[Abba Isaac said:] “St. Antony … uttered this heavenly, inspired, saying on the end of prayer: ‘That prayer is not perfect in which the monk understands himself and the words which he is praying.'”
~ Conferences of Cassian, 9.31
In all our striving for the right method of spiritual progress, sayings like this one can be both comforting and conflicting.
On the one hand, St. Antony’s saying reminds us that the spiritual life is not a matter of finding the right, one-size-fits-all recipe. Every person is different, and ultimately our entrance into communion with God, who is beyond all human conception, passes to a point where it too cannot be described or conceived.
On the other hand, telling people that the method they have been trying, the way in which they have simplified their spirituality, is actually over-complicating things, well, complicates things. Saying that actually it is all much more simple can just as easily bring bewilderment as comfort.
“Good teacher,” the rich young ruler asked Jesus “what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16) Jesus’s response is simple, yet it admits multiple interpretations: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21).
Many of us likely read this as an admonition against the danger of riches. It is. But it is more than that. One aspect of Christ’s response is that the man needed to let go of all that gave him an artificial sense of security.
All of us have things that make us feel secure. For some of us, that is our discipline itself. If we can devise a plan or method, then we can feel as if our spirituality is in our control. While I am certainly an advocate for discipline, it is important to remember its limit: grace.
Grace is about the action of God. It is the other side of the conversation of our discipline. It is what makes our spiritual practice communion.
We pray with our feeble words, and God responds with wordless speech experienced by the spirit but incomprehensible to our understanding, the “still, small voice” that spread out the heavens and divided the waters and established the earth.
In fact, most of us begin our spiritual lives not with an effort on our part but with an experience of this grace. Thus “the end [i.e. goal] of prayer” is, from this perspective, simply a return to the simplicity of our prayer’s beginning.
“That prayer is not perfect,” says St. Antony, “in which the monk understands himself and the words which he is praying.” The context of this, provided by Abba Isaac, is actually a spark-like, wordless state of prayer that arises from a compunction that cannot truly be forced. Sometimes we see evil in the world, or we read a moving passage from the Psalms, or we remember our sins, and then a sorrow comes over us. Yet this sorrow also brings joy, for in it we take on something of God’s perspective toward the world. In it we find that communion which is the goal of all prayer and spiritual discipline.
St. Antony’s saying, I think, fits well with a story from the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu). A ruler, Wen-hui, had a cook named Ting. One day Wen-hui went and observed Ting carving up an ox. He praised his method and skill, but Ting responded: “What I care about is the Way [Tao], which goes beyond skill.”
He goes on to describe what he means:
When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now—now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.
However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until—flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.
“Excellent!” Wen-hui responds. “I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to care for life!”
There is an interesting parallel here, but also an important difference. For Zhuangzi, the point of the story is about living naturally. He is speaking about life as an art. But St. Antony is speaking about prayer. Nevertheless, both are speaking of living in harmony with the Logos, that which orders the cosmos and gives it harmony, and who Christians like myself believe is Jesus Christ. So maybe they are not so different after all.
The parallel is a good one for another reason, however. Ting progressed from conceptions to intuition, from method to art. We, too, ought to make this the goal of the life of prayer, which is the “eternal life” for which the rich young man longed.
I have reflected on the rich young man before, but Abba Isaac gives me yet another perspective. The story in the Gospel says that the young man “went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Matthew 19:22). Yet, if Abba Isaac is right, sorrow is precisely what the young man needed, so long as he did not despair, that is. With purity of heart, such sorrow can be precisely what our souls need to experience the ever-present grace of God, pass beyond our (mis)conceptions of what gives us security, and find true communion with him.
So perhaps we can put it this way: St. Antony, too, is concerned with the art of life. But Christians have a specific term for that transcendent life which is beyond the mundane: eternal life. True prayer, to St. Antony, is the art of eternal life. Not art in the sense of skill (though certainly Ting was skilled in his art), but art in the sense of a second, beauty-creating nature, a Skill beyond skill, we might say: a Way beyond all ways.
This is “the end of prayer.” This is the art of eternal life.