The Jesus Prayer 26 – Thoughts

Posted: June 24th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 26 – Thoughts

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

I’ll conclude my series of reflections on Khouria Frederica’s book with this reflection on the path thoughts take to pull us away from prayer. The fathers identify stages such thoughts take.

1. Provocation. Provoking thoughts can arise from our subconscious or whispered by other powers. They can appear blasphemous, evil, or even noble and good. If blasphemous, we might wonder how we could think such a thing, which is always a good indication that it may not be your own thought. The fathers consistently advise us to ignore provoking thoughts. Don’t try to argue with them or agree with them. Keep praying.

2. Interaction. Of course, we don’t usually do that. Instead, we engage the thought. Our nous turns from God and begins to consider the thought instead. The thought has a foot in the door. The fathers advise crying out to God for help. Wrap your nous in the Jesus Prayer.

3. Consent. “At this point, the nous has become intoxicated with the thought and embraces it. A sign of this stage is that the nous becomes absorbed in gazing at an image or playing out a fantasy.” It’s at this point, when we have consented to an image or fantasy, that we become responsible for sin as Jesus warns, especially in the Sermon on the Mount.

4. Captivity. With consent, the ability to resist the thought begins to crumble. At some point, it will be put into action.

5. Passion. After repeatedly consenting, we no longer have the ability to use our will to resist. The thought appears and we act without resistance. It has become something we suffer, similar to a compulsion or addiction. We are ruled by it. Jesus came to heal us and set us free. Without spiritual healing, we are helpless.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 37

Posted: June 23rd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 37

76. When a man sticks to the mere letter of Scripture, his nature is governed by the senses alone, in this way proving his soul’s attachment to the flesh. For if the letter is not understood in a spiritual way, its significance is restricted to the level of the senses, which do not allow its full meaning to pass over into the intellect. When the letter is appropriated by his senses alone, he receives it Judaic-wise merely in the literal sense, and so lives according to the flesh, spiritually dying each day the death of sin on account of his forceful senses; for he cannot put his body’s pursuits to death by the Spirit in order to live the life of bliss in the Spirit. ‘For if you live according to the flesh, you will die,’ says St Paul, ‘but if through the Spirit you put to death the body’s pursuits, you will live’ (Rom. 8:13).

I’m not going to pretend I understand exactly what St. Maximos intends in the text above, but I do think I detect a warning in it about the way a disturbing number of people today treat the Holy Scriptures. It seems such treatment is not an entirely new thing at all.


The Jesus Prayer 24 – Spiritual Pride

Posted: April 29th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , | 2 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 answers a number of questions in her book that explore the differences between the practice of the Jesus Prayer and some of the practices and goals of Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. I think many people might find those sections helpful. They are, in my estimation, as well done as everything else in the book. I’m skipping past them in my own personal reflections, though, because I’m reasonably familiar with those religions and that perspective, and don’t really suffer any confusion. The differences between those religions and, once I began to understand it, Christianity, have always been apparent to me.

Can someone fall into delusion, even though trying sincerely to practice the Jesus Prayer?

That’s a serious question and the short answer is telling.

Only if spiritual pride seeps in, so be on guard against it.

Pride is subtle, though, and we easily deceive ourselves. Are we seeking Jesus or are we seeking spiritual power? I never assume the former is true. After all these years, I know myself better than that. Khouria Frederica shares an excellent quote from St. Macarius of Egypt.

This is the mark of Christianity: however much a man toils, and however many acts of righteousness he performs, to feel that he has done nothing; in fasting to say, “This is not fasting,” and in praying, “This is not prayer,” and in perseverance at prayer, “I have shown no perseverance; I am only just beginning to practice and to take pains”; and even if he is righteous before God, he should say, “I am not righteous, not I; I do not take pains, but only make a beginning every day.”

Humility, though, doesn’t really fit in our culture. We carry within us the image of the self-sufficient and self-made American. We are bombarded with images and messages that promote pride. Even when we’re embarrassed, it’s often pride that shows up as anger or hurt feelings.

The kind of person Christ will make of you is the kind of person our culture does not even notice, much less admire.

Love for enemies is one of the main tests for true humility. Quoting St. Silouan:

The Lord is meek and humble, and loves his creatures. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is humble love for enemies and prayer for the whole world.

If a spiritual manifestation or encounter produces anything else, I would question whether or not it is the Holy Spirit.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 34

Posted: April 21st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 34

72.  If always understood in the same way, none of the persons, places, times, or any of the other things mentioned in Scripture, whether animate or inanimate, sensible or intelligible, will yield either the literal or spiritual sense intended. Thus he who wishes to study the divine knowledge of Scripture without floundering must respect the differences of the recorded events or sayings, and interpret each in a different way, assigning to it the appropriate spiritual sense according to the context of place and time.

This text reinforces the prior one. I would add that we need a guide to understand that context. No text, after all, is self-interpreting. And while we draw from all available sources, including the insights of modern history, it’s the tradition of interpretation within the Church that provides the central guiding rail as we read the Holy Scriptures.


The Jesus Prayer 20 – Placing the Nous in the Heart

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

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

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

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

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

And then some of her own thoughts.

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

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

 


The Jesus Prayer 18 – Repentance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Jesus Prayer 17 – Fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Jesus Prayer 16 – Awe

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 29

Posted: April 5th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 29

62.  If a person’s will is not directed towards what is good, it is inevitably directed towards evil; for it cannot be stationary with regard to both. Because it implies obduracy with regard to virtue Scripture describes the soul’s sluggishness in pursuing what is good as ‘stones’; while it describes as ‘timber’ the soul’s readiness to commit evil (cf. Zech. 5:4). But sense perception allied with the activity of the intellect produces virtue with spiritual knowledge.

I would tend to say that we are always becoming the person we will be. The person we are will soon be the person we were. We cannot stop that process and so we cannot remain static. It’s also true that the longer we remain on one course, fixed in one direction, the more difficult it is for us to change to another. Where is my will directed? It’s not an idle question. Rather, it’s often the image of the person I will be.


The Jesus Prayer 9 – A Darkened Nous

Posted: March 11th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 9 – A Darkened Nous

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

While the nous is our “little radio,” our faculty for hearing and encountering God, it doesn’t much want to listen to God. Our nous is often described as damaged or darkened.  Our nous craves stimulation constantly. Our thoughts constantly leap from one topic to another, rarely settling down.

A contemporary elder said that the nous is like a dog that wants to run around all the time.

Does that describe your mind? It certainly describes mine. Our nous needs to be healed for us to clearly perceive and understand reality. And, as Khouria Frederica puts it, reality is God’s home address.

The Jesus Prayer functions, in part, by “opening a little space between you and your automatic thoughts, so that you can scrutinize them before you let them in.”

This healing is a lifelong process, and your self-serving thoughts, in particular, are adept at disguising themselves; they may escape detection for many long years. But over time you will discover that some very old automatic thoughts are just plain wrong, and you don’t have to think them anymore. As the nous is gradually healed, its perceptions become more accurate, less agitated. You begin to acquire “the nous of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). “Be transformed by the renewal of your nous,” said St. Paul (Rom. 12:2).

The Jesus Prayer will send you into the “jungle of your own psyche.” I don’t know about you, but for me that’s a pretty frightening place. Jesus is both the compass and the goal of that journey. This is one of the reasons Orthodoxy places so much emphasis on having a spiritual father or mother. You need someone who can guide you and wrap you in their own ardent prayers.