Mary 9 – Hail Mary

Posted: January 23rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 9 – Hail Mary

In this post I want to look at one of the best known Marian prayers in the West, the prayer known simply as Hail Mary. It’s a prayer that’s so widely known and recognized that even those who weren’t raised Roman Catholic are often familiar with it. I learned it when I went to Catholic school for three years in Houston. It’s not a prayer I typically pray today, though when it springs to mind, I always try pause and pray it. As I’ve written elsewhere, I seem to be one of the people to whom the Jesus Prayer came unbidden and that prayer, rather than any distinctly Western prayer, remains at the core of my simple and poorly followed prayer rule.

But I do appreciate this prayer and the entire rosary prayer rule that often accompanies it. For those unfamiliar with the rosary, it’s a devotional crucifix with a chain of larger and smaller beads. You use the beads to count prayers and over the course of the rosary eight different prayers are typically prayed as the person praying meditates on different mysteries from the lives of Mary and Jesus. The most often recited prayer is the Hail Mary, but over the course of the rosary the Apostle’s Creed is recited as well as the Our Father, the Glory Be and others. (By contrast, the Orthodox prayer rope is usually just used to count repetitions of the Jesus Prayer, sometimes with prostrations. And you aren’t taught to meditate on any mysteries; the ultimate goal is prayer of the heart.)

I suppose to those who had a less pluralistic formation than my own, this will sound strange. But I remember fairly often reciting the Hail Mary (mentally or verbally) during my Hindu oriented meditations. I had actually forgotten that tidbit until I was writing this post. I wouldn’t say I was praying as Christians understand prayer, but looking back it seems like I was heard anyway. I suppose that’s not surprising. If we truly believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the true and faithful man and became true humanity, joining our nature to his divine nature, then in some sense through her yes to God, Mary became the mother of humanity. And your mother always hears you, though she may not do as you intend or expect. I had never really thought in those terms before.

Anyway, the prayer itself developed in the West during the medieval period, with something at least similar to the form we have now dating back to the thirteenth century. That’s why it’s really only found in the Western Church. By that time, the rift between East and West was pretty much complete. The prayer itself is simple.

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.

Though it’s a short prayer, it’s filled with richness. The first part of the prayer comes entirely from the Holy Scriptures. The first two lines contain the Gabriel’s initial greeting to Mary. Her state as blessed is then reinforced twice more. Elizabeth, speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, also calls Mary blessed among women. And then, inspired by the Holy Spirit in her Magnificat, Mary herself prophesies that all generations will call her blessed. The third line is also uttered by Elizabeth and surely it’s one we must all affirm. The fourth line of the prayer asserts a critical theological point. Mary did not simply give birth to a man who later became divinized. The baby growing in her womb was a human child, but he was also God before the ages. The prayer then closes petitioning Mary to pray for us, something she surely does anyway, but it’s still good to ask.

Truthfully, I’ve never understood why so many Protestants seem to hate this prayer. It’s mostly taken from the Scriptures which they hold in high esteem and is a rich and beautiful prayer that is easily remembered. But then, many Protestants today don’t seem to actually consider, much less call, Mary blessed. I guess we all pick and choose the Scriptures we want to honor and follow to one extent or another.

As I wrote this post, it dawned on me for the first time that I probably owe more to Mary for praying and acting in ways to bring me to her Son than I had every realized. And in my blindness, I never even said, “Thanks.”

Thank you, Mary, for loving me even as I despised Christianity and rejected your Son.


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.


The Jesus Prayer 25 – Forgiveness

Posted: June 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 25 – Forgiveness

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

Last week I briefly posted on love of enemies, one of the most difficult aspects of Christianity. Today, Khouria Frederica answers a question on the topic. How can I forgive someone if I’m afraid they’ll do it again? She notes that people often confuse forgiveness with vulnerability, but they are very different things. When we forgive, we let go of our desire for vengeance, which we often call justice. We may have been genuinely wronged and the one who wronged us owes us a debt. We release them from that debt. That frees us more than it frees them. We are the ones keeping track of the wrongs. Often the one who wronged us is not. We are expending energy, not them.

But that does not necessarily mean that we continue to make ourselves vulnerable to that person in the future. If they have acted in a dehumanizing way toward us in the past and we reasonably believe they will continue to do so in the future, it is not loving to allow someone to dehumanize themselves and us.

You are never required to allow someone to hurt or abuse you, physically or emotionally, and in a case like that, permitting abuse could make you an enabler and partner in that sin.

Someone also asked Frederica how we can love an enemy who wishes to kill us and destroy our country. She responds much as Fr. Stephen did in the podcast I linked in my post last week. She also includes a long quote from St. Nikolai Velimirovic (AD 1881-1956). I’m going to include the entire quote. I found it helpful. Given recent events, it could easily be applied to someone like bin Laden.

He is a man; do not rejoice in his fall. He is your brother; let not your heart leap for joy when he stumbles. God created him for life, and God does not rejoice in his fall. And you also, do not rejoice at that which grieves God. When a man falls, God loses; do you rejoice in the loss of your Creator, of your Parent? When the angels weep, do you rejoice?

When your enemy falls, pray to God for him, that God will save him; and give thanks to God that you did not fall in the same manner. You are of the same material, both you and he, like two vessels from the hand of the potter. If one vessel breaks, should the other smile and rejoice? Behold, the small stone that broke that vessel only waits for someone’s hand to raise it to destroy this vessel also. Both vessels are of the same material, and a small stone can destroy a hundred vessels.

When one sheep is lost, should the rest of the flock rejoice? No, they should not. For behold, the shepherd leaves his flock and, being concerned, goes to seek the lost sheep. The shepherd’s loss is the flock’s loss too. Therefore, do not rejoice when your enemy falls, for your Shepherd and his Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ, does not rejoice in his fall.

O Lord Jesus Christ, Thou Good Shepherd, remove malicious joy from our hearts, and in its place plant compassion and brotherly love. To Thee be glory and praise forever. Amen.

I do not pretend there is anything easy about forgiveness and love of enemies. People hurt us. They often hurt us deeply. I have been hurt and I’m sure I’ve hurt others. I do not pretend that I’m any good at forgiveness and love. But I can perceive their beauty, even if dimly. Ultimately, if anything draws me to Christ, it’s this. On my better days, I want to love. But even on my worst days, I want to want to love. And I think that’s at least a start.


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.


The Jesus Prayer 23 – The Third Stage of the Jesus Prayer

Posted: April 27th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 23 – The Third 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 third stage is described as follows.

The third level, according to Abp. Anthony, is Mental-Heart Active Prayer, and in it the mind prays within the heart; “the entire inner man prays.” The site where attention rests “appears naturally in the depth of the breast, in the region of the heart.” It is still “active” because the person still follows her own will sometimes, God’s will other times; her whole being has not yet been united in the service of God.

It’s at this stage, when the active mind engages with the perceiving nous, that the extent of the threads of evil and sin within ourselves begins to become apparent. Our minds begin to find and expose the deep roots of the compulsions which drive us. When we work through those battles and corresponding confrontations with the evil one, the mind becomes free to descend into the heart. Abp. Anthony writes:

The Lord Himself, residing in the heart secretly up to this point, starts dwelling openly and with the full authority in this shelter that was destined for Him from the very beginning, and rests there on his throne.

Khouria Frederica writes that the next three levels or stages that Abp. Anthony describes are beyond her comprehension. That means they are certainly beyond mine as well. These three beginning stages may well take years or decades, though, and are more than enough to keep us occupied.


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 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 19 – Repetition

Posted: April 18th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 19 – Repetition

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

And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. (Mt. 6:7)

I’ve discussed Jesus’ exhortation in the Sermon on the Mount already in many of my posts on prayer because it’s often raised by those shaped within an evangelical or fundamentalist context. Khouria Frederica addresses it as well.

First, the prohibition is against doing what the pagans did when they prayed. I’ve noticed that many people who refer to that verse don’t actually ask the question that immediately occurred to me the first time I read it. What were the heathen doing when they prayed? If you don’t find the answer to that question, you have no context for understanding what Jesus means. And the answer to that is an interesting one. There was a common practice in many religions of the time of using grandiose, flattering, and often repeated titles and names in pagan prayer in order to get the particular god’s attention. That wasn’t particularly new (we see the same dynamic in the confrontation between Elijah and the priests of Baal) and its particulars varied, but the idea behind it was similar to the way formal speech was addressed to powerful rulers. The flattery and roundabout way of speaking was designed to avoid giving offense, and were repeated over and over.

However, the prohibition was not directed at repetition, but at vain repetition. Jesus himself followed the Jewish practice of set prayers, and when his followers asked for a prayer, he gave them one to recite. And his prayer was simple and direct unlike the equivalent pagan prayers. A sincere prayer is never vain (though it might be misguided). Khouria Frederica offers a good illustration.

You can think about repetition this way. Imagine a couple of newlyweds on their honeymoon. At a tender moment, the husband says, “I love you, I love you, I love you.” Will the bride say, “I heard you the first time”?

Jesus wants us to pray. In prayer, we are mystically connected to him. And he is the bridegroom of the Church. He never tires of our prayer. They never grow old and stale to him. And for us, the Jesus Prayer can grow ever deeper over time.


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.