Tuesday, 19 December 2006

Orthodox Monasticism 16D — Passion and Dispassion in the Ladder 3, Part 3

It does not speculate as to the source of the thought, insight, image, vision, etc.

The monk knows what he is doing. However, we agree that the sober monk does not accept visions and does not occupy himself with where they are from. He does report them to his confessor, who judges.

All such things are below God and abandoned for the sake of God alone at the time of prayer.

That’s certainly Evagrius, but written for men in the unitive stage of the mystical jouney.

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.

It seems to me that much that is said is similar between the two approaches and that the main differences are in the saying of the prayer with meaning (thought?) and the use of anger towards demons in the later stages. I would especially appreciate hearing more about the relationship between attention without thought and the praying with meaning in the use of the Jesus Prayer. The role of compunction in prayer may also be helpful to understand.

The issue can be summed up thus: in praying the Jesus Prayer we are to mean it in just the way that we would mean it when we sincerely apologized to our wife for a misdemeanour. We are to concentrate on the words of the prayer without cultivating silence. The Holy Spirit when it raises us to contemplation ceases the prayer itself. Recall that the Holy Spirit is what is impelling the continuous repetition of the prayer in the first place. Then we contemplate in ecstasy.

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.

This was perhaps a problem for Merton and his followers, which are many. Many are also those who encourage and practice a so-called ‘interspirituality,’ borrowing practices from a variety of religions to customize one’s own spirituality.

It’s a consumer society.

Yet there are also those of us who see in John Main an authentic teacher on contemplative prayer that is fully, as it seems, rooted in the Christian tradition. For such people, there may be little interest in Zen or any other religion, let alone in having a Christian Zen. On the other hand, we live in a very pluralistic society where many feel that all religions are the same and meditation is meditation regardless of whether it is Christian or Budhist. We [They?] typically say that meditation is Christian if the person meditating is Christian – it is that person’s faith in Christ, their participation in church, and their reading of the Scriptures and the saints that provides the context, the meaning, and the goal of that person’s prayer.

On Mt Athos, they would tell you that the first thing is for you to become Orthodox. Then they would teach you the Jesus Prayer. And you would leave Dom John Main’s method behind. ‘When I was a child, I thought as a child, I reasoned as a child, when I became a man, I put away childish things.’

Apart from any bon mot, the point is that the Athonites take exactly the opposite point of view to what you are saying. They start with membership in the Orthodox Church. Then they teach the method they have learned from their Elders. They don’t believe any method is Orthodox merely because the practitioner is Orthodox.

For understanding the differences between Christian and, for instance, Buddhist meditation, a better understanding of the distinctiveness of the practice of the Jesus Prayer would be helpful, since it has been handed down more faithfully and practiced much more broadly and consistently than contemplative prayer in the West.

Please read, as you seem to have anyway, this blog from the beginning. We will bear this question in mind.

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