Pure Prayer

“A priest of the Greek Orthodox Church…tells of a monk he met on Mount Athos.

    He was in a very bad state, very dark, very bitter, very angry. When asked what was the matter, he said, “Look at me; I’ve been here for thirty-eight years, and I have not yet attained pure prayer.” And this other fellow on the pilgrimage was saying how sad he thought this was.

     Another man present said, “It’s a sad story all right, but the sadness consists in the fact that after thirty-eight years in a monastery he’s still interested in pure prayer.”

     Interest in pure prayer, or pure anything for that matter, strikes me as a worthy aspiration. Whether in the realm of our personal, professional, or religious/spiritual life, what could be better than striving for perfection, attempting to excel, reaching for an ideal? But according to this Hasidic story, such efforts may be problematic. What is sad about this monk is not that he failed to “attain pure prayer,” but that after such a long time in a place dedicated to drawing close to God, he still did not realize that our failures, our brokenness, our being less-than-perfect, are a doorway to the divine.

     This lesson is one that another monk in a different monastery learned and communicated to me when I asked him whether, after the thirty years he had spent in monastic life, he felt God’s presence more than when he first took his vows. I was surprised when he responded “no,” and I was dumbfounded when he went on to say, “but now it doesn’t matter.” His saying “it doesn’t matter” did not mean that he didn’t care, but that he had come to realize that what is important is not attaining the ideal of a felt sense of closeness to God, but living with the conviction that we are never without God, whether we feel it or not.

    “There’s nowhere to go, nothing to attain, no one to become” is a Buddhist saying that affirms the wisdom of not striving. Because the spiritual fullness we seek is a reality where we are, as we are, and as who we are, and because God is a word for an ever present spiritual reality, we need but look beneath the surface of our imperfect selves to see and to sense that despite our not attaining “pure prayer,” we’re just fine.

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