Category: Prayer


Meditations on Meditation

An old man said: “Take care to be silent. Empty the mind. Attend to your meditation, in the fear of God, whether you are resting in bed or at work. If you do this, you will not fear the assaults of demons.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 11.47

A distinctively Christian meditation is not so easy to come by these days, certainly not in the United States, at least. However, meditation has been a Judeo-Christian practice for as far back as we know. I offer here a few meditations on the subject from my own studies and experience.

The very first psalm contrasts the way of the righteous with the way of the impious and sinners. Of the righteous man, we are told, “His will is in the Law of the Lord, and in it he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:2). The Lord, in fact, commanded the people of Israel to order their whole lives around meditating on the Law, putting commandments on their doorposts, talking about them whether walking or resting, standing or sleeping. It was always to be on their hearts, minds, and tongues.

For Christians, Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Law. Thus meditation on the Law (though not neglected) is transcended by meditation on Christ himself. Eventually this developed into a very specific tradition known as the Jesus Prayer, the repetition of the name of Jesus, particularly through some variant of the following: “Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Continue reading

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Knees Like a Camel

[St. James] was in the habit of entering alone into the temple, and was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard like those of a camel, in consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God, and asking forgiveness for the people.

Eusebius, Church History, 2.23.6

The St. James in this story is St. James the Just, the son of Joseph, who was the betrothed of the Virgin Mary. Thus, he was one of Jesus’s (step-)brothers, at least according to tradition. (The Greek word “brother,” as is also the Hebrew, is very general in meaning and can simply mean “kindred.”) In any case, he is important for being the brother of Jesus, as I have said, and the first bishop of Jerusalem. He was a major leader in the early Church and a martyr for the faith. His example, I think, is especially appropriate to recall this time of year.

(As a small disclaimer, I must apologize that the following post is a little “wonky,” to borrow from the common language of political commentary. It is full of words that I have to define that slow down the flow. On the other hand, I would rather expect much of my readership and be confusing to some rather than talk down to them and belittle many.)

After fifty days of Pascha, this past Sunday was Pentecost in the Orthodox Church, which, among other things, means a lot of kneeling. The divine liturgy and vespers both have additional, long prayers during which everyone kneels for a long time. In fact, kneeling is one of three traditional postures of prayer: standing, kneeling, and prostrations. I cannot begin to rival St. James, but it is probably the time of the year I think most about how he knelt in prayer so much that “his knees became hard like those of a camel.” Continue reading

A Living Flame

Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said: “Abba, as far as I can, I keep a moderate rule, with a little fasting, and prayer, and meditation, and quiet: and as far as I can I try to cleanse my heart of evil thoughts. What else should I do?” The the old man rose, and spread out his hands to heaven, and his fingers shone like ten candles: and he said: “If you will, you could become a living flame.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 12.8

Sometimes, in the midst of all the challenges of life; sometimes, when I feel that every endeavor is never enough; sometimes, I when just can’t take the tyranny of the ordinary … I wish that I too “could become a living flame.” I am no Abba Joseph, nor would I compare myself to Abba Lot. But something about this saying speaks to somewhere deep within my heart. I too try to “keep a moderate rule”—what more can I accomplish in the world? And yet, sometimes it isn’t enough for me. Not in the sense of despair, but more a zeal, I think, a realization that what I am, even at my best, is far short of what I can and ought to be. And I want to be more. I want to be “a living flame.” Continue reading

It is through the Holy Spirit that there will be a universal resurrection. I do not mean the resurrection of the bodies at the end (Heb. 9:26), for then the angel will blow the trumpet and the dead bodies will rise (1 Cor. 15:52), but I mean the spiritual regeneration and resurrection of the dead souls that takes place in a spiritual manner every day. This [resurrection] He gives who has died once [for all] and risen (Rom. 6:9f.), and through all and for all those who live in a worthy manner He causes the souls to rise who have died with Him in will and faith and raises them up. This He grants through His all-holy Spirit as He even now bestows on them from henceforth the kingdom of heaven.

~ St. Symeon the New Theologian, The Example and Spirit of Symeon the Pious

Christ is risen! For Orthodox Christians like myself, Pascha (Easter) is more than just a day, it is also a forty day season. For the first week (this past one) we don’t even fast at all! Having just finished with this Renewal Week (or Bright Week), I have been reflecting on a common motif of the Christian spiritual life and how perfectly it describes Christian asceticism: dying and rising with Christ. Continue reading

Rays of the Sun of Righteousness

Abba Hilarion once came from Palestine to Abba Antony on the mountain: and Abba Antony said to him: “Welcome, morning star, for you rise at break of day.” And Abba Hilarion said: “Peace to you, pillar of light, for you prop up the earth.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 17.4

This exchange between Abba Hilarion and Abba Antony comes, in my collection, under the category “Of Charity,” i.e. “On Love.” Thus, key to understanding this imagery is that this is a lesson about love: Abba Antony praises Abba Hilarion for his discipline (“you rise at break of day”), but Abba Hilarion praises Abba Antony for his self-giving, universal love (“you prop up the earth”). In both instances, however, the metaphor is one of light (“morning star”/”pillar of light”), indicating only a difference of degree in yet the same blessedness: communion with the divine. Continue reading

Doctrine Walks

Now, one day, when [Maccuil-maccu-Greccae] was sitting at this place, he saw St. Patrick radiating with the clear light of faith, and resplendent with a certain wonderful diadem of heavenly glory; he saw him, I say, walking, with unshaken confidence of doctrine, on a road agreeable thereto.

~ Muirchu’s Life of Patrick 23

In effort to continue my Lenten journey with St. Patrick, I came across this little passage. Besides having the most unpronouncable name of any human being in all of history, Maccuil-maccu-Greccae, Muirchu tells us, was “a very ungodly, savage tyrant,” who was “depraved in his thoughts, violent in his words, malicious in his deeds, bitter in spirit, wrathful in disposition, villainous in body, cruel in mind, heathenish in life, monstrous in conscience, [and] inclining to … a depth of ungodliness.” Yet Maccuil sees St. Patrick for who he truly is: “radiating with the clear light of faith, and resplendent with a certain wonderful diadem of heavenly glory.” This does not stop him from plotting to deceive and murder St. Patrick, but if I may cut to the chase, all ends well for both of them. My concern is not so much with Maccuil here, however, but with St. Patrick, who walked “with unshaken confidence of doctrine, on a road agreeable thereto.” Continue reading

Icons of Hope

So we all believe, we all are so minded, we all give our consent and have signed.  This is the faith of the Apostles, this is the faith of the Orthodox, this is the faith which hath made firm the whole world.  Believing in one God, to be celebrated in Trinity, we salute the honourable images!

Decree of the Seventh Ecumenical Council

This might seem like an odd spiritual text to reflect on. After all, it is not the wisdom of a hermit, but the decree of a Church council. Nevertheless, it has something at its heart that is central to ancient Christian piety. Today, in the Orthodox Church, we celebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy, commemorating the end of the iconoclastic controversy that spanned over a century and claimed countless martyrs for the faith. The victory of the Orthodox making and veneration of holy icons is, to me, a day of great hope: many people lived and died and fought for this faith, never to see the victory in their own lifetime. But today, Orthodox churches are covered in beautiful icons; all their effort was not in vain. In addition to this feast day, tomorrow is the Feast of the Annunciation and Tuesday is the Jewish Pesach (Passover). The theme of hope runs through these celebrations as well, and it is this that I would like to explore here as a matter of everyday asceticism. Continue reading

[Abba Isaac said:] The fourth kind, thanksgiving, is when the mind recollects what God has done or is doing, or looks forward to the good which he has prepared for those that love him, and so offers its gratitude in an indescribable transport of spirit. Sometimes it offers still deeper prayers of this sort; when the soul contemplates with singleness of heart the reward of the saints and so is moved in its happiness to pour forth a wordless thanksgiving.

~ Conferences of Cassian 9.14

I have already reflected on the relationship between thanksgiving and joy in the past, but since there is always more to say about every subject of the spiritual life, I will reflect on the subject yet again here. In fact, such reflection, attempts to describe “an indescribable transport of spirit,” is really the heart of true theology in the first place, I would argue. And so I pass here from the mystery of thanksgiving to an even greater, more ineffable mystery here, though not really as a true theologian in that sense, I hasten to add, but merely as one who has been inspired by many. Continue reading

An old man said: “I never wanted a work to be useful to me while causing loss to my brother: for I have this hope, that what helps my brother will bring fruit to me.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 17.24

According to Abba Isaac, intercession is the third of four forms of prayer, after supplications and vows and before thanksgiving. Intercession corresponds to the affective state of longing, which differs, in ancient Christian terminology, from desire (epithemia) in its ends. Longing is a wish for what is holy and virtuous. Intercession, similarly, is a request on behalf of another for his/her good. While Christians do not seek the good of others purely out of self-interest well understood, nevertheless the saying of this old man is true that “what helps my brother will bring fruit to me.” Continue reading

Abba Antony said: “Now I do not fear God, but I love him: for love casteth out fear” [cf. 1 John 4:18]

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 17.1

St. Antony’s saying, like much ancient Christian wisdom, is both simple and profound. He does not operate, like some do today, under a defeatist mentality when it comes to the spiritual life. Many today, I know, repeat to themselves the destructive mantra: “I am a sinner, and that is never going to change in this life.” Such a perspective, I fear, portrays the Gospel as the worst good news anyone could ever hear. Continue reading