Saturday, 16 December 2006

Orthodox Monasticism 16B — Passion and Dispassion in the Ladder 2

Strange as it may seem, we don’t know everything. Hence, we were somewhat unsure how to proceed in commenting on the letter that we provided in the preceding post. We were just not sure what ‘the contemporary contemplative prayer movement in the West’ is that our reader asked us to comment on. So we did what every blogger does in such circumstances, we searched the Web. We already knew something about Dom John Main, OSB, and we were confident of being able to discuss his method of contemplative prayer, but we knew nothing at all about Fr Thomas Keating, OCSO, although we had heard his name, so we thought we would start with him. We found on our first shot an article written by Fr Thomas Keating called ‘The Method of Centering Prayer’,, © St Benedict's Monastery, Snowmass, Colorado. We will quote under the doctrine of fair use some of the text of that article as a basis for our own discussion. It is a fair use since we will be comparing Fr Thomas Keating’s method to the Orthodox practice of the Jesus Prayer, as we ourselves understand it. It should be emphasized that nothing we ourselves heard from Dom John Main is in any way different from what Fr Thomas Keating is writing, so although we do not know just what connection there is between the two men and their respective methods, we are confident that, in talking about Fr Thomas Keating’s method of centring prayer, we are also talking about Dom John Main’s method of prayer, and vice versa.
 First, however, by way of background, let us talk a little about Thomas Merton. In ‘Orthodox Monasticism 15B’, we recommended to our young Romanian-American reader that he not read the New Directions edition of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which edition is due to Thomas Merton. We were reluctant to mention Thomas Merton by name out of a sense of Orthodox courtesy but we eventually concluded that to do otherwise would be to leave the reader open to reading that work by mistake and to being badly influenced by it. We will discuss our reasoning below. (Of course, if anyone wants to go out and read it, it’s a free country.)
We have read, many years ago, if we recall correctly, The Seven Storey Mountain, the Asian Journal and Contemplation in a World of Action, all by Thomas Merton. We do not recall reading other works by him, so a Thomas Merton expert would easily conclude that we don’t know beans about Merton. We would readily agree.
Let us look at what strike us as some important issues in the spiritual legacy of Thomas Merton.
We once glanced at the New Directions edition, due to Thomas Merton, of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (actually, a small selection of the Sayings) and what struck us immediately and forcefully was that the translation had been done in such a way as to present the Desert Fathers as Zen Masters.
However, the original Greek of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers just doesn’t support such a Zen interpretation. It’s just not there. It’s something that was imported into the text by Merton.
Let us go just a little further. The home page of the organization which has the text of Fr Thomas Keating that we will be discussing, ‘Contemplative Outreach of Northern California’, is advertising a seminar called ‘The Centered Heart: Integrating East-West Meditation’, where one of the presenters is a member of the Tassajara Zen Center, located just outside of San Francisco. It appears from the Wikipedia article on him that Fr Thomas Keating is one of the founders of Contemplative Outreach Ltd., although we do not know the precise connection between the two organizations. The one sounds like a local branch in Northern California of the other.
We know from a personal conversation with Dom John Main that he learned his version of centring prayer from a teacher Malaysia when he was an officer in the British Colonial Service. What he learned was a Buddhist method of meditation with a mantra. Wikipedia gives his teacher the title of ‘Swami’, which is a Hindu title, but we recall that the teacher was Buddhist. Wikipedia claims that the teacher himself gave John Main a Christian mantra, would be more consistent with a Hindu than a Buddhist teacher. Our conversation with Dom John Main was many years ago and we may have the details wrong.
In the Asian Journal, Thomas Merton records his conversations with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, some few weeks before he himself is electrocuted in Bangkok. In those conversations, the Dalai Lama recommends to Thomas Merton to take up a special Tibetan meditation which, he says, will help him considerably (the Tibetan term for the meditation means something like ‘lightning method’). Thomas Merton records that after his conversations with the Dalai Lama he felt that he had a personal relationship with the Dalai Lama. We have always wondered about this relationship, which to us has always seemed to hint at something more than a friendship, i.e. spiritual discipleship.
We do not recall exactly where we read the following, possibly in the preface to the Asian Journal, but one of the Roman Catholic religious who were present either at Thomas Merton’s funeral or at his memorial service forty or fifty days after his death writes that those present took a vow, Thomas Merton’s spirit being present, to continue his work. Nowhere does the Roman Catholic father who is writing explain just what he means, but we have always been uneasy about this episode given that we know that the Tibetan Buddhists have a religious service of invocation that is intended to bring the departed spirit of a dead person from whatever ‘bardo’ he might be in, to where the lamas are, right there in front of them. Given the unusual expression, we wonder if the Tibetan lamas present at the service, as we believe there were, did not conjure up Merton’s spirit. This is not Christian. Of course, it may very well be that something quite innocent was going on. We are open to being corrected on this.
Jim Knight, a fellow who knew Merton almost all of his life, writes the following:
The Merton we knew, who is still in the lives of both of us [he is referring to a second friend of Merton], was a different man, and monk, from the saintly person of pre-fabricated purity that has become his image these days. He was a real person, not a saint; he was a mystic searching for God, but a God that crossed the boundaries of all religions; his was not a purely Christian soul. He developed closer spiritual ties than Church authorities will ever admit to the Eastern religions, Hinduism as well as Buddhism. In fact just before his appalling accidental death in December 1968, he was saying openly that Christianity could be greatly improved by a strong dose of Buddhism and Hinduism into its faith. These are things the record needs.
There is a very Buddhist element in the concrete contemplation movements that our reader has referred to in his letter. The method of centring prayer proposed by Fr Thomas Keating, to all intents and purposes the same as the method of Dom John Main, is a method of prayer that diverges in significant ways from the Orthodox practice of the Jesus Prayer.
Let us turn to the method. We recommend that our readers read the whole page at the link given, since it is too long for us to quote here and since we do not want to run afoul of the copyright laws. Here is the actual method as expounded by Fr Thomas Keating at the link given:
The Guidelines
Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God's presence and action within.
Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God's presence and action within.
When you become aware of thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word.
At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.
Fr Thomas gives the following explanation of the sacred word:
The sacred word expresses our intention to be in God's presence and to yield to the divine action. The sacred word should be chosen during a brief period of prayer asking the Holy Spirit to inspire us with one that is especially suitable for us. Examples: Lord, Jesus, Abba, Father, Mother. Other possibilities: Love, Peace, Shalom.
In other words, after a brief period of prayer to the Holy Spirit, a person chooses a single word such as one of those given, and proceeds to spend 20 minutes twice a day repeating that word as a Christian mantra, returning ever so gently to the word when thoughts arise in his field of consciousness. As far as we know, there is no difference in Dom John Main’s method.
There is nothing about the heart here, and there is no indication that there is a more advanced technique for those who have grown proficient in centring prayer as here taught.
We are somewhat surprised by Fr Thomas’ emphasis on our intention ‘to consent to God’s presence and action within’. As he expounds his method in more detail on the same page, he emphasizes this. This is new to us. We frankly do not know why he does it.
Let us look by contrast at the method of the Jesus Prayer. First of all, in the Orthodox tradition, the formula used is rather long and a formula of invocation (there are some historical exceptions). The standard form of the Jesus Prayer is ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’ There are short forms; there are longer forms; there are variant formulas. However, one can see that the standard formula is an invocation to Jesus Christ to have mercy on the person praying the formula.
The fact that most formulas historically used in Orthodoxy are formulas of invocation is not accidental, because a formula of invocation facilitates praying with the heart.
Praying with the heart means praying with intention, ‘meaning it’, not just reciting the words in a mechanical fashion.
An element in Fr Thomas Keating’s method that must interest us is that the person practising centring prayer, having made his intention to open himself up to God’s action within him, is merely to repeat the chosen word, returning to it gently any time his mind wanders. There is nothing here about ‘meaning it’—intending the word, repeating it with commitment. That is surely covered in Fr Thomas’ view by our original intention to open ourselves to God’s action in us before we begin our 20 minute exercise.
Here, we think, we can see the Buddhist roots of the method of centring prayer. That is, the very fact that a ‘sacred word’ is repeated in the mind (more precisely, in the head), with no descent foreseen of the mind into the heart, and with no emphasis on praying with the heart—this very fact shows the Buddhist background of the method: these Western teachers do not understand the role of the heart in prayer. The reason they do not understand the role of the heart is that they have learned their method from Buddhists, where there is no such emphasis on praying with the heart. (Possibly, it might be necessary to qualify this that they have learned their method from Theravada Buddhists; we wonder if Mahayana Buddhists have formulas of invocation prayed with the heart.)
Now of course these Western teachers issue caveats. This is one particular method of contemplative prayer. There are other methods of prayer which can supplement this one. Presumably prayer with the heart (they would say ‘affective prayer’) can be done at a different time of day. This time of the day is for this special type of contemplative prayer.
But there is something more involved in the Jesus Prayer.
When one prays the Jesus Prayer, from the beginning he prays with the heart. That is not the same thing as praying with the mind in the heart, which is a very advanced stage of the Jesus Prayer. No one but no one in the Orthodox Church would teach anyone the Jesus Prayer as a string of syllables merely to be repeated for a certain period of time twice a day, even with a preliminary intention of the practitioner to open himself up to the action of God within him. When we pray the Jesus Prayer, we mean it. Usually, the beginner is taught to pray the Jesus Prayer slowly and orally, focusing on the meaning of the words and intending those words, which are words of invocation to Jesus Christ: the beginner from the beginning prays with the heart, prays in a heartfelt way. However, he prays without emotional exaggeration: he is counselled as he learns the method to avoid overdoing it, although there is a school on Mt Athos that encourages compunction: it is quite damaging for an unbalanced or naïve beginner to exaggerate the ‘meaning it’ part, but mean it he should. Later, the beginner will speed up his recitation of the Jesus Prayer as he becomes the better able to focus on the meaning of the words at an increased speed; and he will eventually bring the words inside his mind: the repetition will become ‘mental’. However, he will not cease to ‘mean it’. The Jesus Prayer is not merely a mantra, although it obviously has similarities to a mantra given that it is the repetition of a fixed formula. It is a prayer and must be prayed from the beginning as a heartfelt prayer to Jesus Christ.
From the beginning, then, we see a very serious divergence of the Orthodox method of the Jesus Prayer from the methods of Fr Thomas Keating and Dom John Main. It is very doubtful whether the same results can be achieved.
Moreover, in the advanced stages of the practice of the Jesus Prayer, the practitioner will learn to pray with Eros towards Jesus Christ and to learn to use anger against the demons.
‘Thoughts’ are a very important concept in the practice of the Jesus Prayer. Here is what Fr Thomas says about thoughts:
During the prayer period various kinds of thoughts may be distinguished. (cf. Open Mind, Open Heart, chapters 6 through 10): Ordinary wanderings of the imagination or memory. Thoughts that give rise to attractions or aversions. Insights and psychological breakthroughs. Self-reflections such as, "How am I doing?" or, "This peace is just great!" Thoughts that arise from the unloading of the unconscious. During this prayer, we avoid analyzing our experience, harboring expectations or aiming at some specific goal such as: Repeating the sacred word continuously. Having no thoughts. Making the mind a blank. Feeling peaceful or consoled. Achieving a spiritual experience.
One of the first authors to discuss the Jesus Prayer is St John of Sinai in the Ladder. St John adopts the basic theory of the thoughts of Evagrius Ponticus and refines it significantly; this process is continued by his disciple, St Hesychios, whom we will discuss after St John.
The basic structure of a thought (in the technical sense here being discussed) in the Hesychast tradition is the inception of an image in the consciousness of the person through the influence of a demon which has approached the person and excited one of his passions. The goal of the person in practising the Jesus Prayer is to purify himself of his passions so as to achieve dispassion. It is in this fundamental way that he conquers the thoughts. Once he has conquered the thoughts, he can enter into the contemplation of God. The recitation of the Jesus Prayer is explicitly tied in the Hesychast tradition to an interior battle against the demons that are tempting the Hesychast by sowing thoughts in his mind. The earliest text to deal with this doctrine of spiritual ascesis in the context of explicit reference to the Jesus Prayer is the Gnostic Chapters of St Diadochos of Photiki, written about 25 years after Cassian wrote the Conferences. This spiritual ascesis against the thoughts is given the name ‘sobriety’ by St Hesychios. Purification from the passions through sobriety is an activity that takes decades even for a Hesychast in a cave. When the Hesychast is purified by sobriety—which sobriety includes but is not limited to the practice of the Jesus Prayer—he then reaches dispassion, which St John of Sinai describes in the Ladder as being the resurrection of the soul before the General Resurrection. As can easily be seen, this is a far deeper doctrine than the doctrine of centring prayer taught by Dom John Main and Fr Thomas Keating.
It should be pointed out, however, that in the tradition of the Philokalia one of the basic methods for beginners to confront a thought is just the same as it is in the method of Fr Thomas Keating: one returns to the words of the Jesus Prayer. Only the more advanced learn how to battle against the thoughts using anger and other means. Much of the Ladder deals with these issues.
As the Hesychast advances in his practice of the Jesus Prayer and sobriety, he brings his mind down into his heart in order to practise the method of spiritual ascesis in the very centre of his being.
In addition, at a certain stage and if God wills, the practice of the Jesus Prayer becomes automatic and centred in the Hesychast’s heart. Recall that from the beginning the Hesychast has prayed the Jesus Prayer with meaning, with intent, in a heartfelt way. Now he is doing so twenty-four hours a day with his consciousness centred in his heart.
Clearly, all the stages of Hesychast practice of the Jesus Prayer are not for everyone. However, it behoves us to understand the outline of the full method if, first, we wish to practise it, and, second, we wish to compare it to the methods of centring prayer making the rounds in America and the West.
The problem might be put this way: Why shouldn’t there be a Christian practice of Zen with Christian koans? We would suggest the following koan: ‘What is a Christian koan?’ It has the basic structure of the classical Zen koan: it is an absurdity.
We will now turn to St John’s doctrine of the passions and dispassion.

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