I offer here one last reflection from my re-reading of Short Trip to the Edge by Scott Cairns. This book, which at one level is a travel log about Cairns’ journeys to visit the Monasteries on Mount Athos in Greece, is really about his search for a spiritual father or director who can guide him in his spiritual journey. He seeks to learn the prayer of the heart, which means the practice of the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”) to such an extent that the prayer becomes a part of him, ruling his spirit and every waking moment. It is when the prayer becomes self-activating inside oneself, when it rules one’s heart, that you can be said to have acquired the prayer of the heart.
Along the way Cairns learns from the monks that the prayer of the heart is not about saying the prayer, but “becoming prayer.” It is this struggle that the book is about – what it means to “become prayer.” Cairns struggles throughout the book, never finding a spiritual father, but slowly growing, perhaps without even realizing it, in the use of the prayer.
Then, at the end he visits with a monk who asks him if, when he is saying the prayer, he is listening to the “stillness between the words.” He tells him to, “say it once, and then wait, listening. Then say it again. Then wait listening.”
This may sound nice. It may even sound like good advice – a simple way to meditate or cultivate stillness in one’s life – until a few lines later the monk says the most amazing thing, which I had never really considered:
“You know, it is not you who prays….This is why you must listen. You must learn that it is God who prays. When you descend into your heart, it is God you find, already praying in you.”
The object of the practice of The Jesus Prayer is to aid us on the path to Theosis – to salvation and sanctification, to becoming as much like God as possible. But, in the end, even if we start to grow in Theosis, and start to attain the likeness of Christ, when we finally descend into our heart what do we find? We find that God was already there. It is not we who pray. We do not, in any real sense, achieve anything. We do not “become prayer”. We merely grow to the point where we can finally see that it was God who was already in our heart, praying for us all along.