Philokalic Friday: The Cross in St Mark the Ascetic

I am on the cusp of finishing the first volume of The Philokalia. One of the big concerns that will strike many a Protestant who comes across books such as The Philokalia or The Art of Prayer or the Desert Fathers and Mothers or Dionyius the Areopagite is an apparent lack of crucicentrism. While few of us are not necessarily that excited by Gothic altarpieces, we have a devotion to Jesus that is focussed upon his atoning death and sacrificed that oned us to God.

The first way to assuage any such concerns is to remind the person that anthologies such as The Philokalia or The Art of Prayer do not include everything written by the authors. Maximus the Confessor wrote a great many things not in The Philokalia. The second is to point out that there is a difference of genre here from what is being sought; this is not dogmatic theology, nor even devotion as understood in the later Middle Ages. It is about certain aspects of Christian praxis, namely how to achieve stillness (hesychia) and meet with the risen, ascended Christ here and now.

The third is to check the index of The Philokalia, vol. 1, and see where/how the cross figures in the book.

Keeping in mind the genre of the text, consider St Mark the Ascetic, ‘On the Spiritual Law’:

30. The law of freedom teaches the whole truth. Many read about it in a theoretical way, but few really understand it, and these only in the degree to which they practise the commandments.

31. Do not seek the perfection of this law in human virtues, for it is not found perfect in them. Its perfection is hidden in the Cross of Christ.

St Mark here assumes that his readers know about salvation through the Cross of Christ and what the Cross of Christ means. The law of freedom is found perfect in the cross. We should probably read him in light of his other statements, as in ‘On Those Who Think that They are Made Righteous by Works’ (an anti-Pelagian tract):

2. Wishing to show that to fulfil every commandment is a duty, whereas sonship is a gift given to men through His own Blood, the Lord said: ‘When you have done all that is commanded, say: “We are useless servants: we have only done what was our duty”‘ (Luke 17:10). Thus the kingdom of heaven is not a reward for works, but a gift of grace prepared by the Master for his faithful servants.

4. ‘Christ died on account of our sins in accordance with the Scriptures’ (1 Cor. 15:3); and to those who serve Him well He gives freedom. …

20. If ‘Christ died on our account in accordance with the Scriptures’ (Rom. 5:8; 1 Cor. 15:3), and we do not ‘live for ourselves’, but ‘for Him who died and rose’ on our account (2 Cor. 5:15), it is clear that we are debtors to Christ to serve Him till our death. How then can we regard sonship as something which is our due?

21. Christ is Master by virtue of his own essence and Master by virtue of His incarnate life. For He crates man from nothing, and through His own Blood redeems him when dead in sin; and to those who believe in Him He has given His grace.

23. We who have received baptism offer good works, not by way of repayment, but to preserve the purity given to us.

26. While man can scarcely keep what belongs to him by nature, Christ gives the grace of sonship through the Cross.

In his ‘Letter to Nicolas the Solitary’, St Mark the Ascetic encourages Nicolas in various ways, largely through recollection of God’s grace to him, and writes:

What repayment for all these blessings can you possibly make to Him who has called your soul to eternal life? It is only right, then, that you should live no longer for yourself, but for Christ, who died for your sake and rose again. (p. 153 English)

He encourages Nicolas to keep in mind ‘the great humiliation which the Lord took upon Himself in His ineffable love for us’ (p. 156 English). St Mark goes on to give a beautiful synopsis of the Gospel story from Incarnation to ascension. Consider Christ’s humiliation — and then endure your own suffering.

The point of these texts is to encourage Christians in the path to righteousness, to give them practical advice about prayer and the spiritual life. It is to remind them that none of their good works are anything worth but, rather, the manifold and great mercies of God make them so.

The Cross of Christ stands in ascetic theology as very briefly excerpted above in three ways, then.

  1. Christ has died for us and given us grace. This grace enables us to live holy lives.
  2. Christ has died for us; we should live holy lives out of gratitude.
  3. Christ has suffered and died; we should endure our sufferings with patience.

There is not laying out in full of a theory of the atonement here, but that is not what St Mark is aiming at. He almost assumes such knowledge on the part of the reader from the start.

So, this Good Friday, how will the Cross of Christ impact how you live?

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The Jesus Prayer and Me 2: Edinburgh and beyond

St Theophan the Recluse

As I mentioned in my last post, my drifting in and out of various bits and bobs of the literature of Christian mysticism alongside contacts with Eastern Orthodoxy meant that I knew of the Jesus Prayer and liked the concept. I prayed it sometimes — while waiting, or in the place of the Hail Mary with a rosary, that sort of thing. But my actual exertion of energy on anything approaching contemplation was — and is — haphazard.

That alone is reason to pray, yes?

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

Nonetheless, in 2013 I came to a point where I realised that I had some issues with anger. So I went to talk to Fr Raphael at the Orthodox Church here in Edinburgh. I’m not entirely sure what it says about me, Presbyterian ministers, and Fr Raphael that it was the Orthodox priest and not my minister to whom I turned in this time of spiritual crisis, but this is what I did. I spoke with him about anger and about how to work through it, how to overcome it.

Fr Raphael observed that the Fathers say that anger is not so bad a passion to suffer, for you can turn it against the demons when they tempt you. Thus Evagrius of Pontus:

Anger is given to us so that we might fight against the demons and strive against every pleasure. (The Praktikos 44)

As I’ve blogged before, this is expressed by the Russian St Theophan the Recluse:

You say that you cannot help being resentful and hostile? Very well then, be hostile — but towards the devil, not towards your brother. God gave us wrath as a sword to pierce the devil — not to drive into our own bodies. Stab him with it, then, right up to the hilt; press the hilt in as well if you like, and never pull it out, but drive another sword in as well. This we shall achieve by becoming gentle and kind towards each other. ‘Let me lose my money, let me destroy my honour and glory — my fellow-member is more precious to me than myself.’ Let us speak thus to each other, and let us not injure our own nature in order to gain money or fame. (The Art of Prayer, p. 212)

In fact, the above quotation comes from a book that was loaned to me by Father Raphael at the time I went to him for guidance. It is an anthology of texts about prayer, most of them by Theophan the Recluse and Ignatius Brianchaninov. I recommend it highly.

Besides loaning me The Art of Prayer, Fr Raphael made two recommendations. One was to keep track of times that I feel angry and annoyed, and pray about them. The other was the disciplined praying of the Jesus Prayer — not simply when I’m angry or as a way to turn my heart to God when idle, but to set aside time every day.

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

Fr Raphael’s counsel, which I have seen Kallistos Ware recommend as well, was to spend no fewer than 10 minutes a day and no more than 20 praying the Jesus Prayer. The goal was (and is) for me to focus on the words and their meaning, to keep my mind from wandering, and fix my heart on Jesus.

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

Fr Raphael’s advice is rather evangelical, if you think on it. Fixing our hearts on Jesus is what we’re all about, after all.

Anyway, he also gave me a chomboschini, a knotted prayer rope. At each knot, I recite the Jesus Prayer. He further advised to set aside the same time for the Jesus Prayer each day to aid in making this prayer regular.

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

And off I went to Germany for three months. I prayed the Jesus Prayer in my room. I prayed it on the Neckarinsel in Tuebingen (that’s the island in the Neckar). I prayed it on the tram in Leipzig. I prayed it on the train. I prayed it in Austria in a Benedictine monastery.

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

And then I came back to Edinburgh — I pray it on my couch, in my bedroom, at my desk, in St Giles’ Church. And then I went to Paris for a month, where I prayed it in my room, in the Bibliotheque nationale, in the old, Gothic churches. And at home again. And on all my research trips.

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

I prayed it on my first trip to Rome — in St Peter’s, in Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, in Santa Maria Maggiore. I prayed it in my long stay in Rome as well.

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

I’m not a great contemplative. It’s the active life for me. I’m not the best at remembering to pray the Jesus Prayer every day, even though I have an alarm set to remind me. When I do pray it, my mind often wanders. Or my eyes, which bring my mind with them (this is why Kallistos Ware recommends you put the lights out).

But I get angry less frequently. Not just because I might remember to pray this prayer when angry, but because of the attempt at discipline that I bring to it. Because my heart is being ordered towards my Lord and Saviour. Because I have found grace in Jesus through praying this prayer and calling on his Name.

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

Theophan the Recluse in response to yesterday’s post

It is wrong to become too much attached to reading. It leads to no good and builds a wall between the heart and God. It leads to the development of a harmful curiosity and sophistry.

Theophan the Recluse, in The Art of Pryaer, ed. Igumen Chariton of Valamo, trans. Kadloubovsky & Palmer, p. 168

Theophan the Recluse and anger

As I’ve mentioned here before, sometimes I get angry. Usually it’s a fairly tame frustration or annoyance. Sometimes it’s more powerful. I get angry at stupid things people post on Facebook. I get angry at dumb stuff I see in the news. I’ve been known to get angry at people who board airplanes too slowly, those who take forever in the checkout queue, road construction, slow walkers — you know, the usual.

Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894) has some good stuff to say about anger. Of interest is the idea of redirecting this passion towards sin and the Devil:

You say that you cannot help being resentful and hostile? Very well then, be hostile — but towards the devil, not towards your brother. God gave us wrath as a sword to pierce the devil — not to drive into our own bodies. Stab him with it, then, right up to the hilt; press the hilt in as well if you like, and never pull it out, but drive another sword in as well. This we shall achieve by becoming gentle and kind towards each other. ‘Let me lose my money, let me destroy my honour and glory — my fellow-member is more precious to me than myself.’ Let us speak thus to each other, and let us not injure our own nature in order to gain money or fame. (The Art of Prayer, p. 212)

This idea of redirecting anger towards the Devil or towards the passions is found elsewhere, as in Evagrius Ponticus, whose ascetic works had a deep impact on Byzantine spirituality.* The idea is to talk back, to rebuke the passions and sins that tempt and beset you, to be angry with yourself and grieve for your sins. Thus we will use the passions, which are a natural part of the human person, to grow in virtue, rather than to sin.

Sometimes we see Christians in prominent positions who are filled with righteous indignation over various pieces of news and the troubles in society and politics. I know of one fellow who gets really angry with the Canadian government regardless of who is in power. I ask — is this anger, directed at the humans who make things happen, of use?

We should be angry at injustice, but love the unjust. This is what Theophan calls us to do, for anger towards another human being can lead to revilement and hatred, and these are a poison to the human soul. Be angry with sin and the Devil, not your brother!

*His theology, on the other hand, was deemed heretical.

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.