The Cosmic Power of Kenotic Prayer: From Egocentricity to the World’s Salvation

In the last post, we looked at the debilitating effects of egocentricity and philautia. I also suggested that when the nous functions properly, being God-centered replaces egocentricity and the love of God and neighbor takes the place of philautia.  In this post, I would like to examine how the nous is renewed through prayer of cosmic dimensions by reflecting upon the writings and counsels of Elder Sophrony, the spiritual child of Saint Silouan the Athonite.  In Elder Sophrony’s work, Saint Silouan the Athonite, the Elder speaks about “prayer for the entire Adam,” which can occur only once the nous is healed. This prayer is also at the heart of the monastic endeavor. Here’s what Elder Sophrony writes:

resurrection_icon2.jpg“Prayer for the whole world, for all Adam, in many instances distracts the monk from putting himself at the service of individuals. One may question whether this withdrawing from individual service means refusal of the concrete for the sake of the abstract? Not at all, for the whole Adam is not an abstraction but the most concrete fullness of the human being. The ontological unity of humanity is such that every separate individual overcoming evil in himself inflicts such a defeat on cosmic evil that its consequences have a beneficial effect on the destinies of the whole world. On the other hand, the nature of cosmic evil is such that, vanquished in certain human hypostases [persons] it suffers a defeat the significance and extent of which are quite disproportionate to the number of individuals concerned.  A single saint is an extraordinarily precious phenomenon for all mankind. By the mere fact of their existence – unknown, maybe, to the world but known to God – the saints draw down on the world, on all humanity, a great benediction from God. The Staretz [St. Silouan] writes:  ‘Because of these people, I believe the Lord preserves the world, for they are precious in His sight, and God always listens to His humble servants and we are all of us all right because of their prayers. Prayer keeps the world alive and when prayer fails, the world will perish… “Nowadays,” perhaps you will say, “there are no more monks like that to pray for the whole world.” But I tell you that when there are no more men of prayer on earth, the world will come to an end and great disasters will befall. They have already started.  The saints live by the love of Christ. This love is Divine strength, which created, and now upholds, the world, and this is why their prayer is so pregnant with meaning. St. Barsanuphius, for instance, records that in his time the prayers of three men preserved mankind from catastrophe. Thanks to these saints – whom the world does not know of – the course of historical, even of cosmic events, is changed. So then, every saint is a phenomenon of cosmic character, whose significance passes beyond the bounds of earthly history into the sphere of eternity. The saints are the salt of the earth, its raison d’etre.  They are the fruit that preserve the earth. But when the earth ceases to produce saints, the strength that safeguards it from catastrophe will fail.”

Many view egocentricity as a quite natural survival mechanism that goes awry when it’s excessive. Others view looking out for number one as a recipe for success in the world. But such shallow views of egocentricity are a lie.  We are all inter-related and connected. What a person does and who a person is effects the rest of humanity, because we all share the same nature, our nature given to us by God, and we all live in the same world, our world made by God for us to inhabit.  However, this simple reality is only perceived clearly when the nous is restored and sufficiently healed by turning inward. This is a bit counterintuitive, for if believing the world revolves around us is the problem, how does going inward help restore us to health? Why wouldn’t it be better to just work with others? All-consuming prayer driven by divine love burns the dross of egocentricity and philautia at its very root, for such prayer requires humility and self-emptying with which no amount of cooperation with others can compare. Egocentricity can best be overcome in the battlefield of the heart. Nevertheless, this prayer should not be separated from the life in Christ, which further sustains it.

The kenotic work of our Lord in His Incarnation, in His Theophany, all precede and foreshadow His ultimate kenotic act of Divine love on the Cross and His descent into Hades.  In these kenotic events, our Lord shows us the Way.  In His kenosis and through our subsequent participation in His work through Baptism and Holy Communion, we experience the Divine embrace of all humanity and the power of God’s love that can even displace an egocentric love for self.  As Archimandrite Zacharias, himself a disciple of Elder Sophrony, writes, “The path leading to the acquisition of perfection is the one traced by Christ.  It is the path of the Cross; the path of Christ’s self-emptying.  For Fr. Sophrony, kenosis and perfection are closely bound together.”

So, how is this transition from egocentricity and philautia to “prayer for the entire Adam” accomplished?  Archimandrite Zacharias offers the following, “Two factors are required for the Jesus Prayer.  The first is man’s effort to be centered attentively on his heart and to have a humble predisposition in his spirit.  The second, immeasurably more important, is the grace of the Holy Spirit, without which no progress can be made.”

Eventually, the constant evocation of the Name leads out of egocentricity and into a glimpse of paradise. As one prays, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me,” the Lord Jesus and His mercy fill the horizon of the soul and the me grows increasingly smaller, quieter, and humbler, delighting in that humility even as the Forerunner did when he declared, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” And then a shift takes place, and prayer for the “entire Adam” begins.  No longer alienated from God, self, and others, the soul lives the salvific work of Christ and begins to think, feel, and act on the basis of a deep and holy unity between God, self, and others. The soul can see God! The soul can see others! Two feats impossible for those bound by egocentricity and philautia. And this clear vision inspires a prayer that can change the course of history and influence the life of the entire world. The broken, disconsolate, zloi underground man in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground  is transformed into someone who loves God and his fellow man.

Nicholas V. Sakharov, in his work, I Love Therefore I Am:  The Theological Legacy of Archimandrite Sophrony, explains, “Elder Silouan pays particular attention to the type of prayer ‘for the whole creation’.  Elder Silouan precedes Fr. Sophrony in using the expression the whole Adam, which indicates the ontological oneness of the human race.  His chapter ‘Adam’s Lament’ expresses his universal application of the term ‘Adam’; ‘Adam is the father of the universe’ and as such he emerges as a collective personality.  Christ-like love is the bond that links the whole Adam.  The universality of this love is often expressed by Elder Silouan as ‘love towards one’s enemies’ which was central to his thinking to an unprecedented extent.  It became his criterion for the authenticity of any Christian message.”

Faithful practice of the Jesus Prayer leads to a kenotic embrace of all humanity motivated by the fire of Divine Love.  Egocentricity has no place in the believer who is faithful in centering his life around the constant invocation of the Name.  This is the life to which we all are called.  Those of us who are baptized are prepared to begin this journey so that Christ is all and in all (Col. 3:11). Consistently and persistently calling out upon the Lord Jesus gradually transforms us. We become more humble, more compassionate, more loving with a humility, compassion, and love that are not our own. Eventually, by the grace of God, we are prepared to exclaim with Saint Paul, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” Christ and His love become the center of our existence and from that holy center we turn our love to the rest of humanity. And even the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me” comes to mean “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on Thy world. Amen.”

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  1. […] that become spiritual offerings by virtue of the orientation of the soul from self to God.  In the previous posts concerning egocentricity, Elder Sophrony noted that harmful self-love can be overcome only through much struggle and […]

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