Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"Hail Mary" of Syriac Christians

Many Eastern Christians reject the "Hail Mary" as a Western prayer. By now I've come to realize that each Church has its own version of the "Hail Mary." The Byzantine version runs:

"Rejoice, Virgin Theotokos, Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, for you have borne the Savior of our sous."

The version used while praying the mequtaria is quite long. I'm not so sure it could be called a "version" of the "Hail Mary," but it certainly bears some striking similarities to the other versions of the "Hail Mary" I've come across.

This morning, while I was searching to find out what "Sootoro" is in the Maronite/Syrian tradition, I came across the following version of the "Hail Mary" used among the Syriac Churches:

"Hail Mary, full of grace, Our Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, our Lord, Jesus Christ. O Virgin Saint Mary, O Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at all times, and at the hour of our death. Amen. 

I believe I'm going to use this as the foundation of a Maronite/Syrian rosary, time permitting. May heaven consume us.

(P.S. Incidentally "Sootoro" is Compline or "Night Prayer" in the Syrian/Syriac tradition and is prayed immediately before retiring to bed.)

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Knowledge or Entertainment?

Recently I was browsing through a work by St. Theophan the Recluse. In a letter he wrote to one of his correspondences he mentions how it is perfectly acceptable for the spiritual person to read non-spiritual books and literature, so long as they are not harmful to our faith and so long as they present truth and not lies. He mentions that the spiritual person can even find a great deal of spiritual insight from non-spiritual literature.

Bearing this in mind, I have recently been reading a lot of books on sales. Working as I do in the sales profession I figured it's best that I hone my skills in order to provide a better service to my clients and a better living for my family. Sales is both a science and an art. As such, good salesmanship can be learned. But I digress.

In the book that I am currently working my way through on the subject I stumbled across a great gem of insight. The book is The Accidental Salesperson by Chris Lytle. On page 120, in the midst of talking about the importance of pre-meeting planning and getting one's prospects involved, he throws out this great comment: "Education without action is entertainment. To know and not to do is not to know."

This got me to thinking, how much of our spiritual reading is done merely for entertainment. All the saints are unanimous that if we are going to do spiritual reading (which we ought to be doing), then we need to put what we read into practice. This does not mean that we do every little thing that we read. We have to use discernment and apply what the saints are talking about to our lives and our unique circumstances as non-monastics living in the world - or even as monastics living in monasteries. But we do have to act upon what we read, otherwise we will never come to know God through the deeper knowledge of experience and experiential relationship with Him. If we do not act upon what we read and discern what is best to apply in our lives, then our reading is nothing more than entertainment. God is not a necessity in our lives, but merely one more form of entertainment competing with other (potentially better) forms of entertainment.

The spiritual life, however, is not entertainment. Of course, it can be fun at times. I will be the first to admit that spirituality can be fun. And there should certainly be an element of fun and playfulness in our spiritual lives. Archbishop Joseph Raya is very adamant about this, as are other great spiritual masters. But there is also a great deal of struggle, suffering, pain, and hardship in the spiritual life. If we only approach the spiritual life and our relationship with God as a form of entertainment, then why would we persevere when the going gets tough?

The saints wrote what they did in order to give us a roadmap in the spiritual life, especially for when the going gets tough. Their writings give us the focus we need to keep our eye on the prize at the end of the journey and to encourage us along the way. They have made the journey and were kind enough to leave us a roadmap. In gratitude, let's put that map to use instead of just looking at it as an intriguing piece of archaic literature and an insight into ancient monastic culture. Practice what they preach! They sure did, and now they are reaping the eternal rewards. May heaven consume us.

Friday, July 19, 2013

A Prayer Before Reading the Scriptures

So it's after 2:00 AM and I can't sleep for some reason. That means I'm up and looking at liturgical texts online. About a week ago I stumbled across the liturgical texts for the "Rite of the Divine Mysteries" of the Church of the East (Chaldeans and Assyrians). The texts are those used by Chaldean and Assyrian Catholics here in the U.S. and other English-speaking countries. Curiosity made me bookmark the texts so that I could peruse them at a later date. While going through them tonight I found the following prayer that is perfect for beginning one's Bible study or Lectio Divina. In the Liturgy it is prayed by the priest before the Epistle is read. I believe the priest prays it out loud (I can't say for sure since I've never been to a Chaldean or Assyrian Divine Liturgy).

Enlighten our mental faculties, our Lord and our God, that we may understand and savor the sweet sound of your life-giving and divine commands. Grant, in your grace and your mercies, that we may reap benefit from them: love, hope and the salvation that befits both body and soul. Thus will we unceasingly sing a perpetual praise to you at all times O Lord of all, Father, Son and Holy Spirit forever.

And for good measure, here is the prayer prayed before the announcing of the Gospel in the Byzantine tradition. This translation is from the Melkite text that was revised a couple of years ago.

Shine in our hearts, Master who love mankind, the pure light of Your divine knowledge and open the eyes of our mind that we may understand the announcing of Your Good News; set in us the fear of Your blessed commandments, so that, trampling all carnal desires, we may live according to the Spirit, both willing and doing everything that pleases You. For You are the light of our souls and bodies, O Christ God, and we render glory to You, and to Your Eternal Father and to Your All-Holy, Good and Life-­Giving Spirit, now and always and forever and ever. Amen. 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Arena: Ignatius Brianchaninov's Councils on Prayer Part 6: Practice Makes Perfect

So often when speaking of the Jesus Prayer or unceasing prayer we have a tendency to focus on one of two topics: 1) the Jesus Prayer itself, its theological richness, its history, its spirituality, etc; 2) the question of prayer, what it is, how we ought to pray, etc. In reading St. Ignatius Brianchaninov's Arena this morning I realized that we ignore a very key aspect in praying the Jesus Prayer. PRACTICE!

Anyone who wants to be good at something knows that they have to practice. We've all heard that worn out adage, "practice makes perfect." Heck, I'm sure most of us have used that on numerous occasions. In the world of music, if someone wants to learn an instrument for the first time, or pick up a second instrument, one of the first things a professional musician will tell them is to practice for at least a half an hour every day (ideally at least an hour). Salespeople are encouraged to practice their sales scripts and pitches. Athletes practice their particular sports for hours and hours. Even soldiers in the military "practice" for combat through drills. What makes us think the spiritual life would be any different? When entering into the arena of spiritual combat, what makes us think we can come out victorious over our enemy if we haven't first prepared by practicing the Jesus Prayer or any other form of prayer?

The goal of all prayer, according to St. Ignatius and countless other great spiritual masters, is unceasing prayer, unceasing communion with God the Trinity, unceasing remembrance of God. St. Ignatius makes a very interesting point:

"In order to become eventually capable of unceasing prayer he (the novice or beginner at prayer) must practice frequent prayer."

"Frequent prayer!" The word is self-explanatory and really needs no definition. Frequent prayer means turning to God whenever we have the chance. We can use the Jesus Prayer or any other short prayer that draws us into God's presence. St. Ignatius says:

"Do you happen to have a free moment? Do not waste it in idleness!... Use it for the practice of the Jesus Prayer."

I remember listening to Metropolitan Kallistos Ware talk on the Jesus Prayer. He mentions some very practical moments in which we can turn to God with the Jesus Prayer. Any time we are standing in line waiting our turn at something we have a free moment to practice the Jesus Prayer. While we wait for the bus at a bus stop. While we're driving in traffic. While we're walking from one place to another. Any time we are engaged in any sort of activity that doesn't require our complete focus we can engage the Jesus Prayer. Practice!

It is this practice of frequent prayer that leads to the habit of prayer. As I mentioned in a previous post, the more we do something the more it becomes a part of who we are. The more we practice frequent prayer the deeper it enters into the core of our being and changes our hearts. In time and by God's gift of grace eventually unceasing prayer will be granted to us. We just have to persevere in hope. We just have to practice!

In our practice, however, we must remember not to become despondent no matter how many mistakes we might make. We will get distracted. We will lose focus. There will be days, months, or even years where it will just feel like our heart isn't in it. Don't let that discourage you. Don't let that lead you to abandon your practice. Stay the course and be strong. Confess your fallenness to God. Beg is forgiveness, mercy, compassion, and help. He's already sent His Son to die for us, so giving us a little help in prayer is an easy thing!

Not to belabor examples from the world of music, but musicians often go through similar struggles as those seeking to deepen the prayer life and spiritual life. Musicians are told to practice the fundamentals. Even professional musicians who have been playing their instruments for decades will always come back and practice scales, various basic finger techniques, proper breathing, etc., etc., etc. When we first get started playing music we don't want to practice this stuff. We want to play music, not scales and techniques. But by practicing these scales and techniques it becomes easier for us to actually play the music and learn new music. I knew a young fiddle player who, for a number of years, could only play a handful of tunes. He focused on those tunes so that he could develop his style and technique. He practiced and practiced these tunes for years, only learning a couple of new tunes each year. Eventually, however, he had solidified his unique style, and then learning tunes was nothing for him. He went from knowing only a handful to knowing a wealth of music; and he is now one of the finest Irish fiddle players you will ever hear (no, it's not me).

The same applies to our prayer life. Sure the Jesus Prayer is simple, it is short, we may get bored of it after some time because, on the surface, it doesn't seem to have the theological richness of some lengthier prayers. But if we stick with it and practice this fundamental prayer, then unceasing prayer will eventually be granted. Once it is we will be able to pray any prayer and be drawn immediately into the heart of that prayer, and that prayer will be immediately in our hearts. God will be with us as He always is, but we will be constantly with Him as well. May heaven consume us.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Kallistos Ware - Saint Gregory Palamas

One last lecture from the good Metropolitan. :)

Kallistos Ware - How should we study Theology?

More gold from Metropolitan Kallistos.

A Conversation on the Philokalia with Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware)

A friend of mine up in Michigan shared this video interview on Facebook. Having watched the whole thing this morning I felt I had to share it here on "The Master Beadsman." Of course, anything written or spoken by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) is worth listening to. Given, however, that he has been so heavily involved in the translation of the Philokalia into the English language, his words on the genesis, translation, publication, history, etc. of the Philokalia are all the more pertinent.

Towards the end of the interview he mentions a very fascinating story. Supposedly St. Paissy Velichkovsky was not a supporter of publishing the Philokalia and making it available to the general public. He believed that it should be kept in folio form and only read by monks or nuns who had a spiritual elder to guide them through the writings. St. Nichodimus of the Holy Mountain, however, and somewhat later St. Theophan the Recluse, disagreed. They believed that such an important work should be published and that we should trust in the Holy Spirit to guide the folks who read it. Metropolitan Kallistos, agree with them, even goes so far as to say that the Holy Spirit guides certain people to read the Philokalia, but not everyone is guided to do so. Our reading of the Philokalia should be supplemented by reading the writings of other spiritual masters that are easier to understand. We should also hope and pray that the Holy Spirit send some elder or other spiritual person our way that may, perhaps, give us a deeper insight into the meaning of the texts. As always, we should read slowly, carefully, and with great humility. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Focus on God's Love!

The more I pray the Maronite Liturgy of the Hours, the more I am drawn in by it's beauty and theological richness. At least in its English translation, the language is very simple and direct. Although it is poetic in its own way, it does not engage poetry to quite the extent that the Byzantine tradition does. Rather it is very simple in its poetry, maintaining what, to me, is a nice balance between the dignified prose of the Roman tradition and the poetic richness of the Byzantine tradition.

But what draws me in to this the most is its emphasis on the Light of Christ, the mercy of God, the steadfast love of the Trinity, while at the same time reminding us that we are sinners in need of that mercy, love and light. Whereas in other traditions it seems to me that the emphasis is on our sinfulness, the Maronites seem to focus on God's mercy and His plan of salvation. Certainly we are to acknowledge our sins and failings, but not to the point that we lose sight of God's love. To lose sight of God's love is not moving from darkness to light, but from darkness to deeper darkness. I forget where I read it, but I recall reading in some spiritual work that to overly focus on our sinfulness is not humility, but is actually a form of pride. Are we sinners? Sure. We have to acknowledge that. But we must acknowledge all the more that our God is a God of love and mercy. Not the kind of love that is wishy-washy - a mere "warm fuzzy" feeling; nor the kind of mercy that is indulgent. God's love is a love that seeks what is best for us. His mercy is a mercy that recognizes the reality of who we are. God is patient for us to become who and what He created us to be, and so His love for us remains steadfast even when our love for Him falters and our commitment to Him wavers.

In Safro/Morning Prayer this morning we prayed that our minds may always focus on God's love for us, not on our own sinfulness.

" You are the Light that is never extinguished, the Day that never ends, the Morning that has no night.
Lord, may the eyes of our hearts be illumined by your light,
and the rising of your day be  the source of all good.
May our minds be focused on your love.
In your kindness you free us from the darkness of night and
draw us to the light of day;
by the power of your word disperse the evils that come to us.
Thus through your wisdom we will conquer the snares of the
evil one who dons the garb of an angel of light.
Guard us from works of darkness, and keep our gaze fixed on
your resplendent light."
(emphasis mine)

When we focus on the love of God and His steadfast mercy towards us, the snares of the enemy cannot trap us. If, however, we become so self-invovled that we focus primarily on our own sinfulness and the darkness within us, as well as the darkness throughout the rest of the world, then how can we help but fall into the traps of the evil one?

But what is this love and mercy that God has shown and continues to show to us? We pray over it every day. We talk about it almost constantly. But do we ever stop to think about it? Do we ever allow the reality of God's love and mercy sink in? Here is what the Sedro of Safro/Morning prayer has to say:

Christ Jesus, our Lord, God and Savior,
you are long-suffering, full of grace and truth.
You created us from nothing and gave us life.
After the fall you redeemed us and made us your children by
holy baptism.
Now we implore your merciful goodness, as we remember all
you have done for us:

your birth, baptism, crucifixion, death and burial;
your resurrection, ascension, reign at the right hand
of the Father;
your return in judgment when you will come in
glory, on behalf of the Father, to judge the living
and the dead.

We beg you to accept from us, poor and sinful servants, these
prayers and supplications.
Hear the call of our weakness and the plea of our repentance.
Lord, do not turn your face from us in anger;
do not let your justice threaten us.
Remember not the faults and shameful sins we have committed;
do not find us guilty at the moment of judgment
and do not cast us, who have acknowledged you, into the darkness
with those who have not known you.
Grant rather, that purified by our tears of penitence,
we may escape the moaning and gnashing of teeth,
and meet you with confidence at your Second Coming.
(emphasis mine)

We implore God's mercy "as we remember all" He has done for us. Bear in mind that when the Church uses the language of "memory" She uses it in the more ancient sense of making that which is remembered present to those who are remembering. When we remember all that God has done for us, we make present for us the saving reality of God's actions in history, especially as the culminate in the Person of Jesus, Who was born, baptized, crucified, buried, is risen and ascended and enthroned at the right hand of the Father. We remember Jesus, Who will come on behalf of the Father to judge the living and the dead. This is what God - the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit - has done for us. The Second Person of the Trinity became one of us "in all things but sin," died for us in order to conquer the reign of death and darkness, and rose for us that we might rise to glory. He did all of this for us! God does not need us to glorify Him. God does not need us for anything. But in His love for us He wants to give us everything, and He has sacrificed everything - His only Son - in order that we might have everything - the very life of the Trinity!

That is why we can pray that God not look upon our faults and failings; that He withhold His justice and instead show us His mercy and compassion. That is why we can ask Him not to find us guilty at the moment of judgment. We are all guilty of sin, and even the smallest sin deserves eternal punishment (think about that one for a moment). But God was and is willing to do everything to be with us and to have us with Him. All we have to do is keep our minds focused on His love and our gaze fixed upon His light. When we do this, all our sins, faults and bad habits will melt away. Then we can truly stand with confidence before Christ at His Second Coming. We are confident not because we have overcome our sinful nature. No! We are confident in the love God has for us and the mercy He has shown us.

Remember, however, there is a difference between confidence and presumption. Presumption assumes that God will give us the reward even if we have done nothing on our part to merit it. Confidence is to stand in the presence of God knowing that, despite the fact that you have fallen many times, you have persevered in the struggle. You have worked out your salvation in fear and trembling, trusting in the saving power of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, not in your own ability to save yourself. Confidence is knowing that you have worked in synergy with God's plan of salvation. What we do, ultimately, is nothing compared to what God has done for us. We are the baby who takes one step towards its parent and then tumbles. God is the Father Who sees His child taking that one step, and then runs across the room to scoop them up with pride and shed tears of joy over a single step. We have a loving Father. May His love consume us!