Monday, 26 August 2013

The Jesus Prayer

What we normally mean by “prayer” is talking to God (albeit silently) about things we need or things that worry us – or praising him and thanking him for this and that. Much of that kind of prayer involves thinking, imagining, conceptualizing. It is takes place in a mind full of echoes and mumblings of conversation, memories of things that have happened or fears of what may be about to, or simply random words rattling around in our head – traces of thoughts that have not quite died away. Prayer in that context often feels a bit like writing a message in a bottle, and consigning it to the sea addressed to the God we hope will find it. God’s actual presence is at best assumed, but it is hardly tangible.

The aim of the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, constantly repeated) is to lead our constantly changing thoughts and feelings into a single conduit. The clearing of the mind is the result of a long struggle that the Fathers describe in the Philokalia. It doesn’t come easily to anyone: we have to keep trying. “External things and the content of thought, with one word objects, stop the subject from returning to itself; they draw it to everything except itself. Only with great effort, by discipline, does the subject become capable of getting loose for a few moments in succession, from the slavery of contents, which hold it far from home and constrict it as much as they can” (Staniloae, Orthodox Spirituality, p. 286, my emphasis).

If we achieve it, this state of emptiness or purity reveals God to us, or makes the mind transparent to God, like a mirror that, once cleaned, reflects the light of the sun (ibid., p. 287). We stand astonished in front of an abyss, the infinite but personal presence of the supreme Subject that transcends us utterly and on which we depend, before which we can only submit and offer adoration in humility. The Fathers refer to this as a state of “prayer beyond prayer” (ibid., p. 296).

Then it is the Spirit who prays in us (Rom. 8:26-8). “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:15-16). Through our prayer in the Spirit – that is, through in a sense our becoming prayer, becoming a “word” carried by the Spirit – we enter into eternal life. Already in this life we enter into the “we” of God by becoming Church.

“Now the world is totally transfigured into God; its totality rests within the inner realm of God’s totality, its unity encounters the primordial unity. The radiance of God’s glory streams over it, as the splendour of the sun overpowers the light of the stars” (Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy, p. 353).

Monday, 19 August 2013

Prayer and the secret room

Our Lord, when he gives the disciples instruction in prayer, tells them to first go into their “secret room,” and then to address the Father. He gives them words, which we call the Lord’s Prayer. We tend to pay a lot of attention to these words, and rightly. They are the seven requests that the Holy Spirit can carry for us into the presence of the Father. (Incorporated within them, of course, are all the little and specific things we care about.) But we pass over the secret room. Where is it? How do we open and close the door? Religious people talk blithely about our “spiritual” nature, describing us as animals who possess a spiritual soul. But what does that mean?

In a way it is quite simple. To be a spirit is to be a self. To be a self is to be self-conscious. It is to be able to say “I am”, and to be aware of myself in the act of being myself, in relation to all other things that are not myself. We assume, but

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Masculine and feminine

In his famous press conference on the plane coming back from Rio, Pope Francis called for a more profound theology of woman – he even used the word "mystical". For what he might mean, see "Sincere Gift", and also Paul Evdokimov's Woman and the Salvation of the World: A Christian Anthropology on the Charisms of Women.

One of the most difficult question that arises in any such discussion is whether there is such a thing as "masculinity" and "femininity". Clearly at a physical level, male and female characteristics are not too difficult to define. There are also clusters of psychological characteristics that we commonly associate with these terms. However, in the latter case it is much harder to reach agreement. This is partly due to the fact that women rightly object to being caricatured, or imprisoned by a definition.

As with all our knowledge of the world, we can only base ourselves on what the senses reveal to us. Within those images we glimpse Forms or "archetypes" (by abstraction, according to St Thomas). These Forms are real, and without them neither our knowledge of things nor the things themselves would exist. Another

Friday, 2 August 2013

The seven mysteries

The following text from St Bernard of Clairvaux summarizes the correlation I described in The Seven Sacraments between the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit and the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. See the book for more correlations based on tradition, and the reasons for them.

Thus the Holy Spirit through his sevenfold grace destroys the sevenfold misery in the human soul. In its place he builds within the soul a sevenfold blessedness:
Through the spirit of fear he makes the blessed poor in spirit.
Through the spirit of piety he makes them meek.
Through the spirit of knowledge he makes them mournful.
Through the spirit of fortitude he makes them hunger and thirst for justice.
Through the spirit of counsel he makes them merciful.
Through the spirit of understanding he makes them pure of heart.
Through the spirit of wisdom he makes them peacemakers, since wisdom conquers wickedness. The peace of God, “which surpasses all understanding”, rises up in their hearts. This represents the perfection of God’s servants. 

How one who has fallen rises again and moves forward.
We have been made in the image of God.
We cling to the Father through the power of memory,
to the Son by means of our reason or understanding,
and to the Holy Spirit through our will.

Cited in Magnificat August 2013, p. 290-291.