If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.
~ Evagrios the Solitary (of Pontus), 153 Texts on Prayer 61
Abba Evagrios (=”Evagrius”) gives a different definition of “theologian” than what is often the popular one. I have studied theology and even received a degree or two, but I do not accept the title of theologian. A theologian, according to Evagrios, is not primarily one who has read many books, but one who can truly pray. And that I struggle to do, and what I manage hardly matches up to his description.
In his work On Prayer, which is a spiritual classic, Evagrios writes in the preface that “[t]he way of prayer is also twofold: it comprises practice of the virtues and contemplation.” Prayer, it should be noted, is not simply asking for stuff according to Evagrios. Neither, for that matter, is it even so much the words we say, though they are not unimportant. Rather, it is a state of our hearts and minds: “the practice of the virtues and contemplation.”
It is quite telling, I think, that when I first encountered this more ancient Christian perspective on prayer—that it is hard work and can be done rightly or wrongly, truly or falsely—I found it to be bizarre. Prayer has gone the way of art for many: there is no wrong way to do it in their eyes, no objective standard or goal. For art, the only imperative is “be creative.” For prayer, the only imperative is “say something to God.”
While, certainly, most prayer does require speaking to God, just as most art requires a certain level of creativity, we miss the essence of both if we stop there. Art—from the Latin artis—once meant “skill.” Indeed, in this sense ancient Christians believe prayer and philokalia—the spiritual life more broadly—is the “art of arts” and “science of sciences.” It is a craft. True prayer is akin to a symphony or a classic sculpture or a masterpiece painting. More than that, it is akin to the skill of such an artist in action. It is something that, at the very least, constitutes a deep practice.
I remember when I was learning to play the piano. I was twenty years old and very motivated. I would often practice three hours a day, and I progressed quickly for it. After my first year of lessons, however, I did not continue. I can still play, but I am no pianist. With prayer, at least, I have kept up the practice, though again, I am no theologian.
When a person has cultivated the virtues—spiritual and heavenly treasures that they are—and when that person takes time and effort to contemplate and commune with God, then that person is a theologian. Indeed, for the Christian East, this is the origin of true theology, not only study but experience. To be sure, it is still something of a science, but perhaps more empirical than might be assumed.
But what is the work? What is the skill that is being cultivated? Evagrios writes, “If, then, you wish to behold and commune with Him who is beyond sense-perception and beyond concept, you must free yourself from every impassioned thought.” The premise here is quite simple: God, as the Creator of the world, is utterly unlike anything in the world. God is holy, in the deep, ancient sense of that word. In order for us to experience him, we must strive to free ourselves from any thought or passion directed toward the things of the world. This, indeed, is hard work, but well worth the effort.
I have said in the past that asceticism is about maturity, and that is certainly true. But there is an interesting thing that necessarily coincides. When a person learns to be more self-sacrificing, more free of material comforts, more truly loving, then their heart necessarily has been oriented toward loftier things. Indeed, is it any wonder that Christ says to his disciples, “If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24)? For human beings to perceive Jesus as more than a mere man, but as God incarnate—as did St. Peter (cf. Matthew 16:16-17)—ascetic self-denial is a prerequisite, excepting any sudden, divine revelation—as was the case with St. Paul (see Acts 9).
While I’m sure that in most cases a mix of human effort and divine grace is needed, the fathers are nearly universal in their insistence that grace is never what is lacking. Our effort is our responsibility. And when it comes to prayer, learning to pray in purity is a life-long endeavor, above which there is no more worthy task.
We suffer, if I may speak generally, from a tragic lack of true theologians in our world, or at least in the West. While it may be difficult to cultivate such an art while living in the world, it is something, much akin to the beauty of true art and artists—that our world desperately needs.
Plato once claimed that if only philosophers would become kings, or kings philosophers, all of society’s troubles could be put to an end. Well, I doubt that such a utopia is possible, and in any case I would somewhat disagree with the means as well. Though “philosopher” for Plato is not that far off from Evagrios’s theologian, I think we would benefit much more from a greater number of such theologians in our world today, even if they were otherwise uneducated and did not so much as govern a household pet, not to mention other human beings. I do not know what sort of a state such a society would have, but I know this: it would be a society more in touch with reality, more fully realizing its own nature and purpose, than anything that the most noble social engineering has ever brought us.
Ah, but there’s a catch: one cannot be a pianist without practice. It takes the same simple discipline needed to learn a language or an instrument to cultivate the skill required to truly pray. But, I again insist, it is well worth the effort. Indeed, I will give Evagrios the last word: “If when praying no other joy can attract you, then truly you have found prayer.”