Hannah’s despondency and weeping were linked with fasting. Anyone who is sad about something does not want, and does not need, food. We could conclude from this that godly sadness is linked with fasting. One who lives in the atmosphere of repentance has no appetite to eat, and in any case keeps the fasts of our Church. There has been some discussion recently about reducing fasting. We know, however, that, whenever people become aware of sin within them, the first thing they do is to love fasting. What is more, they associate fasting with prayer. This clearly shows that fasting ought to be part of the atmosphere of godly sadness, which is true repentance, and that it is inspired by God’s grace.
Why was Hannah so despondent about her physical inability to bear children? There are a number of reasons. The main ones are as follows.
Some people may assert that her despondency was the result of her rivalry with Peninnah, Elkanah’s other wife, who had children, and was perhaps due to the contempt that she sensed Peninnah had for her. This does not, however, seem to be true, at least in Hannah’s case, as proved by the prayer that she made to God, which we shall consider later. In it she says nothing at all against Peninnah. All the same, we ought to note how awful polygamy is from this point of view as well, and to respect monogamy, which Christianity introduced, even more highly.
Her pain came from the reproach of childlessness. In those days being childless was regarded as a curse. Barrenness in particular was seen as a kind of punishment from God. The reproach of childlessness did not operate on a humanistic or moral level, but on a purely theological one. Every Israelite woman, since she read the Scriptures that spoke of the coming of the Messiah, wanted to contribute to this coming. If she did not have children, she regarded it as a punishment from God that she would not be included among the forebears of the Messiah. The problem, therefore, was theological rather than ethical.
Hannah’s despondency was also connected with the awareness of mortality, as well as with the desire for immortality. We are familiar with the fact that Adam and Eve lost immortality through their fall. Having distanced themselves from God, they lost the true life and fell into this valley of weeping. The birth of children remained as a consolation in this state, because they saw in children the extension and development of the human race. St John Chrysostom says in his analysis of this viewpoint that, if childlessness is still unbearable now, that is to say, in the period of the New Covenant, in spite of the fact that we have been called to another life and are on our way to heaven and virginity is highly praised, it was considered a much greater evil then. Indeed, in those days people did everything for the present, for the things of this life, so “being barren and childless was a condemnation”. Childlessness cannot be regarded nowadays as a reproach and a curse in that sense, because there is the possibility now of another life to a greater degree.
In addition, Hannah did not want a child in order to satisfy her selfishness, but to dedicate it to God. As St John Chrysostom again comments, Hannah did not simply long for a child, “but to offer up fruit to God”. She did not even want a child to satisfy Elkanah and to attract his attention, “but so that she might display some fruit for God”. It is obvious here that her purpose was holy. Her aim was the glory of God.
extract from the chapter Hanna's Dispondency
* * *
Interpretative Comments on Hannah’s Prayer
It is worth noting the timing of Hannah’s prayer. The prayer was made immediately after eating. She devoted to prayer a time that other people devote to relaxation. Holy Scripture says, “So Hannah arose after they had finished eating in Shiloh, and she sat down before the Lord” (1 Kg./1 Sam. 1:9). This means that it is always time for prayer. We can pray throughout the day and even the night. Grief impels the heart to pray. As a mother constantly remembers the sick child whom she loves, regardless of whether she is sleeping or eating; or as someone continuously remembers someone dear to him, regardless of the work he is doing, so it is with prayer. Someone who loves God, who believes in Him and who turns to Him in suffering, prays constantly and has uninterrupted remembrance of God. Nothing is capable of expelling the memory of God from his nous, even mealtimes.
Of course, it should be noted that food is eaten to keep us alive. We do not eat to satisfy the passions of gluttony or love of good food. I make a distinction between these two passions because gluttony is the pleasure of the stomach, as Abba Dorotheos tells us. It is the satisfaction gained from filling our stomach with food. Love of good food, on the other hand, is the satisfaction of the sense of taste. People in the second category are not so interested in quantity as in quality. However, we ought to eat in order to live and in order to be able to carry out our spiritual asceticism and work. Food should not become an obstacle to prayer. The holy Fathers stress that we should eat only as much as can eaten without prayer stopping. That is the measure. In this way we learn how much food our organism needs. Someone who prays with his nous perceives that, when he consumes too much food, prayer becomes difficult and may even cease completely. It is a fact that eating a lot darkens the nous and after overconsumption of food and drink many sins are committed.
We take this opportunity to emphasise that prayer precedes and follows food. In the Orthodox Church we realise that God is the Giver of everything good. We are well aware that the ingredients that we use to prepare food are not simply products of nature, which we can acquire through our own abilities, nor products that we buy from our local supermarket, but gifts of God. That is why before and after eating we should say the appropriate prayers appointed by the Church. Through the prayers that we say, we thank God for the gifts that He has given us, we ask Him to bless them, and we also beseech Him to give us His heavenly Kingdom. Thus food becomes a spiritual act of worship. Anyone who is present during meals in monasteries, especially those on the Holy Mountain, understands this very well. Mealtimes are linked with worship in church. On feast days after the Divine Liturgy, the monks make their way to the refectory from the church with candles, incense and the icon of the saint whose feast is being celebrated, singing the dismissal hymn of the day. During the meal there is a reading, so that attention is not wholly centred on the food. At the end, after the prayer, they return to the church. In this way everyone realises that mealtimes are not something isolated, simply times for indulgence. St John Chrysostom says, “A table that begins and ends with prayer will never be empty, but will be the most abundant of sources providing us with all good things.” Eating without praying amounts to stealing God’s gifts, because we actually regard them as being exclusively our own, instead of belonging to God, Who offers them to us as gifts so that we may live.
Noetic Prayer of the Heart
From this whole analysis of ours, the existence of prayer of the heart is obvious.
In the passage we are considering, which describes the prayer made by Samuel’s mother, Hannah, in the Temple (1 Kg./1 Sam. 1:9-18), all the characteristic signs of what is known as noetic prayer or prayer of the heart are described. The Fathers teach that noetic prayer and even theoria of God existed in the Old Testament. There were figures in the Old Testament who attained to noetic prayer and even the vision of the glory of God. It is well known that Moses prayed to God silently and God said to him, “Why do you cry to Me” (Ex. 14:15). Also, the Prophet Elijah prayed after putting his head between his knees, which indicates the hesychastic method of practising noetic prayer. There is also David’s familiar prayer: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and everything within me, bless His holy name” (Ps. 102:1). These too are expressions and signs of noetic prayer.
The holy Fathers, including St Dionysios the Areopagite, St Gregory the Theologian, St Gregory of Nyssa, St Maximos the Confessor, St Symeon the New Theologian, St Gregory Palamas and St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, wrote that there are three stages of spiritual perfection: purification of the heart, illumination of the nous and deification. Some people maintain that this division is influenced by Greek philosophy and the mystical rites of ancient idolatry. However, this is not so. If we investigate carefully, we shall see that the ancient Greeks, particularly the philosophers, spoke about purification and illumination, but they meant something very different from the teachings of the holy Fathers. In the context of Platonic philosophy, cleansing means the mortification of the desiring and incensive aspects of the soul, because Platonists believed that man consists primarily of his reason, and both desire and anger were the result of the fall. So when they spoke about purification they were mainly referring to the mortification of these desiring and incensive powers of the soul. Also, when the ancient philosophers talked about illumination, they meant knowledge of the archetypes of beings. They believed that when man fell, he forgot these archetypes, and this constitutes his condemnation and tragedy. In Orthodoxy, however, purification, illumination and deification are differently interpreted and have a different character.
It should be stated that when the holy Fathers spoke about purification, illumination and deification, they were influenced neither by classical Greek philosophy nor by Neoplatonism, but they had experienced and lived this reality. This experience of communion with God exists, though admittedly in a different form, in the Old Testament as well as in the New Testament. The experience of man’s journey to God is one throughout Holy Scripture. If we examine many scriptural passages, we clearly see that they describe these states of the spiritual life. I have no intention of doing that here. At this point I simply wish to emphasise that in Hannah’s case, which we are now considering, the existence of prayer of the heart (noetic prayer) is plainly obvious. Later on, when we look in detail at the life of the Prophet Samuel, we shall also see examples of theoria of God. For this reason, I believe that, if we interpret Holy Scripture apart from the spiritual life that is lived even today within the Church, and which finds specific expression in the stages of the spiritual life (purification, illumination and deification), we are unable to understand it. Then we misinterpret Holy Scripture instead of interpreting it.
Let us look at the characteristics of prayer of the heart, as they are described in the case of Hannah.
Her soul was “grieved” by reason of distress and pain. If we link this word “grieved” with the words “I pour out my soul before the Lord”, we realise that this was not a formal prayer, but her union and communion with God. In those who have noetic prayer we see very profound repentance. Through the pain of repentance the nous enters the heart and is actually fixed there. The nous in this state is not distracted by the surrounding world through the senses. Prayer linked with tears bears witness to the presence of prayer in the heart. Holy Scripture tells us that Hannah was “lamenting and weeping”. The holy Fathers regard tears as very significant, because when there are tears, this is a sign that the nous has been united with the heart. This applies above all to tears of contrition.
Hannah’s prayer was not prayed simply with her lips but was active in her heart. “She spoke in her heart.” This shows that her nous had entered her heart. All man’s efforts are concentrated on detaching the nous from the world around, so that it may return to the heart, where it really belongs. In Orthodoxy we have a specific method for achieving this return, a method known as hesychasm.
That Hannah’s nous had entered her heart and was praying in this way is clear from the fact that the boy thought she was intoxicated. He said to her, “For how long will you remain drunk?” It is natural that he should think this, as he was only familiar with so-called rational prayer and knew nothing about prayer of the heart. He could not understand how it was possible for someone to pray without speaking and without formulating the prayer in words. Those who are striving to pray noetically sometimes use their lips, though without saying the words of the prayer out loud. This is another way of fixing the nous on the prayer. Of course, when the nous enters the heart the prayer becomes self-acting and is then called noetic prayer or prayer of the heart. Hannah did not lose her senses, because someone who has noetic prayer is a completely natural human being, as this is man’s natural state.
Hannah’s prayer was not just restricted to a few words but was poured out continuously. Holy Scripture says, “She kept praying.” Noetic prayer is uninterrupted, constant. It never stops. In particular, there are times when it is extremely intense. It is like a river that sometimes has abundant water, sometimes less and sometimes none. Thus, although noetic prayer always creates in the individual a sense of God’s grace, it is experienced to a greater or lesser degree at different times. Just as we spend a few moments eating and feel pleasure, but afterwards our whole organism is nourished and, without us understanding how, the food is changed into blood, so the same happens with regard to prayer. When someone experiences noetic prayer very intensely, he is full of joy and gladness. But even when this intensity is lost, effective work is accomplished, without him understanding it rationally, because his whole spiritual organism is nourished.
After praying Hannah received the priest’s blessing, “Go in peace.” Through noetic prayer one receives profound peace and boundless freedom.
Hannah’s prayer is above all noetic prayer of the heart, which we find mentioned throughout Holy Scripture.
We should pray with faith to the Personal God. God for us Christians is not abstract but personal. He is not the God of the philosophers and speculative thinkers but the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the Prophets and saints. We should struggle to progress from rational prayer to noetic prayer, which is pure prayer and well-pleasing to God. Such prayer is communion and union with Him. Then we shall become aware of peace and communion with God and this will bring us joy, whether or not we have received the things for which we prayed. When we pray, the fact that we have remembered the Name of God and sensed His grace brings us more comfort. As St John Chrysostom says, “Where there is prayer and thanksgiving, the grace of the Holy Spirit is present and demons flee.”
Let us pray that we may receive grace. Then we shall say with David, “May my words be pleasing to Him, and I shall be glad in the Lord” (Ps. 103:34).
extract from the chapter Interpretative Comments on Hannah’s Prayer
* * *
The important thing is not so much the birth of a child as bringing the child up well. Biological birth ought to lead one to spiritual birth, which has greater significance and importance. God does not create a new being in order to fill Hell, but so that he may be guided into the Kingdom of God. St John Chrysostom, referring to mothers who have had children, says that they should imitate Hannah. “If you become a mother, you too should dedicate your son. She brought him up to the Temple, you should make yourself a royal Temple.” The child becomes a royal Temple when the King Himself, Who is Christ, dwells within him. The presence of Christ within a human being is made manifest by noetic prayer and theoria of God. At the same time, St John Chrysostom exhorts: “Do not let the house of God become a den of thieves.” He goes on to explain exactly what it means for a human being to become a den of thieves. If we allow various evil, servile desires and all sorts of impurity to dwell in the souls of children, their heart becomes a den of thieves. Evil thoughts are more terrible than thieves, because they destroy children’s freedom and enslave them to irrational passions. For that reason, St John Chrysostom recommends that from infancy parents should concern themselves with the good upbringing of their children and should protect them from every evil temptation. Just as “those who dwell in cities” push their children from the earliest age, as soon as they are weaned, into various activities, gymnastic competitions and the like, “so let us do the same. From the earliest age let us introduce them to the heavenly way of life.”
Unfortunately, however, many of us do the exact opposite. Instead of introducing them to the heavenly way of life, we create the preconditions for them to distance themselves from it. According to patristic teaching, everyone is born in the state that Adam was in before the Fall: illumination of the nous. In fact, we know from the life of the Honourable Forerunner that he was filled with the Holy Spirit as an unborn baby in the womb. Thus babies, in a way we cannot understand, have noetic prayer and remembrance of God. Naturally, their mental powers and rational functions have not yet developed, but their heart functions normally. Through Holy Baptism, babies become members of the Body of Christ. However, their nous is darkened by the darkness of the surrounding world. It often happens that parents and relatives cause the child’s nous to be darkened, to be identified with the mind, so he lives in the fallen state. There will be another occasion later on to discuss this subject in more detail.
In conclusion, we should admire Hannah for her faith, her dedication to God and generally for her devout behaviour. And we should turn this admiration into emulation of her God-pleasing life.
* * *
Finally, we should thank Hannah wholeheartedly, because through her prayer she has become a teacher of prayer and has taught us how to pray and what to say in our prayers.