Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 23

Posted: March 15th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 23

53.  As the world of the body consists of things, so the world of the intellect consists of conceptual images. And as the body fornicates with the body of a woman, so the intellect, forming a picture of its own body, fornicates with the conceptual image of a woman. For in the mind it sees the form of its own body having intercourse with the form of a woman. Similarly, through the form of its own body, it mentally attacks the form of someone who has given it offense. The same is true with respect to other sins. For what the body acts out in the world of things, the intellect also acts out in the world of conceptual images.

This text further drives home the point of the last text. Our nous, intellect, or heart cannot be separated from our body. As one goes, so the other tends to follow. St. Maximos is actually refuting an aspect of pagan philosophy that held that spiritual is pure or good while the material is evil. Too many people today have brought that idea or similar ideas that our bodies and spirits are somehow discontinuous and have independent existence into modern Christianity. We are whole beings. We cannot do things with our bodies without affecting our spiritual selves and that toward which we attune ourselves spiritually manifests in our bodies. Over time, we become that which we truly worship. In that truth we see the reality of both salvation and damnation.


Why Do We Pray? 4 – To Create Community?

Posted: March 9th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Why Do We Pray? 4 – To Create Community?

If we are not primarily seeking to change God or change ourselves when we engage in Christian prayer, perhaps we pray to establish common ground amongst ourselves and form a community? This facet is probably less visible or recognized in low church evangelical settings of individual “spontaneous” prayer, but traditionally Christians have recited prayers and creeds together in worship. Moreover, individual prayer has also revolved around set prayers at particular intervals during the day.

Praying as the church does, in fact, serve to bind us together. Set prayers help create and maintain a common ground of practice and expressed belief. That’s pretty evident and is hardly unique to Christianity. It flowed into Christian practice directly from Judaism. In Daniel and elsewhere in the OT, we see the practice of a set rhythm of prayer. We know that first century Jews prayed the Psalms together at set intervals and had other prayers they prayed. When Jesus’ followers asked him for a prayer, he gave them one to recite together. We see the Church and apostles in Acts continuing the rhythm of set prayers.

And we see the same practice in other religions. Muslims engage in communal prayer five times daily. Buddhist and Hindu worshipers will gather and chant together in prayer. The act helps shape your identity as a member of particular community of worship. And it can identify you to others. We share these prayers and practices. That recognition creates an almost instant connection or bond.

I don’t deny that the practice of communal prayer, corporately and individually, can help create community. It’s an effect of our Christian practice of prayer, but I hesitate to call this effect the purpose. Again, if that were true, there would be little to distinguish Christian prayer from that of some of the other religions. Moreover, there are many ways to mark a group as a community of shared belief and practice. If this were the purpose of prayer, then it’s just one such practice among many, and of no lesser or greater importance.

But that’s not the sense I get from the New Testament or the writings of the Church. Prayer is seen as vital and of the utmost importance. Why? That’s the question I think we must answer.


Mary 9 – Hail Mary

Posted: January 23rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 9 – Hail Mary

In this post I want to look at one of the best known Marian prayers in the West, the prayer known simply as Hail Mary. It’s a prayer that’s so widely known and recognized that even those who weren’t raised Roman Catholic are often familiar with it. I learned it when I went to Catholic school for three years in Houston. It’s not a prayer I typically pray today, though when it springs to mind, I always try pause and pray it. As I’ve written elsewhere, I seem to be one of the people to whom the Jesus Prayer came unbidden and that prayer, rather than any distinctly Western prayer, remains at the core of my simple and poorly followed prayer rule.

But I do appreciate this prayer and the entire rosary prayer rule that often accompanies it. For those unfamiliar with the rosary, it’s a devotional crucifix with a chain of larger and smaller beads. You use the beads to count prayers and over the course of the rosary eight different prayers are typically prayed as the person praying meditates on different mysteries from the lives of Mary and Jesus. The most often recited prayer is the Hail Mary, but over the course of the rosary the Apostle’s Creed is recited as well as the Our Father, the Glory Be and others. (By contrast, the Orthodox prayer rope is usually just used to count repetitions of the Jesus Prayer, sometimes with prostrations. And you aren’t taught to meditate on any mysteries; the ultimate goal is prayer of the heart.)

I suppose to those who had a less pluralistic formation than my own, this will sound strange. But I remember fairly often reciting the Hail Mary (mentally or verbally) during my Hindu oriented meditations. I had actually forgotten that tidbit until I was writing this post. I wouldn’t say I was praying as Christians understand prayer, but looking back it seems like I was heard anyway. I suppose that’s not surprising. If we truly believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the true and faithful man and became true humanity, joining our nature to his divine nature, then in some sense through her yes to God, Mary became the mother of humanity. And your mother always hears you, though she may not do as you intend or expect. I had never really thought in those terms before.

Anyway, the prayer itself developed in the West during the medieval period, with something at least similar to the form we have now dating back to the thirteenth century. That’s why it’s really only found in the Western Church. By that time, the rift between East and West was pretty much complete. The prayer itself is simple.

Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Though it’s a short prayer, it’s filled with richness. The first part of the prayer comes entirely from the Holy Scriptures. The first two lines contain the Gabriel’s initial greeting to Mary. Her state as blessed is then reinforced twice more. Elizabeth, speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, also calls Mary blessed among women. And then, inspired by the Holy Spirit in her Magnificat, Mary herself prophesies that all generations will call her blessed. The third line is also uttered by Elizabeth and surely it’s one we must all affirm. The fourth line of the prayer asserts a critical theological point. Mary did not simply give birth to a man who later became divinized. The baby growing in her womb was a human child, but he was also God before the ages. The prayer then closes petitioning Mary to pray for us, something she surely does anyway, but it’s still good to ask.

Truthfully, I’ve never understood why so many Protestants seem to hate this prayer. It’s mostly taken from the Scriptures which they hold in high esteem and is a rich and beautiful prayer that is easily remembered. But then, many Protestants today don’t seem to actually consider, much less call, Mary blessed. I guess we all pick and choose the Scriptures we want to honor and follow to one extent or another.

As I wrote this post, it dawned on me for the first time that I probably owe more to Mary for praying and acting in ways to bring me to her Son than I had every realized. And in my blindness, I never even said, “Thanks.”

Thank you, Mary, for loving me even as I despised Christianity and rejected your Son.


A Christian Nation?

Posted: January 14th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments » http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XddLDufkaig

 

 

 

Especially on the “conservative” side, it’s common to hear people claim our country was founded as a Christian nation. It wasn’t, of course. Nor was it founded as an atheistic nation, like the Communist regimes of the 20th century. Our founders were trying to establish the world’s first secular nation and I think, for good or ill, they largely succeeded. Certainly our culture is deeply and thoroughly secular. But that’s a different discussion from the one I want to focus on here.

The video above shows the building and opening of a Rebirth of Orthodoxy exhibit in Moscow. It’s pretty impressive. But there’s a section where an icon is brought in for veneration. The long lines and devotion impressed me, as it has in other videos of Russian devotion I’ve seen. Russia suffered under an atheistic regime that actively tried to stamp out Orthodoxy for most of the 20th century. Virtually nobody still alive in that country can remember a time before Communism. And yet they held onto their faith. Culturally, they remained a truly Christian nation, and when the boot of the oppressor was removed, that deep faith almost immediately began blossoming again.

It’s hard for us to imagine a country, like Russia, which has been a Christian nation for a thousand years, or one like Greece, which has been a Christian nation for even longer. As a nation, we’re still in the early portion of our third century. And our cultural memory tends to be short, anyway. Certainly as far as our privileged majority goes, we tend to dismiss slavery, our genocide of Native Americans, and even the more recent Jim Crow era as “ancient history.” Very often, even if not explicitly expressed, the attitude is that those peoples who have suffered should just “get over it.”

Some form of Christian faith has, collectively, always been the majority religion in our country. But I don’t think that alone is enough to make us a Christian nation. I watch the Russians and I can’t help but think of our own country. While the majority of us can collectively be described as individually Christian, it’s a fractured and divisive Christianity. We have no culturally cohesive and unified Christian identity. If we had suffered under a repressive and often brutal atheistic regime for a century, would we have retained any meaningful Christian identity? Maybe in pockets here and there, but across our country?

I’m skeptical. I don’t see here the same sort of deeply rooted faith we are seeing in Russia. And our cultural memories are short. We are pretty much repeating today the same mistakes we made in the late 19th and early 20th century and most people seem completely oblivious to that fact. Even our cultural memory of the era of segregation, which a lot of people still alive can remember, is fading.

Compared to Russia and other truly Christian nations, in what sense, then, can we call ourselves a Christian nation?


Mary 3 – Virgin Birth

Posted: January 9th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 3 – Virgin Birth

Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And having come in, the angel said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”

Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”

And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.”

Then Mary said, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-38)

Take a moment to read the text above again. It often seems to me that many Christians have become so familiar with it, they miss its impact. There are a number of points to note. First, the angel, a messenger of God and presumably speaking with God’s voice, calls Mary highly favored and blessed among women. Later, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth calls Mary (and the fruit of her womb) blessed. Mary, also under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, even prophesies that all generations (except many modern Protestants, apparently) will call her blessed.

Why?

Without having sex with a man, the angel tells Mary she will conceive a child through the power of the Highest and that child will be called the Son of God. This is central to Christian belief. Jesus was not just a special human being used by God. We believe him to be the Dabar Yahweh, the Word of God, made flesh. His eternal, divine nature is joined to a fully human, mortal nature through the agency and with the active cooperation of Mary.

Make no mistake, there is no evidence in Scripture or any other source that Mary was merely a vessel and that any such vessel would have sufficed. There is no evidence or indication that a ‘plan B‘ existed. Mary’s consent and cooperation with God were essential. There is a strong thread of ancient theology which calls Mary the new Eve. As her son, Jesus, is typologically compared to the first Adam, so Mary’s ‘yes’ to God is seen as healing Eve’s ‘no’ to God. ‘Eve’, of course, means life or life-giver as ‘Adam’ means man or mankind. Through her ‘yes’ to God, Mary consents to give life to he who as the new Adam joins the nature of God to the nature of man, defeats death on our behalf, and gives true and lasting life to humanity.

And her ‘yes’ required a courage that should be clearer after my previous post on honor-shame cultures. Mary certainly recognized that she would be perceived as having engaged in adulterous sex and she knew the shame and dishonor that she and her family would experience. She knew she could be killed, but trusted in God nonetheless.

And Joseph was also courageous and faithful. The text tells us that he was righteous, but I think most miss the true import of that phrase. Being named ‘tsadiq’ or righteous in his honor-shame culture was a big deal. He was counted among the ‘tsadiqim’ and much honor accrued from that. Having a betrothed become pregnant was shaming enough, when he was instructed to marry her anyway, that meant giving up his standing as ‘tsadiq’ and assuming a name of shame instead. But Joseph was faithful to God first. He counted God’s honor as more important than his own. It’s important to understand that about Joseph.

I recognize there are many today who choose not to belief in the virgin birth, but who do still call themselves Christian. All I can say is that those who have done so have redefined Christianity to an extent that their version of Christianity is discontinuous from any historical or traditional strand of Christian belief. There are many ways people do that today, and it’s one of the reasons modern ‘Christianity’ is so confusing. There are thousands upon thousands of sects which, if you dig even a little below the surface, hold outright contradictory beliefs, but which all still call themselves Christian in some sense. If you do not believe in the virgin birth, but you do believe that Jesus was in some sense the divine Son of God (and if you don’t at least believe that, then it’s hard to see how your belief can still be labeled ‘Christian’), then of necessity you must believe that Jesus was a normal human male child who at some point after conception was in some sense divinized. That’s actually one of the ancient heresies reborn in slightly different clothes.

However, this is a dogma on which most Christians agree. It’s even incorporated in the Nicene Creed, with which I think I’ll close this post. Hopefully I’ve provided some food for thought.

I believe in one God the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages; Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father.

And He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; of His kingdom there shall be no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life, Who proceedeth from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke by the prophets.

In one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church;

I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins;

I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come.

Amen.


Heterodox?

Posted: March 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

The brouhaha over Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins, has continued to percolate in the back of my mind. Last week I expressed my frustration over the more modern and truncated understanding of “hell” that many were calling the traditional or historical view and tried to share perspectives that are at least as traditional and historical, if not more so. But even underlying that, I’ve been bemused by those tossing around the idea of an orthodox or heterodox view.

By and large, the individuals using those words have been Protestants of one sort or another. For that part of my life in which I’ve been Christian, I’ve only ever been Protestant, but I’ve still never really understood the basis on which a Protestant calls their own belief orthodox or that of another heterodox. The traditional meaning of heresy flows from the idea that those who hold and promote a particular idea have chosen their own, different faith in practice or belief. Any particular heterodox teaching or understanding is always contrasted to the right worship or belief according to the common tradition of practice and interpretation in the church.

By that definition, it seems to me that to one degree or another, every Protestant is, of necessity, a heretic. One of the fundamental tenets of Protestantism, at least as I’ve understood and experienced it, is that every individual determines or chooses for himself or herself the truth of any given practice, belief, or interpretation. The fact that the thousands of groups of Protestants share some superficial similarities perhaps disguises that underlying reality and what are actually some pretty deep differences. Even when the same words are used, they are often defined and understood differently within different groups.

There is much in that particular Protestant perspective on faith that appeals to me. After all, my formation was more deeply pluralistic and even relativistic than that of most modern, conservative Protestants and that perspective is deeply relativistic. I’m not even sure how I could ever stop deconstructing propositions and choosing what I believe and practice. It happens that I’ve discovered that much of what I’ve come to believe about God (or in many cases had always believed about God) actually coincides with Orthodox teaching. But that doesn’t even vaguely make me Orthodox. I see the distinction even if it’s not as clear to others.

One of the largest groups of Bell’s critics seem to lie among the Neo-Calvinists or those with Calvinistic leanings. I try not to pick on Calvinists too much, but they have been very vocal in their evangel of Hell, and they do have a well-articulated theology that describes a very different God and a very different humanity from that described by most of Christianity. I’ve also noticed that group seems particularly quick to use the orthodox and heterodox labels.

But on what basis?

After all, Roman Catholics in the Council of Trent and in other places and the Orthodox, at least in the 17th century Council of Jerusalem, have both anathematized the core tenets of Calvinism. Taken together, that represents well over a billion Christians world-wide and two of the most ancient traditions in Christianity. Whether you agree or disagree with them, isn’t it strange for the comparatively small and relatively modern sect of Calvin to be acting like the standard-bearers for Christian orthodoxy?

Or is that just me?

As a Protestant, it seems to me we can each say that, as an individual, we either do or don’t believe something is true. And it also seems to me that’s really all we have the authority to say. Having asserted our right to define truth for ourselves, we have relinquished any credible authority to assert it over another. Oh, that obviously stops no-one from attempting to assert their will to power in various ways. And in the history of Protestantism, many of those ways have been violent. My stint as a Christian has been in the Baptist tribe and many of our martyrs were killed by Calvinists and other Protestant Christian groups.

Nevertheless, having asserted our own right to choose, we are hypocrites when we try to deny that same right to another.


The Jesus Prayer 7 – Seriousness of Disciplines

Posted: March 4th, 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.

Khouria Frederica points out that Orthodox Christians, at least those who actively practice their faith, take a more serious attitude toward spiritual disciplines than a lot of what you find today in the other Christian traditions.

This rests on the assumption that life is serious, salvation is serious, and in every moment we must decide anew to follow Christ.

It’s not that there is any question about God’s love or his forgiveness, as we’ve said; our salvation was accomplished on the cross. “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). But we retain this terrifying freedom: we are still free to reject him. Judas’ tragic story is a sobering example. The end of our own story is not yet written, and every day exposes us to new temptations. The devil knows our weaknesses, probably better than we do, and “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).

That is why there is in Orthodox spirituality a quality of urgency. We don’t assume that we have already made it to the end of the race, put “press on,” as St. Paul said.

I think I’ve always intuitively understood that the things we do shape us — that they matter — and I’ve always had at least some awareness that we become like what we worship. In fact, I think I’ve sometimes confused my fellow Christians when I’ve told them I’m not interested in their arguments about the correctness of their particular vision of God. I’ve understood the image of the God they describe and it’s not a God I’m willing to worship, much less love. Once I’ve made that decision, I no longer care about their arguments or their logic behind their vision and understanding of God. I reject their version of God whether they are right or wrong, so I might as well assume they are wrong. It makes perfect sense to me, but it often seems to confound certain sorts of Christians. They are so used to living within their arguments and logic — within the cogitative intellect — that they don’t seem to know what to do when someone refuses to engage the entire framework itself. “I don’t care about your arguments” doesn’t seem to be a response for which they are prepared. When I wasn’t Christian, I used to have fun from time to time deconstructing some of the arguments and leading people in circles, but as I Christian I see that was mean-spirited and ultimately destructive, not least for what it did to me. So I try to catch myself now and simply disengage. Or describe the God I perceive, however dimly, to the  best of my limited ability, and just continually return to that rather than engaging in arguments. Or say nothing to start with if I don’t think it will be helpful. That’s probably the hardest thing of all for me to do.

With that said, I think it’s important that I pass along Khouria Frederica’s warning. The Jesus Prayer is a tradition embedded within the entire context of the life of Orthodoxy and it can be spiritually dangerous to try to lift it out of that context and practice it alone. Spiritual disciplines are accomplishing something real or there is no reason to practice them. If that is true, then without the proper context and guidance, they can be particularly risky. A spiritual practice will generally change you, for good or ill.

When you pray the Jesus Prayer, you are invoking the name of Jesus of Nazareth. You are proclaiming him the Jewish Messiah. You are acknowledging him as Lord and God. And you are asking his mercy as both God and King. These are not light things. Moreover, it matters who you say Jesus is when you do this. The less your perception of Jesus aligns with his reality, the more distorted your practice becomes. If that were not true, then it would not have mattered that the Arians believed him to be a creature or that the Nestorians believed his divine nature had obliterated his human nature. A spiritual discipline undertaken wrongly can engender pride, among many potential pitfalls. I agree with her warning.

Obviously that’s an odd thing for me to say. I’m not Orthodox. I have no spiritual father or mother. Yet I practice the Jesus Prayer. That’s true, and I freely confess I may be foolish in my actions. I certainly don’t recommend that anyone use my practice as a guide.

The only thing I can say is that the Jesus Prayer came to me unbidden. It came when I knew practically nothing about Orthodoxy (even if I later discovered they believed and taught so many of the things I had come to understand and believe about God). The Jesus Prayer came to me when I hardly knew who Jesus was or which of these myriad Christian Gods described in modern Christianity was real. My rule of prayer remains a poor one, but I don’t think I could stop praying the Jesus Prayer now any more than I could stop breathing.

I accept it humbly as a gift of God.

I will note that I don’t “play” Orthodox as I’ve heard some do. My fast is the one required of me by celiac disease. I don’t try to follow Orthodox fasting rules. In some sense I’m just not very good at prayer. In another sense, I deliberately keep my prayer rule simple. I think I can be prone to pride and it’s better if I don’t foster it. I don’t have an icon corner. I take spiritual practices seriously and I recognize fully that I am not Orthodox. I try not to delude myself.

So yes, I practice the Jesus Prayer, at least to a limited extent. But absent spiritual guidance, you may not want to try this at home. I feel I would be remiss if I did not share this warning from the book.

Peace.


The Jesus Prayer 5 – Energies of God

Posted: February 28th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 5 – Energies of God

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

It’s not possible to delve very far into Orthodoxy without encountering the concepts of essence and energies. The development of that language goes all the way back to at least the fourth century, though in truth we see elements of it in the texts of the Holy Scriptures themselves. This language for describing God is an attempt to describe the indescribable in a way that helps us understand how we can be one with God (and each other) as the Father and the Son are one. Thus the concepts are ultimately rooted in the Incarnation. Many of the major disputes over the course of the first millenium of Christianity were specifically focused on the Incarnation itself. The great heresies either made Christ less than God or other than fully human.

His [Christ’s] entry into human life began the healing and restoration of that life. What’s more, if God could take on human form, our bodies are capable of bearing God’s presence in return. An ordinary human body can literally become a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19). That can sound alarming — wouldn’t God’s presence destroy my feeble frame? — but Eastern Christians frequently draw an analogy to the burning bush. Just as Moses saw that the bush burned with God’s fire but was not consumed, so God’s presence can fill us while preserving — even completing — our embodied personhood.

As always, we have to remember that God is always everywhere present and filling all things. All creation is filled with the fire of the glory of God. It’s that light which sustains it. And just as Christ became man and remained God, we can be infused with the Spirit in our bodies without being destroyed.

Oddly enough, the word energy occurs frequently in St. Paul’s letters; he says, for example, “God is energon [energizing] in you, both to will and to energein [energize] for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Energy is a word we imported into English directly from the Greek. But there was not equivalent for this word in Latin, so in his masterful translation of the Bible, St. Jerome (AD 347-420) used operare, that is, “operate” or “work.” When the Bible began to be published in English, its translators stood at the end of a thousand years of devout reading, preaching, and studying the Bible in Latin translation. Our English Bibles refer to God “working,” not “energizing,” but isn’t there a difference? If we hear that God’s energy is within us, then union with him becomes more imaginable.

It’s a good example of the way language can deeply influence understanding and practice. Latin also lacked a word for the Greek concept often rendered in English as “repent.” So it was rendered as “do penance.” Over time, that had a profound effect on the belief and practice in the West.  It’s the same thing here. The idea of God “working” or “operating” made it seem more external and eventually led to the idea that these operations were not God himself, but creations of God we could experience. I’m not an expert, but I think this was part of the root behind the idea of created grace and similar Western concepts.

Instead, the energies of God are uncreated and just as much God as our hands and mouth and eyes are part of our being. When we experience the grace of God, we experience God himself — directly and unmediated by any created thing. It is true we can never know the essence of God. God transcends us. But in truth, we can’t truly and directly know the essence — the core being — of any other person either, even though they are finite, created beings. Instead we know them through their actions, words, expressed emotions — through their bodies. But we would never say that we do not know or experience other human beings as a result. In a similar way (God, of course transcends any direct statement), we truly know God through his energies. We can directly encounter him.

The Jesus Prayer is a way to help us toward that true encounter.


Thirsting for God 19 – To Be Orthodox

Posted: January 28th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

Matthew closes his book with a short chapter outlining his hope that Protestant and Orthodox believers alike will not merely believe that Orthodox theology is true, but actually learn to live an Orthodox life — to be Orthodox. I think two sentences from the chapter strike to the core of his prayer.

The misconception is this: Christianity is essentially a faith that one can individually interpret and apply as one pleases.

If there is one thing that must be learned by the Protestant seeking truth, and the Orthodox desiring to live the fullness of the Faith, it is this: We have no right to judge the Faith. Rather, it is the Faith that must judge us.

Me? I’m not particularly there yet. When your formation has been as relativistic and pluralistic as mine, that voice at the back of your head analyzing and critiquing every belief and every practice never really stops speaking. I’m so relieved to actually find a Christian tradition within which the things I know I believe and have experienced about God fit, but I’m not at a place where I have any desire to be Orthodox. I don’t really know why. It’s where I am at the moment. But then I also rarely feel the need to rush to any sort of resolution on things like this, so that may be part of it as well.


Thirsting for God 16 – Formal Prayer

Posted: January 21st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 16 – Formal Prayer

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

In this chapter Matthew tackles another issue which is a common objection raised among some particular groups of Protestants, including Baptists (with whom I am most familiar). As with most of the other issues he tackles in this section, I have to confess this is one I’ve never really understood on a visceral level. The issue itself is straightforward. The non-liturgical churches largely do not use set prayers in either their corporate worship or individual discipline of prayer and consider such formal prayers a form of vain repetition. (It sometimes seems as though they believe there can exist no sort of repetition that is not somehow vain.)

Of course, there’s a bit of a nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say-no-more involved in that statement. In truth there is an expected structure and order to the extemporaneous prayers and it takes little time or effort to discern that structure in any church. And that, as much as anything else, reveals something about human beings which God and His Church have always known. We learn from those around us, we absorb tradition almost unconsciously at times, and we are creatures of habit — for good or ill.

There is not and never has been anything wrong with extemporaneous prayers. Prayer is one of our primary means of mystical connection with God. If we have something to say, we should say it and strive to learn to speak honestly. But prayer consists of so much more than merely talking to God. It is a means by which — both individually and corporately — we fill our lives with God. In and through prayer, we order time and days with the fullness of Christ. As we work to keep the connection of our true mind — our heart or nous —  centered in Christ, he is able to heal and transform us. If salvation is union with Christ, then true prayer is surely one of the means through which we achieve that union.

And extemporaneous prayers are not enough. They never have been. And when you look beneath the surface, those who advance in the Christian life all know it. Billy Graham mentioned in an interview I read that he works through all the Psalms and the Proverbs every month. The Psalter has always been at the heart of the Jewish and Christian tradition of set prayers.

I think many people are confused about the fundamental purpose of prayer. While we should intercede for others before God every day, prayer is not primarily about asking God to act or to do something specific. And yet, that seems to be a common understanding today within certain groups of Christians. We pray so that we can stand aware of the presence of God and be transformed and renewed by him. Prayer operates on levels we do not necessarily perceive. Even when we don’t feel like praying, we need to pray. In fact, it’s probably most important to pray when we don’t feel like it. And stopping to pray at set times will begin to alter our perception and experience of daily life.

It’s slow going. The reality is that I often don’t want God, not at the deepest levels of my heart. I want to order my days as I see fit. I don’t pray without ceasing because I often want to keep God at arm’s length. Set prayer slowly chips away at that wall and more than anything else, I think that’s why we all resist it.

Historically, of course, liturgical prayers for corporate worship and the practice of set prayers at set times flows straight from ancient Jewish practice into the life of Jesus and his followers as captured in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles and through them into the life and practice of the Church. It’s one of the easiest historical threads to trace and permeates Christianity in all places and at all times until the modern era.

Personally, I was exposed to Roman Catholic prayers when I attended a Roman Catholic school growing up. I also practiced Hindu meditation and had some exposure to Buddhism. As an adult within Christianity, I’ve explored the tapestry and tradition of Christian prayers. And one thing I can say with certainty is that the goal of chanting or other repetition in the Eastern religions is vastly different from the purpose of set prayers in the Christian tradition.

Neither of those, though, are what Scripture have in mind when it refers to many words or vain repetitions. In many of the ancient pagan religions, flowery and grandiose language was used and often repeated in an effort to gain the god’s attention and, hopefully, favor. Even in the texts of the Holy Scriptures, examples of that specific sort of pagan prayer abound. One of the clearest examples can be seen in the story of Elijah versus the priests of Baal. The priests were chanting, dancing, and even cutting themselves in their efforts to gain Baal’s attention.

Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism are different. Repetition, either in group chanting or private meditation, is intended to clear or empty your mind in order to open your consciousness. In Christian set prayers (and particularly in short, repetitive prayers like the Jesus Prayer), you are trying to place your heart with Christ. Connecting yourself to Christ may be many things, but it is rarely vain.

In fact, I would say that in this particular instance, Hinduism and Christianity share more similarity with each other than they do with the sorts of ancient pagan prayers that are called ‘vain repetitions.’ Hindu chanting and meditation is the shape prayer takes if there is a transcendent, panentheistic ‘God‘ who is the ground of reality, but who is not personal (for lack of a better term). We need to free ourselves from the illusion which binds us and learn to perceive the divine within ourselves and which permeates everything and everyone. (I am not and have never been a guru, so I apologize in advance for mangling the concept.) The deep tradition of Christian prayer — from the liturgical prayers to the daily personal discipline to prayers like the Jesus Prayer — is the shape prayer takes when there is a transcendent, panentheistic God who is as personal as a perfect communion of ‘persons‘ or hypostases who have created each of us to join in that divine communion. (Never forget that in God we live and move and have our being and that He is the Creator God in whom all that is created subsists every single moment. If God were to withdraw himself from any part of creation, it would simply cease to exist.

With that said, Matthew Gallatin makes some intriguing points in this chapter in ways that I had not really considered. Some of those points, however, require a deeper understanding of what Christianity calls the nous. Nous is a Greek word that does not easily translate into English. It’s the word used, for instance, in Romans 12:2. Among modern Protestants of certain stripes, it’s common to see that verse referenced as evidence that we need to think the right things about God. While it’s true that holding wrong ideas about Christ — wrong images of God — in our intellect does interfere with our ability to truly know God, that understanding does not reflect the actual Christian understanding of nous. I’m not sure I can clearly express the concept, but I will do my best.

First and foremost, our nous is the center of our being created to live in communion with God. And it is our nous which is darkened by sin. It is our nous, as the foundation of our whole selves, that was dead and to which Christ came to give life. If our nous is not healed, nothing about us can truly be healed. With that in mind, Christianity normally divides our inner being or consciousness into two levels. One is often called our intellect. It is the seat of our rational thought and emotions. It’s of the same essence as the minds of the animals, though we tend to have more capacity. We now know this function is inextricably intertwined with our physical brains. The nous, sometimes also translated as heart, is the mind we do not share with the other animals. It’s that deeper level in which we stand before God in mystical communion. Formal prayers help us descend through our intellect into our nous. When we are “conversing” and formulating our prayer as we proceed, we are necessarily bound to our intellect speaking to our mental construction of God. Extemporaneous prayers are ultimately too noisy to allow us to meet God face to face.

Matthew opens with an excerpt from C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters which I’ll include at the end of this post, but first I want to cover some of the other points he makes. The first is so obvious that I had never even noticed it. The same sorts of Christians who reject the set prayers and the prayer tradition of the Church think nothing of memorizing and singing hymns and choruses. Especially in corporate worship, there is a deep Christian tradition of chanting or singing prayers. While the tradition of hymns and choruses may not be as deep (though some hymns are ancient indeed), they do form a type of corporate liturgical prayer using memorized or written prayers. For surely if our songs are not ultimately prayers, what meaning can they hold?

Spontaneous prayers also tend to be an expression of self. The more passionate and heartfelt they are the more that is true. And while there is benefit in exposing ourselves to God, that benefit lies primarily in learning to see and know ourselves truly. God already knows us. We need to know God, not the other way around. Moreover, we deceive ourselves more than we care to admit. When our prayers consist merely of expressing ourselves to God, we can deceive ourselves and turn our own selfish desires into “God’s desire” for our life. When we pray the prayers of the Church, including the Psalter, those prayers lay bare our self-deceit.

Matthew relates the following, which touched me deeply, though I’m not entirely sure why. The emphasis is mine.

The holy ones who pray in silence are those who, by the grace of God, have transcended even the need for the bridge of words. These blessed ones simply dwell in the nous, beholding like the Apostles on the Mount of Transfiguration the glorious Light of God (see Matthew 17). Since I’ve become Orthodox, I’ve had the very humbling privilege of meeting some of those mystically sweet and eminently quiet souls who by the grace of Christ have entered that place. Their eyes seem as deep as the universe.

I struggle with even the simplest rule of prayer. I cannot imagine my meager efforts ever approaching such a point. But I recognize my heart’s desire in the description above.

And finally, I’ll close with the words Matthew quotes from old Screwtape. (For those who are unfamiliar with the book, Screwtape is an older demon writing advice to his nephew, a younger demon with his first charge.) I’ll include the emphasis Matthew adds. I find it strange that so many evangelicals today love C.S. Lewis. He writes a great many things that must be uncomfortable for them to hear.

The best thing, where it is possible, is to keep the patient from the serious intention of praying altogether. When the patient is an adult recently reconverted to the Enemy’s party [ by “Enemy,” of course, the demon means God], like your man, this is best done by encouraging him to remember, or to think he remembers, the parrot-like nature of prayers in childhood. In reaction against that, he may be persuaded to aim at something entirely spontaneous, inward, informal, and unregularised … in which real concentration of will and intelligence  have no part … That is exactly the sort of prayer we want; and since it bears a superficial resemblance to the prayer of silence as practiced by those who are very far advanced in the Enemy’s service, clever and lazy patients can be taken in by it for quite a long time.