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.

Orthodox Easter

Re-post from elsewhere in (I think) 2009. This year, Western and Orthodox Easter were only one week apart. Today, 12 April, is Orthodox Easter. Enjoy!

AnastasiThis year, Eastern and Western Easter were about a month apart (the farthest apart they can be, as well as ours being the earliest it will be for another 220 years). And so, as my Russian, Greek, Cypriot, Antiochene, Syrian, Alexandrian, Ukrainian brothers and sisters celebrate the Feast of Feasts, the Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, I’d just like to say:

Crist aras! (Crist sodhlice aras!) (Old English)

Crist is arisen! (Arisen he sothe!) (Middle English)

Which is to say: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! (For how to say this traditional Easter greeting in more languages, go here.)

I like Orthodox Easter… [and] it was while abiding on the island of Cyprus I first encountered the Eastern celebration of Easter. Here in Toronto, I went to a Russian church which happens to be in my neighbourhood.

I showed up early, around 10:30 PM. I asked about the candles and whatnot from a young cantor and his wife. I bought two slender beeswax tapers for $2 each, then went into the sanctuary. There were people moving about at the different icons, as well as in what looked like a line for confession (?). I walked up and stood in the centre aisle for a bit, focussing on the focal point of the room and praying.

This church is very open; it’s an old Anglican building with pews relegated to the walls only, and a few rows of chairs at the back. The rest of the space is essentially empty, with icons along the walls and on the pillars. In the centre of the nave (what I would call the chancel is hidden behind the iconostasis, the icon screen) was a table covered in white flowers, daisies and lilies. And on the table, in the midst of the white flowers, was a red cloth, representing the shroud of Christ. Atop it were a book of the Gospel (I surmise) and a cross. The shroud itself, I believe, had Christ in the tomb on it.

After I had watched some others praying before this shroud, symbolising the fact that Christ died and went down to Hades, I approached it myself. Some had kneeled; all had crossed themselves; most had kissed at least the book of the Gospel, if not the shroud itself and the cross. I mounted the step in front of the shroud, crossed myself, and prayed to the Eternal Risen Christ, holding the candles in my hand. I crossed myself again, kissed the book of the Gospel, and crossed myself a third time.

Then I dismounted and and went to the candlestand on the right of the shroud. I lit one of my two candles and prayed to Christ, proclaiming Him the Light of World and smiled within since a city on a hill cannot be hidden. Then I stepped back, beside the lectern where a lector was reading the scriptures in Slavonic.

I occupied the next hour of my life in various ways. I stood before an icon of St. Nicholas for a while, noting that Russian icons are more three-dimensional than Byzantine ones. I sat for a while. I wandered past all the icons, praying to Christ for His glory. Before the icon of the Blessed Virgin, I sang the Magnificat quietly to myself. Throughout it all, I was often singing quietly to myself, especially this Taize chant:

Laudate Dominum! Laudate Dominum, omnes gentes! Alleluia! (repeat)

Eventually, it was 11:30, and the clergy came out in their fine robes. There was singing in Old Church Slavonic before the shroud, with the choir answering (also in Slavonic) from the balcony at the back. The singing was beautiful. A deacon appeared beside the priest and his deacon with a candle. Then they processed around the table with the shroud, the priest censing everything. Following was more singing, and the shroud was removed.

Next, they did things behind the Holy Doors of the iconostasis. I don’t know what. There was, undoubtedly, incense and Slavonic involved. The choir would occasionally sing. Then they got ready for the procession.

The procession was led by some servers carrying an icon of Christ surrounded by a great wreath. Following them were others with candles and the priests and deacons. Then regular laymen in street clothes carried six standards with icons on them, topped by crosses. Behind them went the choir. We lit our candles from the stands around us (they were equipped with Dixie cups to catch the wax).

We processed around the block. I wended my way through the procession so that I could spent the last bit close enough to hear the choir over the hubbub around me. Then, singing a hymn, we stopped at the church steps. The priest had a microphone and sang some antiphons, the choir responding with something to do with Christ every time. And then he declared:

Christos Voskrese!

To which everyone but me responded:

Voistino Voskrese!

Fortunately, I could respond to, “Christ is Risen!” (Indeed, He is risen!) and “Christos Anesti!” (Alithos Anesti!) Next was French, and I didn’t know the response. None knew the German response. Then a smattering of other languages, to each of which a few knew the answer. He concluded with the Slavonic version seven times.

They sang a hymn and went in for the Divine Liturgy. I slipped away, since the Divine Liturgy takes three hours.

From the moment I stepped into that church, it felt right. You should all go next year!

Llull in Cyprus

Re-post from 2007

I should be in bed, but Douglas Adams is just as addictive now as he was 9 or 10 years ago when I read the first four books of the Hitchhiker trilogy. And I’m sure maybe something about the Resurrection would be appropriate, but the book this passage is from (Other Middle Ages, previously quoted) is due soon. So here it is, a passage from the medieval biography of the Blessed Ramon Llull; this passage drew me only because of Cyprus. I, too, was a missionary in Cyprus, after all . . .

Thus Ramon approached the king of Cyprus [Henry II Lusignan] and asked him whether he would encourage the infidels–namely Jacobites, Nestorians, and Monophysites–to attend his sermon and disputation. After he had done this in order to edify his listeners, he asked the king of Cyprus to send him to the sultan, who is a Saracen, and to the king of Egypt and Syria, in order to inform them of the holy Catholic faith. The king did not, however, provide for any of this things. Placing his trust in him who “spreads the Gospel with much virtue” [Psalms 62.12], Ramon began with only God’s help to act manfully among them by means of preaching and disputations. In the end, persisting in his preaching and doctrines, he suffered no small physical weakness. Two persons were serving him, a cleric and a manservant. Not “taking heed of God” and neglecting their own salvation, they thought of extorting money from this man of God through their evil hands. Thinking that he had been poisoned by them, Ramon dismissed them from his employ.

At Famagusta, he was graciously received by the Master of the Templars, staying in his house in the city of Limassol [how does that bit of geography work?] until he recovered his health. Ramon then returned to Genoa . . . (pp. 99-100)

My Seminar on ‘Trinity and Mission’ & the Cappadocians

Trinity KnotLast Thursday, I gave a seminar on ‘Trinity and Mission’ at the Greek Evangelical Church. It began with a run-through of the history of Christology — this is something I blog about often, so I’m not going to repeat everything here; just follow the links around my blog. I started with Irenaeus’ Rule of Faith and recapitulation, moved on to Athanasius, then the Kappadokians, before sliding into Cyril and Chalcedon. I closed with the Trinitarian exegesis of Matthew 28, as found in the blog post Trinity and Mission.

Not really discussed here before, however, is the following that flows from the Cappadocians — this is consciously following Zizioulas’ reading of them in Being As Communion, which I have heard has some problems; I’ll have to read all of what they say as well as the criticisms some day. Until then, here we go.

The result of this Trinitarian theology, whether expressed by Greek theologians such as the Kappadokians or Latin theologians such as Ambrosios and Augustinos, or even the Syriac theologians Aphrahat and Ephraim, has important implications. As expressed classically by the Kappadokians, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct prosopa or hypostaseis who are all homoousios — they share an ousia. And, following the logic of causation in classical philosophy, God is the principle at work behind all things and the Creator of all things, the unmoved mover — as in the magnificent image of Gregorios’, that Jesus is ‘the founder of the universe who steers its course’.

Therefore, this give-and-take of ousia in fullness of koinonia between the Persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit lies at the heart of the created order. The universe is run by a koinonia. And here I mention our first ethical implication of classical Trinitarian doctrine — we are all made in the image of God (Gen 1:26). God is a Trinity of Persons in complete harmony, homonoia.

When we look at our fractured churches in Protestantism, churches that splinter every time you turn around, when we look at our families who sometimes never talk at all or are never willing to discuss things of substance, when we look at our broken relationships all around us, when we observe a fracturing world at our doorstep — Turks in the North, Israel vs. Palestine, internal unrest in Syria — we realise that we are not living as God, the Trinity who exists as self-giving love in perfect communion, intends us to.

If we are to live in accordance with the theology of ancient Christianity, we should be peacemakers, in our homes, our workplaces, our churches — even our nations if the possibility presents itself. All humans are made in God’s image, and all of us were meant to live in loving communion with one another. I imagine that this union of selfless love is what instilled God to inspire our Lord to pray for unity, St Paul to exhort the Corinthians to unity, and for the early Christian writers of the late first and early second centuries, such as Clement of Rome and Ignatios of Antioch, to strive for unity so forcefully in their letters.

Time and again, Ignatios, who was martyred by the Romans around 117, calls his readers to homonoia, to harmony, to a cessation of dissensions and loving accord. Koinonia is a divine attribute; let us live in it. As the Psalm says, ‘How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity.’ (Ps 133:1)

As far as mission goes, the koinonia of the Trinity should encourage us to work together; Christians of different sorts who work together provide a united face for the Gospel to an unbelieving world. I have seen this in Lefkosia in the Nicosia Community Church using your building, in the Nicosia International Church using the Anglican church — and I understand that Rick at NIC works together with the pastor at NCC in preparing their sermons.

When I worked for IFES here, we ran the Place at the Anglican church hall jointly with the Anglicans, NIC, and New Life International Church, reaching out to the Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims who come to study in this beautiful city. This sort of gospel partnership should be the lifeblood of mission in post-Christian Europe.

What being in Cyprus does to me

In St Onouphrios' church, near Machairas Monastery
In St Onouphrios’ church, near Machairas Monastery

I leave Cyprus tomorrow.

Having come here for the second time since the academic year 2005-2006 has moved me. Last time, it was for the joyous occasion of my friends’ wedding. I was basically a tourist the whole time. A fantastic way to see the island. As this other blog attests, I’ve done my share of touring in the past week and a half!

However, besides the touring, I gave four seminars on patristics over three days, preached this past Sunday morning, and took a trip to North Cyprus to visit with the students and leaders involved in ministry in one of the unis there. This meant I spent a lot of time preparing — last minute touches on the seminars, including two last-minute PowerPoints, prayerful sermon prep, practising the seminars, that sort of thing.

And the third thing — dinner with friends. Coffee with friends. Sitting around with Rick and Madara and talking. Talking, talking, talking. Talking about the student ministry of seven years ago. Talking about how it’s changed. Talking about the changing face of church in Europe and America. Talking about what a disciple is. Talking about making more disciples. Talking about what the Church Fathers have to say about a whole host of things. Talking and dreaming and hoping for flourishing ministry on this island and across Europe that can conform people to the likeness of the image of God’s Son –whether those people are Protestant, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or have yet to enter the Christian fold.

And I find myself missing life seven years ago.

Oh, Cyprus Team! We all had long hair. I think we still do — I’ve lost contact with one of my team mates. But it was brilliant. Despite our team leader’s husband’s deportation and our sudden orphanhood. Despite the loneliness that left me crouched on my side on my couch one time crying, ‘I’m so alone.’ Despite the crooked taxi drivers. Despite ‘Stephen’ getting arrested for drunken disorderliness (he tried breaking into a periptero; these things happen). I tell you, it was brilliant.

There was The Place. International students could come to the Anglican church hall and have some coffee/tea/squash, play board games/ping pong/badminton, listen to music, and hear some Gospel presentation.

Those who were interested in learning more about Jesus could go out for coffee with one of the team. Or ice cream. Or just walk around in the Old City. Or maybe do a one-to-one Bible study. Or join one of a couple of Bible study groups.

The exhilaration of sitting down with a bunch of Hindu and Buddhist Nepalis to read the Bible! The freshness these guys would bring to the Scriptures, the fresh eyes that hadn’t read the stories of Jesus 100 times, the fresh ears that hadn’t heard the deep resonances of Christian doctrine.

I remember the pleasure one of my Nepali friends had when I got him his own Bible. He was so pleased to be able to read the Bible for himself!

Another guy, an Egyptian who had spent years in and out of prison for converting from Islam, was happy just to have me over to his flat to eat copious amounts of food over and over and over again. I learned that hanging out can be tiring, but I also learned how much joy simply being there can bring to a lonely heart.

I remember travelling up to Kyrenia and Famagusta to talk with students there, to hear about what sorts of things Jesus was doing on their campuses in the North.

I remember first meeting the Orthodox, reading my first pages of The Philokalia, seeing my first frescoes, up in the Troodos Mountains.

I remember the Hindu asking what he had to do to be baptised. I remember getting into the baptistery with him and our pastor/friend and helping baptise him in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

I remember, two weeks later (to the day!), his Buddhist friend saying, ‘Matthew, I think I have to get baptised.’

I remember being part of something big. Doing something where I could tangibly feel that what I did mattered. Where I wasn’t sheepish about being either Christian or ‘conservative/evangelical’. Where I was praying often and opening up the Scriptures with people on a regular basis. I remember being somewhere where what I did really mattered.

Cyprus fills me with longing.

And it’s not the Gothic architecture or the mountain monasteries or frescoes or black-robed priests or any of that I long for.

Ancient Christians of Cyprus: Epiphanios of Salamis (and Hilarion)

Epiphanios of Salamis

Epiphanios was born in Palestine in the year 310 and died in Cyprus in 403. He thus lived through one of the most famous theological controversies of all time, living long enough to see it come to an end within the borders of the Roman Empire — the Arian Controversy. We shall look at the so-called ‘Arians’ tomorrow night, but in short, the main lines of demarcation were between those who affirmed the full, complete divinity of Jesus Christ as well as the divinity of the Holy Spirit, including Athanasios of Alexandria and Epiphanios, and, on the ‘Arian’ side, those who denied the divinity of Jesus and/or the Holy Spirit in varying degrees and ways of expression.

Epiphanios is one of the cohort of the earliest monastic practitioners—men and women who chose to devote their lives solely to prayer, acts of charity, and life in the desert, whether alone or in community. He spent many years living amongst the monks of Egypt, who are traditionally considered the first monks (something I, personally, question). Whilst there, his status as a ‘heresy-hunter’ already emerged, for he found himself being tempted by a group of Gnostics at one occasion, and later on had a monk driven out for heresy.

This attitude of battle against the heretics would persist throughout the rest of his life, as a monk in Palestine, and then as a bishop in Cyprus, whither he was invited by the local church to take up the episcopacy of Salamis in 367. As a bishop, he continued to lead a life of spiritual discipline and prayer as well as engaging in the role of heresy-hunter and protector of orthodoxy even more rigorously. He undoubtedly gained himself enemies for his polemic regarding heresy, but the holiness of his life and orthodoxy of his teaching made him a well-honoured figure amongst those who agreed with him, and even the Arian emperor Valens dared not interfere with Epiphanios’ activity.

If we are to believe Epiphanios’ biographer, when he came to this island where he became Metropolitan, or head bishop, he found Gnostic Valentinians as well as Ophites, Sabellians or Modalists, Nicolaitans, followers of Simon Magus, Basilidians, and Carpocratians.[1] Whether these groups were all actually represented or not, who can say?

Certainly by 403 when Epiphanios died, they were not, due to his efforts both as a bishop as well a concerned citizen requesting the Emperor’s aid against these heretics; this extermination of heresy in Cyprus during this period would also have been due to the various rulings against them in the Roman Empire of which we know during the reign of Theodosios I in 380, 381, and 386.[2]

Epiphanios’ most famous work is the Panarion, a heresiology of 80 heresies where he describes and refutes them, including extracts from their own adherents. An earlier yet important work is his Ankoratos, an English translation of which is to be published by Young Kim, who is here tonight. This work is important because it shows that Epiphanios was not simply concerned with tearing down his opponents, the more popular portrayal of the man, but also with building up fellow-believers, answering their requests for teaching and help, and providing them with his own explanations of the biblical understanding the Church had of the Trinity.

Given his positioning as an author after the death of the great theologian Athanasios, Epiphanios is one of our important writers for the later stages of the Arian controversy. And he lived here in Cyprus.

The lessons from the life of Epiphanios are that there is something to be said for stick-to-itiveness. It is highly unpopular to be a heresy hunter today, and possibly with good reason. Yet is there not something to be said for standing up against the false teachings of the age, whether they are new ideas altogether, or re-inventions of old falsehoods?

I do not say that we should go and hunt the heretics and false teachers. But we should not fear them, either. We should we willing to stand up against the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons or the prosperity gospel of Joel Osteen and say that this is not the biblical Christianity handed down to us from the Apostles. This, combined with a holy life, is what made Epiphanios famous.

The final Ancient Cypriot Christian I discussed last week was St. Hilarion, and the gist of what I said I have already said on this blog a couple of years ago. Enjoy!


[1] Polybius, Life of St. Epiphanius 59.

[2] See Theodosian Code 16.1.2, 3, 4.

Ancient Christians of Cyprus: Spyridon

Spyridon
Saint Spyridon — You can tell him from his beehive hat (My photo from St Sozomenos’ Church, Galata, Cyprus). Also, he is my WordPress avatar.

After Barnabas, the Church of Cyprus slips into the mists of unreliability. Cyprus re-enters reliable history in 325 at the Council of Nikaia. In different records for this council, 12 or 14 bishops from Cyprus are recorded as having been present. They all seem to have supported the teaching that Jesus is fully God, homoousios with the Father—a debate we will look at more closely tomorrow.

Two of them were singled out by fourth-century historians as being men of special holiness: Spyridon (two posts on him here and here) and Paphnutios. I want to focus on Spyridon. You will have undoubtedly seen his name on various churches on the island. You may probably have even heard the story how, at the Council of Nikaia he stood up and performed a miracle with a tile to prove that three things could be one. This miracle is not attested in any of our early sources for the events of the council, and I am disinclined to believe it.

Our two earliest records for the life of Spyridon are two ecclesiastical historians, Socrates and Sozomenos. They were both active in the first half of the 400s, so over 75 years after Nikaia. Socrates gives us the more sober account of this man’s life:

With respect to Spyridon, so great was his sanctity while a shepherd, that he was thought worthy of being made a Pastor of men: and having been assigned the bishopric of one of the cities in Cyprus named Trimithus, on account of his extreme humility he continued to feed his sheep during his incumbency of the bishopric. Many extraordinary things are related of him: I shall however record but one or two, lest I should seem to wander from my subject. Once about midnight, thieves having clandestinely entered his sheepfold attempted to carry off some of the sheep. But God who protected the shepherd preserved his sheep also; for the thieves were by an invisible power bound to the folds. At daybreak, when he came to the sheep and found the men with their hands tied behind them, he understood what was done: and after having prayed he liberated the thieves, earnestly admonishing and exhorting them to support themselves by honest labor, and not to take anything unjustly. He then gave them a ram, and sent them away, humorously adding, ‘that ye may not appear to have watched all night in vain.’ This is one of the miracles in connection with Spyridon.

Another was of this kind. He had a virgin daughter named Irene, who was a partaker of her father’s piety. An acquaintance entrusted to her keeping an ornament of considerable value: she, to guard it more securely, hid what had been deposited with her in the ground, and not long afterwards died. Subsequently the owner of the property came to claim it; and not finding the virgin, he began an excited conversation with the father, at times accusing him of an attempt to defraud him, and then again beseeching him to restore the deposit. The old man, regarding this person’s loss as his own misfortune, went to the tomb of his daughter, and called upon God to show him before its proper season the promised resurrection. Nor was he disappointed in his hope: for the virgin again reviving appeared to her father, and having pointed out to him the spot where she had hidden the ornament, she once more departed.

Such characters as these adorned the churches in the time of the emperor Constantine. These details I obtained from many inhabitants of Cyprus. I have also found a treatise composed in Latin by the presbyter Rufinus, from which I have collected these and some other things which will be hereafter adduced.[1]

There is no necessity for us to believe these miracles. However, since we do believe in a mighty God who can do anything, I see no real reason as a Christian to doubt them. I have read a lot of church histories and saints’ lives, and when I combine these with the stories I have heard from today’s missionaries — whether in the jungles of South America or the jungles of London — I am inclined to accept that, whether these particular miracles are true, God was at work in these sorts of ways in the ancient Church.

Besides these miracles and others, Sozomenos gives us some other indicators of the character of Spyridon. For example:

It was a custom with this Spyridon to give a certain portion of his fruits to the poor, and to lend another portion to those who wished it as a gratuity; but neither in giving nor taking back did he ever himself distribute or receive: he merely pointed out the storehouse, and told those who resorted to him to take as much as they needed, or to restore what they had borrowed.[2]

Sozomenos also tells us that Spyridon was hospitable to strangers and travellers and careful in administering his role as a bishop. What I find most encouraging about the story of Spyridon is its reminder that personal holiness and wisdom from God are what matter most in our ministers.

I am working on a PhD in church history. No doubt some people think this will make me uniquely qualified to be a pastor. I disagree—it will make uniquely qualified to be a university lecturer, but what have those skills to do with leading God’s people in the face of wisdom and strong character? Thus, our last glimpses of the Cypriot church before Konstantinos are of a hierarchy that is open to any believing Christian who has wisdom and good character.


[1] Socrates, Ecclesiastical History Book 1.12, NPNF2, Vol. 2.

[2] Sozomenos, Ecclesiastical History Book 1, Chapter 11, NPNF Vol 2.