Desire and Discernment: A Letter to Myself

Dear Faith,

In your latest letter, you asked a never-ending question in our spiritual journey, “How do I know what I desire is also what God wants me to do?” I know that you are seeking the will of God and are struggling about how to make a good discernment. I would like to share with you some wisdom that I borrow from the spiritual masters who were concerned with your question.

I am glad that you desire to do what God wants you to do, since an authentic desire is the beginning of a good discernment. If we consider discernment as a process which includes the interpretation of our spiritual experience, then the centre of discernment is desire because it is the power of attraction which begins our experience. Desire is powerful, for it can be the energy which moves us towards God and to do the will of God; at the same time, it can also enslave us when it is directed to anything other than God. In discernment, the power of desire and the purification of desire meet.

Dear Faith, in this letter I would like to show you that the authentic desire for God is the beginning and end of discernment. Discernment leads to the purification of our immediate desires in harmony to our ultimate desire for God, which in turn facilitates the process of discernment. Thus, the secret of making a good discernment lies in the authenticity of our desires, or to a broader extent, the authenticity of our Christian life.

What is an authentic desire? The dictionary of Christian Spirituality defines desire as a “longing or yearning for, or being attached to or drawn toward, something beyond the self.” For Christians, it is in the desire for God himself that our specific desires find their meanings. In the case of desire, discernment consists in a testing of the immediate desire against the most fundamental and authentic of all our desires — the Desire for God. Discernment requires us therefore a deep understanding of the Desire for God. We shall become what the Lord described as skilled changers of currency who are familiar with the “standard gold”, therefore have greatest knowledge to tell the difference between the purest gold and those spurious coins (Cassian, 54).

All the masters discuss the Desire for God, but I only want to select three representatives, Gregory of Nyssa (early Orthodox), Bernard of Clairvaux (medieval Catholic), and Richard Baxter (post-Reformation Protestant) to show you how our traditions understand the Desire for God. For Gregory, the Desire for God is to be called a friend of God by the virtues of the lives we live (Gregory, 135). The encounter with God requires one “in all things to be pure in soul and body, washed stainless of every spot in both parts, in order to appear pure to the One” (Gregory, 92). The Desire for God never ends, always creating a longing to see more (Gregory, 116).

Comparing with Gregory, Bernard uses more intimate imagery—kiss— to describe this Desire. This joyful, intimate, and passionate Desire is just like the Bride desires and loves her Bridegroom. “What can be more joyous than this marvellous union? What more to be desired than love … the contract of a holy and spiritual marriage” (Bernard, 271). The Desire for God is a loving response to God’s initiation, for “God has gone before you and sought you before you sought him” (Bernard, 275). The Desire for God goes through a dynamic process, which Bernard explains with three kisses: the kiss of feet, the kiss of hand, and the kiss of mouth. The kiss of feet represents repentance and forgiveness of sins as expressed through tears, shame, and grief (Bernard, 222). The kiss of hand, grace, fruits of worthy repentance, and works of holiness (Bernard, 223). The kiss of mouth, intimacy and union with Jesus, being “made one with him through his kindness” (Bernard, 223). In agreement with Gregory, Bernard also believes that the Desire does not end at “the happy discovery of what is desired”, but extends the desire (Bernard, 274).

Baxter describes the Desire for God as the saint’s everlasting Rest, which is the end and perfection of motion, the most happy estate of a Christian (Baxter, 29). The Rest involves a perfect freedom from all evils, the highest perfection in body and soul, and the nearest enjoyment of God (Baxter, 39-40). Agreeing with Bernard, Baxter states the Desire is caused by God’s love. It is a free gift which is purchased by “the precious blood of Christ.” The soul can experience the joys that are immediately from God himself in the Desire (74).

Dear Faith, have you noticed some similarities in these masters’ understandings, even though they use different imagery? They all point out that the Desire is a relational union with God, being a friend, a lover, or simply resting with God. They all emphasize that the purification of body and soul is the precondition of experience this Desire. Does this remind you of Cassian? The aim of our life is the kingdom of God, and our objective is the purity of heart which rises to the high point of love (Cassian, 41). For Gregory, the Desire is predominantly an intellectual encounter with God, while Bernard and Baxter mention more affective aspects. Please keep both in mind, Faith, since we not only use our brain in discernment, but also trust our feelings. It seems for Gregory and Bernard, the Desire always creates a deeper longing and desire. Desire never ends. An authentic desire must be the energy which leads us to the union with God.

Now, let us move to discernment. As mentioned before, as a process, discernment contains a testing of the immediate desire against our ultimate Desire for God in which the Spirit yearns for God within us. If the meeting of our immediate desires and the Sprit-given Desire for God brings harmony, this indicates that our immediate desires are moved by the Spirit. Otherwise, it indicates a “spirit” at variance with the Holy Spirit. Discerning desires is discerning the spirits.

Faith, please forgive me that I will emphasize again the importance of discernment before we talk about how to discern. “No virtue can come to full term or endure without the grace of discernment…For discernment is the mother, the guardian, and the guide of all the virtues.” (Cassian, 64) Without discernment, we are susceptible to the temptations of the evil spirit (Cassian, 55). The blessed Antony spoke that it is “the lack of discernment [that] prevented them from reaching the end.” (Cassian, 62) Remember, Faith, discernment which the Scripture is described as the eye and the lamp of the body, is a gift from God (Cassian, 60). Pray that God may grant you this gift.

Discernment is impossible without humility. The masters believe that humility and true self-knowledge are the prerequisites of discernment. “True discernment is obtained only when one is really humble. The first evidence of this humility is when everything done or thought of is submitted to the scrutiny of our elders.” (Cassian, 67) Teresa also insists on the necessity of spiritual direction, to ask advice, to place oneself in the hands of others and to enter into the way of obedience (Teresa, 65). Humility instead of self-reliance, and growth of self-knowledge are important points for Teresa. “For in order to know ourselves, it helps a great deal to speak with someone who already knows the world for what it is.” (Teresa, 65) Faith, I think the point of obeying and listening to your director and wise friends is not seeking wisdom from them, but is learning to open your thoughts to God through trustworthy people. The pride of self-confidence and the danger of deception eliminate by placing ourselves in the hands of others. As Cassian says, “An evil thought sheds its danger when it is brought out into the open.” (Cassian, 68) Of course, we also need to exercise discernment in deciding who is trustworthy (Cassian, 71). I am praying that God will bestow you a trustworthy director with whom you can feel the presence of God.

Now we finally come to the practice of discerning desires/spirits. I would like to draw your attention to Cassian, Teresa, and John of the Cross, not because other masters do not give advice about controlling desires or avoiding temptations, but these three masters particularly deal with the deceptions in discernment. I also want to give you some insights from different traditions and male/female perspectives.

For Cassian, discernment begins with mediation of Scripture, that is, “the memory of the Lord’s cross”, with which we shall manage to destroy “the liars of wild beasts within us and the hiding places of the venomous serpents.” (Cassian, 58) He reminds us three sources of our thoughts/desires: God, the devil, and ourselves. The voice of God is always quiet and gentile, but firmly lead us to inner peace, joy, and desire for God. The devil always attracts us to sin, deceitfully presents himself as an angel of light. It makes us feel unworthy of God and run away from God, and leads to despair in the long run. Then discernment involves being attentive to the thoughts/desires that surface in our hearts and scrutinizing the source of our thoughts/desires. “Right from the beginning we will scrutinize their origins, their causes, their originators, deciding our necessary reaction to them in the light of who it is that suggests them.” (Cassian, 54).

More explicitly than Cassian and John, Teresa emphasizes a strong foundation of prayer in discernment. She trusts that good desires are given by God. In trying to pray, we are responding to God who “desires intensely that we love him and seek his company.” (Teresa, 49) As in Bernard, Desire meets desire. Teresa insists that our love and desire must “reach the point of overwhelming reason.” (Teresa, 62) She cherishes good desire as the energy which moves us towards God. For Teresa, the chief discernment criteria is that authentic desires are known by their subject—to love God and to love our neighbours (Teresa, 100, 181). We know that we are doing God’s will if we love both God and our neighbours intensely, generously and completely. Teresa notices that as we come closer to God, desire causes sufferings; the distance between what we desire and where we are causes anguish (Teresa, 108). Suffering is even desired if it helps the will of God to be accomplished (Teresa, 183). Faith, I know that probably you would not have mystical experiences in discernment, but I still think you can benefit from the principles of her teachings. When it comes to discerning mystical experiences, the attitude of humility and of indifference of spiritual consolation is of crucial important (Teresa, 59). Some mystical experiences, especially imagery visions, are easily interfered with by the devil. Teresa suggests that examining the later effects of the experiences tell us their origins (Teresa, 125). The authenticity of a mystical experience depends on whether it is in accordance with Scripture and furthers conformity to God’s will.

In contrast to Teresa, John’s treatment of desire is negative: all desires, no matter sensory, intellectual or spiritual are to be negated and purified. In agreement with Cassian and Teresa, John stresses that the soul needs to be greatly humbled and be detached from spiritual delights and consolations (John, 166). He lists many typical imperfections of beginners, among which I want you pay particular attention to pride and impatience. Pride expresses itself by “having a desire to speak of spiritual things in other’s presence” and to instruct rather than to be instructed (John, 164). Many beginners are impatient because they “want to become saints in a day” (John, 173). They measure God by themselves and not themselves by God (John, 177). The purification of passive night of the senses and spirits is needed in order to draw us closer to God, the union with the divine fire where the log burns “as beautiful as the fire itself.” (John, 205) For John, it seems that discernment relates to living an authentic spiritual life, rather than a process to make specific decisions.

Dear Faith, let me summarize for you lest you are overwhelmed by these teachings. You see that Cassian, Teresa, and John all emphasize the importance of humility and of placing yourself under others’ instruction. Humility is the prerequisite and the fruit of discernment. All of them exhort us to scrutinize the origins, directions, and intentions of desires by observing their later effects. When disordered desires are discerned, the purification begins. Cassian gives practice advice about how to discern our thoughts. Teresa cherishes good desires and provides us the chief discernment criteria—to love God and others. John seems to ignore the idea of discernment as a process of making particular decisions. His discernment is to discern the authenticity of our spiritual life. Faith, may I also suggest that in giving up the idea of “discernment”, you may attain the goal of discernment: the purification of disordered desires, the purity of heart, therefore the Desire of God — union with God? Discernment is not a technique but it is part of the way of cross. When you recognize which spirit is leading you by your growing familiarity with the Desire for God and purification of disordered immediate desires, you will simply know what do you in pleasing God. “Blessed the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8)

May the Lord grant you a discerning heart which desires to praise, revere, and serve Him!


Eastern Tradition

Behold the Beauty of the Lord

Behold the Beauty of the Lord:

the Significance of Icons in Prayers of the Christian East

When You said, “Seek My face,” my heart said to You, “Your face, O Lord, I shall seek.”

—Psalm 27:8, NRSV.

The word “icon” comes from the Greek word eikon, which means image or likeness. Praying with icons is a distinctive way of prayer in the Christian East. The silence and stillness that the icon brings is also cherished by Western Christians and leads them to discover praying with icons as a means to enter the stillness where God can be known and loved. The intention of this paper is to understand the significant place of icons in prayers in the Christian East through an evangelical’s observation. This paper consists of three arguments from psycho-theological, dogmatic-ecclesiastical, and mystic-eschatological perspectives, respectively. (1) The icon is an invitation to prayer. On one level, an icon is an image, which facilitates prayers through its signs and symbols. But an icon is much more than a beautiful religious painting. It is a purified image which sanctifies the place where it is located. In many ways, the icon serves as an aid for “a personal encounter with the Holy spirit in the person represented.” (2) The icon is a bearer of the Tradition of the Church. It carries the essential doctrines of Christianity and instructs the faithful to understand and carry out this prayer correctly. (3) The icon is a window of heaven, uniting the invisible, timeless, and eternal world and the visible, temporal, and fleeting one. It transforms the immediate prayers into the memory of the Church and carries the mystical experience of the Church to the faithful. Beholding the beauty of the Lord in love, we are transformed into His image and likeness, the purpose of our prayer and life— the living icons.

Invitation to Prayer

“The principal thing is to stand before God with the intellect in the heart, and to go on standing before him unceasingly day and night, until the end of life.” The statement of Theophan the Recluse, a Russian bishop in the nineteenth century, considers three significant points of understanding of prayer in the eastern Christian tradition. First, to pray is to “stand before God”. This implies that prayer is encountering God face to face. It does not necessarily need vocal words. In fact, standing before God is profoundly expressed in silence. Second, to pray is to stand “with the intellect in the heart”. The heart is the spiritual centre of a person, where “created humanity is directly open to uncreated love.” And mind and body are united in prayer. Third, praying is continual, “unceasingly day and night, until the end of life.” Prayer is not merely an activity, but the dignity of a human being.

Gazing at icons with complete attention is praying with them. Praying with icons is standing in the presence of God and descending with the mind into the heart. Despite its theological significance, the practical power of an icon is primarily its appeal to the eye. We can describe the eyes as the chief of the senses. Scientific evidences show that 80% of the information that we perceive is from vision. Speaking and thinking may be demanding at times, but we are forever seeing. Our society produces a continuous stream of rapidly changing images, which continually assaults our eyes and disturbs our minds. Just as we are responsible for what we eat, we also need to be responsible for what we see. “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” The Fathers also speak of the five senses as the “door” of the soul, and teach that we must “close our soul and strive to teach our body to keep itself aright in and by the grace of the Holy Spirit, so that our eyes may see with purity, so that our ears may hear in peace, and so that our heart does not nurture evil thoughts.” Praying before icons, we are taught “to fast with our eyes” in order to contemplate chastely the image of God that delights us.

Some recent psychological researches regard prayer as a learnable skill, which may involve cognitive, body-sensory and emotional aspects. For example, in her book When God talks back, Tanya Luhrmann argues that people learn to attend to their minds and emotions to find evidence of God, and both what they attend and how they attend change their experience of minds. Then, people begin to experience “a real, external, interacting living presence.” Vlad Naumescu claims that imagination could be seen as a key cognitive capacity through which people learn to experience God. He does not refer explicitly to praying with icons, but we can suggest that icons may facilitate this learning process, even on the level of images. For instance, our attention to the presence of God may be focused by the aid of icons. The scenes that icons depict can facilitate imagination in prayer. Symbolic actions before the icons, such as making the sign of cross, lighting candles, bowing or prostrating, and kissing the icons, trigger pious affections. Icons provide an opportunity for an encounter with God through the use of signs and symbols which are known as “border-crossers.” They allow us to draw together different levels of understanding and meaning and to experience different dimensions of human experience.

As mentioned above, an icon is far more than a beautiful image. The sole purpose of the icon is to lead us to prayer, contemplation, and worship. The icon has no distinctive value on its own, but draws all its value from its participation in the wholly Other. As Leonid Ouspensky says, “The icon never strive to stir the emotions of the faithful. Its task is not to provoke in them one or another natural human emotion, but to guide every emotion as well as the reason and all other faculties of human nature on the way towards transfiguration.” The icon is a sacramental channel of grace, allowing us to participate in the reality that it makes present. Since the icon contain the presence of what it signifies, standing before an icon is “standing before God”.

In many ways, therefore, icons can be considered as an invitation to prayer. The colour of icons brings silence and stillness, providing a sacred place for contemplation. Icons are made to give the impression of eye-to-eye contact with the person(s) depicted. We enter into a sense of gazing and being gazed at, and then respond to this interaction. The symbolic actions before icons sharpen our faculties for the reception of divine grace. Icons offer access through the gate of the visible to the mystery of the invisible, lifting up our hearts and prayers to God. As St. John Damascene said, “Icons evoke our hunger for God.”

Bearer of Tradition

In the Eastern tradition, praying with icons is not only a private prayer. In fact, the essential purpose of icons is for the liturgy “in which the message of the Word is complemented by the message of the icon.” Christians praying with icons at home see their home as a continuation of the church and their prayers as a continuation of the liturgy. The icon communicates the essential doctrines of Christianity of the Incarnation, salvation and human deification. Therefore, the icon has a crucial educational function, “not only in the teaching of the truths of the Christian life, but also in the education of the whole person.”

Before dealing with the various aspects of the place of the icon in the Church, we need first to offer a theological justification of the veneration of icons. As we know, the Old Testament strictly prohibits the making of images of God. For example, the second commandment of the Mosaic law: “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.” But in the New Testament, Paul calls Christ “the image of the invisible God”, and Jesus Himself says: “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” The defenders of images, e.g. St John of Damascus, St Theodore the Studite, and the Patriarch Nicephorus, claim that Christ’s incarnation made possible the painting of His face. “By His Incarnation, Christ put an end to Mosaic law and the proscription of images. The Old Testament gives way to the New testament, which reveals to us a true knowledge of God and liberates us from our former inevitable idolatry.” The prohibition of making images of the invisible God adumbrates the possibility to do so when God becomes visible.

The Ecumenical Council of 787 (Nicaea II) settled the iconoclastic controversy by confirming what the defenders of icons had formulated. “Icons should be kissed and that they are an object of veneration and honour, but not of real worship, which is reserved for Him Who is the subject of our faith and is proper for the divine nature.” The fathers distinguish sharply between “veneration,” which is accorded to icons, and “worship,” which is accorded only to God. Further, they emphasize the honour paid to the icon passes on to the prototype which it represents. As St John of Damascus says, “I do not bow down to matter, but to the Creator of matter, Who for my sake took on substance and Who through matter accomplished my salvation, and I shall not cease to honour matter, through which my salvation was accomplished.”

The final victory of the veneration of icons was at a Council in Constantinople in 843. The feast of “The Triumph of Orthodoxy” is still celebrated on the first Sunday in Great Lent. The kontakion, which is recited at this feast, concisely expresses the economy of our salvation and thereby the teaching on the image and its content:

No one could describe the Word of the Father;

But when He took flesh from you, O theotokos, He consented to be described,

and restored the fallen image to its former state by uniting it to divine beauty.

We confess and proclaim our salvation in word and images.

The beginning of the kontakion describes the divine Incarnation as the basis for the icon. The second part expresses the meaning of the Incarnation to restore “the fallen image to its former state by uniting it to divine beauty.” The last part ends with man’s answer to God; it is a confession of the saving truth of the Incarnation and of man’s participation in God’s work of salvation. Therefore, the icon is rendered a confession of the most basic and significant doctrine of Christianity: “God became man in order that man might become God.”

Through icons, the Church has cultivated an artistic “language” that expresses the same truth as the spoken language, and this language is clear and precise. “What a word communicates through hearing is what art shows silently through an image.” (Nicaea II) The Fathers see the icon as a Gospel for the illiterate. “Images are used in churches so that the illiterate could at least look at the walls to read what they are unable to read in books”, wrote St. Gregory the Great. In fact, in some instances, icons are more vivid than words in books. The icon can present simultaneously and concisely many things which may take some time to describe in words. Icons are also a concise means of remembering. St John of Damascus gives an example: “Many times, doubtless, when we do not have in mind the Passion of our Lord, upon seeing the icon of Christ’s Crucifixion, we recall His saving suffering.” As Ouspensky summarizes, the word and hymn of the Church sanctify our soul by means of hearing, the icon sanctifies by means of seeing.

The Gospel calls us to life in Christ; the icon represents this life. “If one of the heathens comes to you saying: show me your faith… you will take him to church and put him before all kinds of holy images”, says St John of Damascus. There is no icon without the image of a person: either Jesus Christ, the Theotokos, or a saint. But the icon does not convey the exact appearance of a particular person. The icon exhibits a person in his transformed and deified state. It shows us the body of a holy person, reflects the ascetic effort and expresses the joy of victory over the division and chaos in humanity. Therefore, the icon is “a teacher of the ascetic life in as much as it teaches us the doctrine of faith.” In this expressive way, icons lift us to the Prototypos, stir us to imitate their virtues, and help transform our character, our whole being. Icons do not only reveal the transfigured world of God, but also help us to participate in it.

As mentioned above, the icon’s purpose is liturgical. It participates in the liturgy along with the Gospel. In the Eastern tradition, the Gospel is not only a book for reading, but also a revered object: it is brought out in the liturgy for the faithful to kiss. In the similar way, the icon, “Gospel in colour,” is not merely for contemplation but also to be venerated with prayer. We have discovered the functions of icons as an aid for prayer and a form of education. However, the icon is much more than these: it is an object for veneration. If an icon is not venerated, it ceases to be an icon. As Pavel Florensky has explained, “Aside from its relationship to light, aside from its function, a window is, so to speak, nonexistent, dead. It is not a window; removed from the light, it is but wood and glass… So it is with icons, the visible representations of mysterious supernatural apparitions.” The veneration of icons does not end with matter; it requires a transition: from matter to spirit, from typos (the direct image) to the Prototypos (Christ), and from there to the Archetypos (God the Father). If we are to fully understand this transition, we must move to the foremost message: the icon is the unity and continuity between visible and invisible world.

Window of Heaven

The icon is a stylized image that is a “kind of window between earthly and celestial worlds.” The icon is certainly not the image of a disincarnate world. It reflects a transformed, transfigured, and eschatological state of the world. The fall of man led the entire creation alienated from its divinely-given purpose. “The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains” for the hour of redemption. After the Incarnation of Christ, man was restored to his original beauty. The whole of creation was also called to glorification of its Redeemer. Thus material elements are no longer profane. Through proper spiritual use, they become expressions of the new order of reality. In this way, icons that constitute the expression of the visible world can find their true dimensions and sanctity in reflecting God’s majesty. The icon opens a boundless vision which includes the past and the future of the world. It expresses the world of God as it was before the fall and as it will be in its eschatological perfection. Archbishop Stylianos claims that the icon carries the dogmatic memory which replaces and transforms the immediate. “Just as Christ conquered death through death, so also the icon, with its immediacy, abolishes the naturalistic immediacy of the world and turns it into memory in God.” In this sense, the prayers of the faithful before icons are transformed, beyond their immediacy, into the memory of the Church.

On the other hand, icons reflect the mystical experience of the Church. Icons do not merely bear the teachings of the Church, but also carry her prayer tradition. The iconographers do not write icons “from themselves.” Their icons are deeply rooted in the Church Tradition. The role of the iconographers is like that of who write or preach. Just as spiritual integrity is expected of the priests, so it is of the iconographers. The icon grows from prayers. “The icon is an embodied prayer. It is created in prayer and for prayer, whose driving force is the love of God and yearning for Him as perfect Beauty.” In this way, the icon brings the prayer of the Church to the faithful who contemplate it and pray before it.

The icon has cosmic meaning. The Greek word “cosmos” means beauty and goodness. Dostoevsky declares, “Beauty will save the world.” Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite interprets Beauty as one of the names of God in his relation to human persons. In his words “man was created according to the eternal model, the Archetype of Beauty.” Evdokimov believes that man has been bathed in the light of the Beauty. By nature, man thirsts for beauty and yearns to see the face of God! As the Psalmist cries from his heart, “Your face, O Lord, I shall seek.” Through the icon of Christ, we see the face of God-become-man. The icon, being “a vision of God”, invites us to participate into the transfiguration. “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”

The icon is mystical. As Paul says, “this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” The symbolic language of the icon itself is not sufficient to move from the man to the divine. It is the grace and action of the Holy Spirit. The icon speaks about Divine Energy and about light. If man is transformed by the icon, then the uncreated light penetrates the depth of his being. In the words of Macarius the Great, “The soul which has been perfectly illuminated by that indescribable beauty of the luminous glory of the face of Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit… is all eye, all light, all face.” The illumination of man is the “divination” which the Fathers talk. Participation in the Divine Energy leads man himself to become light.

Every icon portrays a person. St Theodore the Studite states, “The icon of someone does not depict his nature but his person.” It is the love that unites Christ’s human nature and divine nature. Through the icon of Christ, the place of his presence, we encounter Christ his person in love. The love that is shown in the veneration of the icon renders to Christ and through Christ, we enter into a direct relationship with God the Father. This attitude of the person praying before the icon is appropriate to “the inhabitants of the heavenly Jerusalem, who are able to see God in everything.”

We are influenced progressively by what we contemplate. A Christian who contemplates the Risen Christ through the icon and purifies himself progressively becomes an icon of God—a living icon. “Created in the image and likeness of God”, we defaced the divine reflection in the Fall. The Fathers distinguish the “image” of God and the “likeness” of God: we are given the image of God at our creation, but the “likeness” of God will be bestowed only in the heavenly kingdom. “Man is an icon of God, but only insofar as he is fully man, radiating the presence of Christ.” This is an invitation to us to see a Face of Christ in every face.

To summarize, the icon invites and instructs us to pray. It brings us the prayer of the Church and transforms our prayers into her memory. It reveals the beauty of what it represents and what we behold. By it we are transformed. I believe that an experiential knowledge of icons would be beneficial for everyone’s spiritual growth, for both Eastern and Western Christians. As a communal tool in the Christian East, icons link the contemplation of the Church and the private prayers of the faithful. To what extent, can our personal prayer practices be linked to a living community of faith? The notion that we are “living icons” of God makes every ministry a kind of “sacrament” of the presence of the Lord. How do we respond to the invitation to restore a face to those “without a face”? “One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.”


Martin Luther and Teresa of Avila On the Lord’s Prayer

To this day I suckle at the Lord’s prayer like a child, and as an old man eat and drink from it and never get my fill. It is the very best prayer, even better than the Psalter, which is so very dear to me. It is surely evident that a real master composed and taught it.

— Martin Luther

A German Protestant theologian and a Spanish Catholic mystic, at first glance, it seems that there is little commonality between Martin Luther and Teresa of Avila. Recent researches, however, show us that they may share more than we thought. For example, through comparing their theologies, Donald Christopher Nugent argues that “an evangelical theology can be mystical and that a mystical theology can be evangelical.”

In this paper, I am interested in the question whether Luther and Teresa, both as masters of prayer, have some common teachings about prayer. In light of the centrality of the Lord’s prayer in the Christian tradition, I will focus on their reflections on this prayer in Luther’s An Exposition of the Lord’s Prayer for Simple Laymen together with Teresa’s The Way of Perfection. First, I will briefly introduce the historical backgrounds of their writings. Second, I will compare their insights from the Lord’s prayer sentence by sentence. Finally, I will conclude with considering what their insights may offer to us now. In my opinion, although approaching to the Lord’s prayer from different perspectives, both Luther and Teresa emphasize the importance of the knowledge of God and ourselves, genuine humility and obedience, and the love and fear of God in prayer.

Luther and Teresa in Context

Martin Luther, who was born in Germany in 1483, is well-known as “the father of Protestantism”. On his way of becoming a lawyer, a bolt of lighting frightened him into becoming a monk. He joined the Augustinian Hermits in Erfurt and study theology there. In 1512, Luther became a professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg. But he had problems of finding peace with God. He was taught to please God and earn His grace through his good work. But no matter how hard he worked, what he found was only exhaustion. Sometime in 1515, Luther found the answer to his problems. When studying Romans in a tower of the monastery, his eyes were opened and he realized the meaning of “the righteousness of God” which once caused his difficulty. It is not the righteousness by which God condemns us but the righteousness by which God justifies us by faith. In 1517, Luther was compelled to act in response to the abuse of indulgences by posting his Ninety-Five Theses for debate, which instead triggered the Protestant Reformation.

In 1519, Luther went to Leipzig to debate with John Eck, a leading theologian. In this debate, Luther appealed to Scripture as his final authority. Eck cleverly pushed Luther into admitting that a general council could err and into approving some of the teachings of Jan Hus. In 1520, Luther published three major treaties to clarify his theology. The same year, he was condemned as a heretic and excommunicated by the pope. In this religious context, Luther wrote his Exposition of the Lord’s Prayer in 1519. As we will discuss later, his understanding of the Lord’s prayer rightly reflects his developing theology of “justification by faith” and “Scripture alone”.

When Luther made his famous attack on indulgences in 1517, Teresa was only two years old. Born in an old Spanish family, after her mother’s death, in 1531, Teresa was entrusted by her father to an Augustinian convent where she felt a call to the monastic life. In 1536, she ran away from home and joined the Carmelite monastery of the Incarnation in Avila. Like Luther, entering a religious order did not solve all Teresa’s spiritual problems. She had difficulties with her spiritual life, until 1554, she had a deeper experience of conversion. Since that, her life of prayer progressed rapidly. But her confessors doubted her unusual experiences came from the devil and asked her to write an account of her spiritual experiences, which she did in her Life. About the same time, she was also asked by her sisters to write some guidance for their prayer, which then became The Way of Perfection. In this book, Teresa comments the Lord’s prayer and defends the “mental prayer”. Her contemporary Spanish theologians were saying that ordinary people should confine themselves to vocal prayers. Against them, Teresa stresses the importance of praying with mind, but without despising vocal prayers.

Teresa was not merely a contemplative. She is also remembered as a reformer of her order. After facing much opposition, in 1562, she found St Joseph’s house in Avila where the strict Carmelite rules could be observed. Her Life and Way of Perfection were written during the period of 1562-1565. From 1567, she also found other similar houses throughout Spain and a new order known as the Discalced Carmelites came out.

Luther and Teresa on the Lord’s Prayer

Both Luther and Teresa reflect the Lord’s prayer on how to pray and what to ask in prayer. Luther believes that the Lord’s prayer gives us a patten to pray: “all other prayers that do not understand and express the content and meaning of this one are untrustworthy.” In a treatise to his barber A Simple Way to Pray, he suggests ways to mediate and expand on the Lord’s prayer. Teresa suggests that the Lord’s prayer is the most sublime and comprehensive of all short prayers, through which “the Lord has taught us the whole method of prayer of high contemplation, from the very beginnings of mental prayer, to Quiet, and Union.” Both of them believe that the Lord’s prayer provides us a model or a path to pray, thus it is worthy to compare their reflections in each sentence of the prayer.

Our Father, who art in heaven.

For Luther, the address “Father” is so friendly, sweet, intimate, and warmhearted, which reminds us our identity as the children of God. Teresa also believes that the first words show God’s great love for us. This address also reminds us how we should treat and honour the One whom we submit our petitions, and how we should put ourselves in His presence. Both of them insist the importance of humility and sincere prayer from the heart. Luther believes that the essence and nature of prayer is “lifting up our heart to the Lord.” Teresa notes that we do not need to feel strange in God’ presence, but we must take to Him very humbly as we talk with our father.

Luther points out that “who art in heaven” leads to a knowledge of self—what a miserable life we live on earth, which gives us a fervent yearning and moves us to pray.

For Teresa, however, this phrase emphasizes the importance of knowing where the Father must be sought. “Remember how important it is for you to have understood this truth—that the Lord is within us and that we should be there with Him.” God is within us and the place we can be alone and look upon Him is our soul. Thus, she explains the nature and importance of the prayer of recollection. “It is called recollection because the soul collects together all the faculties and enters within itself to be with its God.” For wandering minds, it is of great important not only to believe but to learn by experience.

Interestingly, both Luther and Teresa have comments on the value of vocal prayers. Although Luther urges us not to pray only with the lips because the heart says more, he also believes that “no one should depend on his heart and presume to pray without uttering words unless he is well trained in the Spirit and has experience in warding off stray thoughts.” For him, vocal prayer is a great gift of God, and it is so for Teresa. She insists that one must be attentive to the Father who dwells in him when reciting vocal prayers and this active recollection will help to prepare for contemplation.

Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come

In the petition “hallowed be thy name”, Luther considers how we misuse the name of God and what the children of God are like. “We profane God’s name when we do not live as his children.” Thus, he insists that God’s name must be hallowed in our whole life, not only with our lips but also our soul and all the members of our body. Again he reminds us that the petition is a lesson and indicator of our miserable life on earth, because no one is able to hallow God’s name perfectly, otherwise he would not longer need to pray the Lord’s prayer. Thus, this petition contends against our pride and arrogance and humbles us. “God becomes everything and man becomes nothing.”

In the petition “thy kingdom come”, he discusses two kingdoms: kingdom of the devil and kingdom of God. He suggests that the kingdom of God is a kingdom of truth and righteousness, where we are free from sins and have been subjected to God. In this kingdom, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” In Luther’s opinion, Christ has brought us with His very self and the kingdom is now within us. He urges us to give our inmost self to God and seek for kingdom of God itself rather than the fruit of the kingdom.

Teresa treats these petitions in a different way. She considers what we ask and when we ask for this kingdom: “of the many joys to be found in the kingdom of Heaven, the chief is that we shall have no more to do with the things of earth; …when we see that all are hallowing and praising the Lord, and are blessing His name, and that none is offending Him. For all love Him there…” She insists that God would not tell us to ask for impossible things because He would like to give us a foretaste of the coming Kingdom now. She explains the prayer of quiet in which God begins to give His kingdom here and now. In her description, this prayer is a “supernatural” state in which one enters into the peace that God gives through His presence. The soul “sees that it is in the kingdom, or at least is near to the King who will give it the kingdom.” We cannot reach the state for ourselves, no matter how hard we try. It is purely God’s grace. Although with different languages, both Luther and Teresa mention the relationship between union with Christ and the foretaste of the coming kingdom.

Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven

Luther believes this petition especially brings about genuine humility and obedience. In his opinion ,God’s will being done means that His commandments are kept, because God reveals His will through these commandments. Thus, in order to know and understand God’s will, we need to learn to distinguish the old self in ourselves. He notes that God often breaks our will and let us learn to know a will superior to our own will, so that His will be done. It is of great importance to discern the ways in which our will is evil. He insists that we should have a God-fearing will. “A good will is found only where there is no will. Where there is no will, God’s will, which is the very best, will be present.” He also reflects the the connections of the first three petitions: no one can honour God’s name unless he is righteous and lives in the kingdom of God; no one is in the kingdom unless he is free of sin; only those whose own will is uprooted and replaced by God’s will can be free of sin.

Teresa reflects on what the Lord desires us to give the Father in this petition. Like Luther, Teresa urges us to surrender our wills completely to God: “Unless we make a total surrender of our will to the Lord, and put ourselves in His hands so that He may do in all things what is best for us in accordance with His will, He will never allow us to drink of it. This is the perfect contemplation of which you asked me to write to you.” She views Jesus as the one in whom God’s will was done completely. Like Luther notes that a total surrender of our will may be painful, Teresa believes that love is the measure of our ability to bear crosses, since the Lord gives us in proportion to our love for Him. She indicates that for such an offering, the reward the Lord gives us is great: “He begins to make such a friend of the soul that not only does He restore its will to it but He gives it His own also.”

Give us this day our daily bread

Both Luther and Teresa believe that this petition teaches us where we may seek consolation and nourishment. But what does the “bread” mean? Although Luther and Teresa both agree that we are not asking for earthly food, but for heavenly and spiritual bread, the food for the soul, this petition may be the place where Luther and Teresa have the biggest different understanding. For Luther, the “bread” is one name of the Word of God—Jesus Himself. It comes to us directly or through a person. “Christians ought to be richly and abundantly supplied with this bread.” Thus, we need to pray for our spiritual leaders, through whom God gives us the Word. He insists that the Word should be given through words and sacraments together. “It is a bad situation that in our time so much stress is laid on saying and having masses said, while unfortunately neglecting the most important part, the one for which the masses were instituted, namely, the proclamation.” For Teresa, however, the “bread” means the Holy Sacrament and she condemns Lutherans’ “irreverence” of the Holy Sacrament by saying that they go to church meaning to offend Him rather than to worship Him. Their understandings reflects the conflicts between Reformation and Counter-Reformation in the sixteenth century.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us

Luther notes there are two modes of forgiveness: one is bitter and hard, for those who have strong faith and the other is easier, for beginners. He reminds us that those who are blind to their own sins and those who judge the sins of others can not pray this petition.

Teresa links this petition with the previous petitions of “give us daily bread” and “God’s will be done”. She notes that this petition is “as we forgive” not “as we will forgive” because one who surrendered his will to God must have done this already. She notes that people who have been drawn to closer to God through contemplation in the prayer of union will be willing to forgive others. Although she realizes people are in various degrees in surrendering their will to God and forgiving others, she urges us to do what we can and to be assured that God accepts everything.

And lead us not into temptation or trials

Both Luther and Teresa note that God’s concern of our mindfulness of temptations and trails is to teach us the knowledge of ourselves and God, to perfect us in humility. “The person who is truly humble is always doubtful about his own virtues; very often they seem more genuine and of greater worth when he sees them in his neighbours.” Teresa also gives counsels concerning different kinds of temptations and discerning true and false humilities. She says that true humility comes with peace and delight, and expands the soul’s capacity to serve God. She stresses that the way we can be free from temptations is to use the love and fear given by God. She urges us to always walk in the love and fear of God.

But deliver us from evil. Amen

Luther notes that the request of release from evils should be done in a proper manner and at the very last. He insists that we need to first examine our faith before prayer. “Amen” expresses the faith we should have in praying every petition and the faithful promise of God. Luther concludes, “A prayer is not good and right because of its length, devoutness, sweetness, or its plea for temporal or eternal goods. Only that prayer is acceptable which breathes a firm confidence and trust that it will be heard because of the reliable pledge and promise of God. Not your zeal but God’s Word and promise render your prayer good. This faith, based on God’s words, is also the true worship; without it all other worship is sheer deception and error.” I think that his emphasis on the importance of faith and God’s word in prayer reflects his developing theology during this period.

Teresa concludes her commentary by stressing some key insights: we should be aware of whom we are addressing, who we are and what we are asking for; the Lord’s prayer includes the spiritual journey from beginning through the prayer of recollection, to the prayer of quiet and the prayer of union; praying the Lord’s prayer is a source of great consolation. “As we repeat the Paternoster [the Lord’s prayer] so many times daily, then, as I have said, let us delight in it and strive to learn from so excellent a Master the humility with which He prays, and all the other things that have been described.”


Luther believes that the Lord’s prayer gives us a patten to pray and he suggests us to mediate the meaning of each petition and expand the Lord’s prayer with our own language. He stresses the role of faith and Scripture in prayer. Luther’s teaching concerns more about the nature and implications of the prayer. Teresa, however, aims to lead her readers to mystical prayer. She believes that the Lord’s prayer includes a spiritual journey of different stages of prayers. Her reflections are more related to the individual persons and their growth in prayer and personal relationship with God. Even though they held different theological views on some topics, both of their teachings and reflections stress the importance of the knowledge of God and ourselves, genuine humility and obedience, and the love and fear of God in prayer. Luther’s simple way of prayer and Teresa’s mystical prayer both encourage us to continue to discover in the Lord’s prayer different paths of drawing closer to God.