Saturday, September 28, 2013

Making Eye Contact

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone where the other person was obviously not paying attention to a word you said? They look around at every little thing going on around you, except at you. It's as if they go out of their way to avoid making any sort of eye contact with you. One of my biggest pet-peeves is having a conversation with a person who is messing around with their i-phone. I've gotten up and walked away from folks who were "texting" while trying to have a conversation with me. Conversing with such people is exhausting, maddening, frustrating, and pointless. It makes one feel like you don't really matter to the person with whom you are trying to speak.

Or have you ever been in a conversation with a person who simply seems incapable of making eye contact with you. They stare at the floor, at their shoes, at their hands in their laps, anywhere but into your eyes. For me, conversations like that are unsettling. It makes me feel like the person has something to hide, or as if they aren't really interested in opening up to having any sort of personal relationship with me because such a relationship would require them to move outside of their comfort zone.

But then we've all been in those conversations where eye-contact is constant. The intensity of such conversations is almost electrifying. If you're an observer of such a conversation you can feel the intensity coming from the people conversing. If you are the person in such a conversation you may feel as if you're looking into the soul of the other and he is looking into your soul. Such conversations happen between the twitterpated couple on a date, and between good friends simply sharing their thoughts with one another. Such conversations even happen between married couples and friends without a word being spoken. They glance over at each other, make eye contact, and it seems as if they've just communicated an entire world to one another.

When you work in sales you understand the importance of eye-contact. Eye-contact makes your customer/client/prospect feel important. Eye-contact lets your prospect know that you genuinely care about his concerns and his needs. Through this it builds trust. By building trust you lay the foundation for a solid professional relationship. In my own work in sales I've found that when I maintain eye-contact with my customer I generally have a much easier time selling to them, not because I am manipulating them in any way, but because I am demonstrating that I genuinely care for them and that I think my product and my services are exactly the thing that is going to help make their experience with my company a completely satisfactory experience.

While I was working yesterday all of this flooded into my mind at once and I realized that it applies to our prayer life every bit as much as to our day-to-day relationships. We've all experienced distraction at prayer. It is one of the biggest struggles against which we must constantly fight. I realized, however, that those thoughts and distractions during prayer correspond to the friend who is always fidgeting with their i-phone while we're trying to talk to them. Prayer is a two-way conversation. Even if you are reading your prayers from a book, God is communicating to you through the words of the prayer every bit as much as you are communicating to Him through those same words. It is no wonder that the saints all say that when we just prattle off the words without giving them any thought, without being attentive, then we are not truly praying. When we allow ourselves to be distracted at prayer, thinking of the things we have to do today, or the conversations we had with friends the night before, or fretting about unknown futures, or whatever, then we are no different in our relationship with God than that friend who will not let go of texting for 20 minutes to have a real conversation with you.

For others among us, letting go and letting God penetrate to the depths of our being makes us uncomfortable. Maybe you have a heightened sense of your own sinfulness and unworthiness. Perhaps you are ashamed of some past misdeeds. Perhaps you are afraid that if you enter into a deeper relationship with God - if you make "eye-contact" with Him - then He will see you for what you are and reject you. I know I have been affected by this in my own spiritual life every bit as much as by just general distraction. But here's a news flash for all of us. God knows the depths of our beings. He knew us before we were even thought of by our parents. He knows our hearts inner-most desires and longings, even the disordered and sinful passions that have made their home in our hearts. And yet, despite all that God has not rejected us, nor will He. As St. Paul mentions, Christ came while we were yet sinners, and He died for us in order to heal our iniquities. That thought alone should give us ample courage to lift our mind's eye from the ground and make "eye-contact" with God in prayer, allowing Him to enter our hearts and heal us.

St. Theophan the Recluse spoke of prayer as descending with the mind into the heart and standing there unswervingly before God. Perhaps another way we can think of this is making eye-contact with God, and holding that gaze unswervingly. The Jesus Prayer, repeated throughout the day, becomes that quick loving glance to the Other that communicates more than words alone could ever hope to communicate. In order to pray truly we must learn to enter the with our mind into the heart, and there to gaze into the eyes of a God Who loves us beyond our own comprehension. That gaze is intense. That gaze is purifying. That gaze is healing. I'm reminded of all the times in the Gospels where there is mention of Christ looking upon someone. Any time the Gospel mentions "the look" things happen. Lepers and blind men are healed, the dead are raised to life, hearts are converted. We can also think of the power of Christ's gaze over His enemies. When at Nazareth the people sought to throw Him over the cliff, he simply gazed at them and walked through the crowds unharmed. In the Gethsemene, when the court Temple came to arrest Him Jesus gazed at them and they fell to the ground.

In prayer that gaze, that "eye-contact," has the same power. It has the power to raise us to new life and to heal the wounds of our sin. It also has the power to drive the demons out of our hearts and to cut through the passions of this world that we have allowed to penetrate us. But Our Lord will never allow that power to have any effect on us unless we first turn our gaze to His gaze. We must learn to gaze into the eyes of our Lord and Savior. May heaven consume us.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Pray Continually?

One of the most challenging aspects of the spirituality surrounding the Jesus Prayer is its emphasis on following the command of St. Paul to "pray always." Prayer, I'm venturing to guess, in the minds of most people means reading written prayers or saying memorized prayers. It may even mean simply turning to God and saying a prayer that wells up from your heart. This, of course, is one aspect of prayer, but it is not prayer at its core. All the great mystics have pointed out that prayer is more an attitude or disposition than the recitation of formulas. No matter the tradition, Eastern or Western, whether you're reading the writings contained in the Philokalia, or the writings of the great Syrian mystics; whether you're reading the writings of Sts. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross or the wisdom of Russian masters like Sts. Theophan the Recluse and Ignatius Brianchaninov, it doesn't matter. They all emphasize that prayer is much more than a mere repetition of written or memorized formulas. Prayer is beyond words.

However, perhaps we still fall into the trap of reducing prayer to words, to a repetition of written or memorized formulas, or spouting out a quick prayer that wells up from within. I know that I personally fall into this trap all the time. I sit in my little corner in the morning and pray my morning prayers out of my little book. Perhaps I sit in "silence" for a little while trying to glean what bits insight I can from the prayers I just read (in reality my mind is racing over the things I need to get done today). Even on my way to work I may pray the Jesus Prayer, but my mind is full of other thoughts and my heart is grasping at the lures of the world which present themselves to me day-in and day-out. I may know in my head what prayer is, I may have an academic understanding of it and be able to define it, but so often my day-to-day prayer life is simply routine. If I miss a day of my routine then my entire day is thrown off.

Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with routine even in one's prayer life. If you are in a stage in your prayer life where all you can do is go through the motions, then it is better to go through the motions with hope that this time will pass than to give up on prayer all together. Sometimes we have to "fake it 'till we make it." But as we go through the motions we have to still be striving for authentic prayer.

I believe I have mentioned in previous posts that authentic prayer is a Presence. Authentic prayer is a humble awareness of God's Presence with us. Authentic prayer also requires that we be present to God.  Sometimes while I'm at work my fellow employees and I may become preoccupied with whatever tasks we are attempting to complete. We become so focused on our tasks that we are not even aware of each other. We have blinders on, and all we see is the task in front of us. From time to time throughout the day, in order to break up the monotony, I will reach out to the employee next to me and "fist bump" him, or "high-five" my manager, or simply smile at one of my other coworkers. No words are spoken. But such actions demonstrate to my fellow employees that I'm aware of them, I appreciate them. I believe it reminds all of us that we are all in this together. But most importantly for our purposes, it is a form of being present to them.

The same holds true in our prayer life, and particularly in our striving to pray without ceasing. If prayer truly means to be humbly aware of God's Presence, and to be present to Him, then words are not necessary. All we need to do is to turn to God in our mind and heart and acknowledge Him. In dealing with these same questions, Fr. George Maloney, S.J. makes the following comments in his wonderful book Prayer of the Heart: The Contemplative Tradition of the Christian East:

"The majority of the desert fathers saw prayer, not in terms of the strong intellectual accent that Evagrius gave to the subject, but rather in terms of the praxis or ascetical life along with the inner "pushing" of one's consciousness always more toward God as the goal of all one's actions or thoughts..."

Fr. Maloney goes on to describe prayer as "straining toward God" and to say that while the early monks went about their daily labors, the invented short prayers that they would then repeat in order to push the mind toward God. This was the roots of the Jesus Prayer. The short prayers themselves were never meant as an end in themselves. Rather, they were always intended to bring the mind and heart into the Presence of God. These short prayers, and the Jesus Prayer in particular, are meant to break us out of our focus on our day-to-day tasks and to remind us of God's Presence to us and the necessity of our presence to Him. Fr. Maloney goes on to say:

"This is the beginning of the Jesus Prayer that centers around a phrase, including the name of Jesus, repeated as often as the person can do so, accompanied by an interior desire to be in the presence of the Lord and Savior. The prayer element consists in the longing and the stretching out spiritually toward the Lord." (Emphasis Mine).

Prayer consists of longing for and stretching out to the Lord. St. Augustine famously said, "My heart searches restlessly, and it finds no rest until it rests in you." Our hearts long for a Presence. Too often we seek to fill that longing with anything but the Presence for which our hearts desire. The point of written prayers, even the Jesus Prayer, is to remind us that our real longing is for the Presence of God. That Presence, the hesychast Fathers teach us, can be found within us if we have the courage to look for it.

For me I know that my own prayer becomes rout oftentimes because I fear allowing Christ to shed His light into my heart. I am ashamed at what He will find there. But most of all I am ashamed at what I will see there. And so I go through my prayers and I do all the talking. I ignore God's Presence while I pray. It's as though I say to the Lord, "What I have to say to you now is more important than what you have to say to me. So please be quiet, sit back, and listen. And if there's time after I'm done talking, then maybe I'll let you do some talking." But this morning, as I was going through my prayer routine, I realized that I have lost sight of my faith in the power of Christ's light to transform and transfigure. Most importantly I have lost sight of the power of God's Word to heal the wounds of my sins and to transform my heart of stone into a heart of flesh. But Christ can only heal if we allow Him. The Word of God will only exercise His Power over us if we allow Him to be present to us, and if we are present to Him. The power of the Holy Spirit that the Father bestows through Christ Jesus will only come upon us if we invite Him and open ourselves to Him. So much for such a little effort! And yet how often are we hesitant to make such an effort? The "longing and the stretching out spiritually towards the Lord" simply means attentiveness to His Presence, and attentive and humble listening to His Word wherever we encounter it/Him.

In the Cherubic Hymn of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom we sing, "Let us lay aside all earthly cares that we may welcome the King of all." The first step to continual prayer is the laying aside of whatever care we have before us at the moment and welcoming the Presence of God the Trinity within us. Over time the more we break up our day with these moments of welcoming the Trinity, the more we become aware of and attentive to God's Presence until eventually we have a continual attentiveness to this Presence. It is then that the gift of continual prayer has been given to us. But we must do our part and strive, longing and stretching out towards that Presence. May Heaven consume us!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Holy Vocation or Vocation to Holiness?

Whether you're Catholic or Orthodox no doubt you have heard over and over again that we have a vocations crisis on our hands. Parents are told that they need to encourage their children to become priests, monks, or nuns. We parents need to be open to the fact that God may call our children to the religious life. This is all well and good. Of course we do need more vocations to the religious life, and such vocations ought to be encouraged.

Here is something that's been weighing on my mind this past week. So often we hear talk of how we need young men and women to enter the religious life, to embrace a "holy vocation." But often the encouragement towards the religious life is presented in such a way as to diminish the holiness of a vocation to the married life (yes, marriage too is a vocation); as if marriage is, somehow, a lesser vocation. But we need holy men and women to become holy husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, every bit as much as we need holy men and women in the priesthood and religious life.

All vocations start at home. A young person may have a calling to the religious life, but if they are not taught how to listen for that calling within the home, then the call will fall on deaf ears. The Church has been repeating to us over and over again for decades now that all religious formation begins at home. The home is the "domestic Church" where children first learn to pray, to live holy lives, where the consciences are first formed and where they first learn the teachings of the Church. The home is where a child first encounters Christ. As Christian parents we are our children's first contact with Christ. Do we model the love of Christ for our children? Do we pour ourselves out for our spouse and our family in the same way that Christ emptied Himself for us? Have we created a home for our children that would foster holy vocations to either the religious life or to marriage?

The vocation to marriage is the most fundamental to all other vocations in the sense that it is only through marriage that future generations of Christians are brought into the world. But we, as married couples and heads of our families, have a vocation to live holy lives, to model holiness for our children. We must be able to listen to and hear the voice of God so that we can teach our children to do so as well, whether it be through example, direct teaching, or both. It is only through fully living our vocation to marriage that our children will learn how to fully live out their vocations, whether to marriage or the religious life, in a holy way.

In the end we all have the same vocation. We all have a vocation to holiness. To be the light of Christ shining in a world that seems to be ever more darkened by the darkness of sin. But, if we fully live out our vocation to holiness, whether that holiness is lived out in the married life or the religious life, then our children will learn to go out and be a light unto the world. Only when holy men and women fully embrace their vocation to holiness within the married life will we have a greater increase in vocations to the religious life. Think of it this way; all the great saints had at least one parent who modeled holiness for them. Sts. Augustine, Francis of Assisi, and Seraphim of Sarov all had their mothers as models of holiness for them. These three men became some of the most influential saints in their regions and throughout the world. But for them it all started at home. St. Therese of Lisieux and her sisters also learned to live holy lives through both their mother and their father. It is no coincidence that the majority of the Martin (St. Therese's family name) sisters entered the religious life and went on to reach the heights of holiness. Because of her holy parents - who are now "blesseds" in the Roman Church - nearly an entire family has been elevated or is in the process of being elevated to sainthood.

So I suppose my bit of encouragement for all of us this week is to strive for holiness in whatever vocation you find yourself. Fully embrace and live your vocation. As St. Seraphim is so famous for saying, "Acquire the Spirit of peace, and thousands around you will be saved." We could paraphrase that to say, "Fully live your vocation to holiness - whether in the religious or married life - and thousands around you will be saved." May Heaven consume us.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

His Tender Arms

Have you ever felt as if God has abandoned you? Have you ever looked around the world in fear, feeling as though God was not carrying you in His arms to safety? Have you ever felt as if God has just completely withdrawn from you and left you to the attacks of the world, the flesh and the devil? If so, you're in good company. I believe all Christians who are actively seeking a deeper relationship with God have gone through this at some point. In fact, all of the great mystics - East and West - have stated that such abandonment is a stage in the spiritual life. Our spiritual life begins with great consolations - the "honeymoon phase" I call it - but we eventually get to the point where any and all consolation ceases and we must just press on in hope.

What I've come to realize is that these aren't stages that we progress through, so much as they are intermittent phases. God gives us consolation as we need it and desolation when it will do us some good. Sts. Ignatios and Kallistos Xanthopoulos mention this in their wonderful writings on the spiritual life contained in the Philokalia. But what I'd like to discuss here is an image that they presented that has given me a great deal of comfort and that I will certainly continue to meditate upon as I attempt to progress in the spiritual life.

First, they mention that God never fully withdraws His grace and presence from us, unless we ourselves have first withdrawn from God. Only when we have withdrawn from God does He allow us to go our own way - like the father of the prodigal son allowing his son to abandon him and make his own mistakes, all the while hoping he will come to his senses and return home. No, under normal circumstance God withdraws from us in order to keep us from becoming puffed up, full of ourselves wrongfully proud of the progress that we have made in the spiritual life (as though any progress is a result of our efforts alone). God withdraws from us in order that we might more clearly see just how much we depend on Him.

This is the way they put it. God is like a mother nursing her child. The child becomes fidgety and wants to be put down. It thinks that it will be fine on its own and does not need its mother to protect it. So the mother, in order to teach the child just how much it relies on her, puts the child down. When the child is confronted by the faces of strangers and roaming animals, it perceives the danger that exists beyond its mother's loving arms and comes running back to her, and crying and screaming and reaching up to her until she picks it up.

What a powerful image! God's attentiveness to us and His tenderness towards us is like that of a mother towards her baby. How many mothers can let their child cry for very long before picking up her little baby and comforting it? If our earthly mothers scoop us up so quickly, how much more quickly will our heavenly Father, who's tenderness is beyond that of any earthly mother, come to our aid when we cry out to Him.

We all experience abandonment, desolation, "spiritual aridity," spiritual dryness, etc. Whatever name we may label it with, remember, we have a loving Father. He has only set us down for a short time so that we might come running back to Him with a renewed realization of how much we depend on Him for any progress in the spiritual life. This may only happen once during our lifetime, or it may happen multiple times. It may be of shorter or longer duration, depending on what we need to grow. I know for me it is an almost regular occurrence. I guess I just get puffed up too quickly. I've experienced dryness that has lasted years, and I've experienced dryness that has lasted only a few days. The point isn't the dryness. The point is that we realize just how much we need our loving Father, and we come back to Him begging for His mercy and grace.

In this context, the Jesus Prayer is a wonderful remedy. When we really focus on the words of the prayer and take them to heart, when we descend with our mind into our heart with this Prayer, we realize just how much we are in need of God's mercy. We are constantly admitting to it and asking for it. But we must pray the Prayer in humility and with attention. Otherwise it, like any other prayer, can serve to puff us up, to inflate our self-image and make us think (at least subconsciously) that we do not need God's grace and mercy, His tender embrace. So meditate on the Prayer, think it over, take it to heart. We will still experience those times of abandonment, but when we do we will know that it's for our own good and we will come running back to God with this Prayer, and we will find ourselves again in His tender arms. May heaven consume us.