Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Hail Mary and the Jesus Prayer: Part 2

In my previous post I began a series on the theological parallels between the Western Hail Mary and the Eastern Jesus Prayer. As I was waking up this morning it struck me that I ought to kick off this exploration by beginning with the central theme of both prayers: the Name and Person of Jesus Christ. At even the most cursory glance it is blatantly obvious that the Jesus Prayer is about invoking the Name and Person of Jesus. But isn't the Hail Mary about invoking the person of Mary, the Mother of God? Isn't the Hail Mary all about beseeching her intercession? The easy answer? Yes and no.

The Hail Mary is certainly about invoking the intercession of the Blessed Mother/Theotokos, but there is a much deeper aspect to this that can be found in the very construct of the prayer itself. The prayer can be divided into two parts: the first I will call "the glories," and the second I will call "the petition:"

1) Glories - Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you! Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb...

2) Petition - Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.

Uniting these two parts is the Name of Jesus. Although I left it out in the quote above for the sake of highlighting this point, the Name of Jesus comes immediately after the phrase "fruit of your womb..." and acts as the link between the the "Glories" and the "Petition." In fact, built into the second part is an implicit reference directly back to the Name and Person of Jesus that appears in the first part. In the "Petition" we refer to Mary as "Mother of God" or "Theotokos." Mary is the Mother of God because she bore Jesus - the Second Person of the Trinity - in her womb, gave birth to Him, raised Him, in short she fully participated in the Divine plan of salvation. By calling her "Mother of God" or "Theotokos" we are submerged directly in the mystery of the Incarnation of Jesus in her womb, and so we are submerged in the mystery of the very Person of Jesus.

Even though the Name of Jesus is not always directly invoked in the most common Byzantine versions of this prayer, it can be assumed or implied because in those versions we still refer to Mary as "Mother of God" or "Theotokos." The person of Jesus is also implied at the end of these versions when we refer to the fruit of Mary's womb as "Savior of our souls." Again, through this phrase we are calling to mind the Divine plan of salvation, Mary's participation in that plan, and the very Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity. "Savior," being one of the titles given to Jesus, can also be considered an implicit invocation of the Holy Name.

For an even broader perspective it is worth pointing out that the Churches of the Syriac tradition have a version of the Hail Mary that is virtually identical to the Western version. There are a few slight differences, but it's practically the same. You can view a version of it here. Again, the central theme is the Name, Person and action of Jesus. Mary simply participates in the saving actions of her Divine Son.

So is the Hail Mary focused on invoking the intercession of the Theotokos? Sure it is! But we only invoke her intercession because of her participation in the saving actions of Jesus. Hence, we call upon the Name of Jesus while at the same time praying for Mary's intercession. Mary points us to her Son as we see in nearly every one of her icons. Therefore, any prayer to her is still a prayer centered on the person of Jesus Christ. Without Him we have no reason to pray to her. May heaven consume us.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Hail Mary and the Jesus Prayer: Part 1

A thought occurred to me recently. As part of my daily routine, I've begun praying a 5-decade Rosary followed by 100 repetitions of the Jesus Prayer while on my lunch break. I do this while I take a half-hour walk on the grounds of my workplace. This is in part for the physical exercise, and in part in imitation of the nuns of the Divyevo convent, who walk around their monastery walls praying the Rule of the Theotokos given to them by St. Seraphim of Sarov.

In other posts I've attempted to demonstrate the similarities between the Jesus Prayer and the Rosary in terms of their liturgical connections, particularly their connection to the Divine Office. This past week, however, it occurred to me that there is a deeper theological connection between these two forms of prayer.

The first connection that occurred to me is the element of meditation. By "meditation" here I do not mean that common misunderstanding of meditation as an exercise of the imagination. I've heard many Eastern/Byzantine Catholic and Orthodox Christians all but condemn the Rosary because of the supposed method of meditation that it encourages. By this they refer to that method of imaginative meditation that is presented in St. Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises. This form of meditation would have one imagine oneself in a particular Biblical scene - usually a scene from the life of Christ - and imagine what one would see and hear, how one would feel, how one would react, etc. to a particular event or saying. This, however, is not necessarily the form of meditation that the Rosary encourages - nor is it completely condemned by the Eastern Fathers (it is seen as very much a beginner's form of meditation, and potentially dangerous if taken to extreme or confused for the heights of spirituality).

The form of meditation encouraged by both the Rosary and the Jesus Prayer is a basic pondering in the heart over the mysteries of salvation; a mulling or internal "chewing" on those mysteries until they become rooted in the depths of our person and become a part of who we are. In essence, this mulling or pondering over the mysteries of salvation take root in the heart, and then guide everything we think, say and do. One need simply take a quick glance through the writings of St. Theophan the Recluse or the Philokalia to see that this practice of calling to mind and mulling over the mysteries of our salvation is a practiced strongly encouraged by the great mystics of the Christian East.

I also realized that there is a strong theological connection between the Jesus Prayer itself and the Hail Mary. This is a connection that I would like to explore in more detail in my next post because I believe that a detailed exploration may get somewhat lengthy. At this point all I will say is that both prayers beautifully summarize in their own ways the core beliefs of the "catholic Faith of the orthodox Church" ("catholic" and "orthodox" have been deliberately written that way in order to emphasize the Faith, and not one particular Church over another). May Heaven consume us!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Images, Images, and more Images

Christ is risen!

Recently, as I've been meditating on the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, a thought has occurred to me. I have spent the past couple of weekends watching videos on the Shroud of Turin. This amazing artifact is, potentially, a physical witness not only to the death of Christ, but also to the moment of His Resurrection. I say "potentially" because the scientific studies conducted on the Shroud are not completely conclusive. I personally believe that the evidence supports the belief that the Shroud is actually Jesus' burial cloth. I encourage you to check out some videos about it. The entire subject is very fascinating.

As I've been studying the subject of the Shroud and meditating on the image the Shroud contains, I came to a realization. In the Christian East there is a strong understanding that mankind was made in God's image and likeness, keeping in mind that there is a distinction between "image" and "likeness." After the fall mankind lost its likeness to God, and the image of God in man was distorted. Now, it is understood that being made in the image of God means that man was fashioned after the pattern of the Logos/Word of God, Jesus. We were originally created as a reflection of Christ. Think of it this way. We often apply the saying of St. John the Baptist, "He must increase and I must decrease," to our spiritual lives. Christ Jesus must increase in us, and our fallen sinful nature must decrease, because only when Christ lives in us are we truly living as we were created to be. In the beginning, mankind was called to be transparent to Christ, to show forth the glory of God in creation simply by living after the manner and pattern in which they were created. As Christ the Logos is pure "yes" to the Father, mankind too was called to be a pure "yes" to the Father after the pattern of Christ. But at the fall man said "no," and so we lost our likeness to God and distorted the image of the Logos within us.

Jesus came to restore our likeness to God and renew the image of God in us. How does He go about doing this? By assuming our own humanity, taking it upon himself even in its fallen state. Jesus became like us in all things but sin, as the Scriptures say. This means that, while He did not sin, He did take on our fallen nature. St. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:21 that Christ became sin, not in the sense that He sinned Himself, but in the sense that He assumed what is ours so that He might redeem it and elevate it. There is a beautiful prayer in the Maronite tradition:

"You have united, O Lord, your divinity with our humanity, and our humanity with your divinity; your life with our mortality, and our mortality with your life. You have assumed what is ours, and you have given us what is yours for the life and salvation of our souls."

What am I trying to get at here? Well, as I meditated on the image of the Shroud I came to realize that through His passion and death Christ became the physical image of our fallen spiritual condition. If you want a sense of what it means that the image of God is distorted in us by sin, then look no further than Christ's passion! If you want a sense of what the tyranny of sin looks like, then look at how the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Roman soldiers treated Jesus during His passion. If you want to have a sense of what the oppression of sin looks like, then look at how Jesus was beaten to a pulp and then forced to carry a cross beam that weighed nearly 200 pounds.

I believe that we have become so accustomed to hearing about the crucifixion of Jesus that it has, in a very real sense, lost its "shock value," so to speak. Similarly we have become so accustomed to hearing about sin that we are missing the horrifying reality of sin in our own lives. When we forget the horrifying reality of sin in our lives, and when the Cross no longer shakes us to our very core, then we cannot possibly hope to grasp and experience the immense love of God for us, and the great hope that is the glory of the Resurrection! Without grasping the love of God for us, and without the hope of the Resurrection, we very easily forget our dignity as men and women created in God's own image and likeness. Without the hope of the Resurrection, we cannot be fully alive so as to show forth the glory of God once more to all creation. This is why Holy Week and the Paschal Season are so central to the life of the Church! May the hope of the risen Christ be with us all.

Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Lack of Spiritual Guides?

In reading the writings of the great mystics, both those of the East and those of the West, it is not uncommon to find the saints morning the lack of experienced spiritual elders and guides in their times. The temptation is to believe that since such guides were lacking in the days of the saints - the supposed "golden age" of the Church (whatever age we define that as being) - then they must be absolutely non-existent in our own day and age, marked as it is by such rampant sinfulness. There are a number of problems with this viewpoint that ought to be addressed.

The first issue is the presumption that there is a "golden age" of the Church at some point in the past, and that everything in the Church since then has been in a state of decay and corruption. An honest look at Church history quickly disproves this presumption. There were sinners in the Church in the past, just as there are sinners (of whom I am the first) in the Church today. There were saints in the Church in the past, just as there are saints in the Church today. This notion of a "golden age" in the Church often completely ignores the holy people in the Church today; not only the great luminaries that we often hear about in the news, but those holy and humble men and women that we encounter in our parishes Sunday after Sunday. If we truly wish to find a guide for our spiritual life, then we can't ignore the fact that holy men and women exist among us today, just as they existed within the Church in the past.

The second issue that we find here is ignorance over what constitutes a qualified spiritual elder or guide. So often what we are looking for is a wise and aged monk or hermit who sits alone in his cell and prays the Jesus Prayer all day long, doling out pithy spiritual gems to pilgrims who come to him for "a word" as though he is a spiritual Pez dispenser. We seek a St. Seraphim of Sarov, an Optina elder, a Padre Pio, or a St. John Vianney, when often times the very person we ought to be talking to is the housewife who goes about her daily tasks for the love of God, or the gentleman sitting in the cubicle next to ours faithfully fulfilling his daily tasks. Dan Burke, in his wonderful little book on spiritual direction Navigating the Interior Life, has this to say:

"The committed Catholic or seasoned Christian warrior may be seeking the wise old priest-sage who prays four hours a day and has the gift of seeing souls, when they may need a holy layperson who may not have a doctorate in dogmatic theology, but who clearly understands the path of humility and what it means to have a vibrant relationship with Christ." (pg. 20)

Here too we see a misunderstanding of the word "elder." In Greek "geron" (staretz in Russian, or elder in English) does not necessarily refer to a person who is older in years, but to a person who's soul has gained a certain maturity through spiritual experience. The soul could be one of any number of people. They could be older than us, younger than us, or around our same age. The could be a monk or nun, a parish priest, or simply a humble lay person. Really, anyone who has more experience than ourselves in the spiritual life could be considered our spiritual elder. The question becomes, do we have the necessary humility to seek guidance from the day-to-day elders around us whom we may take for granted?

The final issue here is often the presumption that we can make absolutely no progress in the spiritual life without an elder of some sort. Such a presumption flies in the face of the writings of the great mystics. Universally they proclaim to us that it is indeed possible to make progress without an elder, although it is much more difficult. In the absence of an elder, we are told that what is needed above everything else is a spirit of humility. This spirit is brought up again and again in the writings of St. John Climacus, St. Isaac of Nineveh, St. Theophan the Recluse, and St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, to name but a few.

St. John Climacus gives us the following advice for maintaining a sense of humility in our prayer life:

"In your prayers there is no need for high-flown words, for it is the simple and unsophisticated babblings of children that has more often won the heart of the Father in heaven." (Ladder of Divine Ascent, pg. 275)

St. Ignatius Brianchaninov tells us that even without a spiritual guide it is still possible to be given the prayer of the heart, so long as we cling to humility and child-like simplicity. In the absence of a spiritual elder, these ought to be our guides.

What are the characteristics of child-like simplicity? Openness, honesty. a lack of subtleties. This is where we find the genius of the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner. One could lengthen this slightly to read: "As man I have sinned, Lord Jesus as God have mercy on me."

This simplicity in prayer must be accompanied by a certain simplicity in the way we live our lives. Nil Sorsky tells us that in the absence of a spiritual guide, we ought to simply dedicate ourselves to the work of God as found in our particular vocations. If you are a monastic, then live your vocation whole-heartedly. If you are a parish priest, strive to ever more fully live your unique calling. If you are a married person, be dedicated to living your vocation in joy and love, not looking for greener pastures elsewhere. By living our vocations, according to Nil, God Himself will guide us into purity of heart and pure prayer.

"We must always in all our activities seek to do all in soul and body, in word or deed and thought as far as our strength allows, to do all godly activities with God and in God... The mind must always be focused positively on God with deep reverence, devotion, and trust in order to do all unto God's good pleasure and not out of vainglory or to please other human beings." (Nil Sorsky: The Complete Writings, pg. 68)

Of course, none of what has been said above means that we ought not to seek a spiritual guide. We ought to seek a guide because such guidance makes progress in the spiritual life much quicker and easier. All of this is just to say that when seeking a spiritual guide we must first acknowledge that such people exist even in our own times: second, we must be humble in our search and be willing to look for a guide in places we hadn't even considered previously: and third, while looking for a spiritual guide we must continue to strive in humility for progress in the spiritual life and not put off such striving. God, our loving Father, will reward our efforts. May heaven consume us!

Monday, January 19, 2015

What Do You Seek?

It is good to know what we are after in the spiritual life. Where are we headed? What is the goal? It is good to examine our hearts, our intentions; to ask ourselves some honest questions and search within our hearts for honest answers. Why do I pray? What am I seeking? Such questions enable us to come face-to-face with ourselves and provide the opportunity for us to purify our hearts of any wrong intentions.

In St. Matthew's Gospel (Mt. 6: 5,6, 16,17) Jesus gives us the example of folks who stand on street corners to pray so that they may be seen by men. He then goes on to speak of others who make themselves look gloomy and downcast while they are fasting so that others will know they are fasting. He then goes on to warn us that these people have had they're reward. Why do you pray? Why do I pray?

These examples may seem a little far-fetched to us today. How many people do you see standing on street corners and praying so that they might be seen and obtain the favor of men? How many people do you know who perform intense fasting and go about announcing it to others? Although such things are rare today, they still exist. Examine your own heart and discern whether they exist in you. We are all in need of constant purification.

So what do we seek in prayer? Over the past week I have been examining books and videos on the Jesus Prayer, and some of what has been presented I have found disturbing to say the least. The Jesus Prayer is often presented as an end in and of itself. To it is often attributed a power that it does not have in and of itself. Sometimes it is presented as if all we need to do is pray the Jesus Prayer and everything in our spiritual life will turn out right. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the writings of St. Theophan the Recluse, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, or any of the other great Fathers of the Byzantine East know that this is not the case.

For other people the Jesus Prayer is a means to some sort of "mystical experience." Saying the Jesus Prayer gives them some sort of transcendent experience that has an ethereal or surreal quality about it. It takes them to the "mystical" in the sense that it removes them from themselves and from the world for a moment. It helps them escape from the world.

For still other folks saying the Jesus Prayer is about stillness, inner peace. Saying the Jesus Prayer calms their mind. All of us know how our thoughts can at times run away from us. Our mind just races out of control until all we want to do is pull out our hair. We often wish we could just flip a switch and shut our brain down for a bit. For some people, the Jesus Prayer is that switch.

But these things are not what the Jesus Prayer - or any other prayer for that matter - is all about. The Jesus Prayer is about communion, just as all prayer is about communion. We seek communion with God. We seek to enter into relationship with God. We seek the face of God. We seek to know God. True prayer, as the saints point out, isn't about the words that we pray, but about developing a relationship with God. The words that we pray, in a sense, mediate that relationship. The words lay the foundation for building our relationship with God. But at some point, the words must cease, even if only for a moment. St. Isaac (the Syrian) if Nineveh points out that the highest form of prayer moves beyond words, to the point that the words of prayer themselves can become a distraction. This is not a permanent state, and one eventually has to return to the words of prayer, but at the moment that the soul moves beyond words all words must cease otherwise prayer itself ceases.

Prayer is about communion with God Who dwells in us by virtue of our Baptism. As we work to deepen this communion, as we struggle to remain always in God's presence, then we are given the gifts mentioned above. Prayer, true prayer, can lead to inner peace, stillness, "mystical experiences," a drawing up out of the troubles of this world, but these things are not the goal of prayer themselves and they cannot be forced. Peace, stillness, transcendence, etc., are all gifts from God. Our duty is not to seek those gifts, but to seek the Giver. Prayer is the struggle to seek the Giver, to seek an ever-deepening relationship with the One Who is "all in all."

Ultimately prayer leads us back into ourselves and purifies us, because in drawing closer to the fire of God's love all that is imperfect must be melted away. Prayer too leads us back into the world so that, ignited by the fire of God's love, we can be the light in the world and set the world on fire, as Jesus so desired. Prayer doesn't lead us away from ourselves, from others, from the world. Prayer, rather, makes us more sensitive to our need for the purifying fire of God's love in our lives and throughout the world. The power of the Jesus Prayer, as Fr. Lev Gillet points out in his wonderful little book, On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus, is that through it we can invoke the name of God upon all of mankind and all of creation. Invoking God's name is the same as invoking His very presence. And so by invoking the name of Jesus in our lives and in all of creation, we invoke the very presence of God, thereby transforming all of creation into prayer, into relationship with God.

We seek God's presence. We seek his presence in our lives and in our world. God's presence will purify our hearts. His Presence will purify our world. Only the presence of God will bring peace, joy, love, and unity. Only His presence will bring His kingdom. And how blessed is the kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit! May heaven consume us.