Pluralism and the Various Christian Gods 2

Posted: June 13th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Pluralism and the Various Christian Gods 2

I concluded my first post with the question, when faced with the myriad forms of modern Christianity, what’s a poor pluralist to do? On the surface, at least, the answer is relatively straightforward. I didn’t and still don’t don’t treat Christianity as one religion. Instead, just I had always done with different systems and practices of belief, I learned to approach each stream called Christian on its own terms as something distinct and unique. After all, they are.

I’ve noticed that a fair number of people, if they are more than superficially aware of the diversity within the umbrella labeled Christianity, seem to expend a degree of energy trying to somehow reconcile the different systems of belief, determine which one is right, or somehow try to find some kind of reductionist, minimal common ground. That’s always seemed odd to me.

If someone says they believe differently than I do or than some other groups does, and I attempt to say that actually they believe pretty much the same thing, then I am attempting to assert power over them. Different beliefs at this level are different. As a rule, they cannot be reconciled with each other.

An individual effort to, through reason or emotion, determine which one is somehow right or correct is focused on the wrong question. If I cared to do so, I could probably write a pretty good logical defense of that umbrella of theological systems of intellectual belief within Christianity called Calvinism. I could probably do the same for many others. I could also find ways to shred and deconstruct many of the same, but at the end of the day, what does any of that matter? After all, I’m not trying to conduct some sort of scientific experiment. I’m not conducting a survey of religion for credit at a university.

I’m trying to determine who offers a description of the reality I experience that seems to more accurately capture my experience. I’m trying to discern who describes a God I am willing to worship and in whom I can find my life. Simply discovering that something is, in at least some sense, intellectually coherent, even if correct, is useless.

Finally, if you strip enough things away, I suppose we could find the common ground between Hinduism and Christianity and call them one as easily as we could strip things away and distill Christian belief to some sort of essence. But what does that accomplish? I haven’t actually made Hinduism and Christianity the same thing. They are still quite different. Instead I have created this new perspective on reality, even if I have not given it a name, which consists of the common beliefs between the two with everything else stripped away.

My approach is not really as difficult as it seems. We know from surveys and studies that between 30k-40k distinctly identifiable Christian denominations and non-denominations exist. That sounds like an unmanageably large number. How could anyone possibly explore each and every one of them? Well, the answer is that nobody ever could, just as no-one could ever possibly explore the path of every guru within Hinduism, past, present, and future. But there are factors that serve, in practice, to reduce those numbers.

First, there are a great many instances of distinct belief within that overall number that consist of a single group not connected organizationally with any others (often described as non-denominational) in locations around the world where I don’t live. As a simple matter of physical location, I don’t need to concern myself about those in my personal exploration. Of course, that leaves a large of number of traditions, denominations, associations, and local non-denominations, but the list is not as daunting as it seems.

Even within those remaining, they tend to aggregate into streams. Now, I do not mean that those who hold themselves distinct within a particular larger stream, such a Calvinism, are all the same. They aren’t. There can be quite a bit of variation and diversity. But that variation and diversity may not matter to me. For instance, I determined early in my exploration that the Calvinist God is not one I would ever worship, nor would I ever agree that lens accurately describes the reality around us. Once I understood that, the distinctions and variation of the individual denominations and non-denominations within that stream became largely irrelevant to me.

For very different reasons, it quickly became apparent to me that the broad Charismatic stream did not mesh with my perception of the Christian God and our reality. I would be hard-pressed to explain to anyone the differences between the different churches in that stream. I’ve read parts of the Book of Mormon (from a literary standpoint it’s pretty dreadful, so I’ve never made it through the whole thing) and otherwise learned enough about it to know that I’m not interested.

As a result, I’ve spent most of the past two decades exploring the streams that flow from Luther, from the Anglican Communion (including those coming out of it from people like the Wesleys), the pietists, and Roman Catholicism. Not too many years ago, I discovered the distinct nature of Orthodoxy and found within it many of the things I had not found in other streams. I didn’t even realize I was searching for some of them.

There are, of course, specific ideas and beliefs I reject because they simply do not factually describe the world. I do not mean to imply that sort of our discernment of reality and perception of things as they are doesn’t matter. It does. The modern “Young Earth Creationist” hypothesis is one such example. And I don’t particularly care if it’s being stated by a Baptist or an Orthodox (and I’ve read and heard it from both of those and many more). I’m not going to believe it. I also don’t spend a great deal of energy on the matter.

But most beliefs are not subject to such simple analysis and categorization.  The strands are woven into a basket and the whole basket must be examined and, if possible, tried.

In a lot of ways, it was Jesus who had worked his way into the chinks of the walls I had established against Christianity. I had not been looking for a new belief system. I was not exploring Christianity, especially at first, because I was seeking to understand reality. I had an understanding of sorts which had been disrupted, but not exactly overturned, by this strange Christian God. In a lot of ways, I’ve always been looking for the stream that actually described something I could recognize as the God who met me, who came to me.

Still, there are a lot of people in those thirty to forty thousand denominations and non-denominations. When I say something like Calvinism does not describe a God I would ever worship, what does it say about those within that Calvinist stream? What about those in the many different streams I do not accept? To me, that’s only different in degree from the question about those within Hinduism, or Buddhism, or any of a host of different rivers of belief. I’ve written about that here and there in the past. In my next post in this series, I’ll try to touch on it again.


Why I Am Not An Atheist 2 – Experience

Posted: May 25th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’ll start with the central reason I’m not an atheist — my personal experience and perception of reality. That also happens to be the most difficult aspect to capture meaningfully in words. The most likely reaction to this post in the series will be that those who have experienced reality in a similar manner will understand what I am trying to express and those who haven’t will be less likely to understand. Nevertheless, I have to start here. I don’t uncritically accept my own experience. I’m not sure I ever really have — even as a young teen or preteen participating in something like the past life regression seminar my parents once hosted. Subsequent posts will explore some of the other aspects I have considered about an atheistic perspective. But it does seem to start here.

Those who have read my blog for a while know that I was well into my adult life before I would say my journey reached a point where the label “Christian” became one I associated with my core identity. I recognize that’s a much more complicated statement than the ones many people employ. In large part that’s because I refuse to simplify my story to make it fit some template of conversion. In a sense, one could say I became a Christian as an adult, but that statement would not carry the same meaning for me that it would hold for many. For instance, I have only been baptized once. I was baptized as a child and I hold that baptism valid, even if there were years in which I rejected it. In truth, my life held many intersections with Christianity, some positive and others negative. (The negative side includes being told to leave a worship service as a teen parent because my sleeping infant daughter was “disturbing” the service.) But my first three decades of life, as intimated in my opening paragraph, also included intersections with a number of other religions and expressions of spirituality as well. My journey doesn’t fit any simple paradigm.

I cannot remember any time in my life when I did not have some sense of the transcendent. I’m not sure if there’s any other way I can express that idea. By and large, most atheistic perspectives (and contrary to the way some Christians speak, there is hardly a single atheist perspective) are materialist in nature. Now, that’s not universally true. Some people describe Buddhism as atheistic and it’s certainly not a materialistic perspective. (Personally, though not named, the underlying ground of Buddhism in general — recognizing there is a lot of variation — looks a lot like the Hindu Brahman to me. But that may just be a reflection of my own past practice of a sort of Hinduism along with the fact that I’ve never actually practiced any form of Buddhism.) I can’t really say how personal experience plays out in the lives of anyone else, but that sense of transcendence meant that materialistic metaphysical perspectives never jived with my perception of reality even when I explored some of them. As a result, while I sometimes describe myself as a reluctant Christian and accidental Baptist, I never “struggled” with atheism the way I’ve heard some people describe their journey. A specifically Christian perspective did not and does not come easily to me, but atheism plays  no significant role in that difficulty.

Along with that underlying sense of general transcendence in reality, I have also had a number of specific experiences over the course of my life. Before I was Christian, I clearly remember the times in meditation when I would perceive the web of threads interconnecting reality with my own being. I’ve encountered spiritual powers and even when I was anything but Christian I had a sense (and I believe some more direct encounters) of the personal being I would now describe as a guardian angel. Even before I came to identify as Christian, looking back, I encountered and experienced Jesus. And though none of my experiences have been nearly as dramatic as Frederica Mathewes-Green’s conversion experience, I have heard the voice of Jesus. I’ve struggled finding any place in modern Christianity and if I had not personally heard Jesus, I’m not sure I would still be anything like a Christian. Those who have not had such encounters and yet believe are stronger by far than me. I have a deep and intuitive appreciation for the Celtic perception of thin places.

Of course, some atheists will classify such things as a part of our genetic makeup, something that was selected for survival. While The God Gene appears to have been based on some pretty shoddy science, I have no problem with the basic idea that there are genes that facilitate certain types of body and brain function. The fact that our bodies and brains mediate and shape our experience and perception of reality has always seemed self-evident to me. After all, I am an embodied being. I have no “self” apart from my body.

I suppose I could say that I don’t have a body as some sort of externalized attribute; I am my body in every meaningful sense. I would also say that I am more than the sum of the parts — that in some sense what I call “I” transcends my body — but interconnected with and flowing from those parts. The experiences that shape me are mediated through my body. My perception of reality depends on my body. And even my personality and internal being rely on my physical brain. Alter my brain and you change everything I would call “me.” Specifically, I do not believe I am a sort of “ghost in the machine” the way that Plato and others have hypothesized.

The fact that I am a fully embodied being in every sense does not then prove the metaphysical assertion that I am nothing more than the sum of my physical parts. Nor can my reality as what I would call an embodied spiritual being be extrapolated to assert the non-existence of unbodily spiritual beings. (I’m not really sure what word to use for that category.) And it certainly doesn’t say anything about the existence or non-existent of any sort of “god,” much less a panentheistic, transcendent source of reality such as that described in Christianity and Hinduism. (Christianity and Hinduism are very different from each other and in the “god” they ultimately describe, but they do both describe a panentheistic ground of reality.)

I do not find an assertion that since we can associate spiritual or mystical experience with activity in certain parts of brain which is facilitated by particular genes (assuming, of course, we are eventually able to demonstrate those relationships) that therefore those experiences aren’t “real” (which begs the metaphysical question about what is “real”) a convincing argument. It’s simply not a logically valid assertion. While I could probably construct a response from a variety of perspectives, there’s a simple and straightforward Christian response.

We are created as embodied spiritual beings in the image of our creator God with the potential for communion with God — a potential realized for all humanity in and through the Incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth and the union of the whole of human nature with the whole of the divine nature. As embodied beings, that potential is expressed in and through our bodies. So naturally, as we come to better understand our bodies, our genetic makeup, and the function of our brain we discover things consistent with our nature.

Of course, I can’t prove my overly simplified statement above either. Once we start making metaphysical statements — even metaphysical statements asserting materialism — we have left the realm of things that can be called science in the modern sense. That’s one of the things that bothers me about at least some of the so-called new atheists. Again, I have not read them extensively, but in at least some of things I have read, I’ve seen them describe certain facts I would also consider scientifically established. And that’s fine. But then they proceed to make atheistic metaphysical assertions as if those assertions were also scientifically established facts.  At best, they are not clear when they are describing science and when they are extrapolating from the actual science and explaining why and how that science informs their metaphysical perspective.

I will note that some of the materialist perspectives I’ve seen seem to express a sort of scientific determinism. I must note that I’m not a determinist in any way. That’s not to say that anything whatsoever could happen at any given instant or that I or anyone ever has experienced complete and utter freedom. There is an interrelatedness to all things in reality and that shapes the scope of possibilities at any given moment in any given place. But that does not lead to a deterministic reality where everything is nothing more than the sum of the parts and if we could fully understand all the parts, we would grasp the fullness of all that is. Whether Laplace or Calvin, science or theology, I reject determinism. I could be wrong, of course, but if I am at least I’m in good company.

So my experience of reality informs and has always informed my perception of that reality. And while I do not accept my experience uncritically, that experience has left little ground for atheism. As I warned in the intro, if you were expecting an apology against atheism, you’re likely disappointed. This won’t be that sort of series.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 32

Posted: April 17th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment »

71.  The passion of love, when reprehensible, occupies the intellect with material things, but when rightly directed unites it with the divine. For the intellect tends to develop its powers among those things to which it devotes its attention; and where it develops its powers, there it will direct its desire and love. It will direct them, that is to say, either to what is divine, intelligible and proper to its nature, or to the passions and things of the flesh.

We become like that toward which we direct our nous. At least, that’s how I understand St. Maximos here. Or, to put it a different way, we become like what we worship.


Speaking of God – A Good God

Posted: April 6th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Speaking of God – A Good God

For you are a good God and love mankind, and to you do we give glory, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, always, now and forever, and to the ages of ages. (Orthodox Great Vespers liturgy)

When we speak of God, it’s important that we remember always that he is a good God who loves humanity. I notice that aspect often seems to become obscured in modern Western discussions about God. Sometimes it’s obvious, as in certain Calvinistic strands that either explicitly or implicitly end up attributing both good and evil to God. A God who is responsible for evil is not a good God. It’s one of the more outrageous assertions that can be made about the God we find fully revealed in Christ. (Moreover, it’s only in Christ that the creation of the human being is finished.) I thoroughly agree with the Orthodox that any such claims about God are utterly heretical and contrary to the faith which has been handed down to us.

But it can take subtler forms. For instance, in the strands of evangelicalism within which I swim, it’s very common to hear “the Lord gives and the Lord takes away” when tragedy strikes. It permeates thought, conversation, teaching, and song. The concept comes from Job and illustrates one potential issue with lifting verses and phrases at will from our Holy Scriptures and applying them without the guidance of a deep and apostolic tradition. Here’s the verse from Job.

Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. As it seemed good to the Lord, so also it came to pass. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Job 1:21.

The first thing that we have to recognize is that in his fatalism, Job is actually incorrect! (Though the next verse goes on to note that Job did not, in truth, charge God with wrongdoing.) Yes, in a broad sense God allows freedom in creation. That’s part of being a good God who does not deny any good thing to his beloved creation, even if that good thing can be twisted. In the context of the narrative, we have something of a “God’s eye view” that Job lacks. We know that God took nothing from Job. Satan did.

But Job’s perception makes perfect cultural sense. It was normal in the ancient world to ascribe all sorts of things to the gods. We see that in, for one example, Homer. At one point in the Iliad when, speaking of the son of Atreus and godlike Achilles, he asks, “Which of the gods brought them both together fighting?” It’s not a rhetorical or allegorical question for Homer. He has an answer. Apollo did. Job, from the context of the narrative, doesn’t worship multiple gods. He worships the one God. So when he loses everything, it’s natural for him to ascribe it to God. It’s also what his friends assume — which is why they spend so much time trying to explain why God must have done it and Job must have deserved it.

But we know from the story that God didn’t take anything from Job. God never really explains himself to Job, but as the reader that’s one of the things we must understand. (Job is also a type or shadow of Christ as the suffering servant in the narrative. But that’s another discussion.)

Moreover, that should not come as any surprise to a Christian. In the sermon on the mount, when Jesus commands us to love our enemies, it’s so that we might by sons of our Father in heaven. Why? Because God makes the sun rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust. He is a good God who loves mankind without condition or reservation.

Ours is the God who makes all things new, from whom the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. We respond to evil by doing good, by blessing, and by acting to heal and restore.

Our God is a good God — a God of divine love. We must always speak of him in those terms when we dare to speak at all.


How to Speak of God

Posted: March 30th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on How to Speak of God

In this post, I plan to continue the train of thought I began in Speaking Carefully About God and explore how we then should speak of God. I’m not an expert in any way, so take everything I say with a grain of salt. These are just some of the thoughts and ideas I have developed over the years — many of them the result of things I have heard and read from multiple sources.

I want to begin with perhaps the central Christian truth when it comes to describing God in human language. Nothing we say or think can ever truly describe God. Our God, the only uncreated and the one in whom and through whom all creation subsists, so far transcends us we cannot truly know him. We lack the capacity. That’s the central reason the Word, the only begotten Son, became human — to join God’s nature to our human nature so we would have a means through him to know and commune with God.

And that’s fine with me. A God my mind could compass would be too small a God for me to ever worship. But the fact that God so utterly transcends us means we must be exceedingly cautious in the way we describe him.

And thus Christians have developed a way of speaking apophatically about God. It’s really not that difficult. Every time we find ourselves saying or reading a description of God, we must always keep in mind that as much as that description may help us say something about God, at the same time the description so utterly fails to capture the fullness of our God, that we could also say that God is not like that at all.

For instance, we say that God is love. In fact, it’s a positive statement about God taken straight from the Holy Scriptures. This is not some attribute of God; it’s a statement about his very essence. And it’s important that we understand this truth for when we say that God is love we exclude many false descriptions of God — some of which, unfortunately, seem to be popular today.

Nevertheless, we also must then say that God’s love is not like any love we’ve ever known. It’s utterly pure and unending. God’s love knows no conditions and no bounds. God is love and that transcendent love binds creation together and at the same time is so intimately personal that God is with me, around me, and within me filling every breath I take and every beat of my heart. It’s love without condemnation, but a love so fierce it can also be described as a consuming fire. If the image I have in mind of love is any that I’ve known, then I’m forced to say God is not that sort of love at all. So in that sense, God is not love.

And the same is true of anything else we might say. Jesus gave us a prayer in which we call God Father, but if, when we do that, we have in mind our father or any other father we’ve known, that image will lead us astray. Whatever sort of father we had, good or bad, our fathers are all still human. They still have failings and limitations. God is not like that at all. So we must also say that he is not Father in the way we have known fathers.

If we lose that tension and the caution it brings to the images and words we use to speak and consider God, we will inevitably distort our understanding of God in some way. When I find myself saying something about God, I try to remind myself that my description inevitably falls so short of the reality of God that it’s almost as false as it is true.

In and through Christ, we can however mystically know God. We can receive him. We can commune with God. We have access to the sort of knowledge that transcends language. In that sense, it’s not so very different from knowing another human being. We don’t get to know someone by learning a bunch of facts about them — even if those facts are true and accurate. We get to know others by spending time with them, by talking with them, and through shared experience. And so it is with God. Even though he utterly transcends our knowledge, yet we can still know him.

In my final post on this topic, I’ll discuss the Trinity. For whenever we speak of the Christian God, we must always speak in a triune manner.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 23

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

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

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


Why Do We Pray? 4 – To Create Community?

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

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

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

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

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

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


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 36

Posted: June 21st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 36

75. When the senses have the intellect in their clutches, they propagate polytheism through each individual sense organ; because in their slavery to the passions they pay divine honors to the sensible objects corresponding to each organ.

St. Maximos carries it a step further here and names our slavery to our senses and the passions they engender as the root of polytheism. I find that intriguing and, in truth, can see some of the truth in that insight in my experience of present-day polytheism. And sometimes, I suspect, a person’s polytheism might be less overt. At one point does devotion or slavery tip over into the next best thing to worship? It’s a question worth pondering.


Love of Enemies

Posted: June 17th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Love of Enemies

Like many, I was disturbed by the gleeful celebration of so many Americans at the death of Osama bin Laden. Was his death necessary? Perhaps. Fortunately, I was not the one who had to make that decision or act upon it. But as Christians, we worship the God of life who joined his nature to ours that we might live. Our God was betrayed, mocked, tortured, unjustly convicted, and executed while forgiving all of those who wronged him.

And he commands us to do the same.

Love of enemies is a hard thing. I’m not particularly good at it. I don’t feel any particular sorrow at bin Laden’s demise.

But …

I recognize that my God does.

And at least in some small measure, I long to be like him.

I think the best thing I heard on the topic was a podcast by Fr. Stephen Freeman, The Hard Reality of the Kingdom of God. It’s only about ten minutes long. I invite everyone to pause a few moments and listen to it. It’s well worth the time.


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.”