Archive for category Contemplative Prayer (series)
“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.”
“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.
“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.”.
“The Greeks build metaphysical systems; the Romans build roads.” Old adage comparing Eastern and Western Christian theology
Contemplative prayer was effectively lost to Western Latin (Roman Catholic and Protestant) Christianity by end of the 17th century. It first began to erode seriously in the 12th century when the Western monks re-discovered the works of Aristotle and Aristotelian logic, which fueled the whole “Scholastic” movement in Western Latin theology. Contemplative prayer was further diminished by the focus on the “rational” verbal argumentation and bickering of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century (which continues unabated to this day). The coup de grâce came with the deification of the rational mind in the Enlightenment of the 17th century and the emergence of the scientific method. By that time, true contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer had virtually disappeared even from the monasteries of the West. And so it remains to this day; to the point that the West no longer even recognizes a distinction between the rational mind and “nous” and has no understanding of the difference between the concept of an “individual” and that of a “person”.
And what about the Protestants? Well, to be blunt, they just have no contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer tradition at all. By the time the Protestant reformers came along and broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century, contemplative prayer had virtually disappeared from the church. Sorry, but that’s the truth.
I have to be fair and again stress that the Eastern Orthodox did not ever lose their contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer tradition. As I have mentioned, the Orthodox tradition of “hesychasm” is alive and well today in its monasteries. To their further credit, for centuries the Orthodox chose their Bishops for the institutional church solely from the ranks of their contemplative monks. Much of the wisdom of the early Church Fathers I have quoted comes from an Orthodox book called the “Philokalia” (meaning “love of beauty”). The “Philokalia” is a collection of texts written between the fourth and the fifteenth centuries by spiritual masters of the Orthodox Christian contemplative tradition. First published in Greek in 1782, The “Philokalia” is the foundational text on “hesychasm”, with a long history dating back to the Desert Fathers and Mothers.
All of these facts lend credence to the old adage that, “The Greeks build metaphysical systems; the Romans build roads”.
“It all started with a Trappist monk and mystic named Thomas Merton.” ~ The re-discovery of Contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer in the West
Beginning in the 1960’s, there began a re-awakening in the Western Latin (Roman Catholic and Protestant) Church to their long-lost contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer tradition. That movement continues to grow.
It all started with a Trappist monk and mystic named Thomas Merton. Because of his influence, long ignored Western Latin mystical writings were dusted off and read, like the 13th century “Cloud of Unknowing”, the “Revelations of Divine Love” of Julian of Norwich (14th century), and the works of 16th century Spanish Carmelites Teresa de Avila (“Interior Mansions”) and John of the Cross (“Dark Night of the Soul”). Slowly it began to dawn on these Catholic monks, and others, the exact magnitude and importance of the contemplative prayer tradition they had lost.
The “Centering (contemplative) Prayer” movement in modern Catholicism and Christianity, in general, can be traced back to several books published by three Cistercian monks in the 1970s, led by Abbot Thomas Keating. Also prominent in the current re-birth of the Western contemplative tradition is Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr. Rohr is resurrecting the Western contemplative prayer tradition through the “alternative Orthodoxy” of St. Francis of Assisi and later Franciscans St. Bonaventure and Duns Scotus. He has founded the “Living School for Action and Contemplation” in Albuquerque, NM, to provide a course of study grounded in the Christian mystical tradition. It is open to anyone called to the work.
So there is every opportunity for contemporary Christians, especially Catholics and Protestants, to learn the lost contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer tradition, that “higher place still” of John Cassian. We, too, can experience “theoria”, “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), and find ourselves immersed in the Uncreated Divine Light of God so passionately described by mystics like Symeon the New Theologian (949–1022) and Gregory Palamas (1296–1359). It’s not just for monks, nuns, and saints. Like the followers of Jesus and the first “ekklesías” of Paul, all are invited to follow the Way equally, regardless of background or circumstance.
“…for the Master of the house has come.” ~ Isaac of Nineveh, 7th century
I pray that this series of postings introducing contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer has been instructive and worthwhile; especially to my fellow Protestants (of all flavours) who have none of this tradition in our own. It is in our ancient Christian family tree, for sure, but not in our branch of the family. I would ask that my fellow Protestants not reject the notion of contemplative prayer out of hand, just because Luther and Calvin didn’t do it. Instead, I would ask that they be encouraged and take comfort in the fact that Jesus and Paul did.
I end this series of postings with the reflections of 7th century mystic and Bishop, Isaac of Nineveh, one of the greatest spiritual figures of the Christian East, as he describes for us the “telos”, the fulfilment, of contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer:
“The joy of prayer is one thing; the prayer of contemplation is another. The latter is more precious than the former, as an adult is more advanced than a child. The verses of a psalm may be very delightful on the tongue, and the singing of a single verse during prayer may prevent us from continuing and passing on to another verse, so inexhaustible is it. But it may also happen that prayer gives rise to contemplation, which interrupts what the lips are saying. Then the person is in ecstasy. Contemplation makes him as it were a body without breath. This is what we call the prayer of contemplation… but there is still a measure in this contemplation… it is always a prayer. The meditation has not yet reached the point where there is no longer any prayer. It has not yet arrived at the higher state. In fact, the movements of the tongue and of the heart are keys. And what comes next is entry into the treasure house. Here every tongue and every mouth falls silent and the heart too, that gathers together the thoughts, and the spirit that governs the senses, and the work of meditation. They are like a flutter of impudent birds. Let their activity cease… for the Master of the house has come.” Ascetic Treatises, 31