Archive for category Patristic Pearls

Unknown Athonite Monk: “Concerning noetic prayer, prayer of the heart, and watchful prayer.”

The following excerpt is from an anonymous 1851 manuscript called The Watchful MindIt was penned by an unknown monk on Mount Athos, the “Holy Mountain”, the continuous home of the “hesychastic” contemplative Christian prayer tradition for more than a thousand years.

monk“Beloved, when you wish to pray noetically from your depths, let the prayer of your heart imitate the sound of the cicada.  When the cicada chirps, it does so in two ways.  At first, it softly chirps five to ten times, but then its ending chirps are more pronounced, drawn out, and melodic.  And so, beloved when you pray noetically within your heart, pray in the following manner:  First say, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me” about ten times, forcefully from your heart and clearly with your intellect from your depths, one time with each breath.  Restrain your breath a little each time you say the prayer as your heart meditates from its depth on the words.  Once you have said the prayer in this fashion ten times or more until that place within you has become warm where you meditate upon the prayer, then say the prayer more forcefully, with greater tension and forcefulness of heart, just as the cicada ends its song with a more pronounced and melodic voice.

This prayer, which is referred to principally as noetic prayer, is also called prayer of the heart and watchful prayer.  When you say the prayer with your intellect and repeat it mystically within you in stillness, using your inner voice, it is referred to as noetic prayer.  When you say the prayer from the depths of your heart with great tension and inner force, then it is referred to as prayer of the heart.  It is referred to as watchful prayer when, because of your prayer or because of the infinite goodness of God, the grace of the Holy Spirit visits your soul and touches your heart, or you are granted a divine vision, upon which your mind’s eye becomes watchful and fixed.

When you practice noetic prayer and reverently repeat it as you should, and the grace of the Holy Spirit visits your soul, then the name of Christ that you are meditating upon with your intellect becomes greatly consoling and sweet to your mind and soul, so much that you could never repeat it enough.

When you practice prayer of the heart and the grace of God touches your heart (that is, when your heart happens upon it), causing it to conceive compunction, as the  Lady Theotokos [“God Bearer”, the Virgin Mary] conceived the Word of God by the Holy Spirit, then the name of divine Jesus, and all of Holy Scripture, becomes ineffable sweetness to the heart, and every spiritual notion of the heart (if I may put it this way) becomes a sweet flowing river of divine compunction that sweetens the heart and wondrously makes it fervent in eros and love for it Creator and God.

Sometimes, when you practice prayer of the heart with pain of an enfeebled heart and with sorrow of a humbled soul, then your soul clearly feels the consolation and visitation of the Lord.  This is what the prophet says:  “The Lord is near those who are brokenhearted.”  The Lord invisibly draws near you when you crush your heart with the prayer, as we said, in order to show you some mystical revelation.  He shows you some vision in order to make you more fervent in the spiritual work of your heart.

And so, beloved, when, by the grace of Christ, your soul beholds some vision and is filled with compunction because of your prayer, then you understand that watchful prayer is nothing other than divine grace; it is the noetic and divine vision your mind beholds, your intellect firmly fixed upon, and your soul watches.  And that the divine grace of the Holy Spirit visited your soul, gently touched your heart, and ineffably sweetened your mind, only you can understand and comprehend within yourself, because compunction ceaselessly from your heart as from an ever-flowing spring, while your mind experiences an inexpressible sweetness and your soul consolation.  At that moment your soul possesses some spiritual boldness and mystically supplicates God, its Fashioner and Creator saying, “Remember me, Oh Lord, in your Kingdom,” or some other verse of Holy Scripture.

This holy and pure supplication that takes place within the soul has such power that it penetrates the heavens and reaches the throne of the Holy Trinity, before whom it stands like sweet-smelling and fragrant incense.  The prophet said about this prayer, “Let my prayer arise as incense before you.”  The God in Trinity receives this holy supplication in an inexpressible and wondrous manner, and the supplication in turn receives the fruit of the Holy Spirit.  This fruit, received reverently and modestly, is offered and sent to the soul as a priceless and heavenly gift from the God of all as a pledge of the future kingdom and adoption.  The soul that receives the heavenly and divine fruit of the Holy Spirit because of its supplication, that is, from pure prayer, acquires divine love, spiritual joy, peace of heart, and great patience during the hardships and temptations of this age, excellence and goodness in everything, unwavering faith, Christ’s meekness, and passion-killing self-control.  All of these are called “fruit of the Holy Spirit.”  To our God be glory and power unto ages of ages. Amen.”    ~ The Watchful Mind, pp 123-125.

 

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Maximus: “Silence and Unknowing in Prayer”

From “The Writings of Maximus the Confessor” by Saint Maximus –

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“Perfect silence alone proclaims Him, and total and transcendent unknowing brings us into His presence.”

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Macarius the Great: “On the Heart”

Macarius the Great (the Egyptian) (c. AD 300 -390) was one of the most famous Desert Fathers, and one of the pioneers of Scetis.

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“The heart is but a small vessel; and yet dragons and lions are there, and there likewise are poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There also is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there.” (Homilies 43:7)

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Gregory of Nyssa: “Making an idol of God”

Gregory of Nyssa (c. AD 335 – 395) – Along with his older brother, Basil of Caesarea,  and Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory was one the three great Cappadocian Fathers of the 4th century.

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“…every concept formed by our understanding which attempts to attain and to hem in the divine nature serves only to make an idol of God, not to make God known”.  ~ from “The Life of Moses”. 

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Ephraim the Syrian: “Here within are the riches of heaven, if you desire them.”

Dover Beach

Ephraim the Syrian

“Here within are the riches of heaven, if you desire them. Here O sinner, is the kingdom of God within you. Enter into yourself, seek more eagerly and you will find it without great travail. Outside you is death, and the door to death is sin. Enter within yourself and remain in your heart, for there is God.”
– St Ephraim the Syrian

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Palamas: “Deification is an enhypostatic and direct illumination…”

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St. Gregory Palamas 1296-1359

 

But when you hear of the vision of God face-to-face, recall the testimony of Maximus: ‘Deification is an enhypostatic and direct illumination which has no beginning, but appears in those worthy as something exceeding their comprehension.  It is indeed a mystical union with God, beyond intellect and reason, in the age when creatures will no longer know corruption.  Thanks to this union, the saints, observing the light of the hidden and more-than-ineffable glory, become themselves able to receive the blessed purity, in company with the celestial powers'”  ~  St. Gregory Palamas, The Triads, III.i.28

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St. Gregory of Nyssa: Moses and “Luminous Darkness”… “seeing that consists in not seeing”.

St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395), is one of the three Great Cappadocian Fathers along with his older brother, St. Basil the Great, and friend, St. Gregory of Nazianzus.  I especially love Gregory Nyssen for his deep spirituality and mysticism.  He was a highly original and sophisticated thinker who remains controversial among both liberal and conservative theologians to this day.  In his treatise The Life of Moses, St. Gregory tells us that a person’s encounter of the mystery of God corresponds to the three theophanies of Moses, involving successive entry into light, cloud, and darkness.  

According to St. Gregory Nyssen, the first stage in our quest to encounter God is Moses’ vision of God as the light of the burning bush; illuminating the darkness of our sin and ignorance.  The second stage involves a journey from light into partial darkness where Moses encounters God as the ‘cloud’; the intermingling of light and darkness, revealing the distance between the Creator and the created realm. The third and final stage entails Moses entering the darkness of Sinai where God is; and our realization upon encountering and even being united with God that He is utterly incomprehensible in his essence. 

In this treatment, I think, St. Gregory of Nyssa clearly identifies both cataphatic and apophatic theology, bridges the two and holds the tension between them, drawing the best from both.

 

St Gregory of Nyssa

St. Gregory of Nyssa

“What does it mean that Moses entered the darkness and then saw God in it? What is now recounted seems somehow to be contradictory to the first theophany, for then the divine was beheld in light but now He is seen in darkness. Let us not think that this is at variance with the sequence of things we have contemplated spiritually. Scripture teaches by this that religious knowledge comes at first to those who receive it as light. Therefore what is perceived to be contrary to religion is darkness; an escape from darkness comes about when one participates in the light. But as the mind progresses and, through an ever greater and more perfect diligence, comes to apprehend reality, as it approaches more nearly to contemplation, it sees more clearly that God cannot be contemplated. For leaving behind everything that is observed, not only what sense comprehends but also what the intelligence thinks it sees, it keeps on penetrating deeper until by the intelligence’s yearning for understanding it gains access to the invisible and the incomprehensible and there it sees God.  This is the true knowledge of what is sought; this is the seeing that consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incomprehensibility as by a kind of darkness. Therefore John the sublime who penetrated into the luminous darkness, says “no one has ever seen God,” thus asserting that knowledge of the divine essence is unattainable not only by humans but also by every intelligent creature.  When, therefore, Moses grew in knowledge, he declared that he had seen God in the darkness, that is, that he had then come to know that what is divine is beyond all knowledge and comprehension, for the text says,“Moses approached the dark cloud where God was.””  ~ The Life of Moses

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