Saturday, 16 December 2006

Orthodox Monasticism 16A — Passion and Dispassion in the Ladder 1

Just when we thought that we had finished up with one issue (our young Romanian-Orthodox reader) and were ready to continue with our post on St John of Sinai’s doctrine on the passions and dispassion, we got the following letter. It seems to us that we should reply. The issues being raised in this letter are relevant to St John of Sinai’s doctrine, and so we are treating this letter as an introduction to our post on his doctrine on the passions and dispassion.

Since this letter is the length of an average post, we will continue with our reply in the next post, Blogger having problems with long posts. We have slightly edited the letter for style, to bring it into conformity with our own style sheet. The ellipsis is merely a link. We have removed the sender’s name for the sake of his privacy.

Dear Fathers:

I have really benefited from the regular reading of your posts. I check the site almost daily in eager anticipation.

I am an Episcopalian who has been drawn to Orthodoxy over a number of years. I grew up in a ‘non-denominational’ Protestant church and then drifted from it in my teenage years, not finding much within this tradition (or anti-tradition) that was spiritually nourishing or very deep. My re-entry into Christianity, and perhaps my rediscovery of it, came through the discovery of the monastic tradition and particularly the teaching and practice of contemplative prayer as it is being recovered today, particularly from the efforts of the Benedictine monk John Main … but also from the efforts of the Cistercian Thomas Keating and others. This recovery of the discipline of contemplative prayer in the West has come from the rediscovery of the teaching on prayer in John Cassian’s 9th and 10th Conferences as well as the post-Schism work, The Cloud of Unknowing, which in spirituality is still very pre-Schism in many respects (in my opinion). Cassian’s Conferences, I understand, are a common foundation shared by both the later developments of the Jesus Prayer and the practice of contemplative prayer in the contemporary West today.

As Orthodox monks[*] familiar with the practice of the Jesus Prayer, and having read your warnings to non-Orthodox not to practice it, I wonder what you might say about the contemporary contemplative prayer movement in the West. In many respects this movement attempts to return to the spiritual sobriety of the first Christian millennium and especially that of the Desert Fathers. As a movement it is international and has introduced countless priests, monks, and lay persons to a daily discipline of silent and attentive prayer which leads beyond thought and conception to a greater sense of God’s presence in the midst of everyday life. In its understanding of our capacity to know God and of who we are as persons, this way of prayer is very affirmative of Hesychast theology and critical of the excessive rationalism of the Scholastic heritage. It is firm in its commitment to the ideal of contemplation and overcomes the West’s historical dissociation between active and contemplative, realizing that all pure action arises from love, from contemplation. In its sensibilities the movement as a whole, coming out of its experience of prayer, really aims at recovering the simplicity of communion with God in silence and stillness as a central call of Christian life and feels quite embarrassed by the flamboyant, overly sentimental, rationalistic, highly institutionalized, imaginative, and somewhat fantastic spirituality and theology that has developed after the Schism—though admittedly the Schism is not a commonly acknowledged or declared reference point in this movement for understanding or evaluating the strange departures which afterwards took place. Obviously, if this were the case, the movement would perhaps be much larger collective migration to Orthodoxy from within.

I have been drawn to Orthodoxy having grown especially in love and reverence for the Desert Fathers after beginning a daily practice of contemplative prayer and beginning to read their lives and sayings. In the West we know that we are recovering something that at one time was lost, whereas what has drawn me to Orthodoxy is the obvious continuity. I have, of course, since discovered a great deal more in Orthodoxy but I’d like for you to respond first to what I have so far said. Perhaps you could also say a word about Thomas Merton, a pivotal person in contemplative renewal in the West who I have come to understand may be viewed somewhat differently by the Orthodox than in the West. Yet, not getting bogged down on Merton, some words about prayer specifically in the context of the contemporary recovery of contemplative prayer in the West would be deeply appreciated.

As Orthodox often critique the West, this is one area which Orthodox should be especially equipped to discuss, yet I have seen almost nothing from Orthodox about the phenomenon of this contemporary movement in the West. Perhaps this is because the voice of Orthodoxy in the West has been more immersed in the study of peoples, history, and ideas than in the prayerfulness out of which such discernment and dialogue can take place? Bishop Kallistos Ware has had some involvement with our organization (‘The World Community for Christian Meditation’) but usually to the extent of talking about the Orthodox tradition of the Jesus Prayer and affirming what in our own tradition is to be affirmed. I have not heard much of a critique from him, in other words, though I certainly am not looking for criticism if the subject is more worthy of affirmation than criticism.

How, dear Fathers, might you respond to all I have just said?

In Christ,

(Name Withheld)

[*] There is only one of us on this blog—Orthodox Monk.

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