Thomas Merton on Hesychastic Prayer  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Today marks the centennial of Thomas Merton's birth.  Although he died in 1968, his influence remains significant today, and extends far beyond the bounds of the Roman Catholic Church.  A Trappist monk, his spiritual interests likewise extended far beyond the bounds of Western monasticism.  He was particularly engaged with the hesychastic tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy.  As novice master of Gethsemani he was charged with teaching the young monks about asceticism and mystical theology.  He did not exclude the Christian East from his syllabus. 

A sample of this can be found in Merton and Hesychasm, Bernadette Dieker  and Jonathan Montaldo, eds, Louisville, Kentucky, Fons Vitae, 2003.  The chapter is "Love for God and Mutual Charity:  Thomas Merton's Lectures on Hesychasm to the Novices at the Abbey of Gethsemani", transcribed and edited by Bernadette Dieker.  The quote below, found on pp 471-472, deals with the recitation of the Jesus Prayer to drive away distracting thoughts.

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The idea is first finding your heart, getting completely centered inside where the struggle is going on, and then in your heart socking this stuff with the most powerful thing that you've got, which is the Name of Jesus.  So you take the Jesus Prayer and you get this in the center of your heart and everything that comes up, WHAM!  And you really don't fool around, you hit it.  And you hit it out loud to begin with.  You're in a cell, you're by yourself, you're not in the Church, and you learn this prayer by saying it with your lips, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."  Then you say that about 5,000 times.  You keep saying it...You really work at this thing.  It becomes a full time project, and you keep it up until you or the thought gives up.  It's "either/or."  Now of course this is a bit drastic.  I don't think this is what most people need to do, but it's good to recognize that this is a basic approach that some people have.  Obviously there are simpler ways of doing it, but this is the way these fellows do it.

Then, after saying it with your lips, you learn that you don't have to say it out loud, you can just whisper it, and then it gets a lot quieter and you begin to calm down quite a bit.  Of course, this is over a period of time.  Then it becomes mental, and you think of it purely in your mind.  You don't say any words anymore, and then it gets down into your heart.  Mind, Heart, see.  And when it gets into your heart, it's a question that the mind and the heart have to be one.  This is the key to the whole thing.  A very complex idea, it's a very deep idea, actually.  A deep psychological idea of uniting your mind and your heart.  This is the key to the whole thing.  It takes an awful lot of understanding, and a great deal of work, uniting the mind and the heart.  What do they mean by that?  Well, that requires quite a lot of discussion.  The real fruit of the thing is when the prayer becomes completely spiritual--this follows pretty much the old Greek pattern of words, concepts, and then beyond concepts.  This is the way that they go at this thing, and I think that it's very interesting.  We'll come across this all the way down--there's the whole tradition, all through Russian spirituality which keeps coming back to this, and this is one of the big things in the nineteenth century.  This is one of the sources of nineteenth century Russian mysticism.  I think if we keep the idea of serious interior asceticism centered on this idea of a prayer of the heart which is effective in socking these things, but don't try to do it in the wrong way.  Just keep in your memory that there is such a method, but that you can't do it just by wanting to.  But it's something that is worth considering and you might look into it in the future as something that may have something to it.  I'll say at least that much.

Hilary of Poitiers on Faith  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Hilary (ca 300-368) was born in southwestern Gaul.  His parents were pagan and gave him what must have been an excellent classical education, to judge by the good Latin style of his later writings.  He also knew Greek, learned in part during his exile in the eastern part of the empire.  He was baptized, along with his wife and daughter, at a relatively mature age, and was elected bishop by the inhabitants of Poitiers only a few years later.  He quickly became embroiled in a theological dispute with adherents of Arianism, which was still vigorous despite its condemnation by the Council of Nicea.  Hilary fell afoul of the emperor Constantius, who was somewhat "soft" on the heresy, and was exiled to Phrygia in Asia Minor for several years.  After his return to Poitiers he completed De Trinitate, his major work, and mentored the great monastic Martin of Tours. 

Edward C Sellner, in Finding the Monk Within (HiddenSpring, 2008, pp 64-66) has some good insights into Hilary's approach to the Christian faith.

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All of his works...were composed with the strong conviction that God was not only one being, but three persons...God, and those who are created in God's image, Hilary believes, are thus called to community, to participate and build in their own lives communities that reflect the God in whose image they have been made...

A second conviction...is his intense love of and loyalty to Jesus Christ.  For Hilary, the Son of God was truly God not in name and metaphor only, but in the fullest sense and deepest reality.  This personal relationship with Christ, in fact, is his primary motive for the writings on faith that he does.  It is his reading and study of the sacred texts of scripture that inform his theology and the explanations he gives to justify belief in the power and equality of the Trinity.  Ultimately his love of Christ relies not solely on intellect and intellectual arguments, but upon his intuitive senses, his heart...

Hilary also learned from the Eastern fathers during his exile that to be a theologian was, above all, to be a person of prayer.  They had taught him that all theology begins and ends in prayer.  With this awareness, it was natural for him to conclude that "God cannot be known except by devotion".  As he writes in his book on the Trinity, "What presumption to suppose that words can adequately describe God's nature, when thought is often too deep for words, and His nature transcends even the conceptions of thought...We must believe, must apprehend, must worship, and such acts of devotion must stand in lieu of definition."  For Hilary, what he learned from the Eastern fathers was the ancient Christian principle, lex orandi, lex credendi" (the law of worship is the law of belief); in other words, how a person or community worships reveals what an individual or a community believes.  Thus his understanding of faith is linked intrinsically with a life of prayer, one that includes the reading of scripture, yes, but also public worship and personal prayer...

A fourth element of his theology also reflects the teachings of the Eastern father...when Hilary says, "What presumption to suppose that words can adequately describe God's nature."  Eastern theologians had taught him this apophatic theology:  based upon the presupposition that words or dogmatic definitions cannot fully explain the profound mystery of God.  Here Hilary anticipates the theology of later Eastern Orthodox Christians, the sixth-century writer Pseudo-Dionysius, and a number of medieval mystics, including the fourteenth-century anonymous English author  of the Cloud of Unknowing and the sixteenth-century Spanish poet, John of the Cross (1542-1591).  Hilary states in his book on the Trinity that the very "purpose" of faith, what it proclaims, is that it cannot fully "comprehend that for which it is seeking".  Anything that is said is merely an attempt to wrap words around a mystery that is beyond verbal or intellectual explanation.

Christmas Proclamation  

Posted by Joe Rawls

An ancient custom in the Roman liturgy is the solemn proclamation, or Kalenda, of the Nativity at the start of the Christmas Eve Mass.  A translation of the text as chanted in the video (made in St Peter's Basilica in 2012) appears below.

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  In the twenty-fifth day of the month of December,

In the year five thousand one hundred and ninety-nine from the creation of the world, when in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth;

In the year two thousand nine hundred and fifty-seven from the flood;

In the year two thousand and fifty-one from the birth of Abraham;

In the year one thousand five hundred and ten from the going forth of the people of Israel out of Egypt under Moses;

In the year one thousand and thirty-two from the anointing of David as king;

In the fifty-sixth week according to the prophecy of Daniel;

In the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;

In the year seven hundred and fifty-two from the foundation of the city of Rome;

In the forty-second year of the reign of the Emperor Octavian Augustus;

In the sixth age of the world, while the whole earth was at peace--

JESUS CHRIST  eternal God and the Son of the eternal Father, willing to consecrate the world by His gracious coming, having been conceived of the Holy Spirit, and the nine months of His conception being now accomplished, was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary and made flesh.

The birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to the flesh.


On the Night of the Nativity  

Posted by Joe Rawls

St Ephraim the Syrian (306 to ca 373), with over 400 hymns and poems attributed to him, is one of Christianity's most prolific hymnodists.  Written originally in Syriac, they were translated into Greek at an early stage, and thence became widely known throughout the church.  Typical is "On the Night of the Nativity", reproduced below.  Hat-tip to the Orthodox Christian Network website.

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Pure is the present night, in which the Pure One appeared, Who came to purify us!  Let our hearing be pure, and the sight of our eyes chaste, and the feeling of the heart holy, and the speech of the mouth sincere!

The present night is the night of reconciliation; therefore, let no one be wroth against his brother and offend him!

This night gave peace to the whole world, and so, let no one threaten.  This is the night of the Meek One; let no one be cruel!

This is the night of the Humble One; let no one be proud!

Now is the day of joy; let us not take revenge for offenses!  Now is the day of good will; let us not be harsh.  On this day of tranquility, let us not become agitated by anger!

Today God came unto sinners; let not the righteous exalt himself over sinners!

Today the Most Rich One became poor for our sake; let the rich man invite the poor to his table!

Today we received a gift which we did not ask for; let us bestow alms to those who cry out to us and beg!

The present day has opened the door of heaven to our prayers; let us also open our door to those who ask of us forgiveness!

Today the Godhead placed upon Himself the seal of humanity, and humanity has been adorned with the seal of the Godhead!

Kind Words for the Creed  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Creeds just aren't trendy these days.  They are apt to be derided by theological "progessives"--the creeds contain statements that modern people simply cannot accept intellectually--and equally by evangelicals--the creeds are "unscriptural" and divert attention from a personal relationship with Jesus.  But there are more positive approaches to the creeds.  Such can be found in the provocative book Deep Church Rising:  the Third Schism and the Recovery of Christian Orthodoxy (Cascade Books 2014).  This represents an Eastern Orthodox/Evangelical collaboration by authors Andrew G Walker and Robin A Parry.  Below is an excerpt dealing with the ongoing relevance of the creeds.

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Creeds often take a fair amount of flack.  In the minds of many people they are lifeless sets of "things to believe" that substitute for authentic heart-felt faith; they epitomize outward "religion" obsessed with form and ritual, as opposed to inward devotion.  For some they are seen to foster a propositional approach to faith that focuses on the primacy of assent to certain claimed facts.  Others see them as a source of oppression, the top-down imposition by powerful ecclesiastical hierarchies of what Christians are compelled to confirm...

...We wish to present creeds differently.  The great ecumenical Creed is, we suggest, an instrument of the Holy Spirit to help keep the church focused on key aspects of the gospel message.  A few points of orientation are in order.

1.  The Creed is indeed concerned with certain critical assertions about God and salvation history--assertions that Christians have historically maintained as central--but it is oriented toward the primacy of existentially committed  belief...the Creed is embedded within the wider context of acts of spiritual devotion and worship.

2.  The Creed does not point toward itself but beyond itself...

3.  The Creed does indeed contain propositions--...but they are misunderstood if they are thought to be simple lists of items to believe.  On the contrary, they are in fact narrative summaries pointing to the grand story of the triune God's activity in creation; in the ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ; in the church; and in the future with the return of Christ and the new creation...

4.  The Creed is not an attempt to reduce God to a set of sentences, nor an attempt to explain God...

5.  The Creed does define boundaries for orthodox Christian faith, but those boundaries are surprisingly wide...

6.  Orthodoxy may be a large tent but it is not infinitely large.  Boundaries do need to be drawn and this, we maintain, is a good thing.  If Christianity can be anything at all then it is nothing at all...

7.  The ecumenical Creed serves a unifying purpose because all the main groupings within the Christian church--Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant--affirm it...

8.  ...what the Creed does say is intended to provide the normative theological framework within which everything else should be understood...

9.  To say that those who transgress aspects of the Creed have moved beyond the bounds of authentic Christian beliefs is not to say that such people will not be saved nor even that they are not real Christians.

The Power of the Sign of the Cross  

Posted by Joe Rawls

As the above image suggests, the sign of the cross has always been a part of my devotional life.  It is also used by countless Roman Catholics, Eastern Christians, Anglicans (and not just the High Church variety) and a wide variety of other Christians.  But what does it mean, if it is not just an unreflective  act of pious devotion?  A good answer is provided in Stephen Beale's essay "21 Things We Do When We Make the Sign of the Cross" which is found here on the Catholic Exchange website. 

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1. Pray
2. Open ourselves to grace
3. Sanctify the day
4. Commit the whole self to Christ:  in moving our hands from our foreheads to our hearts and then both shoulders we are asking God's blessing for our mind, our passions and desires, our very bodies.
5. Recall the Incarnation
6. Remember the Passion of Our Lord
7. Affirm the Trinity
11. Invoke the power of God's Name
14. Reaffirm our Baptism
16. Remake ourselves in Christ's image
17. Mark ourselves for Christ
20. Seal ourselves in the Spirit
21. Witness to others.

Martin Thornton on the Daily Office  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Martin Thornton (1915-1986), a priest in the Church of England, was a leading Anglican spiritual writer of the 20th century.  He wrote a number of books including Anglican Spirituality and The Heart of the Parish:  a theology of the remnant.  He stressed the importance of individual Christians developing a rule of life, based upon the Eucharist, some version of the Daily Office, and private devotion or contemplative prayer.  In this essay, excerpted below, Matthew Dallman discusses several of Thornton's insights into the Office.

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1)  The Our Father prayer is the sole domenical basis for the Office; it establishes its corporate nature, its teleology, its disposition, its paradigm.  The Didache confirms its centrality to corporate set prayer.

2)  The Office can only be understood theologically within the larger theology of Regula-Office-Mass-Devotion--which is the ascetical application of the doctrine of the Trinity:  Office associates with the Father, Mass with the Son, and Devotion with the Spirit.

3)  The Office is objective praise to the Father by the Body of Jesus...Sanctification of time is by our attentiveness to the abundant activity of the Holy Spirit...

4)  Sober assessment of the pastoral situation today must conclude that the reason few people do the Office likely stems from the fact that the authorized Anglican Office today was crafted for a late-medieval society...The Anglican Office has rightly endured as a Benedictine inheritance, yet now reform is necessary.

5)  ...The ideal is memorization of the Office, and no books.