The Jesus Prayer 4 – Spirituality

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 then tries to summarize some of the differences between the modern forms of Eastern and Western Christianity. (To the Orthodox eye, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism often seem to be two sides of the same coin. They are cut from the same cloth.) The cultural and linguistic differences between what we often call the Latin West and the Greek East began developing from an early time. Language shapes culture and culture forms the lens through which we understand reality. St. Augustine made some of his errors, for instance in his doctrine of original sin, because he didn’t read Greek and relied on a Latin translation that in a few key places was simply wrong. Moreover, since he wrote in Latin, his work received little notice or attention among the Greek fathers of the time, so it was never really critiqued or corrected (though St. John Cassian did make some effort in that regard). I use that as an example to illustrate that this is an ancient and deep divergence.

I don’t mean to imply the divergence was in any way necessary or inevitable. It wasn’t. We can see that clearly in all the many languages and cultures (not least the Slavic) in which a more unified Christian mind has been preserved. There were many factors, often political, behind the gradual divergence over centuries between the East and the West. Nevertheless, it’s an important present-day reality with which we have to somehow cope.

Khouria Frederica points out that within Orthodox contexts, the word “spirituality” is not much used.

The reason is the everything is “spirituality.” Christian Orthodoxy is itself a spiritual path, rather than an institution or set of propositions. … From the outside Orthodoxy must look exuberantly chaotic, but from the inside it is a closely coordinated collection of wisdom (some elders term it a “science”) about how to pursue theosis. … Nor does Eastern Orthodoxy have the range of devotional practices seen in the West. There is not an array of monastic orders, each with its own emphasis or mission. There is really only one “program” of spiritual healing, and within it the Jesus Prayer holds a unique role.

The basis for whether or not a practice is included and passed along to subsequent generations is effectiveness. It has to actually work. This unified form of spirituality across Orthodoxy (even other ancient churches not presently in communion with each other because of ancient disputes) is all aimed at the goal of theosis. Body and soul, the goal of salvation is union with Christ — oneness or communion with God.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted February 26, 2011 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    I have a strong appreciation for the good in many of the divergent spiritual paths. I especially find much to admire, even, at times imitate, in Orthodoxy and Judaism. I feel able to do that and still remain rooted in the Latin Rite.

  2. Posted February 26, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    Curiously, since I have Catholic family and friends (and the catechism on my desk), it seems to me that modern Catholicism is shifting to some degree back to a more ancient perspective. I could be wrong, of course. I’m more the outsider looking in.

  3. Posted February 26, 2011 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure of that, but maybe. For Lent I am reading Tools Matter for Practicing the Spiritual Life by Mary Margaret Funk, O.S.B. In it, she retrieves the spiritual wisdom of the desert elders, especially that of John Cassian. She also includes practices from later times. Maybe our spiritual history is becoming more integrated.

  4. Posted February 27, 2011 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    I wasn’t really speaking of anything specific, but when I study its history and read some of its councils and pronouncements over the last thousand years, the Roman Catholic Church today has a different feel about it. It seems different from the Church that sacked Constantinople, the Church at the height of the medieval period, and even the Church from Vatican I.

    For just one example, it’s position on who is in the “Church” has returned to the more ancient perspective. It wasn’t that long ago that the official dogma was that if you weren’t baptized into the physical, visible confines of the Church, then you were damned. (Or, in the case of infants, consigned to limbo.) The Church has now returned to what I see as the more ancient position. We can say where the Church is, but we cannot say or judge where it is not.

    That’s just one example, but it’s a significant one.

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