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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Jesus Prayer 18 – Repentance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Jesus Prayer 17 – Fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 31

Posted: April 12th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 31

68.  He who simulates spiritual knowledge merely by the utterance of words filches the mind of those who hear him in order to boost his own reputation. Similarly, he who simulates virtue in his outward behavior pilfers the sight of those who look at him, once more in order to promote his own self-glory. Both steal by means of deceit, the first perverting his audience’s mind, the second the bodily sense of those who see him.

This idea of obligation to and interconnection with each other is largely foreign to our modern sensibilities. In short, if our actions do not match our words, or if our heart does not match our actions, we have actually stolen something valuable from those we have deceived. We have distorted their ability to perceive truly. If you take a moment and try to wrap your mind around it, I think you’ll see the value of this insight, though.


The Jesus Prayer 16 – Awe

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


The Jesus Prayer 15 – Mercy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Khouria Frederica Mathewes-Greene on the Jesus Prayer

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

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

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

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

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


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 28

Posted: March 31st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 28

60. With the help of hope, faith perfects our love for God. By making us keep the commandments, a clear conscience gives substance to our love for our neighbor. For a clear conscience cannot be charged with the breaking of a commandment. Only those who seek true salvation believe in their hearts in these three things, faith, hope and love.

When I read this text, I immediately think, “And the greatest of these is love.” But love does not stand in a vacuum. Indeed, love is perhaps the hardest thing to do. Jesus says that if we love him, we obey his commands. And what is his command? Love. If it’s to be anything more than a mental exercise, Christianity must be a life lived. The Orthodox speak of our life in Christ for anything else is delusion. And when we are indeed in Christ, we will act from self-sacrificing love, for how could we do any different? Our problem is often that we seek to find our life everywhere it is not.


The Jesus Prayer 14 – Imagination

Posted: March 30th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 14 – Imagination

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

There are books and other writings on Christian prayer today that encourage the use of our imagination during prayer. Orthodox tradition is adamant on this point; do not picture anything in your mind and do not use your imagination.

In the Jesus Prayer, we are trying to remain in direct contact with God, and such images can lure us instead into thinking about God.

Until I encountered this in Orthodoxy, the use of imagination in prayer had seemed natural to me. But once I began to think about it, I realized how odd it truly is to act that way. If I sat down with a friend for a conversation, but then proceeded to imagine my friend doing or saying various things, and began responding to the words and actions I had imagined, everyone would think I was crazy. And yet that is often precisely what we do with God.

Since it is possible to encounter God in reality, there is no need for fantasy.

And that’s really the crux of the matter. Do we believe God is real and do we believe we can truly encounter him? Our practices reveal our actual beliefs.