Philokalic Friday: The Failure of My Achievement

I did it! Twelve years after my first attempt, and two years after the start of my second, I finished The Philokalia, Vol. 1 this Lent! Well done, me! I mean, how many people can boast that, after all? Sure, people read the Rule of St Benedict, or St Augustine’s Confessions, or, say, the Bible all the time. But, really, to struggle through the difficult content of the first volume of The Philokalia in any language is something of an achievement in the world of devotional reading.

After all, it took me two years.

Off and on, that is.

Mind you, it’s not as though I spend very much time praying the Jesus Prayer. It’s not as though I spend my life in ‘watchfulness’. Given how quickly I grow annoyed or impatient, I don’t think I have that much hesychia. And those eight deadly thoughts (logismoi) that Evagrius talks about so much? Probably all here, not really being resisted that much.

Nonetheless —

I hope it has been good for me to read this book, and reread some sections of it. I think I’ve read Evagrius On Prayer four times now. I am sure I could profit from another read. I know that I do, at times, reflect on teachings from this book and how they’ve helped me.

But the point here is:

Just because I have read a (difficult) devotional book and occasionally apply its lessons does not make me holy.

Practising holiness is what makes us holy.

Oh, wait. No. The Philokalia would only partly agree with that …

The grace of God is what makes us holy.

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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.

John Michael Talbot on the Jesus Prayer!

So, if anyone could make me want to become Roman Catholic, it wouldn’t be someone like Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI with his erudition or someone else like that. It would be John Michael Talbot, lay Franciscan and folk musician who writes songs inspired by Scripture, Catholic mystics, the Eucharist, and so forth.

Also, like Kallistos Ware, he has a tremendously mind-blowing beard.

The beards, people! The beards!!!

Anyway, John Michael has been giving talks on the Jesus Prayer around the USA of late, and is going to be releasing a new book on the subject in September, The Jesus Prayer: A Cry of Mercy, A Path of Renewal, from IVP, no less. You can pre-order from his website, or — if you lurk outwith the USA (like me) — Amazon.

And, in the lead-up to the release, he is going to give us a series of YouTube videos with his teaching on the Jesus Prayer! This is very nice of John Michael, and I’m glad he’s done it.

The first video is up already, and in it he discusses very briefly about Christian East and West, and Pope John Paul II’s reference to the Church having two lungs. We western Christians at some point stopped breathing with our mystical lung, and we can learn much from Christians of the eastern traditions.

So he gives us the Jesus Prayer, tying it to the practice of breathing prayer, something he discusses in his earlier book The Music of Creation.

Here’s the video with the whole thing, only seven minutes long:

Intercession: The heart of prayer?

El Greco, The Agonyin the Garden

I once read a book that said that worship was the most important form of prayer. This may be right, but I am not always certain that worship is prayer. Not etymologically, and certainly not in the biblical record. When St Paul exhorts people to pray, it seems often to focus on bringing petitions before God.

According to a little booklet I got of 30 days of prayer with Andrew Murray (purchased at Hull’s Family Bookstore, Thunder Bay, Ontario), intercession is the most important form of prayer.

I do not wish to say which of the forms of prayer — things like the Jesus Prayer or intercession or worship or confession of sins — is most important out of those that have been offered up as candidates. However, I think intercession should be at the heart of our prayer activity as we commune with God in our quiet place.

I hold this belief for several reasons. One is the etymological fallacy, that the English word ‘to pray’ originally means ‘to make a request’ — and the request is not always from God.

This is not, however, simply the etymology of English, but also the meaning of the Greek used in our Bibles. Luke 22:40, Christ tells the Disciples on the Mt of Olives to pray that they not fall into temptation, using the verb proseuchomai,* and then goes off to pray to the Father — once again, proseuchomai and that which he offers to God is a proseuche.** This Greek word, proseuchomai, means to make a request or offer a petition; its related noun means a request, a petition, or a vow, often one made to a god.

I believe that getting to the root of the words we see in any text is an important aspect of study. What does the Bible mean by prayer? What is its root? What is its cultural context? etc, etc.

Some famous Bible verses about prayer that use this Greek word (NIV):

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. -Acts 2:42

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. -Philippians 4:6

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. -Colossians 4:2

pray without ceasing -1 Thessalonians 5:17

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time. And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle—I am telling the truth, I am not lying—and a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles.Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing. -1 Timothy 2:1-8

Of course, a petition need not be intercessory. The standard form of the Jesus Prayer is a petition, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ But it is not an intercession.

Intercession, as an English word, is a particular form of petition. It is a petition made on behalf of someone else. The intercessor stands in the breach between a person or situation and the gracious God, pleading that Our Lord will have mercy and bring his love and mercy to bear on a particular situation.

So here I come to my final two reasons why I think intercession is at the heart of prayer. Not only is it biblical, it is also unselfish. It is an act of utter charity. Intercessions are not prayers about me — my cold, my loud flatmates, my financial situation, my research and so forth. Intercessions are prayers that are focussed on others.

As Christians, we are called to be servants of all. We are called to give up ourselves for others. We are called to live not for ourselves. We are called to live in complete charity.

Finally, intercession brings us before God in a bold way that some may think lacks humility. Who am I to ask anything for anyone else before God? God is God. He is the most powerful, majestic, awesome, beautiful being in the universe. He sustains all things by his hand and brought them into existence by a mere word.

This is why we must intercede before God for others. We need to learn that our God is not like the gods of the ‘pagans’. He is not distant. He is not so far beyond us that we cannot approach his throne ourselves. We do not need any mediator besides Christ (who is himself God!). He does not require long, complicated rituals for us to access him. He does not delegat the task of hearing petitions and intercessions to his minions.

God, Himself, wants to hear from us. He wants us to join him in his task of redemption, and this includes interceding for those around us.

We should do it in humility, but in love not quaking fear.

*For Hellonphiles or over-clever people, I always cite words by their lexicographical lemma so that my readers can find them in a dictionary. What would be the use of giving an infinitive when it is the first principal part that is needed?

**If I could do macrons, I would.

Prayer in 2004: Classic and Charismatic

Today, my historical journey on the pocket scroll will take us to the far gone, bygone days of yesteryear — 2004.

In 2004, I lost two very excellent books. I still sometimes grieve for them. One of them was The Way of a Pilgrim, the other the poems of St John of the Cross. I had acquired the former at the Métis Nation of Ontario’s annual gathering (the official name of which escapes me) for, like, 50 cents. The Way of a Pilgrim is a Russian spiritual novel about a guy who wanders all over Russia, meets with spiritual elders, and prays The Jesus Prayer, seeking ‘the self-actuating prayer of the heart.’

That’s actually what it says.

This book was my first contact with the Jesus Prayer, which has subsequently become a staple for my prayer life, alongside the more Protestant/evangelical prayers of my upbringing and the BCP.

My mother’s only concern with the Jesus Prayer was one which she also has with much contemporary worship music — it is self-focussed. Nonetheless, she agreed that the idea of a simple, repetitive pathway to perpetual prayer was probably a good thing.

The poems of St John of the Cross were a gift from my friend Emily. They’re interesting, an insight into a different approach to Christian prayer and mysticism — the original ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ vision of Christian spirituality. But, unlike contemporary Christian music, at least St John of the Cross got his spirituality from the Bible (read Song of Songs with the majority tradition as the expression of God and His Church together for that to make sense).

In those days, instead of swanky striped shirts with cufflinks made out of watch gears, I wore T-shirts and cargo pants (for my UK readers, those would be trousers). And my cargo pants (insert chuckle) had a pocket that was just the right size for two small pocket books/mass market paperbacks.

So I put them in there.

Somewhere on OC Transpo (city of Ottawa bus system) they got off without me.

So. There I was, an eager, young undergrad, seeking the idealistic depths of constant prayer and union with the Divine.

What was I to do?

The OC Transpo did not have them in their lost and found.

I like to always have a devotional/spiritual l book on the go (sometimes I absorb nothing, but it’s better than not seeking at all; sometimes I fail to have such a book on the go). So I plucked off my shelf a book I had found at Ottawa’s murky, three-storey used bookshop of dubious quality, the Book Market — Nine O’Clock in the Morning.

This book, for those of you who don’t know it, is the story of the start of the ‘charismatic renewal’ in the Episcopal Church of the USA. I was captivated by the tale of how a high-church priest who didn’t go in for or even believe in such things became an outlet for the Holy Spirit pouring Himself upon His people with rich blessings, with healings and conversions alongside the ordinary miracles of daily life.

This book, and a visit to Ottawa by Bishop Malcolm Harding of Anglican Renewal Ministries reminded me that, as a Christian indwelt by the power of the Holy Spirit, I already had all the resources I needed to enter into a deep experience of prayer — John of the Cross and The Way of a Pilgrim might be nice, might be helpful, but they are not necessary.

This is an important lesson for bookish people like me. Some Christians should probably read more books. Some Christians should probably read fewer books. I should probably often put the books down and actually pray.

Christ through his life, death, and resurrection, as well as the power of the indwelling Spirit, has already given me what I need to enter into deepest communion with the Divine. All I need to do is accept it.

Praying on the Tram

I just finished a few days of research in Leipzig. Leipzig is an interesting city, with contrasts between beautiful and less-so, between ultra-modern and Baroque, between the boarded-up buildings in some quarters and the shining skyscraper in the city centre.

My first full day was May 1, and May is the month of prayer, as discussed in this post. Besides continuing with Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines, my journey into the disciplines involved journeys into Leipzig.

Every morning, after scuttling from my hotel to the tram, I had a 25-min tram ride ahead of me. And so, when better to pray? My spiritual mentor has recommended I spent no fewer than ten minutes and no more than twenty praying the Jesus Prayer. A 25-min tram ride is perfectly suited for this. So out would come my prayer rope, my fingers slipping along each knot:

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

I have been told that one can also pray for others in the cycle, so sometimes I would insert my wife or a friend who was on my heart instead of me, me, me. Sometimes I would also replace me with everyone on this tram.

I think it is a rule that should be more widely observed that commutes are excellent times for prayer. We should never, of course, abandon the recommendation of our Lord to go into our secret place and shut the door (Mt 6:6). Yet why not redeem the time spent between A and B through communing with our God who is everywhere and fills all things?

Here are some other commuting prayer ideas:

  • Imagine Christ walking through the bus/tram/train and blessing everyone, resting his hand on their heads and blessing them or standing beside them. Maybe even giving someone who looks really sad a good hug.
  • Pray for the people around you more consciously – this is something Richard Foster recommends in Celebration of Discipline. Ask God to impact the people around you. So pray that the guy across from you on the train will know that he is deeply loved, more than he can imagine. Pray that the sad-looking lady may know that there is joy available that will never run dry. That sort of thing.
  • Pray for safety for the vehicle and alertness and wisdom for the driver.
  • Pray for the neighbourhoods you pass through – for all who live and work there, that they would know the truth of God’s real blessings in this life, and in the life to come everlasting joy.

These are but a few ways we can all try to bring the Spirit of the living God with us on the way to work. What suggestions might you have?

100 Jesus Prayers later …

Christ Pantokrator by Theophan the CretanWhen we look back on my posts agonising over the fate/state of Anglicanism, I must admit that I do not regularly attend a Scottish Episcopal Church anyway. I spend my Sundays with the Free Church of Scotland (‘Wee Frees’) as well as a bi-weekly Bible study, and occasionally turn up at St. Andrew’s Orthodox Community, Edinburgh’s Eastern Orthodox Church, situated on the edge of the Meadows. I spent Sunday evening with the Wee Frees this week, and Tuesday with the Orthodox.

Wednesday, for those who keep track, was the Mid-Feast of Pentecost in the Orthodox Church. So Tuesday evening’s vespers were the vespers for that event. I was surprised but pleased that there were three Lessons (to use Anglican terminology).

After vespers, Father Raphael led us in 100 Jesus Prayers:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon us.

We all sat in the chairs and benches that take up less than half the floor space of this church’s nave and prayed with Fr. Raphael. Most remained silent, but the woman behind me prayed the prayer very quietly with Fr. Raphael at times. I said it in my head or under my breath.

I tried the technique I picked up from Catholic Franciscan John Michael Talbot of breathing in during ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,’ and breathing out during ‘have mercy upon us.’* Sometimes I prayed with my eyes closed, sometimes I looked at the icon of Christ on the iconostasis, other times I looked at the roundel on the ceiling of Christ Pantokrator (All-powerful) that takes the place of a dome in this little church.

The effectg was very calming, especially with the breathing. No doubt there was something psychological about it, but I do not imagine for a moment that there was nothing spiritual going on.

At the Name of Jesus, every knee shall bow, after all.

There Christ stood in the icons, his face stern but not angry (I confess that sometimes in older Byzantine icons he looks angry to me). Almighty. Pantokrator. Looking upon us gathered to pray to him for mercy.

For a PhD student in the midst of working on a writing sample, a thesis proposal, a grant application, plans to visit around 30 monasteries in the next two years, and trying to keep his sanity, what greater mercy could there be than calm?

I believe that through those Jesus Prayers, the Lord Jesus Christ had mercy on me. A sinner.

*See his book The Music of Creation. Note also his new song on the CD Worship and Bow Down that is about breathing prayer.