Theophan the Recluse and realism at prayer

St Theophan the Recluse. Loving the hat.

I once googled the Jesus Prayer and got a site somewhere out there that claimed this special, powerful, little prayer was essential for salvation, using a variety of Patristic and Byzantine quotations out of context. Since I do pray the Jesus Prayer, I am interested in what people have to say on the subject, but only the truth.

At present, I am slowly working through The Art of Prayer, which is an anthology about private prayer mostly focussed upon the Jesus Prayer and mostly drawn from Sts Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894) and Ignatius Brianchaninov (1807-1867) — it was compiled for personal use by Igumen Chariton of Valamo in the early twentieth century and includes Greek Patristic passages and Byzantine writers such as St Gregory of Sinai as well as nineteenth-century Russians. I recommend this book which I see as part of Kallistos Ware’s programme — along with E M Palmer — to bring the world of Orthodoxy to the English-speaking world through modern translations of important texts.*

I find the words of St Theophan realistic and true.  One of the most important pieces of advice I read over breakfast one morning in Paris (and thus didn’t note the location in the volume) was the reminder that true prayer, that is, truly entering into mindfulness of God with our spirits/hearts, is entirely an act of grace; no technique will bring it to us — only God can. Nevertheless, we must continue working at prayer and mindfulness through the interior and exterior actions of life.

He said it better.

This morning, he gave two pieces of advice that relate to the the opening of this post. St Theophan does not believe the Jesus Prayer is magical. He does not believe it is the only way to achieve the grace of inner prayer with the mind in the heart. He does not think that it is absolutely essential for salvation. Here are two pieces of his realistic advice, from page 99 of this volume. Hopefully of use to those of you who also pray the Prayer:

The Jesus Prayer is like any other prayer. It is stronger than all other prayers only in virtue of the all-powerful Name of Jesus, Our Lord and Saviour. But it is necessary to invoke His Name with a full and unwavering faith — with a deep certainty that He is near, sees and hears, pays whole-hearted attention to our petition, and is ready to fulfil it and to grant what we seek. There is nothing to be ashamed of in such hope. If fulfilment is sometimes delayed, this may be because the petitioner is still not yet ready to receive what he asks.

The Jesus Prayer is not some talisman. Its power comes from faith in the Lord, and from a deep union of the mind and heart with Him. With such a disposition, the invocation of the Lord’s Name becomes very effective in many ways. But a mere repetition of the words does not signify anything.

*Ware and Palmer were also involved in project to translate the entire Philokalia; Ware with Mother Mary translated the Festal Menaion and Lenten Triodion. Of course, Ware’s work of bringing Orthodoxy to Anglophones goes beyond translations to his own writings, such as The Orthodox Way, The Orthodox Church, and The Power of the Name.

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Jesus is my boyfriend and other things that you should keep to yourself

Several months ago when I was in Leipzig, I made a careless remark on this blog about ‘Jesus Is My Boyfriend‘ worship music. I now give two examples. First is the chorus of the Vineyard song ‘Pour out My Heart’, which was very popular when I was a teenager:

Pour out my heart
To say that I love You
Pour out my heart
To say that I need You
Pour out my heart
To say that i’m thankful
Pour out my heart
To say that You’re wonderful

Second comes from Donnie Mcclurkin, and is far less salvageable from ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ concerns than ‘Pour out My Heart.’ It is ‘Draw Me Close to You’:

Draw me close to You
Never let me go
I lay it all down again
To hear You say that I’m Your friend

You are my desire
And no one else will do
‘Cause nothing else can take Your place
To feel the warmth of Your embrace

Help me find a way
Bring me back to You
Bring me back, oh Jesus

You’re all I want
You’re all I’ve ever needed
You’re all I want
Help me know You are near

Vineyard put out a whole CD of such songs called Intimacy in 1998. Sometimes these songs or at least their titles make you feel absurd — and an old article from The Lark (like The Onion only evangelical) makes the point well, ‘Wal-Mart rejects “racy” worship CD‘, including this piece of comedic gold:

The ground-breaking — some say risqué — album includes edgy worship songs such as “My Lover, My God,” “Touch Me All Over,” “Naked Before You,” “I’ll Do Anything You Want,” “Deeper” and “You Make Me Hot with Desire.”

In the fake news article, the Vineyard spokesman says that the point of the album was to help Christians get more intimate with God. And this is the point of all the ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ worship and popular songs — to express or help facilitate an intimacy with the living, Triune, eternal, immutable, just, holy God.

And we need a bit of help with that, because the idea of entering into close communion with a consubstantially united triad of persons Whose Being is Communion can, quite frankly, seem a bit daunting at times.

Coptic icon of Jesus and Apa Mena in the Louvre

Intimacy with God is possible. I believe in it. And the idea of a close love relationship with the Most Holy Trinity is not an invention of evangelicals, charismatics, or Pentecostals. All Christians are called to prayer, after all. According to Bishop Nikon of Volodsk,

in prayer man converses with God, he enters, through grace, into communion with Him, and lives in God. (in The Art of Prayer, ed. Igumen Chariton, 51)

Or hear St Dimitri of Rostov:

First of all it must be understood that it is the duty of all Christians … to strive always and in every way to be united with God, their creator, lover, benefactor, and their supreme good, by whom and for whom they were created. …

No unity with God is possible except by an exceedingly great love. (Art of Prayer, 46-7)

Or, to go places other than 19th-century Russia, St John of the Cross’ ‘Spiritual Canticle‘:

Where have you hidden,
Beloved, and left me moaning?
You fled like the stag after wounding me;
I went out calling you, but you were gone.

Shepherds, you who go
up through the sheepfolds to the hill,
if by chance you see
him I love most,
tell him I am sick, I suffer, and I die.

Since God is not less than a person, we want to enter into a relationship with Him. We want it to be ‘deep’ or ‘intimate’, and we want to be able to express this relationship of love we have for God as John Donne does in the masterful sonnet ‘Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God’:

Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

So perhaps we should be slower to mock ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ worship songs. However, I think we still have a problem here, and it is made evident in the last two poems:

Why are we corporately expressing personal intimacy that not all of us can hope to share?

That is to say, the sentiments of a John Donne or a John of the Cross or a Lady Julian of Norwich or a Teresa of Ávila are valid expressions of Christian piety, and often sound to our ears like ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’. But none of these is the liturgical, corporate aspect of Christian devotion.

These intense emotions, these expressions and outpourings of love to the Almighty are the personal devotions of these particular individuals. They were written down as aids for us, to be sure. And some of them we can even use individually as we gather corporately. But what if I’m not feeling today like Jesus’ touch is all I need? What if Jesus isn’t all I’ve ever needed? Like, some of us eat, after all. What if Jesus isn’t all I want? Sometimes I want Star Trek. Sometimes I want pizza.

These songs make liars out of us.

They also keep our corporate worship life at an emotional fever-pitch that is unmaintainable, and when people start wanting Star Trek or pizza or their spouse or a dog or anything other or, as happens, more than Jesus, and this recurs time and again, they feel themselves unspiritual and throw in the towel.

Now, Jesus should be what we want most. And he is what we need most.

But expressing what should be but is not through emotionally manipulative, fast-paced music is not the way to help us find true intimacy with God. And to help us realise the latter truth of what is but which we often forget to be the case, we need robust theology as well as catchy tunes.

In Matthew 6:6, Jesus tells us to go into our secret place and the shut the door when we pray. This prayer cupboard (or icon corner, if you’re into that kind of thing) is where we must engage in the hard, long task of moving into the deep, loving intimacy of the Triune God. This is a task of the inner person, and it is a daily task of labour and love, not a weekly task of easy emotions and cheap thrills.

It requires training of us; sin has marred us, so intimacy with God who once walked in the cool of the evening with Adam in the Garden is no longer ‘natural’. St Dimitri again:

Training … must … be twofold, outer and inner: outer in reading books, inner in thoughts of God; outer in love of wisdom, inner of love of God; outer in words, inner in prayer; outer in keenness of intellect, inner in warmth of spirit; outer in technique, inner in vision. (The Art of Prayer, 44)

The inner has been placed in the outer in modern worship. The new song writers must help us retreat back into our hearts as they give us the outer expressions of true theological hymnody that sings the glory and praises of the Triune God in all his majesty. And when we come away from these heady experiences, we can sit quietly in our room and hope with our inner expressions to meet with the living God, who powerfully comes quietly.

NB: I would also put dubious hymns based on Lady Julian of Norwich’s feminine imagery for God in the same category of ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ — useful for the theologically-informed in their prayer closet, but not for Sunday morning.

The Riches of Christian Spirituality

My photo of St Dominic meditating on the cross by Fra Angelico at San Marco, Florence
My photo of St Dominic meditating on the cross by Fra Angelico at San Marco, Florence

I have talked with some other ‘young people’ who were raised in the Church who have found that the sort of Christianity we put on offer at our local congregations and in many popular books is merely intellectual(ist) or emotional(ist) or sometimes both. But what about a religion or faith or spirituality that touches the deep chasms of the human soul, the vast interior world of the human heart, itself an image of the infinite simplicity of the Triune God? What about that kind of living, believing, thinking?

When this sort of disillusionment hits, different people take different approaches. One friend struck out into the land of the chemical — MDMA and marijuana led the way to cocaine (and who knows what else). Another friend went the much safer (at least physically) route of exploring Hinduism. Another friend I know has taken an interest in Islamic Sufism.

The drug-free path or a version thereof, from what the Interwebs shows me, seems to be a popular journey for a lot of young people raised in the Church. At some point, what’s being fed to our young congregants ceases to satisfy, so people start hunting for nourishment wherever it is to be found.

I get that.

And I am too immersed in the thought of Justin Martyr and too sympathetic to Augustine’s appreciation of Platonism to think that my friends won’t find Christ’s eyes looking out at them from between the lines of an ‘eastern’ religious text or the power of the Triune God battering their hearts as they enter the path of contemplation under the tutelage of Hindus, Buddhists, or Sufis. (Don’t forget this post on Christianity and eastern religions.)

Jesus Christ is the logos who orders the entire cosmos, who undergirds everything. He is the Reason of God, and each of us, made in God’s image, shares in that Reason. He can draw us all up to himself. The exitus from God has happened in every human heart, and not every guide on the reditus need be a Christian. I have profited from the Stoics.

But we need not look beyond the community of the faithful to find reliable guides on the spiritual journey. My general concern about Christians who become more interested in any philosophy beyond the Faith is whether they will still cling to Jesus and the Trinitarian Faith in the long run. And if we are dissatisfied with what we’re being served, we can explore the depths and riches of the interior world — enter the rooms of the Interior Castle — from within the Christian tradition.

This blog is mostly about those who have already made the reditus and have entered the everlasting rest — of every age, the contemplatives, mystics, ascetics, prayer-warriors, meditators, theologoi. I am prone to pulling in John Cassian and the Desert Fathers and Mothers as well as St Francis of Assisi, but other guides for this journey to make an appearance have included St Anselm, St Bernard of Clairvaux, Lady Julian of Norwich, St Gregory Palamas, St Teresa of Ávila, St John of the Cross, William Law, and John Wesley amongst many others.

But often, the problem with these spiritual masters of the past for one wishing to sail out into the sea of the interior world is the fact that simply reading them is itself a discipline — and very often it is difficult to apply their lessons to our lives. Or no visible, practical lessons seem to be forthcoming. So where do we go for guides to the spiritual world?

The church does not have a shortage of spiritual guides today, we just don’t always know where to look. I encourage you, if you are disillusioned with the shallowness, intellectualism, and/or emotionalism of your church today, before giving into accedia and going elsewhere, try to deepen your own walk first — perhaps a deeper connexion with Christ will deepen your appreciation of your own church.

Here are some recommended spiritual guides:

  • Richard Foster. Start with his most famous book Celebration of Discipline. Foster ranges far and wide across the Christian tradition, bringing in ancient, mediaeval, and modern, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, his fellow Quakers, Anglicans, Baptists, and so on. Here you will get descriptions and practical tips on how to enter into the love of God and actually live for Him, being transformed, through twelve disciplines: meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, submission, service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. This is one of the most-purchased and least-read books out there — and, I think, even less applied than read! His book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home helped sustain me while I was a missionary in Cyprus.
  • Kallistos Ware (Timothy). Foster is probably the most practical guide to the spiritual life I’ve encountered. But Ware’s works, especially The Orthodox Way but also, to some extent, The Orthodox Church, are excellent avenues into the world of Eastern Orthodox spiritual paths and spiritual thinking. He lacks the aggressive anti-western aspects of certain other writers on similar topics (e.g. Lossky, Romanides), but presents so appealing an image of Orthodoxy that you want a taste of that inner world, even if you are hesitant of joining him for doctrinal reasons.
  • Anthologies of the Masters. Although the lessons are not always easy to apply, reading shorter excerpts from the deep spiritual writers of the Christian tradition can be a good way in — so long as we are willing to go deeper. I have appreciated Richard J Foster and James Bryan Smith, Devotional Classics, which has a range of authors from St Gregory of Nyssa to John Woolman. I started but did not finish the anthology Light from Light: An Anthology of Christian Mysticism by Louis Dupré and James A. Wiseman, recommended by Edith M. Humphrey in:
  • Ecstasy and Intimacy: When the Holy Spirit Meets the Human Spirit. In this book, Humphrey investigates what she calls ‘spiritual theology’, looking at Scripture as well as those who have gone before (tradition as it is lived, I suppose) and at her own lived experiences as a Christian. She wrote while still an Anglican, but the influences of the Eastern church are visible.

If you read any of these, hopefully a few things will happen: You will be drawn deeper into the Father’s embrace and delight more and more in the self-giving love of the Most Holy Trinity. You will pray and meditate more. You will read Scripture with fresh eyes. And you will start to read more of the masters in full, starting with such classics as St. Augustine’s Confessions (in Chadwick’s translation for Oxford World’s Classics, not Pine-Coffin’s for Penguin Classics!) and Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ and maybe popping in on more recent spiritual guides such as Merton’s The Inner Experience.

And, having started to read the masters in full, may you be drawn deeper into the Father’s embrace and delight more and more in the self-giving love of the Most Holy Trinity, pray and meditate more, and read Scripture with fresh eyes.

St Francis and the Monastic Impulse

St Francis and Brother Rufus, by El Greco

Today is the feast of St Francis of Assisi. I have been a fan of St Francis since ever I learned of him, and have read The Little Flowers of St Francis, G K Chesterton’s St Francis of Assisi, John Michael Talbot’s The Lessons of St Francis, and Ian Morgan Cron’s Chasing Francis (my wee review here).*

Last night after Bible study, I was talking about my tutorial for tomorrow with one of the guys, a tutorial about the Desert Father St Antony of Egypt (saint of the week here). Like many evangelicals, my friend sees no appeal in monasticism, rightly (I believe) criticising the all-too-frequent tendency in monastic or eremitic circles to cut oneself off from the rest of the world that the commandments of Christ to make disciples cannot be fulfilled.

I, however, tend to find the monastic call somewhat appealing — certainly the ascetic/mystical call. When we look at St Francis (as at Antony), we see someone who took up the ascetic life out of a desire to live in radical obedience to Jesus. He gave away his very clothes so as not to be beholden to his earthly father, declaring to his local bishop that he now had only God for his Father!

And what does Francis do? He goes and rebuilds a local church. And then he gathers a band of fellow jongleurs de Dieu. And what do they do? They go around getting into all sorts of trouble and preaching the Good News of Christ.

This is the monastic impulse as it should be, I think. The single-minded devotion to Christ that we find in ascetics from Antony of Egypt to Benedict of Nursia (saint of the week here and here) to Bernard of Clairvaux (saint of the week here) is present in St Francis of Assisi. He abandons the life of a warrior or of a middle-class merchant with wealth. Rather than giving the regulated, required tithe to the poor, he gives all to the poor and joins their ranks, out of obedience to Christ’s call to give all your possessions to the poor.

St Francis spent hours and days and months in prayer, once going off to an island spontaneously and spending all of Lent on it praying. This is the monastic impulse at work. But St Francis takes this single-mindedness and turns it outward to the suffering world around him.

Francis doesn’t shut himself away in a cave or the thick walls of an Italian monastery. He goes out into the world, preaching the Gospel of Christ, working to save souls. This is the monastic impulse as it should be directed, I think. He engages in the usual ascetic practices of dietary restriction, prayer, and poverty, but he spends his days in the marketplaces of Italy, telling people the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, calling them to repentance.

The Franciscan friary — their equivalent of a monastery — is meant to be a stop along the way, a place for refreshment both physical and spiritual before going back out into the hostile world and engaging in the true mission of Francis: winning souls for Christ.

It all sounds terribly evangelical, doesn’t it?

*Also, I’ve written these blog posts: St Francis and Why You Like Him; The San Damiano Crucifix; Saint of the Week: St Francis; St. Francis of Assisi; What to Do with the Canticle of Brother Sun; and St Clare’s Laudable Exchange.

Saint of the Week: Evelyn Underhill

This week’s saint is female Anglican mystic Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941).

In brief:

Underhill was baptised Anglican at birth but raised without religion.  She did not come to faith in Christ until she was 32.  She spent the next four years reading over 1000 books on mysticism and writing her famous book Mysticism, which was published in 1911.  She found much beauty in the Roman Catholic Church, especially after a trip to Italy, but felt that she could not become Roman Catholic because of its complete rejection of modernity and her own ecumenical spirit.

She was not drawn to the Church of England at first, either, because she found it unbeautiful.  Eventually, however, she found a home in Anglicanism and served as a leader of retreats for almost twenty years of her life.  She wrote numerous books on mysticism and is one of the 20th century’s best-known guides to the mystical life of the Christian.

For a change, here are some quotations from our weekly saint (most are from Quote Websites and so I don’ t have references for them all; sorry):

The reality of the Church does not abide in us; it is not a spiritual Rotary Club.  Its reality abides in the One God, the ever-living One whose triune Spirit fills it by filling each one of its members. –The School of Charity: Meditations on the Christian Creed

If God were small enough to be understood, He would not be big enough to be worshiped.

Spiritual reading is a regular, essential part of the life of prayer, and particularly is it the support of adoring prayer. It is important to increase our sense of God’s richness and wonder by reading what his great lovers have said about him.

Adoration is caring for God above all else. Charity is the outward swing of prayer toward all the world … embracing and caring for all worldly interests in God’s name.-Ways of the Spirit

To finish, here are the links to some of her works available online:

Mysticism

The Spiritual Life

Practical Mysticism

What to do with the “Canticle of Brother Sun”

First, pop on over to this website and read the “Canticle of Brother Sun”.

The first Franciscan text we read last night was the “Canticle of Brother Sun”.  This is one of St. Francis’ most popular writings.  It is especially popular today since St. Francis is the patron saint of ecologists and people can get their pets blessed on his feast day.  According to GK Chesterton, in fact:

It is a supremely characteristic work and much of Saint Francis could be reconstructed from that work alone.

Like all acts of writing, the “Canticle of Brother Sun” is dangerous, risky.  In the hands of an unsympathetic reader, it could be interpreted as heresy, as a form of pantheism, panentheism, or pagan nature-worship.  In the hands of a heretic, it could be used as such.  On the other hand, in the hands of a sympathetic orthodox reader, it becomes the hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King.”

St. Francis of Assisi was an orthodox Catholic believer.  His goal was not to start his own hippie church (contra Donovan & Brother Sun, Sister Moon).  His goal was to bring the true faith to the common people of Italy, to bring people to true faith and hearty repentance, to cause the rich to reconsider the value of wealth, to give strength the poor — and all of these things are not done through Brother Sun but through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.  St. Francis was aware of this.  It permeates the majority of his life, the stories of his life, and his writings.

And if we look at the “Canticle of Brother Sun,” we see that it balances all the words about creation with praise of the Creator.  This is the balance that must be found when we discuss eco-theology or the greening of theology or a theology of the environment or creation care.  The centre of our worship must always, ever, and ceaselessly be our Lord God.

So it was for St. Francis.  I disagree with the Chesterton quotation above.  If we are to know St. Francis’ heart, we must look beyond the “Canticle of Brother Sun.”  Elsewhere we see the centrality of Christ in his life.  We must balance this canticle with the rest of the saint’s writings.  Thus, we shall take the “Canticle of Brother Sun” and look at it parallel to chapter 23 of the “Earlier Rule” (for those pressed for time, I have bolded the word therefore; read from that word on for a briefer experience):

All-powerful, most holy, most high and supreme God
Holy and just Father
Lord, King of heaven and earth
we thank You for Yourself
for through Your holy will
and through Your only Son
with the Holy Spirit
You have created all things spiritual and corporal
and, having made us in Your own image and likeness,
You placed us in paradise.
And through our own fault we have fallen.
And we thank You
for as through Your Son You created us
so also through Your holy love, with which You loved us,
You brought about His birth
as true God and true man
by the glorious, ever-virgin, most blessed, holy Mary
and You willed to redeem us captives
through His cross and blood and death.
And we thank You
for Your Son Himself will come again
in the glory of His majesty
to send the wicked ones
who have not done penance and who have not known You
into the eternal fire,
and to say to all those who have known You and have adored You
and have served You in penance:
“Come, you blessed of My Father,
receive the kingdom,
which has been prepared for you
from the beginning of the world.”
And because all of us wretches and sinners
are not worthy to pronounce Your name,
we humbly ask that our Lord Jesus Christ,
Your beloved Son, in whom You were well pleased,
together with the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete,
give You thanks as it pleases You and Him for everything,
[He] Who always satisfies You in everything
through Whom You have done such great things for us.
Alleluia!

[Here follows a list of saints begged to join in thanks.  Then a request for all people, laity and clergy, to serve the Lord.]

Let us all love the Lord God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength [cf. Mark 12:30], with fortitude and with total understanding, with all of our powers, and with every effort, every affection, every emotion, every desire, and every wish.  He has given and gives to each one of us our whole body, our whole soul, and our whole life.  He created and redeemed us, and will save us by His mercy alone.  He did and does every good thing for us who are miserable and wretched, rotten and foul-smelling, ungrateful and evil.

Therefore
let us desire nothing nothing else
let us wish for nothing else
let nothing else please us and cause delight
except our Creator and Redeemer and Saviour,
the one true God,
Who is the fullness of Good
all good, every good, the true and supreme good
Who alone is good
merciful and gentle
delectable and sweet
Who alone is holy
just and true
holy and right
Who alone is kind
innocent
pure
from Whom and through Whom and in Whom is
all pardon
all grace
all glory
of all the penitent and the just
of all the blessed who rejoice together in heaven.
Therefore let nothing hinder us
nothing separate us
or nothing come between us.
Let all of us
wherever we are
in every place
at every hour
at every time of day
everyday and continually
believe truly and humbly
and keep in our hearts and love, honour, adore, serve
praise and bless
glorify and exalt
magnify and give thanks to
the most high and supreme eternal God
Trinity and Unity
the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit
the Creator of all
Saviour of all who believe in Him
and Hope in Him
and love Him
Who is
without beginning and and without end
unchangeable, invisible,
indescribable, ineffable,
incomprehensible, unfathomable,
blessed, worthy of praise,
glorious, exalted on high, sublime,
most high, gentle, lovable,
delectable and totally desirable above all else
forever.
Amen.

This is the heart of Franciscan spirituality.