Mystical Prayer and Biblical Christianity 4: Silence, Scripture, and the Jesus Prayer

Athonites at prayer

So we come to the final post of my meandering thoughts provoked by Chapter 4 of Prayer by Timothy Keller. I have not read the whole book, so maybe some of my concerns will be settled later. And we finally meet the issue that perhaps got me on guard in the first place — the Jesus Prayer.

The analysis of mystical prayer from Davis’s book as delivered by Keller is more open to the Jesus Prayer but also takes it to task. His first concern is, apparently, that many people use the Jesus Prayer to ‘block out all thoughts’. That is not how it is recommended by Kallistos Ware in The Jesus Prayer and The Power of the Name, nor in the Russian classic The Way of a Pilgrim. It is not how Fr Raphael has taught me to pray it. Nor is it how western Christians describe its use, whether John Michael Talbot in his book The Music of Creation and on his YouTube channel or Richard Foster in Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home. And it is not in the spirit of inner prayer as recommended in The Philokalia.

But it is true that inner prayer is meant to help us block out thoughts, and that the Jesus Prayer is recommended as part of that. But the ascetic philosophy of the thoughts, the logismoi (in Greek), is not the blocking out of all thoughts. It is the attempt to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12) and to seek to order our thoughts towards God, towards Christ, and to his kingdom. The inner experience of Christian spirituality, the quest for inner prayer, the resting in silence, is an attempt to quiet the chatter that rules in the hearts and minds of most of us.

Consider, therefore, what Martin Luther said, that one cannot stop birds from flying overhead, but one can stop them from making nests in one’s hair. The Jesus Prayer is a way of keeping irrelevant and even sinful thoughts from nesting in our hair. An entirely salutary endeavour.

In his handy booklet Meditative Prayer, Richard Foster explains that Christian meditative techniques exist to help us empty ourselves so that God and Christ can fill us instead. If we consider that mystical prayer, inner prayer, the Jesus Prayer, are meant to be part of a full and rich Christian life, such as I’ve discussed in the earlier posts of this series (here and here), then there is nothing wrong with seeking to silence our inner chatter.

Furthermore, Davis’s other criticisms of the Jesus Prayer are either about its abuse or entirely unfounded. I agree with resisting the abuse of the Jesus Prayer. However, he complains that it makes no mention of God the Father, in whose Name Jesus asks us to pray, and that it only names us as ‘sinners’, not as God’s justified, adopted children.

The first of these two complaints boggles the mind. I am reminded of a friend who was concerned after visiting an Anglican church with me that so many prayers end with ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost’, given that Scripture calls us to pray in Jesus’ name. Scripture calls us to pray in the names of both Father and Son. To reject the Jesus Prayer because it doesn’t mention the Father is a form of biblicism almost as dangerous as the aberrations of the Jesus Prayer Davis criticises.

The second is related. Our primary stance before God is always that we are sinners. Simul iustus et peccator — at the same time justified/righteous and a sinner. The Jesus Prayer draws on Scripture, so the closing words, ‘a sinner’, are actually Scripture, from the parable of the publican and the Pharisee in Luke 18. Furthermore, it is not necessary to close the prayer with those words, anyway — some stop at ‘have mercy on me’, others at ‘have mercy’.

The Jesus Prayer draws its words from Scripture, and its invocation of the name of Jesus — Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God — encapsulates orthodox Christology, while the plea — have mercy on me, a sinner — grasps biblical anthropology. Christ has mercy on us. We are sinners. This is all biblical truth. Davis’s grounds are almost manufactured, as though he came expecting a fight.

This brings me to my final thought, which is the relationship of our spiritual practices and disciplines to Sacred Scripture.

The Bible is the record of God’s interactions with the human race and his self-revelation to humanity. It is the normative source of all of our doctrine, ethics, and spiritual disciplines. Anything we do or teach in relation to theology and spirituality must be held up to the light of Scripture. If it is contrary to Scripture, we should reject it. If it is commended, commanded, assumed by Scripture, we are to believe it, live it, do it. (I say this as a fairly committed Anglican who usually believes most of the 39 Articles.)

What about the rest? The rest are to be taken on the basis of the lived experience of Christ’s body throughout the ages, the great cloud of witnesses. If something is not contrary to Scripture, but is not explicitly recommended, and if other Christians have found it helpful, I see no reason to reject it.

I, for one, have found the Jesus Prayer to be a very salutary experience. It has helped me grow in virtue, in holiness, in grace. It has cooled my anger, calmed my anxiety, made me more peaceful overall. It has brought me closer to God. Not because it is magic. Not because it is the only way to approach God. But because, through attentive prayer and focus on Christ, I have found His grace ready and available.

I do not think everyone must pray the Jesus Prayer. I don’t think all Christians need to practise inner prayer or contemplative activity. But I think none should be barred from such prayer, many of us have profited from it, and perhaps still others need it just as other Christians need other practices.

Mystical Prayer and Biblical Christianity 3: Pantheism?

My third point from yesterday’s post was that, contrary to how it seems to be presented by Keller in his analysis of the work of Davis in Chapter 4 of Prayer, mysticism is not about turning ‘inward’ simply to find God within me, and it is certainly not pantheist.

Here’s where I’ll finally get biblical, I guess. Davis via Keller rightly argues that prayer is meant to be focussed upward. Amen. So say all of us. However, God is both immanent and transcendent, and we must wrestle with this tension of the reality of God’s presence and absence in our lives, just as we accept on biblical authority that he exists as three persons in one essence and that Jesus Christ is fully man and fully God existing as a single person.

That God is transcendent is, in fact, the root of apophatic Christianity — the via negativa, the path that seeks to silence all created thoughts and ideas to find an encounter with God. God is wholly other. This is the thrust of Genesis 1 — ‘In the beginning, God.’ Creatio ex nihilo is a rare idea in the ancient world, but it is rooted in Scripture, and it tells us that there is an ontological gulf between us and the Divine Person(s).

Furthermore, Isaiah 55:8 says:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. (NIV)

Indeed, the otherness and holiness and power and majesty of the glorious splendour of the transcendent God when he appears in glory before Isaiah causes him to fall on his face. Ezekiel’s vision of God is a singularly bizarre encounter that I doubt even Scripture has done justice to.

But God loves us. Mystical theology is rooted, I would argue, in the incarnation of God the Word. God loves us so much that he became one of us, suffered, thirsted, grew weary, ate food, was beaten, bruised, crucified, died. He tasted all there is to be human except for sin. God knows us intimately, and he is not disconnected from the human condition. This is the message of the Incarnation as found in the Gospels and laid out for us in the Apostolic epistles.

Not only this, of course, but, as St Paul famously said, ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’ So God, in fact, is within me. He is so close to me, so near, so intimate with me because he is so other than me that he is simultaneously everywhere in universe at once, yet my own sin and clouded vision enable me to see only as through a glass darkly. The Kingdom of God is within you, but we don’t always realise it.

The mystics know this. There are certainly trends within the mystical tradition of Evagrius of Pontus and Pseudo-Dionysius in particular that make his transcendence an unsuperable gulf, and Protestants have generally taken an Evagrian or Dionysian theology as the basis of mysticism at large and thus rejected the wider tradition that is rooted in Scripture, in prayer, in the sacraments, and in the liturgy of the church simply through unfamiliarity with it.

There are also trends in some current discussions of mysticism that forget the transcendent gulf and jeopardise the difference between Creator and created. These trends are not part of the mainstream of Christian mysticism as I know it — certainly not in Eastern Orthodoxy, where the mysticism of St Gregory Palamas, for example, acknowledges the difference between us and God and allows for a way to express ideas of ‘union’ that are, perhaps, better understood in the English language as communion.

To be fair, Keller is not, however, as severely critical as Davis, and he seeks balance. However, J.I. Packer whom Keller sees as bringing balance carries similar suspicions when he characterises Neoplatonic/Dionysian mysticism:

God is to be realized and contemplated as an impersonal presence rather than a personal friend.

This, again, is not the majority tradition, is not the tradition rooted in Scripture and tradition that is the best on offer from Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox mysticism.

The solution Packer offers, as quoted by Keller:

there is a place for silence before God . . . after we have spoken to him, while joy at God’s love invades the soul.

I am not certain that silence need be so narrowly sought.

And so, in my final post in this meandering thought process, I’ll talk about silence, Scripture, and the Jesus Prayer.

Mystical Prayer and Biblical Christianity 2: Silence in context

Continuing from yesterday’s post about Timothy Keller’s negative views of mysticism in Prayer, I would like to discuss the lived reality of the mystical, contemplative tradition within Christianity. The arguments of John Jefferson Davis as presented by Keller present an opposition, almost a mutual exclusivity, between verbal prayer and non-verbal silent prayer.

It is true that Christians from at least as far back as Evagrius of Pontus in the 300s have said things like, ‘Contemplation of the most holy Trinity is the highest calling of the Christian.’ (Evagrius said that, in fact.) And it is worth challenging this pre-eminence given to mystical contemplation in certain corners of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox worlds, using Scripture and other pathways of tradition in the process.

The lived experience of most mystics is not one of opposition to verbal prayer, however. We cannot understand Christian mysticism and contemplation if we choose to look at, say, only Thomas Merton’s more Buddhist moments or Anthony de Mello’s truly Buddhist moments or only the works about mysticism by certain writers. Christian mysticism as practised by the majority of believers seeking inner peace, seeking God in silence, seeking inner prayer, treading the path of negation, is not done in a pure vacuum.

And it seems to me that Davis as represented (and tacitly endorsed?) by Keller either misunderstands mysticism as a whole or has only read certain works that espouse a certain view. First, mysticism is not done in pure isolation. Second, contemplative prayer is part of a wider life of Christian discipline and service. Third, turning ‘inward’ to God is not pantheism and does not ignore transcendence since it is also a turning ‘upward’, which is precisely what Davis believes prayer should do.

First, then — mystical exercises, contemplative prayer, are not matters done in isolation. While there have been and still are hermits and anchorites who spend their days alone, this is not the experience of the bulk of the Christians within the mystical tradition.

As they come to mind: St Hildegard was an abbess, St Bernard an abbot, St Bonaventure a travelling preacher and head of the Franciscan order, Meister Eckhart a Dominican preacher, St Catherine of Siena a nun in community, although Lady Julian of Norwich was an anchorite she had visitors, St John Climacus an abbot, St John Cassian an abbot, St Maximus the Confessor was involved in controversy as was St Gregory Palamas, St Teresa of Ávila was an abbess, St John of the Cross was an abbot and also spent some time imprisoned by fellow monks, Brother Lawrence a Carmelite laybrother, and on and on and on.

St Basil the Great, himself a founder of the ascetic, monastic tradition wherein mysticism flourishes, believed in the necessity of community. So did St Benedict, for that matter. The regulated Christian life of a monk or a mendicant friar involved daily interactions with others. And verbal prayer. Ideally, it involves manual labour. It involves chores, and verbal prayers. For those of priestly rank, it may involve pastoral care and verbal prayers. For many of those I listed above, it involved frequent preaching of the word of God and verbal prayer. Indeed, it also involves a reading and rereading and internalising of sacred Scripture, accompanied by verbal prayer.

Intercession is a key part of the wider world of prayer inhabited by the greatest mystical writers. We should not lose sight of that.

Second, contemplative prayer and mysticism are not the only part of the spiritual life under discussion. The Philokalia is a five-volume guide to this single aspect of life as taught and practised by Late Antique and Byzantine Greek monastics. Many of the writers included in the anthology also have writings on various other aspects of life, on acts of charity, on the study and interpretation of scripture, on systematic/dogmatic theology, on the disciplines of the Christian life, etc., etc. Many of them were preachers.

What we think of as ‘mystical activity’ is not the only part of the life of the greatest Christian mystics. People like St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Ávila had great encounters with God, and spent a lot of time in quiet, reflective prayer. But they also counselled others, wrote letters, met with each other, gave pastoral guidance to their fellow monks and nuns, and so forth.

The best of them prayed with words, too. They prayed the liturgy. They prayed prayers of intercession. They led or received the Blessed Sacrament. They were part of the corporate life of the church, even if they also believed in the importance of aloneness and silence before the mysterium tremendum. Today’s Eastern Orthodox proponents of silent prayer and mysticism pray with words, too; I know some of them and have read books by others.

Point 3 will be for tomorrow; I’ll pause here.

‘We ought to understand Jesus within context first’ – some thoughts on doing theology

A friend of mine likes to occasionally post religious questions on Facebook to inspire conversation. Today, I saw:

Before his Resurrection, did Jesus know that the Earth orbits the Sun?

My short answer, ‘Yes.’ I don’t actually know if it’s right, mind you.

One other answer troubles me not by its conclusion (‘No.’) but by the premisses the commenter alluded to:

I would say that he didn’t know. To provide an adequate rationale to my postulation will take me far too long. I think a start is to unpack how much western thought about God and systematics we have unappropriately projected onto Jesus while he was on earth. (Not that I am against western thought or systematics but we ought to understand Jesus within context first)

I am not entirely sure where this author is going, frankly. But it hints at things that concern me. Somehow, this person believes that understanding Jesus within context will cause us to reject an understanding of Jesus that would allow him to maintain divine knowledge whilst incarnate on earth.

First, I imagine (perhaps falsely) this person holds a dichotomous position between ‘Hebraic’ and ‘Greek’ thought. This is the sort of position that sometimes leads people to reject theological concepts about God such as His eternity (as classically understood), His Trinitarian ousia, his omniscience (as classically understood), impassibility as well as the creatio ex nihilo.

These ideas and others are often thought to be ‘Hellenistic’ importations, falsely grafted onto the pure ‘Hebraic’ gospel. This is not true. They are, in fact, Christian doctrines developed through prayerful reading of Scripture and resistance to ‘Hellenistic’ philosophy. For example, it is in resisting Plato in their reading of Scripture that Christians posit creatio ex nihilo and divine eternity as classically understood.

Let’s talk, then, about the hypostatic union, since that’s really what’s in question.

The hypostatic union is the theologically incomprehensible complete union of the divine and human in the single person (hypostasis) of Jesus Christ such that he is 100% God and 100% human. He has the properties of divinity and of humanity. But he is not two persons. He is one person. Some of us articulate this as Jesus existing in two natures, some think that divides him too far and makes him into a pantomime horse.

This immediately grabs you as a fine piece of Hellenistic philosophy, doesn’t it?

Except, of course, that no one knows how it works, and most people who try to explain it realise they can’t and choose, instead, to stand in awe before the mystery of God.

And, really, what resemblence does this owe to Jesus ‘within context’?

First, what is Jesus’ context? Hellenistic Judaism in the Greco-Roman world? The apostles composed their works in Greek and cited a Hellenistic Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. St Paul even quoted a Greek poet. John’s Gospel begins with its beautiful prologue on the divine Word.

Furthermore, throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus performs many miracles with no divine aid, no magic spells, and no invocation of any god. This sets him apart his contemporary miracle men, the Hebrew prophets, and the Apostles. He also rises from the dead in an unprecedented manner — no prophet or holy man is used as God’s instrument in the Resurrection, unlike when the prophets and Apostles do it. Jesus also seems to think he can forgive people’s sins. And when his earthly ministry is over, he ascends into heaven.

And that’s just from the Gospels, without turning to the earlier Christian writings of St Paul, who says some pretty heavy stuff about Jesus that points to him being God.

Jesus is God. He is also fully man.

How it works, of course, we cannot fully say. Hypostatic union.

But if we realise that Jesus is, in fact, fully man and fully God, how we determine divine knowledge during the incarnation is not merely some sort of question of Greek vs Hebrew, which is a false dichotomy.

But, frankly, no one reads or even tries to comprehend the Fathers anymore. If we understood them in their context, besides Jesus in his, we might find out that they are speaking the same theological language.

One Parthian shot. If ‘western’ is the problem, I present you with Ephrem the Syrian, one of the last exponents of Semitic, Syriac Christianity before it was ‘hellenised’. From his Hymns on the Incarnation:

From Hymn 8

Blessed is the Messenger who came bearing
a great peace.  By the mercy of His Father,
He lowered Himself to us.  Our own debts
He did not take up to Him.  He reconciled
[His] Lordship with His chattels.

Refrain: Glory to Your Dawn, divine and human.

Glorious is the Wise One Who allied and joined
Divinity with humanity,
one from the height and the other from the depth.
He mingled the natures like pigments
and an image came into being: the God-man.
O Zealous One who saw Adam
who became dust and the accursed serpent
eating him.  Reality dwelt
in what had lost its flavor.  He made him salt
by which the cursed serpent would be blinded.
Blessed is the Compassionate One Who saw, next to paradise,
the lance that barred the way
to the Tree of Life.  He came to take up
the body that would be struck so that by the opening in His side
He might break through the way into paradise.

From Hymn 12

Who indeed has seen the Babe Who is more ancient
than His bearer?  The Ancient One entered
and became young in her.  He emerged an infant
and grew by her milk.  He entered and became small in her;
He emerged and grew through her—a great wonder!

New Testament Canticles

I recently wrote three pieces on the New Testament Canticles over at the blog my brother and I share. These are the Benedictus (song of Zacharias at the birth of John the Baptist), Magnificat (song of Mary), and Nunc Dimittis (song of Simeon upon encountering the Christ Child) — all known by their first word or two in Latin. All sung/recited during the daily office. All in the Gospel of Luke.

The reflections are devotional exercises considering the content of the canticles and their historical context. I hope they are a blessing to you:

New Testament Canticles 1: Benedictus

New Testament Canticles 2: Magnificat

New Testament Canticles 3: Nunc Dimittis

Advent 4: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’

St John the Baptist, Santa Pressede, Rome
St John the Baptist, Santa Pressede, Rome

According to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer lectionary, today’s Gospel reading is John 1:19-28. Out of mercy, here it is in the ESVUK (rather than BCP):

19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’, as the prophet Isaiah said.”

24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

Another great passage involving St John the Baptist comes in John 3:30, when it is reported to the Forerunner that Jesus’ disciples are baptising more than he; his response: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’

The lives and teachings of God’s holy ones (‘saints’) serve as lessons, especially when the holy ones are prophets or apostles. Here, the last prophet of the Messiah (a prophet who, as St Augustine observes, was able not only to predict the Messiah but point at him with his own finger) provides us with an attitude that we, too, should adopt, not just in this Advent Season but all the time.

It is, admittedly, a difficult attitude to keep. ‘He must increase’ — oh, how we wish to increase! We want to get it our way, at work, at study, in social engagements with friends, in dealing with family, even in determining the meals for the week or entertainment at evening. We wish to increase, to choose exactly which courses we teach, to divest ourselves of administrative duties, to read only the books that are interesting, to get a big paycheque, to gain renown in our own field of work.

But he — He — must increase.

And when we consider His ethical teachings, as in the Sermon on the Mount, He (and thus His increase) is found in the good and progress of others. He is found in sharing the burdens of others. He is not found in getting my way. Indeed, getting my way is likely to get in His way.

And, like St John the Forerunner, we should point the way to the One ‘the strap of whose sandal [we are] not worthy to untie’. As I posted here in an Advent not long ago, ‘Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord’. Christ is still in the midst of us risen and ascended and reigning, the Second Person of the Trinity.

Jesus Christ came to seek and save the lost. John the Baptist points the Pharisees to Him.

Whom are we pointing to Him today?

(A worthy question, and I am myself unsure of my own answer. Nonetheless, a question more worthy than culture wars and fighting the war for ‘Christmas’.)

Guerric of Igny on Advent

Our Advent Wreath in Toronto
Our Advent Wreath in Toronto

The liturgical church year is not a mechanical operation done merely out of ‘tradition’ or without thought. It is a means of spiritual growth for the community of faith, for that community is, in this time between Christ’s comings, bound in time and living in time with the rhythms of the solar year and the seasons and the history of Christ’s salvific activity at the time of His Incarnation and through His people in history.

It is salutary, therefore, to meditate upon its purpose. Here’s Guerric of Igny for Advent 3:

We are waiting now for the anniversary day of Christ’s birth, which we shall shortly see, God willing. Scripture requires, it seems to me, that our spirit should be so lifted up and transported with joy that it longs to run towards the approaching Christ; and, projecting itself into the future, it chafes at delays as it strains to see what is yet to come. I think myself that the many passages in Scripture exhorting us to hasten towards him refer not only to the second coming but also to the first. How so? Because just as, at his second coming, we shall run towards him with physical energy and joy, so do we hasten to Bethlehem with jubilant heart and spirit. You know that at the resurrection, having put on new bodies, according to the Apostle’s teaching we shall be caught up in the clouds to meet Christ in the air, and so we shall be with the Lord for ever. (1 Thess. 4:16) But even here there is no lack of clouds that will carry our spirits (provided they are not sluggish and earthbound) to higher things, and then we shall be with the Lord for half an hour. Unless I am mistaken, you know from experience what I am talking about, for sometimes when the clouds have thundered, that is when the voices of the prophets and apostles have rung out in the Church, your minds have been swept aloft as though borne on clouds, and on occasion been carried so far beyond that they have been favoured with some glimpse of the glory of the Lord. Then, if I am right, the truth of that word dawned clear for you, the word which God rains down from the cloud he daily appoints to bear us aloft: ‘The sacrifice of praise do me honour: there is the path by which I will show him the salvation of God.’ (Pss. 103:3, 49:23) -P. M. Matarasso, The Cistercian World, pp. 130-31.