the indestructible life (Heb. 7:15) for which we are destined. This pandemic is a challenge for us and we all suffer, but if we examine our tradition, we will find answers that will give us the strength and inspiration not only to go through the trial of this coronavirus, but also to come out of every trial sharing in the victory which our Lord won through His death and Resurrection. Especially in the present critical days, it is absolutely important to understand the great tradition of our Church, as it is expressed in the ascetical practice of hesychia (stillness). ‘Hesychia’ is a technical term in the Orthodox Tradition, which means to stand in the presence of God with the mind in the heart, calling upon the Name of Christ.
God created man with a wondrous deep heart, which can bear a divine sensation and know God (cf. Prov. 15:14 LXX). When this heart is purified and accommodates the King of kings and the Lord of lords, it becomes very precious: God Himself stands in attention, and His gaze and visitation are fixed upon such a heart from morning until evening and from evening until morning. For us the problem is how to liberate our heart from the lethargy into which we have degenerated, because we live in a world of passions. We gradually lost the sensation of God wherewith we were invested in holy Baptism. We must find our heart and reunite our being, for when our whole being is concentrated in the heart, we receive healing. Only with a healed heart, able to accommodate the grace of God, can we stand before Him and speak to Him with our whole being. The whole aim of the ascetic hesychastic tradition of our Church is to help us find our deep heart and learn how the mind descends into the heart and unites with it, so that from there we can turn our whole being to God. Then our heart is flooded by the power of indestructible life, which is the grace of God’s salvation. If we are strong in our contact and relationship with God, we shall be strong in every trial in this world and in our relationship with the others.
Man becomes true when he lives with his heart, continually cleansing it and accumulating grace therein. When the traces of grace attain a certain fulness, then ‘the morning star rises in the heart of man’ (2 Pet. 1:19), and the day of the spiritual victory comes. Universal evil cannot be conquered with wars or human means, but it is defeated in the very heart of man. That is why for us, eternal life is to work on our heart and cultivate this relationship of love with Him in Whom we believe. THE TRUE MAN CANNOT LIVE OUTSIDE OF HIS HEART. All the illnesses of the modern world, whether psychological or physical, originate from this separation of man from his own heart. If we want to be strong and face every crisis of this world in a salutary way, we must discover our heart, reunite our being therein, and from there turn to God entirely. Then we are truly in the image and likeness of Him Who has created us.
Question: How does the mind descend into the heart?
Answer: Only through the grace of God. There are many means to attract grace, and the best is the prayer of repentance. When we repent properly, humbly, the heart is wounded, and this strange wound attracts the mind into the heart. Saint Paul calls this wondrous scratch of the heart ‘the circumcision of the heart’ (Rom. 2:29) or ‘the marks of Christ’ (Gal. 6:17). This is the life-giving wound that we receive when we repent deeply before God for our spiritual poverty. The mind descends to the heart when we crucify it with the precepts of the Gospel. Every time we prefer to fulfil the commandment of God, instead of our own earthly desires and inclinations, the mind receives grace and strength to descend into the heart. The most powerful means for the mind to reach this union is spiritual mourning, which wounds the heart and brings it to the surface. A few tears of repentance and immediately the heart becomes involved in our converse with God that grants us incorruptible consolation.
When we condemn ourselves before God as totally unworthy of Him, our heart is filled with warmth. In the beginning, it is a certain feeling. In more advanced stages, when we learn to condemn ourselves truly before God, the sensation of the heart becomes stronger and ‘the big tears’ come. There is then a tremendous pain in the heart – a very deep pain. Sometimes it is very sweet, a source of consolation, but at other times it can be very crushing. At this point man feels that the mind is in the heart and that his whole being is united in one. Father Sophrony always encouraged us to attain to union of mind and heart through spiritual mourning rather than through any artificial methods, because he believed that true repentance is the best and safest way. The method of breathing can be very complicated and become a hindrance, because all the attention concentrates on the method and not on the desire to please God, which is the most important factor in repentance.
Question: Is receiving God through Holy Communion greater than receiving God through prayer?
Answer: We receive God through grace and grace comes to us in many ways. It comes when we invoke His Name with reverence and humility; when we pray and live by the word of God; when we receive Holy Communion with the testimony of a good conscience. We accumulate grace in every instant of our life, if we meet our fellows with a good heart, respect and honour. There are many means of acquiring the grace of God in order to preserve our heart alive with the sensation of God, and this is essential: for as long as our heart is warmed up by the grace of God, no alien thought can approach us and we are unassailable by the enemy.
Question: Are tribulations necessary to find one’s deep heart?
Answer: Every pain can be helpful, if we face it in the right way. There is voluntary pain that we undertake ourselves in order to conform our life to the evangelical precepts, and there is involuntary pain that we suffer because of the circumstances in which we live, because of illnesses, persecutions, slanders or other adversities. God is all-wise and knows perfectly our life, our personality and the shackles in which we are bound. He allows this involuntary pain in our life in the measure which is required to break these shackles and liberate our heart, for the end of spiritual life is to have a free heart illumined and cleansed by grace. We said that we usually are in a state of ‘lethargy of the heart’ when we live as ‘atheists’, without God in the world. Yet, as soon as the word of God touches man’s heart, he ‘wakes up’ and starts to experience a certain warmth, a certain sweetness and love, which makes him want to follow the Lord and be in constant union with Him. It is the beginning of our passage from this lethargy to an awakening: ‘Now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed’ (Rom. 13:11).
Question: How can I reconcile deep prayer in the deep heart with the active life of my priestly ministry and with family life?
Answer: To be realistic, it is not easy. Even in monasteries, not so many monks find the true hesychastic way. Yet even in the world, some people do find hesychastic prayer. Above all, however, we need to surrender to the will of God in all things and make it a purpose to render thanksgiving to God more and more worthily. This creates a certain freedom, for surrendering to the will of God in every situation God helps us to rise above the difficulties. Thanksgiving and surrendering to the will of God constitutes the preparation for entering the peace and freedom of hesychia. One priest who had seven children was asked: ‘How do you prepare before the Liturgy’? He answered: ‘My preparation is very humble: when the children wake me up ten times every night, I make it a purpose at least two times not to get angry.’
Question: I have a philosophical proud mind. How can we acquire stillness if we are proud?
Answer: Pride seems to accompany every our attempt to present ourselves before God in prayer and come close to Him. The most practical way to acquire humility is continual thanksgiving. The Spirit of God always inspires gratitude (1 Cor. 2:12). Father Sophrony makes a distinction between spiritual humility and ascetical humility. Ascetical humility consists of always reproaching and considering ourselves as worse than all, as we are commanded in the Gospel: ‘When ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do’ (Luke 17:10). As for spiritual humility, it is indescribable. It is granted to those who have already contemplated the beauty of the Risen Lord, the Light of His Face, which wounds them with the deep conviction that they are unworthy of such a loving God as Christ is.
Question: Can you explain the difference between nervous tension and the tension of prayer?
Answer: The tension of the heart in prayer is operated by the grace of God. Psychological tension can bring even headaches or other kinds of physical pain, which are not useful. Spiritual tension is accompanied by a humble surrendering to the will of God and harmonises with prayer, thus bringing consolation and increasing the strength of man’s converse with God. By contrast, psychological tension cannot really generate true prayer. When there is nervous tension, prayer cannot last long and brings neither inspiration nor consolation.
Question: What is the relation between hesychia and oriental religions?
Answer: In the eastern religions, the effort is to divest oneself from every relative existence and identify with the Absolute Being. It is an effort, but it is only the first and the smallest part of the path towards perfection. In our tradition there are two movements: divesting ourselves from everything corruptible, freeing ourselves from the tyranny of the passions and putting off the old man so as to become sinless, for the more one becomes sinless, the more immortal and incorruptible one is. The greatest part, however, is the second, which consists in the positive asceticism of also being clothed with the heavenly man, of putting on Christ. The second part means finding ways to increase in in the newness of life that is given to us in the sacraments of the Church and in our relationship with the Personal God, the Lord Jesus. The divesting of the mind in oriental traditions does not even reach the measure of the divesting of the old man in the Orthodox Tradition, because the goals of the two are different. The Orthodox ascetic undertakes this labour of divesting the old man in the fervency of repentance, wherein he finds the pearl of great price (Matt. 13:46). He continually strives to receive the traces of the grace of the Personal God in his heart, until he acquires a certain fulness. Then a big bang takes place within him and his heart receives a divine enlargement to embrace heaven and earth. He becomes truly in the image of the New Adam, Christ, bearing in himself all the peoples of the earth and interceding for the salvation of the whole world.