Yet Not I

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (Gal. 2:20).

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In my last two posts, I have written with some care about the “false self,” which has also been referred to as the ego. I have also spoken about the heart, the seat of the true self that is “hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). An obvious question has been asked: “How do we move from life in the one into life in the other?” It is the practical form of the question, “What must I do to be saved?” For the death of the “old man,” and life in the “new man” is the primary ground for the working out of our salvation in Christ in this world.

An answer to the question is something that far exceeds the ability of a blog. However, I will offer some observations and suggestions that I hope will prove helpful.

There are many classical descriptions of the union of mind and heart. Met. Hierotheos Vlachos has written extensively on the topic (many of his other works cover some of the same territory and are not as expensive). The small book by Tito Coliander, is also excellent. Virtually everything found in the asecetic fathers applies to the question. Fr. Meletios Webber’s small book, Bread & Water, Wine & Oil has a slightly different approach. He gathers the tradition up under the approach of personal relationship, language that is much more accessible than many of the classical presentations. Regardless of the approach used, the guidance of a good confessor or parish priest is extremely helpful. A danger in describing any “method,” is that we are talking about the human heart and mind, not the multiplication table. Patience, kindness towards the self, and no form of slavish obedience are required. If anything within the following description seems unhelpful or too obscure – please feel free to ignore what is written here.

A key element in the previous articles has been the distinction made between the true self of the heart and the false self created by the mind (thoughts and emotions). Our persistent identification of our selves with this life-long, ever-changing narrative, is a bondage to a losing proposition. The behavior of our thoughts and emotions, when not rooted in the heart, is beyond the reach of reform. We will try – but we will fail. However, to simply acknowledge that this story that I maintain is not the same thing as “me,” is huge. It can be very difficult to accept this. We think, “If I’m not who I think I am, then who am I?” The answer: “You are hid with Christ in God.” Christ will reveal who we are as we learn to dwell in the heart.

Where do our thoughts and emotions come from? They come in response to the things and people around us – or they come from memories triggered by those occasions (sometimes buried quite deep). Many thoughts and feelings are entirely appropriate and helpful and would occur even were our minds united with the heart. But these thoughts and feelings are not the problem. Such thoughts do not race through the brain or recycle themselves ad insanitatem. Neither are such feelings the dark moods that color the world and our inner state and poison the world around us.

These insane thoughts and poisonous moods are the dark side of our self-constructed narratives. They are the wounds and fears that have gone untreated. Many of them are hidden even from our own consciousness. They are the primary origin of anxieties and panic. They feed depression and generate anger. They nurture a nervous self-consciousness in which we notice, compare and judge those around us. They construct the rules of our daily life and condemn us when we fail to measure up. At worst, they are the material from which we construct false images of God, endowing our self-constructions with an authority that is nothing more than idolatry

We have already acknowledged a first step towards sanity: admit that the “story of me,” is of my own making and not God’s. The self-made man is no man. All of my success, achievements, failures, and defeats, my knowledge and ignorance are not the content of my life. To admit this is to begin the path of humility. Humility is not about feeling less special – it is about recognizing that I do not know my own self. My self is an open book for God to fill its pages. My self is an empty vessel waiting for God to give it content.

The fathers often describe the initial stage of the spiritual life under the heading, “purification.” We all too easily mistake this with “moral improvement.” It is our enthrallment to the passions that the fathers have in mind. We are not only deluged by the thoughts and emotions of the false self – we feel powerless to do anything about them. Frequently, we are powerless because the toxic cause of our thoughts and emotions lies unidentified and unhealed. This is a very difficult and even “delicate,” object of healing. Memories and wounds such as toxic shame, arising from abuse (physical, emotional, sexual), can be anchored deep within a person, spewing thoughts and emotions towards almost every situation. Perfectionism, depression, anxiety, panic, critical thoughts, etc., are only a few of the inner behaviors frequently associated with shame. Purification in such cases means attending to the psychological/spiritual needs created by such deep wounds. Working with a skilled confessor/spiritual counselor in a setting that feels emotionally safe can be a place to start for some. Working with a skilled therapist or in a group setting might be useful for others. One book that is fairly straightforward and helpful is Letting Go of Shame by Ronald and Patricia Potter-Efron. There are many other helpful books on the topic. I have found this one accurate and easy-to-read.

Attending to such major problems such as toxic shame can allow a person to move forward in dealing with thoughts and emotions. Unattended, such deep wounds will generally not allow us to be free of the cycles of the false self.

The primary daily battle of heart and mind can be put under the general heading of “mindfulness”  (nepsis). This term is used in therapeutic circles but is equally applicable to Orthodox efforts to ground the mind in the heart. A brief reminder from Fr. Meletios Webber:

The heart is quiet rather than noisy, intuitive rather than deductive, lives entirely in the present, and is, at every moment, accepting of the reality God gives in that moment. Moreover, the heart does not seek to distance or dominate anything or anyone by labeling…. It knows no fear, experiences no desire, and never finds the need to defend or justify itself. Unlike the mind, the heart never seeks to impose itself. It is patient and undemanding. (From Bread & Water, Wine & Oil).

We do not have to create the heart (it already exists). We do not have to make the mind behave as if it were the heart. However, becoming aware of the heart (which is itself entry into the heart) involves the struggle of laying aside those things that do not belong to the heart. Putting away, noise, deduction, past and future, fear, desire, defense, justification, etc. are the primary efforts in this inner struggle.

We cannot do this all at once. Setting aside five minutes of our time for daily prayer as a place for practicing such “mindfulness,” is a sufficient start. Met. Anthony Bloom’s small book, Beginning to Pray, speaks very specifically to this effort. Breathing in a relaxed manner (from the diaphragm) helps the body to relax. Shut off thoughts of the past or future. For five minutes, all that matters is the moment. When thoughts that take you away from the moment occur, just dismiss them and return to the moment. Some weeks of such practice will begin to yield results. Our attention to the moment becomes easier.

That “moment,” is the place of the heart. This same moment can gradually be “accessed” at other times and places. Stopping and breathing slowly can be a helpful trigger. Adding the use of the Jesus Prayer to our awareness of the moment is the beginning of “prayer” in the moment. None of this should be forced and we should be patient with the entire exercise. Patience belongs to the moment.

This is but a brief description for the beginning efforts of acquiring the place of the heart. In my experience, there are some days when the entire thing seems wonderful. Other days, various events both outward and inward leave you feeling as if you have acquired nothing at all. And so we return to patience.

The struggle to acquire the place of the heart is a far more fruitful work than the struggle to create, refine and defend the narrative of the false self. Generally, life will be lived one place or the other.

These are simple beginnings – far more depth can be found in the books and authors I’ve suggested.

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:6-7)..

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101 Responses to “Yet Not I”

  1. George Engelhard Says:

    Fr. Stephen and all,
    As a massage therapist of 35 years, I find the following exercise much easier for my client s to understand and do than telling them to breath with their diaphragm.
    I tell them this is how to “reboot” their breathing.
    1. Be at least setted if not lying down as this exercise my make you temporarily lightheaded.
    2. Blow all the air out of your lungs, using your abdominal muscles and rib muscles to push ever bit of air out that you can.
    3. Then let you lungs fill back up, first by breathing down into your belly; then let you rib cage expand. fill the lungs all the way up until you feel the hollow behind your collar bone rise.
    4. then relax and let yourself breath.
    I tell them to sent up a schedule to do this 5 or more times a day. they can also do this when ever they find themselves stressed.
    This could be a good exercise to do before someone begins to pray.

  2. Karen Says:

    Father, bless! Many thanks!🙂

  3. Philip Jude Says:

    Father,

    It seems this method must be pursued with caution, lest it devolve into oriental solipsism.

    I wonder where and how God fits into this technique? It seems rather more focused on man than God.

    Is psychosomatic prayer really suited for spiritual infants like myself? I can barely go one day without crossing every single one of the Ten Commandments.

    Your deep and insightful mysticism is very appealing, and I’m sure it has ancient roots in the east, but I sometimes ponder if it isn’t without its dangers. Am I lacking if I never embrace the Jesus Prayer repetitions, etc.?

    I ask these questions with honest curiosity, genuine concern, and the utmost respect. I eagerly await your response.

  4. Darlene Says:

    The struggle to acquire the place of the heart is a far more fruitful work than the struggle to create, refine and defend the narrative of the false self.

    Thank you, Father Stephen, for this enlightening entry in your blog. What you wrote above leapt out at me for the truth of it penetrated the core of my being. It seems, sadly, that I often fall prey to inventing myself – which is the false self. The pressure to “create, refine and defend the narrative of the false self” permeates our society. We define ourselves by our successes, achievements, failures, our knowledge and ignorance” rather than our life hid in Christ with God. Perhaps it’s because the former can be seen by others and the latter cannot – unless it is perceived by those gifted with discernment of spirits (a rare gift).

    The struggle to acquire the place of the heart and thereby come to know one’s true self seems elusive to me. I’ve been distracted by thoughts and emotions that have been harmful to my well-being. In times past I’ve experienced the peace that comes from sitting with Christ in heavenly places. But when the self is overcome by worldly passions the way back to true peace with God seems obscured. It seems so much muck has separated me from His presence and the joy that comes with such knowing. To understand with the mind brings little comfort; it is knowing within one’s inner most self that Christ is indeed with me and that His love will sustain me through all the seasons of life. Oh that I might grasp this reality in my true self today and each day henceforth.

  5. George Engelhard Says:

    Phillip Jude,
    I have done Buddhist, Hindu, and Sufi chanting in my long winding road to Orthodox Christianity and the major distinction I find is as follows:
    Buddhist, Hindu, and Sufi chanting involves recognition and praise of diety. The Jesus Prayer is recognition of Diety and of my own fallen state in relations to Diety. As well as a petition for rectification of my fallen state.
    It is not vain repetition like the others are but is repetition to remove vanity.
    Agape’,
    George

  6. Philip Jude Says:

    Father & all,

    I think you might appreciate the work of the Catholic friar and priest Benedict Groeschel.

    This is a wonderful series: http://www.ewtn.com/vondemand/audio/file_index.asp?SeriesId=6625&pgnu=1

    He just quoted Met. Anthony Bloom, which is what brought him to mind.

  7. fatherstephen Says:

    Philip Jude,
    It fascinates me that we worry more about falling into some oriental solipsism than we do, living daily in a struggle to create, refine and defend the narrative of the false self. Western “prayer” has moved so far away from the roots of prayer that it often fears anything that even looks like prayer. Why should my false narrative rambling aloud in front of the God of my imagination have preference over learning to help the false narrative to shut up and the heart to be quiet before God.

    My assumption in this is that it is being practiced by an Orthodox Christian, living in obedience to the Church and in its liturgical life. Those things will “keep” me. They give me the freedom to do the simple work (but hard work), of “bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.”

    The West has shown great difficulty in preventing its children from wandering off into oriental mysticism. Even Merton showed dangerous attractions (at least enough to trouble the conscience of many). Orthodoxy has not shown the same problem. It is difficult to graft a mystical branch onto a rational tree. The mystery of the Orthodox liturgical life is necessary, I believe, to rightly sustain the search for depth. There is a history (almost a tendency) for the great “mystics” of the West to “go off the reservation.” The territory is too untrod in our Western culture.

  8. Margaret Says:

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for this blog post and for your comments here. God bless you!

  9. Philip Jude Says:

    “My assumption in this is that it is being practiced by an Orthodox Christian, living in obedience to the Church and in its liturgical life.”

    This is the right answer, I think. The danger, then, is separating Christian spirituality from the Body of Christ. Naturally.

    I must quibble with this assertion, however: “Western “prayer” has moved so far away from the roots of prayer that it often fears anything that even looks like pray.”

    First off, what is “Western prayer”? Secondly, why are you so quick to generalize? Don’t you find these statements a tad judgmental and presumptuous?

    Authentic Christian spirituality continues to flourish in many parts of the west, especially in the Catholic Church. I’ve known too many Spirit-filled priests, monks, nuns, and lay folk — simple men and women who serve the poor and needy, love the sacraments, savor the liturgy, and live as walking icons of Christ — to think otherwise. Is there widespread malaise in the west? Sure. But isn’t this the case in the Orthodox east, too? They’re dealing with their own spiritual and ecclesiological crises. I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of people were always caught in a spiritual malaise. Perhaps these golden ages are all in our heads.

    More and more, I shy away from this east/west dichotomy. Does God, in His awesome dispensation of grace, privilege a Russian over a Texan? Neither east nor west possesses a magical elixir of holiness. Everyone knows the way to glory: Love God; serve your neighbor; bear your cross without complaint; regularly partake of the mysteries with fear and trembling; obey your priest and bishop; give thanks and praise to God as often as possible; observe fasts and give alms liberally; think not highly of yourself; lead a simple existence; live in the moment.

    Thank you, though, for your thorough answer. It helped clarify my thinking.

  10. George Engelhard Says:

    As a child of the West who wondered back and forth between oriental mysticism and Western denominations, never finding a home in either. I am eternally grateful to God that almost 30 years ago i found the Well that quenched my thirst in the Orthodox church.
    My heart burns for those in the new age movement who have not yet found the Church.

  11. fatherstephen Says:

    I think there are places within Roman Catholic practice where such prayer is indeed possible. It’s just that our culture (which is Western) makes it very difficult. Russians are no more privileged in this. Many of them are quite Westernized. I will note, however, as a priest and a confessor, that there can be distinct differences in individuals according to cultural expectations and understandings. I’ve been amazed at how “simple” some Russian souls that I’ve encountered are. Americans are often quite “complex.” It’s like dealing with Woody Allen. We not only do what we do, but we watch it, analyze it, and think about (probably finding ways to work it into the narrative). American culture is incredibly neurotic (I don’t have much experience with Western Europe – or with Greeks). Sometimes Americans have too little difficulty in making confession. Talking about themselves can be a favorite topic.

    Moving from the mind to the heart can help “simplify” the soul (or the inner life). Listening to the twists and turns of somebody’s narrative is almost a waste of time. I don’t despise anyone’s confession but they can become too complex.

    I had a very vivid dream some months ago. The short version. I was in a line for confession with an older Russian priest. I saw him turn another priest away who came for confession saying, “I don’t know about such things. I am just a simple man.” I thought it was an unconscious rebuke of myself. Be simple. Someday, perhaps.

  12. dinoship Says:

    PhilipJude,
    you couldn’t be more right than when you say “give thanks and praise to God as often as possible”, yet, it is exactly that, unceasingly in fact, that those 5 minutes Father talked about, in the ‘here’ and ‘now’, standing before God with no imagination, like a child, repeating nothing but the Jesus prayer, actually leads to.
    There are, I guess, certain differences in the way Western thinking usually allows for imagination for instance, or might show a preference towards a type of ‘activism’ rather than ‘stillness’, as the way to fulfil the dual commandment of Love.
    However, one who truly tries to see if living in total conformity to that commandment (at every second) soon finds out: only unceasing prayer in the heart can ever fulfil that commandment for any time – or get close to that ideal… It is only possible when united with Christ.
    (that same thing is also discovered by someone who has tasted of God’s Grace to a great degree and has caught himself praying unceasingly in the heart through the action of the Holy Spirit)

    And, from our side (human side) this is the best we can do…
    In Greek we simply call this (as in the Philokalia of the Neptic Fathers) “Νήψις” – Nepsis (mindfulness).

    It is obviously easier for monastics in their ideal setting (in the East at least), but it has been proven time and again by many lay people too: staying in that quiet place inside -where the Lord can be found- for a short time initially, longer eventually, is where the true strength for the ‘natural’ fulfilment of His commandment eventually comes from.
    Venturing off for an “inch” one quickly finds out he has departed a “mile” -attracted by the created rather than the Creator- and until one learns how to go in “there” more often (until he becomes eventually so attracted inwards that he starts to become free from the vain attraction of the world and his self’s beguiling ‘interests’), he cannot truly fulfil the dual commandment of Love unceasingly. This is only possible when united with Christ.

    p.s: ofcourse this requires the sacramental, fasting etc. life of the Church to come to full fruition safely

  13. Michael Patrick Says:

    PJ said to Fr. Stephen “…why are you so quick to generalize? Don’t you find these statements [about ‘Western’ prayer] a tad judgmental and presumptuous?”

    I can’t speak for Fr. Stephen but I know that his words about prayer arise from ancient Christian tradition and there’s nothing ‘quick’ or ‘presumptuous’ about that.

  14. Lawrence Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    Fantastic set of three blogs! I would love to hear you tie them into the “new creation” that is birthed in us at baptism.

    Fr. Meletios says that it is quite possible that some of the psychological problems we see today are quite new – unknown to the Orthodox fathers in their time. He also says that we in the west are almost purely “minds” and we are almost completely disconnected from our heart. With that I am reminded of a saying I heard (from a father, I think) that it is more difficult to be holy with each passing generation. This may be true in the west if our starting point is so very far away from the heart.

    On the other hand, St. Symeon the New Theologian reminds me that it is heresy to believe that the Holy Spirit and grace are weaker than they were in the apostolic age. No matter how far away I start from the place of the heart, God is able to heal me as I struggle to live out my baptismal proclamation: I do unite myself to Christ!

  15. Lena Says:

    “acquire Spirit of peace and thousands around you will be saved” St. Serafim of Sarov
    (“стяжи Дух мирен, и вокруг тебя спасутся тысячи ” Св. Серафим Саровский)
    I’ve seen such people. They usually not “logical” or willful but their presence heals.
    Dear Father Stephen,
    Thank you so much for the privilege of reading your thoughts for all those years ( and been your parishioner some years before)

  16. dinoship Says:

    George,
    Stilness of mind in the place of the heart is a pre-requisite for God to reveal to me the vastness of my darkness. This leads to that true contrition from which deep humility is born and the seeds of dispassion are watered. Only after that experience can someone “endure suffering” in a holy manner, accepting what comes with gratitude, even if that is a slap and a spit from those who should respect and obey you -according to the world’s reasoning.
    It will certainly not leave you “unemployed at best”. In fact, you will excel at everything you do without becoming absorbed by it or stressed out, (as if you live in a ‘protective bubble’ -making you “unbeatable”- a quality even one’s atheist friends will find extremely magnetic).

    And if it did get me unemployed, what is my eternal priority anyway? Who is at the wheel, is it not God? Isn’t my employment or not ultimately in his hands? does He not say that if you seek the Kingdom the rest will be added?
    Furthermore, as Saint John of the Ladder states: with Jesus’ name you whip the demons into submission.

  17. hilary Says:

    I am pretty sure that every time interior Christian practices are derisively accused of being “Buddhist” or “new agey” that there is more going on there than eyes can see. Mysticism is repellant and offensive to those for whom religion is a place one goes to with lots of other people so that everyone can know they’re all praying right out loud together. Of course constant mutterings of the Jesus Prayer under breath would seem odd. Of course it looks… selfish. New agey. But.
    Outside my town right on the interstate is an old, prominent sign “go to church or the Devil will get you.” It’s like the mere activity of going to any church is what cures and protects. And I feel jipped that all this time I let American religion tell me what “selfish” meant. Or what devil-related weirdness will follow talk of the Holy Spirit. Or that prayer is about asking God to “just” bless this or that: “just, heavenly father, keep her safe,” “God, we just ask that you…” “Lord, I just pray that I get this opportunity to…” What? All those things feel like invocations, frankly. The self-satisfied whining of a self-centered toddler who already knows the best outcomes for all things and who can influence his father’s authority and control with a flood of words. And, forgive me for being so plain, most of the asking-for-prayers I see in my day-to-day feel like simple opportunities for gossip and/or evermore self-satisfaction.

  18. Philip Jude Says:

    Michael,

    “I can’t speak for Fr. Stephen but I know that his words about prayer arise from ancient Christian tradition and there’s nothing ‘quick’ or ‘presumptuous’ about that”

    I’m not referring to his thoughts on prayer, but his blanket criticism of “western prayer” (again, something of a phantom). No one prays as he ought, as Saint Paul tells us. It is the Spirit who intercedes for us, and I don’t believe that he distinguishes an “easterner” from a “westerner” (what is an “easterner” or “westerner” anymore, anyway?). This is not to say that we do not cooperate with the Spirit — we do, of course.

    But the west has its own tradition of prayer and contemplation; its own saints and sages, ascetics and mystics. Western spirituality is in some ways (but not all ways) different, but its fruits are evident. Don’t tell me that — to use an obvious example — Blessed Pope John Paul II wasn’t a man of extraordinary spiritual depth.

    Anyway, this is getting away from my main point, which was simply that these techniques (like, for instances, the teachings of the Philokalia) may not be for beginners and novices. Psychosomatic prayer can persuade naive minds that they can “induce” spiritual experiences.

    I’m not necessarily opposed to Father’s methods — indeed much of it seems very valuable and insightful. Frankly, I do not have the wisdom to full assess this matter. But I know my questions are worth asking.

  19. fatherstephen Says:

    Two-storey religion leaves us “toughing it out” and hoping for grace to get by. Getting by is nothing to be taken lightly – many days it’s about what we can manage. But the work of grace is inherently an inner work – measured by transformation into the image and likeness of Christ – manifest in love for God and neighbor. Many people “survived” the Gulags – a miracle in itself. But some (as in the stories of Fr. Arseny) shown as lights to the world – the reassuring presence of God in the midst of a suffering world. The world thirsts for such true manifestations of God.

  20. George Engelhard Says:

    I’m not sure how this relates, but this came to me as I was reading this.
    But first let me stress that this is about God’s grace and not about my accompishment.
    As I practice my inner life of prayer, I find that I am more gentle, kind and patient. Many times I am, in fact, unaware that I am being kind, gentle, or patient. Sometimes I am shocked that I am being kind, gentle, or patient.
    I am not trying to be kind, gentle, and patient. To do so would be to try to change The “old” man, to save myself by obeying the law, would be saving myself by works.
    As I surrender myself to God’s grace, as I allow the Light to overcome the darkess that I am, I become kindness, gentleness, and patience.
    Agape’,
    George

  21. Joan Says:

    Thank you Father Stephen for your words and thanks to everyone who commented. I just discovered this blog and I love it.

    I wanted to share something I read this morning, that I believe relates to this blogpost:

    “Why are you not a saint? It is either that you do not want to be a saint or that you believe God cannot make you one. It would be alright, you say, if God saved you and took you straight to heaven . That is just what He will do! ‘We will come unto Him , and make our abode with Him.’ Make no conditions, let Jesus be everything, and He will take you home with him not only for a day, but forever.”

    ~ Oswald Chambers

  22. Michael Bauman Says:

    Having come into the Church from a community that, at one time, practiced a lot of ‘mystical’ stuff, I can agree with PJ that this sort of prayer can needs to be approached very carefully in conjunction with a good confessor. And PLEASE, don’t go running off looking for a monk/guru to be your ‘spiritual father’. IF someone other than your parish priest is meant to be your confessor and director, that will be revealed in the course of your consistent faithfulness.

    I am quite ambivalent about Met. Vlachos work because it is so easy to misuse when taken out of context of the entire life of the Church and his languge in the English translationi so close to the ‘new age’ mystical garbage. I would rather that it would have been kept veiled.

    However, we seem to be in an age of “all things shall be revealed”

    IMO, it can not be stressed enough that prayer is not really about finding oneself, it is about communion with God in the context of the Church: the community, the celebrations, the sacraments, particularly regular confession if one practices such prayer consistently.

    I first heard of the Jesus Prayer a number of years before being received into the Church. One day, on my own, I started doing a practice much like Fr. describes. I was rewarded with a recognition of how sinful I was, had been, was being. I had no place to go with that knowledge since I did not have a confessor nor was I mature enough to actually release it to Jesus without someone to guide me. I stopped. It was too much. Even now, it has been tough getting back to it.

    I think there needs to be a warning label here: Before starting any program of spiritual exercise, consult your priest.

  23. fatherstephen Says:

    Michael and PJ,
    The danger is not in the practice of prayer, but in the practice of Christianity. If anything, your correct warnings point to the fact that the Christian faith, properly practiced, is never a matter of our own individual effort. We always fall into trouble that way.

    I think that in finding our true self, we do indeed find God. If you don’t find God, then you have not found your true self (for our life is hid with Christ in God). Again, this points to the fact that we are not self-existing. Met. John Zizioulas refers to the personhood of a Christian as an “ecclesial hypostasis.” Maybe it sounds better to a Greek.🙂

    The person cannot even be considered in isolation, for it has no existence in isolation. Needing the help of a priest/confessor is simply an extension of our true existence.

    Reading a blog is a thin relationship – but it is not no relationship. Even what we gain here is not gained by ourselves alone.

  24. dinoship Says:

    It doesn’t sound any better to a Greek🙂 But it does speak volumes in just two words!

  25. Philip Jude Says:

    Father,

    Perhaps this “true self,” located in the silent recesses of the heart, has some relation to the hidden name we will be given in the Kingdom.

    “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it” (Apocalypse of John 2:17).

  26. Maryalice Says:

    Father, thank you for these very helpful words. Forgive me if I raise a subject that you have already covered. On the matter of the tyranny of my thoughts over my life, I agree completely that they are often the result of my own flawed narrative of who I am and what I believe about myself. Would you comment also on the question of demonic activity? I recently read the life of St. Anthony, and while visiting an art gallery, saw the painting by Michelangelo which depicts the saint being lifted into the air and tormented by some very hideous looking creatures. That is often how I feel when my vain imaginings and repetitious thoughts seem to torture me. I appreciate any comments you have on this subject.

  27. fatherstephen Says:

    Maryalice,
    There is certainly such a thing as demonic activity – though I myself cannot profess to understand it other than “theologically.” Generally, I assume that what I encounter in daily life in the battle to unite mind and heart, is mostly my mind – I assume the same for others. We are certainly buffeted by the enemy, and I think he makes our task harder for us – but we make a mistake – I think – to put too much weight on the matter. It is a conclusion we reach long before we’ve explored help in healing the deeper wounds within us. The nature of the thoughts – particularly those generated from very toxic wounds – have an almost “independent” feel to them – and are resistant to our initial efforts. This is a critical place for guidance and help.

  28. rivercocytus Says:

    Father,

    I am reminded here:

    “Why should my false narrative rambling aloud in front of the God of my imagination have preference over learning to help the false narrative to shut up and the heart to be quiet before God.”

    Of the scene in C.S.Lewis’ ‘Till We Have Faces’:

    “‘Read your complaint,’ said the judge.

    I looked at the roll in my hand and saw at once that it was not the book I had written. It couldn’t be; it was far too small. And too old – a little, shabby, crumpled thing, nothing like my great book that I had worked on all day, day after day, while Bardia was dying. I thought I would fling it down and trample on it. I’d tell them someone had stolen my complaint and slipped this thing into my hand instead. Yet I found myself unrolling it. It was written all over inside, but the hand was not like mine. It was all a vile scribble – each stroke mean and yet savage, like the snarl in my father’s voice, like the ruinous faces one could make out in the Ungit stone. A great terror and loathing came over me. I said to myself, “Whatever they do to me, I will never read out this stuff. Give me back my Book.” But already I heard myself reading it…..”

  29. Michael Bauman Says:

    I would say Father that the best way to fight the demons is the best way to fight our false self, prayer, repentance, alsmgiving and worship. Confession, celebration, and selfless giving they flee from because these are the acts of the Cross.

  30. dinoship Says:

    Philip,
    I would like to point out that beginners and novices in the Holy Mountain are straight away given a ‘prayer rule’ -irrespective of their background- around 99.9% of the time; This always consists of some time in the stillness of the night on their own reciting the Jesus prayer.
    There is nothing especially advanced about it and it is very sad that people think that. They rob themselves of the “key”… Hesychasm really is the heart of hearts of Orthodoxy for monastics and laymen alike.
    The Jesus prayer is the basic alphabet. Yes, it can indeed become very advanced, but, there will also be a spiritual Father at hand constantly…
    There is of course, a huge difference in the experience of someone who every single night does 7 minutes of it and someone who does 7 hours of it (this is no exaggeration by the way).
    But as I said before, during the day we have God rushing to help, strengthening, protecting, while during the total stillness of the night we have Him actually revealing His very Self to us. It is often harsh rather than sweet, but our duty is to sit before the Lord irrespective, to be seen rather to see…

  31. dinoship Says:

    Sorry, i meant to be seen (by Him) rather than to see (Him)…

  32. George Engelhard Says:

    …to be seen by Him rather than see Him.
    Father, I would like your insight on this:
    In His paarbles Jesus says to those denied entrance into the Kingdom that he never knew them.
    I think it more important for Jesus to know me than it is for me to know him. How can I the finite really know the infinite? But the infinite can surely know the finite.

  33. eternallypresentfillingallthings Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    I echo Lawrence that these 3 blogs have been wonderful!

    I see the destructive effects of the false narrative in myself as well as the world around me. Obviously others have as well if the activity these blogs have generated are any indication. I see that you removed the comment by one responder. Thank You! His pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality is far too prevalent within our society & in my opinion/experience is only serving to foster the suffering in our secular society. 100% of the blame is laid at the feet of the sufferer while 0% is attributed to those causing the suffering. In reality both sides are suffering from their own false narratives. Both are suffers & both cause suffering.

    I work in the penal system where the recidivism rate is 67%. I inevitably hear one of 2 things when I first meet people. The one group will fault the system for needing more rehabilitation & educational programs while the other group will claim that they “got it coming”..quit committing crimes & you’ll quit coming to prison. Even well-meaning religious volunteers add to the problem by entering the system with the viewpoint of you’re bad so get saved.

    Both sides basically have a valid point, but they miss the real issue, which is intimately linked to your false narrative of these blogs. Rehab & education only work for those that believe it will work. Perpetually reincarcerating with increasingly harsher sentences (I know of a repeat offender that got sentenced to life for stealing a $2 piece of pizza) only reinforces the false narrative. People that do not believe they can do better will not. They will not get jobs, they will not get educations, they will not help themselves. They will only continue to self-destruct until they ultimately destroy themselves & all around them, but not before another generation has been started; thus the problems & suffering in our society remain ignored & unsettled.

    Orthodoxy begins so very differently. It begins by telling the person that they are a beloved child of God created in HIS image & that their carefully self-contrived self-image from the secular world is false. IOW, Orthodoxy begins with telling the person they have true value & teaches them practices & methods to discover this truth (inner prayer, Church services, the mysteries, communion with God, struggling against the passions, & etc). Once one begins to believe this, then they will begin to pick themselves up by their own bootstraps.

  34. fatherstephen Says:

    George,
    It is a terribly disturbing statement, “I never knew you.” I can only think that God would not know me, because I persisted in not being real (being false, being a lie). Being my true self does not mean being “who I think I am.”

    There are some within the Church who would interpret this parable as very good news – it is Christ dismissing that which is false in me, and not a sentence for the whole of me. It is a hopeful reading.

    In many ways, the great sin of the fallen angels is their drive towards non-being. Our being is God’s first gift to all creation. They hate God, and thus they hate even their own existence. Thus the wicked one, “Was a murderer from the beginning,” and is called, “the father of lies.”

  35. fatherstephen Says:

    eternallypresent,
    Thank you for sharing some of your experience and bless you for doing a difficult work. It was sad to me to see someone derisively dismiss talk of shame (toxic shame) as though Al Franken’s “And darn it, people like me!” has anything to do with the genuine healing of shame. But everyone has their pain, and I think he was sharing some of his.

    I volunteer once a week in a alcohol/drug treatment program in the community and work with guys from a lot of backgrounds. I know that toxic shame is a common experience for all of them (though all of them don’t know this yet). I is more common than people know. If it is universal, I would not be surprised. Though some shame is more toxic than others.

    It is, for me, one of the living metaphorical expressions of hades, into which Christ entered to set us free. To think of it as a light thing, or to minimize its power and consequence, is to minimize the offering of the One Who “on His shoulders bore our shame.” I shudder.

    Ours is a society that is moving quickly towards self-destruction. The percentage of the population that is incarcerated (with a 67% rate of recidivism) is staggering. It has only increased and not improved. It is insane. It is only one of many pieces of a puzzle of self-destruction that we are too blithely putting together. When the last piece is in place – may God have mercy on us.

    In the meantime – we do well to repent and become free of a false existence. Such free souls have a leavening effect vastly greater than their numbers. The presence of such souls sustains the world. Perhaps adding a few more will save us from our self-destruction.

    Father Abraham, who interceded for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, pray to God for us!

  36. eternallypresentfillingallthings Says:

    Oops…my apologies!

    I definitely need to read my writing better😦 I wrote:
    “Both sides basically have a valid point, but they miss the real issue, which is intimately linked to your false narrative of these blogs. ” I meant; Both sides basically have a valid point, but they miss the real issue, which is intimately linked our false narrative of outselves of these blogs.

  37. eternallypresentfillingallthings Says:

    Geez…the more I try to correct myself the more typos I make😉 Thank you, Fr. Stephen for your kind & understanding words in your blog😉 May they help many as they have me!

  38. George Engelhard Says:

    Can it be that God does not know me because i keep myself seperate from Him, that I do not let Him approach me and know me?

  39. Merry Bauman Says:

    Really good Fr. Stephen, and a lot to think about. I can see how it relates very deeply with me and my own life. Thank you. I was so impressed I made copies to share with others.

  40. dinoship Says:

    George,
    I think that the Fathers make more mention of our false gods obscuring both our “being seen by” and our “seeing of” God. The ‘pure in heart’ see clearly, since they clarified the false narratives (concerning ‘me’, the ‘others’, the ‘other things’ and God)…
    It is one of the reasons simplicity is highly regarded, one really has a head-start when he has this blessed simplicity, although our current world is hardly conducive in that direction.
    But God can charm even the most complex of persons too; and impart His simplicity to them, (one becomes a beautiful ‘specimen’ of a Christian then).
    Returning to the Jesus prayer, I must affirm that it is the closest at hand, most immediately accessible weapon in everyone’s fingertips in this fight.
    Orthodox even teach their four year old children how to practice it!

  41. Kelly Says:

    Thank you Fr. Stephen for this post. It was helpful. It does show me that I am on the right track. I have just started reading Fr. Meletios’s book, as you recommended. I skipped to the end and found a great quote by St. Theophan the Recluse about descending into the heart. I have made this descent when gazing with wonder at my children, holding my infant son in the middle of the night, hearing my daughter laugh: it is Heaven. Rather than making idols of my children, I want to learn to make that descent during all other areas of life. I have had streaks when I sit and do a once around with my prayer rope. But it really seems so pointless, my thoughts are everywhere. I suppose I have made tiny progress in being able to focus, but the heart is no where in sight. I guess I keep marching on? After reading your other two posts, I was lead to Psalm 118(119) -it really helps to inspire marching.

  42. fatherstephen Says:

    Kelly,
    The mind descending into the heart is work – and it requires patience. I would first simply work on finding the place. Your examples are very good. These are places where the pure joy of “just being” has a way of bringing thoughts to a halt. Finding the place and keeping it with silence, or with small reminders that everything is alright, that God is good, etc. With time add a little bit of the prayer. When the thoughts start intruding, go back to the place with silence or with the simple thoughts that help you be quiet. Then back with the prayer, etc.

  43. Jane Szepesi Says:

    With reference to Jesus’ statement, “I never knew you”, it is terrifying if we leave it there. But there is the prayer of the Good Thief which we repeat before Communion” Remember me, O Lord, when you come in your Kingdom.” For me, that is the antidote and the medicine for all our ills – that He remember me.

  44. fatherstephen Says:

    Yes, indeed.

  45. Kelly Says:

    Great advice Fr. Stephen! Thank you!

  46. Maryalice Says:

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen. This is all very helpful.

  47. dinoship Says:

    Kelly,
    I cannot talk on Father Stephen’s behalf – to whom you have posed the question- but, (the advise of the experts on the matter such as Elder Ephraim of Katounakia, Elder Aimlianos of Simonopetra, Elder Sophrony Sackarov, was exactly what you said yourself): “if it really seems so pointless, my thoughts are everywhere… but the heart is no where in sight”. I guess I keep marching on?”
    Just keep at it.
    The quantity of the prayer is in your power. The quality of the prayer is in God’s power. There are very effective techniques in bringing the mind down to the heart as can be found in the Philokalia, however, it is safer to just keep at it… mind in the heart will eventually come naturally.

  48. Kelly Says:

    I’m intrigued that you said “safer”. And yes, I am impatient; I want results! I’ll keep at it. Thanks for the response dinoship!

  49. dinoship Says:

    All that the Fathers mean by “safer”, is that the enemy likes the impatient; whereas the patient, humble soul who is not eager for ‘results’ for her self, but simply stays in God’s presence awaiting nothing but His will, is very “charming” to God… It certainly shows one loves God when they want to make him happy like this, simply standing under His loving gaze reciting the Jesus prayer… Besides, effortless tears will eventually signify a certain unity between mind and heart. (That way your left hand will not know and analyze what your right hand is doing)
    The Psalms are full of this idea -that I want to be seen by You, rather than when am I going to see You.

  50. dinoship Says:

    Kelly,
    I wrote back a few hours ago but my previous response seems to have got lost, or, it might appear later.
    Anyway, the “safer” simply implies that impatience (for results) attracts the enemy; while humble and continuing surrender “attracts” God’s grace.
    This idea of being “seen by Him” rather than wanting “to see Him” (wanting ‘results’ – in this context) is resplendent in the Psalter.

    The notion of “Look on me” (“ἐπίβλεψον” in LXX) or “Cast me not away from thy presence”…

    Sitting there in His presence -with the Jesus prayer on the lips or the mind- sometimes leads to effortless tears after some time; which is already in some sense is a (technique-less) way of unifying mind and heart.

  51. dinoship Says:

    my previous comment obviously just appeared!! sorry for the repeats…

  52. Kelly Says:

    Hey Dinoship,
    Look upon me vs. I want to see you now – I like that a lot! Thanks!

  53. dinoship Says:

    It is something that is missing from the English translation unfortunately! For example “when shall I come and appear before God” (psalm 42 KJV) in LXX reads “πότε ἥξω καὶ ὀφθήσομαι τῷ προσώπῳ τοῦ Θεοῦ;” which actually means “when shall I arrive and be seen by Your face/person”

  54. dinoship Says:

    Also, psalm 5 : “in the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee, and will look up” in KJV is “τὸ πρωΐ παραστήσομαί σοι καὶ ἐπόψει με” in LXX meaning:
    “in the morning will I stand in front of You and You will look upon me”

    It is quite a difference…

  55. dinoship Says:

    According to Elder Aimilianos of Simonos Petra:
    Wanting to see Him has the ability to create a certain expectant anxiety in me, whereas real ‘Ascesis’ is the putting of myself under His gaze, standing in His presence which creates trustful assurance.
    What I believe is more important than what I feel…
    My own bond with the Lord is proven through my ascesis -when that ascesis, (sitting in his presence -praying-, hungering in His presence -fasting-) is the conviction that He is invisibly present and looking upon me…

  56. George Engelhard Says:

    Adam and Eve, before the fall, had no problem having God look on them. After the fall, they were ashmed and did not want God to look on them. We, too, covered in sin do not want God to look upon us. Jesus Christ has remeved our sin and has clothed us in righteousness. so, we now can let God look upon us.

  57. dinoship Says:

    Part of the Fall is that Adam did not expose himself (in his sin) to the Lord’s presence: It is preferable to put myself under His gaze, it keeps the relation, rather than hide and sever the relation,( or want to make Him the Object of my own sight)

  58. Drewster2000 Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    Michael Bauman recounted his former experience with this hesychasm practice, that he got into it and then had nowhere to go with it, no spiritual director to help him with it (if I remember right).

    This sparks a concern in me. I want to be able to practice what you wrote about – even though I have no spiritual director. It’s not that I resist the idea of going to such a person, but rather that no one exists like that in my sphere of reference.

    And I don’t think I’m alone. I’m betting that you yourself will admit that in the West, even Orthodox priests with such experience that could fill this role aren’t that common. We live lonely lives here in the West, where individualism is king. I know I don’t really have to tell you about this.

    And someone saying “you need to go join an Orthodox church” doesn’t sound like a very good answer. In our world of marketers it just sounds like a sales gimmick.

    I understand Philip Jude’s concern, but I’m quite willing to begin the practice regardless of this. I’d rather risk going off into mysticism than continuing to live a life that seems disjointed and distracted where my life isn’t my own (in the best sense).

    With these thoughts in mind, how best might I practice these 5-minute times in the heart? How to stay on the path? I realize what I’m asking should be directed at God for my particular situation, but I don’t think I’m the only one out there like this. If you have some thoughts concerning where to get guidance on this practice, I would be glad of it.

    You have referenced books in the last 3 posts, but I wanted to lay out my area concern so that you could address it directly.

  59. Zachary Says:

    Thank you, Father, for these very helpful posts. For a long time I bounced back and forth between eastern and western religious philosophy. I always felt like they all had a piece of the puzzle of my heart and mind, but there was no soil in any of them where I could take root. I am so glad that our Lord and Master, in His infinite patience, introduced me to the Orthodox church. And I am so thankful for the treasure I have found in this little parish in Oak Ridge. It is a small building, but she is a magnificent church. This line was very helpful to me:

    “… to simply acknowledge that this story that I maintain is not the same thing as “me,” is huge. It can be very difficult to accept this. We think, “If I’m not who I think I am, then who am I?” The answer: “You are hid with Christ in God.” Christ will reveal who we are as we learn to dwell in the heart.”

    I have been asking this question, “If I’m not who I think I am, then who am I?” to myself throughout my journey and never realised how excellent an answer was right before me the whole time: ‘You are hid with Christ in God.” These teachings may actually transform people’s lives by teaching them to find their “good soil”. Once again, thank you, Father.

  60. Theodossia Says:

    Dinoship,
    Your explanation of the difference between wanting to see God versus being content to be seen by Him makes a world of difference to me and to my prayer life. When I pray, I am restless, I want results, as you described. And when I finish my prayer without getting them, I feel disappointed, as if I missed something, or someone in this case. Thank you for taking the time to explain this simple but very important truth. I will surely want try this.

  61. Philip Jude Says:

    Drewster,

    Maybe I misunderstand Father, but it seems that his understanding of spirituality is very much rooted in the day to day life of the Orthodox Church. Is this method just another part of the “false narrative” if wrenched from that context? I am not accusing, but honestly wondering, especially given that I myself am Catholic.

  62. Drewster2000 Says:

    Philip Jude,

    That is my question. Is it only something I can partake of if I’m part of the group? Or is it flowing water of life for those who would drink of it?

  63. dinoship Says:

    Theodossia,
    these are Elder Aimilianos’ words and I simply transfer them here, yes he really knew what he was talking about!🙂
    Philip Jude,
    there are Catholics like Pere Placide Deseille (now an Orthodox Abbot) who practised this prayer -because of reading “The Way of the Pilgrim”- for hours, initially outside a fully “Orthodox context”…

  64. rivercocytus Says:

    Guruism is generally, I think, an Eastern phenomenon but does happen some in the West. I recall reading some Elder pointing out the futility people exercised in going from Geronta to Geronta to find the ‘right’ one. This may have been St. Seraphim.

    I also read somewhere, and I’m having trouble remembering, but it was definitely in the Desert Fathers about a monk with a terrible elder who abused him. But this young monk was obedient and determined and loved this elder despite this. In time, the young monk died (after all, the Elder was abusing him) and in the story it is revealed to the Elder that his spiritual son (whom he then realizes to his regret that he abused) was glorified because of his obedience, not because he had an excellent elder.

    What Drewster is expressing is dangerously close to Guruism – it is not merely us who are in the situation of ‘not having good spiritual directors’ but this seems to have been a problem even in ‘Holy Russia’! The answer, I firmly believe, lies in the simple adage, “When the student is ready, the master will appear.” In regards to this, a poetic phrase was written by a Greek writer when asked how eldership works:

    I said to the almond tree, ‘Sister, speak to me of God,’ And the almond tree blossomed. – Nikos Kazantzakis

    Nobody is *really* qualified for this, but the qualification of good priest-confessors seems to be two things: 1. a certain disposition of soul which in and of itself is not obvious to the onlooker, and 2. having an obedient and determined charge. One should not underestimate the effect of the knowledge of numerous confessions ‘pondered in the heart’ – to borrow a phrase regarding Mary from the Gospels – and there is much of the Technocratic urge here in the West that makes us think we’re more alone than we actually are.

    But I’m sure Father can offer better advice than this. Pardon my words.

  65. Drewster2000 Says:

    rivercocytus,

    One correction: It’s not that I don’t esteem anyone around me highly enough to ask them to perform this role; instead the case is that anyone I would ask would either look at me strangely or decline. I’m not practicing Guruism here.

    But I take hope in the thought that “When the student is ready, the master will appear.” I believe that. I hope it’s true.

  66. markbasil Says:

    Dinoship, I echo thanks for the proper rendering of the psalms and the shift from “looking for God” to “standing in God’s gaze.”

    Re. spiritual guides, in “our group”, the Church, we often hear from experienced and wise teachers that in absence of a spiritual father or mother, humility is our guide. It is possible to practice the Jesus Prayer like this. God knows what we need. We knock, He knocks.

    My priest recently made a germane comment on his blog:
    “I have often thought that God purposely waits to give us a mature spiritual father or mother. God is waiting for us to receive the words given to us by all of the weak ones who speak truth in our lives. If we cannot hear them, what makes us think we will hear a holy father or mother who reads our mail (spiritually speaking)?”
    (the ‘weak spiritual guides’ he is referring to, are all the people who basically bug us or frustrate us!)
    from:
    http://holynativity.blogspot.ca/2012/06/what-is-soul-and-heart-and-spiritual.html

    -MB

  67. fatherstephen Says:

    I’ve no time this evening. I’ll write tomorrow. Very good questions!

  68. Drewster2000 Says:

    Thank you Mark. This is helpful…and hopeful.

  69. dinoship Says:

    Drewster, Philip Jude,
    there are many opinions concerning your questions about practising the Jesus prayer when you cannot find a guide (I assume you are implying the practice of it in stillness – since, saying it all day long is simply everybody’s duty according to Saint Paul’s admonition: “pray without seizing”), but I side with this one which is fairly prevalent on Mount Athos:
    Would you not stand because your stance was potentially totally wrong and there was nobody to fix it?
    Would you not eat because your parents never taught you how to do it correctly and you might be doing it as wrong as a two-year-old?
    Would you not breath because the air might not be as clear as it should be in your city?
    Would you not pick up your things off the floor because you have heard there is a certain technique to do this properly, and there are no physiotherapists around to instruct you?
    (you get my point)
    If you start picking heavier stuff off the floor and you might suddenly find a zeal in you to become a professional power-lifter, well, then you yourself would go to greater lengths to find an instructor, change your life, your diet etc., and instructors would even come looking for you at the gym (metaphorically speaking)

  70. PJ Says:

    I want to make it clear that I am not whatsoever opposed to contemplative prayer. I just returned from a weekend retreat at a Benedictine monastery that is literally wrapped in prayerful silence. But the private meditation — and there is plenty of it there — is built around public worship: the liturgy of the hours and the liturgy of the Eucharist.

    Drewster, everything I’ve learned about prayer I’ve learned from the Church. I don’t know if the two can be separated.

  71. PJ Says:

    Drewster,

    “Is it only something I can partake of if I’m part of the group? ”

    But the Church is not a “group.” It is the Body of Christ. That is why true prayer arises in the context of the Church. We pray through the Spirit, but we receive the Spirit of Christ only when we become Christ, and we only become Christ through the mysteries and the liturgy.

  72. Kelly Says:

    Hi Father. I’ve been reading Fr. Meletios, and I just had one more thing to run past you. I am always singing in my mind. Because of this, I decided a while ago to only listen to chant because at least I would be singing songs about/ to God. But I wonder if this is even beneficial or if this is just part of the logismoi? Or another big distraction from the moment? I would like to think I was being really spiritual;😉 however, I am well aware of the fact that if I listed to secular radio for 10 minutes, I would just be singing those songs instead!

  73. rivercocytus Says:

    PJ,

    There is somewhat of a logical leap required if you come from an ‘Invisible Church’ background. It can be hard to see a church, even the Orthodox Church, as the Church without casting aspersion and even condemnation on those outside her. Having come from such a panchristian background myself, I recall using various terms or handles for group when dealing with various expressions of Christianity – as a way of understanding these groups without invalidating my life’s experience of faith in Christ.

    Some of us had a bad experience outside, which made acceptance of the Church easier at first, but it becomes a tremendous roadblock later. It does have to be dealt with, the ecclesiology.

  74. Drewster2000 Says:

    Dinoship,

    Thanks for the encouragement. Your council has the ring of wisdom to it.

    Philip Jude,

    I’m not trying to be “outside the church”. I fully understand lone rangers aren’t God’s model for His family. But I’m looking for steps to take according to where I’m at right now. If I have to correct all the elements of my external environment before I begin this journey, then chances are good that I won’t begin.

    I’m in a church that I’ve been a part of for a long time. They heard about hesychasm but are light years from actually practicing it. Heck, right now I’m just trying to institute the practice of confession in a meaningful way.

    Hesychasm isn’t only foreign to my local surroundings but to this culture as well. Even the spellchecker for this website wanted me to change the word to “chessman”. I want to get there (wherever “there” is) just like you do, but I have to start somewhere. And the journey of a thousand miles is still only made one step at a time, as they say.

  75. Michael Bauman Says:

    I want to claify my comment on not having a confessor: When I started practicing the Jesus Prayer I had little to no grounding in the faith. I knew Jesus Christ was real and I wanted to be in communion with Him. That was about it. I was functionally illiterate about sin–certainly my own.

    The experience propelled me to seek the Church rather than going it on my own. And found a confessor and all of the rest.

    Someone who has a better grounding in what it means to be Christian and experience with their own sins in a Christian context might fare better than I did.

    However, to reiterate what PJ has said, prayer is ultimately about life in the Church and since Jesus Christ Incarnated, the Church has a physical reality, it is not just ‘invisible’. It is an Orthodox axiom that we are not saved in isolation. God calls us to Him as a people, not as isolated individuals. He has given us Himself in the eucharist to join us together in Him. We pray privately, but never (even a hermit) individually.

  76. rivercocytus Says:

    Chessmen are surprisingly good at hesychasm; moving while remaining still. There’s the start of a potentially silly tangent, there!

  77. PJ Says:

    Drewster,

    I fear you’re “playing Church.” Reconciliation is a sacrament, a mystery, possible only because the Church is the Body of Christ. Apart from the Church, it is just a sort of therapy.

    This goes back to my point: Prayer is inseparable from Church; spirituality is indistinguishable from ecclesiology.

    I don’t mean to be harsh or dismissive. But to be a Christian is to be a part of the Church. Since I’ve realize this fact, I have experienced much grief and heartache and frustration, for I judge both the Catholic and Orthodox claims to be reasonable, and I am unable to discern which is the true Faith. Since I was born Catholic, I remain in that communion, but I continue to read and pray on the matter — I do not want to be “playing Church,” either.

  78. dinoship Says:

    PJ, Drewster,
    irrespective of my preference for definitely ‘having a go at it’ rather than ‘paralysing through analysing’ view, or my adherence to the common belief that Hesychasm is the true heart of Orthodoxy; The Eucharist is the essential and central condition, the “sine qua non” for this life, we need both elements. One’s rate of progress as well as the stability of one’s grounding inevitably depends upon his connection to a spiritual Father and the strength of this connection has a most profound effect on one’s Spiritual life…. Even the idea of belonging to a certain ‘lineage’ has its undeniable merits. Father Stephen mentioned those two words earlier that really do speak volumes: “ecclessial hypostasis”.

  79. Karen Says:

    Dinoship and Theodossia, putting oneself under the gaze of God, rather than anxiously attempting to “see” Him is an extremely helpful clarification. Thanks for drawing our attention to that!

  80. Karen Says:

    Fr. Stephen comments: “There are some within the Church who would interpret this parable as very good news – it is Christ dismissing that which is false in me, and not a sentence for the whole of me. It is a hopeful reading.”

    I just read your comment this morning, Father. Yesterday, I was mulling over the insight of Solzhenitsyn that the line between chaff and grain passes right through my own heart juxtaposed with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25. I was reflecting in my heart, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this judgment wasn’t so much about two groups of people as it is the two “selves” within my own heart, such that it will be a fulfillment of the prayers in Psalm 50 (51) (which I had just finished praying in my morning rule)? I would put a smiley face here at the end of my comment, except they always look like the silly/giddy open-mouthed smiley when it comes up after posting, and what I’m feeling is more soberly joyous/hopeful than that.

  81. fatherstephen Says:

    Lots of conversation – and worthwhile!

    Drewster, good questions. Many situations in our lives are less than satisfactory – but – as the prayer of the Church says, “the Holy Spirit, who completes that which is lacking…” Clearly the Holy Spirit doesn’t reinvent the Church outside the bounds of the Church – but God is working for our salvation and acts in a freedom that is staggering to our every conception.

    My comments about practicing the prayer, or mindfulness, within the context of the Church, is fairly specific to Orthodoxy. Church, in an Orthodox context, is a decidedly different experience than can be found elsewhere (pace Roma). It’s services are a theological feast (particularly Matins and Vespers) and its abundant Psalmody all work together to create a “place of the heart” that outwardly conforms to the inward state of the true heart. Thus, my notions of it as a “safe” and conducive place.

    Obviously, that is not easily available everywhere. Mindfulness – which I have noted as something to be more or first attended to – is certainly not restricted to Orthodoxy or the Church. There’s no benefit to anyone in being bound by the aimless thoughts and emotions and false narrative of our modern existence. How well we succeed in practicing mindfulness is dependent on many things. It is from the place of mindfulness (nepsis) that we best pray (actually we best do everything from there).

    I would begin my day with it, however possible. And repeat it at least once and again in the evening. My experience has been that as the foundation has grown – it is easier to simply “go” there at other times. Times of stress, times that are anxiety-provoking, etc., are especially good times to be able to breathe and back away into a healthier place.

    The Jesus Prayer is entirely safe in such a setting, as long as we do not expect or demand too much of the prayer. Trying to achieve “self-acting” prayer – or even the “union of mind and heart” without a spiritual director is always cautioned against by Orthodox elders. But there is great benefit in the use of the prayer that is not pressed to such a point.

    Even more important than the Jesus Prayer itself (even I can dare say such a thing) is the simple cultivation of thanksgiving. Elder Zacharias of St. John’s in Essex, the disciple of Elder Sophrony, explained that Elder Sophrony taught that if you will give thanks always, everywhere and for all things, you will have fulfilled the saying given to St. Silouan, ‘Keep your mind in hell and despair not.'”

    Mindfulness for a Christian is impossible without the giving of thanks to God for all things. How could we have peace of mind if we cannot give thanks for all things? It is the beginning of my day. To be still, quiet, to let the noise of the mind go silent, and in the heart bless God and give thanks for all things. To hold in the heart the thought, “All things work together for good…” And to hold it long enough that “all things” simply hush. It’s like calming a distraught child (don’t freak out if you hear overtones of the ‘inner child’). For the logismoi of the mind are frequently extremely primitive and immature and need quiet assurance that their anger, annoyance, grief, anxiety, fear, etc., are simply not true. It is like the time I had to reassure my young son that the dinosaurs on the wallpaper in his bedroom were not going to come alive and eat him (as his older sister said they would).🙂 Many of our fears are just a silly. Even the serious fears are just as small in the face of a good God.

    Practice mindfulness and give thanks. Things will inevitably become clearer as you do.

    Kelly,

    Eph. 5:18And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, 19speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, 20giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,

    I know of no better thing to do in the heart…My wife (as did her father) seems to always be singing songs to the Lord. Orthodox songs, scripture songs. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a “contemporary Christian song out of her” (I don’t think she know any). It’s quite possible to “sing in the heart,” indeed it may be one of the quickest roads to the heart. Music is a very interesting and peculiar thing. It is far too neglected in spiritual teaching. The Psalms tell us that “God inhabits the praises of Israel.”

  82. fatherstephen Says:

    Karen,
    Yes indeed. Glory to God.

  83. Drewster2000 Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thanks for your comments and quiet reassurance. (grin)

  84. dinoship Says:

    Your voice is a breath of fresh air Father! I actually hadn’t heard from Elder Zacharias explicitly “that if you will give thanks always, everywhere and for all things, you will have fulfilled the saying given to St. Silouan, ‘Keep your mind in hell and despair not.’” It makes such entirely sound sense…

  85. hilary Says:

    (As an aside: subscribing to comments on this blog is cool for many reasons, not the least of which is seeing dozens of bold-faced “Glory to God For All Things” sent-froms sliding by when I open email on my phone. Talk about laughing out loud.)

  86. George Engelhard Says:

    I have a wonderful biblical commentary by InnerVasity press called “Ancient Christian commentary on the Scriptures”. St Cyril of Alexandria interpretes the I never knew you passage as people who were at one time believers and are no longer.

  87. fatherstephen Says:

    Dinoship
    I heard it from him personally…

  88. dinoship Says:

    Father,
    I remember Elder Sophrony suggested that one should ideally accustom himself to the Jesus prayer to such a degree that when the time of one’s death arrives he leaves his last breath with it…
    Equally, we all want to sleep in the Lord having partaken of the Holy Eucharist on that most important day…
    May the Lord grant us both of these ways of Communion with Him on that day!

    Kelly,
    I think that it is the ego-driven desire for the “result” of self-acting prayer in the heart that is perilous; if, however, God grants someone that blessing (due to their combination of zeal, renunciation, humility and His foreknowledge of their noble response), that is an entirely different matter.

  89. dinoship Says:

    Saint Gregory Palamas has written extensively concerning how through hesychastic “Nepsis” the “distinction made between the true self of the heart and the false self created by the mind” comes to its settlement: we discard the “heinous facade”…
    There are other ways too, such as humiliations, obedience… They all invariably involve “scandalous” notions for secular minds. This healthy ‘hating’ and renouncing of the old self is sometimes called the “dual knowledge” (I am “nothing” {=we are “nothing”}; God is my “all” {=God is our “all”})

  90. Kelly Says:

    Thank you for the response Fr. Stephen; it was very encouraging. Despite the fact that I know those verses, that was not the response I was expecting!

  91. Andrew Says:

    A wonderful saying indeed – {thank you}

  92. fatherstephen Says:

    Dinoship
    Can you direct me where to look in St. Gregory Palamas on the “heinous facade”?

  93. dinoship Says:

    Father,
    That is just my own translation from memory, as most of my reading I do in Greek (my mother tongue)…
    I am 100% certain however, that it is in his “7th Logos antiritikos” (Λόγος αντιρρητικός Ζ’), I assume these exist in English although I don’t know the correct English title.

    He there outlines how when the ‘Nous’ leaves behind the stuff of the senses and is raised up from the turmoil of flurry these produce, and beholds the inner man, he detects at first the heinous facade (“ειδεχθές προσωπείο”) which has been created by our lowly wanderings and hastens to wash it away with mourning.

  94. Gene B Says:

    This has been a great thread. I think the most important thing to remember about the Orthodox approach to prayer is that it is based on the collected experiences of many people and not an ideology or teaching per se. We read from fathers that have actually implemented and practiced this form of prayer and way of living, and wrote about their own experiences. They witnessed (and others witnessed) the changes and growth in themselves.

    If there is anything I can add is that I too have (tried) to implement these teachings in my own life. Practicing quieting my thoughts and my will, and slowly allowing God’s will to take over. In letting go of so many things, I have found God’s will for me was often not what I would have or could have chosen for myself, left to my own devices. I have been surprised over and over. My true self is being revealed to me, while my false self (thankfully) slowly disappears. After about 15 years I can speak with some limited experience, maybe just enough to tell others “It Works”, and don’t be afraid to try it.

  95. dinoship Says:

    He mentions it again with other words on “In Favour of those in Solitude” particularly in books/homilies 1, 2, 3.
    It is mentioned again by Met. Hierotheos Vlachos in his “The Person in the Orthodox Tradition” and I had a search and discovered that it is mentioned again by Met Hierotheos here (although only greek unfortunately): http://www.parembasis.gr/1999/99_01_09.htm

  96. Drewster2000 Says:

    Thank you, Gene. For every note of discouragement, it seems like I need 2 or 3 to counter it. Thus your comments are much appreciated.

  97. mike Says:

    ….WOW…Outstanding..thats an amazingly helpful and practical post father Stephen …possibly the best i’ve read on the topic…incidentally,its uncanny that it coincides with the theme of a message that i heard Sunday….Thank you

  98. dinoship Says:

    Father,
    I found more mentions of the “heinous facade” (“ειδεχθές προσωπειον”) in Palama’s “letter to Xenia”, and “Homily on Peter the Athonite”. I don’t know how many of these exist in English -hopefully all- but the expression seems to be a favourite of his…

  99. dinoship Says:

    An interesting speculation socio-anthropological perspective(at least for Greek and Russian life) is that in the traditional, the modern and the post-modern times we have these corresponding realities:

    traditional:
    interest was in the “soul”, weight was on wisdom, while people looked up to the Saints

    modern:
    interest was in “reason”, weight was on knowledge, while people looked up to Scientists

    post-modern:
    interest is in the body, weight is on information, while people look up to Celebrities…

    However more challenging ‘stillness’ has become today, it makes the need for the “cure” Hesychasm has to offer infinitely more pressing…

  100. dinoship Says:

    Drewster2000,
    there is an excellent book specifically on the Jesus Prayer which includes all stages and questions on practising it when no guide is available called “Two Elders on the Jesus Prayer”. It is unfortunately a very poor translation! however, it is a poor translation of a remarkable, concise, thorough gem, written by a true Saint and expert on the matter (two actually)…

  101. the distinction between criticism and fearful shaming « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci Says:

    […] Yet Not I (fatherstephen.wordpress.com) […]

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