Blogging Benedict: How to pray

Athonites at prayer

For St Benedict, chanting the Psalms, singing the hymns, praying intercessions, and reading or listening to passages of Scripture and the Fathers — these are not enough in themselves to constitute true prayer. There must be an accord between internal and external when we pray.

It is very easy for those of us in liturgical traditions to allow the rituals to become ‘dead’, to become mere rote activity, for our minds to wander, for our hearts not to mean what we pray. There have been those (particularly within the charismatic movement) who have sought to move the Church of England away not only from the Book of Common Prayer but the modern liturgies as well, believing that the Holy Spirit is stifled by liturgy. In many churches, what matters most is the inner attitude of the worshippers’ hearts — not whether you are standing, sitting, kneeling.

St Benedict, perhaps merely reflecting his culture, perhaps reminding us that, as psychosomatic unities, as persons comprised of body, soul, spirit, calls for worthy bodily posture and rightly ordered thoughts:

let us stand to sing in such a way that there is no discrepancy between our thoughts and the words we are singing. (ch. 19, p. 44 trans. White)

He also notes the importance of the simple prayer of the heart:

And so our prayer should be kept short and simple, unless divine grace inspires us to prolong our prayer. (ch. 20, p. 45 trans. White)

These thoughts draw my mind to the modern Serbian Orthodox staretz, Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, who writes in Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives:

Prayer should not be something that is said and forgotten. You stand in front of an icon, recite your prayers, and go about your business. That is not prayer. (p. 113)

The attitude of the heart is not dependent upon incense and liturgy, nor upon lighting effects and evocative music. It is dependent upon the grace of the Spirit and upon our own cultivation of a quiet heart. True prayer can elude us as easily in the Vineyard as amongst the Anglo-Catholics — and it can come in either place as well.

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What is The Philokalia?

In conversation over Skype recently, I held up my copy of The Philokalia, vol. 1, as a way to signify who Kallistos Ware is. ‘Ah yes, that book you’ve been blogging about,’ is an approximation of the response. Which is fair enough. I realised that I’ve not actually told the reading public what The Philokalia is. Since it is what my brother and I are slowly wading our way through (and hopefully becoming better pray-ers as a result), here we go.

The Philokalia is a multi-volume anthology of Greek spiritual texts on the subject of prayer. The authors range from the fourth through the fifteenth centuries. So far, the English translation includes four out of a proposed five. The inescapable, inimitable Met Kallistos Ware (for many of us, our first introduction to Orthodoxy, through The Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Way) is one of the translators. The collection was assembled on Mt Athos, the monastic/spiritual heart of Orthodoxy, in the 17th century by Sts Nikodimos and Makarios.

You may recognise some of the authors they included: Ps.-Antony the Great, Evagrios ‘the Solitary’ (aka ‘Ponticus’, in the original attributed to St Neilus of Ancyra), St Maximus the Confessor, St Makarios the Great, St Gregory of Sinai.

This multi-volume anthology is not a comprehensive guide to the entire ascetic life. As I said, it is about prayer. Thus, the external aspects of Christian spirituality, such as fasts and vigils, are lacking. In fact, it is not even about the entire life of prayer. It is about ‘inner prayer’, about the inner kingdom, about the prayer of the heart. I believe that in its later volumes (they arranged roughly chronologically) it is more specifically about The Jesus Prayer (I’ll discuss that prayer soon, I think).

The goal of this inner prayer is the encounter with God through purity of heart, through seeking hesychia — peacefulness, stillness. The Greek spiritual movement associated with the word hesychia is called hesychasm, and its monastic practicioners are hesychasts. The Francisco-Benedictine musician John Michael Talbot described hesychia as being like sitting on the edge of a pool, and letting the detritus subside. When it still and clear, you can see to the bottom and see both the good and the bad. (See The Music of Creation.)

The bad can thus be removed.

It is an approach towards intimacy with God.

Of course, all the texts were selected by hesychast monks for monks and written by monks to begin with. Not everything here will suit all readers, but much wisdom is to be found for the prayerful, attentive reader. A guide, a companion, will help. We are reading vol. 1 straight through, but I’ve discovered a piece by Met Kallistos that has a series of recommended texts to start with. I close with his words, then:

Sometimes I am asked: in what order should the writings of the Philokalia be read? Should we start at the beginning, on page one, and read straight through to the end? Probably that is not the best method. To one who is unfamiliar with Hesychasm but who has a serious and deep longing to discover its true meaning, I sometimes suggest the following sequence of texts:

i. St Kallistos and St Ignatios Xanthopoulos, Directions to Hesy-chasts (Philokalia IV, 197-295, English translation Kadloubovsky and Palmer, Writings from the Philokalia, 164-270) (27).

ii. St Hesychios the Priest, On Watchfulness and Holiness (Philokalia I, 141-73, English translation I, 162-98).

iii. Evagrios the Solitary (alias Neilos the Ascetic: i.e. Evagrios of Pontus), On Prayer (Philokalia I, 176-89, English translation I, 55-71).

iv. A Discourse on Abba Philimon (Philokalia II, 241-52, English translation II, 344-57).

v. St Gregory of Sinai, On the Signs of Grace and Delusion; On Stillness; On Prayer (Philokalia IV, 66-88, English translation IV, 257-86) (28).

But here I strongly recommend readers not to attempt the physical technique mentioned by St Gregory, unless they are under the direct instruction of an experienced spiritual teacher.