Wednesday, 11 September 2013
Saint John Chrysostom speaking on sobriety and prayer
Tuesday, 10 September 2013
"More important than attending to breathing, one must learn to call upon the Name of God at all times, in all places and during all manner of activity. The Apostle says: pray without ceasing; that is, he teaches constant remembrance of God at all times, in all places, and under any circumstances. If you are busy doing something, you must remember the Creator of all things; if you see light, remember Him who gave it to you. If you look at the sky, the earth, the waters and all that is in the, marvel and glorify the Creator of all. If you are putting your clothes on, remember Him Whose gift they are and thank Him Who provides everything in your life. In short, let every action be an occasion for you always to remember and praise God. And before you know it you are praying unceasingly and your soul will always rejoice in this."
The Philokalia: St Peter of Damascus
The Philokalia: St Peter of Damascus
"The primary thing that The Way of a Pilgrim (and the Christian East) see that we in the west do not is the importance of the “Interior Life.” The pilgrim begins by hearing that he should pray without ceasing and wonders how this would be possible because of the business of life in order to make a living. He is concerned with the exterior life.
As the pilgrim seeks to figure out what it means to pray without ceasing, the first guide he meets clarifies, “Unceasing interior prayer is the continual striving of man’s spirit toward God.” The man does not, as the pilgrim notes, provide him with a real explanation, but does clarify for us what the journey we are all taking along with the pilgrim is, the journey toward God via the interior life.
The second guide, again giving an incomplete answer, reads to him from The Spiritual Education of the Interior Man. We should be beginning to pick up a theme that is finally resolved when the pilgrim meets his precious starets, who says to him “Thank God, beloved brother, for having awakened in you this irresistible longing to acquire unceasing interior prayer.” He goes on to teach him that prayer purifies the external by purifying the internal and helps him to learn how to prayer this interior prayer. He finally has found someone to teach him.
The rest of the book continues this examination of how the pilgrim’s life changes as he begins to focus on the interior life. Speaking of meeting people he says “. . . without exception they all appeared very dear to me, as if they were family . . .”
As a result of the growing interior prayer the pilgrim treats even his enemies with love. He does not do it out of a sense of obligation to a moral law, but as the result of a heart transformed.
The Way of a Pilgrim teaches another lesson that is very absent, and even opposed, in the west. The value of withdrawal from the world. My western protestant evangelical sensibilities often opposed his consistent desire to be alone and away from others. I even drew a frowny face next to a passage where he says “If I happened to meet people, I no longer felt any desire to speak with them; I longed only for solitude, to be alone with my prayer.” This did not seem, as the pilgrim claimed, to be proof of the grace of interior prayer at all.
But as the journey goes on the pilgrim repeatedly encounters people who benefit from his company. He helps a small village by becoming spiritual advisor during a brief stay to oversee the construction of a new church, he saves the life of a woman as a result of a vision he has about her health, he helps a pious family to understand more deeply how to pray and honor God. The book ends with the pilgrim leaving for Jerusalem as a travel companion for an old blind man.
He wants only to be with God. The pilgrim withdraws from the world to be nearer to God and the nearer to God he gets the more God draws the world to the pilgrim.
I think that, in modern evangelical churches especially, we use the great commission often as an excuse to grow our organization (and by extension egos) and become people pleasers. We see the pilgrim and other people who live a life of withdraw and immediately clamor to say “The Great Commission forbids such a life!” but the pilgrim is constantly in a ministry. The difference between the pilgrim’s ministry and my own is that the pilgrim wants to be with God and I want to be used by God. His is far more humble, and thus far more profound. The pilgrim reminds me that my job, first and foremost, is to be with God.
The last, and most important thing The Way of a Pilgrim has to teach us is that this life is possible without being a pilgrim or without being a hermit. This life is possible for us in our everyday life. While this a repeated theme, there is one particularly insightful passage in the fourth narrative."
How we involve the body can be understood in three ways. Sometimes this is called psychotechniques. 1. Breathing, 2. Inner Exploration, and 3. Posture. Across the centuries, these issues have been explosive.
Breathing. Bishop Kallistos Ware says that if we pray the Jesus Prayer for short periods, ten or fifteen minutes at the beginning, then there is no problem matching the words of the prayer to our breath. We are to breath naturally, without playing with the rhythm of the breath. On the inhale, we can say, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God." On the exhale, we can say, "have mercy on me, a sinner." We are to breath and pray slowly and reverently and attentively.
Inner Exploration. Inner exploration usually means following our breath into the nostrils, down into the lungs, around the insides, and out. This is unquestioningly, forbidden. The dangers involved in all this cannot be exaggerated.
Posture. The usual position, as recommended by Bishop Kallistos Ware, is a comfortable sitting position in a chair. Sometimes standing is recommended. Usually the eyes are kept closed. Posture can take many forms, as long as the postures are reverent.
Modern serious and enlightened authors, such as Bishop Ware, St Igantius Brianchaninov and Sophrony all agree that "the fullness of the Jesus Prayer can by practiced without any physical methods at all."
In summary, it can be said that physical methods are optional and not at all necessary. Physical techniques are more suitable for beginners, says St Gregory Palamas. Physical techniques are potentially dangerous, and not to be used without a guide. St Theophan suggests, "Make a habit of having the intellect stand in the heart, but not in a physical way."
What is the glory of God? St. Irenaeus wrote this very remarkable phrase, which is often quoted: “Life in man is the glory of God; the life of man is the vision of God.” Another translation says: “The glory of God is a living man; and the life of man consists in beholding God” (Against Heresies, Book 4, 20:7) Or yet another says "The glory of God is man fully alive.” Either way falling short for Irenaeus is failing to behold God and thus become fully alive or whole. The fact that we struggle to relate or worship God is a sign of this falling short. Prayer then helps us to move towards wholeness and the Jesus Prayer first shows us experientially where we are in relation to God i.e. our struggles bring home to us where we are and where we need to be. Second it provides us part of the means of getting there or at least being in the right place to get there. And third articulates for us the cry for mercy which is the seedbed in which grace grows.
All this, of course, didn't fully come home to me until after I reflected on the Prayer. But the connection between the distractions and the need for mercy gave my praying a fresh impetus. I suppose I could have emphasized the second part of the Prayer after that as it would have made a kind of logical flow from my realization. However the opposite was true and I leant back onto Jesus as I looked for His mercy and grace.
Monday, 9 September 2013
A casual, but profound, example of this came to a small group of high school students. They were visiting a home for unwed mothers. The woman who directs the home spoke to them for a half hour. Because the woman sensed that the students were wondering about her own faith commitment, she said, "Well, you have been here 30 minutes and I have prayed 15 times." She hadn't been out of their sight, nor out of their conversation. Yet, during the active interchange, this woman found the desire, attention, and time, to shoot 15 "arrow" prayers to God. That's keen vigilance. That's a hidden martyrdom, especially when attempted all day long.
So the first 100 or more prayers took on a sort of wrestling quality about them as I struggled with distractions, leaving and returning to the words as I spoke them. There was something of a grimness about this first part and because I kept leaving and returning I ended up saying more than the 100 - more like 140 - as I got distracted and had to retrace my steps by saying each prayer with more focus the next time.
The distractions varied in content I noticed. They included a person I had judged harshly on a television show. Another was a parishioner and another was someone whose husband has cancer. I also thought briefly about a memorial service I have to speak at this - or is it next - week as well as the Induction of a priest I know to a new parish. Are these really distractions? Or are they intercessory prompts which by appearing - or sent by the Spirit - are caught in the flows of the prayer at its edges before being dragged to the centre and brought to the foot of the cross?
Regarding distractions and dealing with them, some of the advice I have heard is about learning to ignore them in order to get back to the prayer. Others say to acknowledge them as the movement of the Spirit as the mud of your heart is disturbed before being washed away. Still others bridge the two and say that they should be acknowledged but not dwelt on, thereby acknowledging their importance in and of themselves but allowing God to sort them out as the are brought into the cleansing flow of God' s grace as the prayer washes forward. I guess that either way we must trust God with them and see them in the context of Jesus rather than Jesus in the context of them as it were.
I pushed on to the next hundred and noted several things.
First, that my focus again changed from just saying the words in an effort to combat distractions, to trying to say them 'to' the person they addressed.
Second, this resulted in changing the position of my head which was in the traditional place facing down to my chest. By looking up as it were I had more of an impression of addressing Jesus rather than my heart. Although Jesus is 'in my heart'.
Third, as I did this the prayer lightened a little and I actually found it a little easier to avoid distractions and focus on the prayer and the object of my praying.
I ended having said 250 in about 25-30 minutes.
Sunday, 8 September 2013
However I am re-reading a book I reported on in earlier blogs called "Living the Jesus Prayer" by Irma Zaleski and in her chapter 'Awareness and attention' she writes:
"...we should not seek any special experiences in prayer for they may prove to be not a help but a hindrance to us. They may distract us and keep us focused on ourselves, on our own thoughts and emotions, and not on God. This is true, but the experience of the presence of God in Christ of which we are speaking here is not a matter of our own thoughts, feelings or imagination. It is a matter of awareness: of becoming aware of what is real, of what is always there, but that we are usually too busy and distracted to notice and pay attention to."
But what does she mean? She continues:
"The kind of awareness that the Jesus Prayer may lead us to is very simple. We do not try to imagine that Jesus is there, and even less what he looks like or what he says. We do not engage in any imaginary conversations with him. We simply try to be aware of him and attentive to him in a similar way as we are aware of the presence of someone we live in the next room, or a mother is attentive to what her children are doing, however busy she is. We believe - we know by faith - that God in Christ is here, with us and in us. Our task is to try to remember him and be attentive to him. It is this attentiveness that is the door to our experience of the presence of God. We cannot summon this experience at will. We cannot grasp at it as if it were a possession. It is, like the Prayer itself, a gift. Ours is only a discipline of faith and perseverance. The experience, when it comes, will come of its own accord, and will be nothing like what we could ever imagine. God is immensely bigger than our imagination. Our hope is that when he comes, when he reveals himself to us in the Person of Christ, we will be able to recognize him, like the disciples recognized Christ when he visited them after the Resurrection....."
However the question I would ask is this. Isn't emotion a kind of response to the presence of God? Isn't it possible to be moved by the proximity of God as he touches our hearts? While emotion isn't necessarily proof it is also surely not necessarily the opposite either? The point is to seek God and not the emotions.
In the Bible emotion seems to be a regular response to the presence of God whether tears of repentance, shouts of joy or even abject terror and fear! Isaiah mourns, Jacob smarts, the disciples fall over like drunk men and Wesley was warmed when he heard Luther's Preface to the Romans being read. Peter throws himself at the feet of Jesus - as does John - and was Mary stony faced when she bumped into the Risen Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane? The point I am making is that an encounter with the living God is not going to leave us unaffected and whether that be an emotional effect or some other, then experience of some sort is surely not altogether wrong or mistaken.
So the upshot of this? I can't ignore the feelings I have been experiencing but I will not wear them as badges of authenticity. If they come - good. If they don't - that's good too. For God is what is important and not the effects of being in His presence.
("If that is all you do)...you'll soon run into trouble. You can try to force your mind to keep going over and over the words, like a gerbil on a wheel, but it's going to get pretty tedious.
The hard part is to mean them. The hard part is to pull together all your attention, though it kicks like a toddler, and focus it on the Lord, and then humbly ask for his mercy. Learning to actually mean the Jesus Prayer, from ever-deepening regions of your heart, is what makes the practice so challenging."
What is true of the Jesus Prayer is of course true of every prayer, especially those written by others. It is all too easy to say prayers but to actually pray prayers is what makes them come alive. So too with the Jesus Prayer. There is nothing magic about either the repetition of the prayer or in using those particular words. It is the intention behind the saying of them and the focus on the person you are talking to.
Started my time with a few of the prayers from Orthodox Morning prayer to "warm up your heart" and then slowly said the Prayer.
Nothing to report in respect of saying the prayer other than the usual, but it accomplished one thing. Having tuned my heart to God it seemed to create a stillness in me that enabled me to lead the services prayerfully - and, I hope, meaningfully. It also provided me with thoughts about the short talk I usually give at the 9.00 Holy Communion service which was based on the story of the ten lepers in Luke 17. Here we find an echo of the Jesus Prayer as the lepers cry out "Jesus, master, have mercy on us." Jesus answers their cry for help but only one receives the wholeness or salvation God offers. It is a wholeness that encompasses not just our bodies but our hearts, our minds and our souls also. This salvation therefore enables us to "love The Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and body."
I am currently re-reading Frederica Mathewes-Green excellent book on the Jesus Prayer. In the Introduction she writes that “it's purpose is to tune one's inner attention to the presence of The Lord.” It reminded me of the piano that used to be in my parent's house where I grew up and learnt how to play. It had a wooden, rather than a metal frame, which meant that with the changes of temperature it would go out of tune pretty quickly. So whenever they could afford it they had a piano tuner call round and he would spend an hour getting each and every note back to the right pitch and in tune with one another. I always remember how he would spend what seemed ages on each note striking it over and over, pausing occasionally to adjust the string by turning the bolt at the top or bottom first this way then that until eventually he was satisfied that it was bang in the middle of the note. It was that repetitive striking of the same note that Frederica made me think about.
The heart, and mind - or better the nous - is like that string. Through living in an environment where God is not at the centre we, through our own sinfulness, have become out of tune with God and need to be brought back again to the place where we are once again in harmony with the Divine. By repeating the phrase “Lord Jesus Christ….” we are tuning our nous again to resonate with the right frequency that will produce harmony and peace with God.
It was like that this morning for me. Even though my 'mind' disconnected briefly from the prayer, somehow it seemed that the prayer went on as I got up and went downstairs to get my cereal. It's as if the prayer itself echoed on after the last spoken word of it, like a bell continues to resound after the last strike. To I remained in an attitude of prayer for a minute or so as I held on to the words in my head on the way to get my breakfast.
I want that to happen all the time. To have the prayer take up permanent residence in my heart or nous so that whatever I am doing I am in the presence of the One who is the object of my inner attention.
A note on the nous
As Frederica points out in her book, the nous is not a familiar concept to us here in the West. That is partly because we don't now our Greek but read our bibles through the idiom of English. Here's Frederica:
“It (the word 'nous') gets translated "mind” but it doesn't mean the talkative mind, the one that cogitators and constructs theories. It is a receptive capacity of the intellect; we would call it “the understanding” or the “comprehension.” The Eastern Church has always known that the nous can be trained to register, or perceive, the voice of God.“ (Page x)
Frederica uses the picture of a little radio which after being switched on needs to be tuned in. It became switched on at her conversion. She became aware of Christ speaking to her. She says "it wasn't something I heard with my ears, but by an inner voice, filling my awareness.” As she began to read literature about Eastern Christianity she then discovered that this notion of the little radio had a word for it. Nous.
Friday, 6 September 2013
Again noticed a change in the way I prayed the prayer today. The way I said the words seemed to change at some point as I seemed to get more into them in some way. It's like skating on ice one moment and falling through into the water the next!
However sometimes I guess prayer is sometimes just the sheer determination to go on and say the prayer, repeatedly coming back to the words every time I am distracted. It's a kind of offering, a sacrifice, to God.
A thought did occur to me in the first 100. It suggested that this was a waste of my time, spending over 35 minutes saying the same words over and over again. And for a short period I did start to calculate how it all added up. 30 mins a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks of the year! But I managed to drag myself back to the prayer and tell myself that trying to focus on Jesus was and is never a waste of time.
Thursday, 5 September 2013
Today went the chokti twice taking 25 minutes. I noticed that in was saying the Prayer in two parts. "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God" - short pause - "have mercy on me a sinner." Each time this took about 5 seconds. Previous to a few days ago when I had said the prayer I had another rhythm where I had divided it into four parts: "Lord Jesus Christ" - brief pause - "Son of God" - brief pause - "have mercy on me" - brief pause - "a sinner". Why I have changed I don't know. Maybe subconsciously I find my breathing is better suited to it - although I am not conscious of it finding that if I think too much about breathing in get out of breath! Maybe personally I find that the emphasis on the two phrases, separately, helps me in saying the prayer by raising Jesus up in the first part and putting me down in the second? Who knows except that its changed. Maybe it's simply the Holy Spirit praying in and through me?
Although I sat in silence as I said the prayer I still was very aware of noise initially. The cars passing outside. People talking. The creaking of the house. But it had the effect this time of making me focus more on the prayer itself and eventually the words. The first 100 was all about settling into the prayer, like getting comfortable in an armchair. So the first 100 was this too-ing and fro-ing between distraction and prayer. In the seconds 100 the words began to come more into focus and I was more able to direct the prayer to Jesus. This is when I started to feel a little emotional. This was also, incidentally, when people I know and am concerned about started to 'appear' in my thoughts and like a whirlpool were drawn into the prayer. So again the Prayer moved from adoration to intercession. And out again as I came back to the words.
The last 50 prayers returned to the words themselves and I finished the prayer before concluding with some Orthodox prayers.
As in left the house to walk down to the church and our midweek prayer meeting I had a deep sense of wellbeing and peace. Is this what Isaac the Syrian meant when he composed the following:
Be at peace with your soul
then heaven and earth will be at peace with you.
Enter eagerly into the treasure house
that is within you.
Ad you will see the things that are in heaven,
for there is but one single entry to them both.
The ladder that leads to the Kingdom
is hidden within your soul....
Dive into yourself and in your soul
and you will discover the stairs by which to ascend
2. Select a quiet place for your prayer.
3. Prepare to enter into a conversation with your God.
4. Sit or stand quietly, and let go of all thoughts of your daily life.
5. Repeat the prayer slowly over and over for at least 15 minutes working up to 30 minutes.
6. Concentrate on the prayer with vigour. When you find your mind wanders immediately bring your attention back to the words of the prayer.
7. Use of a prayer rope can help you concentrate.
8. When finished with your prayer sit quietly for a few minutes before going onto other activities.
9. Participate regularly in the Divine Liturgy and Holy Communion, fasting on Wednesday and Friday, and also participate in Holy Confession at least two times each year.
10. Seek guidance from your spiritual father on the above.
From St. George Orthodox Cathedral, USA
Wednesday, 4 September 2013
First, when I first started there were the usual distractions, mainly in terms of a list of things I needed to do in the day ahead. Then at about 50 prayers I started to feel a little emotional. As usual, it was in a kind of low level sort of way with the moistening of the eyes. However alongside this came some scriptural texts. First Jesus' words in Matthew 6 where he says “Do not worry”. And then Jesus' words to Martha where (Luke 10?) he says “You are distracted my many things only one thing is needful.” That helped me focus down on the words of the prayer especially the name of Jesus. That seemed to launch me a little deeper into the prayer.
Second, in the middle 100 I felt I had somehow started to get more 'inside' the prayer. It's as if until then I have been a spectator watching someone else pray. This time however I was somehow more involved. There was more of me praying. I can't explain it any other way.
Third, the focus of my eyes - which were closed - seemed to change. Until now they were 'looking up' even though this was behind closed eyelids. Now however they shifted and started to focus in and down. Things became a little darker, but not in a bad way!
Fourth, on the third part I seemed to lose my rhythm and started thinking about how I was saying the prayer. This had the effect of shifting my concentration off Jesus and onto the pattern of the prayer itself and how I was saying it and where I was breathing. So the last part was like emerging from a tunnel into the light. I became more distracted as a result.
However when I finished saying the prayer I felt much more focused on God, more at peace, less worried and more centred. The words “one thing is needful” came back to me and started me thinking more about personal priorities, especially in a busy life in ministry. I resolved to learnt the lesson that everything must start at the centre not the circumference. Once the centre is established - which is Jesus - everything else will fall into their allotted place. “Seek first the kingdom (which Jesus said is within you”) and his righteousness (that is giving Jesus his rightful place) and all these things will be added unto you.“ Matthew 6:33.
Everything I do, plan, think about etc must be brought to the centre, to Jesus. If not I will worry and miss God's will for me/the parish etc..
Said the Jesus Prayer slowly, trying to focus on the words and avoid straying away from them. Maybe the struggle I have relates to above and the need my mind has to pass on to something else more interesting and more important? Half way through I slowed down a little more and tried to emphasize the words in a more meaningful way, focusing my attention on the One I was addressing. It was at that stage that I felt a little emotion and a bit more 'connected'. What does that mean? That I was more aware of Jesus as I became more focused? Did I pass from meaningless repetition to something more like prayer (see Matthew 6)? Was I getting it right? Or was it purely emotion?
I finished the prayer in 15 minutes - that is 100 repetitions or once round my chotki. I did say “glory be to the Father” on the first bead but decided to just plow through and get into some rhythm after the first time.
At the end there was some moisture in the corner of my eyes - I do get a little tearful sometimes when I say and connect with the words. I had no sense of having accomplished anything or a that anything was achieved. I suppose I am glad that I was able to speak to Jesus directly and at least make an effort to connect with him directly. Other than that nothing really. But what was I to expect? What should I expect? Like any discipline - e.g. playing the piano - it will show over time if i keep at it. The point is to keep going and not give up. Didn't Jesus say something along those lines about pra (Luke 18:1-8)?