Why Do We Pray? 3 – To Change Ourselves?

Posted: March 7th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I want to make a distinction on this point. It’s true that devoting ourselves to a rule of prayer will almost certainly change us. Even the act of making space in our lives for such a rule of necessity alters the rhythm of our days. On the other hand, I’m not willing to say that’s the purpose of Christian prayer rather than simply one of its effects.

Why am I making that distinction? I think, at least in part, it’s because I’ve followed many sorts of spiritual practices over the years, from Hindu meditation to tarot to transcendental meditation to various forms of power visualization. When you adopt any sort of spiritual practice, it of necessity shapes and changes you.

In some ways, it’s like adopting a physical regimen of exercise or practice. If you swim every day, you will generally become a better swimmer. If you lift weights, you will tend to become stronger. If you run, you will eventually become a runner. If you practice the regimen of P90X (first or second version) as my younger son has done for years, that regimen will shape your body.

There are Christian disciplines specifically designed to change us. Fasting, for instance, helps break the grip of the physical passions while almsgiving helps break the grip of the more pervasive and destructive passions like greed and envy.

But I don’t think that’s the central purpose of prayer, otherwise some form of Christian meditation would suffice. No, I believe prayer has a deeper purpose, one I’ll pursue in subsequent posts.

Thoughts?


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 20

Posted: March 6th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 20

48.  As has been said many times, in everything we do God examines our motive, to see whether we are doing it for His sake or for some other purpose. Thus when we desire to do something good, we should not do it for the sake of popularity; we should have God as our goal, so that, with our gaze always fixed on Him, we may do everything for His sake. Otherwise we shall undergo all the trouble of performing the act and yet lose the reward.

This text rephrases as a more general statement what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. If you do anything for the sake of public recognition, the recognition we receive is the only reward we’ll receive from the act. It won’t fundamentally change us. It won’t make us more like Christ. It won’t heal us. God allows us to choose the paltry reward of fleeting acclaim from others if that’s what we desire.


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.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 11

Posted: January 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 11

36. Sufferings freely embraced and those that come unsought drive out pleasure and allay its impetus. But they do not destroy the capacity for pleasure which resides in human nature like a natural law. For the cultivation of virtue produces dispassion in one’s will but not in one’s nature. But when dispassion has been attained in one’s will the grace of divine pleasure becomes active in the intellect.

St. Maximos sees sufferings as pain we are granted to counter the sort of pleasure that draws us away from God, which means its the sort of pleasure that draws us ultimately toward a non-existence we are powerless to achieve. The sufferings freely embraced I think describe ascetic practices. I do think this is one of the widespread problems in most of Protestantism. And to some extent it seems to have spread to the modern Catholic Church as well. The ascetic disciplines (fundamentally fasting, prayer, and almsgiving) have to a large degree been abandoned within much of Christianity. But the disciplines are part of our synergy with God. If we do not engage in them, we provide God less and less room to change and transform us. Moreover, if we do not fast, we forget how to feast properly in thanksgiving. When the Church abandons basic ascetic disciplines, it gives its members over to the passions. That’s not to say that every person should live like a monk. Most people are not called or equipped by God for such a life. However, it seems that many people today seem to think that if they are not a monastic, that means they don’t need to practice any ascetic disciplines at all. And that’s not only inconsistent with the history of the Church and the Holy Scriptures, it ignores the reality of what it means to be a human being.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 21

Posted: August 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 21

57.  There are virtues of the body and virtues of the soul. Those of the body include fasting, vigils, sleeping on the ground, ministering to people’s needs, working with one’s hands so as not to be a burden or in order to give to others (cf. 1 Thess. 2:9, Ephes. 4:28). Those of the soul include love, long-suffering, gentleness, self-control and prayer (cf. Gal, 5:22). If as a result of some constraint or bodily condition, such as illness or the like, we find we cannot practice the bodily virtues mentioned above, we are forgiven by the Lord because He knows the reasons. But if we fail to practice the virtues of the soul, we shall not have a single excuse, for it is always within our power to practice them.

Personally, I find the sorts of things St. Maximos describes as virtues of the body much easier than the ones he describes as virtues of the soul. And yet, if we do not fast, how will ever learn self-control? If we do not minister to people, how can we ever love them? And if we never perform vigils, will we learn to pray — much less pray without ceasing? They are interconnected and intertwined. As a rule, when we act in an outward way through the powers and abilities our bodies provide us, we also act inwardly such that, if it is our will to become a different sort of person, over time we will.

God does not abandon us to that struggle. Indeed, he gives us himself. Nevertheless, it is our struggle, for we struggle ultimately with our own will. It’s the perennial question, what sort of person do we choose to be?


Four Hundred Texts on Love 22

Posted: May 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

79.  Almsgiving heals the soul’s incensive power; fasting withers sensual desire; prayer purifies the intellect and prepares it for the contemplation of created beings. For the Lord has given us commandments which correspond to the powers of the soul.

This text is interesting to me on several levels. For those who don’t often engage with any aspect of the Christian ascetic disciplines, almsgiving, fasting, and prayer lie at their foundation. These are the disciplines discussed (and assumed considering his Jewish audience) by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. These are the disciplines encountered again and again in the rest of the New Testament and in the writings of the Church. The earliest document of Christian liturgical practice that we have, the Didache, discusses these three disciplines.

In this text, St. Maximos is linking the disciplines to the effect they have, if practiced properly, on our soul. Almsgiving soothes and heals our soul’s inflammatory nature. It is true that wealth and the accumulation of material goods tends to excite and provoke us. We then tend to defend what we have and the means we employ to acquire more. Jesus spoke a great deal about the chains with which material wealth can bind us. It does follow then, that almsgiving, the practice of giving our money away, would begin to heal us. I had never really considered it in that light.

The goal of fasting is to give us mastery over our stomachs, and through that mastery, free us from domination by all the desires of our senses. Fasting has always made more sense to me in its Christian form than many of the other practices and disciplines.

I’m not sure I understand his statement about prayer. I grasp that prayer is our mystical connection with God and thus is the only true route for studying anything about God. So it makes sense, I guess, that as we turn our minds toward communion with God in constant prayer, that our intellect would be purified. Prayer to God cannot inhabit a mind that is turned from God. As we turn toward sin in our minds, we stop praying. As we start praying, we turn from sin.

I’m not sure what he means about preparing us for contemplation of created beings. Perhaps he means that a mind of prayer is prepared to see the created order as it actually is. A very interesting text, indeed.


The Didache 34 – Watch For Your Life’s Sake

Posted: July 14th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately. Today we reach the end of the Teaching and the conclusion of this series.

Watch for your life’s sake. Let not your lamps be quenched, nor your loins unloosed; but be ready, for you know not the hour in which our Lord will come. But come together often, seeking the things which are befitting to your souls: for the whole time of your faith will not profit you, if you are not made perfect in the last time. For in the last days false prophets and corrupters shall be multiplied, and the sheep shall be turned into wolves, and love shall be turned into hate; for when lawlessness increases, they shall hate and persecute and betray one another, and then shall appear the world-deceiver as Son of God, and shall do signs and wonders, and the earth shall be delivered into his hands, and he shall do iniquitous things which have never yet come to pass since the beginning. Then shall the creation of men come into the fire of trial, and many shall be made to stumble and shall perish; but those who endure in their faith shall be saved from under the curse itself. And then shall appear the signs of the truth: first, the sign of an outspreading in heaven, then the sign of the sound of the trumpet. And third, the resurrection of the dead — yet not of all, but as it is said: “The Lord shall come and all His saints with Him.” Then shall the world see the Lord coming upon the clouds of heaven.

Watch for your life’s sake. Is that truly our attitude as we go about our business each day? Oh, not in fear and not in ways that cause us to withdraw from those around us. And not in obsessive ways that we see in some trying to calculate the moment or constantly looking for signs. But simply ready for we do not know the hour. I remind myself that I also do not know the hour of my death. I’m reminded of the parable Jesus told of the man who made plans to tear down his barns and build bigger ones to hold his wealth of grain. He was a fool for he had no time left at all.

I like my modern luxuries and wealth very much, thank you. But it is easy to be lulled into comfortable rhythms and complacency. It is so very simple to stop watching. My tradition has abandoned the disciplines (church calendar, set prayers, corporate fasting, etc.) that maintain rhythms in our lives that are different, that remind us that we are not governed by anyone or anything other than Christ, that act for our healing so that we might work out our salvation in fear and trembling, the salvation that flows from Christ, that we might participate now in the Kingdom of Christ.

This also affirms once again the resurrection of the dead, which Paul defended so eloquently in 1 Corinthians 15. If the dead are not raised, then our faith is meaningless. We are not looking forward to some disembodied existence like Plato’s happy philosophers. Our spirits and bodies are inextricably intertwined and interdependent. Only in that union are we living souls. Death is the ultimate enemy Christ had to defeat for our salvation. We were enslaved to death and through death to all sorts of powers, evil, and sin. But Christ has “trampled down death by death” and we in him we find life.

Thanks to those who have meandered through the Teaching with me. I hope you’ve found something interesting somewhere in my reflections on it.


The Didache 24 – Pray This Way

Posted: July 4th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

Do not pray like the hypocrites, but rather as the Lord commanded in His Gospel, like this:

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily (needful) bread, and forgive us our debt as we also forgive our debtors. And bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one (or, evil); for Thine is the power and the glory for ever..

Pray this three times each day.

Once again, we see the Jewish influence in the Teaching. Set prayers three times a day were and remain an important feature of Jewish daily life. Those who attempted to trap Daniel knew he faithfully prayed three times each day. The Amidah is the prayer used today and when possible it is said communally (in groups of at least ten men), but can be prayed individually. We see this rhythm of set prayers repeatedly in the Gospels and Acts. The above is the prayer Jesus gave his followers when they asked him to give them a prayer like John the Baptist gave his followers prayers.

The Christian practice of set prayers is a rich and deep tradition that began centered on the prayer above and probably the Shema as Jesus changed it. As a rule, Christians faced East to pray. (Satan and evil were associated with the west while Jesus was associated with the east.) Churches tended to be built with the altar in the east. The tradition of prayer has not yet declined as much as fasting has, but in the West at least it has become a shadow of what it once was. Most people seem to only know of intercessory prayer, which while part of the reason and purpose for prayer, has traditionally only been a small part. And people seem to take Paul’s admonition to pray without ceasing as hyperbole rather than something we should actually work to accomplish.

Prayer is a mystery of communion with God. When we pray, we are mystically connected to God whether we “feel” anything or not. The rhythm of prayer is for our healing so that we come again and again to God, shaping ourselves into people who seek God, until one day we find that we do not desire to depart. That is, of course, what it means to pray without ceasing. Throughout the course of our day, we do not turn from God. We are continually aware of his presence with us.

But this is hard to do. And I would say impossible if we do not establish rhythms of prayer in our life. I know that I’m not very good at this at all. But I’ve had a thirst to become someone who prays for a long time now. The Orthodox have a saying. One who prays is a theologian and a theologian is one who prays. I reflect on that and it seems to me there is a lot of truth in it. What better way is there to learn to know God (for is that not the goal of the theologian?) than to stand with him and commune with him?


The Didache 23 – Fasting

Posted: July 3rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week. Rather, fast on the fourth day and the Preparation (Friday).

The “hypocrites” in this context would be those Jews who do not give Jesus of Nazareth their believing allegiance and obey his commands. The usage here echoes the way of using the idea of hypocrite in Jesus’ woes, which was a somewhat novel usage at the time. We know that some of the Rabbis around the time of Jesus (and the Teaching) had established Monday and Thursday fasts. While fasting in modern day Judaism has declined as it has in much of Christianity, sometime to little more than an observance of Yom Kippur, that was not the case when Jesus spoke in the Sermon on the Mount or when the Didache was recorded.

I will note that pretty much only the Orthodox still fast as a community on most Wednesdays and Fridays. Most Protestants have little knowledge and less practice of fasting. And Roman Catholic practice in the U.S. has declined in my lifetime. However, it had already been reduced to a Friday fast of sorts long before the present era. I think we’ve lost a great deal and it truly shows when you explore something like fasting.


The Didache 22 – Baptize This Way

Posted: July 2nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before.

The first thing that jumps out at me in this part of the Teaching is the phrase “Having first said all these things”. Those of us who were raised within a literate culture sometimes have a hard time grasping the way in which an oral culture works. It was and is normal for someone in an oral culture to memorize large blocks of oral tradition and be able to recite it verbatim. Oral teaching tends to be trusted more than a written text because you know who is teaching you, but you don’t where a written text came from or who might have changed it before you received it. A literate culture tends to relinquish that capacity for memorization and tends to trust a written text over a purely oral teaching. This phrase, of course, means that the one being baptized was expected to recite the entire Teaching before their baptism. That seems surprising to us only because we were not shaped within an oral culture.

However, it does point out that from very early on the church tried to make sure when possible and reasonable that people had some grasp of what they were doing in baptism. Even in the case of the Ethiopian eunech, we see Phillip cramming as much teaching as he could beforehand. On balance, I think most Protestant traditions do less baptismal teaching than is healthy. The expectation seems to be that people can learn what it all means after they do it, which seems a little backwards to me.

Next we see the Trinitarian formula, already established in the first century. Today, I believe the Orthodox are the only tradition who continue the triple immersion, but most Christians do baptize in the name of the Trinity. Those who don’t tend to have deeper theological issues.

The focus on “living” or running water is very Jewish in its nature, as one would expect since Christianity, flowing from Judaism, is inevitably shaped by the Jewishness of its Lord. However, we see all sorts of accomodation for different situations even in this short section.

I have to confess that even after all these years among them, I still don’t understand the strange relationship modern Baptists have with baptism. On the one hand, it doesn’t “count” unless done by immersion following a “valid” (how do you know?) confession of faith. While on the other hand they insist that baptism doesn’t actually mean anything or accomplish anything, that it’s “just” a symbol and does nothing in reality. And most don’t even seem to see how odd those two assertions are when joined together.

Finally, we see that the baptizer, the baptized, and everyone in the community who could were expected to fast before the baptism. Fasting, an important topic obviously to me, permeated the early church. I’m trying to imagine everyone in my church fasting together before performing baptisms and I’m not having much success. Baptists are known for many things, but fasting is not one of them. 😉

Perhaps that’s our loss?