The Jesus Prayer 22 – The Second Stage of the Jesus Prayer

Posted: April 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 22 – The Second Stage of the Jesus Prayer

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

For this section, Khouria Frederica continues to draw from a treatise, About the Jesus Prayer and the Lord’s Grace,  by Archbishop Anthony Golynsky-Mihailovsky (AD 1889-1976). The second stage is described as follows.

The next stage, according to Abp. Anthony, is Mental Active Prayer. Here the Prayer is still carried on by the action of the mind, rather than effortlessly by the Spirit, but hope begins to awaken as a person can perceive just a bit what the forthcoming fruits can be. The mind “begins immersing itself in prayer gradually and with pleasure. … Do not force yourself to move with your attention to the heart — it occurs naturally later.”

Disruptive thoughts, memories, and even distraction by lofty theological ideas are apparently normal during this stage. It’s in and through the direct connection of prayer that God heals us, and the devil most of all wants us to cease praying. We are also tempted to judge and that’s a very dangerous path to follow. Our minds are engaged and we tend to judge everything and everyone, anyway. It gets even worse if we begin to believe that we can do this — that we can pray.

Don’t judge anyone. “I am the foremost of sinners,” said St. Paul (1 Tim. 1:15). How could that be? You can see people everywhere whose overt sins are more egregious than your own. But you cannot see what they struggle against inside, or know how many or few talents their Master has allotted them to draw on. You can know only yourself, and should expect that the more that knowledge grows, the more you will be shocked at the duplicity and meanness within. Abp. Anthony says, “Even what has been understood up to this point as good turns out to be a cunningly knit web of the devil.”

Any and every time we judge ourselves a better person than another, we are falling into that trap. We become the Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. It’s a more subtle, but highly effective attack.


The Jesus Prayer 21 – The First Stage of the Jesus Prayer

Posted: April 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 21 – The First Stage of the Jesus Prayer

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

For this section, Khouria Frederica draws from a treatise, About the Jesus Prayer and the Lord’s Grace,  by Archbishop Anthony Golynsky-Mihailovsky (AD 1889-1976). Abp. Anthony suffered greatly under Communist rule. He was sustained by the Jesus Prayer and was unfailingly kind and forgiving. His treatise was circulated in handwritten copies and was only published legally after the fall of the Soviet Union. He explains that the Philokalia intentionally skips the first levels of the prayer. Those who are ready for it find it helpful and it will not harm those who are not yet ready.

Abp. Anthony describes first the beginner’s experience, that of saying the Prayer simply as an act of will, a phase variously called “verbal,” “vocal,” or “oral.” He prescribes how many prayers should be said as what times, interspersed with physical gestures. After each ten repetitions, he says, one should make a metania (pronounced “meh-TAN-yah”), making the sign of the cross and bowing, reaching the right hand to the floor. After thirty-three repetitions, one should make three prostrations, kneeling and then touching the forehead to the floor. You don’t have to perform those gestures, of course, though you may well benefit if you do. They are a standard part of a monastic’s prayer life.

This is thus the Verbal or Oral Stage of the Jesus Prayer. In the beginning, it’s hard work. Our minds wander constantly and we have to keep bringing our attention back to the prayer. Gradually it becomes easier as the peace and beauty of God’s presence begins to draw the mind’s attention. Abp. Anthony notes that because true prayer is hard work, we should get adequate rest, speak less, express opinions less, and avoid controversy. I’m not very good at any of the things in his list. I’m rarely shy about expressing opinions and I seem to be constantly busy.

At this stage, we also need to be careful not to be deceived by any supernatural or visionary experiences. In my own mind, I’ve long contrasted the modern charismatic movement with the stories of the ancient monks. While charismatics often embrace any supernatural or ecstatic experience or visitation, the ancient monks were much more cautious. Even when visited by a true angel, they would initially reject the idea that an angel would visit anyone as unworthy as they perceived themselves. They remembered always that the devil can appear as an angel of light and that every spirit is not the Holy Spirit.

Khouria Frederica also shared a brief historical aside on prostrations. I wanted to share it as well.

Prostrations sometimes occur during Orthodox worship services, particularly in Lent. When I was first introduced to this practice I said, “Like the Muslims?” and my friend replied, “The Muslims got it from us.” To be more precise, much of the Muslim Middle East used to be Eastern Christian. Christians and Muslims both got the practice from Judaism. A Bible concordance will show many Old Testament references to “They fell on their faces.”


The Jesus Prayer 20 – Placing the Nous in the Heart

Posted: April 20th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 20 – Placing the Nous in the Heart

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

Though we don’t often think of it in those terms, it’s not really that hard for us to grasp the idea of our normally buzzing awareness becoming focused in different parts of our being. Khouria Frederica has some good illustrations. Hit your thumb with a hammer and all your awareness leaps immediately to your thumb. Think hard about complex problem you are trying to solve and you can feel the pressure build in your forehead and behind your eyes. Go see an engaging and thought-provoking play or movie with friends and as the words flow in your discussion afterwards, you can feel your awareness coalescing around your mouth and larynx.

The Jesus Prayer, when it becomes prayer of the heart acts to unite all the elements of our being in complete cohesion. Our intelligence sees and discerns without having to exert effort to maintain attention. Khouria Frederica includes a quote from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom.

Far from clouding and obscuring thought as the emotions do, [this level of prayer] clears it completely. Intelligence remains fully, intensely conscious and free.

And then some of her own thoughts.

This would not be a state of “rapture” or “ecstasy,” which in the East is regarded as the experience “not of the perfect, but of novices,” according to St. Simeon the New Theologian (AD 949-1022). Spiritual ecstasy discloses limitation: the person is unable to live in the fullness of God “without losing contact with his own fragmentary individual life,” says Metropolitan Anthony. The ideal is a “perfect union, permanent and unalterable, in which the whole of man is integrated — spirit, soul, and body — without shocks or breaches of equilibrium, in the image of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

We shouldn’t seek to lose ourselves in God as many today seem to do. God seeks a union of love with us, not a destruction of our individual unique being. The goal is to be our full, integrated selves in complete union with Christ.

 


The Jesus Prayer 19 – Repetition

Posted: April 18th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 19 – Repetition

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. (Mt. 6:7)

I’ve discussed Jesus’ exhortation in the Sermon on the Mount already in many of my posts on prayer because it’s often raised by those shaped within an evangelical or fundamentalist context. Khouria Frederica addresses it as well.

First, the prohibition is against doing what the pagans did when they prayed. I’ve noticed that many people who refer to that verse don’t actually ask the question that immediately occurred to me the first time I read it. What were the heathen doing when they prayed? If you don’t find the answer to that question, you have no context for understanding what Jesus means. And the answer to that is an interesting one. There was a common practice in many religions of the time of using grandiose, flattering, and often repeated titles and names in pagan prayer in order to get the particular god’s attention. That wasn’t particularly new (we see the same dynamic in the confrontation between Elijah and the priests of Baal) and its particulars varied, but the idea behind it was similar to the way formal speech was addressed to powerful rulers. The flattery and roundabout way of speaking was designed to avoid giving offense, and were repeated over and over.

However, the prohibition was not directed at repetition, but at vain repetition. Jesus himself followed the Jewish practice of set prayers, and when his followers asked for a prayer, he gave them one to recite. And his prayer was simple and direct unlike the equivalent pagan prayers. A sincere prayer is never vain (though it might be misguided). Khouria Frederica offers a good illustration.

You can think about repetition this way. Imagine a couple of newlyweds on their honeymoon. At a tender moment, the husband says, “I love you, I love you, I love you.” Will the bride say, “I heard you the first time”?

Jesus wants us to pray. In prayer, we are mystically connected to him. And he is the bridegroom of the Church. He never tires of our prayer. They never grow old and stale to him. And for us, the Jesus Prayer can grow ever deeper over time.


The Jesus Prayer 18 – Repentance

Posted: April 15th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments »

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

What’s the point of repentance? It’s important to understand the Christian (and older Hebrew) idea underlying it as a change in direction or a turning rather than a sense of sorrow. (I know it took me a while to figure that out given my background.) But even once you understand that fact, what is the ongoing process of repentance within Christian life meant to accomplish? And that’s tied to the idea of salvation.

Salvation means healing from the sickness of sin, so we are always seeking to confront the sin that infects us, and be healed at ever deeper levels. We spoke earlier about having a sense of urgency in our spiritual lives, and this is the root of that urgency. The lingering presence of sin damages our ability to see reality clearly. It darkens the nous. Sin also strengthens the power of the evil one, and helps him spread suffering and injustice in the world. No wonder we yearn for everything that is bent or damaged in us to be burned away by the radiance of Christ.

Another danger Khouria Frederica discusses is the state of acedia. It’s a state of despair when we decide to rid ourselves of one particular sin, but fail again and again, eventually giving up on salvation.

But the Lord may know something about the underlying structure of your sin that you don’t. It may be that some other debility, maybe something you’re not even aware of, is holding that big sin in place, and that has to be dealt with first. You might think that the Lord cannot stand the presence of your ugly sin, but he has been standing it a long time already, and he’s not going to stop loving you now. If he can be patient enough to bring about a healing that is permanent, you can too; all you have to do is let him love you.

And that’s why we must never abandon repentance. I read once of a monastic saying about the life of a monk: “We fall down and get back up. We fall down and get back up.” In many ways that describes us all.


The Jesus Prayer 17 – Fear

Posted: April 13th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 17 – Fear

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

In addition to awe, Khouria Frederica discusses an interesting question.

But haven’t we progressed beyond fear of God? It sounds so negative.

It’s an interesting question. Fear of God leads to  sense of penitence. That’s been true over the course of Christian history and it’s not clear that many of the disciplines and practices produce spiritual healing absent a penitent heart. She has a long quote from St. Theophan which I think speaks to the heart of this question. I wanted to share it.

The most important thing in prayer is to stand before God in reverence and fear, with the mind in the heart, for this sobers and disperses every folly and plants contrition before God in the heart. These feelings of fear and sorrow in the sight of God, the broken and contrite heart, are the principal features of true inner prayer, and the test of every prayer, by which we can tell whether or not our prayer is performed as it should be. If they are present, prayer is in order. When they are absent, prayer is not in its true course and must be brought back to its proper condition.

If we lack this sense of sorrow and contrition, then sweetness and warmth may breed self-conceit; and that is spiritual pride, and will lead to pernicious illusion. Then the sweetness and warmth will vanish, leaving only their memory, but the soul will imagine that it has them. Of this you should afraid, and so you must increasingly kindle in your heart the fear of God, lowliness, contrite prostration before him, walking always in his presence.

An absence of proper fear, then, will often lead to spiritual pride. I think that’s a true observation. For those who still find an emphasis on fear and penitence off-putting, Khouria Frederica has a thought which strikes me as wise.

You cannot choose the thing that will change you, The thing that will change you may well look strange from the outside. My advice is to accept the ancient spiritual disciplines as a complete, integrated healing program, rather than picking and choosing to fit.

Tell the truth. If you pick the disciplines and practices that suit you, will you pick ones that will actually change you? I’m not at all sure I would. I probably wouldn’t.


The Jesus Prayer 16 – Awe

Posted: April 11th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 16 – Awe

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

Khouria Frederica reflects on the tendency today to approach Jesus in prayer casually.

There was a misguided attempt in the last century to make God more approachable, maybe even more human (as if we don’t have enough of that already). But it was a misrepresentation. God really is more immense and majestic than we can begin to conceive. Most of us need a course in remedial awe.

This attitude is very common in modern evangelicalism. Sometimes the approach is respectful, the way we would approach a commanding officer or minor official. Sometimes, it’s as though the risen Christ, creator and Lord of the universe, is really buddy Christ. Yes, he took on our nature and suffered as we suffer. And yes, he is ever with us, as near as our next breath. But he is also our creator and our only source of life. And when we call Jesus “Christ” we are calling him King in the fullest sense of the word — and a King beyond and above all other kings. She includes a quote by St. Theophan which I think drives this point home. Without reverence, the Jesus Prayer and other practices could actually numb you to the presence of God.

With regard to spiritual prayer, take one precaution. Beware lest in ceaselessly remembering God you forget also to kindle fear, and awe, and the desire to fall down as dust before the face of God — our most merciful Father, but also our dread Judge. Frequent recollection of God without reverence blunts the feeling of the fear of God, and thereby deprives us of the saving influence that this sense of fear — and it alone — can produce in our spiritual life.

 


The Jesus Prayer 15 – Mercy

Posted: April 6th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 15 – Mercy

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

Khouria Frederica addresses a question that would never have occurred to me — that constantly praying “have mercy on me” might be disturbing to some modern Americans. For some reason, I hadn’t realized that when a person lives fully within the law court metaphor and sees God essentially as a judge delivering a sentence, that the prayer could be perceived as a prisoner groveling before the judge begging to be released rather than condemned. I see how that could happen, but it still feels foreign to me.

When we have mercy on someone, we offer them our help, our compassion, and even our love. That’s the predominant meaning even in English. We pray for the Lord Jesus Christ to help us and heal us as the Samaritan helped the man who was set upon by robbers. Often we do need forgiveness as well, but God overflows with forgiveness. Our more dominant, ongoing need is for healing.

Khouria Frederica points out something I didn’t know. The Greek for mercy, eleos, sound similar to the Greek for olive oil, elaion. And in the ancient world, one of the many uses of olive oil was as ointment or medicine for healing. Those hearing the liturgy in Greek would have heard a resonance between the two words.

She also notes that a lot of the people to whom she speaks today don’t particularly feel any need for repentance. And that’s true even among most Christians.

In the contemporary West, repentance is now considered an introductory activity to life in Christ (if it’s considered at all); in the East, repentance lasts a lifetime. Salvation means healing from the sickness of sin, and we are always seeking to confront the sin that infects us, and to be healed at ever deeper levels.


Khouria Frederica Mathewes-Greene on the Jesus Prayer

Posted: April 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Khouria Frederica has been giving a number of lectures on the Jesus Prayer recently. I wanted to share this lecture at Oberlin College in particular. In this talk, she provides a shorter version of her own personal journey, she explains the concept of nous, and she describes how some of the Western ideas about God look from an Eastern Christian perspective, especially to those who have been raised within an Eastern context.

I particularly appreciated some of the things Khouria Frederica said about Western atonement theories. She jumps to the heart of the matter and identifies their central problem. The Western theories describe a God who cannot forgive, but who must, instead, be paid. At one point, she says it’s almost like eating in a restaurant and being told that your bill has been paid. The owner of the restaurant was still paid. He didn’t really forgive your debt; he was just paid by someone else. I have actually heard people use exactly that metaphor to describe Christ’s work. And long before I knew anything about Orthodoxy, I apparently reacted it to it in an essentially Orthodox manner. The Western view of the atonement turns the parable of the prodigal son on its head. Instead of the Father embracing his prodigal son in love and forgiveness, it’s as though he tells his younger son that his offense is unforgivable. However, his older brother has never done anything wrong and has obeyed his father, so if he killed him instead, the father could accept that death as payment and allow the younger son to return.

Khouria Frederica uses an example in English to illustrate the language of sacrifice and substitution in Scripture. If a soldier were killed in battle, we might say that he paid for our freedom with his life or a similarly phrased statement. If someone was not a native English speaker, he might ask who was paid? But, of course, that’s not what we mean at all. In the same way, the language of payment or substitution in the Holy Scriptures does not describe an act where the Son pays our debt to the Father (as if we needed to be rescued from God), but rather the act of rescuing us from the grip of the evil one who used the power of sin and death to keep us in bondage.

I also really enjoyed one of her statements about the work of prayer and other disciplines. “Everybody wants to be transformed, but nobody wants to change.” Yep. I’m confused when people act as though Christianity ought to be easy. How can anything as complex as the reality of our lives and relationships be easy? Orthodox Christianity does not try to hide the difficulty and struggle of our faith. Yes, God loves us. Unconditionally. Unending. Unchanging love. But most of the time, we don’t even really want God. At least, that’s true of me.


Metropolitan Kallistos Ware on the Jesus Prayer

Posted: April 1st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Metropolitan Kallistos Ware on the Jesus Prayer

Recently, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware gave a couple of lectures at North Park University in Chicago. The first lecture was on the Jesus Prayer. I recommend listening to the whole lecture, but I wanted to highlight his description of the two uses of the Jesus Prayer.

The first is the free use of the prayer. In the free use, the prayer is prayed at various times throughout the day during the course of your normal activities. This is the manner in which the Jesus Prayer came to me and it remains its most natural use to me. I like the way Metropolitan Kallistos summarizes the free use of the Jesus Prayer in a single phrase.

Find Christ everywhere.

That phrase succinctly captures the heart of this use of the prayer. Christ, of course, is everywhere. Behold, I am with you always, even until the end of the age. Christ, in union with the Father and the spirit, is everywhere present and filling all things. In him we live and move and have our being. All creation subsists in him from moment to moment.

But we easily lose sight of that reality. We tend to act and live as though Christ were somewhere else. The free use of the Jesus Prayer helps us find Christ where we are in the midst of our activities. And it invites us to shape our reaction to our circumstances in and through an awareness of Christ’s presence.

Am I angry or frustrated by a coworker? (I’ve been told I don’t easily suffer fools.) Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.

Is rush hour traffic raising my blood pressure? Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.

Am I tired of people, even people I love, placing demands on me? Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.

Yes, those all seem like little things and minor annoyances. But if we do not learn to find Christ in the routine of our lives, we will not often find him in the larger things, either. I’m not sure why that’s true, but at least for me it is.

The second use of the Jesus Prayer is the fixed use. In other words, it’s the practice of the Jesus Prayer as part of a daily or fixed hour prayer rule. Khouria Frederica’s book has primarily focused on this use of the prayer, but it had not consciously occurred to me that the fixed use had a different goal. Metropolitan Kallistos summarizes its use in another easy to remember phrase.

Create silence.

With this phrase, he ties the prayer to a prayer from the Psalms. Be still, and know that I am God. It’s important to recognize that we cannot simply will inner silence. All traditions (at least those which value inner stillness) recognize that truth. All forms of meditation are, at least in part, designed to still our racing thoughts. However, the Christian tradition does not seek silence for its own sake. Rather, we seek stillness only to know God and know that he is God.

Curiously, be still and know that I am God, is another prayer (of sorts) that came to me at a time of great personal stress and which kept repeating until my frantic mind began to calm. Since that time, I’ve returned to it many times. Before this lecture, I had never made the connection between it and the Jesus Prayer.

Our cogitating minds, in their frenzy of thoughts, make God seem distant, even though he is anything but. With relatively rare exceptions,  God is not in the mighty wind, the shaking ground, or the raging fire. Rather, God comes to us in a still small voice and without silence, we do not hear him.