Sunday, August 26, 2012

Noetic Work and Psalmody

Today I just finished reading through the staretz St. Basil of Poiana Marului's Introduction to the Book of the Blessed Hesychios contained in a collection of introductions he wrote for the writings of the Philokalia. This particular introduction contained a great deal that I had to struggle with. You see, he goes on and on in this particular introduction about how "noetic work" - i.e. the work of the hesychast on discerning and guarding the inner workings of the heart and keeping the heart fixed on God - is much more important than Psalmody, and how it can even replace Psalmody. He even goes on to speak of how Psalmody, or rather excessive Psalmody, can become a danger to the soul because we can get caught up in this Pharisaical attitude that the quantity of our Psalmody somehow makes up for a lack of quality in our prayer.

I was disturbed by this chapter in part because I felt as though he was down-playing the role of the Divine Office/Liturgy of the Hours - the prayer of the Church herself - in the life of the individual Christian. "These things are not important," he seemed to be saying, "if one has taken up noetic work; particularly the work of the Jesus Prayer." But as I continued to read and think on his words, I gradually came to realize what it was that he was actually saying.

Far from denying the importance of the role of the Divine Office, he was actually revealing the true source of its power in our lives! The whole point of the Divine Office and the other liturgical services of the Church is to teach us to put on the mind of Christ, to engage us so that we might actively enter into the story of salvation history. St Basil here was not criticizing the Divine Office nor those who pray it. Rather he was warning his readers - us today - not to pray carelessly, prattling our way through the words that we have memorized from our youth without engaging our minds and hearts in what we are saying.

Think about it. When was the last time you prayed the "Our Father" and really paid attention to what you were saying? I for one feel as though I rarely pay attention to the words in that prayer. But I remember hearing a story of a young shepherd who never could get beyond the words "Our Father..." without bursting into tears simply because he was so moved by the fact that we have a Father in heaven who loves us so infinitely! Would that our own prayers were so deep and perceptive.

"Wisdom! Let us attend!" "Let us be attentive!" These words are repeated over and over throughout the Byzantine Divine Liturgy and throughout our Divine Office. When the priest or deacon proclaims them, are we really attentive? Do we allow the words we are saying to simply roll off our tongue without giving them another thought? Do the words sung throughout the Liturgy - whether it be a Byzantine Liturgy, a Roman Mass, a Maronite Qurbono, or whatever - to simply go in one ear and out the other? Or do we listen attentively with our heart and allow ourselves to be transformed through hearing? Hearing in the Biblical tradition didn't mean simply that the sound wave hit our ears and that we understood intellectually what was being said. Rather, listening implies that we become affected and transformed through the words that we hear. Our hearts are touched and we are changed by what we hear. When Christ said, "He who has ears, let him hear," this was the kind of listening He had in mind.

So what do I think was St. Basil's point in all of this? The point is that all prayer is meant to transform our hearts. When we are praying our morning or evening prayers, when we are attending the Divine Liturgy or the celebration of any of the Hours, when we are praying the Jesus Prayer or the rosary or whatever else, we have to learn to truly listen with our hearts instead of just prattling our way through. Be attentive to the prayers. St. Theophan the Recluse says that we ought to read through the prayers and stop whenever something in the prayers jumps out at us and touches our heart. Don't feel like you have to get through every single prayer in the morning and evening prayer rules. Don't feel like you have to say those 300 Jesus Prayers in the morning. Don't feel like you have to get through all five decades of the rosary before your prayer time is up. The purpose of prayer is not so that we can say a certain number or prayers. The purpose of prayer is so that we might enter into dialogue with God the Trinity and be transformed through that dialogue. It's awfully hard to hear God speaking to us in prayer when we are too busy mindlessly reading off or repeating prayers.

I find that it's actually more effective for me to assign a certain period of time for prayer. This way, rather than feeling like I have to get through a certain number of prayers, I can read through the prayers carefully, really engaging my heart and mind, and pausing when certain prayers or sections of the prayers stand out to me. I can then turn that prayer or that phrase over in my mind, allowing it to penetrate into my heart. The whole point here is that we become transformed through such contact with God!

I believe that this was what St. Basil was getting at. We need to approach prayer and noetic work humbly. After all, we have nothing new to say to God. He's heard it all before. But He wants to speak to us, to reveal His love to us! This is why St. Basil encourages people who wish to engage in noetic work to search the Scriptures and carefully read the writings of the great mystics and spiritual elders. These are the people who have heard the Word of God in their prayer, and have allowed that Word to penetrate down to the core of their being to such an extent that the Word transforms them and shines out through them. It is a great mercy that they have written of their experiences because now we have the opportunity to learn from them, if we are truly humble enough to listen carefully.

May heaven consume us!


  1. "Pronounce the words of the prayer slowly and with pauses. Wait until every word gives back its corresponding echo in your heart."
    — St. John of Kronstadt

    1. Thanks for sharing this, Kim. I should probably read St. John of Kronstadt at some point. :)

    2. John of Kronstadt's writings are extremely good, but can descend into some nasty polemics against the Catholic Church as well unfortunately...

  2. The monks at the Cistercian Monastery near me say.... everything... real.... slow... They taught me to try to pause, to close my eyes, and to drink in each line.

    Thanks for the reminder.