Tuesday, 15 February 2011

The Jesus Prayer in the Roman Catholic Church Revisited (Updated Twice)

A reader has sent us an email concerning the Jesus Prayer.  We will call our reader Felix Courtney-Smith, not his real name.  Mr Courtney-Smith has accepted that we discuss his email on the blog.  Here is what he says, slightly edited:
I was looking up the Jesus prayer because a song writer I like was getting ready to publish a song based on it on his next album. He quoted Pope John Paul II as saying ‘The Church must come to breathe the Spirit of God with both lungs (Eastern and Western)’.  It is a saying I've heard often and you may not be aware of it but there seems to be a growing resurgence and appreciation of Eastern theology within the Western church.
I was wondering if you could take some time to explain to me more fully what the concept of 'bringing your mind into your heart' means to you.  You stated that the concept is at odds with 'Thomistic psychology' which I must admit some ignorance of, at least under that term. However the explanation of it that you gave seems perfectly compatible with Franciscan spirituality as well as the writing of St. John of the Cross, St. Thérèse of Lisieux and a somewhat new and mildly controversial practice promoted by the United States Catholic Bishops known by the name 'centering prayer'.
I was at a loss as to what the incompatibility that you see and what you mean by ‘bringing the mind into the heart’?
Do you believe your mind to have physical existence? By heart do you mean the red pulsating organ that physicians operate on?  Or (as I assume) are you referring to some kind of conceptual constructs?  Can you define or describe those constructs so as to explain what you mean by ‘bringing your heart into your mind’?
The idea of a repeated prayer that helps to keep one in constant union with Christ is one familiar to me both from recommended practices taught in various books—either the name Jesus repeated always or the phrase ‘Jesus have mercy on me’—and from various Roman Theologians such as Dietrich Von Hildebrand.
In any case I would like to understand what the differences are that you see between these two traditions on this topic (if you have the time and are willing to assist me).
Thank you sir,
Let see if we can address the issues.  There is both a simple answer and a very complex answer.
The simple answer is that Mr Courtney-Smith would do well to use the right hand margin of this blog, where the labels are, clicking on ‘Jesus Prayer’ and reading all the entries in chronological order, from the oldest to the newest.  In that series there is a set of posts entitled Jesus Prayer 1 through Jesus Prayer 7 that addresses some of his issues and also contains a small reading list.
Also there is a series of posts that constitute a dialogue with an Episcopalian who was practising the form of Centering Prayer taught by Dom John Main, OSB.  The first post, dated December 16, 2006, is here.  The reader should use the archive facility in the right hand margin and starting with the post indicated read each newer post until the dialogue finishes.
Finally the post that the reader originally cited contains links to a polemic with the Byzantine Catholic Forum.  That would handle the ecclesiastical – theological issues.
Let’s see if we can now approach directly the issue that Mr Courtney-Smith is raising.
First of all, best wishes to his song-writer friend.
Next, we have never heard of Dietrich Von Hildebrand.
Next, we are aware of Pope John-Paul II’s dictum.  However, although Pope John-Paul II is fast-tracked for canonization in the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox laity is as a whole indifferent.  He is not looked at favourably, especially in Russia where his missionary actions were considered to be very aggressive.
Next, the very fact that Mr Courtney-Smith can’t make sense of what we might intend by ‘bringing the mind into the heart’—although it must be admitted that Orthodox often have difficulties with the concept—is an indication of what the problem is.
First of all, our mind is our consciousness.  The idea of bringing the mind into the heart suggests that we can move our consciousness around, in particular making it descend to the physical region of the heart.  The portrait of human faculties delineated by St Thomas Aquinas in the Summa simply does not foresee this.  This is what we meant when we said that the practice was incompatible with St Thomas’ philosophical psychology.  There is simply no provision in St Thomas for what the Orthodox Philokalic tradition teaches concerning the Jesus Prayer.
Moreover, St Thomas has a very restricted view as to what philosophically intuitive functions the human mind has, restricting human intuitive cognition to very simple axioms of logic.  But the Jesus Prayer is based on intuitive cognition.
The result is that someone coming out of the Roman Catholic tradition thinks that apart from reason there is only emotion.  That is why Roman Catholic spirituality tends to be either intellectualistic or sentimental.  But the tradition of the Orthodox Church in the Jesus Prayer depends on intuitive cognition and eschews sentimentality.  This is not to deny the role of Grace, but it is to suggest that the two traditions have different understandings of how the human person interacts with Divine Grace on the level of philosophical psychology.
Moreover, while Mr Courtney-Smith thinks that the practice of the Jesus Prayer must be consistent with St John of the Cross, St Thérèse of Lisieux and the Franciscans, we doubt this.  St John of the Cross was a scholastic in psychology; St Thérèse was a 19th Century French mystic who would have been following the spirituality of the Discalced Carmelites, derived from St John of the Cross and St Theresa of Avila.  And we simply don’t think that the Franciscans bring their mind into their heart.
The Jesus Prayer is not only a matter of the repetition of a pious, repentant formula.  There is more to it.
It is true that St John Cassian, who transmitted the Philokalic tradition in part to the West, would have had some indirect influence on St John of the Cross.  But by the time the texts of Cassian would have reached St John of the Cross, they would have been reinterpreted in conformity with Roman Catholic scholastic understandings of the human person.
Where we can find a discussion in context of bringing the mind into the heart is in the Philokalia and in the Ladder of Divine Ascent of St John of Sinai.  Also there is Elder Sophrony’s recent book on St. Silouan the Athonite.  There are texts in the Philokalia, such as of St Gregory of Sinai (14th Century), which discuss how to force the mind into the heart when it doesn’t want to descend on its own.  We are not recommending that anyone take up this practice of forcing, but we want to point out just how important the concept of bringing the mind into the heart is to the spirituality of the Orthodox Church.  However, precisely because the Roman Catholic tradition doesn’t foresee a basic aspect of this form of Orthodox Spirituality—intuitive cognition—Roman Catholic translations of Orthodox spiritual texts tend to present the texts in a sentimental light and are therefore to be avoided if one wants to understand how the Orthodox themselves view the Jesus Prayer.
It should be understood that the repetition of the Jesus Prayer is only the beginning of the spiritual road of the Philokalia.  The other part is the battle against tempting thoughts.  But this is an aspect of the Jesus Prayer that we dare say is completely ignored in Roman Catholic renditions of the practice.  For an understanding of the Jesus Prayer at this level, we would suggest the Ladder of St John of Sinai and St Diadochos of Photiki.  Our own translation of St Diadochos can be found in the archives for August, 2008.  Our commentary on his text can be found in the archives for March, April and May, 2009.
Briefly, the practice of the Jesus Prayer as found in the Orthodox Church begins with the repetition of the formula, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’—although other formulas are in use—and proceeds to the continuous oral repetition of the formula.  Then the practitioner proceeds to the silent repetition of the formula with the consciousness in the head.  Then the consciousness is gradually brought into the physical region of the heart (this takes a number of years of practice of the Prayer under the guidance of an experienced practitioner).  Then at some point, through Grace, the Prayer should begin to be repeated automatically in the heart.  St Diadochos discusses in his 5th Century work the repetition of the Prayer even in sleep.
As the consciousness becomes more focused because of the repetition of the Prayer the practitioner becomes more aware of tempting thoughts that intrude into the consciousness.  The practitioner of the Prayer begins to combat the intrusive tempting thoughts under the guidance of his spiritual teacher.  This is the mental ascesis that is so important a part of the tradition of the Jesus Prayer.  St Diadochos has much on this aspect of the Prayer.
Hence, the Jesus Prayer begins with the oral repetition of the Jesus Prayer and ends with the conscious automatic repetition of the formula in the heart, all the while the practitioner keeping the consciousness clear of tempting thoughts.
We are of the opinion that none of this is foreseen in Roman Catholic spiritual practice.
May God bless you.
UPDATE 2011/02/18:
Mr Courtney-Smith replies as follows (see his comment below the post):
Mr Courtney-Smith writes:
You encouraged me to read so I read many pages of the suggested material on this blog. I also did a search for the phrase ‘mind into heart’ and read the very few places the phrase actually occurs in context.
Still I find there is no answer provided to what seems a simple enough question.
You have said it is important to ‘move one’s mind into one’s heart’. (Am I correct?)
To which I simply wanted to ask the question:  “What do you mean?”
You said “we can move our consciousness around, in particular making it descend to the physical region of the heart”
I am asking sincerely, because in truth I am fully ignorant as I hope you will see.
Do you mean to suggest that it is your belief that it is possible to measure (in feet or cm) the distance of my consciousness from my eyes or heart or finger, or some other part of my body?
If I take the literal meaning of your words, that is what I would take them to mean. What do you mean?
I'm trying to be as specific as possible because I don't know what language you speak natively and subtleness can be easily lost in translation.
To me doing something 'physically' implies a change is some material the can be measured as a function of the physically properties of the object changed.
How do you mean the word physically?
These are reasonable questions.  First of all, our native language is not in issue.  What is in issue is a conceptual confusion.  Wittgenstein wanted to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle of conceptual confusion; Orthodox Monk wants to show Mr. Courtney-Smith the way out of the conceptual confusion in his head and into his heart.
Mr Courtney-Smith seems to have been trained in the physical sciences, possibly chemistry.  We would think that the only possible way to study the Jesus Prayer and the descent of the mind into the heart would be to have a practitioner from Mt Athos, if one could be found, to leave his cave and go to MIT to be studied in MIT’s program for studying meditation.  There they use a functional nuclear magnetic resonance imaging machine to study the parts of the brain that are active during various stages of meditation.  Presumably the practitioner would not be distracted by the machine environment and would bring his mind into his heart while the scholars studied what was happening to his brain function.  How the practitioner would signal that his mind was now into his heart is unknown to us, so we don’t know how the scientists would calibrate their images of brain function against the Athonite cave-dweller’s subjective experience.  Let’s suppose that it could be done.  We don’t know what would be found, but we are interested.  Orthodox Monk is an amateur but he would be delighted to go to MIT from his igloo in the Arctic for such a test.
Now while the Athonite cave-dweller was lying in the functional NMRI machine and bringing his mind into his heart, what would he understand?  Surely he would subjectively understand that his mind was in his heart.  What would that mean? Mr Courtney-Smith asks with exasperation.  Well, let’s see if we can explain on the basis of our amateur understanding.
Since our mind is our consciousness, we can focus it on a point.  Let us start with our finger.  I can concentrate on my finger.  Or I can concentrate on the mountain in the distance.
Now, remember that the Jesus Prayer is being repeated.  It is a fixed formula.  This has the effect of concentrating our mind on the words of the Prayer.  It’s a bit like karate.  The student of karate learns to concentrate on his fist the instant his fist makes contact with his opponent, so that all his mental energy is focused on the actual blow.
(Incidentally this is why you shouldn’t be doing the martial arts when you are doing the Jesus Prayer: they’re both tapping into some of the same human potentialities, but at cross purposes.  This is true even of the ‘soft-style’ martial arts, perhaps even more so because the soft-style martial arts are more systematically training the practitioner in a form of oriental meditation.  The principle, apart from dogmatic issues, is not to mix two forms of meditation.  Moreover, although we have defined the mind to Mr Courtney-Smith as the consciousness with which we experience reality, it should be understood that the mind is also the created spirit of man, the highest part of the soul.  It is with the mind that we apprehend spiritual realities, using the mind’s potential for intuitive cognition.  The problem is to encounter Orthodox spiritual realities; the danger is that we might encounter Satan masquerading as an angel of light.  Moreover, in our original reply to Sarah Jones, we recommended that she have a quiet time apart from prayer where ideally she would be working with her hands.  Our reasoning is that the practice of a handicraft, well-attested in the ascetical tradition, helps train the mind.)
So instead of concentrating on my finger, or even on the karate blow I am landing, I concentrate on the words of the Jesus Prayer.  But since the repetition of the Jesus Prayer is focusing my consciousness like a flame from a gas jet, and since I have an orientation in space and time, as I advance in the oral repetition of the Jesus Prayer, my consciousness is naturally focused on my tongue and mouth—after all that is where I am articulating the Jesus Prayer all day long.
Now let us say that I advance to the silent repetition of the Jesus Prayer.  Given the preceding, it should be clear that the silent words of the Jesus Prayer will present themselves as physically located in my head—that’s where we think and that is where our thoughts present themselves to us in consciousness.  Our mind has ascended from our mouth to inside our head.  So far we are sure that Mr Courtney-Smith is following.
Now the next stage is to integrate the silent repetition of the Jesus Prayer with the breath.  One mentally articulates the first half of the formula with the intake of the breath; one mentally articulates the second half of the formula with the outtake of the breath.  Now since the breath is descending into the lungs, the effect of this is that the gas jet of consciousness is going to follow the words of the Prayer into the lungs and then out of the lungs again.
The next stage is to bring the mind into the heart.  Here, the subjective experience is that there is a ‘road of descent’ into the heart that has been mapped by combining the silent repetition of the Prayer with the breath and that there is a place where the consciousness unites with the heart, taken to be the spiritual centre of the person.  The fathers place this spiritual centre in the region of the physical heart.  This is where the results of the functional NMRI would be interesting, although all it would show would be what the brain is doing at that moment, not what the heart is doing.  We suppose that they might also hook up an electrocardiograph to the practitioner of the Jesus Prayer, but we don’t know what it would show.  What the practitioner experiences subjectively is that his gas jet of consciousness is now centred in the region of his physical heart and that he is deep inside himself.
Mr Courtney-Smith wants to know what can be measured.  Hard to say since we are dealing with consciousness and with subjective experience.  Is it a mere fantasy?  No.  Without going into details, a Staretz can tell a disciple exactly where the disciple is silently praying the Jesus Prayer (in the heart?  in the head?) and could probably even tell him what formula he was using in his silent prayer—and sometimes even at a distance.  This is not just some Athonite mumbo-jumbo, self-hypnosis or whatever.  There is an objective dimension, but as with all religious experience it isn’t easily susceptible to scientific measurement.
Moreover, St Silouan the Athonite (†1938) attests that he was given the automatic repetition of the Jesus Prayer in the heart as a gift while he was praying before an icon of the Mother of God.  So we can see that there is also an element of the Grace of God in the practice of the Prayer.  See St. Silouan the Athonite by Arch. Sophrony (Sakharov).
Now to make things clear we have presented the above as a method of meditation.  Recall that in a previous post, Sarah Jones wanted to know about mechanical repetition of the Jesus Prayer and the danger of delusion.  Here we can see more clearly what the danger is.  Let us suppose that we are following the above schema (and it is schematic for ease of presentation) without being a committed member of the Church—the Orthodox Church.  Sarah quoted to us in her email a passage that suggested that there is a serious danger of falling into delusion, the deception of the Devil, if we do the above in a mechanical way.  We agree.
The descent of the mind into the heart is not only a phenomenon with spatial attributes but it is also a conscious penetration into the psychological regions of our personality that are usually called the unconscious or subconscious.  The result is that descending with the mind into the heart brings about an encounter with personal subconscious repressed material.  This material initially presents itself as an image that invites one to commit sin (of any number of kinds).  The ascetical Fathers discuss this sort of thing.  It is possible to force your mind into your heart before you are ready but you won’t have the strength to combat the tempting material you will encounter on the way.  You can go mad.
We have presented this in terms of natural psychology but at this level the ascetical tradition speaks of temptations from the demons.  This encounter on the road to the heart is also a spiritual phenomenon.  Recall that the gas jet of consciousness is our created spirit and that its capacity for intuitive cognition enables us to encounter spiritual realities.  The problem is that we are going to have to battle against demonic spiritual realities on the way to God.
To return to the issue of mechanical repetition, while the Jesus Prayer is being prayed in the above way, in the normal Orthodox case it is also ‘meant’ or ‘intended’.  As members of the Church we are engaged emotionally, psychologically and spiritually with the meanings or concepts contained in the words of the Prayer (‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’) in the way people understand when they say ‘he is praying from the heart’.  This is of course a different sense from what we mean by ‘bringing the mind into the heart’.  The repetition of the Prayer becomes an emotional, psychological and spiritual encounter, although there is equally a danger if too much emphasis is placed on emotion—that could lead to emotional exaggeration, and its attendant imbalance of personality.  Moreover, the Philokalia and all the other writings on the Jesus Prayer assume that the practitioner of the Jesus Prayer is a member in good standing of the Orthodox Church, regularly going to confession and when permitted to communion.  The Jesus Prayer is a part of the life of an engaged member of the Church.  Moreover, it is assumed that there will be a guide.  In this see Way of the Pilgrim, trans. by French.  Of course it is not clear if that book and its sequel is really a narrative of what actually happened, or else a literary creation in the form of autobiography.
We are not suggesting that anyone take up the Jesus Prayer without a guide.  We are merely trying to clarify how it is prayed.
UPDATE 2 2011/02/18:
Mr Courtney-Smith has again replied with a comment:
Interesting. Thank you very much, that actually makes quite a bit of sense to me.
The description you give of the subjective experienced has strong parallels to the descriptions found in The Dark Night of the Soul [by St John of the Cross] which is the only book of its type I have ever fully read.  To my recollection however The Dark Night does not give any specific instruction on how or what one should contemplate (other than God).  So I can see how this information seems to make a nice complement too it.  Inasmuch as they both describe meditation and its effects.
I looked up the Philokalia as I had never heard of it before. It seems like something that would be interesting to read. Although perhaps, like The Dark Night, it might be of limited value to me as I am not called to monasticism (at least not at this time).  How many pages is it?
Also, since you mentioned it, could you explain why grace being created or non-created is relevant to the topic of ‘bringing one’s mind into one’s heart’?  I don't see the connection.
Of course that is quite probably because the only definition of grace I was ever taught was ‘a gift freely given from God’.
It seems the purpose of prayer and meditation is closer union with God through Jesus, and I don't think there is any debate about the facts that Jesus is both uncreated Godhead and created Man.
Certainly we receive Jesus in the sacrament of Holy Communion (and this is all of him created and uncreated).
Isn't it the same being encountered in the sacrament but in deeper measure that the mystic hopes to encounter?
Let us give brief answers to the above.  The full extent of our knowledge of the theology of St John of the Cross is found in this post.
The Philokalia is, in the standard Greek edition, a five-volume work of texts on the Hesychastic tradition (what we’ve been discussing) that go from the 4th Century to the 18th (we believe).  The texts are arranged in chronological sequence.  His Eminence, Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware), was chief editor of an English translation published by Faber & Faber.  There is a good introduction.  Only the first four volumes of the English translation have been published.  We imagine that the five volumes of the English translation together would come to around 2000 pages.  The unpublished 5th volume is the one that contains material on forcing the mind into the heart; perhaps there was a fear that such information might be dangerous for the immature reader, we don’t know.  There is no canon of the Philokalia: it is a literary compilation that is witness to an oral tradition in the Orthodox Church.  There are editions of the Philokalia in Old Church Slavonic (liturgical Russian) and Romanian which are much longer than the Greek Philokalia.  This simply means that the various editors had access to much more material they thought suitable for inclusion in their edition.  The texts are written by the ascetical Fathers of the Orthodox tradition, so they are definitely at the level of St John of the Cross or St Theresa of Avila—i.e. not introductory.
At the level at which we have been discussing the Jesus Prayer in this post, the uncreated nature of Grace has nothing to do with it.
The uncreated nature of Grace is addressed by St Gregory Palamas (14th Century), who was a practitioner of the Jesus Prayer.  The issue has to do with the nature of light that Hesychasts experience: is it the uncreated effulgence of God or something else?  That is, the issue has more to do with the end of the Hesychastic road not with the basic practice as we have been describing it.
While we understand what Mr Courtney-Smith intends by ‘uncreated Godhead’, it is more proper to say that Jesus is true God and true Man, where as God he is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.  It should also be pointed out that the person of Jesus Christ is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.  That person took on a complete human nature.  But that human nature has never subsisted in a person other than the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.  To say otherwise is to fall into a Nestorian Christology.
It is certainly true that in the Orthodox Church it would be a perverse reading of Hesychasm indeed to say that there was something different about what the Orthodox Hesychast experiences receiving Holy Communion and what he experiences practising the Jesus Prayer.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Becoming Orthodox in America - 2

‘Sarah Jones’, the subject of ‘Becoming Orthodox in America’, sent us a reply to that post.  We have edited her reply rather more than usual so as to preserve her privacy, also integrating material from her subsequent emails.  Here is what Sarah says:
Thank you so much for your response on the blog. It was beautiful. I find it so interesting that you mentioned pleasing my husband because I have just recently asked him to lead me in deeper ways so that I don’t have to swim in the big ocean myself.
In the context of makeup, he would prefer me not to wear makeup, but my issues with vanity sometimes make me desire it anyway. He would rather me be modest than represent the world. It’s tough for me because I often want to be beautiful in the world’s eyes, instead of being more concerned with my soul. Sounds horrible just saying it, but it’s something I struggle with.
I love what you say about America. I just asked our priest last week how the American Orthodox churches differ from those overseas. Because quite honestly, I feel like they are often exactly what you said.  A Protestant version of Orthodox churches.  Trying to fit in.  Trying to make people feel comfortable.  I find that strange because St. John Chrysostom did anything but make people feel comfortable in the world.  He urged them toward God and away from the world.  I love him for his boldness in those areas.
I also find it funny that you said this:
Is that all Sarah can look forward to?  No.  There’s more.
I actually do love being a wife and mother so much. It doesn’t feel like a burden to me. Even with the three kids under three I want another!
Sadly, we do not have good relationships with any of our family. My husband’s family is very much against Orthodoxy. He was raised as a fundamentalist.
My parents are Roman Catholic and would rather that I stay Protestant because, according to them, if I become Orthodox I am going to be excommunicated from their church and to them I won’t be “saved.”
To explain, I was raised Roman Catholic in a very general sense. When I was a young adolescent I learned about God in a Protestant church and from there stayed a “Protestant.” My parents later started to practice Catholicism and wanted me to come back to the Roman Catholic Church instead of staying at the Protestant church.  Then I met my husband and his search through Church history brought him to the Orthodox Church. We will officially become members of the Orthodox Church in a few weeks.  My parents have said, “We would rather you stay Protestant as you have been because at least then you aren’t excommunicated.” Whereas, according to them, if I become Orthodox I will be excommunicated.
I have a couple more questions based on your response.
You said my husband isn’t to be my elder or confessor. Every night we spend some time praying together and confessing our sins to God in the presence of each other. Is this okay?
I do have quiet time. Check. When the kids are all sleeping and my husband is working. The nice thing is that we both work from home so I have him to help me during the day. We share the load.
And my other question is this:
I love the Jesus Prayer. But sometimes I don’t feel worthy of praying it. This really concerns me because I’ve been saying the Jesus Prayer all day every day. And then I read someone’s words about humility and the Prayer:
“If we pray the Jesus Prayer mechanically without humility, we run the risk of falling into delusion.”  [We have paraphrased the quotation – Orthodox Monk.]
And I feel like I don’t have humility so I’m not worthy of praying the Prayer. But I want to so much that it hurts and I just don’t know what I’m doing. I can’t tell if I’m doing it mechanically because I know I have so much pride. And then even when thinking of writing you about this I had a prideful thought like, “See, I can admit my pride, I’m so good.”  And then I realize I’m even more prideful than I thought five seconds ago!!!!!
I want the Grace of the Holy Spirit, but how can I have that when I’m so prideful? And how can I continue to prayer without ceasing if I’m still so prideful? I can’t imagine ever not having these prideful thoughts and if they are always there how will my prayers ever be genuine and not mechanical? How do I have a true prayer with pride in my heart? I just don’t understand.
Must run for now.
Thank you for your guidance.
Sarah Jones
Let’s start with one of the basic issues, converting from what seems to be a fairly charismatic form of Protestantism to Orthodoxy.
Sarah writes:  ‘My parents have said, “We would rather you stay Protestant as you have been because at least then you aren’t excommunicated.” Whereas, according to them, if I become Orthodox I will be excommunicated.’
We find it hard to understand the reasoning of Sarah’s parents, assuming that Sarah has got it right in what she writes.  What does excommunication mean?  In the Roman Catholic Church it means that although you remain a baptized Roman Catholic, your membership in the Church is impaired.  The canons of the Roman Catholic Church which explain what offenses incur excommunication are to be found here.
It seems obvious that from the point of view of the Roman Catholic Church joining the Orthodox Church means falling into schism, which is punished by automatic excommunication (with the normal reservations in Roman Catholic theology about clear intention and conscious understanding of one’s act).  However, from the point of view of the Roman Catholic Church joining a Protestant church means falling into heresy, which is also punished by automatic excommunication.  Moreover, heresy is a more serious sin than schism, so from the point of view of the Roman Catholic Church, surely becoming a fundamentalist Protestant is worse than becoming Orthodox.  The only way we can make sense of what we read is if Sarah’s parents understand Sarah’s participation in Protestantism to be a sort of acceptable ‘child’s play’ which doesn’t have anything real to do with Sarah’s membership in the Roman Catholic Church.  Sort of like the Catholic Charismatic Renewal.  But that surely is not the official position of the Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law.
From the point of view of the Orthodox Church what does becoming a member of the Orthodox Church mean?  It seems obvious that it means that you leave the old church or religion or belief system behind—whatever it might be—in order to enter the one true church founded by Jesus Christ on the original Day of Pentecost.  Hence, it means that you are baptized into a new life in the Orthodox Church.  In fact, this is precisely the reasoning of those jurisdictions which always receive converts to Orthodoxy by Baptism.  In cases where a person is received by means other than Baptism (usually but not always Chrismation) the formal theological position of most Orthodox jurisdictions is that ‘economy’ is being exercised: the means exercised in the ‘economy’ give validity to the original mystery of baptism administered outside the Orthodox Church.  There is another more recent ecumenical stream which treats Roman Catholic sacraments as valid but this stream is not fully received within the Orthodox Church.
Hence, among those jurisdictions that receive by Baptism—including those like the Orthodox Church in America that permit reception by Baptism if the mystery is requested by the convert—one dies to the old way of life.  One then begins to share in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is not accidental that immediately after Baptism the newly-baptized person (even an infant) is immediately communicated with the Body and Blood of Christ.
Perhaps what underlies the comment of Sarah’s parents is the realization that by joining the Orthodox Church Sarah is making a definitive break with Catholicism—something that didn’t seem to them to be the case when Sarah was Protestant.
Be that as it may, it should be clear to Sarah and to her husband that joining the Orthodox Church is best understood not as joining one more denomination—Protestantism with icons—but as dying to the past.  The reason to make this act of dying to the past is to put on Christ.
Now we would like to address Sarah’s more particular issues in the context of the above.
We would first like to look at the practice of Sarah and her husband of praying together every evening and confessing their sins orally to God in front of each other.  We cannot say flatly that this practice is wrong.  We can say that we have never heard of it being practiced in the Orthodox Church.
The norm that we have been taught is that in the best of all possible worlds, in the Orthodox Church a husband and wife have the same confessor.  They confess individually and separately to the confessor, but the confessor guides the couple ‘as a unit’.  That is, the confessor guides each member of the marriage in such a way that the two persons live in Orthodox Christian harmony.  Of course, if the confessor is a clairvoyant Orthodox Elder, so much the better.  But as we pointed out in the last post, where are Sarah and her husband going to find such a confessor, or such a clairvoyant Elder?  We don’t know.  Moreover, one cannot insist to their spouse that they go to their confessor for confession.  This is something that has to happen by free choice.  The spouse might go to another confessor, might not even go to confession at all.  This is a reality that the other spouse has to live with.
We would think that Sarah’s and her husband’s practice in fact arises from a somewhat charismatic form of Protestantism.  While we are not in a position to reject it out of hand, we would think that Sarah and her husband should discuss this practice with the priest that is receiving them.
Why?  At the present time, Sarah and her husband seem to thrive, especially on the psychological intimacy and mutual respect implied by the practice.  It is not clear to us, however, whether as the couple grows older—as we all do—that they will be able to maintain this level of zeal.  They might; they might not; we don’t know.
There is another aspect of this practice that troubles us.  Let us take a small charismatic prayer group—up to 10 people.  It seems clear to us personally that in such a small group of people that is praying together regularly, there develops a psychological dynamic among the participants: someone becomes de facto leader of the group even if the formal belief system of the group is that there is no leader.  Moreover, while the group prays orally there may be hidden or covert psychological cues as to what is acceptable to do or say or pray during or even after the group prayer meeting, cues that might be enforced by psychological or even physical coercion.  This is what is known as ‘group think’.  This is the sort of thing that a social psychologist studies—human group dynamics.  There is a substantial academic and scientific literature on how people interact in small groups.  By referring to social psychologists, we are not saying flatly that such small prayer groups are bad.  We are saying that they can be dangerous.  They can get out of hand.  This is especially true if there is a charismatic element in them.
Similarly, a social psychologist observing the confession practices of Sarah and her husband over a period of days or weeks might note the psychological dynamics of the practice and its effect on the broader relationship of Sarah and her husband.  The psychological dynamics might be great; they might be unhealthy.  Orthodox Monk is not clairvoyant.  He has no idea.
So we have a situation in which a practice which doesn’t seem to be attested in the Orthodox Church might carry with it some risks for the long-term stability of Sarah and her husband’s marriage.
But again this is something that should be discussed with the priest.  As we pointed out, the whole point of becoming Orthodox is to die to the past so as to live in Christ in the Orthodox Church.
Sarah also remarks that she has recently asked her husband him to lead her ‘in deeper ways so that [she] don’t have to swim in the big ocean [her]self’.  In the Orthodox Church, what is the relationship between man and wife at this deep level?  This is an issue that Orthodox Monk, a celibate monk, doesn’t really feel competent to judge.  We think that this is something that should be discussed frankly—with both members of the marriage present—with the priest that is going to receive the couple.
There is a cultural dimension here.  Obviously Sarah and her husband are not going to reproduce an Arab Orthodox family structure in America given that neither is Arab.  It is not obvious that the roles of husband and wife in an American Orthodox marriage would necessarily be the roles defined for Orthodox man and wife ‘in the Old Country’.  In some aspects they would be; in others not.
There is also a theological dimension.  St Paul speaks of the relation between husband and wife.  However, St Paul teaches us not only that the wife should please her husband, but also that the husband should please his wife.  It’s a two-way street in St Paul’s view.  However, St Paul is clear that the man is head of the wife.
There is also a psychological dimension.  As a professional psychologist can easily tell Sarah and her husband, in any marriage, husband and wife are united in ways that depend on the underlying character of the husband and wife.  From the psychological point of view, there are marriages in which the husband is dominant; there are marriages in which the wife is dominant; and this depends on the character of the man and woman and how the two characters interact in the marriage.
This is something that Sarah and her husband are going to have to discuss among themselves and with the priest with a view to understanding what the Orthodox Church teaches.
Sarah’s next question is about her practice of the Jesus Prayer, especially given what she perceives to be her pride.
Sarah quotes someone to say that the mechanical practice of the Jesus Prayer often leads to delusion.  Sarah is worried that she is praying the Jesus Prayer mechanically.  Now our sense is that what the original author of the remark Sarah quoted meant is that someone who prays the Jesus Prayer ‘like a New-Age mantra’ without being a committed Christian runs the danger of being deceived by the Devil.  We agree.  We don’t think that the person meant that we always have to be in a state of ecstasy when we pray the Jesus Prayer.  If that were so, we wouldn’t need to pray the Jesus Prayer—we would already be in a continuous state of ecstasy!
We would recommend that Sarah and her husband study the text and commentary of the Gnostic Chapters of St Diadochos of Photiki.  It’s one of the labels in the right margin of this blog.  St Diadochos spends much time discussing the connection between Baptism and the Jesus Prayer.
However, given the zeal that Sarah manifests in her second email, we would repeat that it is dangerous to practice the Jesus Prayer without a guide.
Let us take a particular example so as to see where the problem lies.  Sarah has proud thoughts.  She takes those thoughts as proof she is proud.  She might be proud; she might not be—not being clairvoyant we have no idea—but Sarah’s thoughts are not the criterion to establish whether she is proud or not.  They are logismoi: tempting thoughts.  People who intensively pray the Jesus Prayer have all kinds of tempting thoughts.  They are to be ignored or, if you have the spiritual strength, rejected.  Part of the advanced practice of the Jesus Prayer is the battle against tempting thoughts.  Now we are getting into serious Orthodox spirituality.  But now we can see why Sarah needs a guide.  Orthodox Monk is just an idiot on a blog.  Sarah and her husband, in order to practice the Jesus Prayer seriously, need a flesh and blood guide who can see them regularly and discuss their spiritual life, so that, for example, Sarah can learn what it means to pray the Jesus Prayer mechanically and what a tempting thought is.
Let us return to the practice of Sarah and her husband of confessing their sins in front of each other every evening.
As we have heard from our old friend George who spends much time on Mt Athos, this is the sort of thing that a disciple living in a cell on Mt Athos with an Elder would do when he was engaged in the serious practice of the Jesus Prayer—when the disciple was praying the Jesus Prayer all day long like Sarah does.  Every evening the disciple would confess his acts of sin to his Elder and also the tempting thoughts that were afflicting him during the day.  The Elder would be experienced in the Jesus Prayer—chances are that he would have the internal automatic repetition of the Prayer—so as to understand from the inside the spiritual road that his disciple was on.  He would also possibly be clairvoyant, so as to understand the thought-world of his disciple from the inside—in these cases the Elder knows what the disciple is going to say before the disciple says it.  Even if the Elder is not clairvoyant and even if the Elder is not a formal priest and confessor, the disciple’s very act of confession has the effect of liberating the disciple from the tempting thought.  In cases of serious sin, if the Elder were not a priest empowered to hear confessions, he would send the disciple to a confessor.  By law on Mt Athos, the disciple can choose his own confessor, although if the Elder in the cell is himself a priest and confessor he probably would not accept a disciple that didn’t want to confess to him.
So we can see a number of similarities between the practices of Sarah and her husband and practice in a cell on Mt Athos.  But Sarah and her husband are not monks on Mt Athos.  And this is probably where the counsels for moderation from people around them arise.  Sarah and her husband need a guide.  Orthodox Monk is just the play of dancing electrons.
Moreover, Sarah and her husband would do well to reflect on the nature of their conversion to Orthodoxy, whether they are prepared to die to the past.
May God bless them.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Becoming Orthodox in America

A reader has sent us a very interesting email.  We will call her Sarah Jones, not her real name.  She has accepted that we discuss her email on the blog.  Here is what she says:
Dear Orthodox Monk(s),
I am so happy to have found this blog.  For numerous reasons. I was going to write out a big, long email, but I feel like such a fool that I don’t even want to burden you with my thoughts.  My thoughts are what I want less of.
My simple question is: for someone in the world who is married with children, how can I pursue the ascetic life?  The more I seem to go in the direction, the more I hear that I am to be “moderate.”  For example, having an issue with pride and vanity and in turn, not wanting to wear makeup or wear the latest fashions.  That is seen as “extreme” and for “monks and nuns.”  That monastic life isn’t for everyone. I understand that I am not a nun, but I so desperately want to grow closer to God and moderation doesn’t make sense to me.
What is moderation and how does it apply to the spiritual journey for those who are married?  I am prideful, so prideful, and the more I look to God, the more I realize I need to get rid of my “self.”  My opinions, my thoughts, my, me, me, me, my, I, me ...  I am young. I am 25.  I am married and have three babies.  New to the Orthodox Church.  I am young spiritually and in age.  To me, it seems the only way to fill this insatiable thirst for God is to grow closer to Him and further from things of this world, but getting rid of worldly attachments, in some cases, is extreme, isn’t it?
I know I have probably come across as foolish.  Forgive me if I have wasted your time.  I know you get many emails.  If you could discuss this on the blog sometime I’d much appreciate it.
Thank you so much,
Sarah Jones
Let see if we can address the issues.  We won’t list what we think to be the points Sarah is making; her email seems too clear for that.   We should point out that all we know about Sarah is what she says in her email.
The key issue seems to be this.  Sarah has recently joined the Orthodox Church.  She feels an insatiable desire for God.  But she is being told that she is not a nun, that she must be moderate.  She is also married with three babies, 25 years old.  How is she going to go to God?
There are several dimensions to this problem—and it is a problem.
The first dimension is where Sarah is.  She is in America.  The state of Orthodoxy in America is problematical.  There are jurisdictions which are rigorist—letter of the law types—and there are jurisdictions whose fondest wish is to blend into the liberal Protestant woodwork of America—American Protestantism with icons.  Then there are jurisdictions whose fondest wish is to folk dance just like in the old country.  In this context Sarah has become a zealous convert to Orthodoxy.
Next, Sarah is married.  In our post ‘Questions about Orthodox Monasticism’ we quoted the Apostle Paul as follows:
He who is unmarried takes care for the things of the Lord, how he will please the Lord. But he who marries takes care for the things of the world, how he will please his wife. For the married woman and the maiden have been divided. She who is unmarried takes care for the things of the Lord so that she be holy in body and spirit. She who has been married takes care for the things of the world, how she will please her husband.    A woman is bound by the law as long as her husband is alive. If her husband passes away, she is free to marry whom she wants, only in the Lord. But in my opinion she is more blessed if she remains thus [i.e. an unmarried widow], and I think that I have the Spirit of God. (1 Corinthians 7, 25 – 40.)
Concerning, then, those things which you wrote to me, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. On account, however, of [the danger of] fornication let each [man] have his own wife, and each [woman] have her own husband. Let the man render to the wife the favour which is owed and likewise the wife to the husband. For the woman does not have authority over her own body but the husband; likewise the man does not have authority over his own body but the wife. Do not deny each other, unless it is by mutual agreement for a time so as to dedicate yourselves to fasting and to prayer and then to come together again, so that Satan not tempt you on account of your incontinence. I say this by way of concession not by way of command. For I wish that all men were as myself. But everyone has his own gift from God, one this way and one that way. I say then to the unmarried and to the widows that it is good for them to remain even as I am but if they do not keep continent then let them marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. I command those who are married, however, not I but the Lord, that the woman must not separate from her husband. But if she separates, let her remain unmarried or else let her be reconciled to her husband; and let the husband not leave his wife.   (1 Corinthians 1 – 11.)
We would recommend that Sarah read the whole post and the following one, ‘The Monastic Vocation’.  We do not want to make Sarah a nun.  Sarah has three babies and a husband.  No one, not even Sarah, believes that it’s time for Sarah to enter a monastery. However, we think that Sarah should study those posts because in them we discuss the vocation to marriage at the same time as the vocation to celibacy.
Sarah remarks that she feels very self-centred.  We will remark on the spiritual aspects of this feeling below, but here we want to remark that St Paul provides in the first passage above one of the key methods of ascesis for the married woman—and married man!  The married person is to cut his or her will off to the spouse.  ‘She who has been married takes care for the things of the world, how she will please her husband.’  Moreover, we see in the second passage just how far this other-orientedness goes: ‘Let the man render to the wife the favour which is owed and likewise the wife to the husband. For the woman does not have authority over her own body but the husband; likewise the man does not have authority over his own body but the wife. Do not deny each other, unless it is by mutual agreement for a time so as to dedicate yourselves to fasting and to prayer and then to come together again, so that Satan not tempt you on account of your incontinence.’
So we can see that one of the main ways in which Sarah is going to become humble is to put these two passages into practice.  With zeal.
In this regard it is worthwhile to direct Sarah to read St John Chrysostom, who was a monk and Patriarch of Constantinople and a great moralist, concerning marriage.  He follows the indications of St Paul above.  He does not suggest that man and wife live as brother and sister.
Moreover, in the Pidalion, the compendium for confessors of canons of the Church, with commentary, of St Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain (of Athos), St Nikodemos instructs the confessor to discourage young married couples from living as brother and sister.  He leaves the possibility open to older couples.  This is something that has to be grown into by the husband and wife on a mutual basis.
Moreover, in the Life of St Hilarion, contemporary and friend of St Anthony the Great, there is the episode where a wife with zeal for God is refusing her husband.  St Hilarion leads her to be reconciled to her husband.
Now a fundamental principle of asceticism is that it is by keeping the Commandments that we approach God.  Bodily asceticism only has meaning as a tool to help us keep the Commandments.  It is only after a long period of keeping the Commandments that we enter into advanced stages of prayer.  The Dismissal Hymn of ascetics says something to the effect, ‘Keeping the Commandments (praxis) is the stepping stone to contemplation (theoria).’  What this means is that it is by keeping the Commandments that we are made able to enter into advanced stages of prayer and union with God, which is what Sarah zealously desires.
Hence, the basic matrix of keeping the Commandments is for Sarah, and for every married woman, to be a good wife and mother.  This has a lot of implications.  Sarah wonders, for example, whether she should avoid wearing make-up and the latest fashions.  The first thing she is going to have to do is discuss this with her husband.  What does he want?  He might not like make-up; he might like it.  Sarah is going to have to be psychologically available to her husband.  This is what it means to please her husband.  Similarly with the latest fashions.  Sarah might not need to wear Prada—after all the Devil wears Prada—but there is a lot of room between wearing Prada and being dowdy.  Sarah’s husband might be relieved that Sarah doesn’t want to wear Prada—it’s expensive—but he might prefer a little stylishness so that he’s proud to walk down the street with his wife.  Sarah is going to have to have a serious discussion with her husband about these things.  This cutting off of her own will is what will cure her of her pride—over a period of years; it is not something that happens in a day.
Moreover, with three babies, Sarah has to be available to her babies not only psychologically but physically.  There’s a lot of obedience in responding to infants’ needs.  Infants don’t understand, they want what they want NOW.
Is that all Sarah can look forward to?  No.  There’s more.
First of all, even in marriage each person has his or her own interior life.  Although Sarah is to be psychologically available to her husband and her family in every way, that does not mean that her husband is her ‘Elder’ or ‘Confessor’.  He has his own spiritual life and she has hers.  He might go to Holy Communion; she might not; and vice versa.  We are united in marriage but we continue to be separate, autonomous human beings before God.  As the Gospel says, the husband and wife become one flesh.  It does not say they become one soul.
Moreover, although the husband and wife become one flesh, that does not mean that the one partner should sin because the other partner wants to.  Our road to God is to keep the Commandments.  In cases where there is a tension between the wish to please the spouse and the requirement to keep the Commandments of God, one must keep the Commandments.
So in the context of pleasing her husband, Sarah should work on her personal spiritual life.  Now we don’t know Sarah.  We don’t know how educated she is, how intelligent she is, what aptitudes she has, her underlying psychological strength, her emotional maturity, her basic spiritual maturity.  We don’t even know whether she has become Orthodox by Baptism, something we recommend.  So what we are going to counsel Sarah is subject to the cautions that we don’t know the facts about Sarah and that Sarah has to be guided by someone who knows her.  We can only enunciate general principles.
Now one of the things we don’t know is whether Sarah and her husband are living in a nuclear family or whether they have their parents and in-laws and relatives close at hand.  From a practical point of view, if Sarah and her husband are getting along with their relatives and they are close by, Sarah could do with some assistance in the home.  Three babies is a lot for a 25 year-old woman.
Next, it would be good for Sarah to have some private time each day.  Subject to our cautions, it would be good for Sarah to have a private space where she would do something with her hands—paint icons, sew vestments or something.  We would recommend something that is not an intellectual endeavour so that Sarah can pray the Jesus Prayer while she is doing whatever she is doing with her hands.  But as we said, we don’t know Sarah’s aptitudes.  The main requirement is for Sarah to have some time to herself every day, time that is quiet and non-intellectual, time that can be filled with the Jesus Prayer while she is working.  This is apart from actual prayer time.  That is something different.  Of course, this raises the question of who is going to look after the kids.
Next, not only do we not know Sarah’s aptitudes, we also don’t know Sarah’s personal or the family’s more general economic circumstances.  Are they poor?  Rich?  Getting by?  Barely getting by?  We don’t know.  If there is an economic issue, Sarah’s quiet time could be used in an activity that might bring some income into the family.  Does this sound crass and mercenary?  The wisdom literature of the Old Testament praises the wife who works with her hands, accumulating linens she has woven, and so on.  So while Sarah could be praying the Jesus Prayer while she works, she could also be helping the family out economically.
Moreover, it would be good for Sarah to have a skill to fall back on should something happen in the family and she needs to work to support herself or the family.
Of course, if Sarah has a Ph.D. in physics, from the economic point of view it might make more sense for her to get a job as a researcher, perhaps even by computer from home.  But working with her hands she will be able to pray the Jesus Prayer in her quiet-time job.
Next, with the cautions we have expressed above, there is no reason that Sarah couldn’t be praying the Jesus Prayer while she goes through her day changing diapers for three babies, making breakfast for the family and so on.  But this requires guidance.  It simply is impossible to do this without danger and someone has to guide us.  This is where we get back to the problem of becoming Orthodox in America.  Where is Sarah going to find a guide?  We don’t know.
Moreover, we would caution Sarah that it is not the way to go to refuse to kiss her husband because she is practising the Jesus Prayer all through the day and doesn’t want to lose the thread of the Prayer.  This is the road to divorce court. 
However, subject to our cautions, there is no reason that Sarah couldn’t practise the Jesus Prayer all through the day, being available to everyone in their time.  It is possible to do this—to pray the Jesus Prayer continually, interrupting it to respond to the other’s needs, then to resume the Jesus Prayer.
But someone will insist that this is very advanced.  And here is where we come back to the issue of ‘moderation’ in contemporary American Orthodoxy.  There are two issues.  The first we have already alluded to, that American Orthodoxy is not a ‘peak’ expression of historical Orthodoxy.  It has problems.  One of the consequences of the problems is that American Orthodoxy is at a very low standard spiritually, with a dearth of balanced confessors that can guide a zealous soul in the right direction.
There is a second issue of moderation here.  ‘Moderation’ really means ‘the right measure at the right time for the person in question’.  Moderation avoids extremes either of slackness or of over-zealousness for the person in question.  But only a clairvoyant Elder can with assurance guide a person in moderation, since only a clairvoyant Elder has clear insight into the actual spiritual condition of the person being guided.
Let us make an analogy.  As we said, we don’t know Sarah so we don’t know whether she is a born klutz or a born athlete.  Let’s suppose, however, that Sarah has an interest in running.  She likes running.  She runs all day long.  Now she thinks that it might be good to get a little professional training—maybe she might be able to compete in a local contest.  Now depending on Sarah’s aptitudes, she might be an intrinsically lousy runner or she might be Olympic stuff.
Let’s suppose that Sarah lives some place where there are no professional athletes and no professional coaches.  People around Sarah say, ‘You got to be moderate, Sarah!  All this running is going to damage you!’  But Sarah wants to run.  And run!  The only solution is for Sarah to find a professional running coach and work with him.  The coach might say, ‘Sarah, you’re a klutz.  Run a couple of miles a day for relaxation and leave it; you’re going nowhere; it would be criminal for me to take your money to coach you.’  Or he might say, ‘Sarah, you’ve got potential; you’ve got to work on it but I can see you going places.’  In the first case, the coach’s advice for moderation would be for Sarah to run a couple of miles a day and to get on with the rest of her life.  In the second case, the coach’s advice for moderation might be for her to run only 20 miles a day and to avoid performance-enhancing drugs.  It depends on who you are.
The same holds for the spiritual life.  This is the second issue concerning moderation.  Moderation is keyed not only to our environment but to who we are.
So we would say that Sarah should make an attempt to find ‘a professional spiritual coach’ and get assessed.  Hopefully she will be able to receive guidance on an ongoing basis from that coach.
In general, Sarah should express her zeal in the context of the Orthodox Church and in the context of her psychological availability to her husband and her children and in the context of her actual potentialities and weaknesses as assessed by the professional spiritual coach.
Finally, we would like to return to Sarah’s comment that she feels completely proud and self-centred.  Sarah, we see this as a good sign.  If we are not mistaken—and we usually are—this is a sign of God’s grace in you.  It is when we don’t feel that we are so far from God that God has left us to our own devices.  When we feel that we are so proud and far from God, it is often because the grace of God is upon us showing us what we have to do.
May God bless you.