The Jesus Prayer 3 – Hesychia

Posted: February 23rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 3 – Hesychia

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 discusses another term, hesychia, anyone who explores Orthodoxy or the Jesus Prayer will encounter. It’s an important concept to understand.

In biblical Greek this word means “silence,” “quiet,” “stillness,” or “rest.” It is not an empty silence, but one marked by respect and awe. I think of Job, who said, when confronted by God’s majesty and power, “I lay my hand on my mouth” (Job 40:4).

St. Gregory of Palamas wrote that in that stillness, we can directly encounter God and we can perceive reality as it is — suffused with God. The Transfiguration of Christ illustrates this truth. Although we call it a “transfiguration,” Christian understanding has always been that what the disciples saw was the reality of Christ. Jesus never broke communion with the Father and the Spirit, so he lived constantly in their presence and light. Most of the time nobody could see that reality. The light of God is not part of creation. Whatever it might be, it’s not photons. And we are told in multiple places that those energies of God suffuse and sustain all that is. Most of the time, we do not have eyes to see.

To the limited extent I understand it, hesychasm seeks to quiet the nous so that we can experience God in our innermost being. When we do, through God’s grace, it can be possible to acquire the Spirit in such a way that we do have eyes to see the reality of creation.

I’ve never experienced that myself. I feel it’s important to stress again that there’s nothing special about me and I’m still not very good at all at the practice of any aspect of Christian faith. But I do believe it’s true. This marks the key difference I found between Hinduism and Christianity very early on. Both teach and speak of a God in whom we live and move and have our being, but Brahman and Christ are not the same. Ultimately, Brahman is other and unknowable, while Christ, even as he transcends our knowledge, makes himself immediately and personally known.


The Jesus Prayer 2 – Prayer of the Heart

Posted: February 21st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 2 – Prayer of 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.

If you read or listen to almost anything about the Jesus Prayer, you will also often encounter the phrase, prayer of the heart. They sometimes seem to be used almost interchangeably, but they are not actually the same thing. I like the approach Khouria Frederica takes in distinguishing them.

The Jesus Prayer refers to the actual words of the prayer. By an act of volition or will, we choose to say those words. It can be somewhat mechanistic at first. The Jesus Prayer is a distinct discipline marked by act of repeating those words and it can be used to discuss the history of that specific discipline.

Prayer of the heart refers to the action of the Prayer, something that may occur, by God’s grace, within a person who diligently practices the Prayer.

The prayer “descends into heart” when, instead of simple mental repetition as an act of will, the prayer becomes effortless and spontaneous, flowing from your innermost being.

You discover that the Holy Spirit has been there, praying, all along. Then heart and soul, body and mind, memory and will, the very breath of life itself, everything that you have and are unites in gratitude and joy, tuned like a violin string to the name of Jesus.

Prayer of the heart is gift of the Spirit, not something we can control or force. I hesitate to say that I have experienced it, though I have experienced moments that sound similar to some of the descriptions. I’m a poor practitioner, though, and am well aware of my own capacity for self-delusion. I would never present myself as an example for anyone else to follow.

I do, however, have no doubts about the Jesus Prayer itself. In part, I think, that’s because it came to me before I had any intellectual understanding or knowledge of it. I discovered the Jesus Prayer was an ancient and enduring prayer tradition long after I discovered the Jesus Prayer. Unlike any other practice or discipline I have developed or tried over the years, this is not one I developed first in my intellect.

When I accepted the idea of breath prayers as a general concept from Bro. Lawrence and determined to attempt this discipline, this specific prayer immediately welled up from within me. It almost demanded that I pray it. I would try other prayers and find myself praying this one. And it never felt like something new. I’m not sure I can explain it, but it has always felt like the Jesus Prayer was consciously expressing the prayer within me of which I had not previously been consciously aware.

I suppose I would say the Jesus Prayer can unite our mind and heart, our intellect and nous, together in the Spirit. It’s a gift of God for our salvation.


The Problem of Evil?

Posted: February 18th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I definitely recommend the lectures series on Eastern Orthodoxy and Mysticism: The Transformation of the Senses given by Hieromonk Irenei Steenberg. The lectures are excellent, but I actually found the manner in which he handled the Q&A sessions following each one and some of the answers he gave on the spot in response to questions even more impressive.

As I was listening to the lectures a second time, something in the third lecture that I had overlooked the first time through caught my attention and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I think it captures much of my instinctive response to the particular shape the discussion of “The Problem of Evil” often takes today, but which I could never quite find words to properly express.

Father Irenei, in the part of the lecture in which he is discussing the limits of what we can say and know, makes the point that it’s a misnomer to describe evil as a problem. A problem has a solution. We may not know or have discovered the solution, but it’s reasonable to believe that a solution exists. He uses the illustration of a complex math problem. It might be hard. It might be beyond our present ability to solve. But it’s reasonable to believe it can be solved. By calling evil a problem, we imply there is a solution — that the gordian knot can be undone.

But evil isn’t like that. It’s truly a mystery that in some ways transcends our understanding. We don’t ultimately solve the question of evil. We never fully understand it in all its ramifications. We are invited instead to trust the God who also transcends our understanding — the God who has made himself immediately and personally accessible to us all by assuming our own nature. We are invited into a communion of love beyond our understanding. We are told that God has overcome evil and defeated death on our behalf. We can place our confidence in that particular God or not, but either way, we still can’t solve or resolve the problem of evil.

Evil is a mystery. We can see its impact, its effects. We sometimes know when it’s at work around us. But it’s often beyond our understanding.

None of which means we should give up or succumb to evil. We are to fight it in our lives. And we are to offer pastoral care to all those suffering evil. God gives us the grace, the power, to do both if we choose to avail ourselves of him. But those actions form a way of life, not an intellectual understanding of evil nor are our efforts necessarily effective at reducing evil on some large scale. We are to offer our efforts nonetheless. That act in creation is part of our reasonable worship. It’s part of our eucharistic function as priests in creation.

But we need to resist evil, not solve it. If we focus on the latter, I think we make ourselves vulnerable.


The Jesus Prayer – Introduction

Posted: February 11th, 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.

In her introduction to the book, Frederica Mathewes-Green is careful to state that she is no expert in the practice of the Jesus Prayer. In fact, like most of us, she tends to often live as though she could “pull down a window shade” between God and herself. It’s something most of us do. We don’t pray constantly because we don’t live with a constant sense of the presence of God. If you pause and consider the way we live, it’s a bit ridiculous. In many ways we’re like the small child who hides her eyes and believes we can’t see her because she can’t see us. It’s endearing in a toddler, but we would look askance at an adult who still lived as though that were true. Yet, there is no place we can go where God is not.

Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from they presence? If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there! (Ps. 139:7-8)

Indeed, since God is the source of life and sustains all that is, if we could escape God’s presence, we would immediately cease to exist.

The Jesus Prayer is a means by which we learn to experience God directly. Our problem is that we do not perceive reality truly. I was listening to a lecture and I was struck by something said about the Transfiguration of our Lord. Jesus did not change during the transfiguration. He was always God — always filled with the divine uncreated light. Rather, people — including his disciples — were not able to see him truly. And in the Transfiguration they were granted the grace to experience the full reality of Jesus. We still have the same problem today. All creation is filled with the glory of God and we do not have eyes to see it.

Khouria Frederica mentions the nous in her introduction. I’ve written about it before, but I like the way she describes it. The cogitative part of our mind, the intellect, is not the nous. Rather, the nous is the receptive part of our mind. It’s the part that experiences, that understands. The Jesus Prayer helps us still our noisy intellect so we can perceive and hear God. That strikes me as an especially good description.

There is an aspect of learning to still the mind in forms of meditation that I’ve practiced in the past. I’ve always had a sense that some aspect of that was needed in Christian practice even before the Jesus Prayer came to me. “Be still and know that I am God,” the psalter exhorts, but the truth is that we do not know how to be still. Our minds never stop whirling.

When Christians pray the Jesus Prayer, we are trying to still our mind in order to open our nous to God. It’s a very specific goal and we call on Jesus as Lord to have mercy on us and help us. As someone who is now a Christian looking back on some of those other forms of meditation I’ve practiced I see the danger that I didn’t see then. We do not wish to open ourselves, our nous, to receive anything or any experience. That is unwise. Rather we seek to hear and experience the one we call Lord.

I found this book a good, practical guide to the Jesus Prayer. This is the prayer that came to me some years before I even knew it was a tradition. I thank God constantly for that grace. And I look forward to reflecting on it once more.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 16

Posted: February 10th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 16

43.  The Lord gave clear evidence of His supreme power in what He endured from hostile forces when He endowed human nature with an incorruptible form of generation. For through His passion He conferred dispassion, through suffering repose, and through death eternal life. By His privations in the flesh He re-established and renewed the human state, and by His own incarnation He bestowed on human nature the supranatural grace of deification.

It is no longer the nature of man to die.

I think we sometimes lose sight of that truth as Christians today. We are no longer slaves to death. Moreover, we can now become like God. We can become one with God. Before the Incarnation, that was forever beyond our reach. God was wholly other from us. While we could not know or commune with God, the Word could and did become one of us. That’s why the best short description of salvation is union with Christ. As we are one with Christ, so we become one with God and with each other.


Be Careful Little Ears?

Posted: February 2nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Be Careful Little Ears?

The title of this post comes from a child’s song sometimes sung in at least some churches. I can’t actually remember when or where I heard the song. I probably heard it at some point over the last eighteen years as we raised children in a local SBC church. But I have this almost-memory of my mother singing it when I was little. It’s strange, sometimes, the things that pop into your head and the memories that surface when you’re searching for a title.

There is a certain truth in the song. The things we hear and see and experience, especially when young, do tend to form and shape us — often in non-linear and unexpected ways. I don’t believe we can truly be shielded from those experiences, no matter how “careful” we are, but we are shaped by them. I do believe the forces to which we expose our children are important. We cannot always, or even often, control them all. But where we can, I believe our choices do matter.

I’m not sure I’ve done my kids any favors in and through the church in which we raised them.

That was a hard sentence to write, but I believe it’s true. Of course, there are many things in our little corner of Christianity that have often seemed odd to me as an adult. Some things I would try on for size for a while and other things I rejected outright. I’ve been learning and struggling to understand which of the countless Christian stories best describes this faith for years, but I’ve been doing it as an adult.

Young earth creationism? Pshaw! That’s such a ludicrous idea it never had the slightest chance with me. I quickly figured out that I completely rejected what Protestant “complementarianism” in any of its flavors held about the nature and role of women. The rapture/end times stuff appealed to the part of me that loves a good fantasy novel for a season, but as I came to understand Christianity better, I also came to see the harmful side to that perspective. I saw the inconsistency in the teaching about hell as a place somehow separated from God where God sends people (for whatever reason) from the start. (If everything is contingent on God, then it’s not possible to be separated from God.) And the whole thing about Jesus’ suffering and death somehow being a payment to God? That never seemed right to me, though I set it aside for some years while I learned more about this Christian thing.

I guess I somehow thought my kids, especially with the balance of what we taught and lived at home, were able to make the same critical distinctions. In retrospect, that was a silly assumption. After all, I took in everything to which I was exposed more or less uncritically (at least at first) when I was growing up. But I didn’t begin to realize the nature of my error until one of my older sons was a senior in high school. He was dating a devout Roman Catholic girl and I remember his surprise that there were Christian traditions (most of them, in fact) that did not hold to young earth creationism. He knew that I rejected YEC, as I had often mentioned its failings, but somehow that didn’t translate into a broader understanding that you could be Christian without believing the universe was a few thousand years old. I then began to notice my sons were absorbing ideas about women I considered harmful. I decided I needed to immerse myself in the environment in which I had been placing them when my younger son entered the student ministry.

I did that for a number of years and it was a valuable experience. I even found a close friend in the process, something I didn’t expect at all. Over time I came to better understand some of the ways the Baptist youth experience shapes and forms teenagers. (And by extension, I believe that’s even more true of the various children’s ministries.) When we place our children in an environment and tell them it is about God, we are lending our own formational power as parents to the structures and teachings of that environment. Spiritual formation is already a powerful force and when we lend our reinforcement — even tacitly — we do not necessarily get to choose what does and does not get reinforced.

When I had reached a point where I had pretty much decided I wasn’t comfortable having my children immersed in such an environment, I shared my concerns with a couple of friends. One of them wondered if church could really have that much influence. After all, kids spend an order of magnitude more time at school, with friends, and at home than at church. I knew some of the things my children had absorbed could only have been found at our church — at least among their particular circles of friends. And at the time I wandered into musings about the power of spiritual groups and teachings in general at any age, but especially in the formation of children. I’ve touched on some of those forces in this post.

But this past weekend while skating with my youngest daughter, a different thought popped into my head out of the blue. Let’s assume my friend’s point was accurate and the influence of church is directly proportional to the time spent at the church. And given that so much more time is spent at school and with friends, that means church has relatively little overall influence. If that’s true, then what’s the point in taking your children to any church, especially one in which it is understood that everything is purely “symbolic” and nothing actually happens?

It seems to me we can’t have it both ways. Either the church exerts a powerful influence in the formation of our children or it has little influence at all. If the former is true, then it’s important to consider everything about that influence since we can’t really control what they will or won’t absorb. If the latter is true, then there’s no point in taking them to any church at all. It’s a waste of time and effort. It can’t simultaneously be important to bring your children to church and have that experience be meaningless in their formation as human beings.

I don’t really have any answers or deep conclusions. I knew from my own experience and intuition that influence is not bound by number of hours so I never really considered the implications of the opposite conclusion. Nor can I say why the thought suddenly popped into my head years later. My mind is sometimes a mystery to me. I often work through thoughts by writing. If you’ve read this far expecting that I have answers to offer, I apologize. Sometimes I just want to make the questions clearer.

Grace and peace.


Thirsting for God 17 – Mary, The Theotokos

Posted: January 24th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

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

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

In this chapter, Matthew Gallatin discusses something which I’ve noticed often leads evangelicals to act and react in strange ways, the veneration of Mary, the mother of our Lord. The prayer which I’ve quoted above is one I learned when I attended Catholic school (as a non-Catholic) and it has stayed with me across the decades. It’s a prayer I remember finding myself praying even when I considered myself more Hindu than anything resembling Christian. It would spring to my mind at odd times — sometimes when meditating, at times under stress, and from time to time during other activities as well. It was never constantly running through my mind, but I never forgot it and at odd moments it would surface.

I suppose that experience, as much as anything else, made me skeptical of evangelical critiques of Mary as I encountered them. While the factors that ultimately led to the completion of my journey into something like Christian conversion are many and varied, Mary certainly deserves part of the credit. Some part of me believed the prayer above long before I accepted anything else about Christianity.

Moreover, the evangelical aversion to Mary, the Mother of God, does not strike me as entirely rational. After all, the first sentence of the prayer above pretty much comes straight from the Holy Scriptures and the second sentence is simply a humble request for intercession. Mary, herself, full of the Holy Spirit, prophesied in the Magnificat that all generations would call her blessed. It’s almost as though evangelicals have adopted the view that the Mother of God was nothing more than a vessel for the Incarnation and that if she had said no, any other woman would have sufficed. Such a view is actually a fresh expression of an ancient heresy, for it diminishes the humanity of Jesus. He was not merely inhabiting flesh and needed an impersonal vessel to grow that flesh. No, Jesus became fully human which means that Mary was an active agent in the Incarnation. Everything human that Jesus was and is, he drew from her.

And there is no indication anywhere in Scripture that God had a Plan B. Mary’s yes to God is poetically described in Christian tradition as healing Eve’s no. Mary is sometimes called the new Eve as Jesus is the new Adam. In this sense, then, Mary’s yes to God saves us all, for without that yes, there would have been no Incarnation and our salvation rests wholly in Jesus of Nazareth.

In a lesser sense, the same thing is true for each of us, though the magnitude and scope of our choices and their consequences are not as broad as Mary’s were. When we say no to God, he doesn’t go pick another vessel to magically replace us. If that were true, creation would not be as broken as it is.

Matthew opens with a poignant story of his brother, who died many years before.¬† I’m going to quote his next few paragraphs because I think they reveal a problem which has long bothered me in my Baptist circles.

Now, not one of my Protestant friends would think it strange if, while standing before that bookshelf [holding the picture of his brother], I were to pick up Barry’s photograph and give it a kiss. But what happens when I take two large strides to the right to my icon shelf, and kiss the icon of Mary, the Theotokos? Now, suddenly, I’m an idolater. What changed? What’s wrong with Mary, that she’s not worthy of the kind of love and respect I would give to my departed brother?

Or suppose I kiss the icon of my daughter’s patron saint, Vera. Just like my brother Barry, she died a violent death. Nineteen centuries ago, at the age of twelve, she was martyred for the sake of Christ, along with her mother and two younger sisters. But in Protestant eyes, showing her the kind of love I would give to my brother is a sinful thing to do.

Just what is the problem here? When I began to struggle with this issue, I saw something paradoxical in my old Protestant attitudes. On the one hand, I would condemn people who honored Mary and the saints; yet on the other hand, I saw nothing wrong with honoring respected Protestant preachers and teachers, living or dead. It was perfectly okay to sing the praises of these people, to watch videos and slide shows that recounted their deeds, and get all misty-eyed as someone performed “Thank You for Giving to the Lord.” But if I saw someone giving laud and honor to the woman who bore the Savior in her womb — why, the very act made that person’s Christianity questionable!

Is Mary special or isn’t she? Be careful how you answer that question, for one thing seems to me to be certain. Mary is at least as special to the one called Jesus the Christ as our own mothers are to us. But it goes even deeper than that. Mary is not called Theotokos (literally God-bearer) by chance or accident. Although the title can be traced as far back as the second century, it was affirmed in the Council of Ephesus in 431 over and against competing titles such as Anthropotokos (bearer of a man) and Christotokos (Christ-bearer). The competing views were not really about Mary, but about the nature of the child she bore in her womb. And the competing groups rejected the idea that Mary had carried and given birth to God. The affirmation of the title Theotokos was an affirmation that Jesus was fully God.

Me? I tend to believe that Mary did, in fact, pray and intercede for me, even when I didn’t really believe in her or her Son, much less believe I was a ‘sinner.’ In fact, I believe to this day she is more likely to pray for us than many of the people who tell us to our faces that they will. I do the best I can not to tell someone that I will pray for them unless I’m sure I will, but even so my record is less than stellar. I have a sense that failing is not unique to me.


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.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 10

Posted: January 20th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 10

32. It was indeed indispensable that He who is by nature the Creator of the being of all things should Himself, through grace, accomplish their deification, and in this way reveal Himself to be not only the author of being but also the giver of eternal well-being. Every creature is totally ignorant both of its own essential being and of that of every other created thing; in consequence no created thing has by nature foreknowledge of anything that will come into existence. Only God has such foreknowledge, and He transcends created things. For He knows what He is in His essence and He knows of the existence of everything made by Him before it comes into being; and it is His purpose to endow created things through grace with a knowledge both of their own essential being and of that of other things; for He will reveal to them the inner principles of their creation, pre-existent in a unified manner within Himself.

We don’t know God. We don’t truly know each other. And often, we do not even know ourselves. We can’t follow Polonius’ maxim, “To thine own self be true,” because we do not know our deepest self or how to be true to it. Before we can be deified, before we can be one with God, we have to be healed. We no longer know what it means to be a human being and we cannot know ourselves or be one with others until we have our true humanity restored. Jesus, in part, became man to restore to us our humanity. That’s one of the reasons it’s so important that Jesus was fully human in every way except sin. He became the faithful man we could not be.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 8

Posted: January 13th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 8

29. The intelligence recognizes two kinds of knowledge of divine realities. The first is relative, because it is confined to the intelligence and its intellections, and does not entail any real perception, through actual experience, of what is known. In our present life we are governed by this kind of knowledge. The second is true and authentic knowledge. Through experience alone and through grace it brings about, by means of participation and without the help of the intelligence and its intellections, a total and active perception of what is known. It is through this second kind of knowledge that, when we come into our inheritance, we receive supernatural and ever-activated deification. The relative knowledge that resides in the intelligence and its intellections is said to stimulate our longing for the real knowledge attained by participation. This real knowledge, which through experience and participation brings about a perception of what is known, supersedes the knowledge that resides in the intelligence and the intellections.

This text can be a little tricky to untangle, but if I understand it properly it divides knowledge into two realms. One is intellectual and confined to the workings of our own mind. This knowledge is relative because it has no basis in the perception of actual experience. Authentic knowledge is gained by the actual experience of God through the energies of his grace and participation with him. The relative knowledge of our own intellect can spur our desire for true and authentic knowledge, but that’s the limit of its reach. I think I can be guilty of confusing the former knowledge with the latter and it makes me wonder just how widespread that confusion might be.