Who Am I?

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.


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.

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware on the Jesus Prayer

Posted: April 1st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Prayer | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Metropolitan Kallistos Ware on the Jesus Prayer

Recently, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware gave a couple of lectures at North Park University in Chicago. The first lecture was on the Jesus Prayer. I recommend listening to the whole lecture, but I wanted to highlight his description of the two uses of the Jesus Prayer.

The first is the free use of the prayer. In the free use, the prayer is prayed at various times throughout the day during the course of your normal activities. This is the manner in which the Jesus Prayer came to me and it remains its most natural use to me. I like the way Metropolitan Kallistos summarizes the free use of the Jesus Prayer in a single phrase.

Find Christ everywhere.

That phrase succinctly captures the heart of this use of the prayer. Christ, of course, is everywhere. Behold, I am with you always, even until the end of the age. Christ, in union with the Father and the spirit, is everywhere present and filling all things. In him we live and move and have our being. All creation subsists in him from moment to moment.

But we easily lose sight of that reality. We tend to act and live as though Christ were somewhere else. The free use of the Jesus Prayer helps us find Christ where we are in the midst of our activities. And it invites us to shape our reaction to our circumstances in and through an awareness of Christ’s presence.

Am I angry or frustrated by a coworker? (I’ve been told I don’t easily suffer fools.) Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.

Is rush hour traffic raising my blood pressure? Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.

Am I tired of people, even people I love, placing demands on me? Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.

Yes, those all seem like little things and minor annoyances. But if we do not learn to find Christ in the routine of our lives, we will not often find him in the larger things, either. I’m not sure why that’s true, but at least for me it is.

The second use of the Jesus Prayer is the fixed use. In other words, it’s the practice of the Jesus Prayer as part of a daily or fixed hour prayer rule. Khouria Frederica’s book has primarily focused on this use of the prayer, but it had not consciously occurred to me that the fixed use had a different goal. Metropolitan Kallistos summarizes its use in another easy to remember phrase.

Create silence.

With this phrase, he ties the prayer to a prayer from the Psalms. Be still, and know that I am God. It’s important to recognize that we cannot simply will inner silence. All traditions (at least those which value inner stillness) recognize that truth. All forms of meditation are, at least in part, designed to still our racing thoughts. However, the Christian tradition does not seek silence for its own sake. Rather, we seek stillness only to know God and know that he is God.

Curiously, be still and know that I am God, is another prayer (of sorts) that came to me at a time of great personal stress and which kept repeating until my frantic mind began to calm. Since that time, I’ve returned to it many times. Before this lecture, I had never made the connection between it and the Jesus Prayer.

Our cogitating minds, in their frenzy of thoughts, make God seem distant, even though he is anything but. With relatively rare exceptions,  God is not in the mighty wind, the shaking ground, or the raging fire. Rather, God comes to us in a still small voice and without silence, we do not hear him.

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.

The Jesus Prayer 13 – How to Pray

Posted: March 28th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 13 – How to Pray

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 next answers some basic questions about the mechanics of praying the Jesus Prayer. And one of those questions deals with how long to pray. Obviously the goal is to move toward learning to pray constantly, but the only way to begin moving in that direction is to have a specific rule that we can develop as a habit. Clocks and wristwatches (and cell phones!) have only become common fairly recently, so the traditional approach has been to measure the practice of the Jesus Prayer by its number of repetitions, typically in groups of one hundred. Beyond that, advice and practices have a wide range.

Personally, I’ve tried to incorporate fifty to a hundred repetitions of the Jesus Prayer in my morning prayer rule. Lately, my ability to consistently keep a regular prayer rule of any sort seems even poorer and more sporadic than it has often been. For me, the practice of stopping periodically throughout the day and praying ten to twenty Jesus Prayers has always been more important than a single lengthy period. I constantly need to redirect my will and attention. Some days, especially when I am under particular sorts of stress, I find the Jesus Prayer welling up into my conscious mind. I pause and pray and it generally alters the course of my thinking and behavior.

Khouria Frederica also mentions a prayer rope, an ancient traditional means for counting repetitions. I don’t have one personally, but have considered obtaining one. I have prayed the rosary and understand the benefits and order a tactile anchor can bring to prayer. She does mention that proper prayer ropes are fashioned while the one making them constantly prays the Jesus Prayer. And if their attention strays, they undo the knots and start over. I find it a beautiful thought that I might use an item over which so much prayer has been poured in my own prayers.

Finally, Khouria Frederica advises we have a particular place set aside for prayer. In Orthodox practice, that place is often one’s icon corner as icons also are an integral part of Orthodox prayer. I do agree that place is important and, as with any rule, consistency matters.

The book offers some solid, concrete guidance in these sections and clearly tries not to assume that the reader already knows and understands the objects and practices mentioned. I think that’s one of the things that makes this such a useful and practical book. All the theory in the world concerning prayer doesn’t mean a thing unless we actually pray.

The Jesus Prayer 12 – Getting Started

Posted: March 21st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 12 – Getting Started

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 begins the large question and answer section of her book with questions on how to get started with the practice of the Jesus Prayer. The first question deals with preparations. You have to at least want to cut out major, ongoing sin in your life. Look for a spiritual father or mother. Be part of a worshiping community and receive the sacraments regularly. Pray, fast, and give alms. Avoid excessive sleeping and eating. Expect that you will suffer injustice and sorrow. Strive for humility and be wary of pride. Pride is sneaky. I do like the way she identifies anger as an identifier for pride.

One clue to pride is anger; often, when we get angry, it is because pride has been dealt a wound. Avoid anger at all costs. The Desert Fathers warn more frequently against anger than against sexual sins, because anger poisons the soul. As the saying goes, “Anger is an acid that destroys its container.”

The ultimate goal of the Jesus Prayer is unceasing prayer. While that’s a lofty goal, keep it in mind. We can’t start doing something all the time, so start by doing it some of the time. Set a time or times each day to pray the Jesus Prayer and then stick with them whether you feel like it or not. A number of brief prayer times during the day are often more effective than one big prayer time. Be as sincere as you are able when you pray. The Jesus Prayer is a discipline because it often requires effort. But it’s a discipline that has stood the test of time. It has proven itself for more than fifteen hundred years.

The things we lay down firmly in our memories matter. They endure. If you take the words of the Jesus Prayer and “write them on the tablet of your heart” (Prov. 3:3), on the day when you are far away on the gray sea of Alzheimer’s, the Prayer will still be there, keeping your hand clasped in the hand of the Lord.

The Jesus Prayer 11 – Relationship

Posted: March 16th, 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.

This Eastern Christian path is not particularly concerned with morality or good behavior, surprisingly enough; it is concerned with a relationship. The Pharisees achieved high levels of good behavior, but if that was enough, Jesus would have chosen his apostles from their ranks. No, they were pretty on the outside and rotten on the inside, like “whitewashed tombs” (Mt. 23:27). Jesus consistently put the emphasis on the state of the inner person. …

It’s that transformed heart and nous he’s looking for. After that healing, good behavior flows out naturally. So this approach does not disregard morality; Jesus said, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48), and “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:20). But moral behavior is worthless without a transformed mind and heart.

Discipline and moral behavior absent prayer, a transformed nous, and the resulting relationship with our only source of life  simply offer another path to destruction. That is the path of the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son. The elder brother is also the figure in the parable directed back toward those challenging Jesus. When we come to believe that we are essentially good and moral, we lose sight of our deep interconnectedness with humanity and creation. We minimize our complicity and participation in the evil and brokenness of the world. We join hands with the Pharisee in the parable of the publican and the Pharisee.

I don’t remember where I found and watched a particular video about Orthodox monks in, I think, Romania. If I did I would post a link to it. I don’t remember a lot about it, but I vividly remember one bit of an interview with an old monk. At one point, according to the subtitles, he said, “All will be saved, and I alone will be damned.” That vision of the true depth of our shared relationship and responsibility fixed itself in my mind. We believe we live isolated, individual lives, but that’s a lie. We do not perceive the depth and breadth of the web in which we live and move. Nor do we often perceive the God who sustains our existence every moment.

The healing of our heart progresses slowly. At first it may appear that nothing much is happening. But centuries of experience of the practice of the Jesus Prayer promises us that over time we can be healed; we can experience a relationship with God; we can know peace. “Acquire the Spirit of peace and a thousand around you will be saved.”

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy.

The Jesus Prayer 10 – Repentance

Posted: March 14th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on The Jesus Prayer 10 – Repentance

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

Why does all this discussion about the receptive part of our minds matter? What does it mean that we have a darkened understanding or perception of reality and how is that different from intellectual knowledge and reasoning? In our day and in our culture, I think those are among the more natural questions to ask. Even within Christianity, many people act as though the only thing that really matters is that you believe the right things about God. And that’s a trap. It’s a trap when it comes to God and it’s a trap when it comes to prayer. It’s very easy to think, write, and discuss prayer while hardly ever actually praying. And it’s possible to think and teach about God, to intellectually believe something about God, and yet not do any of the things Jesus commanded us to do.

In order to break free from that trap, we need humility. But humility is very hard. Everything in us fights against it. We need to learn to see ourselves more as we actually are, and perceive God as he is. Khouria Frederica employs the parable of the prodigal son to illustrate this point. The younger son does not need to repent in order to gain forgiveness. The father had already forgiven him and was always waiting for him. “While he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion” (Lk. 15:20).

God loves us like that; he isn’t waiting for us to coax him into forgiving us. But, like the son, we have to recognize the truth about our wounded condition. We must recognize that we need the father’s love. The darkened nous doesn’t readily grasp this. We see that something is wrong with the world, but don’t perceive that the wrongness is tangled up with, and enabled by, our own thoughts, words, and deeds. Realizing the truth about ourselves, our complicity in the world’s brokenness, is the first step of healing.

In Christian terms, we call that moment of awareness when we perceive our reality and recognize our need to reorient our lives repentance or metanoia. It’s not a one time thing, but a process we must continually pursue. The younger son had one such moment in the mud with the pigs. All such moments are not as dramatic, but it’s essential that we see God as loving and near or we will never have the strength to face and endure the truth about ourselves.

A God who is remote and scary and judgmental, taking offense at things that (we think) have nothing to do with him, is hard to love. The natural reaction is instead to deny the sins, or rationalize them away, or compare yourself to someone else whose behavior is worse. A barrier of mistrust lies between a person and this kind of God.

Unfortunately that’s the sort of God too often proclaimed in modern Christianity. The Jesus Prayer can help us see ourselves truly and perceive God as he is, a loving father who will not force us to return his love.