Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Addendum to the Physical Methods/Techniques

Thanks to a conversation with my friend over at the Eastern Catholic Spiritual Renewal blog, I realized I needed to clarify some things regarding yesterdays post about the physical methods sometimes associated with the Jesus Prayer.

The Christian East has a very strong sense of the body's role in our salvation as persons. The purpose of Christ's death and Resurrection, the purpose of our participation in the life of Christ through the Church, in short the purpose of the spiritual life in general is not to "save my soul," as the saying goes. The purpose of living the spiritual life is that "I might be save." This means the whole "me," body, mind, soul, and spirit. Both Catholics and Orthodox believe that at the end of time there will be a general resurrection in which we will all receive back our bodies, albeit our transformed/transfigured bodies. The body is not something we, as Christians, seek to escape. It is not a "prison for the soul," as many Greek philosophers believed. The body is the very instruments of our salvation. Christ became incarnate among us, he took on flesh, a body, and saved us by offering up His body on the Cross. He was resurrected in the body, and ascended bodily into heaven. He offers His very body to us as often as we go to receive Him in Holy Communion. The body is, therefore, central to our salvation in Christ!

With this in mind, when speaking of the physical methods associated with hesychasm, and thus with the Jesus Prayer, I did not mean to give the impression that they are either evil or completely disposable. Rather I merely wanted to emphasize that one ought not engage in certain of the physical methods without the guidance of an experienced spiritual father or mother.

Further research last night led me to realize that there are breathing techniques that are essential while praying the Jesus Prayer. St. Hesychios says that we should unite the Jesus Prayer to our breathing. Many other saints have said that we ought to remember God as often as we breathe (the Jesus Prayer is often equated with the remembrance of God), or we ought to invoke the Holy Name more often than we breathe. Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia, expressing the sentiment of the Holy Fathers, says that we need to establish a rhythm when praying the Jesus Prayer, and that praying it in union with our breathing enables us to establish that rhythm. The "quiet steady breathing" mentioned by St. Ignatius Brianchaninov is one illustration of that rhythm.

Some folks say that one should inhale "Lord Jesus Christ," exhale "Son of God," inhale "Have mercy on me," exhale "a sinner." If you use the shorter form of the prayer you could do: inhale "Lord Jesus Christ," exhale "have mercy on me (a sinner)." or any other such combination. Really it doesn't matter. The essential thing is to establish a rhythm in order to focus our attention with our mind in our hearts.

Although the Jesus Prayer can and out to be prayed at any time and under any circumstances throughout the day, when we set aside a special time to devote our full attention to the Jesus Prayer it is important to have the proper physical setting. There are many different ways to arrange one's physical setting for prayer, but the essential thing is to find a quiet place away from distractions. This could be a separate room, a closet, or a corner set aside for prayer. Again, the essential thing is that it is free from whatever might distract us; it is our own personal retreat, our poustinia within our home. The purpose of the physical setting is to aid us in entering the closet of our hearts.

So when speaking of the dangers of the physical methods of hesychasm and of the Jesus Prayer, the Fathers  were not condemning the methods, nor were they trying to discourage people from using those methods. Their primary purpose was to warn of the dangers of those methods when used without the guidance of a spiritual father or mother. They were very concerned that people not fall into spiritual delusion. One such delusion that Sts. Theophan the Recluse and Ignatius Brianchaninov mention is the equation of the physical methods with hesychia (inner stillness) and the essence of prayer. There is a wonderful passage from the writings of St. Theophan with which I would like to conclude this post:

"The essence of the whole thing is to be established in the remembrance of God, and to walk in His presence. You can say to anyone: 'Follow whatever methods you like - recite the Jesus Prayer, perform bows and prostrations, go to Church: do what you wish, only strive to be always in constant remembrance of God.' I remember meeting a man in Kiev who said: 'I did not use any methods at all, I did not know the Jesus Prayer, yet by God's mercy I walk always in His presence. But how this has come to pass, I myself do not know. God gave!' It is important to realize that prayer is always God-given: otherwise we may confuse the gift of grace with some achievement of our own."

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