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The House of St. Michael the Archangel just published an essay that I wrote called So That Your Hearts Will Not Be Weighted Down. It’s an extended meditation on  watchfulness, revolving around Jesus’ words in Luke 21:34: “Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life.”  It’s also an invitation to repentance, to turn away from all the figurative and literal drunkenness of the world, and to instead receive the blessed inebriation of communion with Christ.

I wrote most of the essay months ago, but the timing of its release is perfect: Advent is an appropriate time to grow in watchfulness, as we “wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

Hard copies are available for suggested donations of $6. A free pdf is also available. Both can be ordered here.

 

While you’re at the House of St. Michael’s website, also check out Shea Cole’s album of original worship music. It can also be downloaded for free, or hard copies are available for a suggested donation. (The cds make great Christmas presents, if you’re still shopping.)

A few nights ago, I started reading Poustinia: Encountering God in Silence, Solitude, and Prayer by Catherine Doherty. Tired from a busy day, and not looking forward to my early-morning shift at the cafe the next day, I started crying when I read this passage:

If we are to witness to Christ in today’s marketplaces where there are constant demands on our whole person, we need silence.  If we are to be always available, not only physically, but by empathy, sympathy, friendship, understanding, and boundless caritas, we need silence. To be able to give joyous, unflagging hospitality, not only of house and food, but of mind, heart, body, and soul, we need silence. (p. 4)

Poustinia is the Russian word for desert or wilderness.  Following the pattern of the monastic saints of the early Church sought who communion with Christ in the desert, the Russian Church developed a tradition of the poustinik, a person who retreated to solitary and silent places in search of deep communion with God.  For the person seeking poustinia, the “desert” could be any secluded place to which one would retreat for a time, short or long.  Perhaps you build a hut or cabin in the wilderness, like the one pictured on the cover of the book. Perhaps it’s a corner of your home dedicated to prayer. Wherever your poustinia is, go there alone. Listen to God. Take only your Bible. Fast. Listen. Pray. Wait for God in solitude and silence

It was this sort of solitude and silence that I had in mind when I read the quote I shared above.  To be available to others, to witness faithfully in the midst of our crowded lives, we must have a rhythm of life that allows us to retreat periodically into silence and solitude. At least that’s what I thought she meant. And that’s what I wanted. But the further I read in the book, the more I realize that the quote above referred to what Doherty calls a “poustinia of the heart.” Not all of us can practically get away for solitary retreats as often as we’d like.  Nor would it be faithful for some of us to hide in solitude when we’ve been called elsewhere: I would have been like Jonah on the ship to Tarshish if I had awakened Tuesday morning and decided to take a solitary retreat that day instead of fulfilling my obligations to work the opening shift at the cafe.  Apparently I need a way to learn to listen to God in the midst of life just as I would in the midst of the desert. But how?

In the chapter “Poustinia in the Marketplace,” Doherty provides the image of a womb in which Christ is present within us. Like Mary, we have a poustinia within us, a place where we can internally commune with Christ in the midst of the world and from which we also bear Christ’s light and presence into the world. This poustinia within us doesn’t require us to hide in the desert to commune with Christ. Rather:

It means that within yourselves you have made a room, a cabin, a secluded space. You have built it by prayer – the Jesus Prayer – or whatever prayer you have found profitable. You should be more aware of God than anyone else, because you are carrying within you this utterly quiet and silent chamber.  Because you are more aware of God, because you have been called to listen to him in your inner silence, you can bring him to the street, the party, the meeting, in a very special and powerful way (p. 64).

Notice that she says this inner desert has been built by prayer, especially the Jesus Prayer.  She goes on the following pages to describe in different terms what the desert monks called watchfulness, the capacity to objectively observe our own thoughts and attentively respond to them.  In the midst of a crowded room, the watchful person can be non-anxiously aware of all that is happening within themselves and submit those internal operations to Christ. This requires the cultivation of an interior silence which quiets all voices but God’s. And how do we cultivate this? Doherty says, “The answer is simple: you pray more” (p. 65). 

She recommends other practices as well: attentiveness to Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, occasional solitary retreats, fasting, vigiling, simplifying our schedules, and limiting our recreational activities.  But the goal of all these practices remains prayer. By praying, we learn to pray. By communing with Christ in prayer and worship and simplicity, we learn to commune with Christ in the inner desert of the soul. After listing examples of saints whom she thought achieved this, Doherty says, “The secret of all those people I am talking about is that they prayed continually, while all the time they served their people” (p. 69).

This is a difficult calling, but if Doherty was right that we really need silence in order to minister effectively today, then we have no choice but to accept the challenge.  So, I accept the call. I want to pray for my cafe customers while I make their drinks. I want to pray for my congregation in the midst of meetings about budgets and the expansion of our space.  I want to pray while leading a wedding rehearsal tonight and officiating a wedding tomorrow. I’m not there yet; I’m a long way away. But I want the poustinia of the heart. Lord have mercy on your servants, and grant us the gift of unceasing prayer.

For being such a slim volume, this book is heavy with the weight of glory. The Prayer Book of the Early Christians is a collection of prayers and prayer services modeled after the liturgies left to us from the ancient Church and used today in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. And having drawn from such deep wells, this prayer book presents its reader/user/pray-er with a treasury of “prayers that have been tried and proved” (p. ix). I am thankful to John McGuckin for editing this collection (and to Paraclete Press for sending me a copy to review). As I’ve used it over the past week and a half, I’ve noticed a few things worth sharing here.

(1) This method of prayer differs from what most of us evangelical-flavored Protestants have been taught. I’m not just referring to the many passages in the book which invite the Theotokos and the saints to intercede for us. (That deserves its own post.) The different I’m referring to here is that, in my experience, our approach to prayer relies heavily on feeling. We want to pray extemporaneously with feeling, from the heart. Unfortunately, this has the unintended consequence of quenching prayer whenever we don’t feel like praying. Correcting this, McGuckin writes in the introduction:

It does not really matter whether we feel fervent or dry as a bone.  It does not really matter whether we feel God’s presence breathing on our face or feel as if he is locked up behind a bronze heaven, never showing a sign of his presence.  What matters is how he sees us.  We do not need to ‘feel’ his presence at every turn, when we know, by faith, that he is more present to us, at every moment of our life, than we are present to ourselves or our most beloved family.  And if at morning and night we present ourselves before God and sing his praise, we have (no question about it) stood in the presence of Christ, prayed along with Christ our High Priest in the pure presence of the Holy Spirit of God, and offered our prayer like incense in the sight of the Father. (p. xiv)

Showing devotion through our actions, especially when our hearts don’t want to do so, can be one way to cultivate the heart’s participation in prayer. Over time, the disciplined practice of these prayers will yield the fruit of an inner disposition of fear, reverence, and deep love of God.

(2) This approach to prayer also requires a different relationship to timeIf you’re already accustomed to using prescribed prayers for different hours of the day, you might be used to shorter liturgies. One can pray through an office of The Divine Hours or Celtic Daily Prayer relatively quickly.  These take longer.  It took me thirty minutes to pray through the Matins liturgy on Sunday morning.  McGuckin notes that “Twenty minutes seems a long time for a pressed twenty-first-century dweller,” but once we dive into these longer and richer prayers, “those who swim the ocean of prayer find that time starts shrinking” (p. xv). Increased time spent in prayer is never something to regret. It’s time spent in the life-giving Light of Christ, and the more we experience this Light, the longer we’ll want to bathe in it.

(3) These are serious prayers.  There is a sort of joyful heaviness which permeates the prayers shared here. Though always mindful of God’s grace in Jesus Christ and our common hope of resurrection, most of these prayers have a somber, repentant tone. The Psalms included in the liturgies are Psalms of battle and lament. The selected prayers in Parts 2 and 3 include prayers of repentance like this:

Lord I stand knocking at the door of your compassion, seeking your forgiveness.  By evil I have been kept from the path of life.  My mouth has not praised you; my feet have not walked in your holy place.  Lover of our race, have pity on me. Your who are the splendor of the Father give light of my eyes that I may give thanks for your grace.  I have lain in darkness in this deceit-filled world.  Morning has passed and I did not repent.  Evening has fallen and my sins have increased.  But let your compassion now ascend before my face. (p. 162)

A few may catch the reader off-guard, only to reveal their profound meaning upon deeper meditation. For an example, read the fifth-century vegetarian grace before eating which includes these lines:

Far from us that hungering lust / That craves a bloody feast, / And tears apart the flesh of beasts. / Such wild banquets, made from slaughtered flocks, / Are fit only for barbarians. / For us, the olive, wheat, and ripening fruits, / And vegetables of every kind: / These compose our righteous feast. (pp. 184-185)

At first, I laughed at the “I thank you God that I’m not a carnivore” tone of this prayer (see Luke 18:11). But when I considered its deeper meaning, I was humbled and convicted.  The person praying this is thanking God for simplicity, not luxury.  How often do we thank God for the ability to make do with less?  And the person who prays this acknowledges the violence inflicted upon creation by our appetites.  When we eat meat, how often do we really give thanks for the lives of the animals whose flesh we consume? I’m not a vegetarian (at least for most of the year), but God did use this prayer to convict me about the excesses in my own consumption of food.  It seems these prayers provide avenues not only for us to speak to God, but for God to speak to us.

(4) The book closes with a brief note on the Jesus Prayer, and an invitation to check out the movie about it which McGuckin produced: Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer. Much could be (and has been) written about the Jesus Prayer, but if the few pages about the Jesus Prayer here pique your interest, do check out the movie. It’s worth watching not just for an introduction to the Jesus Prayer, but for its portrayal of the entire ethos of prayer conveyed in this prayer book.  The film provides new depth and perspective as it displays the monasteries where these prayers have been prayed for centuries – the environments where these prayers have been “tried and proved.”

I’m nearly finished reading The Ladder of Divine Ascent.  This week’s reflection covers only two steps: (26) On Discernment, and (27) On Stillness. The theme which ties Steps 26 and 27 together is Truth.  Discernment is the ability to distinguish between falsehood and truth, between what is of darkness and what is of light, between what is less-than-good and what is truly good. Stillness, in turn, is the fruit of internal discernment, beginning with truthful awareness of one’s own thoughts. They are related, but differ in their external and internal applications.

Step 26, On Discernment, is one of the longest chapters of The Ladder, but one lengthy quote provides enough material to summarize here:

Among beginners, discernment is real self-knowledge; among those midway along the road to perfection, it is a spiritual capacity to distinguish unfailingly between what is truly good and what in nature is opposed to the good; among the perfect, it is a knowledge resulting from divine illumination, which with its lamp can light up what is dark in others.  To put the matter generally, discernment is – and is recognized to be – a solid understanding of the will of God in all times, in all places, in all things; and it is found only among those who are pure in heart, in body, and in speech (page 229).

Here Climacus presents three kinds of discernment, depending upon where one is in their spiritual journey.  Beginners learn discernment through accurate self-knowledge. This is like taking the log out of your own eye (Matthew 7:5) in order to see clearly.  Discernment begins by recognizing the truth about oneself, otherwise one’s vision will be clouded by pride and other sin. Those “midway along” their journey practice discernment through distinguishing between “what is truly good and what in nature is opposed to the good”. This means seeing clearly to recognize God’s moral will or natural law. It’s like having a sanctified common sense and conscience in order to rightly identify what actually is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, excellent, and praise-worthy (Phil. 4:8). Expert discernment, discernment among the “perfect” is “knowledge resulting from divine illumination.” This is the sort of clairvoyance attributed to some mystics or startsy.  Extremely rare though this gift may be, it remains something which should inspire us and give us a goal to strive toward:  “A mind disposed to the things of the spirit is certainly endowed with spiritual perception and this is something that, whether we possess it or not, we should always seek to have” (page 233).

As I tried to translate this step it into application for my life as a married pastor living in the world, I realized that most of the people I hear talking about “discernment” in the Church today want this third stage of mystical divine discernment, but want it without learning the first two forms of discernment. I think of times when I’ve prayed with people who just wanted to know what “the will of God” was for them in a specific situation, but they weren’t opening to considering that self-knowledge or their conscience or sanctified common sense could be accurate guides. Sometimes we want a direct word from the Lord, but we ignore the tools God had given us to practice basic discernment.  As a pastor, I find this immensely helpful for counseling people: we should lead people into the will of God through first leading them to accurate self-knowledge and then to consideration of what is true, right, and good. This should be sufficient for the sort of decision-making which most people are dealing with when they say they’re seeking “discernment.” To attempt discernment beyond these levels is to attempt to pry into divine mysteries which are not for us to understand yet.  Questions like: Did God cause my suffering? or Why did ___ happen to ___? may not be the right questions to ask.  John Climacus says “what God has decided for us is hard to penetrate.  In His providence, He often conceals His will from us, for He knows that even if we knew about it, we would disobey it” (pages 245-246).

Step 27, On Stillness describes a kind of prayer that requires the inward use of discernment. Climacus is using “stillness” in a technical sense, as in the practice of Hesychasm, to describe the mental practice of wordless prayer.  He writes, “Stillness of the body is the accurate knowledge and management of one’s feelings and perceptions.  Stillness of soul is the accurate knowledge of one’s thoughts and is an unassailable mind” (pages 261-262). Once having achieved accurate knowledge of one’s thoughts, one can begin to distinguish between what thoughts are true and untrue, what thoughts are inspired by God and what thoughts are demonic temptations.  To achieve this discipline, one had to learn to distance oneself from one’s own thoughts and learn to look objectively at each thought that comes into the mind. Climacus describe it as playing cat-and-mouse with your thoughts: “The cat keeps hold of the mouse.  The thought of the hesychast keeps hold of his spiritual mouse” (p. 262). Grab your thoughts like they are prey, “take every thought captive” (2 Cor. 10:5), and reject all thoughts that do not lead you closer to Christ. For the one seeking intimate communion with God, even thoughts which may be good in and of themselves  can serve as distractions from prayer.  Have you ever sat down to pray and found that a dozen things immediately pop into your mind to add to your to-do list? That’s an occasion to reject such thoughts and seek stillness. Climacus writes, “A small hair disturbs the eye.  A minor concern interferes with stillness, for, after all, stillness means the expulsion of thoughts and the rejection of even reasonable cares. . . . The man who wishes to offer a pure mind to God but who is troubled by cares is like a man who expects to walk quickly even though his legs are tied together” (page 269).

The best explanation of this practice to non-monks that I’ve heard was presented by Lisa Sayre at this year’s House of St. Michael the Archangel Devotional Conference.  The text of it is available here: Prayer Without Thoughts. As Lisa shows there, the Jesus Prayer is the key to practicing stillness for us in the world today, just as it was for monks through the history of the Hesychast tradition. Climacus alludes to this practice when he says “Let the remembrance of Jesus be present with your every breath” (page 270). Breath in the name of Jesus. Let meditation on His Name become as natural and constant within you as breathing.  As Lisa wrote, “Pray then . . .  the name of the Lord Jesus, that He might come to dwell before all in your heart and all your thoughts might be subject to Him.” Then you will be on the path to perfect discernment and the knowledge of truth in stillness.