A Journey Through the Night

by Archimandrite Panteleimon Manoussakis

We have at last arrived, dear brethren, by the gates of the Great Lent. Beginning tonight, a period of forty mournful days opens before us, during which we are expected to prepare ourselves, through acts of forgiveness and almsgiving, prayer and fasting, for the celebration of the awesome mysteries of our Lord’s Passion and Resurrection.

At tonight’s vespers, after chanting the Φῶς Ἰλαρόν, the Royal Gates to the holy altar will be closed. They will not be opened again but they will remain closed until we hear that joyous voice at the vigil of Paschal Sunday, inviting us to “Come, receive the light.” Between these two liturgical acts one can find summarized the meaning of the Holy Lent: this is a period of “closed doors,” a period of expulsion, exclusion, exilement—a period of darkness, a sojourn through a long night.

Imagine, my dear brethren, a man who had never experienced darkness of any kind, a man who had never seen a sunset. And now try to imagine, what dread and angst such a man must have felt as, for the first time, the first evening approached. The sun sets—in his eyes a wondrous thing—and for the first time he becomes acquainted with the darkness of the night. This man, tradition tells us, was Adam. Adam who, as long as he was in Paradise, had known of no darkness for he was always in the presence of the true Sun, of the Creator of light. Once, however, the doors of Paradise were closed, and he found himself expelled from that blessedness, exiled in that distant land that was now his curse and his inheritance, a new thing happened to him and, together with the spiritual light, he lost the physical light too, when darkness fell.

What an awful fear, I ask you again, must have the first Man felt in sinking into the abyss of that first Night? Was that to be now how the world would always be? Would that Night be for him a permanent state? Yes and No. Yes: because in one sense humanity has been ever since “walking in darkness”–and our whole human life, as the Midnight prayer says, is nothing but a long night (πᾶσαν τοῦ παρόντος βίου τὴν νύκτα). It is this night, after all, that today’s reading from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans declares as “far spent.” “The night,” St Paul writes, “is far spent, the day is at hand” (Rom 13:12). And No: as far as that night would be succeeded by another day, and that day by yet another night.

A secret tradition preserves for us the story of a second deception of Adam. Not knowing that that first night would indeed be succeeded by a new morning, having, that is, received no promise of a new dawn, Adam thought that the sun would never rise again. Finding him in a state of utter despair, Satan approached him, promising him that he will bring the Daylight back, if Adam and all his decedents were to become his subjects. Adam agreed and thus a contract was drafted, written in parchment or, according to another variant, in a stone, which Adam signed (χειρόγραφον) with his own blood by cutting his palms. As a sign that Adam’s race has become co-signatories of that contract with Satan in perpetuity, every “son” and “daughter” of Adam bears in his or her palms the markings of that signature. That is the contract that our Lord torn into pieces as we hear, for example, in the twenty-second stanza of the Akathist Hymn:

Wishing to bestow His grace, He that forgives the ancient debts of all mankind came of His own will to dwell among those who departed from His favor; and tearing up the writ of indebtedness, He hears from all: Alleluia.

Χάριν δοῦναι θελήσας, ὀφλημάτων ἀρχαίων, ὁ πάντων χρεωλύτης ἀνθρώπων, ἐπεδήμησε δι’ ἑαυτοῦ, πρὸς τοὺς ἀποδήμους τῆς αὐτοῦ χάριτος, καὶ σχίσας τὸ χειρόγραφον, ἀκούει παρὰ πάντων οὕτως, Ἀλληλούϊα.

The Christian life remains suspended in such a night, recognizing that the night of this World is transient and passing, that the day of the Lord’s Coming, even if, or especially since, He is coming “as a thief in the night,” demands for us an ever-renewed expectancy for what is to come. As long as the world is identified with the night of which I have been speaking, we Christians can never become comfortable in the world; we can never be “at home” in our exile. We are πάροικοι but not κάτοικοι of the world.

This Christian detachment from the world, and everything that the world stands for, is best exemplified and experienced through keeping the prescribed fasting. A human’s natural desire is of course to eat; when, therefore, we deny ourselves the food that we could otherwise have, we turn ourselves against that desire and against the nature that perpetuates it. We declare that we are not connatural with our fallen nature, that there is more in me than an animal, which desires to be fed and sustained. Everything in our nature is obligatory: we can abstain from food or sleep or anything else that nature dictates, but only for a while. I don’t choose to eat, I have to. Nature expresses herself through such necessities. A human being, however, can and should, if he or she is to remain human, overcome nature’s necessary impulses for the sake of freedom. The man who eats does so because he cannot do otherwise, but the man who fasts chooses to do so out of his own volition. I offer these last remarks on fasting hoping that they help you see that fasting is an act of freedom and not of compulsion. What we lost in Paradise is nothing other than this very freedom—this becomes clear by paying attention to the “curses” that follow-up on our fall: the pains of labor for the woman and the labors of work for man (cf. Gen 3). In other words, what humanity has been condemned to is a life of compulsion. The remedy for our fallen condition will not take place until our common resurrection. It is only under the light of Christ’s resurrection that we see His body freed from such natural compulsions: His is a body that can eat, but doesn’t have to do so. As a foretaste of that eschatological freedom the Church offers us what we could call “exercises in freedom”: the gifts of fasting, of keeping vigils, of celibacy. May Christ our Lord grant to us all that through such gifts we will also be given His kingdom. Amen.

* * *

Fr Panteleimon is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. He is the author of God After Metaphysics, The Ethics of Time, and For the Unity of All. This sermon was first preached on Sunday of Forgiveness (Fourth Sunday of the Triodion) at the Church of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition in Dracut, Massachusetts on  6 March 2011.

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The Power of the Name

by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware

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Prayer and Silence

‘When you pray,’ it has been wisely said by an Orthodox writer in Finland, ‘you yourself must be silent. … You yourself must be silent; let the prayer speak.’ To achieve silence: this is of all things the hardest and the most decisive in the art of prayer. Silence is not merely negative — a pause between words, a temporary cessation of speech — but, properly understood, it is highly positive: an attitude of attentive alertness, of vigilance, and above all of listening. The hesychast, the person who has attained hesychia, inner stillness or silence, is par excellence the one who listens. He listens to the voice of prayer in his own heart, and he understands that this voice is not his own but that of Another speaking within him.

The relationship between praying and keeping silent will become clearer if we consider four short definitions. The first is from The Concise Oxford Dictionary, which describes prayer as ‘… solemn request to God … formula used in praying’. Prayer is here envisaged as something expressed in words, and more specifically as an act of asking God to confer some benefit. We are still on the level of external rather than inner prayer. Few of us can rest satisfied with such a definition.

Our second definition, from a Russian starets of the last century, is far less exterior. In prayer, says Bishop Theophan the Recluse (1815-94), ‘the principal thing is to stand before God with the mind in the heart, and to go on standing before Him unceasingly day and night, until the end of life.’ Praying, defined in this way, is no linger merely to ask for things, and can indeed exist without the employment of any words at all. It is not so much a momentary activity as a continuous state. To pray is to stand before God, to enter into an immediate and personal relationship with him; it is to know at every level of our being, from the instinctive to the intellectual, from the sub-to the supra-conscious, that we are in God and he is in us. To affirm and deepen our personal relationships with other human beings, it is not necessary to be continually presenting requests or using words; the better we come to know and love one another, the less need there is to express our mutual attitude verbally. It is the same in our personal relationship with God.

In these first two definitions, stress is laid primarily on what is done by the human person rather than by God. But in the relationship of prayer, it is the divine partner and not the human who takes the initiative and whose action is fundamental. This is brought out in our third definition, taken from St Gregory of Sinai (+1346). In an elaborate passage, where he loads one epithet upon another in his effort to describe the true reality of inner prayer, he ends suddenly with unexpected simplicity: ‘Why speak at length? Prayer is God, who works all things in all men.’ Prayer is God — it is not something that I initiate but something in which I share; it is not primarily something that I do but something that God is doing in me: in St Paul’s phrase, ‘not I, but Christ in me’ (Gal. 2:20). The path of inner prayer is exactly indicated in St John the Baptist’s words about the Messiah: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’ (John 3:30). It is in this sense that to pray is to be silent. ‘You yourself must be silent; let the prayer speak’ — more precisely, let God speak. True inner prayer is to stop talking and to listen to the wordless voice of God within our heart; it is to cease doing things on our own, and to enter into the action of God. At the beginning of the Byzantine Liturgy, when the preliminary preparations are completed and all is now ready for the start of the Eucharist itself, the deacon approaches the priest and says: ‘It is time for the Lord to act.’ Such exactly is the attitude of the worshipper not only at the Eucharistic Liturgy but in all prayer, public or private.

Our fourth definition, taken once more from St Gregory of Sinai, indicates more definitely the character of this action of the Lord within us. ‘Prayer’, he says, ‘is the manifestation of Baptism.’ The action of the Lord is not, of course, limited solely to the baptized; God is present and at work within all humankind, by virtue of the fact that each is created according to his divine image. But this image has been obscured and clouded over, although not totally obliterated, by our fall into sin. It is restored to its primal beauty and splendour through the sacrament of Baptism, whereby Christ and the Holy Spirit come to dwell in what the Fathers call ‘the innermost and secret sanctuary of heart’. For the overwhelming majority, however, Baptism is something received in infancy, of which they have no conscious memory. Although the baptismal Christ and the indwelling Paraclete never case for one moment to work within us, most of us — save on rare occasions — remain virtually unaware of this inner presence and activity. True prayer, then, signifies the rediscovery and ‘manifestation’ of baptismal grace. To pray is to pass from the state where grace is present in our hearts secretly and unconsciously, to the point of full inner perception and conscious awareness when we experience and feel the activity of the Spirit directly and immediately. In the words of St Kallistos and St Ignatios Xanthopoulos (fourteenth century), ‘The aim of the Christian life is to return to the perfect grace of the Holy and Life-giving Spirit, which was conferred upon us at the beginning in divine Baptism.’

‘In my beginning is my end.’ The purpose of prayer can be summarized in the phrase, ‘Become what you are’. Become, consciously and actively, what you already are potentially and secretly, by virtue of your creation according to the divine image and your re-creation at Baptism. Become what you are: more exactly, return into yourself; discover him who is yours already, listen to him who never ceases to speak within you; possess him who even now possesses you. Such is God’s message to anyone who wants to pray: ‘You would not seek me unless you had already found me.’

But how are we to start? How, after entering our room and closing the door, are we to begin to pray, not just by repeating words from books, but by offering inner prayer, the living prayer of creative stillness? How can we learn to stop talking and to start listening? Instead of simply speaking to God, how can we make our own the prayer in which God speaks to us? How shall we pass from prayer expressed in words to prayer of silence, from ‘strenuous’ to ‘self-acting’ (to use Bishop Theophan’s terminology), from ‘my’ prayer to the prayer of Christ in me?

One way to embark on this journey inwards is through the Invocation of the Name.

‘Lord Jesus …’

It is not, of course, the only way. No authentic relationship between persons can exist without mutual freedom and spontaneity, and this true in particular of inner prayer. There are no fixed and unvarying rules, necessarily imposed on all who seek to pray; and equally there is no mechanical technique, whether physical or mental, which can compel God to manifest his presence. His grace is conferred always as a free gift, and cannot be gained automatically by any method or technique. The encounter between God and man is the kingdom of the heart is therefore marked by an inexhaustible variety of patterns. There are spiritual masters in the Orthodox Church who say little or nothing about the Jesus Prayer. But, even if it enjoys no exclusive monopoly in the field of inner prayer, the Jesus Prayer has become for innumerable Eastern Christians over the centuries the standard path, the royal highway. And not for Eastern Christians only: in the meeting between Orthodoxy and the West which has occurred over the past seventy years, probably no element in the Orthodox heritage has aroused such intense interest as the Jesus Prayer, and no single book has exercised a wider appeal than The Way of a Pilgrim. This enigmatic work, virtually unknown in pre-revolutionary Russia, has had a startling success in the non-Orthodox world and since the 1920s has appeared in a wide range of languages. Readers of J. D. Salinger will recall the impact of the ‘small pea-green cloth-bound book’ on Franny.

Wherein, we ask, lies the distinctive appeal and effectiveness of the Jesus Prayer? Perhaps in four things above all: first, in its simplicity and flexibility; secondly, in its completeness; thirdly, in the power of the Name; and fourthly, in the spiritual discipline of persistent repetition. Let us take these points in order.

Simplicity and Flexibility

The invocation of the Name if a prayer of the utmost simplicity, accessible to every Christian, but it leads at the same time to the deepest mysteries of contemplation. Anyone proposing to say the Jesus Prayer for lengthy periods of time each day — and, still more, anyone intending to use the breathing control and other physical exercises in conjunction with the Prayer — undoubtedly stands in need of a starets may still practise the Prayer without any fear, so long as they do so only for limited periods — initially, for no more than ten or fifteen minutes at a time — and so long as they make no attempt to interfere with the body’s natural rhythms. No specialized knowledge or training is required before commencing the Jesus Prayer. To the beginner it is sufficient to say: Simply begin. ‘In order to walk one must take a first step; in order to swim one must throw oneself into the water. It is the same with the Invocation of the Name. Begin to pronounce it with adoration and love. Cling only of Jesus himself. Say his Name slowly, softly and quietly.’

The outward form of the prayer is easily learnt. Basically it consists of the words ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’. There is, however, no strict uniformity. We can say ‘… have mercy on us’, instead of ‘on me’. The verbal formula can be shortened: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me’, or ‘Lord Jesus’, or even ‘Jesus’ alone, although this last is less common. Although this last is less common. Alternatively, the form of words may be expanded by adding ‘a sinner’ at the end, thus underlining the penitential aspect. We can say, recalling Peter’s confession on the road to Caesarea Philippi, ‘… Son of the living God…’. Sometimes an invocation of the Mother of God or the saints is inserted. The one essential and unvarying element is the inclusion of the divine Name ‘Jesus’. Each is free to discover through personal experience the particular form of words which answers most closely to his or her needs. The precise formula employed can of course be varied from time to time, so long as this is not done too often: for, as St Gregory of Sinai warns, ‘Trees which are repeatedly transplanted do not grow roots’.

There is a similar flexibility as regards the outward circumstances in which the Prayer is recited. Two ways of using the Prayer can be distinguished, the ‘free’ and the ‘formal’. By the ‘free’ use is meant the recitation of the Prayer as we are engaged in our usual activities throughout the day. It may be said, once or many times, in the scattered moments which otherwise would be spiritually wasted: when occupied with some familiar and semi-automatic task, such as dressing, washing up, mending socks, or digging in the garden; when walking or driving, when waiting in a bus queue or a traffic jam; in a moment of quiet before some especially painful or difficult interview; when unable to sleep, or before we have gained full consciousness on waking. Part of the distinctive value of the Jesus Prayer lies precisely in the fact that, because of its radical simplicity, it can be prayed in conditions of distraction when more complex forms of prayer are impossible. It is especially helpful in moments of tension and grave anxiety.

This ‘free’ use of the Jesus Prayer enables us to bridge the gap between our explicit ‘times of prayer’ — whether at church services or alone in our own room — and the normal activities of daily life. ‘Pray without ceasing’, St Paul insists (I Thess. 5:17): but how is this possible, since we have many other things to do as well? Bishop Theophan indicates the method in his maxim, ‘The hands at work, the mind and heart with God’. The Jesus Prayer, becoming by frequent repetition almost habitual and unconscious, only in the sanctuary or in solitude, but in the kitchen, on the factory floor, in the office. So we become like Brother Lawrence, who ‘was more united with God during his ordinary activities than in religious exercises’. ‘It is a great delusion’, he remarked, ‘to imagine that prayer-time should be different from any other, for we are equally bound to be united to God by work at work-time as by prayer at prayer-time.’

The ‘free’ recitation of the Jesus Prayer is complemented and strengthened by the ‘formal’ use. In this second case we concentrate our whole attention on the saying of the Prayer, to the exclusion of all external activity. The Invocation forms part of the specific ‘prayer time’ that we set aside for God each day. Normally, along with the Jesus Prayer, we shall also use in our ‘set’ times other forms of prayer taken from the liturgical books, together with Psalm and Scripture readings, intercession, and the like. A few may feel called to an almost exclusive concentration upon the Jesus Prayer, but this does not happen with most. Indeed, many prefer simply to employ the Prayer in the ‘free’ manner without using it ‘formally’ in their ‘set’ time of prayer; and there is nothing disquieting or incorrect about this. The ‘free’ use may certainly exist without the ‘formal’.

In the ‘formal usage, as in the ‘free’, there are no rigid rules, but variety and flexibility. No particular posture is essential. In Orthodox practice the Prayer is most usually recited when seated, but it may also be said standing or kneeling — and even, in cases of bodily weakness and physical exhaustion, when lying down. It is normally recited in more or less complete darkness or with the eyes closed, not with open eyes before an icon illuminated by candles or a votive lamp. Starets Silouan of Mount Athos (1866-1938), when saying the Prayer, used to stow his clock away in a cupboard so as not to hear it ticking, and then pull his thick woollen monastic cap over his eyes and ears.

Darkness, however, can have a soporific effect! If we become drowsy as we sit or kneel reciting the Prayer, then we should stand up for a time, make the Sign of the Cross at the end of each Prayer, and then bend from the waist in a deep bow, touching the ground with the fingers of the right hand. We may even make a prostration each time, touching the ground with our forehead. When reciting the Prayer seated, we should ensure that the chair is not too restful or luxurious; preferably it should have no arms. In Orthodox monasteries a low stool is commonly used, without a back. The Prayer may also be recited standing with arms outstretched in the form of a cross.

tumblr_omsp7v99tR1w2xscfo1_500.jpgA prayer-rope or rosary (komvoschoinion, tchotki) normally with a hundred knots, is often employed in conjunction with the Prayer, not primarily in order to count the number of times it is repeated, but rather as an aid to concentration and the establishment of a regular rhythm. It is a widespread fact of experience that, if we make some use of our hands as we pray, this will help to still our body and to gather us together into the act of prayer. But quantitative measurement, whether with a prayer-rope or in other ways, is on the whole not encouraged. It is true that, in the early part of The Way of a Pilgrim, great emphasis is laid by the starets on the precise number of times that the Prayer is to be said daily: 3,000 times, increasing to 6,000, and then to 12,000. The Pilgrim is commanded to say an exact number, neither more nor less. Such attention to quantity is altogether unusual. Possibly the point here is not the sheer quantity but the inner attitude of the Pilgrim: the starets wishes to test his obedience and readiness to fulfil an appointed task without deviation. More typical, however, is the advice of Bishop Theophan: ‘Do not trouble about the number of times you say the Prayer. Let this be your sole concern, that it should spring up in your heart with quickening power like a fountain of living water. Expel entirely from your mind all thoughts of quantity.’

The prayer is sometimes recited in groups, but more commonly alone; the words may be said aloud or silently. In Orthodox usage, when recited aloud it is spoken rather than chanted. There should be nothing forced or laboured in the recitation. The words should not be formed with excessive emphasis or inner violence, but the Prayer should be allowed to establish its own rhythm and accentuation, so that in time it comes to ‘sing’ within us by virtue of its intrinsic melody. Starets Parfenii of Kiev likened the flowing movement of the Prayer to a gently murmuring stream.

From all this it can be seen that the Invocation of the Name is a prayer for all seasons. It can be used by everyone, in every place and at every time. It is suitable for the ‘beginner’ as well as the more experienced; it can be offered in company with others or alone; it is equally appropriate in the desert or the city, in surroundings of recollected tranquillity or in the midst of the utmost noise and agitation. It is never out of place.

Completeness

Theologically, as the Russian Pilgrim rightly claims, the Jesus Prayer ‘holds in itself the whole gospel truth’; it is a ‘summary of the Gospels’. In one brief sentence it embodies the two chief mysteries of the Christian faith, the Incarnation and the Trinity. It speaks, first, of the two natures of Christ the God-man (Theanthropos): of his humanity, for he is invoked by the human name, ‘Jesus’, which his Mother Mary gave to him after his birth in Bethlehem; of he eternal Godhead, for he is also styled ‘Lord’ and ‘Son of God’. In the second place, the Prayer speaks by implication, although not explicitly, of the three Persons of the Trinity. While addressed to the second Person, Jesus, it points also to the Father, for Jesus is called ‘Son of God’; and the Holy Spirit is equally present in the Prayer, for ‘no one can say “Lord Jesus”, except in the Holy Spirit’ (I Cor. 12:3). So the Jesus Prayer is both Christocentric and Trinitarian.

Devotionally, it is no less comprehensive. It embraces the two chief ‘moments’ of Christian worship: the ‘moment’ of adoration, of looking up to God’s glory and reaching out to him in love; and the ‘moment’ of penitence, the sense of unworthiness and sin. There is a circular movement within the Prayer, a sequence of ascent and return. In the first half of the Prayer we rise up to God: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God …’; and then in the second half we return to ourselves in compunction: ‘ … on me a sinner’. Those who have tasted the gift of the Spirit’, it is stated in the Macarian Homilies, ‘are conscious of two things at the same time: one the one hand, of joy and consolation; on the other, of trembling and fear and mourning.’ Such is the inner dialectic of Jesus Prayer.

These two ‘moments’ — the vision of divine glory and the consciousness of human sin — are united and reconciled in a third ‘moment’ as we pronounce the word ‘mercy’. ‘Mercy’ denotes the bridging of the gulf between God’s righteousness and the fallen creation. He who says to God, ‘Have mercy’, laments his own helplessness but voices at the same time a cry of hope. He speaks not only of sin but of its overcoming. He affirms that God in his glory accepts us though we are sinners, asking us in return to accept the fact that we are accepted. So the Jesus Prayer contains not only a call to repentance but an assurance of forgiveness and restoration. The heart of the Prayer — the actual name ‘Jesus’ — bears precisely the sense of salvation: ‘Thou shalt call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins’ (Matt. 1:21). While there is sorrow for sin in the Jesus Prayer, it is not a hopeless but a ‘joy-creating sorrow’, in the phrase of St John Climacus (+ c. 649).

Such are among the riches, both theological and devotional, present in the Jesus Prayer; present, moreover, not merely in the abstract but in a vivifying and dynamic form. The special value of the Jesus Prayer lies in the fact that it makes these truths come alive, so that they are apprehended not just externally and theoretically but with all the fullness of our being. To understand why the Jesus Prayer possesses such efficacy, we must turn to two further aspects: the power of the Name and the discipline of repetition.

The Power of the Name

‘The Name of the Son of God is great and boundless, and upholds the entire universe.’ So it is affirmed in The Shepherd of Hermas, nor shall we appreciate the role of the Jesus Prayer in Orthodox spirituality unless we feel some sense of the power and virtue of the divine Name. If the Jesus Prayer is more creative than other invocations, this is because it contains the Name of God.

In the Old Testament, as in other ancient cultures, there is a close connection between someone’s soul and his name. His personality, with its peculiarities and its energy, is in some sense present in his name. To know a person’s name is to gain an insight into his nature, and thereby to acquire a relationship with him — even, perhaps, a certain control over him. That is why the mysterious messenger who wrestles with Jacob at the ford Jabbok refuses to disclose his name (Gen. 32:29). The same attitude is reflected in the reply of the angel to Manoal, ‘Why askest thou thus after my name, seeing it is secret?’ (Judg.13:18). A change of name indicates a decisive change in a person’s life, as when Abram becomes Abraham (Gen. 17:5), or Jacob becomes Israel (Gen. 32:28). In the same way, Saul after his conversion becomes Paul (Acts 13:9); and a monk at his profession is given a new name, usually not of his own choosing, to indicate the radical renewal which he undergoes.

In the Hebrew tradition, to do a thing in the name of another, or to invoke and call upon his name, are acts of weight and potency. To invoke a person’s name is to make that person effectively present. ‘One makes a name alive by mentioning it. The name immediately calls forth the soul it designates; therefore there is such deep significance in the very mention of a name.’ Everything that is true of human names is true to an incomparably higher degree of the divine Name. The power and glory of God are present and active in his Name. The Name of God is numen preasens, God with us, Emmanuel. Attentively and deliberately to invoke God’s Names is to place oneself in his presence, to open oneself to his energy, to offer oneself as an instrument and a living sacrifice in his hands. So keen was the sense of the majesty of the divine Name in later Judaism that the tetragrammaton was not pronounced aloud in the worship of the synagogue: the Name of the Most High was considered too devastating to be spoken.

This Hebraic understanding of the name passes from the Old Testament into the New. Devils are cast out and men are healed through the Name of Jesus, for the Name is power. Once this potency of the Name is properly appreciated, many familiar passages acquire a fuller meaning and force: the clause in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Hallowed be thy Name’; Christ’s promise at the Last Supper, ‘Whatever you shall ask the Father in my Name, he will give it you’ (John 16:23); his final command to the apostles, ‘Go therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matt. 28:19); St Peter’s proclamation that there is salvation only in ‘the Name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth’ (Acts 4:10-12); the words of St Paul, ‘At the Name of Jesus every knee should bow’ (Phil. 2:10); the new and secret name written on the white stone which is given to us in the Age to Come (Rev. 2:17).

It is this biblical reverence for the Name that forms the basis and foundation of the Jesus Prayer. God’s Name is intimately linked with his Person, and so the Invocation of the divine Name possesses a sacramental character, serving as an efficacious sigh of his invisible presence and action. For the believing Christian of his invisible presence and action. For the believing Christian today, as in apostolic times, the Name of Jesus is power. In the words of the two Elders of Gaza, St Barsanuphius and St John (sixth century), ‘The remembrance of the Name of God utterly destroys all that is evil.’ ‘Flog your enemies with the Name of Jesus’, urges St John Climacus, ‘for there is no weapon more powerful in heaven or on earth. … Let the remembrance of Jesus be united to your every breath, and then you will know the value of stillness.’

The Name is power, but a purely mechanical repetition will by itself achieve nothing. The Jesus Prayer is not a magic talisman. As in all sacramental operations, the human person is required to co-operate with God through active faith and ascetic effort. We are called to invoke the Name with recollection and inward vigilance, confining our minds within the words of the Prayer, conscious who it is that we are addressing and that responds to us in our heart. Such strenuous prayer is never easy in the initial stages, and is rightly described by the Fathers as a hidden martyrdom. St Gregory of Sinai speaks repeatedly of the ‘constraint and labour’ undertaken by those who follow the Way of the Name; a ‘continual effort’ is needed; they will be tempted to give up ‘because of the insistent pain that comes from the inward invocation of the intellect’. ‘Your shoulders will ache and you will often feel pain in your head,’ he warns, ‘but persevere persistently and with ardent longing, seeking the Lord in your heart.’ Only through such patient faithfulness shall we discover the true power of the Name.

This faithful perseverance takes the form, above all, of attentive and frequent repetition. Christ told his disciples not to use ‘vain repetitions’ (Matt. 6:7); but the repetition of the Jesus Prayer, when performed with inward sincerity and concentration, is most emphatically not ‘vain’. The act of repeatedly invoking the Name has a double effect: it makes our prayer more unified and at the same time more inward.

Unification

As soon as we make a serious attempt to pray in spirit and in truth, at once we become acutely conscious of our interior disintegration, of our lack of unity and wholeness. In spite of all our efforts to stand before God, thoughts continue to move restlessly and aimlessly through our head, like the buzzing of files (Bishop Theophan) or the capricious leaping of monkeys from branch to branch (Ramakrishna). To contemplate means, first of all, to be present where one is — to be here and now. But usually we find ourselves unable to restrain our mind from wandering at random over time and space. We recall the past, we anticipate the future, we plan what to do next; people and places come before us in unending succession. We lack the power to gather ourselves into the one place where we should be — here, in the presence of God; we are unable to live fully in the only moment of time that truly exists — now, the immediate present. This interior disintegration is one of the tragic consequences of the Fall. The people who get things done, it has been justly observed, are the people who do one thing at a time. But to do one thing at a time is no mean achievement. While difficult enough in external work, it is harder still in the work of inner prayer.

What is to be done? How shall we learn to live in the present, in the eternal Now? how can we seize the kairos, the decisive moment, the moment of opportunity? It is precisely at this point that the Jesus Prayer can help. The repeated Invocation of the Name can bring us, by God’s grace, from dividedness to unity, from dispersion and multiplicity to singleness. ‘To stop the continual jostling of your thoughts,’ says Bishop Theophan, ‘you must bind the mind with one thought, or the thought of One only’.

The ascetic Fathers, in particular Barsanuphius and John, distinguish two ways of combatting thoughts. The first method is for the ‘strong’ or the ‘perfect’. These can ‘contradict’ their thoughts, that is, confront them face to face and repel them in direct battle. But for most of us such a method is too difficult and may, indeed, lead to actual harm. Direct confrontation, the attempt to uproot and expel thoughts by an effort of will often servers merely to give greater strength to our imagination. Violently suppressed, our fantasies tend to return with increased force. Instead of fighting our thoughts directly and trying to eliminate them by an effort of will, it is wiser to turn aside and fix our attention elsewhere. Rather than gazing downwards into our turbulent imagination and concentrating on how to oppose our thoughts, we should look upwards to the Lord Jesus and entrust ourselves into his hands by invoking his Name; and the grace that acts through his Name will overcome the thoughts which we cannot obliterate by our own strength. Our spiritual strategy should be positive and not negative: instead of trying to empty our mind of what is evil, we should fill it with the thought of what is good. ‘Do mot contradict the thoughts which we cannot obliterate by our own strength. Our spiritual strategy should be positive and not negative: instead of trying to empty our mind of what is evil, we should fill it with the thought of what is good. ‘Do not contradict the thoughts suggested by your enemies,’ advise Baranuphius and John, ‘for that is exactly what they want and they will not cease from troubling you. But turn to the Lord for help against them, laying before him your own powerlessness; for he is able to expel them and to reduce them to nothing.’

The Jesus Prayer, then is a way of turning aside and looking elsewhere. Thoughts and images inevitably occur to us during prayer. We cannot simply turn off the internal television set. It is of little or no value to say to ourselves ‘Stop thinking’; we might as well say ‘Stop breathing’. ‘The rational mind cannot rest idle’, says St Mark the Monk, for thoughts keep filling it with ceaseless chatter. But while it lies beyond our power to make this chatter suddenly disappear, what we can do is to detach ourselves from it by ‘binding’ our ever-active mind ‘with one thought, or the thought of One only’ — the Name of Jesus. We cannot altogether halt the flow of thoughts, but through the Jesus Prayer we can disengage ourselves progressively from it, allowing it to recede into the background so that we become less and less aware of it.

According to Evagrius of Pontus (+399), ‘Prayer is a laying aside of thoughts.’ A laying aside: not a savage conflict, not a furious repression, but a gentle yet persistent act of detachment. Through the repetition of the Name, we are helped to ‘lay aside’, to ‘let go’, our trivial or pernicious imaginings, and to replace them with the thought of Jesus. But, although the imagination and the discursive reasoning are not to be violently suppressed when saying the Jesus Prayer, they are certainly not to be actively encouraged. The Jesus Prayer is not a form of meditation upon specific incidents in the life of Christ, or upon some saying or parable in the Gospels; still less is it a way of reasoning and inwardly debating about some theological truth such as the meaning of homoousios of the Chalcedonian Definition. In this regard, the Jesus Prayer is to distinguished from the methods of discursive meditation popular in the West since the Counter-Reformation (commended by Ignatius Loyola, Francois de Sales, Alphonsus Ligouri, and others).

As we invoke the Name, we should not deliberately shape in our minds any visual image of the Saviour. This is one of the reasons why we usually say the Prayer in darkness, rather than with our eyes open in front of an icon. ‘Keep your intellect free from colours, images and forms’, urges St Gregory of Sinai; beware of the imagination (phantasia) in prayer — otherwise you may find that you have become a phantastes instead of a hesychastes! ‘So as not to fall into illusion (prelest) while practising inner prayer,’ states St Nil Sorskii (+1508), ‘do not permit yourself any concepts, images or visions.’ ‘Hold no intermediate image between the intellect and the Lord when practising the Jesus Prayer’, Bishop Theophan writes. ‘… The essential part is to dwell in God, and this walking before God means that you live with the conviction ever before your consciousness that God is in you, as he in everything: you live in the firm assurance that he sees all that is within you, knowing you better than you know yourself. This awareness of the eye of God looking at your inner being must not be accompanied by any visual concept, but must be confined to a simple conviction of feeling.’ Only when we invoke the Name in this way — not forming pictures of the Saviour but simply feeling his presence — shall we experience the full power of the Jesus Prayer to integrate and unify.

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The Jesus Prayer is thus a prayer in words, but because the words are so simple, so few and unvarying, the Prayer reaches out beyond words into the living silence of the Eternal. It is a way of achieving, with God’s assistance, the kind of non-discursive, non-iconic prayer in which we do not simply make statements to or about God, in which we do not just form pictures of Christ in our imagination, but are ‘oned’ with his in an all-embracing, unmediated encounter. Through the Invocation of the Name we feel his nearness with our spiritual senses, much as we feel the warmth with our bodily senses on entering a heated room. we know him, not through a series of successive images and concepts, but with the unified sensibility of the heart. So the Jesus Prayer concentrates us into the here and now, making us single-centred, one-pointed, drawing us from a multiplicity of thoughts to union with the one Christ. ‘Through the remembrance of Jesus Christ’, says St Philotheus of Sinai (?ninth-tenth century), ‘gather together your scattered intellect’ — gather it together from the plurality of discursive thinking into the simplicity of love.

Many, on hearing that the Invocation of the Name is to be non-discursive and non-iconic, a means of transcending images and thoughts, may be tempted to conclude that any such manner of praying lies altogether beyond their capacities. To such it should be said: the Way of the Name is not reserved for a select few. It is within the reach of all. When you first embark on the Jesus Prayer, do not worry too much about expelling thoughts and mental pictures. As we have said already, let your strategy be positive, not negative. Call to mind, not what is to be excluded, but what is to be included. Do not think about your thoughts and how to shed them; think about Jesus. Concentrate your whole self, all your ardour and devotion, upon the person of the Saviour. Feel his presence. Speak to him with love. If your attention wanders, as undoubtedly it will, do not be discouraged; gently, without exasperation or inner anger, bring it back. If it wanders again and again, then again and yet again bring it back. Return to the centre — to the living and personal centre, Jesus Christ. Look on the Invocation, not so much as prayer emptied of thoughts, but as prayer filled with the Beloved. Let it be, in the richest sense of the word, a prayer of affection — although not of self-induced emotional excitement. For while the Jesus Prayer is certainly far more than ‘affective’ prayer in the technical Western sense, it is with our loving affection that we do right to begin. Our inner attitude, as we commence the Invocation, is that of St Richard of Chichester:

O my merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother, may I see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly.

Without denying or diminishing the classic teaching of the Hesychast masters on the Jesus Prayer as a ‘shedding of thoughts’, it has to be acknowledged that over the centuries most Eastern Christians have used the Prayer simply as an expression of their tender, loving trust in Jesus the Divine Companion. And there is surely no harm in that.

Inwardness

The repeated Invocation of the Name, by making our prayer more unified, makes it at the same time more inward, more a part of ourselves — not something that we do at particular moments, but something that we are all the time; not an occasional act but a continuing state. Such praying becomes truly prayer of the whole person, in which the words and meaning of the prayer are fully identified with the one who prays. All this is well expressed by Paul Evdokimov (1901-1970):

In the catacombs the image that recurs most frequently is the figure of a woman in prayer, the Orans. It represents the only true attitude of the human soul. It is not enough to possess prayer: we must become prayer — prayer incarnate, it is not enough to have moments of praise; our whole life, every act and every gesture, even a smile, must become a hymn of adoration, an offering, a prayer. We must offer not what we have but what we are.

That is what the world needs above all else: not people who say prayers with greater or less regularity, but people who are prayers.

The kind of prayer that Evdokimov is here describing may be defined more exactly as ‘prayer of the heart’. In Orthodoxy, as in other traditions, prayer is commonly distinguished under three headings, which are to be regarded as interpenetrating levels rather than successive stages: prayer of the lips (oral prayer); prayer of the nous, the mind or intellect (mental prayer); prayer of the heart (or of the intellect in the heart). The Invocation of the Name begins, like any other prayer, as an oral prayer, in which words are spoken by the tongue through a deliberate effort of will. At the same time, once more by a deliberate effort, we concentrate our mind upon the meaning of what the tongue says. In course of time and with the help of God our prayer grows more inward. The participation of the mind becomes more intense and spontaneous, while the sounds uttered by the tongue become less important; perhaps for a time they cease altogether and the Name is invoked silently, without any movement of the lips, by the mind alone. When this occurs, we have passed by God’s grace from the first level to the second. Not that vocal invocation ceases altogether, for there will be times when even the most ‘advanced’ in inner prayer will wish to call upon the Lord Jesus aloud. (And who, indeed, can claim to be ‘advanced’? we are all of us ‘beginners’ in the things of the Spirit.)

But the journey inwards is not yet complete. A person is far more than the conscious mind; besides the brain and reasoning faculties there are the emotions and affections, the aesthetic sensitivity, together with the deep instinctive layers of the personality. All these have a function to perform in prayer, for the whole person is called to share in the total act of worship. Like a drop of ink the falls on blotting paper, the act of prayer should spread steadily outwards from the conscious and reasoning centre of the brain, until it embraces every part of ourselves.

In more technical terms, this means that we are called to advance from the second level to the third: from “prayer of the intellect’ to ‘prayer of the intellect in heart’. ‘Heart’ in this context is to be understood in the Semitic and biblical rather than the modern Western sense, as signifying not just the emotions and affections but the totality of the human person. The heart is the primary organ of our identity, it is our innermost being, ‘the very deepest and truest self, not attained except through sacrifice, through death’. According to Boris Vysheslavtsev, it is ‘the centre not only of consciousness but of the unconscious, not only of the soul but of the spirit, not only of the spirit but of the body, not only of the comprehensible but of the incomprehensible; in one word, it is the absolute centre’. Interpreted in this way, the heart is far more a material organ in the body; the physical heart is an outward symbol of the boundless spiritual potentialities of the human creature, made in the image of God, called to attain his likeness.

To accomplish the journey inwards and to attain true prayer, it is required of us to enter into this ‘absolute centre’, that is ,to descend from the intellect into the heart. More exactly, we are called to descend not from but with the intellect. The aim is not just ‘prayer of the heart’ but ‘prayer of the intellect in the heart’, for our varied forms of understanding, including our reason, are a gift from God and are to be used in his service, not rejected. This ‘union of the intellect with the heart’ signifies the reintegration of our fallen and fragmented nature, our restoration to original wholeness. Prayer of the heart is a return to Paradise, a reversal of the Fall, a recovery of the status ante peccatum. This means that it is an eschatological reality, a pledge and anticipation of the Age to Come — something which, in this present age, is never fully and entirely realized.

Those who, however imperfectly, have achieved some measure of ‘prayer of the heart’, have begun to make the transition about which we spoke earlier — the transition from ‘strenuous’ to ‘self-acting’ prayer, from the prayer which I say to the prayer which ‘says itself’ or , rather, which Christ says in me. For the heart has a double significance in the spiritual life: it is both the centre of the human being and the point of meeting between the human being and God. It is both the place of self-knowledge, where we see ourselves as we truly are, and the place of self-transcendence, where we understand our nature as a temple of the Holy Trinity, where the image comes face to face with the Archetype. In the ‘inner sanctuary’ of our own heart we find the ground of our being and so cross the mysterious frontier between the created and the Uncreated. ‘There are unfathomable depths within the heart’, state the Macarian Homilies. ‘… God is there with the angels, light and life are there, the kingdom and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there.’

Prayer of the heart, then, designates the point where ‘my’ action, ‘my’ prayer, becomes explicitly identified with the continuous action of Another in me. It is no longer prayer to Jesus but the prayer of Jesus himself. This transition from ‘strenuous’ to ‘self-acting’ prayer is strikingly indicated in The Way of a Pilgrim: ‘early one morning the Prayer woke me up as it were.’  Hitherto to Pilgrim has been ‘saying the Prayer’; now he finds that the Prayer ‘says itself’, even when he is asleep, for it has become united to the prayer of God within him. Yet even so he does not consider the he has as yet attained prayer of the heart in its fullness.

Readers of The Way of a Pilgrim may gain the impression that this passage from oral prayer to prayer of the heart is easily achieved, almost in a mechanical and automatic fashion. The Pilgrim, so it seems, attains self-acting prayer in a matter of a few weeks. It needs to be emphasized that his experience, while not unique, is altogether exceptional. More usually prayer of the heart comes, if at all, only after a lifetime of ascetic striving. There is a real danger that, in the early stages of the Jesus Prayer, we may too readily assume that we are passing from oral prayer to prayer of the heart. We may perhaps be tempted to imagine that we have already attained wordless prayer of silence, when in fact we are not really praying at all but have merely lapsed into vacant drowsiness or waking sleep. To guard against this, our teachers in the Hesychast tradition insist upon the need for strenuous effort when first embarking on the Jesus Prayer. They emphasize how important it to concentrate full attention upon the recitation of the actual words, rather than to form high ambitions about prayer of the heart. Here, for example, is the advice given by a noted spiritual father of Mount Athos, Geron Joseph of New Skete (died 1959):

The work of inner prayer consists in forcing yourself to say the prayer with your mouth continually, without ceasing. … Attend only to the words ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me’. … Just say the Prayer aloud, without interruption. … All your effort must be centred on the tongue, until you start to grow accustomed to the Prayer.

The significance attached here to the power of the spoken word is indeed striking. As St John Climacus tells us, ‘Struggle to lift up, or rather, to enclose your thought within the words of your prayer.’ But of course we never think exclusively about the words on their own; always we are conscious also of the person of Jesus whom our words invoke.

Prayer of the heart, when and if it is granted, comes as the free gift of God, which he bestows as he wills. It is not the inevitable effect of some technique. St Isaac the Syrian (seventh century) underlines the extreme rarity of the gift when he says that ‘scarcely one in ten thousand’ is counted worthy of the gift of pure prayer, and he adds: ‘As for the mystery that lies beyond pure prayer, there is scarcely to be found a single person in each generation who has drawn near to this knowledge of God’s grace.’ One in ten thousand, on in a generation: while sobered by this warning, we should not be unduly discouraged. The path to the inner kingdom lies open before all, and all alike may travel some way along it. In the present age, few experience with any fullness the deeper mysteries of the heart, but very many receive in a more humble and intermittent way true glimpses of what is signified by spiritual prayer.

Breathing Exercises

It is time to consider a controversial topic, where the teaching of the Byzantine Hesychasts is often misinterpreted — the role of the body in prayer.

nun-praying.jpgThe heart, it has been said, is the primary organ of our being, the point of convergence between mind and matter, the centre alike of our physical constitution and our psychic and spiritual structure. Since the heart has this twofold aspect, at once visible and invisible, prayer of the heart is prayer of body as well as soul: only if it includes the body can it be truly prayer of the whole person. A human being, in the biblical view, is a psycho­somatic totality — not a soul imprisoned in a body and seeking to escape, but an integral unity of the two. The body is not just an obstacle to be overcome, a lump of matter to be ignored, but it has a positive part to play in the spiritual life and it is endowed with energies that can be harnessed for the work of prayer. If this is true of prayer in general, it is true in a more specific way of the Jesus Prayer, since this is an invocation addressed precisely to God Incarnate, to the Word made flesh. Christ at his Incarnation took not only a human mind and will but a human body, and so he has made the flesh into an inexhaustible source of sanctification. How can this flesh, which to God-man has made Spirit-bearing, participate in the Invocation of the Name and in the prayer of the intellect in the heart?

To assist such participation, and as an aid to concentration the Hesychasts evolved a ‘physical technique’. Every psychic activity, they realized, has repercussions on the physical and bodily level; depending on our inner state we grow hot or cold, we breathe faster or more slowly, the rhythm of our heart-beats quickens or decelerates, and so on. Conversely, each alteration in our physical condition reacts adversely or positively on our psychic activity. If, then, we can learn to control and regulate certain of our physical processes, this can be used to strengthen our inner concentration in prayer. Such is the basic principle underlying the Hesychast ‘method’. In detail, the physical technique has three main aspects:

i) External posture. St Gregory of Sinai advises sitting on a low stool, about nine inches high; the head and shoulders should be bowed, and the eyes fixed on the place of the heart. He recognizes that this will prove exceedingly uncomfortable after a time. Some writers recommend a yet more exacting posture, with the head held between the knees, following the example of Elijah on Mount Carmel.

ii) Control of the breathing. The breathing is to be made slower and at the same time co-ordinated with the rhythm of the Prayer. Often the first part, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God’, is said while drawing in the breath, and the second part, ‘have mercy on me a sinner’, while breathing out. Other methods are possible. The recitation of the Prayer may also be synchronized with the beating of the heart.

iii) Inward exploration. Just as the aspirant in Yoga is taught to concentrate his thought in specific parts of his body, so the Hesychast concentrates his thought in the cardiac centre. While inhaling through his nose and propelling his breath down into his lungs, he makes his intellect ‘descend’ with the breath and he ‘searches’ inwardly for the place of the heart. Exact instructions concerning this exercise are not committed to writing for fear they should be misunderstood; the details of the process are so delicate that the personal guidance of an experienced master is indispensable. The beginner who, in the absence of such guidance, attempts to search for the cardiac centre, is in danger of directing his thought unawares into the area which lies immediately below the heart — into the abdomen, that is and the entrails, the effect on his prayer is disastrous, for this lower region is the source of the carnal thoughts and sensations which pollute the mind and the heart.

For obvious reasons the utmost discretion is necessary when interfering with instinctive bodily activities such as the drawing of breath or the beating of the heart. Misuse of the physical technique can damage someone’s health and disturb his mental equilibrium; hence the importance of a reliable master. If no such starets is available, it is best for the beginner to restrict himself simply to the actual recitation of the Jesus Prayer, without troubling at all about the rhythm of his breath or his heart-beats. More often than not he will find that, without any conscious effort on his part, the words of the Invocation adapt themselves spontaneously to the movement of his breathing. If this does not in fact happen, there is no cause for alarm; let him continue quietly with the work of mental invocation.

The physical techniques are in any case no more than an accessory, an aid which has proved helpful to some but which is in no sense obligatory upon all. The Jesus Prayer can be practised in its fullness without any physical methods at all. St Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), while regarding the use of physical techniques as theologically defensible, treated such methods as something secondary and suited mainly for beginners. For him, as for all the Hesychast masters, the essential thing is not the external control of the breathing but the inner and secret Invocation of the Lord Jesus.

Orthodox writers in the last 150 years have in general laid little emphasis upon the physical techniques. The counsel given by Bishop Ignatii Brianchaninov (1807-67) is typical:

We advise our beloved brethren not to try to establish this technique within them, if it does not reveal itself of its own accord. Many, wishing to learn it by experience, have damaged their lungs and gained nothing. The essence of the matter consists in the union of the mind with the heart during prayer, and this is achieved by the grace of God in its own time, determined by God. The breathing technique is fully replaced by the unhurried enunciation of the Prayer, by a short rest or pause at the end, each time it is said, by gentle and unhurried breathing, and by the enclosure of the mind in the words of the Prayer. By means of these aids we can easily attain to a certain degree of attention.

As regards the speed of recitation, Bishop Ignatii suggests:

To say the Jesus Prayer a hundred time attentively and without haste, about half an hour is needed, but some ascetics require even longer. Do not say the prayers hurriedly, one immediately after another. Make a short pause after each prayer, and so help the mind to concentrate. Saying the Prayer without pauses distracts the mind. Breathe with care, gently and slowly.

Beginners in the use of the Prayer will probably prefer a somewhat faster pace than is here proposed — perhaps twenty minutes for a hundred prayers. In the Greek tradition there are teachers who recommend a far brisker rhythm; the very rapidity of the Invocation, so they maintain, helps to hold the mind attentive.

Striking parallels exist between the physical techniques recommended by the Byzantine Hesychasts and those employed in Hindu Yoga and in Sufism. How far are the similarities the result of the mere coincidence, of an independent though analogous development in two separate traditions? If there is a direct relation between Hesychasm and Sufism — which side has been borrowing from the other? Here is a fascinating field for research, although the evidence is perhaps too fragmentary to permit any definite conclusion. One point, however, should not be forgotten. Besides similarities, there are also differences. All pictures have frames, and all picture-frames have certain features in common; yet the pictures within the frames may be utterly different. What matters is the picture, not the frame. In the case of the Jesus Prayer, the physical techniques are as it were the frame, while the mental invocation of Christ is the picture within the frame. The ‘frame’ of Jesus Prayer certainly resembles various non-Christian ‘frames’, but this should not make us insensitive to the uniqueness of the picture within, to the distinctively Christian content of the Prayer. The essential point in the Jesus Prayer is not the act of repetition in itself, not how we sit or breathe, but to whom we speak; and in this instance the words are addressed unambiguously to the Incarnate Saviour Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son Mary.

The existence of a physical technique in connection with the Jesus Prayer should not blind us as to the Prayer’s true character. The Jesus Prayer is not just a device to help us concentrate or relax. It is not simply a piece of ‘Christian Yoga’, a type of ‘Transcendental Meditation’, or a ‘Christian mantra’, even though some have tried to interpret it in this way. It is, on the contrary, an invocation specifically addressed to another person — to God made man, Jesus Christ, our personal Saviour and Redeemer. The Jesus Prayer, therefore, is far more than an isolated method or technique. It exists within a certain context, and if divorced from that context it loses its proper meaning.

The context of the Jesus Prayer is first of all one of faith. The Invocation of the Name presupposes that the one who says the Prayer believes in Jesus Christ as Son of God and Saviour. Behind the repetition of a form of words there must exist a living faith in the Lord Jesus — in who he is and in what he has done for me personally. Perhaps the faith in many of us is very uncertain and faltering; perhaps it coexists with doubt; perhaps we often find ourselves compelled to cry out in company with the father of the lunatic child, ‘Lord, I believe: help my unbelief’ (Mark 9:24). But at least there should be some desire to believe; at least there should be, amidst all the uncertainty, a spark of love for the Jesus whom as yet we know so imperfectly.

Secondly, the context of the Jesus Prayer is one of community. We do not invoke the Name as separate individuals, relying solely upon our own inner resources, but as members of the community of the Church. Writers such as St Barsanuphius, St Gregory of Sinai or Bishop Theophan took it for granted that those to whom they commended the Jesus Prayer were baptized Christian, regularly participating in the Church’s sacramental life through Confession and Holy Communion. Not for one moment did they envisage the Invocation of the Name as a substitute for the sacraments, but they assumed that anyone using it would be a practising and communicant member of the Church.

Yet today, in this present epoch of restless curiosity and ecclesiastical disintegration, there are in fact many who use the Jesus Prayer without belonging to any Church, possibly without having a clear faith either in the Lord Jesus or anything else. Are we to condemn them? Are we to forbid them the use of the Prayer? Surely not, so long as they are sincerely searching for the Fountain of Life. Jesus condemned no one except hypocrites. But, in all humility and acutely aware of our own faithlessness, we are bound to regard the situation of such people as anomalous, and to warn them of this fact.

The Journey’s End

The aim of the Jesus Prayer, as of all Christian prayer, is that our praying should become increasingly identified with the prayer offered by Jesus the High Priest with us, that our life should become one with his life, our breathing with the Divine Breath that sustains the universe. The final objective may aptly be described by the Patristic term theosis, ‘deification’ of ‘divinization’. In the words of Archpriest Sergei Bulgakov, ‘The Name of Jesus, present in the human heart, confers upon it the power of deification.’ ‘The logos became man,’ says St Athanasius, ‘that we might become god.’ He who is God by nature took our humanity, that we humans might share by grace in his divinity, becoming ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Pet. 1:4). The Jesus Prayer, addressed to the Logos Incarnate, is a means of realizing within ourselves this mystery of theosis, whereby human persons attain the true likeness of God.

The Jesus Prayer, by uniting us to Christ, helps us to share in the mutual indwelling or perichoresis of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. The more the Prayer becomes a part of ourselves, the more we enter into the movement of love which passes unceasingly between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Of this love St Isaac the Syrian has written with great beauty:

Love is the kingdom of which our Lord spoke symbolically when he promised his disciples that they would eat in his kingdom: ‘You shall eat and drink at the table of my kingdom.’ What should they eat, if not love? … When we have reached love, we have reached God and our way is ended: we have passed over to the island that lies beyond the world, where is the Father with the Son and the Holy Spirit: to whom be glory and dominion.

In the Hesychast tradition, the mystery of theosis has most often taken the outward form of a vision of light. This light which the saints behold in prayer is neither a symbolical light of the intellect, nor yet a physical and created light of the senses. It is nothing less than the divine and uncreated Light of the Godhead, which shone from Christ at his Transfiguration on Mount Tabor and which will illumine the whole world at his second coming on the Last Day. Here is a characteristic passage on the Divine Light taken from St Gregory Palamas. He is describing the Apostle’s vision when he was caught up into the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2-4):

Paul saw a light without limits below or above or to the sides; he saw no limit whatever to the light that appeared to him and shone around him, but it was like a sun infinitely brighter and vaster than the universe; and in the midst of this sun he himself stood, having become nothing but eye.

Such is the vision of glory to which we may approach through the Invocation of the Name.

The Jesus Prayer causes the brightness of the Transfiguration to penetrate into every corner of our life. Constant repetition has two effects upon the anonymous author of The Way of a Pilgrim. First, it transforms his relationship with the material creation around him, making all things transparent, changing them into a sacrament of God’s presence. He writes:

When I prayed with my heart, everything around me seemed delightful and marvellous. The trees, the grass, the birds, the air, the light seemed to be telling me that they existed for man’s sake, that they witnessed to the love of God for man, that everything proved the love of God for man, that all things prayed to God and sang his praise. Thus it was that I came to understand what The Philokalia calls ‘the knowledge of the speech of all creatures’ … I felt a burning love for Jesus and for all God’s creatures.

In the words of Father Bulgakov, ‘Shining through the heart, the light of the Name of Jesus illuminates all the universe.’

In the second place, the Prayer transfigures the Pilgrim’s relation not only with the material creation but with other humans:

Again I started off on my wanderings. But now I did not walk along as before, filled with care. The invocation of the Name of Jesus gladdened my way. Everybody was kind to me, it was as though everyone loved me. … If anyone harms me I have only to think, ‘How sweet is the Prayer of Jesus!’ and the injury and the anger alike pass away and I forget it all.

‘Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me’ (Matt. 25:40). The Jesus Prayer helps us to see Christ in each one, and each one in Christ.

The Invocation of the Name is in this way joyful rather than penitential, world-affirming rather than world-denying. To some, hearing about the Jesus Prayer for the first time, it may appear that to sit alone in the darkness with eyes closed, constantly repeating ‘… have mercy on me’, is a gloomy and despondent way of praying. And they may also be tempted to regard it as self-centred and escapist, introverted, an evasion of responsibility to the human community at large. But this would be a grave misunderstanding. For those who have actually made the Way of the Name their own, it turns out to be not sombre and oppressive but a source of liberation and healing. The warmth and joyfulness of the Jesus Prayer is particularly evident in the writings of St Hesychius of Sinai (?eighth-ninth century):

Through persistence in the Jesus Prayer the intellect attains a state of sweetness and peace.

The more the rain falls on the earth, the softer it makes it; similarly, the more we call upon Christ’s Holy Name, the greater the rejoicing and exultation it brings the earth of our heart.

The sun rising over the earth creates the daylight; and the venerable and Holy Name of the Lord Jesus, shining continually in the mind, gives birth to countless thoughts radiant as the sun.

Moreover, so far from turning our backs on others and repudiating God’s creation when we say the Jesus Prayer, we are in fact affirming our commitment to our neighbour and our sense of the value of everyone and everything in God. ‘Acquire inner peace,’ said St Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833), ‘and thousands around you will find their salvation.’ By standing in Christ’s presence even for no more than a few moments of each day, invoking his Name, we deepen and transform all the remaining moments of the day, rendering ourselves available to others, effective and creative, in a way that we could not otherwise be. And if we also use the Prayer in a ‘free’ manner throughout the day, this enables us to ‘set the divine seal on the world’, to adopt a phrase of Dr Nadejda Gorodetzky (1901-85):

We can apply this name to people, books, flowers, to all things we meet, see or think. The Name of Jesus may become a mystical key to the world, an instrument of the hidden offering of everything and everyone, setting the divine seal on the world. One might perhaps speak here of the priesthood of all believers. In union with our High Priest, we implore the Spirit: Make my prayer into a sacrament.

‘We can apply this Name to people …’ Here Dr Gorodetzky suggests a possible answer to a question that is often raised: Can the Jesus Prayer be used as a form of intercession? The reply must be that, in the strict sense, it is distinct from intercessory prayer. As an expression of non-discursive, non-iconic ‘waiting upon God’, it does not involve the explicit recalling and mention of particular names. We simply turn to Jesus. It is true, of course, that in turning to Jesus we do not thereby turn away from our fellow humans. All those whom we love are already embraced in his heart, loved by him infinitely more than by us, and so in the end through the Jesus Prayer we find them all again in him; invoking the Name, we enter more and more fully into Christ’s overflowing love for the entire world. But if we are following the traditional Hesychast pattern of the Jesus Prayer, we do not bring others before him specifically by name, or hold them deliberately in our mind, as we recite the Invocation.

All this, however, does not exclude the possibility of also giving to the Jesus Prayer an intercessory dimension. On occasion, alike in the ‘free’ and the ‘formal’ use, we may feel moved to ‘apply’ the Name to one or more particular persons, invoking Jesus upon them as we say ‘… have mercy on us’, or even including the actual name or names, ‘… have mercy on John’. Even if this is not exactly what the Hesychast texts envisage, it is surely a legitimate and helpful extension to the practice of the Jesus Prayer. The Way of the Name has a wideness, a generosity, not to be confined within rigid and unvarying rules.

‘Prayer is action; to pray is to be highly effective.’ Of no prayer is this more true than of the Jesus Prayer. While it is singled out for particular mention in the office of monastic profession as a prayer for monks and nuns, it is equally a prayer for laymen, for married couples, for doctors and psychiatrists, for social workers and bus conductors. The Invocation of the Name, practised aright, involves each one more deeply in his or her appointed task, making each more efficient in his actions, not cutting him off from others but linking him to them, rendering him sensitive to their fears and anxieties in a way that he never was before. The Jesus Prayer makes each into a ‘man for others’, a living instrument of God’s peace, a dynamic centre of reconciliation.

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Epistolary Adumbrations: Death, Life, and the Creatio ex Nihilo

by Brian C. Moore, Ph.D.

The following post was originally two parts of what constituted a small dialogue between myself and a young woman who questioned certain aspects of David Bentley Hart’s arguments regarding the nature of freedom and the possibility of universal salvation. M. first averred that the Christian tradition and saintly testimony held against the latter, but the most pressing element of her speculative inquiry had to do with a hypothetical babe destined for hell. She wondered if one might conceivably choose to birth a child that one knew beforehand would irrevocably choose separation from the love of God? Could such a choice be justified, with evident analogical applications to infernal eschatology? My initial response provoked more probing questions. M. was not persuaded that individual persistence in alienation from the Good was necessarily irrational. More clarification was needed to indicate how modern conceptions of freedom degrade to mere mechanism. M. then introduced the matter of the whence of identity and proposed a hypothetical brother, John, who was different from M. Wasn’t it just an accident of historical chance that M. was M. and not John? Might she not reasonably think and judge differently if she were other? M. categorized this existential possibility as the “arbitrary” nature of identity. She then pressed me on some of my earlier assertions. Might God be constrained by logical contradictions? Would it make sense to say that God can square the circle? (Implicitly, perhaps, can God create free beings who must certainly choose the Good?) M. speculated that coming from nothing meant the individuating element in identity was indeterminate and a limit to God’s capacity to destine all to salvation just as squaring the circle is an abrogation of logic. M. returned to the image of an eternally tormented person. This bit is rather lovely, so I hope she will not be offended if I quote her:

You see, I understand the moral disparities that arise around the tragedy of an eternally self-tormented being, so I encased it in a shameless sentimentality in order to bring forth what I thought might be a valid rumination, which I will rephrase here in even more stark terms: Suppose God only creates one person. Does the innate beauty and worthiness of this one creature’s existence justify its creation, even if it eternally attempts to stifle its own potential? My point was that while it is free to rebel against its own nature, by virtue of the beauty and worth God imbued within its very being from the beginning, its rebellion cannot but fail in its endeavor. Its rebellion becomes nothing more than a free-willed swinging at the air, for it is, to its own displeasure, inescapably eternally beautiful and worthy.

M. went on to clarify that she was trying to see if one might discover a way to honor the good of the person and pronounce the creation good even if the person chooses unending hell. M. neither rejects, nor accepts Hart’s Christian universalism. At this point, she is testing the arguments and probing for weaknesses. She is not a philosopher or a theologian, but her reflections denote a winsome desire to discover truth and to press difficult matters, unwilling to avoid perplexities or to neglect astonishment before the beauty of being. I have not attempted to erase the somewhat casual tone of personal response, though I made a few minor word changes. None of what follows is strictly a defense of Hart’s arguments, though I admire his thought and find his theological vision especially congenial. In any event, any weakness of argument is entirely my own.

M., I am not convinced there is uniformity among the patristics on this issue, nor is it evident that they have all reflectively pronounced on the metaphysics of freedom. Diverse saintly opinion aside, the helpful guidance of tradition does not absolve us from responsibility for working through the merit of metaphysical arguments or the agapeic implications of the gospel of Christ. One may deliberate wrongly about the Good, but apart from a teleology directed towards the Good, the intellectual capacity that founds a free choice is meaningless. One is left with spontaneous reactions more akin to mechanist models of causation than the freedom of a person. One chooses the Good because one always aims at the true Good, even when deluded into mistaking evil for Good. The notion that freed of delusion, one might continue to choose against the Good is incoherent (albeit, a popular incoherency). But do not confuse willing for some sterile mental action, it is always a product of the whole person; desire is larger than a mere mental calculation. Furthermore, the conatus essendi (the striving, choosing individual with an eros towards self-determination) is first the passio essendi (the gifted being, porous to the divine). The failures of secondary freedom are not on par with the loving gift of divine origination. God cherishes the singular person and continues to give the gift of being in spite of deformations by the individual who chooses badly.

The hypothetical about the child destined for hell sentimentally wants to focus on the inherent worth of the singular life whilst abjuring the full implications of an apparently self-determined eternal agony. All our analogies must account for the infinite distance between ourselves and the God who is Life who is Love. God is always greater than what is analogically similar. When the most gifted artist creates or parents birth a child, it is still quite different from the uniqueness of creation by the unique, Creator God. We inhabit a middle world, a metaxu beset by equivocities, and are moved by desire that is at least partly driven by lack, so our judgements are in that context. When we propose the singular good of the worthy child, it is against the background of our poverty, that we come from nothing. Our valuation is always implicitly cognizant of the riskiness of being in the realm of becoming and a beginning in nothingness. By contrast, God is “always already” a plenitude of perfect aseity. The apatheia of God is both the constancy and the serenity of Love. God is not compelled by lack. Unlike our own efforts, God is not constrained by recalcitrant elements that might impede his perfect freedom to fully enact what God desires. God creates not for Himself, but for the good of the other. To say that God would accept the ultimate damnation of a creature is to say that the Triune God, who is Love and infinite, flourishing perfection, could without impugning His own goodness, bless a game of chance where the creaturely other fails to reach the delightful end of loving communion intended by God for all of God’s creation. The implicit soteriology, as Hart notes, is a creation that is founded upon the infernal victims whose unending suffering is the necessary price (because risked) for the beatitude of those who joyfully participate in the kingdom of God. In such a theology, God is not truly Good for Agapeic kenosis is equated with a humility that entertains ultimate failure as an acceptable possibility – and not fully powerful, for the intended goal is not reached. Yet even at the existential level of the creature, such a bargain is repugnant. A beautiful, precious existence that comes to nothing, that ends in eternal suffering? Is that a gift to the one trapped in unending, infernal horror? Could a loving heart be satisfied that, well, in the end, the beloved chose to be damned, after all? It would, indeed, be a terrible indulgence not at all compatible with goodness. If we are torn by the death and suffering of the beloved, shouldn’t the radical failure of the initial promise for good be an unendurable thought? Death and Sin are abominations to God because the Agapeic Eros insists on the flourishing joy of the unique beloved — and all creatures, in my view, to the least plankton in the ocean, exist only because loved by God. (I share with Bulgakov and MacDonald the sense that the entire universe is incipiently personal, that even minerals and irrational beasts are drawn towards an unimaginable destiny of ever-deepening personhood, for we are not limited to Aristotelian essences, but in Christ constantly usher all of creation towards a grace-full transcendence in the direction of ever new capacities for love, delight, discovery, and invention.) And still, there is blindness to the metaphysical integrity of fully human being. Hart explicates Gregory of Nyssa’s pleromatic anthropology in the wonderful essay, “The Whole Humanity“: “God brings the good creation he wills to pass in spite of sin, both in and against human history, and never ceases to tell the story he intends for creation, despite our apostasy from that story.” And then quoting Balthasar’s study of Nyssa: “The total Christ is none other than total humanity.” Person is inalienable from constitutive relations. If anyone is eternally in hell, then so is Christ, and so are we all.

M., The kinds of questions you are asking are important, but they cannot be adequately answered briefly. I will try, however, to indicate where I think you ought to look for some answers to your perplexities. First off, it seems to me you are confusing issues somewhat. The metaphysics of identity is a very intriguing question and I have spent a fair amount of time pondering it, but it is not synonymous with an investigation into the nature of freedom. If your local university has a good library, I recommend perusing a rather thick book by Thomas Pfau called Minding the Modern. Pfau elucidates the shift in ethical thinking that separates antiquity and the Middle Ages from modernity and its aftermath. It’s difficult for the layman to recognize that when we use words like reason and choice, the meaning is pluriform and contextualized by various historical lines of inquiry. Reason for Aquinas is different from what Locke or Hegel mean by the word. Pfau has a long section in his book entitled “The Path Toward Non-Cognitivism” which is a fairly closely argued exposition of how our ethical concepts shifted from an understanding of will directed by the intellectual attunement to the Good and habituated over time into “the habit of virtue” towards views of volition that bracket out the intellect and interpret choice as aversion to pain/avidity for pleasure, for instance. The act of will teleologically oriented by intellect to the Good was replaced by an individualism whimsically tossed about by subjective circumstances where decision is more preference than choice. The ontological fruition of a nature that was the marker of genuine freedom was forgotten in favor of what we now label libertarian proclivities. The latter may employ an instrumental reason shrewdly deployed to achieve individual aims, but the aims themselves are not rationally defensible. The modern project and its reactive post-modern variations equally produce notions of choice and freedom that reduce to some form of anti-intellectual reaction or appetite. It is in this sense that they fall under the rubric of mechanism. True liberty must always involve the intellectual perception of reality to which the will conforms.

The pithy point is this: man is created with a natural appetite for the Good. We are hungry for reality. We may vitiate a respect for truth, but we have to corrupt ourselves to do so. By nature we are ontologically open to reality. Not only are we biologically dependent on an outside world ordered by family and society, our very capacity to develop, our selving, is inextricably joined to our continuous experience of reality outside our narrow egos. The shaping of the ego is itself a process that traces out precisely our encounters with being as other. The self in a vacuum would not come to awareness of self. Furthermore, our experience of finite goods involves a trajectory towards transcendence. The limited, finite essences that we encounter are finite goods that have reality because they are gifted a participation in the Good. Being is more than the sum of the ens commune; sometimes it is helpful to speak of God beyond Being to clarify that God is more than the Whole. However we approach talk of reality, when we choose a limited good or seem to prefer a lesser good to “the Good,” we are actually always chasing The Good that makes the good Good. If you love pineapples and say, “oh, you can have God, just give me pineapple ice cream,” in the end, you will discover that you cannot have pineapple ice cream apart from God. If you have read C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, the visitors from the sad town cannot tolerate the sharpness of real grass or hold onto an apple. The goods of reality participate in the Good and when one desires a lesser good, you discover that all along you have been yearning for the Good that is the fount of all lesser goods. Something of this kind of Christian Platonism lies behind freedom as intellect directed to the Good.

I will briefly touch on identity and try to tie it back to the question of freedom. When you link the arbitrary to personal identity, you seem to be saying, “Well, I might have been someone else. I might be you or my hypothetical brother, John, who doesn’t exist, but could.” You then appear to infer that since a different person might desire something other than the Good, it would be equally rational to “like the hypothetical John” not desire the Good. First, there is the sticky matter of why one should say “arbitrary.” Arbitrary implies randomness, chance or indifference. It does not imply choice. Now, how particulars are individuated is complicated and contested. Adrian Pabst wrote a hefty, complicated book about metaphysics and hierarchy that I think touches on key questions. I agree with Pabst’s conclusion that ultimately, singular identity is not, as Aristotle would have it and some Thomists, simply the result of matter specifying a form. Rather, uniqueness comes as a gift from the Unique to the unique. So, while it might appear just accidental happenstance that you are you and not me or hypothetical John, you are you because the gift of your being was granted to you by God who chose you to be you and not anyone other. But all this is somewhat beside the point with regards to freedom. Freedom as a modern tends to understand it is untethered from intellect and therefore substantially irrational and divorced from much of reality. Nonetheless, as I adverted to above regarding the participation of limited goods in the Good, there is a teleology to our desires that escapes the “choice” of self-determination. It really doesn’t matter if Hypothetical John acknowledges the Good or not; in desiring anything, he is implicitly desiring the Good. This is part of the gift of being; an ontological desire prior to and outside any deciding between finite options. The latter is a narrow, diminished parody of true freedom, even if it is the common currency in talk of liberty.

As to whether God can square a circle, it is really a question of how best to think about God. I quote from a footnote of the redoubtable William Desmond: “Some thinkers will say that God’s power is limited by what contravenes the law of contradiction: God cannot make a square circle. The law of contradiction is to be understood in terms of the logic of univocal determination. The deeper consideration of God’s power is beyond this univocal level of consideration. The logic of God is beyond contradiction. This is not to say that God is self-contradictory, but that the unity of God is not a univocal unity subject to the determinacy of the law of contradiction. Our logic is our logic.” It may be that Triune God squares the circle.

In any event, you return to arbitrariness and John, and there is no doubt that historical contingency plays a role in our temporal experience, but again, the gift of your personal being is “prior” to time and your continuing identity is a never-ending gift. You are porous to the Divine Love that chose you from eternity in a unique relation — as am I and every other singularity, as would be Hypothetical John. And each of us is by nature made for communion with God and with each other. And when we mistakenly think we can “self-determine” apart from the continual gift of being, we betray not only the generous kindness of the Agapeic Creator, but ourselves, for the integrity of our person is intrinsically a continual pouring forth of our being “from nothing” that is more deeply the act of Love that is no thing. In short, the person is a relation and there is no person apart from relation. Reason, as David C. Schindler explains in the terrific, The Catholicity of Reason, is inherently ecstatic. The “heteronomy” that Kant abjured is the signature of a flourishing reason, which means that “coming from nothing” is not an egalitarian leveling that founds “arbitrary identity”. Rather, it means that there is an aspect to each of us that cannot be comprehended even by essence, but this is “the secret of the white stone” (MacDonald has a nice sermon on this.) Hence, I do not grant that creatio ex nihilo in any manner constrains God or initiates the kind of indeterminacy you surmise in creation from nothing. (The usage of constraint by me is to distinguish between a Platonic demiurge who does the best it can with matter that offers resistance to divine efforts to eventuate the Good. There is no dualism between Creator and creation. This is almost a tautology if one grasps what is meant by Creator. God simply is not confronted by difficulties that evade divine intentions to create a cosmos that is “very good,” though flourishing excellence is for us a promise fulfilled in the eschaton.

MacDonald in one of his Unspoken Sermons recognizes that when the suicide thirsts for non-existence, it is not really oblivion that is sought, even if that is the language that is embraced. When life has broken down into bleakness, seemingly without hope, fearful, lonely, humiliating, what have you, then to fly towards nothing is an “apophatic” way of saying that the life one inherently desires is elsewhere. Death as release, as sleep from nightmare existence may be an expression of weariness and despair, but always, the deep ontological desire for life and more life remains. Analogously, if one thinks of hell as a self-chosen eternal suicide, it is still a “negative expression” of the desire for life. One may be deluded or confronted by such terrible distortions of God in the idols of religion that flight from God seems escape from oppression to life and liberty. But the life and liberty that one desires because one is that desire must conclude in God. One chooses God incognito, as it were.

I think you are right to remark the inescapable beauty of one’s gifted being. The individual ego may rebel, but the deeper person is always allied with God, so when one rebels against God, it is two against one and you rebel also against your true self. Nietzsche, I think, was in love with the kind of tragic beauty you may be attempting as a way of accepting eternal alienation. But the fierce gentleness of agape refuses such tragic posturing. The gospel is the comic vanquishing of all our efforts to undermine God’s serene mirth. And yet I cannot offer you the kind of univocal proof you may be looking for. My own belief is that “Christian universalism”simply is the gospel. Christ or nothing, but if Christ, it is surely the universe made new where “all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” Gospels of imperfect victory do not seem “fitting” to the God revealed by Christ. I do not believe them. Some idol may have imagined such an outcome, but not the Living God. This is still a matter of finesse. Desmond again: “wonder is the reverent yes.” Wonder is the child’s delight, astonishment before the elemental goodness of things. There is renewed wonder, later than the natural openness of the child. It is the child of grace.

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Archimandrite Maximos Constas on the Spiritual Life

I enthusiastically commend to you this six-part series on the spiritual life by Fr Maximos (Constans). I read these talks last year and found them very helpful, and then listened to the audio recordings during our Canada train trip this past December.

Part 1: Discoursing on the Passions

Part 2: Distractions of Modern Technological Society

Part 3: Seeking the Depths: The History of the Philokalia

Part 4: The Buried Seed

Part 5: The Jesus Prayer: Knocking at the Door of our own Hearts

Part 6: Taking Custody of our Thoughts

These lectures are also available in audio format from Patristic Nectar Publications.

Fr. Maximos is a Senior Research Scholar at Hellenic College/Holy Cross in Brookline, MA. He is an Athonite monk, one time professor at Harvard Divinity School, accomplished author and translator, and lectures internationally in both academic and parochial venues.

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Ainulindalë: The God Who is Music and Beauty

There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad. But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony.

And it came to pass that Ilúvatar called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed; and the glory of its beginning and the splendour of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent.

Then said Ilúvatar: ‘Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.’

Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void. Never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days. Then the themes of Ilúvatar shall be played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Ilúvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased. (The Silmarillion, pp. 3-4)

“In the beginning,” the holy prophet declares, “Elohim [God] created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And Elohim said …” With a mere word the Lord Almighty speaks the universe into being: “Let there be light,” and there is light. “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters.” “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to separate the day from the night”–and so it was and is. Elohim commands, and the chaos obeys. Potentiality becomes actuality. The creation story of Genesis 1 stands out starkly from the ancient Near Eastern myths that preceded and succeeded it. The Babylonian myth, for example, speaks of a great battle between Tiamat, the dragon mother of the gods, and Marduk, the god of rain and storm. Marduk slays Tiamat, splits her body in half and from it creates the heavens and the earth. New creation is achieved through struggle and death. Such are the necessities of existence. Into this world of deities, violence, and blood, a new story is spoken, of the one God, the maker of heaven and earth. This God need only speak, and the cosmos appears; he need only command, and nature obeys. The only necessity is his sovereign will.

But millennia before humanity fell into polytheistic belief and ages before Elohim revealed himself to Abraham, Moses, and the prophets, the first-created race, the Quendi (translated by Tolkien as “Elves”), also spoke of the one Creator and his making of the world. They called him Eru (“The One,” “He that is Alone”) and Ilúvatar (“Father of All”). A comparison of the biblical and Elvish accounts confirms that Eru and Elohim name the same transcendent Deity (see Kevin R. Hensler, “God and Ilúvatar“).

Though notable differences exist between the Ainulindalë and Genesis, perhaps the most striking–and certainly the most profound–is the former’s introduction of the divine music. Whereas Elohim speaks, Eru sings. The Silmarillion text does not explicitly state that Eru sings the Ainur into being, but it is mentioned in another ancient manuscript:

Then said Rúmil: ‘Hear now things that have not been heard among Men, and the Elves speak seldom of them; yet did Manwë Súlimo, Lord of Elves and Men, whisper them to the fathers of my father in the deeps of time. Behold, Ilúvatar dwelt alone. Before all things he sang into being the Ainur first, and greatest is their power and glory of all his creatures within the world and without. Thereafter he fashioned them dwellings in the void, and dwelt among them, teaching them all manner of things, and the greatest of these was music.’ (“The Music of the Ainur,” The Book of Lost Tales, I:52; emphasis mine)

Scholars debate whether this version of the creation story represents a second and independent Elven tradition or a corruption of the original Silmarillion tradition; but both traditions witness to the eternal music of the One.

Eru opens his mind to the Ainur and instructs them in his music. The Ainulindalë states that he propounded to them various themes, which they in turn sing to him, each according to their limited understanding; “for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony.” Through practice and careful attention, they grow together as a divine choir. When they are ready, Eru reveals to them an even more beautiful theme. “The glory of its beginning and the splendour of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent.” To experience the divine music is to be drawn into the transcendent beauty that is God.

Eru invites the Ainur to improvise upon this great theme he has taught them, not just to repeat it but to add to it, “each with his own thoughts and devices.” This is a remarkable passage. Not only are the Ainur given to participate in the music of their Creator–and thus in his divine life–but they are given the freedom to sub-create, to adorn and develop the theme in new ways, much as a symphonic composer will modify a theme through the course of a movement, introducing new motifs and variations, harmonies and tone colors.

I find the image of divine music powerfully evocative. It immediately brings to mind the eternal communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. May we envision their mutual life as one of music, the three persons of the Godhead singing to each other their love and joy to make one symphony? I haven’t yet found any theologians who say exactly this, and I’m not even sure what it would mean, but David Bentley Hart comes close to saying what I cannot yet express:

The harmony of Father and Son is not the absolute music of an undifferentiated noise, but the open, diverse, and complete polyphony of Father, Son, and Spirit. … The most elemental statement of theological aesthetics is that God is beautiful: not only that God is beauty or the essence and archetype of beauty, nor even only that God is the highest beauty, but that, as Gregory the Theologian says, God is beauty and also beautiful, whose radiance shines upon and is reflected in his creatures (Oration 28.30-31). … God’s beauty is delight and the object of delight, the shared gaze of love that belongs to the persons of the Trinity; it is what God beholds, what the Father sees and rejoices in the Son, in the sweetness of the Spirit, what Son and Spirit find delightful in one another, because as Son and Spirit of the Father they share his knowledge and love as persons. This cannot be emphasized enough: the Christian God, who is infinite, is also infinitely formosus, the supereminent fullness of all form, transcendently determinate, always possessed of his Logos. True beauty is not the idea of the beautiful, a static archetype in the “mind” of God, but is an infinite “music,” drama, art, completed in–but never “bounded” by–the termless dynamism of the Trinity’s life; God is boundless, and so is never a boundary; his music possesses the richness of every transition, interval, measure variation–all dancing and delight. And because he is beautiful, being abounds with difference: shape, variety, manifold relation. Beauty is the distinction of the different, the otherness of the other, the true form of distance. And the Holy Spirit who perfects the divine love, so that it is not only reflective but also evocative–calling out to yet another as pure delight, outgoing, both uncompelled and unlimited–also makes the divine joy open to the otherness of what is not divine, of creation, without estranging it from its divine “logic”; and the Spirit communicates difference as primordially the gift of the beauty, because his difference within the Trinity is the happiness that perfects desire, the fulfillment of love; for the Spirit comes to rest in the Son, there finding all the joy he seeks, reinflecting the distance between Father and Son not just as bare cognizance, but as delight, the whole rapture of the divine essence. (The Beauty of the Infinite, pp. 176-177)

Because the divine essence is the music of the Holy Trinity, the singing of the angels becomes theophany and revelation, offered to the glory of the eternal Composer, through the divine Word who is simultaneously Vocalist and Music, in the joy and rapture of the Holy Spirit. The hymnody of the angels resound in the Divine Liturgy of Holy Church:

We who mystically represent the Cherubim,
and who sing to the Life-Giving Trinity the thrice-holy hymn,
let us now lay aside all earthly cares
that we may receive the King of all,
escorted invisibly by the angelic orders.
Alleluia.

“Where were you,” the Almighty asks Job, “when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (38:7).

(Go to “The Secret of the Secret Fire”)

* * *

I dedicate this series to my beloved son Aaron. He loved The Silmarillion. He read it multiple times, knew the stories and genealogies inside-and-out. We had many conversations about all things Tolkien. May his memory be eternal. 

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Anent Garry Wills and the “DBH” Version

by David Bentley Hart

Garry Wills reviewed my recent translation of the New Testament in the February 8th issue of the New York Review of Books. I am grateful for his article, both for the praise it offers in general and the disagreements it records on certain particular matters. I can even say that I learned something from it: I had not been aware before reading it that the term “great tribulation” had any special association with certain nineteenth-century schools of Protestant chiliasm; on the one occasion that I use that phrase in my rendering of Revelation, as opposed to the term “great affliction,” it is simply because, in that passage, the word “tribulation” happened to sound better to me. But, all that having been said, Wills’s review in a number of ways misrepresents certain of the claims I make in my introduction, and strangely misinterprets certain of the choices I made for my translation; and, at one point, his observations become rather odd (though perhaps in an illuminating way). I should simply write a letter to the editors, of course, but that would require confining myself to 800 words, and I am too lazy to be that concise.

Before all else, I want to note that it is not in fact the case (as Wills gives the impression that it is) that I condemn all previous English translations as inadequate. My actual complaints concern modern committee-generated translations (like the New International Version) that repeat old usages unthinkingly or willfully impose theological agenda on the text. He also makes it sound as if I claim that all the authors of the New Testament wrote bad Greek. Many did, admittedly; but, as I also say in my introduction:

The unknown author of the Letter to the Hebrews commanded a fairly distinguished and erudite style, and was obviously an accomplished native speaker of the tongue; and Luke, the author of both the third Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, wrote in an urbane, unspectacular, but mostly graceful prose; the author of the first letter attributed to Peter was clearly an educated person whose primary language was a fairly refined form of Greek, while the author of the second letter wrote in a somewhat bombastic style, of the kind classically called Asiatic Greek …

Had I thought of it, I might have said a good word or two about the style of James as well. Moreover, I do not think it the case that I boast in my introduction of my ability to “do the police in different voices”; I say only that the practice I adopted of not tidying up the Greek of the original allowed me to represent the different styles of the various authors without worrying about making them all equally comprehensible and flawless. Nor do I claim that I can purge the text of all theological constructs; I merely say that I have not altered the text to accord with later doctrinal and theological developments (like the great systems of, say, Thomas or Luther). I freely confess in my introduction that I allowed my thinking on various verses to be influenced by earlier theological readings produced by figures (like Origen or Gregory of Nyssa) who were able to read the Greek and who inhabited a conceptual world closer to that of the first century.

Those are fairly minor issues, however. More important to me are questions concerning the translation itself. And here, I have to say, Wills makes a few unexpected mistakes. The most trivial of these is in his claim that I exaggerate the harshness of the language that Paul uses about Peter in Galatians 2:11-13. With all due respect, I do nothing of the kind. In fact, I merely record a harshness that is there in the text, but that it is customary in most translations discreetly to intenerate. The word “hypokrisis,” for instance—literally “play-acting”—was anything but a mild rebuke in the context either of late antique Hellenistic culture or of the New Testament (where it is the most withering accusation Jesus repeatedly makes against the scribes and Pharisees). Actors were viewed with considerable disdain, for one thing; more to the point, though, to arraign a man for “hypokrisis” was to accuse him not merely of evasiveness or insincerity, but of public deceitfulness and charlatanry—of behaving, that is, like a confidence man or snake-oil salesman. As for the word “kategnōsmenos,” it comes from a verb, “kataginōskō,” that means not merely to “blame” someone for something, but to “condemn” and even “hold in contempt.” If he doubts this, I invite Wills to survey the word’s usage—along with all related forms, substantive, adjectival, and adverbial—in late antique literature. This is, after all, hardly the only instance of intemperate language on Paul’s part.

Where Wills’s remarks become distinctly peculiar, however, is in a list he adduces of six (or seven) choices I make in my translation, which he claims arise from a desire on my part to “oust” the idea of hell from scripture. Wills is correct that I believe that the later, fully-developed Christian concept of hell as a place of perpetual conscious torment to which countless souls are irrevocably damned is absent from the New Testament (which is not to say that various images of damnation are not present, a few of which can be read as being consonant with the later view). The problem is that almost none of the items on Wills’s list has any bearing on the matter at all. He only imagines he sees some pattern in these choices. And this is instructive, because it attests to his (and our) tendency to see things in the text that we have been taught to see, even though they are not there. For instance, he notes that (1) I choose to render the adjective “aiōnios” not as “everlasting” or “eternal,” but in various ways as relating to the idea of the Age (aiōn) to come or of the divine Age above. This has an effect, perhaps, on precisely one verse that concerns the final judgment (Matthew 25:46); but even in that verse, were I to use the word “eternal,” there would be no reason to assume that Christ is speaking of perpetual conscious torment rather than final annihilation; and, indeed, there are other ambiguities about the language of the verse that would render even that uncertain. In fact, my choice was based on the work of many decades of biblical scholars who have seen in the word—both in the New Testament and the Septuagint—primarily a Greek form for an Aramaic or Hebrew invocation of the ôlām ha-ba, the “Age to Come” of God’s reign (though in John’s Gospel the reference might also be taken as referring to the divine “aeon” above the cosmos, rather like the aeon of Plato’s Timaeus).

Wills also sees some sort of exegetical cunning in my decision (3) to render the Greek “Hades” simply as “Hades,” and (2) to render “Gehenna” literally as “Vale of Hinnom.” I also, for that matter, render “Tartarus” as “Tartarus” (see below). Wills seems to think I am perversely avoiding the word “hell.” But I use these three different terms for the simple reason that they refer to three very different things in the text. Hades, in the Septuagint and the New Testament, is chiefly the realm of the dead, Sheol in Hebrew, not a place of punishment for the wicked. It is, in fact, the kingdom of death to which all of humanity is enslaved, but which is conquered by Christ (especially in Paul’s theology), and which is now destined (at least, in Revelation) for final annihilation. The Vale of Hinnom, Gehenna, by contrast, is indeed a figure for a place of final condemnation, but its exact nature is impossible to discern from the texts of the New Testament, and its meaning in prophetic, intertes­­tamental, and later Rabbinic literature is too various to give us an exact sense of how it was understood by Christ or his immediate contemporaries (I explain all this at length in my translation’s postscript). Most good New Testament scholars believe it is an image of final destruction, either historical or eschatological, though it could mean a place of conscious penance, temporary, eternal, or terminal. I interpret it literally because, as I explain in my introduction, I wanted all those words whose meanings would have been directly audible to their original hearers to be visible to readers of my translation.

This is also why (5) I render “diabolos” as “Slanderer” rather than by the later English word “devil”; and I confess I haven’t the foggiest notion why Wills thinks this constitutes a “demotion” of Satan (any more than my rendering of “Christos” as “Anointed” rather than as “Christ” constitutes a demotion of Jesus); nor indeed can I grasp why Wills thinks this has any bearing on the idea of hell at all (though he does apparently think, mistakenly, that the earliest Christians held to the later view that the devil is the chief supervisor of that establishment). By the same token, I do not understand what relevance to the issue Wills sees in (4) my refusal to render “proörizein” as “to predestine.” After all, one can be predestined to any number of ends, and the later fully developed picture of “hell” need not be one of the destinations on offer. I refuse that translation for the very simple reason that that is not what the word means, even though such a definition has backed its way into some lexicons as a result of theological tradition. The reason that a theology of predestination never took shape in the Greek-speaking Eastern Christian world is because, well, it was Greek-speaking. Again, I lay this out in my postscript.

The place where Wills goes furthest astray, however, is where he asserts that, although (6) I point out that there is a reference to “everlasting” (aidios) chains in Jude 6, I “dodge the bullet” by claiming that Jude is speaking here of the imprisonment only of daemons and angels. First of all, were my concern what Wills imagines it is, I would not have accomplished anything; all notions of the eternal torment of any beings, angels or daemons no less than humans, are equally horrific to me. Second of all, Wills might have noticed that, while the chains mentioned in that verse may be “everlasting” (which here effectively means “unbreakable”), the term of imprisonment is described as ending on the last day. In point of fact, the reason that I note that Jude in that verse is referring to the prison of the Apostate Angels and their offspring the Nefilim—as recounted in the intertes­tamental books of Jubilees and 1 Enoch (the latter of which Jude goes on directly to quote)—is that, simply enough, this is precisely and explicitly what he is doing. The same is true of 1 Peter 3: 19 and 2 Peter 2:4 (in the latter, the word used for that prison is “Tartarus”). Since most modern readers of the New Testament are unfamiliar with Jewish apocalyptic and intertes­tamental texts, it seemed wise to explain the reference. But this is not a controversial claim on my part; it is a mere statement of a fact that all scholars of the Bible know to be the case. Wills makes a similar error (and a very anachronistic one) in thinking that Jude 7, in speaking of the “aeonian fire” that consumed Sodom and Gomorrah, is referring to the endless torments of souls in hell. No competent New Testament scholar believes that. The fire in question is the physical “brimstone and fire” that destroyed the cities of the plain, and the term “aeonian” here (as the word often does) qualifies that fire and brimstone as divine rather than temporal in nature, coming—in the words of the Septuagint—”para kyriou ek tou ouranou” (“from the Lord out of Heaven”), and thus as neither kindled nor extinguishable by human hands. Again, as in John’s Gospel (and perhaps, again, as in the Timaeus), the word “aeonian” here is a reference to the timeless divine aeon above the created heavens, and beyond the realm of generation and decay. And, once again, this is not a controversial claim on my part at all, but simply a statement of the scholarly consensus.

And so, as I say, Wills has imagined a pattern in my translation choices that is not there. But why is this so? How does he come to think he sees so much in so little? In the end, it is solely because he has been indoctrinated to believe that something like the later picture of hell is present in the New Testament; and so he sees that picture in the texts whether it is there or not. In fact, what the New Testament provides are a number of fragmentary images that can be taken in any number of ways, arranged according to our prejudices and expectations, and declared literal or metaphorical or hyperbolic as our desires dictate. Yes, Jesus speaks of a final judgment, and uses many metaphors to describe the unhappy lot of the condemned. Many of these are metaphors of annihilation, like the burning of chaff or brambles in ovens, or the final destruction of body and soul in the Valley of Hinnom. Others are metaphors of exclusion, like the sealed doors of wedding feasts. A few, a very few, are images of torture and torment, and yet these are also for the most part images of penalties that explicitly have only a limited term (Matthew 5:36; 18:34; Luke 12:47-48, 59). Nowhere is there any description of a kingdom of perpetual cruelty presided over by Satan, as though he were a kind of chthonian god. Thus, pace Wills, there is no need on my part to “oust” this traditional picture of hell from the New Testament. It simply is not there. By letting my Hades be Hades and my Gehenna be Gehenna, all I have done is report a distinction present in the text. And, in not presuming the mythopoeia of later Christian eschatology and cosmology, I have done nothing more than leave a mystery intact that many translations, through their excessive fastidiousness and uniformity of expression, have tended to conjure away. A translator who does that can no more be said to have “ousted” the conventional picture of hell from scripture than a workman who oils the hinges on an upstairs door, repairs the window casement around a loose sash, and cuts away the tree branches that scrape against the eaves can be said to have “exorcised” the ghost that the residents of the house had imagined was responsible for all the strange noises keeping them up at night. After all, all those Greek-speaking fathers of the early church who were universalist—Origen, Didymus the Blind, Gregory of Nyssa, and so on—were perfectly familiar with the texts of scripture, and none of them felt in the least discouraged by what they found there.

While we are on the topic, however, I might mention that, alongside various, often seemingly contradictory images of eschatological punishment, the New Testament also contains a large number of seemingly explicit statements of universal salvation, excluding no one (for instance, John 3:17; 12:32, 47; Romans 5:18-19; 11:32; 1 Corinthians 15:22; 2 Corinthians 5:14, 19; Philippians 2:9-11; 1 Timothy 2:3-6;4:10; Titus 2:11; Hebrews 2:9; 2 Peter 3:9; Colossians 1:19-20; 1 John 2:2 … to mention only some of the most striking). To me it is surpassingly strange that, down the centuries, most Christians have come to believe that the former class of claims—all of which are metaphorical, pictorial, vague, and elliptical in form—must be regarded as providing the “literal” content of the New Testament’s teaching, while the latter—which are invariably straightforward doctrinal statements—must be regarded as mere hyperbole. It is one of the great mysteries of Christian history (or perhaps of a certain kind of religious psychopathology).

In any event, my translation is what it is, and I am grateful that Wills ultimately approves of it. I might observe, however, that it contains a great many passages rendered in ways that I tend to think more startling than any he adduces in his review (John 16:33, for instance, or I Corinthians 7:21-23, or I Timothy 6:18, or a host of others), and potentially more challenging to our received views of the earliest Christian communities. I hope that, in the end, these will come to generate the most substantial debates on my approach, since they concern things really present in the text that we generally fail to perceive, rather than things we merely perceive in the text that actually are not there.

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“Immediately after the abominable advent of the Antichrist, He who fashioned everything will shake it all again”

As in the days of Noah He flooded sinners with water, later He flooded sin with His own righteousness and grace, and raised Himself immortal, as a seed and first fruit of the world without end, a sign and proof of the resurrection for which we truly hope. When He had risen and ascended He sent out apostles into all the inhabited world, presented us with an innumerable throng of martyrs, appointed a multitude of teachers, and revealed companies of saints. Then when He had done everything, and omitted nothing that had to be, He saw the evil caused by the independence of our free will once more brought to a head. Or rather, in those days it will be seen to have reached such a peak that people will worship and obey the Antichrist, abandoning the true God and His true Christ. Then He will come again from heaven with great power and glory (cf. Mark 13:26), no longer to be patient but to punish those who in the days of his forbearance heaped up wrath against themselves. He will cut off the incurable from the healthy like rotting limbs and deliver them into the fire, but His own He will rescue from the spiteful abuse of evil men and from contact with them, and will make them heirs of the kingdom of heaven.

Immediately after the abominable advent of the Antichrist, He who fashioned everything will shake it all again. As the prophet says, “Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven” (Heb. 12:26, cf. Hag. 2:21). Straight away He shakes the world, dismantles the upper boundary of the universe, folds up the vault of heaven, mingles the earth with fire and puts everything into confusion. From below He forces open the foundations of the whole world, from above He sends down the multitude of stars like an indescribably terrible hurricane upon the heads of those who made the evil one their God, that the believers in the Antichrist might be punished first by this means, whose minds were engrossed in him and who were persuaded that the opposite to God was God. Then He will appear in unutterable glory and, as He once breathed life into our first father Adam, so with a clear trumpet call He will bring everyone to life. He will have the dead from all ages standing before Him alive. But He will not bring the godless to judgment nor count them worthy of a word. For according to the Scriptures the ungodly will be resurrected not for judgment but for condemnation (cf. Matt. 12:41–42, Luke 11:31–32).

He will subject all our affairs to judgment, as we read in today’s Gospel. “When the Son of man”, it says, “shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him” (Matt. 25:31). At His first coming the glory of His divinity was hidden beneath the flesh which He took from us and for our sake. Now it is hidden, together with the flesh which is divine, with the Father in heaven. But then He will reveal all His glory, for He will appear in radiance from the east to the west, illuminating the ends of the earth with the rays of His Godhead, while the trumpet that brings the dead to life shall sound throughout the world, summoning everything to Him. He also brought angels with Him before, though invisibly, and He restrained their zeal against God’s enemies. Afterwards He will lead them openly and will not keep silent, but will put the disobedient to shame and hand them over for punishment.

“When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then”, it says, “shall he sit upon the throne of his glory” (Matt. 25:31). Daniel foresaw and foretold this, saying, “Behold thrones were set and the Ancient of days did sit, and I beheld one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days. And there was given him all honour and dominion. Thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him” (cf. Dan. 7:9–13). The Holy Gospel says, in accordance with this, that in those days, “before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth the sheep from the goats” (Matt. 25:32). He calls the righteous sheep because they are meek and gentle, walk the level path of the virtues that He trod, and are like Him. For He was Himself called a lamb by the Forerunner and Baptist who said, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The sinners He calls goats because they are audacious and unruly, and rush down the precipices of sin. The sheep, it says, He shall set on his right hand as those who act rightly, but the others on the left. “Then”, it says, “shall the king say”, without adding which king or of whom he is king, for there is no other, but only one is Lord, one is King, He who by nature is Lord of all. Then the one and only King will say to those on His right hand, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34).

The world was founded with this in view from the beginning. The heavenly, pre-eternal Counsel of the Father, according to which the Angel of the Father’s Great Counsel made man (Isa. 9:6) as a living creature in His own likeness as well as His image, was for this end: to enable man at some time to contain the greatness of God’s kingdom, the blessedness of God’s inheritance and the perfection of the heavenly Father’s blessing, by which everything visible and invisible was made. He did not refer to “the visible world” but to “the world” without qualification, heavenly as well as earthly. Even the indescribable divine self-emptying, the theandric way of life, the saving passion, all the sacraments were planned beforehand in God’s providence and wisdom for this end, that everyone who is shown to be faithful in the present shall hear the Saviour say, “Well done, thou good servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord” (Matt. 25:21). “Come”, He says, “you who made good use of the earthly, perishable and fleeting world in accordance with my will, and inherit as well the lasting, heavenly world which is now at hand.” “For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me” (Matt. 25:35–36).

At this point we might enquire why He only mentions works of mercy, and why it is only on account of them that He gives this blessing, inheritance and kingdom. But if we listen with understanding, He does not mention these alone. Earlier He called those who performed works of mercy sheep, and in this way He bears witness to their likeness to Himself, their possession of every virtue, and their readiness to die for the sake of what is good. Just as He was led as a sheep to the slaughter, and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, according to the Scriptures (Isa. 53:7, Acts 8:32).

Because they are people like this, he extols their good works as well. Anyone who is to inherit the everlasting kingdom must have good works as the proof and the fruit of love, as the crown of all the other virtues. The Lord showed this in the parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt. 25:1–13). Not everyone who happens to be there is led into the bridechamber, only those adorned with virginity, which cannot be accomplished without ascetic effort, self-control and many different struggles in the cause of virtue. Besides they must hold lamps in their hands, which denotes their minds and the watchful knowledge enclosed within, borne upon and supported by the practical part of their souls – as signified by their hands. Such knowledge must be dedicated to God for life and set alight with His brilliance. But oil in abundance is needed to keep the lamps burning, and this oil is love, the summit of all the virtues. If you lay down foundations and build walls, but do not put on the roof, you leave it all useless. In the same way, if you acquire every virtue except love, they are all useless and senseless. Though the roof cannot be constructed without the supporting walls.

The Lord therefore grants His inheritance to those who have sealed the other virtues with loving deeds, who either ascended to love by way of a blameless life or fled to it for refuge through repentance. Those who have kept safe the mystical rebirth that comes from God, I call sons, whereas the hired servants have been called back again to grace as a reward for many different labours of repentance and humility.

After having initially expounded various matters concerning the Judgment in the Holy Gospels, He introduces the subject of love, which fulfills and stirs up the virtues previously enumerated. But the righteous will reply (Matt. 25:37–39): “Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?” Do you see that those on the right are also called righteous? Accordingly their mercy proceeds from, and is accompanied by, righteousness. Do you see that testimony is given that the righteous also possess another virtue, humility, in the fullness of their love, like a protective wall raised up around them at the right moment? They insist that they are unworthy of the proclamation and the praise, as having done nothing good, although it is attested that they left no good undone. I think this is why the Lord responds to them boldly, that they may clearly show what they are like, and may be lifted up by humility and rightly find grace with Him who bestows it abundantly on the humble, for “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble” (Prov. 3:34 Lxx, Jas. 4:6). He now tells them, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:40). He calls the person least on account of his poverty and lowliness, but His brother because He Himself lived in this way on earth according to the flesh.

Listen and be glad, all you who are poor and needy, for in this you are God’s brethren. Even if you are poor and lowly against your will, with patience and thanksgiving voluntarily turn it to your own good. Listen, all you who are rich, and long for blessed poverty, that you may become more truly heirs and brethren of Christ than those who are involuntarily poor, for of His own free will He made Himself poor for our sake. Listen and groan, all you who overlook your suffering brethren, or rather, Christ’s brethren, and do not give the poor a share of your abundant food, shelter, clothing and care as appropriate, nor offer your surplus to meet their need. Let us listen and groan ourselves, for I who am telling you these things stand accused by my conscience of not being completely free of this passion. While many people shiver and go without, I am well fed and clothed. But more grievously to be mourned over are those who have treasures in excess of their daily needs, who hold on to them and even strive to increase them. They have been commanded to love their neighbours as themselves and have not even loved them as dust, for what are gold and silver, which they loved more than their brethren, other than dust.

But let us change direction, repent and agree together to supply the needs of the poor brethren among us by whatever means we have. If we prefer not to empty out all we possess for the love of God, let us at least not callously hold on to everything for ourselves. Let us do something, then humble ourselves before God and obtain forgiveness from Him for what we have failed to do. For His love for mankind makes up for our omissions, that we may never hear the horrifying voice: “Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed” (Matt. 25:41). How great a horror! “Be ye removed from life, cast out of paradise, deprived of light!” Not this alone, but also, “Depart from me, ye cursed, unto everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). Those on the right will have life and have it more abundantly: life through being with God, abundance of life through continuing as sons and heirs of His kingdom. Those of the left, having failed to gain the kingdom by being far away from God, will find even more evil through being ranked with the demons, and delivered up to the punishing fire. What sort of fire is that, which burns bodies, and rational beings with bodies, and spirits without bodies, tormenting them while detaining them for ever alive? It will melt even the fiery element in us, for the Scripture says “the elements shall melt with fervent heat” (2 Pet. 3:10, 12). How greatly is suffering increased when there is no hope of redemption. And that fire is unquenchable. Again, what gives it its violent impetus? They say a river draws that fire along, apparently bearing it ever further away from God. So He did not say “You have departed”, but “Depart from me, ye cursed”. “You have long been cursed by the poor, and as they suffered so much you deserve cursing. ‘Depart’, He tells them, ‘into everlasting fire, prepared’, not for you, ‘but for the devil and his angels’. For this was not originally My will. I did not create you for this, nor did I prepare the fire for you. The unquenchable fire was lit for the demons who are irreversibly in the grip of evil. You joined them because your unrepentant minds were like theirs, and you share the dwelling of the evil angels by your own choice.” “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat; I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not” (Matt. 25:42–43). As love and loving deeds, brethren, are the fulfilment of the virtues, so hatred and the outcome of hatred, behaviour devoid of compassion and a mind devoid of the desire to share, are the full measure of sin. As the virtues follow upon benevolence and are associated with it, so evil deeds follow upon hatred for our fellow man, and for this hatred alone they are condemned.

St Gregory Palamas

 

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