Booknote: Short Trip to the Edge  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Short Trip to the Edge: where earth meets heaven--a pilgrimage. By Scott Cairns. HarperSanFrancisco, 2007.

The author teaches creative writing at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He's a convert to the Greek Orthodox church by way of the Presbyterians and Episcopalians--a lot of that is going on these days. The book relates three pilgrimages he made to Mt. Athos during the course of a sabattical year.

Cairns has been practising the Jesus Prayer for ten years or so but has gotten to the point where he feels like he is making no progress at all. He thinks that if he can find a spiritual father--a spiritual director, only more so--at one of the Athonite monasteries, he can give his spiritual life a good jump-start. This is the basic plot of the book, which is loaded with colorful descriptions of monastic life, even more colorful characters, and beautiful renderings of the rugged Mt. Athos landscape.

Cairns visits several monasteries and has talks with a number of monks, one of which I quote from in my post on the Jesus Prayer. In the end, he doesn't find one single spiritual father, but rather realizes that he has many. His spiritual practice is indeed deepened, though not in the spectacular way he may have been seeking at the outset.

His 14 year-old son accompanies him on the last pilgrimage and there are several genuinely touching scenes of father and son at all-night vigils, hiking along the trails between monasteries, and the like. Quality time, indeed.

On the more negative side, there are a few incidents of the occasionally rough treatment of guests to which visitors to Mt.Athos are sometimes subjected. Once he has to spend the night in an old storeroom where non-Orthodox guests are consigned. When the guestmaster finds out he's only a convert to Orthodoxy, apparently that means he's not Orthodox enough. On another occasion, a guest (who doesn't quite have it all together) is receiving communion during a Liturgy when he suddenly flails his arms about and spills some of the consecrated wine on his shirt and on the floor as well. The monks take him aside and make him take off his shirt, nwhich is then burned. Another monk then pours a flammable liquid over the wine spilled on the floor and sets it on fire. We read in the Rule of Benedict that all guests are to be recieved as Christ. For some eastern monks, apparently, some guests are to be received as Christ was by Pilate.

The Jesus Prayer  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me

Jesus, mercy


Thes are all variations (and not an exhuastive list at that) of the Jesus Prayer, one of the underpinnings of eastern Christian spiritual practice which is gaining increasing popularity among non-Orthodox Christians in the West.
The prayer is biblically rooted in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, "Pray without ceasing." It is alluded to in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers and becomes firmly rooted in Orthodox monasticism by the 7th century. The lives of many monks, especially hermits, revolve around the constant repetition of the Jesus Prayer. But it can become a vital pathway to contemplation for those of us who are not monks.
Because the prayer is short, it can be said during odd moments of free time in the course of an otherwise hectic day. I myself say it while walking my dog or when driving mto work. While stopped at intersections, I focus on individuals driving in the opposite direction and say, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on him (or her)." The prayer can be easily customized into an intercessory prayer; simply fill in the blank after "have mercy on..." with whomever it is you want to remember.
But of course, it is best to set aside blocks of time to do the prayer. You should find yourself a quiet room; for some folks a quiet dark room will work even better. Find a chair that will let you sit up straight. Closing your eyes might help. Bishop Kallistos says you should not use an icon because that would be distracting. I cheat. I have an icon of Jesus, a detail of an original from the monastery of Hilandar on Mt. Athos. It helps me, but then, who am I?
When your are ready, simply begin saying the version of the prayer you have chosen. That's basically all ther is to it. It's not that complicated. Sure.
When I do the prayer, I try to stay focused on the human-divine person of Jesus as our own direct link to God. Ifind that if I focus consciously on the words, I have a better chance of reducing the background mental static of random thoughts and well-loved obsessions that interfere with prayer--what our Buddhist friends call "the monkey-mind."
When you first begin the prayer, you may want to experiment with different versions of it until you find one that works best for you. Once this is chosen, you should stick with that one particular version. Some monk or other has said something about frequently transplanted saplings not thriving, which makes sense to me.
How many times should you say the Jesus prayer? We read in The Way of the Pilgrim about the pilgrim starting off with a thousand times per day and working his way up to six or twelve thousand times or whatever. However, most spiritual writers say that what matters is setting aside blocks of time to devote to the prayer; the actual numer of times it is recited is of secondary importance.
I find a prayer rope helpful, not to keep track of how many times I'm saying the prayer, but to keep my hands occupied. It actually helps me keep focused.
An interesting variation on the prayer is found in Scott Cairns' Short Trip to the Edge, a description of his pilgrimages to Mt.Athos. Ath the monastery of Vatopedi, he discusses his difficulties in prayer with one of the monks. The monk says

Tell me how you pray.
"I say the Jesus Prayer."
"Do you say it slowly?'
"Well, I don't hurry."
"Do you listen to the words?"
"And to the stillness between the words?"
Hmm, I thought, then added, "The stillness between the words?"
"When you pray the prayer, say it once, and then wait listening. Then say it again. Then wait, listening."
(Cairns, p. 244)

St. Theophan the Recluse, the great 19th century Russian starets, distinguishes three stages in saying the prayer:
1. We start out by simply concentrating on the words.
2. We the get to a level at which we can pray without distraction.

3. Eventually the prayer becomes so ingrained into our psyches that it always runs in the backs of our minds, whether we consciously say the words or not.

I'll close with two other relevant quotes:

The more rain falls on the earth, the softer it makes it; simularly, Christ's holy name gladdens the earth of our heart the more we call upon it.

St. Hesychios the Priest (Philokalia )

Be encouraged! Take up prayer more readily and continue without interruptions--and you will soon obtain your desired goal. Soon, a reverent attention to the One God will be established, and with it, inner peace. I say sson, not now or in a day or two, Months may be required, sometimes even years. Ask the Lord, and he will help.

Theophan the Recluse, Letter 42

Theosis: what it's all about  

Posted by Joe Rawls

God became human so that people might become gods

We non-fundamentalist western Christians tend not to think too much about what happens when we die. Hell is no longer a serious possibility for most of us who are even halfway liberal mainline Protestants, Anglicans, or Roman Catholics. We do not deign to believe in a God who would be so judgemental as to consign people to the eternal slammer. On the other hand, how excited can we get over spending eternity floating on a cloud dressed in an angel costume? Some fans of process theology think that when we die we exist only as memories in God's (admittedly huge) data banks.
So what sense do we make of the above quote by Athanasius, the fourth-century bishop of Alexandria? Isn't that a bit too outrageous, even if we're grasping for a few optimistic straws? Becoming a god? Isn't that what the Mormons promise themselves after a lifetime of taking part in temple ordinances and putting on holy underwear?
Strange as it sounds, this doctrine has been at the heart of Eastern Christian theology and spiritual practice for nearly its entire history. But let's clarify what theosis means.
Right off the bat, theosis is not the same as pantheism. The essence of our human nature is not replaced by divine nature. As Bishop Kallistos Ware, perhaps the leading English-language Orthodox theologian, puts it,
we are able to affirm a direct or mystical union between man [sic] and God...
but at the same time we exclude any pantheistic identification between the
two: for man participates in the energies of God, not the essence. There is
union, but not fusion or confusion. Although "oned" with the divine, man still
remains man; he is not swallowed up or annihilated, but bewtween him and
God there continues always to exist an"I-Thou" relationship of person to
(The Orthodox Way, p. 23)
The doctrine of theosis--also known as deification, divinization, or partaking of the divine nature--is scripturally rooted mainly in Psalm 82:6 (Now I say to you, "You are gods, and all of you children of the Most High) and in 2 Peter 1:4 ( about being "partakers of divine nature.)
In the eastern tradition, we achieve theosis by prayer, meditation, moral living, and, most particularly, participation in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.