Saturday, April 20, 2013

Movements of the Spirit

Lately as my spiritual reading I have been reading a lovely work entitled The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life. I cannot recommend this work highly enough. It is a collection of short (ca. 5 pages) passages from the great mystics of the Syriac tradition - for those who don't know the Syriac tradition embraces the Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara and Maronite traditions among others. I love the fact that this book, like The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, is also simply a collection of short passages. That makes it possible to read an inspiring piece of advice from a great saint in the morning or evening and then carry that advice with you for the rest of the day.

Contained in this collection is a passage from the writings of Evagrius. Although never canonized, Evagrius is probably the most influential spiritual author in the Eastern and Oriental traditions. Recognized for his brilliance, his works are studied by almost the entire East and Orient alike: Greek, Syriac, Coptic, Slavic, Assyrian, etc. You name it. The passage contained in The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life I found particularly interesting. Although Evagrius himself wrote in Greek, this passage survived only in a Syriac translation - many Evagrius' more speculative theological works were later condemned by the Church and the Greek editions were subsequently destroyed.

The particular passage translated in this lovely book contains many gems of advice, but there was one in particular that struck me. Evagrius says that while we are praying, should we be inspired by some insight from the Holy Spirit, or should the Spirit move our mind to some beneficial thought, we should cease our prayer and focus on the movement of the Spirit. He says that this is more beneficial to our souls than plodding through our prayers for the sake of finishing an allotted number of prayers.

I found this advice particularly interesting because I have read the same piece of advice from almost every great mystic across the traditions of the East and West. St. Teresa of Avila, St. Theophan the Recluse, St. John of the Cross, etc., etc., etc. all say that when we are at prayer or spiritual reading we need to be attentive to these movements of the Spirit. This was one of the reasons St. Theophan recommends allotting a certain amount of time to prayer rather than a certain number of prayers to say. Often when we are at prayer, a word or a phrase catches us, it grips our hearts, and we are led into deeper spiritual insights. Were we to ignore these movements then it is the same as telling God that what we have to say to Him is more important than what He has to say to us. It also stops us from really assimilating the prayer, its content and meaning, into our hearts and making the prayer our own.

The only exception I've seen given to this rule is while one is praying the Liturgy of the Hours. St. Teresa of Avila, if memory serves me correctly, pointed out that when such a movement strikes our hearts during the celebration of the Hours, we ought not to pause over it for fear of disrupting the movement of the prayers. Rather, we ought to make a mental note of the word, phrase, or prayer that struck us, and then go back later on and reflect further on that prayer.

For me personally, this advice from the saints is very difficult to implement both in my prayer time and in my spiritual reading. When praying I want to get through all my prayers before my time is up. And I have so many books that I want to read that should I stop to reflect on every passage that struck a cord in my heart, I would never make it to the end of a single book. But this is one of the most common and profound ways in which the Holy Spirit speaks to us through the prayers of the Church and the writings of the saints. Great patience is needed; patience and the ability to shut up and listen (something that I struggle with). May God grant us all the grace of being attuned to the movements of the Spirit in our hearts during our times of prayer and spiritual reading.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Arena: St. Ignatius Brianchaninov's Councils on Prayer: Part 4 Why the Jesus Prayer?

I figured it was high time that I wrap up the series we've been working on based off of St. Ignatius Brianchaninov's The Arena. I'm still planning a few more posts and an addendum based off of some recommendations from St. Theophan the Recluse, but my books are still packed away in boxes, so I'm going to have to really dig to find the materials I need. Today, however, I want to touch on St. Ignatius' introduction to the Jesus Prayer itself.

In this basic introduction to the Jesus Prayer St. Ignatius does not give us basic instructions for praying the Jesus Prayer, so much as demonstrates for us what the Jesus Prayer is and why it is important. Based off of the writings of the Patristic Fathers, he identifies for us two types of prayer: singing or hymnody, by which he means specifically the singing or prayerful reading of the Psalter, and prayer, by which he specifically means the Jesus Prayer. He makes the claim that any time the ancient Fathers speak of prayer the mean specifically the Jesus Prayer. I don't have the resources to verify that his claim here is true, but we will operate under the presumption that it is - who better to interpret the words of the saints than a saint, after all.

The Jesus Prayer itself, says St. Ignatius, is divided into two forms: the vocal and the mental. It is necessary that we start with a vocal recitation of the prayer and from there move on to the mental. Mental recitation is achieved when vocal prayer becomes concentrated, focused and attentive. To quote St. Theophan, mental or attentive prayer is achieved when the mind descends into the heart and is held there. Attentive prayer means that we enclose our minds in the words of the prayer, and conform our hearts to the words. In other words, we prayer slowly, with attention, and with compunction of heart. Our hearts must be attuned to what we are saying. This, for some, takes time and great effort. For others it is obtained easily and with little effort. The Spirit blows where it wills, I suppose. I've seen people who have prayed and struggled for years and still do not possess prayer of the heart despite their best efforts. I have also seen people who were, seemingly, beginners in the spiritual life, but who were given prayer of the heart almost immediately. Whether we are given such prayer right away or it takes years for us to receive the gift is not important. What is important is that we persevere in prayer with patience, always expecting and hoping for this great gift of God. Our Father has promised to give us all things so long as we ask in Jesus name, but He didn't promise to give us those thing immediately upon request. We have to be patient and allow our Father to prepare our hearts for the reception of the power and fire of the Holy Spirit.

St. Ignatius points out, however, that the above mentioned conditions - attentiveness, compunction, unhurriedness, etc. - are conditions for all prayer, not just for the Jesus Prayer. But, he says, these conditions are more easily obtained and observed in the Jesus Prayer. In the Psalms we have reflected a vast array of human emotion, theological thought and insight, and a wide array of other thoughts. I remember my spiritual father once telling me that in the Psalms we can find reflected every single human emotion. There is a Psalm for every feeling that we might feel. The Psalms, in many ways, are very human and are themselves some of the most beautiful prayers ever composed. Because of this great diversity, however, it can often be difficult to focus one's attention and one's heart while praying the Psalms. We move from great rejoicing, to lamentation, to repentance, to praise at a rapid pace and it is often difficult to keep up.

The Jesus Prayer, on the other hand, has but one thought: "The thought of the sinner's forgiveness by Jesus." This specific emphasis and focus, the saint warns us, is very dry. It is dry. Anyone who's ever persevered in the Jesus Prayer for any length of time knows that after awhile it can "get old," as we say nowadays. The words are simply repeated as though we are on autopilot. Our mind and heart aren't in the words because the words, for us, have become stale, old, dry. But we must persevere, we must hold our mind in attentiveness. We must bring the movements of our hearts into harmony with the words of the Jesus Prayer. The power to do this comes from the name of Jesus.

This is where I believe the great wisdom of our Mother, the Church, comes into play. The Jesus Prayer is great work, but it is work that must be done if we wish to progress in the spiritual life. But we need a break from labor every now and then. I remember reading one of the Eastern saints (I forget who) who mentions how if a bow is always strung up and ready to fire it will eventually snap. So too with the spiritual combatant who never "relaxes" so to speak. Soldiers on the battle front have to be removed every now and then, otherwise they reach the breaking point and their minds simply snap; they lose their grip on reality. So too in the spiritual life and particularly in the work of the Jesus Prayer.

My own personal opinion, for what it's worth, is that this is why we must balance our practice of the Jesus Prayer with Psalmody, or more specifically with our participation in the Liturgy of the Hours. The Hours can be a breath of fresh air that rejuvenates our practice of the Jesus Prayer. It is here that our Mother nourishes us and strengthens us so that we can go back into the arena of our hearts and fight once again with the name of Jesus as our weapon. Through the liturgical life of the Church, particularly the Eucharistic celebration and the Hours, we are brought out of ourselves and we celebrate the mysteries of Salvation History with our brethren. We are strengthened by our Mother and our brethren because we see that we are not in this fight alone. We are nourished by the very Body and Blood of Christ, and finally we are sent back into the world to continue our combat. This is why Sunday is such an important day, and why rest - not necessarily the rest of the body, but especially the rest of the soul - is so important on that day.

One final thought from St. Ignatius before I close out today's reflections. He closes off this chapter by asking, "What is it that will be given to a person who prays in the name of the Lord Jesus that can fill him to overflowing with joy?" The reply: We will be given the Holy Spirit! It is very interesting to reflect on the Jesus Prayer and its connection to the giving of the Holy Spirit. I remember hearing a priest once give a talk on the phrase "Lord, have mercy" that is repeated over and over in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. He said that the Greek word for "mercy" is actually derived from the same word as the Greek word for "anointing." When we ask for God's mercy, therefore, we are not simply asking for the forgiveness of our sins (although that is certainly an element). Above all, however, we are asking for God's anointing. And what is the anointing with which God anoints? God anoints us with His Holy Spirit! When we pray the Jesus Prayer we are not just asking for the forgiveness of our sins, we are also asking for the anointing of the Holy Spirit. We are asking for.... wait for it.... Baptism in the Holy Spirit! That's right, I said it. I used those words that many have come to associate with the Charismatic Renewal but which, in reality, stretch all the way back to the Early Church. I hope to be able to write on this more later on, but for now suffice it to say that Baptism of the Holy Spirit simply means a release of the graces and power of the Holy Spirit that were given to us in the Sacraments, particularly in Baptism, Chrismation/Confirmation, and the Eucharist. To use the language of St. Theophan the Recluse, Baptism of the Holy Spirit means the (re)kindling of the divine spark that was implanted in us at our initiation into the Church and that has been dormant within us through our own negligence and forgetfulness.

So in praying the Jesus Prayer, we are really praying for so much more than the forgiveness of our sins.  We pray for the anointing of the Holy Spirit, that the reign of Christ's Kingdom come in our hearts and spread from us throughout the world, that God's steadfast love bear fruit in us and through us in all of mankind. In short, when we pray the Jesus Prayer we pray that Christ's mission, His Gospel, His Good News of the coming of the Kingdom, be fulfilled in us and through us in all Mankind. May heaven consume us! CHRIST IS RISEN!!!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Joy of the Resurrection

As I was praying through Safro this morning I was inspired to offer this sort of follow-up to my last post. In the "Sedro" of the "Hoosoyo" (I'll have to look up the definitions of those terms later so that I can explain just exactly what sedro and hoosoyo are) I found the following lines:

"Put joy into our hearts,
that we may be consoled amidst the trials of this world,
give witness to your name before all people,
and that they may know you (Christ Jesus), the Father and the Spirit..."

I was stunned yet again by this emphasis on joy that I find in the Maronite tradition. We are called to witness to Christ by sharing our joy in Him. Christianity, particularly Apostolic Christianity in its Catholic and Orthodox traditions, is not a doom-and-gloom religion, but a religion of joy and hope. Joy in the fact that the Kingdom of God is here; and hope in the Kingdom of God yet to come - a dynamic tension of the "already" and the "not yet." Christianity is a religion of joy because we have so great a redeemer; because while we were yet sinners Christ Jesus offered His life for us that we might have life in its fullest. Christianity is a religion of joy because of the great love that God our Father has for us in sending us His only Son as the light of the world shining in the darkness. Christianity is a religion of joy because with Christ we die to the old man and are raised to new life in the bosom of the Trinity, the Trinitarian life.

In the hymns for Pascha the Byzantine tradition calls us to rejoice in the Resurrection, to dance, to embrace one another, to shine, to radiate the light of the Resurrection that has shone on us. The angels shout, and all creation is turned upside down, reeling with joy in the fact of the Resurrection and reveling in its renewal. This Paschal joy must permeate our lives.

So often we think that if we provide better arguments, if we study apologetics more thoroughly, if we engage in informed intellectual debate, then we can convince people of the truth of Christianity. But, as St. Paul says, we preach Christ crucified and risen, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles. Intellectual arguments are good, but they only go so far. One does not change hearts by offering "proofs" of this or that truth of Christianity. We change hearts by reveling in the folly of the Cross and rejoicing in the impossibility of the Resurrection. We change hearts by becoming fools steeped in God's foolishness, which is wiser than the greatest wisdom of men.

I often ask myself why certain writings from the saints and from a handful of modern authors and theologians really have a lasting impact on the Church. One thing that I find common to all of them is the amount of joy contained in those writings (yes, even within the writings of the great scholastic thinkers like Aquinas and Bonaventure). One need only read a few pages from the writings of folks like Catherine Doherty or Archbishop Joseph Raya or Fr. George Maloney before one is really infected with their joy in the risen Lord. Likewise one need only read a few lines from someone like St. Symeon the New Theologian, St. Ephrem the Syrian, St. Theophan the Recluse, St. Therese of Lisieux, or St. Francis of Assisi before one can almost see the light of their joy radiating off the very pages.

If we are to effectively evangelize the world around us, we must be Christ's light shining in that world. We must radiate the joy of the Resurrection. We must cry out the joy of the Resurrection as the angels in the empty tomb did to the myrrh bearing women. We must triumphantly sing the song of victory with joy and gratitude in our hearts and permeating our words. Only then will we truly begin to change the hearts (and gradually the minds) of those around us.

Christ is risen!
El Maseeh qam

Friday, April 5, 2013

People of the Resurrection

I believe there is a temptation among Christians today to view ourselves as people of the Cross. Christians, whether we like it or not, are among the most persecuted peoples in the world. Although here in the U.S. the persecution is really one more of words and defamation than anything else, in other areas of the world Christians are murdered simply because they are Christian. Whether our reputations are murdered by the media and popular public opinion or our bodies are murdered by those who hate us and do not want to hear the Gospel message of Jesus Christ, one cannot deny that we are a persecuted people. In reaction to this ongoing persecution many Christians (I would venture to say most) have emphasized our participation in the sufferings, the Cross, of Christ. This is done almost to the point that we forget that in reality we are people of the Resurrection. As St. Paul points out to us, without the Resurrection the Cross is meaningless and our faith is in vain.

But what does it mean to be people of the Resurrection? How do we live in the light of the Resurrection and the hope of future glory in the coming Kingdom? This morning, while praying Safro (Maronite Morning Prayer) a couple of beautiful prayers illumined some answers for me. In the opening prayer we prayed:

"O Lord,
Allow us to share the joy of the apostles and holy women
on this glorious morning when they carried the good news.
Today, let their joy be ours, for in spite of two thousand years
this event which we commemorate is always present..."

It is often difficult to remember that Christ's Resurrection, although it is a fixed moment in history, is always present with us. It is an ongoing moment that we enter into through holy Baptism and we participate in through our participation in the life of the Church, Christ's Body. The Resurrection is now. Do we experience the joy of this moment in the same way as the apostles and myrrh-bearing women experienced it? Imagine the joy that Mary Magdalene experience when she realized the man in the garden was Jesus! He is alive! He is risen! Do we experience that same joy? Do we reflect that joy in our lives and attitudes? The first prayer of Safro has this to say:

"O Christ,
may we understand the meaning of your resurrection
so that we may not see in it a purely historical event
or only a foundation of our faith,
but a life which we must realize in ourselves every day,
a hope which we must draw each moment from our faith,
so that our souls may become just by your life,
and our hope may be united to your hope,
and in your kingdom we shall glorify you face to face.
Both here and there we shall praise you with a ceaseless love, forever."

The Resurrection is not simply a historical event; nor is it merely the foundation of our faith. It is both of these and so much more. The Resurrection is a life that we enter into through Baptism and that we must live every day. It is a life filled with joy and hope despite, or perhaps because of, the sufferings and persecutions that we undergo. The Cross is not something to focus on. It is passing. When we enter into the Cross of Christ we also enter into His hope that the Father will raise Him up in glory on the third day after His death. Since we have been raised in glory in Christ, do we rejoice in the Father Who has raised us up with Christ? Do we radiate the joy of Christ, the light that burst forth from the empty tomb? We cannot evangelize the culture around us by beating our chests and saying "Woe is me" because we are made to suffer here and now. We suffer, yes, but the battle is over and Christ is victorious! Why do we hang our heads as though we've been defeated? A priest I once knew used to say, "We know who wins." Indeed we do. We know Who has already won. We ought to rejoice in the victory of Christ and radiate the light of the Victorious One. When we are joyful in Christ, when we radiate the glory of the Resurrection, only then will the darkness in the world around us be dissipated.

Christ is risen!

Shout that out at the top of your lungs and let those words penetrate to the depths of your being. Our God is alive and with us always! What seemed like defeat was turned into victory. So too today. Despite everything, let us continue to live in the reality of the Resurrection, rejoicing in our hope in Christ and in God our loving Father. May heaven consume us! CHRIST IS RISEN!!!