Friday, November 30, 2012

The Arena: St. Ignatius Briachaninov's Councils on Prayer: Part 2 Attention

Returning to our series of meditations on The Arena by St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, today I want to pick up his theme of attention at prayer.

With attention, prayer becomes the inalienable property of the person praying; in the absence of attention, it is extraneous to the person praying. With attention it bears abundant fruit; without attention, it produces thorns and thistles.

St. Ignatius provides us here with both encouragement and warning. Prayer is necessary and, in a sense, mandatory for all Christians - for what is Christianity if not relationship with God, and what is prayer if not conversation with God? Relationships without conversation quickly die and become little more than a distant memory. Likewise Christianity without prayer quickly loses its true essence and becomes little more than one philosophy among many instead of the relationship that it is meant to be. But, as our Savior warns us, when we pray we must not heap up vain words. If we pray without attention to the words and to God's loving presence, then we are doing little more than heaping up vain words. As Fr. Dimitru Staniloue said, when we pray without attentiveness we are doing nothing more than talking to ourselves.

Prayer without attention becomes a pathway to egotism, neuroses, self-esteem, and a pharisaical attitude. Instead of regarding all others as angels and one's self as the only sinner among angels, the complete opposite happens. We begin to regard ourselves as the angels and all others as sinners. All meekness and humility disappears and we are left with nothing but our own pride and vanity. When the Fathers warn us of the potential for spiritual delusion, this is what they are talking about.

Attentiveness at prayer leads to meekness and humility, to that attitude that all others and angels and I myself am the only sinner. Such attentiveness, however, is a gift from God and we must await it and pray for it in hopeful expectation that, in His own time, God will grant it. When the gift is given prayer becomes something that wells up from within us, not something exterior to us that we have to force ourselves to do. That being said, however, until such a time as true prayer is given we must force ourselves to pray, to keep our prayer rule daily and to force our attention to remain with God in prayer. This is very difficult to do. As St. Ignatius points out:

Fallen spirits, knowing the power of prayer and its beneficial effect, endeavor by all possible means to divert us from it, prompting us to use the time assigned to prayer for other occupations; or else they try to annul it and profane it with mundane distractions and sinful inattention, by producing at the time of prayer a countless swarm of earthly thoughts, sinful daydreams and reveries, imaginings and fantasies.

During my own prayer time I know that my mind is often in a million other places and not always with God. I am distracted by what I have to do at work that day, what my goals are for my future life and for my family. I am often distracted with worry for my wife and children, or finances, or political situations. I often even find myself distracted by seemingly holy thoughts; maybe I should pursue a vocation to the married priesthood, or perhaps I could help promote Eastern Christianity in another way, or perhaps I should go on the road and give talks introducing people to the Eastern Christian tradition and encouraging them in the ways of the Jesus Prayer, etc., etc., etc. Such thoughts are nothing more than distractions, temptations meant to divert my attention from the true task at hand.

It is also not uncommon for folks to be tempted by lustful thoughts during prayer. The Fathers of the Philokalia mention this peculiarity, as does St. Theophan the Recluse. A key to dealing with such temptations is to give them no power. Certain Fathers use the image of a fly buzzing around the room (for me a mosquito is more to the point). Temptations have no power to distract us unless we allow them to, just like a fly (or mosquito) buzzing around the room can do us no harm and is really more a nuisance than anything. Even St. Teresa of Avila spoke of simply ignoring temptations when they arose during prayer and simply continuing on with prayer as you normally would. I've found that occasionally it can be helpful to talk to God about my temptations when they arise during prayer, in that way turning the temptation itself into a prayer and making my prayer time itself more "conversational."

But what does St. Ignatius tell us? How can we maintain a certain level of attentiveness at prayer? He divides attentiveness into two categories: "wrapped attention" or undistracted prayer, and "artificial attention." The first I mentioned above as a gift of God beyond our power to gain. For some it is given almost immediately, and for others it only comes after years of suffering and toil in prayer. The second is well within our means to attain if we are willing to put in the work. St. Ignatius tells us:

Especially helpful in holding the attention during prayer is an extremely unhurried pronunciation of the words of the prayer... so that the mind may quite easily stay enclosed in the words of the prayer, and not slip say from a single word. Say the words in an audible voice when you pray alone; this also helps to hold the attention.

I find praying audibly to be very effective for holding my attention, and I typically do this while I'm driving to work as that's the only alone time that I really get throughout the day. Audible prayer is effective first because you have to put the effort into speaking the words, and then also you hear the words being pronounced. Oftentimes when my mind starts to drift despite the fact that I'm praying audibly I find it helpful to sing the Jesus Prayer - St. Augustine tells us that "he who sings prays twice" after all.

So, slow steady pronunciation, wrapping the mind in the words of the prayer and focusing on their meaning, an attentive and loving awareness of God's presence; these are all means of "artificial attentiveness" at prayer. It is hard work. Even the Fathers admit that. We will fall. We will get distracted. Sometimes we may even set aside our prayer time completely to pursue other activities (I know I've been guilty of this). But the point is that we ought not to be cast down when this happens. Simply repent. Ask God's forgiveness for your weakness. Beg His aid and ask Him to bestow the strength and perseverance necessary to pray. Above all, ask in hopeful expectation for the "wrapped attention" in prayer, even if it takes years and years for such attention to be given. The journey may be long and arduous, but to goal is worth the sweat and blood. May heaven consume us!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Roman Catholic's Journey to Eastern Catholicism: Part 2 God's Voice Thunders!

After moving up to Ann Arbor I took a job working at a Catholic bookstore. I loved the work in part because of the people - both the other employees as well as the folks that would come into the store - and because of the books that surrounded me on a daily basis. I loved being able to pick up a book from the Catholic tradition and just browse around for tidbits of spiritual wisdom. I didn't realize it at the time, but one of the authors we carried, Fr. George Maloney, S.J., was a Russian Catholic priest who converted to Orthodoxy just prior to his death. Fr. Maloney was a strong voice for Eastern/Byzantine Catholic spirituality in the U.S. and worked tirelessly to join together Eastern Spirituality with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. His writings are definitely worth reading as they are both tradition and a breath of fresh air. It was also while working at this bookstore that I picked up a copy of The Way of the Pilgrim, a book that has become all but required reading as an introduction into the spirituality of the Jesus Prayer.

While living in Ann Arbor I attended "Christ the King" Roman Catholic Church. This was the parish into which my wife had been baptized as a child, and where she had received her First Communion and been Confirmed. It was also the parish from which we were married. To this day I still consider "Christ the King" to be one of my spiritual homes. It was here that I learned to focus more on an experiential and personal relationship with God rather than a strictly intellectual relationship. All the studying I had done in college, all the "head-knowledge" I had gained through that study, had the chance to really sink in. I learned to allow what I had learned in college to penetrate from my head to my heart so that God became for me less of an intellectual idea and more of a living Reality; the only living Reality. In many ways I consider this the core of Catholic Charismatic spirituality, and it is a primary theme in Byzantine spirituality. Hans Urs von Balthasar once said that the most appropriate posture for the theologian was to kneel: "Theology ought to be done on one's knees," he is known as having said. This echoes the words of Evagrios Ponticus (I believe it was him) who said, "A theologian is one who prays truly, and if you pray truly you are a theologian." St. John of Krondstadt and other Orthodox saints are always talking about learning of God through experience, through encounter, through personal contact and relation. Books and head-knowledge are great, but they are a means, not the end. The end, the goal, is to encounter God, to experience His living presence within us, in our lives, in the world around us. Without this encounter we run the risk of reducing God to a syllogism and thus constructing an idol for ourselves.

There was another aspect of "Christ the King" that has always stuck with me. In their Perpetual Adoration chapel - a chapel that I frequented on my walks to and from work - there was a very large icon of Christ Enthroned. I was later to learn that this icon was actually a replica of an icon painted by Andrei Rublev, the great Russian iconographer whose most famous work is the icon of the Trinity, more properly called the "Hospitality of Abraham." I spent hours gazing at this icon in the Presence of the great "Icon of the West," the exposed Eucharist. There were times when I felt guilty for spending more time gazing at the icon rather than at the Sacrament, but after a talk with my spiritual father on the matter I felt more at ease. It was he who first told me that the exposed Sacrament is the great "Icon of the West." I needn't be concerned because one way or another I was in the Presence of Christ, whether mediated through the icon or through the great Icon.

For me, however, there was a great peace that came simply through gazing at that icon. I felt as though Christ were looking back at me with love and mercy as I looked at him enthroned in glory. The power and majesty of Christ, and the holy fear that that instills, that was depicted with the Cherubim and Seraphim soaring around and holding up Christ's throne was somehow softened by the loving gaze that poured forth from the icon, a gaze made all the more real by Christ's true Presence in front of me. I have since carried a holy card with that icon on it, and I keep one in my prayer books. If I am praying somewhere without icons today, I make sure to have that icon with me in order to feel Christ's presence and gaze again into those eyes. I suppose it was here as well as in that chapel in Austria that I learned a central theme in iconography and iconology, that icons themselves mediate a presence, a divine reality.

All of this was going on and I still had not attended my first Byzantine Divine Liturgy. Thinking back on it now it really does seem as though God was preparing me to receive the Byzantine tradition as my own, my home. By the time I experience my first Divine Liturgy, it felt completely natural and familiar. But we'll come to that in a moment.

I always looked forward to Saturdays while I was working at the bookstore. Nine times out of ten I could expect either Fr. Joseph Marquis or his identical twin brother, Richard, to show up. Frequently they would show up together, then I knew I was in for a fun afternoon. Fr. Joseph was a "convert" to Byzantine Catholicism from Roman Catholicism, and his brother Richard, a wonderful man, remains Roman Catholic, but with a deep and genuine love of the East. Week after week they would come in and ask me when I was going to come out to Fr. Joe's parish in Detroit, "Sacred Heart Ruthenian Catholic Church." Week after week my response was the same, "I'm waiting for my wife to come with me." Finally one Sunday, my wife being sick and in bed, I decided to head up to Detroit on my own. As I stepped inside "Sacred Heart" the same at-home feeling that I'd experienced in that chapel in Austria returned. I felt as though I'd been there before, as though I'd grown up there.

The deacon's son had grown up with my wife and was a life-long friend of hers. I sat next to him at my first Divine Liturgy and just sort of watched and mimicked what he did. For awhile I tried to follow along in the green book, but eventually gave up and just tried to absorb what was happening around me. When the deacon sung out, "Reverend father, give the blessing," and Fr. Joe responded, "Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and forever," I was immediately enthralled and taken up into that Kingdom. The thing that has always stood out to me most was Fr. Joseph's voice; it was deep and booming, like the voice of God thundering out of the sanctuary. His voice was full of love and reverence, but also full of power. Although I'm sure Fr. Joseph doesn't have an angry bone in his body, his voice was one that would instill fear if it were ever raised in anger. Love and compassion, power and might; to me this voice always echoes in my head and makes me think of our heavenly Father.

I honestly remember little of the Liturgy itself from that day. I just remember feeling as though I were in another world, but a world that was somehow familiar, somehow home. Later that week the deacon's wife came into the bookstore and we fell into talking. It came out that I wasn't Byzantine at all and that that had been my first Divine Liturgy. She was shocked and said that watching me she thought I had grown up Byzantine, like I had been attending Divine Liturgy my entire life.

The next week I took a couple of friends up there with me. Again I was right at home. It took some time before I was finally able to get my wife to come, but she very much liked it when she finally made it there. For her, however, it took a bit more time for the Byzantine tradition to become home. It wasn't until we moved to the Washington, D.C. area that we together embraced the tradition in its Melkite expression.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Arena: St. Ignatius Briachaninov's Councils on Prayer: Part 1 Preparation

This is the first part of a planned series of meditations on St. Ignatius Brianchaninov's councils on prayer from his book The Arena. I'm not yet sure how long this series will be. As of right now I'm planning on doing one meditation per chapter that he has explicitly devoted to the practice of prayer. We'll have to wait and see what happens though. Who knows. I could find that there's a lot more to say than I think there is. :)

St. Ignatius' first chapter is devoted to preparation for prayer. In this chapter he isn't caught up so much in the "practical" concerns of preparation - setting up an icon corner, preparing prayer texts, meditating on Scripture passages, etc. Rather he's concerned more with preparing one's very self, one's life, for prayer; he calls this a "disposition of the soul." With this in mind there are a number of essential attitudes that St. Ignatius lists as being a necessary preliminary to our actual prayer time.

He tells us that in order to pray properly and in a way pleasing to the Lord we must first reject attitudes of resentment and condemnation of our neighbors. This I find particularly pertinent to the practice of the Jesus Prayer. After all, one of the New Testament passages from which we derive the Jesus Prayer is the story of the Pharisee and the Publican. In that story we see the Pharisee standing before God and singing his own praises, even to the point of thanking God that he is not like other sinners, particularly the publican that stood off in the distance begging God's mercy. The attitude of the Pharisee here is the exact attitude that St. Ignatius is warning us against, and it is an attitude all too easy for us to fall into throughout our daily lives, as those of us who spend any amount of time in the secular world can attest to. We see around us folks who have no problems with alcohol and drug abuse, elicit sex lives, and overall general immorality and it's easy for us to condemn them. From my own experience I find it rather easy to be resentful when I see immoral people prospering and their ways seeming to be "blessed" when I myself struggle to even scratch out a decent living. But remember what St. Ignatius said about considering all others to be angels and yourself to be the only sinner among angels. We must leave no room for resentment and condemnation.

Secondly St. Ignatius tells us that we must have a contrite and repentant attitude. The reality is that we do sin. We do become resentful and condemnatory of others. We allow ourselves to be distracted at prayer. We forget God's presence. Because of this we need to cultivate penthos, an attitude of true repentance and contrition in our hearts. In Byzantine spirituality there is a strong emphasis on tears, whether physical tears or "tears of the heart." These tears are representative of our sorrow for our sins and failings. St. Ignatius tells us, "assist your prayer by sorrow of heart, sighs from the depth of your soul, and abundant tears." For men in particular this may be particularly hard to do. In general we have a hard time weeping over anything, let alone something that seems so abstract as "sin." But when we come the realization that sin is not the breaking of an arbitrary moral code, but rather the fracturing of an all-important relationship, then tears may become a little easier. For those of us who are married you know how hard it is knowing that you have done something that has greatly offended and hurt your spouse. There is this sense that you have let your spouse down and done something that has caused them a great deal of emotional distress. I, for one, can't stand to see my wife weeping over something that I did wrong. It tears me apart on the inside. I remember too when I was growing up I used to get disciplined rather frequently. It wasn't the discipline so much that hurt, as seeing my mother weeping over having to punish me. It was hard to realize just how much I had let her down. Such things do represent a very real fracture in relationships. Do we think of this when we sin? Do we realize that we are neglecting the one relationship that matters the most? We were created out of love and our lives were given to us as a gift. We need not be here. God need not have created us. And yet, here we are. Any sin we commit, any offense against God, is not a mere breaking of a moral code. Rather, it is a very real rejection of a fundamental relationship that we have to God as our Creator, and most importantly, as our loving Father, our Redeemer, and our Life-Giver.

This actually brings us to the third attitude or disposition that St. Ignatius says we must have in preparation for prayer. We must cultivate an attitude of thankfulness, gratitude. We live in a society that has a very strong sense of entitlement. We believe that we deserve and are entitled to certain things, and God help the world if we don't get those things. But think back again to the fact that God created us from nothing and need not have created us at all! Our life itself is a gift! Are we grateful for this gift? Are we grateful for the things that God has provided for us in order to sustain the gift of life? Are we grateful above all for the spiritual gifts that God has given us in order to sustain us, particularly the Church and Her Sacraments? Spirituality is often defined very vaguely in our day and age. People somehow believe that they can be "spiritual" without being "religious," or that they don't need Church, they can just sit at home and pray on Sundays. This is a failure to recognize the gifts that God has given us to sustain our spiritual lives. We need to learn to cultivate a "eucharistic" attitude. Eucharist, in the original Greek, means "thanksgiving." We we attend the Divine Liturgy, the Mass, the Qurbono, or whatever you may call it, are we attending with an attitude of thanksgiving. The Eucharistic Liturgy is the most profound act of gratitude for God's work of creation, and so often we attend it without a sense of gratitude. How often have we gone to Mass or the Divine Liturgy with the mentality that it is nothing more than a "Communion dispenser." Many times in the past I've heard folks reply that they go to Mass just to receive Communion. How sad that that's their only attitude. It misses the whole point! The reception of Communion isn't done in a vacuum, as if the rest of the Mass is just sort of nice trimmings that we add on to fancy things up. Rather Communion is the culmination, the high-point of an entire act that is taking place throughout the Mass. The act is an act of gratitude and celebration of Who God is and what He has done for us! In the end, the supreme act of gratitude that is the Eucharistic Liturgy is meant to be carried over into our lives outside of Church. Our lives themselves much become eucharistic liturgies, celebrations and services of thanksgiving to God for all that He has done for us. When our lives become this, our prayer reflects this as well.

Finally St. Ignatius tells us that we must develop an overall awareness of God's presence. In particular he says that we must be aware of God's presence as Judge. This is not so much to cultivate a sense of depression at the fact that we are sinners before an all-just God, but rather in order to cultivate a true sense of repentance. Remember, when we sin we do not break a moral code arbitrarily defined by a cruel God that just likes to watch us squirm. Rather sin is the fracturing of a relationship with our loving Father who wants nothing but what is best for us and is willing to do anything to show His love for us and win our love for Him. To be aware of God's presence as Judge is not merely to stand before Him in fear and trembling (although this attitude is necessary as well), but it is also to stand before Him Who loves us eternally and to measure our love for Him in comparison to His love for us. Have we measured up? Has our love measured up?

St. Ignatius does provide us also with a couple of physical postures that we can adopt in order to aid prayer and our sense of contrition. Standing with our weight equally distributed, not swaying one way or the other, with our heads bowed can aid in this sense of contrition and the awareness of God's presence. This, he says, is particularly good for beginners "in whom the disposition of the soul conforms largely to the posture of the body." But we will go into postures more in a future reflection.

Become a Child

While I was showering before going to work yesterday I had a bit of a revelation (if I may presume to call it that). I recently heard a story about the great Romanian Orthodox theologian, Fr. Dumitru Stanialou. It seems that Fr. Dumitru always used the Horologion as his prayer book. Whenever he didn't have his Horologion with him, however, he would just repeat short ejaculatory prayers for his entire prayer time.  "Lord, have mercy," "Lord, hear me," "O God come to my assistance," etc., etc., etc. When asked about this he said that the temptation for theologians is to theologize while they pray. This, he said, is not prayer, but the theologian simply talking to himself.

With this in mind I got to thinking; what a childlike confidence and hope in God it must take for such a great academic theologian to "reduce" his prayer to such simple phrases, especially within the context of the Byzantine tradition where we pride ourselves on having these long and very poetic prayers (it's often been said that Byzantines don't take anything away from their prayers, they only add to them). There is, of course, a time and place for long and poetic prayers. That's why the Liturgy is so full of them. But there is also a time and place for short prayers that really cut to the heart of the matter. This is why the Fathers have put so much emphasis on the Jesus Prayer. Earlier in Church history the Eastern Fathers also put a great deal of emphasis on other short ejaculatory prayers, not just the Jesus Prayer.

There are short prayers for nearly every experience, emotion, psychological state, intention, or what have you. I've found that such prayers really challenge me to place all my confidence in God. Often when I pray for something in particular I feel the need to explain to God why I need this or that, or why I need something else to happen. I tend to get very specific and at the end of my prayer my hope in God's goodness becomes almost like a footnote to the prayer itself. My prayer becomes more like making demands of God rather than placing my hope in our Father's loving care. "God, grant xyz because I believe this will be best for my family, for myself, I believe it's your will.... Oh, and by the way, I place this in your hands, my hope is in you." That's not childlike confidence, nor is it true hope in God. True hope is to turn to the Father even in the face of great suffering and say as Jesus said, "If it is your will... yet not my will but yours be done."

God knows what we desire and what we most need. He wants us to approach Him with our desires because we are His children. But He wants us to approach with the confident and hopeful expectancy of a child, not the presumptuous expectancy that all of us are all too familiar with. When a child asks something of their parents, they are confident that their parents will give them what they want, knowing also that sometimes it is necessary for their parents to deny their request in order to give them what they really need. They don't go into long explanations as to why the really need something. "Mama, can I have a cookie?" That's the language of a child. Short, simply, confident. Our prayer should have this same confidence.

Apart from the Jesus Prayer, some prayers that have helped me over the last few years are: "Incline my heart according to your will, O God," "O God, come to my assistance. Lord, hasten to help me," and "Deliver me, O Lord." One of my favorite responses in the Liturgy is simply, "Grant this, O Lord." These are all simple prayers that are short and to the point. The Fathers called such prayers arrows that fly straight up to the heart of God. There's no need for us to heap up vain words, as our Lord warns us against. All that is needed is a childlike hope in our loving Father. This attitude, however, can be more difficult to acquire than first meets the eye. May God grant us all this childlike confidence in Him.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

New Series

So I have a couple of series that I'm working on. The first is about my journey from Roman Catholicism into Eastern Catholicism. As some of you may have noticed the first installment of that one is up and available for your enjoyment. The second will be reflections from St. Ignatius Brianchaninov's book The Arena on formulating your own personal prayer rule. I will start that one up some time later this week. So stay tuned. There is more coming and I haven't fallen off the face of the earth. I've just been studying up and gathering my sources so that I can share more with you. May heaven consume us!

A Roman Catholic's Journey to Eastern Catholicism: Part 1: Shadows and Rumors from the East

It all started while I was attending college at Franciscan University of Steubenville. A couple of young men I knew were somehow different in their expression of Catholicism than I. One spoke of being Ukrainian Catholic, the other Ruthenian. At the time it didn't really register to me that this meant they not only celebrated a different form of the Mass, but that they even had their own theology, their own spirituality, their own traditions, and even their own history different from what I'd experienced growing up. Somewhere in the back of my mind I heard "Catholic" and presumed "Roman Catholic."

I grew up in an area where Eastern Catholic was more or less non-existent. Oh, there were the Maronites, but they were all the way out in Cincinnati and I had no experience of them. The most I knew of them was that a family friend had married a Maronite man and had become Maronite herself. Apart from the all I knew of Eastern Christianity was that there were some Churches called the "Orthodox Churches," they were not Catholic, and I couldn't fulfill my Sunday obligation at one of their parishes. Growing up in a rural German-Irish community we tended to be suspicious of anything that wasn't explicitly (and borderline triumphalistically) Roman Catholic.

So when these friends of mine at college began speaking of Eastern Catholics, somehow it didn't even register in my mind that Eastern Catholics are not Roman Catholic. I'd even watched brief videos of parts of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and it still didn't enter my thoughts that, hey, this is different from what I know. The language was different (Ukrainian). The music was different. The setting itself was different. And yet I was too thick-headed to see this.

I had occasion to encounter the Byzantine tradition on a more personal experiential level while I was studying on our campus in Gaming, Austria. There we shared a campus with the "International Theological Institute." It was here that I met my first married priest... and married to a Franciscan graduate nonetheless. Fr. Yuri was quite an amazing man. Very quiet and gentle mannered, but very good at leading and guiding young people. Despite the fact that he was married, it still didn't occur to me that he came from a different tradition within the Catholic Church.

I don't really remember being encouraged to attend the Liturgies in the Byzantine chapel on campus in Gaming. I had friends who went quite frequently, but I could never bring myself to do so. In my mind they were Orthodox. I wouldn't be permitted to receive Communion and I'd still have to go to Mass later that Sunday. So I just avoided the Byzantine Liturgies. Needless to say I've greatly regretted that decision ever since.

One thing I did do, however, was spend a great deal of time in prayer in the Byzantine chapel. There was something about it that kept drawing me in. It wasn't so much the icons, the mystique, or the exotic feel of the place. To me their chapel felt familiar, homey and warm. I felt as if I'd always been there; like I'd grown up there and was simply coming back to my childhood parish. There was nothing unfamiliar or exotic about the place to me. It simply was what it was and in being so it brought me closer to God. I spent more time in there than I did in our Perpetual Adoration chapel.

After I returned home I didn't really think about this experience in the chapel again for a number of years. It wasn't until after graduation and my move up to Ann Arbor, Michigan, that these rumors and shadows from the East began to take form. But you'll have to stick around for the next installment to hear about that.