Tuesday, 19 December 2006

Orthodox Monasticism 16D — Passion and Dispassion in the Ladder 3, Part 2

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.

This is an important distinction that perhaps could be elaborated on. What is the relationship between word and silence in the Jesus Prayer?

We will have to reserve a full discussion of this for a full post, but let us remark that when we pray the Jesus Prayer, we make no attempt to strip the words of their meanings. When we say ‘Lord’, we know what that means; when we say ‘Son of God’, we know what that means. When we say, ‘have mercy on me a sinner’, we know what that means.

Here we can grasp what it means to pray with the heart, what ‘meaning it’ means. When I say something to someone, I might be lying; I might be reciting a script; I might be insincere. But I might ‘mean it’. That is what is involved in the Jesus Prayer. We begin with a slow oral recitation involving the whole person—i.e. his heart, the centre of his personhood. We honestly pray ‘Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner.’ We mean it. We know who Jesus is; we know that we are sinners. Of course, there is an issue here with emotional exaggeration, which is very dangerous, although there is a school on Mt Athos that emphasizes compunction. Here, read the life of Ephraim of Katounakia by his disciples: Elder Ephraim of Katounakia. Translated by Tessy Vassiliadou-Christodoulou. 1st Edition, 2003. Katounakia, Mount Athos, Greece: H. Hesychasterion ‘Saint Ephraim’. Distribution: Bookstore ‘To Periboli tes Panaghias’, email: bookstore@toperivoli.gr.

In John Main’s teaching, Maranatha is recommended precisely because it does not conjure up meanings or associations for most.

It is not a matter of conjuring up meanings or associations in the sense of having fantasy dramas of Jesus in the mind when we say the Jesus Prayer. We agree, that is wrong. However, as integral people the centre of whose being is the heart, we engage with the meaning of the Jesus Prayer so that we really mean it. Here it is very important to grasp the role of the heart in prayer. We are whole people. The whole person prays the Jesus Prayer.

That is not to say it is meaning-less. In fact, this is the most ancient of Christian prayers, recorded in the earliest liturgies and the only prayer that has come down to us in Jesus’ own language.

Although we are aware of the word ‘Maranatha’, we are unaware of its special liturgical pedigree. It is never mentioned in the Orthodox Church.

Rather, the purpose of meditation is absolute attention to God,

To the extent that this is taught by Evagrius it is for the perfect. For those of us who are not, it is better sincerely to ask Jesus for mercy.

without the intermediary of thought and image.

Please explain this phrase which along with ‘thought and conception’ seems to have an Evagrian pedigree.

The concern is that to dwell on a meaning is to take attention off the words themselves.

Here, if we understand both ourselves and you, there is a serious problem with your method. Well yes, we don’t want to be thinking ‘around’ the Jesus Prayer in a discursive sort of way: What a wonderful friend Jesus is, what it means for him to be our Lord, what it means for him to be our friend, what it means for him to be the Son of God—and what about the procession of the Holy Spirit… No, we don’t want to go in that direction. But that is not what we mean by ‘meaning it’. The oral sounds of the Jesus Prayer are the bearers of meanings—what Evagrius calls mental representations, or if you want conceptions. These are like the mental icons of the cup that we discussed earlier, but they are abstract mental icons: icons of abstract meanings. Hence, when we pray the Jesus Prayer as whole persons we are bearing into our mind the abstract conceptions involved in the prayer. We do not think about these conceptions in a discursive way, but neither do we try to strip these conceptions away so as to concentrate only on the words. That is the difference between an Orthodox method and the East.

Rather than simply saying the word, we begin instead to think about the word or phrase. Could you say more about the value of ‘meaning’ the words that are said?

Praying with the heart means praying with intention, ‘meaning it’, not just reciting the words in a mechanical fashion.

I may also note that the word is to be said gently and lovingly, not mechanically, according to John Main.

This is correct, but the emotional spectrum in Orthodox prayer is far wider.

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…

Again, according to John Main, and personal experience of this way of meditation, the prayer begins in the mind or thoughts and descends to the heart over time, at which point the prayer is truly said, the person truly begins to meditate.

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.

By absolute attention to the word used in meditation, the person meditating does not think about the meaning of words or their content.

Here is the problem as between the Jesus Prayer as a prayer, and meditation with ‘Maranatha’. As we have already agreed, the person is not to think about the words of the prayer in a discursive way. But as a whole person in love with Jesus, he is to repeat the words, not only ‘gently and lovingly’, but also with his whole being. The Jesus Prayer formula has a meaning: it is an invocation of mercy from the incarnate Son of God who died for the sins of the man praying, who will judge the man praying when he comes ‘again in glory to judge the living and the dead’. While he who prays the Jesus Prayer is not to think about these things, he already has them as part of his spiritual context; it is what he thinks about when he’s not praying the Jesus Prayer. So when he prays the Jesus Prayer, he is engaged with the semantic content of the Prayer. He really is asking Jesus Christ for mercy. He is praying from his heart. Now one of the results of this is that his own heart ultimately opens and he can begin to love, as we mentioned in our response to our young Romanian-Orthodox reader. If you meet an Orthodox Saint, you find that he is a very warm person genuinely interested in others. Elder Paisios of Mt Athos was the most remarkable example in recent times of this; St Seraphim of Sarov is another example.

The concern is that in saying something such as ‘have mercy on me, a sinner,’ that person may attempt to manufacture a certain feeling of compunction or contrive a certain attitude.

See the Life of Elder Ephraim of Katounakia.

That may encourage a person to be self-reflective, ready to congratulate himself when the desired feeling in accomplished. As attention deepens we discover what it means to leave self behind.

This emphasis on leaving the self behind is not found in precisely the same terms in the tradition of the Orthodox Church. In the weight that is put on it in the method you are explaining, it seems to be a remnant of the Eastern origin of the method.

We leave behind all that we are, all that we think we are, and all that we want to be, in order to see ourselves as we are and become who we’ve been created to be.

To the extent that this is done in the Orthodox Church, it is done at very high stages of the Jesus Prayer, when having been completely purified from the passions, one enters into the illuminative stage of natural contemplation. It is not something that is encouraged in the beginner.

In other words, we seek not to see ourselves in a particular way (as a sinner or a saint), but to lose ourselves completely in order to find ourselves in God, to see ourselves and all around us as God sees them in their totality, just as they are.

This is very dangerous. We once had a discussion with a certain teacher of the Jesus Prayer (not Orthodox and not one of the people ever mentioned on this blog) who thought that the students that were going through the person’s Jesus Prayer school were experiencing the stage of the Jesus Prayer where the person sees all creation permeated with the energies of God (natural contemplation). We discussed this meeting with a clairvoyant Orthodox Elder who was able to discern the teacher through our own discussion of the teacher. He simply remarked: ‘Demons’. It wasn’t real.

This sort of thing is never encouraged in Orthodox prayer. You never lose a sense of who you are: when the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles, they didn’t forget who they were. They were transfigured. There is a very advanced stage of rapture where there is a temporary loss of personhood, but the persons experiencing such a thing are few and far between. See Wounded by Love, especially pp. 27–33 for a description of such an experience and its results. But read the whole book.

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.

Using anger against the demons is certainly not taught by John Main or Thomas Keating. Truthfully, demons are not much spoken of. This may have more to do with the environment in which the teaching is given than necessarily any lack of belief in demons. (On a side note, I did hear a talk given by Fr. Thomas where he mentioned the impression made on him of the reality of demons when he attended an exorcism.) These teachers of prayer are often attempting to reach those who have left the Church after becoming spiritually dissatisfied. It is believed that the Western Church’s failure to teach contemplative prayer over the past several hundred years is to blame for so many in the West looking to Eastern non-Christian religions for meaning and depth.

See our remark that refers to TM.

There is a desire, then, to meet people where they are in this often very skeptical, rationalistic society [who] may no longer hear the message if such phenomena as demons are too frequently mentioned. Yet, this way of prayer does include battling against the demons to the extent that it involves battling against thoughts – not by direct confrontation but rather by struggling to maintain attention.

This is the stage of the beginner.

As St. James says, ‘But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full grown, brings forth death’ (James 1:14). It is at the level of desire that meditation focusses its efforts[; at] the level of conception, bringing the mind back to attention the second it becomes distracted by anything.

We will deal with the issue of desire when we continue with the notions of passion and dispassion in St John of Sinai. What strikes us continually in reading such words as yours here is that the interior or mental battle against the passions—for that is what the effort to overcome desire is all about—is a very advanced stage of spiritual practice in the Orthodox Church, for a Hesychast with a special call from God. Ordinarily, we begin in the coenobium, if we are monks, or in our marriage, if we are married, in combating all the passions in our actions. All of the passions depend on desire. Only after we have made progress in combating the passions in action can we move to the interior battle to combat them in our thoughts—although that certainly wouldn’t prevent a lay person or coenobitical monk from praying the Jesus Prayer.

1 comment:

  1. Hello,

    could you tell more about your suggestion of reading the book "Life of Elder Ephraim of Katounakia", related to the danger of forcing a "certain feeling of compunction" during the Jesus's Prayer? Did he sponsor so much exageration?

    Theophan speaks of "above all falling at the feet of our Lord and Saviour with contrition and humility":

    "Externally, acquiring the habit of this prayer consists in reaching the point where it turns on your tongue constantly by itself;
    internally, it consists in concentrating the attention of the mind in the heart and in constantly standing there in the presence of the
    Lord, with varying degrees of heartfelt warmth, repulsing all other thoughts, and above all falling at the feet of our Lord and Saviour
    with contrition and humility" (Unseen Warfare, chap. 51 - http://ortodox.felmer.org/documents/Unseen%20Warfare.pdf)

    Thank you very much for your clarifications, I am too studying whether and in what inner attitude one could recite Main's mantras in a correct Christian spirit.