I am going to talk to you about prayer and meditation and to begin with I should like to contrast the one from the other. Prayer is addressed to God, it is a cry or an act of adoration, and it is turned Godwards. Meditation is a condition of the human soul, a moment when we go inward as deep as we can to reach the point within ourselves which is silence, deep contemplative silence that allows thoughts, images, experience to be stilled down and at the same time to emerge true and fragrant. The two go together in a way because those of us who use what one calls ready-made prayers, that is prayers, which at a certain moment gushed out of a human soul as a cry, as blood running out of a wound, those people must learn to commune with the experience which is included in the words, and that requires listening to them, reading them attentively, trying to understand them and then stay with them not in an intellectual exercise of analysis but by communing with the thought of that point of silence, which I have mentioned before. So that preparation for prayer may include also a deep meditation of the words or the images which they evoke but prayer itself is turned Godwards and prayer is not possible in the truest sense of the word unless we have a God to whom we can turn, a God who is real in our experience or at least in our faith, in that kind of certainty which the Epistle to the Hebrews defines as faith. 

And that means that our God must be personal, one cannot pray to an impersonal God, and in that sense again, our Christian faith provides us with something which is so wonderful – the Lord Jesus Christ, God himself who has taken flesh, God himself who has become a man, God who has got now a human name and a human face. 

You can see here an icon of the Lord Jesus Christ. An icon is an image that reminds us of the fact, the historical fact that God transcendental, unknowable has become intimate, has become one of us, and we can look into His eyes. 

At the same time one must give a warning about icons. Icons are not meant to be portraits of God, they are the expression of an experience. It is not an attempt at painting Christ as He was, we do not know His face in the days of the flesh but we know who He is, the Risen Christ ever alive within the experience of every Christian and of the total community. This is why icons can be at the same time objects of meditation and a door for prayer, an object of meditation in the same way in which when we look at a human face we ponder and ask ourselves, “What does this face convey to us about the person?” We don’t need look at this icon for a long time, we take it in and then we live with the message which we received from the eyes, from the face but then a moment comes when we must close our eyes, close our imagination and stand before God invisible, unsearchable and yet present in our midst, so wonderfully close, more close to ourselves than our consciousness itself. 

But how do we pray then? We pray by making ourselves present to a God who is always present to us, a God who is there. We are absent at times. How often I hear people say, “I don’t know where to begin with prayer.” Prayer begins at a moment when we put up ourselves in the invisible presence of God, keep quite, silent and say, “Lord, You are here, I am here also, how wonderful it is to be together.” And then what can we say? At times our heart is too full, we have so many feelings, so many thoughts but at times we are a blank. And again so many people say, “How can I pray? Why doesn’t God answer?” My answer would be to that, “Because God has spoken first and your prayer must be your answer. Take the Gospel, read a passage, receive its message and then turn to God and tell Him what you have got to say about what He has said to you.” And you will see that there are moments when you can say that with joy, say, “Lord, we are at one, You and I, we are at one in feeling, in thought, in attitude. O, how good! I know You so well now and I have discovered myself in You.” There are moments when we will say with shame, “You speak, and I have nothing to say,” or worse, “You speak and all I have got to say is, ‘No, Lord, I can accept none of your words’.” All that are prayers and they will be sincere, true prayers born from the depth of our person. But there will be moments also when the presence of God becomes so clear, so overwhelming, so wonderful and then all we can do is to fall down in spirit and in body before Him and adore Him in silence, rejoice that He has come so close that He is with us. And then we can pour out the agonies of our soul, our doubts, our problems, our hopes or exult in the joy of being His children. 

I want now to come back to a point which I left aside, namely, meditation, and I would like you to look at this icon, which is an icon of the Mother of God, and ask yourselves or listen to me asking myself, what it conveys to us. 

First of all what strikes me in this icon is the serenity and the stillness of it and this is characteristic of all Russian icons – they are not aggressive. When you look at them they are there, offering themselves to you unreservedly for you to see, to examine, to perceive but there is no movement towards you as though the icon or the person represented on the icon was trying to take hold of you. The Mother of God looks serenely at you, straight at you and says, “Here am I. I have given birth to the Saviour of the world, to Christ, to your own God who has in and through Me become true, real man.” And this She indicates by putting Her hand towards the divine Child so that we are aware that the icon is an icon of the Incarnation, not a simple glorification of the Mother but a theological statement – God has become man, the fullness of God has abided in a human frame. And then if you look more attentively at the icon, at the features, you see that an icon is made in a very peculiar way: ordinary features are just indicated but a few of them are underlined very powerfully. They are underlined so that they become particularly significant – the eyes, the brow – and meditating whether you look at an icon or whether you reflect in your deeper self, thoughtfully on life, on yourself is in the image of this icon. If you leave aside the icon and go deep inwards, you must be as still as this icon is, you must become immobile as it were. 

You know, meditation is something like bird-watching. Bird-watching consists in going into field or wood, settling there and becoming so still, so quiet that no animal around you can perceive your presence and at the same time be intensely alive to every possible movement, intensely alive to anything that may happen. If you are not alive enough, vigilant enough, life will pass you by, the birds will have flown away long before you have noticed their presence. Meditation must be like this: watching, watching attentively, with complete stillness, complete openness, quiet, serene and still, and listening with one’s whole being to what one’s own soul has got to say, one’s own experience has got to say and also to what God may say. A friend of mine said to me once, “The Holy Spirit is like a great shy Bird. He will settle down at a distance, don’t frighten Him, be still, be quiet and He will come close, ever closer to you and then His presence will reveal to you the depth of things, the meaning of things, then He will teach you to discover your own self and at the same time to discover God.” 

Meditation is an attempt at going inward but it would be a mistake to imagine that going inward leads us nowhere else but to our own small personal self, — at the very depth of ourselves there is a vastness, our rootedness in God. And so meditation that begins by entering our inner self as it were and being still leads us to emerge into all the vastness of God, and it is not in vain that Christ has said, “I am the door, whoever will enter through Me, will enter and come out into eternal pastures.”