Blogging Benedict: More on the primacy of prayer

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

We have already seen some of Benedict’s discussion of prayer, as well as reflecting on the daily office as he describes it. As we progress through the Rule, we encounter more of Benedict’s regulations concerning prayer and its primacy in monastic (Christian!) life.

In chapter 50, distance from the monastery or travel are no excuse. When the hour for prayer comes, stop what you are doing and pray. Get off your horse and pray. If the bell for prayer rings and you are out in the garden, kneel in the dirt. Pray.

For us today: Holidays are no excuse! A lot of us get our prayer disciplines out-of-whack during holiday seasons. Some people stop making it to church when they move out to their cottages. Others choose not to go to church when away from their home city. Benedict would not approve. Just because our secular work is on holiday doesn’t mean our prayer lives are!

Chapter 52 highlights the extreme importance of prayer in the Benedictine world, urging that oratory be put to not purpose other than prayer. No idle conversations. No roughhousing. No badminton (I know a minister who wants to take the pews out of his church so they can play badminton). Making certain places special, set aside for prayer and holiness, helps make all places special.

There is an argument from contemporary neo-Celtic spirituality that there are ‘thin’ places. I am not sure if a. this is actually something Insular Christians of the Middle Ages believed or b. it’s true, anyway. In fact, there is an argument that places people often consider ‘thin’ are not literally, objectively more so than anywhere else — whether we say Mount Athos or the chapel at Wycliffe College in Toronto or wherever — but rather that the activities we engage in while at such places make us more attuned to God.

The goal for us, when we leave ‘thin’ places, is to make our whole lives in every place ‘thin’, permeated with the Kingdom of the Heavens. For, as Christ says in Matthew 4:17, the Kingdom of the Heavens is at hand.

Prayer is the opus Dei in the life of the Benedictine monk. It is the work of God. It runs through the fabric of every day. I find it no surprise, then, that some of the great pray-ers of history and writers on prayer have been from the Benedictine traditions. I think immediately of two from the Middle Ages, St Anselm in the opening prayer of the Proslogion or his Meditations and the Cistercian St Bernard of Clairvaux and his rich spirituality, expressed in his sermons on Song of Songs.

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Blogging Benedict: Sleep with your clothes on

In chapter 22 of the Rule of St Benedict, the monks are commanded to sleep with their clothes on. Why? This way they have no excuse for being late for their middle-of-the-night and early morning prayers. They can jump up from bed and go straight to the oratory. In fact, many Benedictine monasteries have a staircase descending straight down from the dormitory into the chapel.

Benedictines pray a lot. The round of prayers is the focus of many chapters of the Rule, as discussed already, and the adaptation of the office for eleventh-century purposes takes up one half of Lanfranc’s constitutions (my review here). They pray Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline, and Matins/Vigils/Nocturns. Two of these occur immediately upon rising. So they have no time for dilly-dallying in bed.

Off the top of my head, here’s a (post)modern takeaway:

Do we lounge around ‘in bed’, as it were, instead of sinking to our knees in prayer?

By ‘in bed’, besides actually lounging in bed, I mean sitting in front of the TV or computer or whatever other entertainment we have, and dulling our senses to the spiritual realities all around us, realities to which God is calling us, realities accessible to us through prayer?

Maybe we should be quick to pray, always ready at any moment to enter into communion with God.

Let’s sleep with our clothes on.

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.

Mother Teresa on Silence

Following from yesterday’s post about silence in the Rule of St Benedict:

“In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself. Souls of prayer are souls of great silence.”
― Mother TeresaIn the Heart of the World: Thoughts, Stories and Prayers

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.