“The Mountain is on fire these hours, the devil groans, truly the monks are deified”

I went out and I sat on a rock. It was getting dark. The soft roar of the sea could be heard from afar. All the sweetness of eternity came into my disturbed soul. Boundless calm. I felt the presence of Christ, Who knows how to fill the desert.

Very few moments in my life have I spent like these. … The Prophet Isaiah says: “Blessed is he who has seed and relatives in Jerusalem”, and the Athonite Abba of Stavronikita Monastery interprets profoundly: “We, too, can say that we are all blessed because we have the Zion of Orthodoxy—the Holy Mountain—the seed of the Holy ascetics and we have so many relatives in the Jerusalem of Heaven. They live for us and they are the light and hope of our present and future life”.

I wanted to practice what the elder ascetic had told me during the discussion, (the elder) being for me “an initiator to the heavenly mysteries than a lawgiver” (Abba Poeman). I bowed my head, put it between my knees—like the Prophet Elijah did on Mount Carmel—and I started to warm my heart so that I could start the Jesus prayer afterwards.

The hours of night are life-giving for the monks who are like “workshops of unceasing prayer and very sweet thoughts of Jesus within their heart”. Night responds effectively to the experience of angelic life, and that is why they prefer it for the carrying out of spiritual work and the Jesus prayer. Monks abolish night, as monastic life abolishes everything. Monastic life abolishes death, for marriage renews life but also death. A new life is born; but this life will die, whereas with life in chastity death ceases to oppress humanity. The life of a monk is the beginning of eternity, the true life, that is why he experiences the eschatological reality, the angelic way of life. The Lord said: “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are accounted worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Lk 20.34). The monk belongs to another age. Present life becomes eternity, it becomes the timeless passage of time! “Although walking the earth in chastity, the monk touches heaven”. That is why we can say that life in chastity abolishes even the night. Night becomes day, since the monks live the eschatological and angelic way of life. Since “there is no night there”, according to Revelation, here too for the monks, who are angels in the flesh, there should be no night. The Lamb, the Sun, Christ illumines them.

According to the Holy Fathers, “night is beneficial to all”. It is beneficial both for the practical and theological souls. Practical are the monks who are at the first stage of monastic life, who must fight their passions and try to change them to divine love. They are “the stock-breeders”, who try to lead the cattle, that is, the perverted states of the soul. And theoretical monks are those who have overcome this stage. They have passed from the slavery of Egypt (of passions) to the desert of dispassion, and are shepherds who guide the sheep—that is the pure mind and the pure heart—to the mountain of contemplation (divine vision). The Fathers say that night is important and very beneficial for both of these groups.

Those who are at the first stage remember the sins they have committed during the day, the “disturbance of the wrongdoings”. They discover their transgressions with the help of the life-giving grace, truly and not imaginably, and then they start crying: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”. They do not let all guilty thoughts, shameful desires and sinful deeds be shut into the caverns of the subconscious, but they enter, with the power of grace, into the caves and boldly drive out whatever is suppressed there and so they are cured. They purify their heart and minds not only from complex but also from simple thoughts. The monks who are at the stage of illumination spend their night in a different way. Being purified from all states which are contrary to nature, they give glory to God, the Holy Trinity. They rest noetically and lead their thoughts and hearts to the mountain of theoria (divine vision).

When nightfall arrives, they think of the day of creation when “the earth was invisible and uncreated and darkness was above the abyss”. When the stars appear shortly thereafter, they think of the creation of stars and like the angels who immediately praised God then, they now praise God for all creation. While others sleep and seemingly do not exist, these monks stay awake, alone with God and glorify Him, like Adam before the Fall. When it is thundering, they think of the dreadful day of Judgement. At the sound of birds of prey, they experience the voice of trumpets which call the dead to rise up from their tombs. The rising of the morning star and daybreak remind them of the appearance of the precious and life-giving Cross, the sign of the Son of man. The brilliance of the sun reminds them of the coming in glory of the Sun of righteousness of Christ. Those who rise up immediately to praise Christ are the holy ones who “shall be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thes 4.17), and those who neglect to praise God at dawn and sleep are those who will be judged as sinners …

I tried to live that night somehow like in this manner. I tried to warm my sinful and frozen heart with these thoughts. When my heart began to thaw, I prayed with the same loving words of Holy Augustine:

Thou Who art
chosen arrow and sharpened sword,
piercing by Thy power
the hardened shell of my heart,
enter by the strength of Thy love,
so that my soul may say to Thee,
“I am wounded by Thy love,
I am wounded by love for Thee:
day and night I shed abundant tears”.
I implore Thee,
Strike my hardened soul
by the sharp lance of your love.
Enter into my inner most being.
Refresh me with living water.
Open in my eyes a spring
of ever-flowing tears.
Protect me by Thy steadfast love.
Give me hope to see Thy glory.
Give me perpetual tears.
Not in this life do I seek consolation.
But in the heavenly bridal chamber,
may I be worthy to see Thee,
Beloved, my Lord and my God.
Bring my parched soul,
thirsty for Thee alone,
to the never failing streams
of living water.
Or rather, my God, my Life,
draw me towards Thee
the living fountain,
so that I may drink
and be satisfied,
And live eternally with Thee.
O, Thou the source of life
fill my mind with the outpouring
of Thy compassionate love;
make my heart overflow
with the bright sadness of Thy love.
May I forget the passing cares of earth
and keep Thee forever in my heart.

And then I repeated with all my strength the “Jesus prayer” which the ascetic taught me. I did not know how long I was there. There are times when the hands of the clock stop turning. Eternity has stopped time.

Midnight had already passed long ago. I could see now the huts of the ascetics being lit up one after another. The nightingales get up to sing. “They are the springs of compunction”, which start flowing and water our thirsty land! “The lighthouses of the mountain”, which shed light! “The fragrant and delightful lilies”, which perfume the whole world! The cells will resound with their voices in a little while and will flood with tears or repentance or tears of divine illumination. They arise to praise Christ and ask Him to send His divine grace, His rich mercy.

Jesus, Thou who art
rapture of goodness,
splendour beyond imagining,
glory to Thee
Who makest will and strength
combine in unison.

Jesus, Thou who art
Love beyond our comprehending,
glory to Thee
Who dost sustain the universe
by Thy power.

Jesus, Thou Who art
the Way, the Truth, the Life,
I thank Thee
for showing me the truth,
in Thy life-giving words.

Jesus, Thou Who art
the desired contemplation
of those who are blessed,
I thank Thee for deeming worthy
our fallen nature.

Jesus, Thou Who art
Light beyond all light,
I confess to Thee
that I walk in darkness,
the darkness of sin.

Jesus, Thou Who art
final judge of all,
I confess to Thee
that I have never been pierced
by Thy Love,
as I should have been.

Jesus, Thou Who art
Life giving and sweetest warmth,
rekindle my frozen heart
Jesus, Thou Who art
garment of light,
worn by the stars,
clothe my nakedness.

Jesus, Thou Who art
all in all,
purify my heart
that I may see Thee.

Jesus, Thou Who art
in all and beyond all, my God,
show me Thy face
and I shall be saved.

Jesus, Thou Who art One,
beyond all comprehending,
Show me myself re-united in one,
by the restoration of my mind
and by single hearted prayer.

Jesus, Thou Who art
mystery beyond all unknowing,
bring me beyond all
that may be felt and known.

Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me.

The Mountain is on fire these hours. The devil groans. Truly the monks are deified.

Met Hierotheos of Nafpaktos

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Interceding for Others with the Jesus Prayer

H: Indeed, father, we have not said anything up to now about saying the Jesus prayer for others. How can one use the prayer for this purpose?

There is so much misfortune in the world, so much is wrong, there is so much ignorance of God, and that, according to the Fathers, is the greatest sin. Therefore you should cry and pray. St John Climakos has written a speech addressed to the shepherd and spiritual father who is the supervisor of the soul. He says the following. As the shepherd, when the sheep rest, lets the sheepdogs free, round the pen to guard the flock from the wolves, in the same way the priest must stay awake when the Christians sleep and let his mind free (like the dogs) and be watchful to entreat God for His people. How many people act prodigally at that time! How many want to commit suicide! How many are disappointed and in need. You should say the Jesus prayer for all these people—“Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon thy servants” or “upon thy servant,” if you have a specific case in mind.

H: May I ask you a question? You said earlier that the Jesus prayer should be free from any imaginings. Now you say that we should pray for others, who have so many problems. But doesn’t this, perhaps, increase our imagination and make our mind wander, where in fact we should be trying to concentrate our nous on itself and on the heart?

You did very well to ask me this question, because an explanation about this is necessary. When we pray for others we should do it outwardly. That is, when we want to say the Jesus prayer for other people who are in need, we should say at first, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon thy servants” or “thy servants”, remembering their names, but afterwards, we should continue without mentioning their names and without fixing our mind on them, without thinking of them. God knows who we are praying for then. Also you should not think about the problems that bother them. We only say, have mercy upon thy servant, and God will send His grace. And if he is worthy of accepting it, it will act according to his need. The grace of God, my father, is like the water, which, when it comes in the field, is absorbed by the roots and gives to each tree whatever it needs. Do we not keep the same principle during the Divine Liturgy, too. We pray for all matters and the people answer—“Lord, have mercy”. For, when the mercy of God comes it gives man what he really needs.

Met Hierotheos of Nafpaktos

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The Dispassionate Sybil and the Cosmic Dance

Almost forty years ago I read my first novel by Charles Williams. I do not recall why I chose it. It was not the first or even the second novel that he wrote, nor is it one that most readers of Charles Williams would recommend as an introduction to his fiction. Perhaps the title itself intrigued me. I do not know. All I know is that the story—or perhaps more accurately, the mystical vision—immediately grasped me. Since that first reading, The Greater Trumps has remained my favorite. Descent into Hell may be Williams’s best novel, but in my opinion The Greater Trumps best expresses Williams’s mythopoeic imagination. Weaving together elements from the Kabbala, occult esoterica, Egyptian and Jewish mythology, sprinkled with intimations of Trinity and Incarnation, Williams sings a tale of the archetypal dance of the cosmos. The figures of Tarot—Emperor and Empress; Hierophant and High Priestess; Sun and Moon; the Lovers and Death; Juggler, Hermit, and Hanged Man; and the Fool—enact the rhythms and patterns, unities and chaos of creation (but why is the Fool stationary?).  God is rarely mentioned in the narrative, yet his veiled presence is intimated throughout—“the mystery of Love.”

I picked up The Greater Trumps this past weekend and on this rereading was particularly struck by the character of Sybil. Her name evokes the female oracles of the ancient world, of whom Heraclitus wrote: “The Sybyl, with frenzied mouth uttering things not to be laughed at, unadorned and unperfumed, yet reaches to a thousand years with her voice by aid of the god.” Yet how different is the Sybil of the novel from the ancient sybyls. Not only does her life exhibit the exact opposite of frenzy—Sørina Higgins describes her as “the still point of the novel”—but she is remarkably incurious about knowing what the future may hold for her. When offered the opportunity to foretell the future using the original Tarot cards, she courteously, but firmly, declines:

“O, aunt, do!” Nancy said, feeling that if her aunt was in it things would be safer.

“Really, Nancy. I’d rather not–if you don’t mind,” Sybil said, apologetic, but determined. “It’s–it’s so much like making someone tell you a secret.”

“What someone?” Henry said, anger still in his voice.

“I don’t mean someone exactly,” Sybil said, “but things…the universe, so to speak. If it’s gone to all this trouble to keep the next minute quiet, it seems rude to force its confidence. Do forgive me.” She did not, Nancy noticed, add, as she sometimes did, that it was probably silly of her.

Henry Lee, fiancé to Sybil’s niece and a lifelong student of Tarot who hopes to master time, is puzzled by her indifference. “You sound,” he says, “on remarkably intimate terms with the universe. Mayn’t it cheat you? Supposing it had something unpleasant waiting for you?” “But,” replies Sybil, “as somebody says in Dickens, ‘It hasn’t, you know, so we won’t suppose it.'” Her secret is her faith in Omnipotent Love. She has surrendered herself to Love and trusts utterly in its providence. Hence she does not fear the future nor seek to know it before its time. Henry, on the other hand, knows much about the dance, but as he does not know Love, he cannot fathom its logic. He later explains to his father: “She’s got some sort of a calm, some equanimity in her heart. She—the only eyes that can read the future exactly, and she doesn’t want to know the future. Everything’s complete for her in the moment. It’s beautiful, it’s terrific—and what do we do about it?” But of course there’s nothing to be done about it. Sybil lives beyond their manipulation. She has, as Henry astutely observes, found her desire (though he does not comprehend what it might be) and now “stands within it, possessing it perfectly.” “You’re strange, you’re maiden, you’re a mystery of self-possession,” he tells her. The Eastern ascetics would call it dispassion.

Glen Cavaliero describes Sybil as “Williams’s most elaborate portrait of achieved sanctity: she lives in a condition of joyous calm, ironic, affectionate, secure, beholding ‘the primal nature’ (the nature of co-inherent triune Godhead) ‘revealed as a law to the creature'” (Charles Williams: Poet of Theology, p. 77). She is a true sybil—not like the ancient oracles but as one who is given over completely to the service and adoration of God. When Nancy and Henry accidentally unleash an apocalyptic blizzard, Sybil confidently goes out into the storm to search for her elder brother, Lothair. She is staggered by the force of the wind, but instead of fighting it, she surrenders “herself to the only certain thing that her life had discovered; she adored in this movement also the extreme benevolence of Love. She sank before the wind, but not in impotence; rather as the devotee sinks before the outer manifestation of the God that he may be made more wholly one with that which manifests.”  She recovers her balance and proceeds with her search in serenity and faith. “That she should be walking so lightly through the storm didn’t strike her as odd, because it wasn’t really she who was walking, it was Love, and naturally Love would be safe in his own storm. It was, certainly, a magnificent storm; she adored the power that was displayed in it.” In union with the Creator, she apprehends “the laws of the dance” and thus exercises a measure of sovereignty over the primordial elements.

By the time we meet Sybil, she has achieved, by grace, a high level of spiritual perfection. Those in the Western tradition might describe her as living the unitive way; those in the Eastern tradition, as enjoying theosis. She makes her sanctity look almost effortless. As Sybil’s brother complains to his son: “I have never known your aunt not be interested in anything, my boy.” The following passage, also from the storm chapter, alludes to her earlier ascetical struggles:

She was intensely aware of her brother; she drew up the knowledge of him from within her, and gave it back within her. In wave after wave the ocean of peace changed its “multitudinous laughter” from one myriad grouping to another. And all, being so, was so.

Such a state, in which the objects of her concern no longer struck upon her thoughts from without, recalled by an accident, a likeness, or a dutiful attention, but existed rather as they did in their own world—a state in which they were brought into being as by the same energy which had produced their actual natures—had not easily been reached. That sovereign estate, the inalienable heritage of man, had been in her, as in all, falsely mortgaged to the intruding control of her own greedy desires. Even when the true law was discovered, when she knew that she had the right and the power to possess all things, on the one condition that she was herself possessed, even then her freedom to yield herself had been won by many conflicts. Days of pain and nights of prayer had passed while her lonely soul escaped; innocent joys as well as guilty hopes had been starved. There had been a time when the natural laughter that attended on her natural intelligence had been hushed, when her brother had remarked that “Sybil seemed very mopy”. She had been shocked when she heard this by a sense of her disloyalty, since she believed enjoyment to be a debt which every man owes to his fellows, partly for its own sake, partly lest he at all diminish their own precarious hold on it. She attempted dutifully to enjoy and failed, but while she attempted it the true gift was delivered into her hands.

When the word Love had come to mean for her the supreme greatness of man she could hardly remember: one incident and another had forced it on her mind—the moment when her mother, not long before death, had said to her, “Love, Sybil, if you dare; if you daren’t, admit it”; the solemn use of the name in the great poets, especially her youthful reading of Dante; a fanatic in a train who had given her a tract: Love God or go to Hell. It was only after a number of years that she had come to the conclusion that the title was right, except perhaps for go to—since the truth would have been more accurately rendered by be in Hell. She was doubtful also about God; Love would have been sufficient by itself but it was necessary at first to concentrate on something which could be distinguished from all its mortal vessels, and the more one lived with that the more one found that it possessed in fact all the attributes of Deity. She had tried to enjoy, and she remem­bered vividly the moment when, walking down Kingsway, it had struck her that there was no need for her to try or to enjoy: she had only to be still, and let that recognized Deity itself enjoy, as its omnipotent nature was. She still forgot occasionally; her mortality still leapt rarely into action, and confused her and clouded the sublime operation of—of It. But rarely and more rarely those moments came; more and more securely the working of that Fate which was Love possessed her. For it was fatal in its nature; rich and austere at once, giving death and life in the same moment, restoring beyond belief all the things it took away—except the individual will.

Sybil’s self-possession in Christ did not come easily. It required years of prayer, self-denial, and repentance. Both “innocent joys” and “guilty hopes” had to be crucified to make possible the sacred exchange. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (Jn 12:24-25).

We are given a glimpse of Sybil’s remarkable gifts midway through the story when Henry and his father Aaron show the Coningsby family their collection of golden figurines. The figurines correspond exactly to those pictured in the Tarot cards. They have long been kept hidden from the world and reside now reside in a room in the elder Lee’s home. The description of the room suggests a temple, the holy of holies, separated from its antecham­ber by curtain and locked door. The figures move perpetually in an ever-changing dance that cannot be exactly charted or predicted. All move, that is say, except one—the Fool, whose number is nought. He is the inexplicable wild card. When Mr Congingsby asks why the fool does not move, Aaron replies, “Nobody knows about the Fool.” This is why Henry and Aaron are so anxious to recover the original Tarot cards. They hope the cards will explain the dance and thus enable them to divine the future and control history.

The Fool remains stationary while all the other figures dance around him. At least, that is what everyone sees and perhaps has always seen since the figures and cards were first made. Yet when Sybil looks at the place on the table where the Fool is supposed to be, she cannot see it.

“I can’t see this central figure,” she said. “Where is it exactly, Mr. Lee?”

Aaron, Henry, and her brother all pointed to it, and all with very different accents said, “There”. Sybil stepped slightly forward, then to one side; she moved her head to different angles, and then said apologetically, “You’ll all think me frightfully silly, but I can’t see any figure in the middle.”

“Really, Sybil!” her brother said. “There!”

“But, my dear, it isn’t there,” she said. “At least, so far as I can possibly see. I’m sorry to be so stupid, Mr. Lee, because it’s all quite the loveliest thing I ever saw in the whole of my life. It’s perfectly wonderful and beautiful. And I just want, if I can, to see where you say this particular figure is.”

But as Sybil gazes at the figures, she finally catches a glimpse of the Fool.

“Yes,” she said at last, “there–no, there–no–it’s moving so quickly I can hardly see it–there–ah, it’s gone again. Surely that’s it, dancing with the rest; it seems as if it were always arranging itself in some place which was empty for it.”

Henry and Aaron are astonished. Everyone has always seen an immobile Fool, until now. But in Sybil’s enlightened vision, the Fool moves so quickly within the dance that he only appears to be stationary. Sybil sees the Fool because she is partnered with him in the “mystical dance”: she sees because she loves within the God who is Love. “‘Wordly’ eyes, no matter how informed,” Thomas Howard comments, “cannot see that it is Love that is speeding through all things, enabling and encouraging and making up the blank spaces. To the eye of the saint all the absurdities and pain and imponderables turn out to be, somehow, the motions of Love” (The Novels of Charles Williams, pp. 192-193).

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“If you deprive yourself of prayer, be sure that you have lost something very great”

You must realise the necessity of purification from passions. You should not only want to make others well but you should believe that you, too, like all of us, are full of passions. Each passion is a hell. You should also know that, according to what we have said, the Jesus prayer is a remedy which cures the soul and purifies it. That does not mean that the Jesus prayer is a panacea but rather it is the means by which man is united with God, who is the only one Who purifies and illumines the soul. He is the physician of our soul and body He is “the true light that enlightens every man who comes into the world” (John 1.9). As eye-salve cleanses the vision and enables already existing objects to be seen, similarly, each person must will to be purified and transformed and seek, through prayer, illumination which comes from God.

H: Do you believe that we, who work in the world, can do what the monks do concerning this divine work of prayer?

Even if you cannot do exactly what they do, still you can achieve many things. It must be made clear, however, that noetic prayer is one thing and praying the Jesus prayer another. Noetic prayer, as some hesychasts practise it, requires a life without distraction. It requires quietness and many other things, as we have already described. If you cannot practise noetic prayer in the world—and this is very difficult—you must pray with the Jesus prayer at set times or say it whenever you can. It will do you great good.

H: Can you suggest to me some useful and practical ways?

Apart from church services, you should also designate a certain hour for the practice of the Jesus prayer, for meditation on the name of Jesus. You should start the practice of the Jesus prayer gradually and proceed according to your thirst and the grace you feel. One can start by saying the prayer for half an hour in the morning before sunrise, and half an hour in the evening, after the compline, before sleep. It is necessary for there to be a fixed hour for prayer which should not be changed for any reason, not even for good works. It is possible, for example, that somebody may come for confession at that particular time. If he is not ill or if it is not very urgent you should not postpone the time you have set aside for the Jesus prayer. The same should happen concerning good works. A peaceful and quiet room where no noises are heard is also necessary for one to start the work of the Jesus prayer, in the way we mentioned before. That is, in the beginning we should warm our heart or read a book of the Fathers, which creates in us a feeling of compunction, and then we should say the Jesus prayer either with the lips, the mind or the heart, according to our spiritual progress. Little by little the time devoted to the Jesus prayer will increase and it will sweeten our hearts, and we shall long for it. But, I repeat, in the beginning we need to force ourselves to say the prayer even for a short time. It will do us great good.

H: Is it enough, this short period of time?

It is not enough but when there is a good disposition and humility, God fills up what is lacking in prayer. Since God is so sympathetic to our downfalls, won’t He be extremely merciful to us in the struggle for our transformation? He fills up whatever is lacking. He takes into account even the special circumstances of each one of us. It may be that one hour of your prayer will be more blessed than the many hours of a monk, because you are also busy with other works.

I admired the discretion of this Athonite monk, of this incarnate angel. He distinguishes all problems with admirable ability and puts everything in its proper perspective.

You should know, however, he went on, that the devil will expose you to many temptations during prayer, as I said previously. Many incidents will come up to make you stop praying. But you should also know that God is testing you through these trials to determine if you really want to practise the Jesus prayer. In such a case, if you persevere, God will come to your aid and drive away all difficulties.

H: But, Gerondas, if, while praying, thoughts come to my mind of preparing a speech or a sermon; of doing something for the love of my brother, must I abandon them?

Yes, you must abandon them. For, even when good thoughts come during prayer (I refer to the set times of prayer), the devil exploits them to obstruct us from prayer. If the devil realises that we are ready to give up the Jesus prayer for such things, he will send us many thoughts of the same kind even at the restored set time. But in this case, neither do we pray, nor are we purified nor have our brethren really benefited. For the preparation of a sermon, which has replaced prayer, is without fruit. It won’t benefit the brethren.

H: It happens sometimes that we return to our cell exhausted, after having spent a lot of our strength, and then we cannot pray our usual rule. What should we do in these cases?

We should not give up the Jesus prayer even then. St. Symeon recommends that serving our brothers should never be the cause for us to be deprived of the Jesus prayer, because we then lose many things. We should never find excuses to avoid prayer. “Labour in service according to your strength; and in your cell, persevere in prayer with contrition, vigilance and continuous tears; and do not have it in your mind; I have laboured exceedingly today, let me diminish the time of prayer because of physical tiredness. For, I tell you that no matter how much you work beyond your strength in serving others, if you deprive yourself of prayer, be sure that you have lost something very great”. Half an hour of the Jesus prayer is worth as much as three hours of deep sleep. The prolonged Jesus prayer rests and calms us. So, even from this point of view, it is an invigorating physiological remedy. My dear father, wrap up all your works in the golden mantle of the Jesus prayer. It is because they work much with their brain and not with their heart, that many of the brethren have tribulations and are in anguish in their spiritual endeavour. They become tired by thinking what to say, whereas when they live in grace, then the thoughts come, they literally spring forth like a rushing river. It is because they do not have a good link with the Jesus prayer that the brethren quarrel among themselves, do not have peace, are afflicted by unjust attacks and do not rejoice over them, according to the commandment of Christ. St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite, being guided by a long tradition of several centuries, suggests that the Bishop should be elected from the rank of the monks. Having monastic consciousness, he will not be troubled by persecutions, slander, accusations or the anger of men, since he himself is the first to recognise his own sinfulness and to accuse himself. Thus he acquires all the fruits we mentioned before—mainly love, which flows from much grace, and freedom from falling into sin, as the Fathers say.

H: What do you mean, father, by monastic consciousness?

I mean obedience, humility, self-condemnation and an insatiable thirst for the Jesus prayer—obedience to the Gerondas and the spiritual father. The monk should be humble toward all people and his humility should be connected with the struggle for purification from passions. We should not undertake many works, because, unfortunately, we are influenced in this matter by other heresies. The greatest work is to acquire humility and holiness. Then we are truly rich. The Church is not a ministry of social services, but it is the treasury of divine grace. Priests are not social workers but those who guide the people of God. And this cannot be done unless they have humility and holiness. Without holiness and humility the greatest social work is soon obliterated, whereas when we have humility and holiness of life, even the smallest social work acquires extraordinary dimensions. Humility should be connected with self-condemnation, too, that is with self-accusation. We should be the first to accuse ourselves. We should attach the respect that the others show us to our priesthood and not to ourselves. We should attribute the accusations of others to our own sinful state and not to our priesthood. We will experience then peace and much grace from God, and will drive out every cause which makes us hate our brother. There must also be insatiable thirst for the Jesus prayer. We should not consider the Jesus prayer an opportunity, but we should consider it as life itself. We should move within prayer. Our theology and our preaching should be born within its holy atmosphere. We should also have our rule and do it every day. When we live in this way the world is then benefited beyond measure. Whoever one may be, either priest or bishop, he should always have one concern: not to lose his monastic consciousness.

It is written in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers: “It was related of Abba Netras, the disciple of Abba Sylvanus, that when he dwelt in his cell on Mount Sinai, he treated himself prudently, with regard to the needs of his body, but when he became bishop at Pharan, he curbed himself with great austerities. His disciple said to him, “Abba, when we were in the desert, you did not practise such asceticism.” The old man said to him, “There in the desert I had interior peace and poverty and I wished to manage my body so as not to be ill and not to need what I did not have. But now I am in the world and among its cares, and even if I am ill here, there will be someone to look after me and so I do this in order not to destroy the monk in me.”

Those who have the consciousness of a monk feel the need to receive a blessing for whatever work they do. They entrust it to the Bishop and to an experienced spiritual father to check it and correct it during its course and at its end. They do not want praises for what they do, because he who is honoured or praised more than he deserves loses much. Wherever you are, in the street, in the car you should say the Jesus prayer; “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” and “Most Holy Mother of God save me”. We should often attend the Divine Liturgy with the proper preparation and participate in the undefiled Mysteries. All creation praises and glorifies God. A priest who does not offer the Divine Liturgy is in discord in this wonderful praise. It would be good to chant from time to time the Canon to our Lord Jesus Christ which is found in the Book of Hours. You should also chant the special prayers addressed to our Lord Jesus Christ and found at the end of the book: The Unseen Warfare, composed by St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite. He urges us to evoke often, the most sweet, joy-producing and the cause of all good, saving name of our Lord Jesus Christ, not only with our lips, but also with our heart and mind.

Met Hierotheos of Nafpaktos

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The Dangers and Errors of the Jesus Prayer

H: I want to hear more. You said that the Jesus prayer is a science, a complete university. I want you to make me a scientist tonight.

You are asking too much. Nobody can become a scientist of the Jesus prayer unless he struggles personally, unless he himself starts this work. Whatever the others would say is simply an introduction, to give him a good spiritual appetite. However, in order to complete my thoughts about the Jesus prayer, I must, perhaps, say a few things about the dangers and the errors that may arise along the way.

H: Indeed, I said. You said something before, that the monks avoid the direct descent of the nous into the heart by the use of various means, in order to avoid dangers. What are these dangers and errors?

The error starts with the thought that we must acquire grace in a short period of time. There are many people who are practising the sacred work of the Jesus prayer and want to enter into the vision of Light in a short while. And they lose heart and get disappointed because this cannot happen immediately and to all. The athlete must accept that he must struggle many years. God does not force our will, because we are persons and have free will nor should we force God’s freedom, because He is a Person, too. We should let Him come, whenever He thinks, whenever He wants.

He stopped for a while.

Another error is to give great significance to psychotechnic methods. These methods (breathing in and out, beating of the heart) are simply helpful means so that we can concentrate our nous and free it from elements alien to its nature. These methods do not have a magical power, but they are useful to us in avoiding the distraction of the nous. When the nous is focused and maintained within itself easily, then all auxiliary means are unnecessary.

H: Are there other errors as well?

There are, indeed. When we move quickly during the course of prayer. We mentioned a little while ago that there are various stages of development in the practice of the Jesus prayer and we summed them up into five. The first stage is to recite the Jesus prayer with the lips. The second is to keep the remembrance of Jesus in the mind and it will descend by itself into the heart. Some people, however, skipping the first stage, start from the second and do not succeed in accomplishing very much. Others go straight from the first stage to the third and develop it mainly by breathing. This is dangerous, because, as I said before, the physical heart may suffer and this can cause the Jesus prayer to cease. There is no illness of course, but, nevertheless, it is possible that this sacred work may stop.

On the subject of tears, he went on, there are also certain problems.

H: What do you mean?

We said earlier that when the Jesus prayer stays in the nous the eyes shed abundant tears. However, this is not always indispensable. Prayer can go well even if there are no tears. So, we should not get disappointed in the absence of tears, because they will come when God allows it. And even if we are flooded by them, we should not pay attention to them, neither should we describe these states to others. The ascetic experience says that when we talk about these states, then they cease immediately, and it takes a long time for them to return. Needless to say, although we know the stages of noetic prayer, we should avoid thinking about which stage we are in. We must proceed in humility. Besides, I think I told you a short while ago, feeling pride in and during prayer is stupidity. It really is stupidity. Man is like a beggar who asks for a piece of bread and then he feels proud because he has obtained it. And this is stupidity and a sin!

H: I can see that humility plays an important part here.

Yes, it does—in all stages. St. Basil the Great says that humility is the treasury of all virtues. It conceals all virtues and finally it conceals itself. In general, we must diligently avoid pride in the spiritual life, especially when it comes as vainglory. And you know, of course, that vainglory appears in every virtue; when we talk, when we keep silent, when we fast, when we keep vigil and even when we say the Jesus prayer, in hesychia and in forbearance. The Fathers say that vainglory is like a traitor who secretly opens the gates of the city so that the enemy can enter. In such a case, no matter how strong the city is and how good its defences are, it is captured by the enemy. The same also happens in the spiritual life. No matter how many virtues we have and no matter how much strength we hold on to, vainglory hands us over to the devil. And the Fathers recommend that one must never undertake a work which will possibly lead him to vainglory.

H: I did not understand this. Can you explain it further?

Let me come to the subject of prayer. The faithful must not overdo it, as far as prayer is concerned, because it is certain, then, that he is being allured by the devil. In such a case, whatever, he might do—even things beyond his strength—is achieved by the power of the devil. So, dragged by the devil, he is later abandoned by him at some time, then pushed backwards, and impelled to fall very low. He is actually destroyed.

H: And how can one avoid this most heavy fall?

The saving path is mourning and obedience. Prayer is very closely connected with mourning. When the devil sees somebody living in mourning, he does not remain there but flees, because he is afraid of the humility which is engendered by mourning. St. Gregory of Sinai tells us that the best defence for the athlete of prayer is to be in a state of mourning, so that the joy which comes in prayer may not lead him into pride, for the bright sadness keeps his soul unharmed. Mourning and the awareness of our sinfulness are indispensable in the course of pure prayer. The athlete “should keep his nous in hell and despair not”. Moreover, the awareness of our sinfulness, of our nothingness, and the hope in the Merciful Jesus are characteristic of Orthodoxy and of all of our hymns. It should be stressed, though, that not all can live in deep mourning because great strength and an earlier taste of divine grace are needed so that they are not shaken. However, as far as it is possible, we should all live this blessed mourning. Indiscriminate obedience to a Gerondas is also necessary. Everything, even the smallest things, should be done with his blessing and his wise guidance; even in the case of the uncreated Light.

H: What does obedience to a Gerondas have to do with the vision of the uncreated Light? I asked astonished at what I had heard.

When man walks alone, without the indispensable blessing, then he is pursued by the devil, as we said before. He experiences within himself the dissatisfied desire to see the uncreated Light. He believes that this is perfection and he wants to reach there quickly.

H: Is this not right? I interrupted him.

No, it is not. St. Diadochos recommends that the ascetic should not practise his ascetic life with the hope of seeing the uncreated Light, “so that the devil will not find his soul ready on that account to be carried off”. One should start the work of the Jesus prayer with love towards God and obedience to His holy Will. For, it is possible for the devil—who can disguise himself as an “angel of light” (2 Cor. 11 . 14)—to take the form of an angel who will serve him. And, then, the poor man thinks that he has reached the height of perfection, since he lives with angels, without being aware that he is conversing with devils. It is also a temptation when the ascetic while praying accepts thoughts from the demons that he will soon see the uncreated Light. Much care is needed in this delicate and dangerous situation. He must stop praying and reprimand himself severely: “How dare you, so wretched and vile, desire to see the uncreated Light”. The greatest danger is to think oneself worthy of seeing the uncreated Light! He can even say: “Alas! the demons, my murderers are coming to destroy my soul!” Then, immediately, the enemy disappears. Many times the devil, in order to satisfy the ambition of the monk and captivate him even more, brings even light into his cell. It is not the uncreated Light, but the created one, that of the devil.

Met Hierotheos of Nafpaktos

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“To discover one’s heart is an act of reintegration, and when the heart and mind are reunited it’s an experience of tremendous spiritual joy and delight.”

In the Orthodox spiritual tradition and in the Bible the heart is the center and core of our being, and there’s a lot of biological information that backs this up. In the human fetus the cardiovascular system is the first to form and there are beating cardiac cells within the fetus twenty-one days after conception. That is long before the brain and the nervous system are formed, and neurologists tell us that the brain does not complete its own formation until at least three years after birth. The brain is a latecomer to the anthropological landscape. And cardiac cells are the only cells that don’t divide, which means those that start beating on day twenty-one will continue to beat for your entire life. People ask where miracles are today, and to me this is astonishing! We’re talking about things so small that they can’t be seen. Where does that life come? It’s very remarkable.

It seems very clear that the heart is the center of the biological organism. It’s like the seed out of which the rest of the person grows. I mentioned chapter ten of St. Nikodemos of On Guarding the Mind and the Heart where he says that the mind is always active, and some people even define the mind as activity. Sometimes we can’t sleep at night because the mind is racing. He says all of that activity, which in Greek presupposes a source, has its root in the heart, and in the Gospel we hear about all the things that come out of the heart—lust and pride, etc. The mind is an externalization of the heart in a sense. Its root and potentiality is in the heart and the actualization of it is what we experience in the heart. When we talk about descending with the mind into the heart all that means is to relax that activity of the mind and allow this energy that has unfolded to be en-folded back into its source. This is what it means for the mind and heart to come back together again. …

So the heart is also a supernatural center, because that is where the seed of the Holy Spirit is implanted within us. Where else would it go? It’s also a kind of para-natural center, because the heart is also the place where all the negative things arise from, too. To discover one’s heart is an act of reintegration, and when the heart and mind are reunited it’s an experience of tremendous spiritual joy and delight. The image that St. John Climacus uses is that it’s like a man returning home after a long journey and embracing his wife and children. We see often on the news about soldiers returning home and embracing their wives and children and it’s so tremendously powerful to see. Imagine that as an image of what takes place when all your fragmented and dispersed thoughts and wandering mind are reconnected to the deeper part of yourself.

I’d like to say a few words about the breathing practices that are associated with the Jesus Prayer because I think this is one of the most misunderstood things. People sometimes warn people about this, which I don’t agree with. As we’ve said over and again, it’s not easy to free ourselves from distractions. One priest friend said we can’t even say one single Jesus Prayer without being distracted. How wretched are we? We know it’s hard to not be distracted. It’s difficult to find our center and enter the place of the heart and once we do enter it it’s very difficult to stay there because the cares of life distract us. This is why the teachers of the Jesus Prayer teach us to initially focus on the breath. If the mind focuses on the breath that means the wandering mind, which has been outside of the body, is now united to the body, and that’s a huge first step, because so often we’re absent from the present moment. You can live your whole life without actually having lived it. Focusing on the breath is important because it brings the mind back to the body, and also because the breath is the one thing that we have that is unambiguously in the present—right where and right now. If I can get my mind to focus on the breath I’m not only entering into my body but I’m also entering into the present. It is so tremendously powerful to be in the present. It can be frightening because it’s a place we’re not familiar with, and I think that’s one of the reasons we run from it. It can be overwhelming. We sense there are other things in the present too, namely the presence of God. And this reality is so big, awesome, and so mysterious that I can’t deal with it so I go back to the my own little reality—my paper I’m working on, or the party I’m planning—the smaller reality that I can control and manipulate. In so many churches there are so many activities—even doubling their talks and programs during Lent. How about just stopping? What are we running away from?

As St. Nikodemos says, breathing is respiration which involves the lungs and heart; and to follow the breath is not only to return to the body and to the present, but it’s to allow the mind to return to the place of the heart. People discourage this for different reasons, but breathing is something we do all the time; and if you’re saying the Jesus Prayer in a rhythm, to me it’s the most natural thing that this repetition will on its own very quickly unite itself to your breath. I don’t know how that can’t be. Many people will say the first half of the prayer on the inhale, and the second on the exhale, and this is what’s recommended in the Philokalia and elsewhere. While inhaling: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” and while exhaling: “have mercy on me a sinner.” The prayer becomes part of people’s breathing, and sometimes you just take a breath without intending to pray, and you find yourself saying the prayer because it unites itself to your breath. This should be basic.

We talked about the buried seed and the idea of actualizing the potential of the Holy Spirit, and the Jesus Prayer is precisely this cultivation. Why? 1 Cor. 12:3 says “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.” It’s not a mantra, but the invocation of the Divine name; and like an icon, with the name comes the presence of Christ. How is the presence of Christ actualized in the world? Through the agency of the Holy Spirit, always. If Christ is present somewhere it’s due to the activity and agency of the Holy Spirit. Think about the Annunciation—the Archangel delivers the message and she asks, How can this be?” Well, simple—”The power of the Most High will overshadow you.” We say in the Creed “begotten of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.” The Second Person of the Trinity becomes a reality incarnate in her womb through the agency of the Holy Spirit. That’s how Luke begins his Gospel, and he begins the Book of Acts with the apostles gathered in Jerusalem, where Christ told them to stay, awaiting power from on high. The Spirit descends on them and transforms them from a ragtag group of blue-collar workers into the Body of Christ. We have two parallel moments in the works of Luke—the overshadowing power of the Holy Spirit that concretizes the presence of Christ, and the overshadowing at Pentecost which concretizes the mystical Body of Christ.

Fr Maximos (Constas)

* * *

The above citation is excerpted from an excellent series of lectures given by Fr Maximos. I commend them to you: “Knocking at the Door of Your Own Heart.”

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O God of all spirits and all flesh, Who have destroyed death, overcome the Devil, and given life to the world, grant, O Lord, to the soul of your servant Aaron, who has departed from this life, that it may rest in a place of light, in a place of happiness, in a place of peace, where there is no pain, no grief, no sighing. And since You are a gracious God and the Lover of mankind, forgive him every sin he has committed by thought, or word, or deed, for there is not a man who lives and does not sin: You alone are without sin, Your righteousness is everlasting, and Your word is true. You are the Resurrection and the Life, and the Repose of your departed servant, Aaron, O Christ our God, and we render glory to You, together with Your Eternal Father and your All-holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and always and forever and ever. Amen.

May his memory be eternal.
May his memory be eternal.
May his memory be eternal.

O Christ God, with the Saints, grant rest to the soul of your servant, Aaron, in a place where there is no pain, no grief, no sighing, but everlasting life. Amen.

Eclectic Orthodoxy

Three years ago this day, my son Aaron Edward Kimel took his life. At that moment, my life and the lives of my wife and children and all who loved him were dramatically changed. I died on that day. I daily live in the death of that day. I have not been resurrected.

A year or two ago an Orthodox priest, Fr Gregory Hogg, called me on the telephone, first to see how I was doing, and secondly to suggest that I write something about suicide from a Christian perspective. I told him that I probably would never be capable of writing such a piece. I still am not.

But I am now capable of writing this post, however one wishes to describe it.  Let us call it a lament.

During the first six months after Aaron’s death, I cried every day. This was a totally different kind of weeping than I…

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