A friend of mine asked me once whether I would join a prayer group: we would each read a kathisma of the psalter per day during the lenten periods.
I have no discipline in prayer, so I thought this would be a good occasion to build some. And I kept the rule well: I have not missed one day. But I often surprised myself wandering in thought, losing focus, and uttering the psalms with my mouth, but not with my soul. This is pretty bad, especially because other people depended on me: I was not praying just by myself.
From time to time, however, the words of prayer took life within me. It was not due to an increased level of concentration from my part. In fact, this was not connected at all with my ability to focus. Instead, it was due to others–and I have often discovered that everything that is good in my life is so because others have brought it to life.
Today, for example, I was reading my kathisma, often losing the train of thought, when I discovered that I started to sing. I did not really know what I was singing and why, so I focused on the text and realized that it was Psalm 102. It felt as if the psalm founded something in me and, while I was wandering in thought about what I would need to do tomorrow, it started to sing by itself.
Those of you who are familiar with orthodox thinking should not imagine that it was something like the prayer of the heart. This is far away from it. But this is what it may have been: I experienced beauty when I heard these words chanted, and they have thus remained within my soul (here is the version of the psalm chanted in Romanian). Their icon was in me, and, when I pronounced them mindlessly, they found that icon and began singing of God by themselves.
The same thing takes place when I get to Psalm 33, although I do not sing it. This memory is not connected with a song. I watched a documentary on Fr. Ilie Cleopa’s life, and he shouts the beginning of Psalm 33: “Bine voi cuvânta pe Domnul în toata vremea.” I wrote it in Romanian because this is how I hear it. And my heart shouts it, really, whenever my kathisma includes the psalm. Still, it is improper to say that my heart shouts it; perhaps it is better like this: it is shouted within me.
It is perhaps odd to say this, but I think that, even if I promised a kathisma per day and even if I actually utter the words of a kathisma every day, I am not the one praying, but rather those people who have formed icons within my soul. They wake me up from my indifference and bring me back to present, to the word that I utter at that moment, bringing it to life. Terrible thing, really, to become indifferent to what you actually do at that present moment and live instead in the realm of the future and so of the imaginary.
This reminds me of what Aspazia Otel Petrescu, imprisoned for ten years by the communist regime in Romania, said in her With Christ in Prison. Thinking about what the words of a prayer meant in prison, she wrote, “The one who helped me understand that words are alive and that they are aged and enriched by previous experiences and meanings was Fr. Arsenie Boca. He spoke to people using living words. When he was asked a question, he would answer in very short sentences, without using theological theories. His sentences were short, but you could feel the living words” (25).
And she continues, “That is what prayer meant for us in prison. In other prayers there were other people’s prayers, other people who had probably been in similar situations, who prayed with the same words, who used those words to connect with the Divinity.”
It may be this connection with people who have come before me that brings me back to present. And yet, I can’t avoid thinking that this phenomenon takes place even when the icons are not beautiful memories, when they are not living words, but rather ugly ones, and this ugliness is resurrected in us whenever we encounter a similar script…
We write in the souls of others, for the good or for the bad. I have much to thank for and much to ask forgiveness for.