A few months ago I visited Nativity of the Theotokos Monastery in Saxonburg, PA, to venerate a myrrh-streaming icon of the Mother of God that was visiting there. When the crowds of clergy, monastics and pilgrims had thinned a bit, I was able to spend some time sitting in the back of the small monastery church, not consciously praying, just taking in the presence of this holy icon in this holy place. Afterward I described this to our priest, a bit whimsically, as “spiritual sunbathing.” ¶ The metaphor reminded me of this well-known passage from St Basil the Great’s On the Holy Spirit (ch. 9, 22–23):
¶ Like the sunshine, which permeates all the atmosphere, spreading over land and sea, and yet is enjoyed by each person as though it were for him alone, so the Spirit pours forth his grace in full measure, sufficient for all, and yet is present as though exclusively to everyone who can receive him. To all creatures that share in him he gives a delight limited only by their own nature, not by his ability to give. ¶ As clear, transparent substances become very bright when sunlight falls on them and shine with a new radiance, so also souls in whom the Spirit shines become spiritual themselves and a source of grace for others.
¶ Our Church’s consistent teaching is that prayer is struggle, askesis. This has sometimes made me wonder whether this kind of quiet “prayer by osmosis” might be harmful or deluded. I’ve been reading, with some profit I hope, Archimandrite Irenei’s potent little book The Beginnings of a Life of Prayer. (Quoted in a previous post.) In the midst of many very strong words about our need for relentless struggle in our spiritual life, Archimandrite Irenei includes a section on the need for quietude, hesychia, if we are even to begin to approach true prayer. We need to make a habit of “savoring silence,” not only in appointed times of prayer, but in every corner of our lives. He writes, strikingly, that an honest practice of silence will lead us back to struggle:
¶ Before we obtain some small degree of quietude, we stand to pray and naïvely believe we are wholly focused on the Lord our Saviour; but after we have tasted of this precious stillness, we stand before God and realize that our attention is pulled in countless directions, often going — unwittingly — to places dark and far from divine grace. So a calmed and quiet heart enables us to see our struggle as it really is, and so make a beginning in its true improvement. (p. 96)
¶ So to give my best current answer to whether the “spiritual sunbathing” I’ve described might be harmful or deluded: Yes it could, if it became a habit in and of itself, a lazy blissing-out; but as part of a watchful life in the Church, I hope it can be a fitting offering to God.