Archive for category Contemplative Prayer (series)

Contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer 1

“after the fire a still small voice”.  ~ 1 Kings 19:12

1 Kings 19 talks about Elijah running from a very evil queen Jezebel. God wants to talk with Elijah and Elijah experiences a great wind, an earthquake, and a fire, yet he does not hear the voice of God. He hears it in a “still small voice” or as the Greek Septuagint has it, “φωνὴ αὔρας λεπτῆς”, “a sound minute and poor”.

We can only hear “a sound minute and poor” when we ourselves are quiet, still, and attentive. We need to be calm in spirit, ignoring the endless blather of our own mind, and open to the moment without expectation or judgment. That is contemplation. It is how Jesus spent most of his time “praying”. It is what the early church meant by prayer.

Western Latin Christianity (Roman Catholicism) completely lost their contemplative prayer tradition by the rational argumentation of the Reformation of the 16th century and the rational intellectual revolution of the Enlightenment of 17th century. Protestantism never had a contemplative prayer tradition.

The bad news is that we in the West have no idea how to pray as Jesus prayed. The good news is that the tradition of contemplative prayer is being re-discovered in the West and has always been available in the Eastern Orthodox tradition of “hesychasm” to anyone motivated to quiet themselves and seek it.

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Contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer 2

“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” ~ Mark 1:35

In my last post, I pointed out that Western Christianity lost its mystic tradition of contemplative prayer about 500 years ago.  Contemplation was the prevailing type of Christian prayer for nearly 1,600 years in the Latin West and it still remains the principal prayer tradition of the Orthodox East.   Today, I want to follow up on that thought and discuss the fact that contemplative prayer was established as the principal type of prayer of Christianity in the very beginning, by Jesus himself.

In the very first Chapter (v. 35) of our oldest Gospel, Mark tells how Jesus habitually prayed; alone in a solitary place without distraction.  In fact, just before teaching the disciples the “Lord’s Prayer” in Matthew 6, Jesus tells them, “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”(v.6).  In these passages, Jesus also tells his disciple how not to pray: “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others” (v.5); and “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words” (v. 7).  These are not isolated incidents and remarks, but characteristic of Jesus’s prayer life throughout the Gospel accounts of his ministry.  As Luke tells us, “So He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed.” (v. 5:16).

Clearly, Jesus set Contemplative Prayer as the standard for Christians, what I will call “Primitive Christian Prayer”.  I use the word “primitive” not in the sense of the word that denotes “crude”, “unfinished”, or “simplistic”, but in the sense of  being “primary, original, and pristine”.  Primitive Christian Prayer is the way Jesus prayed.  It was the principal prayer tradition of the early Church.

You have never heard that message preached from a Protestant pulpit (or Catholic, for that matter), have you?

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Contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer 3

“a higher state still” ~ John Cassian, ca. AD 400

In this discussion over the next few posts, I will quote recognized Church Fathers from the early centuries of the Church in order to introduce the Primitive Christian Prayer tradition to a mostly Protestant audience.  The reason for this is simple: it’s a prayer tradition that we Protestants do not have and never had; it had virtually disappeared from the institutional Roman Catholic Church by the time of the Protestant Reformation.

To the modern Roman Catholic and Protestant believer, prayer is usually broken down into five basic types: Blessing and Adoration, Petition, Intercession, Thanksgiving, and Praise (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church).

John Cassian (c. 350 – c.435) was a Christian mystic who spent 15 years in the Egyptian Desert with the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the 4th century.  Highly educated, he was equally comfortable writing in either Greek or Latin.  He tells us that Primitive Christian Prayer went well past the types we recognize today:

“The various kinds of prayer [petition, promise, intercession, pure praise] are followed by a higher state still… it is the contemplation of God alone, an immeasurable fire of love.  The soul settles in it and sinks into its depths” (Conferences, IX, 18).

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Contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer 4

“Be still, and know that I am God”.  “Jesus said, “God is spirit, and His worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” ~ John 4:24, Psalm 46:10

In discussing Contemplative or Primitive Christian Prayer, I will frequently quote early Church Fathers, like Evagrius Ponticus (346 – 399).  Evagrius was one of the most important teachers of mysticism of the early Church.  He was a contemporary and friend of the famous Cappadocian Fathers (Sts. Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus) who led the Church through the Christological controversies of the 4th century (AD 300’s).  St. Basil ordained Evagrius as reader and St. Gregory Nazianzen ordained him to the diaconate.  In about AD 383 he, like John Cassian, was drawn to the Egyptian Desert where he became a monk, and was a close associate of the greatest of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, especially Macarius of Egypt.  Evagrius was well trained in ancient philosophy and literature, was articulate and literate at a time when most of his contemplative fellow monks of the desert were illiterate.

Evagrius’s description of contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer makes it clear that he is talking about a foundational prayer life that is much different from what we contemporary Christians think of as prayer.  First of all, it is not verbal and it is not actively projecting wishes or messages of any kind.  In his work, “On Prayer”, Evagrius tells us that, “Prayer is the ascent of the spirit [nous*] to God”… “Prayer is a conversation of the spirit with God.”  Second, contemplative primitive prayer requires a quiet, still soul in order for our spirit to ascend and commune with God.  It means that all thoughts, whether bad thoughts (the “passions”) or good thoughts, must be stilled.  Evagrius tells us that, “You will not be able to pray purely if you are all involved with material affairs and agitated with unremitting concerns. For prayer is the rejection of conceptions…  Seek therefore the disposition that the spirit needs, in order to be able to reach out towards its Lord and to hold converse with him without any intermediary…  Undistracted prayer is the highest intellection of the spirit [nous]…  Try to make your intellect deaf and dumb during prayer; you will then be able to pray”.

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Contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer 5

“then he will see the mind appear similar to sapphire or to the color of the sky.”  Evagrius Ponticus, 4th century

This state of a quieted soul, what Evagrius calls a state of “dispassion” [apatheia] is very difficult to achieve.  Dispassion was difficult enough in the isolation of the 4th century Egyptian desert (it took years of practice to achieve) and it is infinitely more difficult for us in the modern world.  First of all, unlike the people of Evagrius’s time, we are culturally conditioned to respect and use only our rational intellect, which is not the part of us that ascends to the Lord in prayer (see the note on the “nous”, below).  Second, we are also the most over stimulated people in history; if not with the endless chatter of our own self-centered desires and judgments, then certainly with the distractions of the modern world trying to capture our attention moment by moment with dazzling technology.

Again, in “On Prayer”, Evagrius tells us: “The state of prayer is one of dispassion [apatheia], which by virtue of the most intense love [agape] transports to the noetic realm the spirit [nous] that longs for wisdom.  He who wishes to pray truly must not only control his incensive power [“thumos”- irascible faculty, anger] and his desire [epithumia], but must also free himself from every impassioned thought.”  If we wish to reach that state beyond normal prayer, that “higher state” described by John Cassian, Evagrius advises us that,  “If one wishes to see the state (katastasis) of the mind (nous) [referring to the state of contemplation, pure prayer, “gnosis”], let him deprive himself of all representations (noemata), and then he will see the mind appear similar to sapphire or to the color of the sky. But to do that without being passionless (apatheia) is impossible, for one must have the assistance of God who breathes into him the kindred light.”

This is ancient foundational Primitive Christian Prayer to which the early church aspired and practiced.  This is praying like Jesus and Paul prayed.

*The nous is the “image of God” present in the consciousness of every human. It is the highest faculty of the human soul.  The notion of man being created in the “image of God” is a constant throughout Christian theology and spirituality deriving from the creation story of Genesis 1.  Note that the idea of “nous” has been totally lost to the Western world, where it has been completely subsumed by our obsession with the “rational intellect” since the Reformation and Enlightenment.

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Contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer 6

“Let your tongue pronounce no word when you betake yourself to prayer.”  ~ Evagrius Ponticus, 4th century

Contemplative, or Primitive Christian Prayer, sounds wonderful but requires a quieted, still soul; and this state can literally take years to achieve and master.  So, how do we “do” contemplative prayer?  To start us off, I will again use our friend Evagrius Ponticus who tells us that an intellect (read: nous) that is filled with agape love in seeking God, tears itself away from the physical world, its images, its passions, its reasoning, so that all that is left is the perception of gratitude and joy.  This, for Evagrius, is the necessary condition of a person in whom prayer can begin:

“When your intellect [nous], in an ardent love for God, sets itself gradually to transcend, so to speak, created things and rejects all thinking… at the same time filling itself with gratitude and joy, then you may consider yourself approaching the borders of prayer.”  (On Prayer, 62)

The mere fact that it can take years to reach the level of dispassion described by Evagrius should not discourage us from our pursuit of prayer!  So, now that we are duly humbled and in a proper frame of mind, how do we do it?  Pseudo-Macarius, an anonymous ascetic writer from about AD 400, tells us:

“To pray there is no need of gestures, nor cries, nor silence, nor kneeling.  Our prayer that is at once tranquil and fervent ought to be waiting upon God, for God to come and permeate all its approaches, all its ways, all its senses.  Enough of groanings and sobs.  Let us seek in our prayer only the coming of God…  In the same way the soul that seeks God – rather I mean the soul that is sought by God – is no longer anything but gazing.”  (33rd homily)

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Contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer 7

“This disposition is accompanied by interior tears, then by a sort of fullness, eager for silence.” ~ Diadochus of Photike, 5th century


We now turn back to John Cassian (ca. AD 400), who tells us how to pray like the Desert Fathers and Mothers:

“We have to take particular care to follow the Gospel precept that bids us go into our inner room and shut the door to pray to our Father.

This is how to do it.

We are praying in our inner room when we withdraw our heart completely from the clamor of our thoughts and preoccupations, and in a kind of secret dialogue, as between intimate friends, we lay bare our desires before the Lord.

We are praying with our door shut when, without opening our mouth, we call on the One who takes no account of words but considers the heart.

We are praying in secret when we speak to God with the heart alone and with concentration of the soul, and make known our state of mind to him alone, in such a way that even the enemy powers themselves cannot guess their nature.  Such is the reason for the deep silence that it behooves us to keep in prayer…” (Conferences, IX)

Diadochus of Photike from the 5th century (AD 400’s) is one of the principal spiritual authorities of the Orthodox East.  He was one of the first to mention the use of the famous “Jesus Prayer”, which remains one of the primary mystic tools of the Orthodox contemplative tradition of hesychasm (silence, quietude) to this day.  Diadochus describes the presence of the Holy Spirit in contemplative prayer and the need for silence:

“When the Holy Spirit acts in the soul he sings psalms and prays with complete relaxation and sweetness in the secret places of the heart.  This disposition is accompanied by interior tears, then by a sort of fullness, eager for silence.” Gnostic Chapters, 73

The tricky thing about contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer is that if you think you’re doing it right, you clearly aren’t!  By thinking you’re doing it right, by making that judgment, you have made prayer into a dualistic contest, a worthiness exercise.  That makes you guilty of “philautia” (φιλαυτία), self-centeredness, the root of all of the deadly sins and the greatest hindrance to pure prayer, at least according to Evagrius Ponticus!

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Contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer 8

“Always breathe Christ” ~ Anthony the Great, 4th century

In the ancient Eastern Orthodox contemplative tradition of “hesychasm” (silence, stillness, quietude), invoking the name of Jesus Christ has been used as a means of focusing the mind on God and eliminating outside thoughts, images, and other distractions from pure presence.  Invoking the name of Jesus also acknowledges that God is personal; He only manifests as Persons in Trinity, in an endless “circle dance” (perichoresis) of co-inherent divine love (agape). This invocation of Christ has been combined with breathing as a “psycho-somatic” (involving both “psuche” (soul) and “soma” (body)) aid in centering the spirit (nous) in the heart for its ascent to God.

Athanasius of Alexandria (295 – 356), besides being the hero of the first Ecumenical Council of the Church at Nicaea in AD 325, also wrote “The Life of Anthony”, about the greatest and most celebrated of the first monks.  In it, Athanasius quotes Anthony (whom he personally knew) as follows:

“[Anthony] called his two companions… and said to them, ‘Always breathe Christ’.”

Pseudo-Macarius echoes the same idea in about AD 400 with this elegant sentiment from his “Coptic Cycle of Sayings”:

“The Holy Spirit, the Breath of God, is linked to the Word from all eternity.  Therefore when a person’s intellect and breathing utter the name of the Incarnate Word – Jesus – they are united with the Holy Spirit, and the person breathes and thinks in the Spirit.

The intellect [nous], strengthened by the invocation, finds its connection with the heart again, and this, or rather the presence in it, becomes conscious.  Intellect and heart together form that heart-spirit in which a person collects, opens, unifies, harmonizes, and enlarges himself infinitely.  It properly constitutes the ‘place of God’.”

Anthony and Macarius were joined in this same sentiment more than 200 years later by 7th century mystic master John Climacus.  John wrote the “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”; 30 short tracts, or steps, of spiritual instruction for his monks.  In Step 27 of “The Ladder” he wrote:

“Let your calling to mind of Jesus be continually combined with your breathing and you will know the meaning of silence.”

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Contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer 9

“It should therefore be given the Jesus Prayer…” ~ Diadochus of Photike, 5th century 

The tradition of invoking the name of Jesus in contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer was so common that by the 5th century that it was assuming a standard form, the “Jesus Prayer”.  Diadochus of Photike tells us that:

“The spirit, when we close all its outlets by our concentration on God, demands of us expressly some task that may satisfy its need for activity.  It should therefore be given the Jesus Prayer as the only occupation that answers fully to its purpose.  It is, in fact, written that ‘No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit’…  Those who meditate on this holy and glorious Name continually in the depths of their heart can see also the light of their own spirit.  For if it is entertained with great care by the mind, the Name with intense emotion destroys all the impurities that cover the surface of the soul.”

The “Jesus Prayer” remains a principal spiritual tool of the Eastern Orthodox contemplative tradition of “hesychasm” to this day.  In its full form, it is, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a (the) sinner”.  It is used also in various shortened forms, sometimes shortened down to “Lord have mercy”, or “Kyrie eleison” in Greek.   In its psycho-somatic form, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” is prayed (“breathed”) into the body on the inhale; and “have mercy on me, a sinner” is exhaled (just like our sin is expelled through His grace and mercy).  It’s easier to do in Greek than it is in English!

I would be unfaithful to the Eastern contemplative tradition if I did not add a stern warning, born of centuries of experience.  Contemplation, or theoria, should not be undertaken except under the guidance of an experienced spiritual Father, or guide.  Even then, visions, dreams, and emotions are looked on with great suspicion in the Eastern tradition.  Without a keen and well developed discernment of spirits, Satan and his minions can easily wreak havoc in a novice and do great physical and spiritual harm.

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Contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer 10

“pray without ceasing” ~ Paul, ca. AD 55

In what is probably the earliest authentic letter we have from the Apostle Paul, he urges his nascent Christ community in Thessalonica to “pray without ceasing”.  The Primitive Christian ekklesia took that charge very seriously.  Contemplative prayer became ingrained in the lives of many of the early saints, providing a constant subtle presence or leitmotif; a divine music infused throughout their entire being, creating the themes, rhythm, tempo, melody, tone, and mood of a sanctified life.

The institutional church, especially after becoming part of the Imperial infrastructure of the Roman Empire beginning in AD 313, naturally began to become more concerned with that which concerns empire; power, prestige, and possessions.  As a result, the concept of prayer began to get “dumbed down” to a level that the institutional church could define and control.  Hence, we have the five basic kinds of prayer we are familiar with today; Blessing and Adoration, Petition, Intercession, Thanksgiving, and Praise.  Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with these types of prayer;  Jesus and Paul used all of them.  These prayers are good, powerful, and edify the body of Christ. My point is that they constitute a very small subset of the much larger contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer tradition.  As evidence, I again cite John Cassian (ca. AD 400) who tells us, “The various kinds of prayer [petition, promise, intercession, pure praise] are followed by a higher state still… it is the contemplation of God alone, an immeasurable fire of love.”  It is to this “higher state” of prayer that all Christians are called to aspire.

Many serious God-seekers, repulsed by the questionable antics and priorities of the early institutional Imperial Church, started fleeing to the isolation of deserts of Syria, Palestine and Egypt in the AD 300’s.  There they were free to continue to practice and develop their contemplative Primitive Christian prayer tradition;  praying in the tradition of Jesus and Paul.  These were the famed Desert Fathers and Mothers.  This was the beginning of monasticism.  Contemplative prayer pretty much remained isolated to the monks and nuns of the sketes and monasteries from that point on; somewhat removed from the institutional “church” structure, or, as I refer to it in its current incarnation, “Jesus, Inc.”.

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