Today, I finished a weeks-long reading and reflection of The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, which has been on my to-read list since around 2013. I’ve greatly benefitted from the delay, since seminary and the 3 years following graduation gave me the opportunity to find a sense of home and peace about my theology and spirituality as a catholic Pentecostal who is ordained in the Anglican Church. What I’ve found in these desert fathers, with their wisdom and the content of their prayers, is that Asuza didn’t come to the experience of God’s intimacy before Aleppo. Parham, Tomlinson, and McPherson had much to learn from Babbai, Isaac of Nineveh, and John the Elder.
But equally striking was the way their counsel on prayer affirmed this Pentecostal spirituality. The idea of waiting on God, on being fully focused on him in prayer, on letting the Holy Spirit guide your petitions, and the ecstatic joy of being known and loved by God while in prayer are present, and highly valued in the writings of our ancient brothers in the Syriac tradition. “What time is more holy and more appropriate for sanctification and for the receiving of divine gifts than the time of prayer, when a person is speaking with God?” -Mar Isaac of Nineveh (Discourse XXII on prayer). The very process of the Pentecostal movements origins are prophetically anticipated by the call to prayer in the desert.
But what captured my attention even further was the way that what Pentecostals have often referred to as being “slain in the Spirit” and less commonly, “resting in the Spirit” makes its appearance in the spirituality of the desert fathers. “But beyond the boundary, there exists wonder, not prayer. From that point onwards, the mind ceases from prayer; there is the capacity to see, but the mind is not praying at all.” -Mar Isaac of Nineveh (Discourse XXII on prayer). Isaac refers to what the ancient fathers called “spiritual prayer” (which he believes to be a misnomer) and “contemplation”–when the tongue, the mind, and the physical actions of the one who is praying cease because of entering the presence of the holiness of God. When the Christian ceases to do, but can only be with God. And, accurately, Isaac attributes this to the fullness of God’s grace.
The seed of this is a perpetual commitment to hearing the Scriptures and prayer before God. “Struggling in prayer” is a frequent call in the Syriac fathers–not as a striving of action, but wrestling against our fleshly desires to justify ourselves by action. Resting upon the justification declared over us by Christ in our baptism empowers all prayer. As we continue in that rest, we may come to experience the foretaste of the heavenly rest: resting in the Spirit–where, even for a few moments, we know the joy of justification without our doubts, without our personal efforts for holiness, and without the tempting condemnation of the devil.