Telling the stories of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, NZ and Polynesia

Prayer and the unknowable God

When you go apart for prayer, put from your mind everything you have been doing or plan to do. Reject all thoughts, be they good or evil….

Gregory Thorn  |  19 May 2008

Prayer is a process of becoming, not an act of doing

“When you go apart to be alone for prayer, put from your mind everything you have been doing or plan to do. Reject all thoughts, be they good or be they evil…. See that nothing remains in your conscious mind save a naked intent stretching out towards God.”

This advice on prayer begins one of the great classics of Christian writing, The Book of Privy Counselling, written in the 14th century by an anonymous Englishman.

It doesn’t sound at all like prayer in today’s church and even seems impractical, considering the disjointed and busy lives of contemporary society. In fact a scientific and technological age might ask, “Why pray at all?” However, this way of prayer has influenced the church for centuries and continues to challenge simplistic interpretations of prayer.

A number of questions related to prayer are concealed within the normalcy of church life, and yet they have a marked impact on our spirituality. Two stand out:

• The question of the nature of God: what might God look like, sound like, taste like and feel like?

• The question of salvation: what is it, and how does it work?

The God commonly approached in prayer is construed as similar to human beings in behaviour, perceptions and emotional experiences. This is an anthropomorphic or human image of God, and prayer with this image in mind is largely rhetoric, pleading and for various needs, hopes and desires. Intercessory prayer often is directed at this image of God.

Another way of understanding God is to recognise God as unknowable. By definition, God must be more than “every possible object of [human] knowledge”. Prayer practised from this understanding is therefore more likely to be about what we aren’t than about what we imagine we are.

Salvation also is open to various interpretations, but an understanding where “Jesus does not save once and for all but in every moment” offers a more dynamic and inclusive God relationship and means that participation in prayer is participation in salvation itself.

Here movement is from a static notion of God to one of salvation that collapses perceptions of time and space and reclaims the vitality of now and presence. As a consequence the ego-centred personhood diminishes and a place of unknowability arises: unknowability similar in nature to the unknowability of God.

In the 16th century St John of the Cross used the motif of a dark night of the soul to convey this experience. However, it’s difficult to experience not knowing when the psyche (soul) craves sensory input, knowledge and information to carry on believing that it substantially exists!

The teacher of The Book of Privy Counselling acknowledges this difficulty and suggests engaging a faculty over which there is some control: thinking. Not that this was new. From the 4th century CE, contemplatives used a short piece of a psalm to focus the habitually wandering mind. A favourite verse was, “O Lord make haste to help me,” from Psalm 71.

Some traditions, like the Hesychast tradition in the Eastern church, developed sophisticated approaches to prayer, including the Prayer of the Heart or Jesus Prayer, which seeks a growing relationship with God. Bishop Theophan the Recluse describes it in this way:

“There are various degrees of prayer. The first degree is bodily prayer, consisting for the most part in reading, in standing. … The second degree is prayer with attention: the mind becomes accustomed to collecting itself in the hour of prayer and prays consciously throughout, without distraction. The mind is focused upon the written words to the point of speaking them as if they were its own. The third degree is prayer of feeling: the heart is warmed by concentration so that what has only been thought now becomes feeling. Where first it was a contrite phrase now it is contrition itself; and what was once a petition in words is transformed into a sensation of entire necessity. Whoever has passed through action and thought to true feeling, will pray without words, for God is God of the heart. So that the end of apprenticeship in prayer can be said to come when in our prayer we move only from feeling to feeling. … When the feeling of prayer reaches the point where it becomes continuous, then spiritual prayer may be said to begin. This is the gift of the Holy Spirit praying for us, the last degree of prayer. But there is, they say, yet another kind of prayer which cannot be comprehended by our mind, and which goes beyond the limits of consciousness.”

Here constructed preconceptions about the self and the world are relinquished. No longer are we the centre of the universe. An enhanced experience of God and being human arises, albeit one difficult to articulate apart from poetry, parable and metaphor. Matthew Fox underscores this when he paraphrases Meister Eckhart, the 13th century German theologian and mystic: “God is beyond all expression and understanding.”

This prayer takes discipline. Self-motivated grasping is relinquished and the mind stilled by “naked intent” described in the Book of Privy Counselling. Through the grace of the Holy Spirit, scripture and wise counsel, our mind is merged into the unknowability of the heart of God – but it can be hard work. The moment an attempt is made to focus thoughts and calm the mind every spurious thought, worry and lost memory from time immemorial will surface, and the more these unwanted guests are refused entry the more they harass for attention.

Such is the challenge of prayer. Even when our prayers are more like a review of the previous day and preparation for tomorrow’s work, we need to avoid the temptation to give up. Slowly but surely the mind will settle and the aroma of God will suffuse the heart. Not the fleshy vessel that pumps blood around the body but the centre of humanity and of our own personhood, from which our whole world extends. From the heart come our most sublime qualities as well as the underbelly of our personality. And via the heart are we transformed into a personhood reflective of Christ himself.

Aids to prayer that have evolved over time relate to body posture, breathing, places of prayer and items of focus. A cycle of prayer as found in A New Zealand Prayer Book, He Karakia Minihare o Aotearoa will also help form our spiritual consciousness.
Prayer is a process of becoming, not an act of doing. Becoming is to get behind the ego and allow the grace of God to shape and form in ways that are by and large hidden, even though they might become apparent with hindsight. Prayer of the heart is a delicate task and one where familiar religious signposts can be obscured.

Having a companion along the way is important because the ego can be a devious friend when threatened or ignored, and all sorts of irrelevant ideas and infatuations may arise. In the end the prayer will become the air we breathe, a fragrance of hope continually drawing us back into the intimacy of the God of unknowing.

1. William Johnston, The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counselling, ed. Anonymous (London: Fount, 1997), 118
2. Vladmir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998), 25.
3. Alphonse and Rachel Goettmann, Prayer of Jesus, Prayer of the Heart, 167.
4. E. & Palmer Kadlobovsky, G.E.H., The Art of Prayer (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), p52.
5. Matthew Fox, Breakthrough: Meister Ekhart’s Creation Spirituality in New Translation (New York: Doubleday, 1980), 182.

Fox, Matthew. Breakthrough: Meister Ekhart’s Creation Spirituality in New Translation. New York: Doubleday, 1980.
Goettmann, Alphonse and Rachel. Prayer of Jesus, Prayer of the Heart.
Johnston, William. The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counselling. Edited by Anonymous. London: Fount, 1997.
Kadlobovsky, E. & Palmer, G.E.H. The Art of Prayer. London: Faber and Faber, 1966.
Lossky, Vladmir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998.
Gregory Thorn is Retreats Co-ordinator at Vaughan Park, Auckland.