The Jesus Prayer and Me 2: Edinburgh and beyond

St Theophan the Recluse

As I mentioned in my last post, my drifting in and out of various bits and bobs of the literature of Christian mysticism alongside contacts with Eastern Orthodoxy meant that I knew of the Jesus Prayer and liked the concept. I prayed it sometimes — while waiting, or in the place of the Hail Mary with a rosary, that sort of thing. But my actual exertion of energy on anything approaching contemplation was — and is — haphazard.

That alone is reason to pray, yes?

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

Nonetheless, in 2013 I came to a point where I realised that I had some issues with anger. So I went to talk to Fr Raphael at the Orthodox Church here in Edinburgh. I’m not entirely sure what it says about me, Presbyterian ministers, and Fr Raphael that it was the Orthodox priest and not my minister to whom I turned in this time of spiritual crisis, but this is what I did. I spoke with him about anger and about how to work through it, how to overcome it.

Fr Raphael observed that the Fathers say that anger is not so bad a passion to suffer, for you can turn it against the demons when they tempt you. Thus Evagrius of Pontus:

Anger is given to us so that we might fight against the demons and strive against every pleasure. (The Praktikos 44)

As I’ve blogged before, this is expressed by the Russian St Theophan the Recluse:

You say that you cannot help being resentful and hostile? Very well then, be hostile — but towards the devil, not towards your brother. God gave us wrath as a sword to pierce the devil — not to drive into our own bodies. Stab him with it, then, right up to the hilt; press the hilt in as well if you like, and never pull it out, but drive another sword in as well. This we shall achieve by becoming gentle and kind towards each other. ‘Let me lose my money, let me destroy my honour and glory — my fellow-member is more precious to me than myself.’ Let us speak thus to each other, and let us not injure our own nature in order to gain money or fame. (The Art of Prayer, p. 212)

In fact, the above quotation comes from a book that was loaned to me by Father Raphael at the time I went to him for guidance. It is an anthology of texts about prayer, most of them by Theophan the Recluse and Ignatius Brianchaninov. I recommend it highly.

Besides loaning me The Art of Prayer, Fr Raphael made two recommendations. One was to keep track of times that I feel angry and annoyed, and pray about them. The other was the disciplined praying of the Jesus Prayer — not simply when I’m angry or as a way to turn my heart to God when idle, but to set aside time every day.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

Fr Raphael’s counsel, which I have seen Kallistos Ware recommend as well, was to spend no fewer than 10 minutes a day and no more than 20 praying the Jesus Prayer. The goal was (and is) for me to focus on the words and their meaning, to keep my mind from wandering, and fix my heart on Jesus.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

Fr Raphael’s advice is rather evangelical, if you think on it. Fixing our hearts on Jesus is what we’re all about, after all.

Anyway, he also gave me a chomboschini, a knotted prayer rope. At each knot, I recite the Jesus Prayer. He further advised to set aside the same time for the Jesus Prayer each day to aid in making this prayer regular.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

And off I went to Germany for three months. I prayed the Jesus Prayer in my room. I prayed it on the Neckarinsel in Tuebingen (that’s the island in the Neckar). I prayed it on the tram in Leipzig. I prayed it on the train. I prayed it in Austria in a Benedictine monastery.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

And then I came back to Edinburgh — I pray it on my couch, in my bedroom, at my desk, in St Giles’ Church. And then I went to Paris for a month, where I prayed it in my room, in the Bibliotheque nationale, in the old, Gothic churches. And at home again. And on all my research trips.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

I prayed it on my first trip to Rome — in St Peter’s, in Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, in Santa Maria Maggiore. I prayed it in my long stay in Rome as well.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

I’m not a great contemplative. It’s the active life for me. I’m not the best at remembering to pray the Jesus Prayer every day, even though I have an alarm set to remind me. When I do pray it, my mind often wanders. Or my eyes, which bring my mind with them (this is why Kallistos Ware recommends you put the lights out).

But I get angry less frequently. Not just because I might remember to pray this prayer when angry, but because of the attempt at discipline that I bring to it. Because my heart is being ordered towards my Lord and Saviour. Because I have found grace in Jesus through praying this prayer and calling on his Name.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

The Jesus Prayer and me 1: Some books, and a little practice

My four-part discussion (starts here) of why I take issue with Timothy Keller’s severity towards mystical prayer in his book Prayer stems largely from the fact that I, in fact, pray the Jesus Prayer, as I discuss in the last of the four. The Jesus Prayer is:

I first encountered this prayer through The Way of a Pilgrim, in the translation of Helen Bacovcin. I’d picked up a used copy at an event in the summer before my fourth year of undergrad; sadly, I lost it along with my copy of The Poems of St John of the Cross on the bus one day. And, while I think it worked out well for me at the time to seek elsewhere for devotional reading, I have since replaced both in the same translations. The Way of a Pilgrim is a classic of nineteenth-century Russian spirituality; it recounts the story of a Russian pilgrim (wanderer?) who meets different spiritual elders and people in his journeys — and learns the art of the Jesus Prayer along the way.

In The Way of a Pilgrim, the Pilgrim learns from his spiritual father to pray the prayer many times a day, increasing the number of Jesus Prayers he prays until he attains what is called the ‘self-actuating prayer of the heart’ and prays the Jesus Prayer without ceasing. He also reads The Philokalia, as it turns out (my quick intro to that anthology here).

I believe I next met the Jesus Prayer through the work of John Michael Talbot, the summer following graduation. I read The Music of Creation, and it challenged me in various ways. My interest in the mystical/contemplative paths had been piqued by St John of the Cross and Talbot’s work on St Francis already. I’m not actually certain that the Jesus Prayer comes up in that book, but Talbot’s work is where I first met the term hesychasm, and I’ve a feeling I met in that book the idea of praying the Jesus Prayer by inhaling on the invocation, and exhaling with the petition.

Anyway, this was the cusp of leaving for Cyprus, where I spent a year having various adventures and doing evangelistic work amongst the international students. I was loaned vol. 1 of The Philokalia by the dean of St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Nicosia, I read the whole of The Way of a Pilgrim, and I learned much about the Jesus Prayer and icons and the Orthodox tradition from the priests I befriended there, as well as Richard Foster, Prayer, which I was loaned by my team leader. This was an important time — serving others, praying, delving into Scripture. The Jesus Prayer was not yet really woven into my devotional world, though.

However, one way in which Cyprus is important for the Jesus Prayer and Me part of my spiritual journey is the fact that I met the Orthodox and Orthodox liturgy and read Orthodox books and haven’t really stopped since. And that has kept the Jesus Prayer part of my consciousness ever since.

For most of my time after Cyprus, the Jesus Prayer was a sometimes prayer. For a period of time, I would pray it in the style of the rosary, replacing the ‘Hail Marys’ with the Jesus Prayer. As Kallistos Ware says in The Power of the Name, it is a good prayer for waiting in queues or walking down the street. It is a way to use our minds in idle moments, turning those moments to prayer and Almighty God.

And then came the terrible day when anger got the better of me.

“The Power of the hidden Father comes and in you will be clothed with a body”

Sorry this is a day late. Some of the beautiful theological poetry of Jacob of Serugh for the Annunciation.

Eclectic Orthodoxy

The revelation went out from God to the pure one
by means of Gabriel, the learned one, who teaches fine sayings.

The man of fire was sent from God
that he might bring the message from the house of the Father to the glorious one.

From the heavenly legions, the spiritual one went forth,
who had been sent from God with a hidden mystery.

He met with the maiden, greeted her, and revealed the mystery,
as he had been commanded by God in the heavens above.

He bowed to the Virgin, the Mother of the King, and He spoke with her
in the speech of the country such as she was able to receive:

“Peace be with you, full of divine splendour!
Peace to you Mary, Mother of the Sun of Justice!

“Peace be upon you, castle of holy things and full of virtues,
harbour of mysteries and new ship…

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The Psalms at the heart of prayer and worship

After my criticisms of Tim Keller, here’s my latest post on a different blog where I express appreciation for his book on prayer — more importantly, let’s keep the Psalms at the heart of our prayers. Maybe even bring them back into Sunday worship where they’ve been laid aside?

thewitnesscloud

Praying the offices daily, whether it’s BCP or BAS or Common Worship or Celebrating Daily Prayer or the Roman Breviary or the Benedictine office or the offices of the eastern churches, you will find yourself praying through the book of Psalms in a regular cycle, whether that cycle is weekly, fortnightly, monthly, or maybe bi-monthly. Or, if not the entire book, you will still pray one or two Psalms at each office every day.

The Psalms have been called God’s Prayer Book and God’s Hymn Book. They are the source of much rich depth and beauty in the entire history of prayer and worship, and the office is one means of making them our own. They express the full range of human emotion in interactions with God, and they help us find an approach to God we might otherwise avoid if left to our own devices.

The Psalms are an…

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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.