True Prayer

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I’ve not been real big on prayer during this lifetime.

It always felt either like: 1) talking to myself in my head while pretending an invisible God or Person was listening to me, a minuscule human being amongst 5 billion others on this tiny third stone from this tiny star on the far edge of a small galaxy in a universe filled with countless super-galaxies; or 2) talking out loud in a roomful of people, reciting memorized formulas that, no matter how hard I try, never feel like they’re coming from the heart — mine or theirs.

On the other hand, I’ve always thought that there’s something to prayer, if by “prayer” we mean “communion” with the Infinite. In this sense, meditation can be prayer. Singing can be prayer. Nature walks, art, poetry, love-making, dish-washing — it can all be thought of as prayer.

The Orthodox tradition, with its Jesus Prayer as an all-day meditation or mindfulness exercise, has always intrigued me. So, I was not surprised to stumble upon an exposition on prayer from the Orthodox perspective — a perspective that resonates in me, a lowly ecstatic contemplative whose hunger for God diminishes not:

There is a story told in the Gerontikon, the sayings of the desert Fathers, about a visitor who goes to see three monks. And they talked all the afternoon. Suddenly the visitor realizes that the sun has set. “It is time for vespers;” says the visitor, “it is time for us to pray together.” And the monks answered, “But we have been praying together all the last four hours.” Prayer, in their experience, was not just occasional but continual; not just one activity among others, but the activity of their entire lives. It was a dimension present in everything else that they did. St. Gregory of Nazianzos says, “Remember God more often than you breathe.” Prayer, ideally, should be as much part of us as our breathing.

Sometimes people talk about having a “prayer life,” but is that not an odd phrase? We do not have a distinct and separate breathing life; we breathe as we live. But how are we to attain prayer of this kind: all-embracing, ever-present, prayer of the total self?

That brings me to another question: What is prayer? Evagrios of Pontos says in a famous definition, “Prayer is communion of the intellect with God.” So Evagrios sees prayer as an activity of the intellect (nous). Nous, like pathos, is a word that is hard to translate into English.

Another writer of the fourth century, contemporary with Evagrios (in Syria rather than in Egypt), the author of the Spiritual Homilies attributed to Macarios, has a slightly different approach to prayer. “It may be,” he says, “that the saints sit in the theater and watch the delusion of this world, while with the inner self, all the time, they are speaking to God.” There we see, as in the story I told from the desert Fathers, that prayer aims to be continual; not so much something we do from time to time, but something that we are all the time.

Also, we see from the Spiritual Homilies of Macarios that prayer is something that goes on in the inner self (o eso anthropos). This is a biblical phrase, used for example, in Ephesians: “May God according to the riches of His glory, grant that you are strengthened with the power of the Holy Spirit in the inner self so that Christ dwells in your heart by faith” (3:16-17).

There we see that the inner self is associated with the indwelling of Christ and the Holy Spirit. And also we see in Ephesians that the inner self is identified with the heart. So for Macarios, prayer is something that we offer with the inner self, that is, with the heart. Where Evagrios emphasizes the intellect, the Macarian Homilies emphasize the heart (cardia).

These two approaches are combined in a definition of prayer given by the nineteenth-century Russian writer St. Theophan the Recluse. “To pray,” he says, “is to stand before God with the intellect, in the heart, and to go on standing before Him day and night until the end of life.” So, prayer is something that goes on with the intellect in the heart, and it is continuous. St. Isaac the Syrian even says that the saints are praying while they are asleep. Sometimes when I am lecturing, I notice that members of my audience close their eyes. But then I think that perhaps they are saints, and though they are sleeping, they are also listening.

[…]

C. G. Jung, in his book Memories, Dreams, Reflections, recalls a conversation he had with an American Indian, one Ochwiay Biano. [Mr. Biano is also known by the English name “Mountain Lake.”] Ochwiay Biano said,

“How cruel the whites are: their lips are thin, their noses sharp, their faces furrowed and distorted by holes. Their eyes have a staring expression. They are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something, they are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want, we do not understand them, we think that they are mad.” I asked him why he thought the whites were all mad. “They say they think with their heads,” he replied.

“Why, of course. What do you think with?” I asked him in surprise.

“We think here,” he said, indicating his heart.

Now, Ochwiay Biano is coming very much closer to what Scripture and much of the Patristic tradition meant by the heart.

[…]

Mark the Monk of the late fourth or early fifth century (also known as Mark the Hermit or Mark the Ascetic) gives a particular explication to this theology of the heart – a sacramental application. He says that through baptism, Christ and the Holy Spirit enter the innermost secret and uncontaminated chamber of the heart. By virtue of our baptism there is an inner chamber, a central shrine within us where grace dwells and where evil cannot reach. Mark believes that from our baptism there is a point or spark within us that belongs entirely to God, that is the pure glorious God in us. “By the good treasure of the heart,” says Mark, “Scripture means the Holy Spirit who is hidden in the heart of the faithful” – hidden through baptism.

So the aim of the spiritual life, according to Mark, is that we should become consciously aware of this secret presence of the baptismal Christ Who is already in our hearts, mystically. The Christian journey, for him, is a journey from baptismal grace, present secretly in the heart, to baptismal grace, experienced in the heart with full conscious awareness.

[…]

Where have I heard this before?

Oh, yes… in just about every contemplative tradition known to humanity, that’s where.

I know that, from the Traditionalist perspective, it is important to choose a Path and stick to it, so as to benefit from the religious Mystery embedded in that particular Path. I understand the wisdom in this perspective and want nothing other than to honor it.

At the same time, when I read the concluding paragraph in the collection of snips above, I am reminded that there really are many, many Paths leading to the same place.

We should celebrate this fact, rather than always seeking to convert everyone else to our particular perspective.

Abu ‘l-Moghith al-Hussain ibn Mansur al-Hallaj

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Sometimes words really do have consequences:

The most controversial figure in the history of Islamic mysticism, Abu ‘l-Moghith al-Hussain ibn Mansur al-Hallaj was born C. 244 (858) near al-Baiza’ in the province of Fars. He travelled very widely, first to Tostar and Baghdad, then to Makkah, and afterwards to Khuzestan, Khorasan, Transoxiana, Sistan, India and Turkestan. Eventually he returned to Baghdad, where his bold preaching of union with God caused him to be arrested on a charge of incarnationism. He was condemned to death and cruelly executed on 29 Dhu ‘l-Qa’da 309 (28 March 9I3). Author of a number of books and a considerable volume of poetry, he passed into Muslim legend as the prototype of the intoxicated lover of God.

[…]

The Passion of al-Hallaj

[…]

In their bewilderment the people were divided concerning him. His detractors were countless, his supporters innumerable. They witnessed many wonders performed by him. Tongues wagged, and his words were carried to the caliph. Finally all were united in the view that he should be put to death because of his saying, “I am the Truth.”

“Say, He is the Truth,” they cried out to him.

“Yes. He is All,” he replied. “You say that He is lost. On the contrary, it is Hussain that is lost. The Ocean does not vanish or grow less.”

“These words which Hallaj speaks have an esoteric meaning,” they told Junaid.

“Let him be killed,” he answered. “This is not the time for esoteric meanings.”

Then a group of the theologians made common cause against Hallaj and carried a garbled version of his words to Mo’tasem; they also turned his vizier Ali ibn ’Isa against him. The caliph ordered that he should be thrown into prison. There he was held for a year. But people would come and consult him on their problems. So then they were prevented from visiting him, and for five months no one came near him, except Ibn ‘Ata once and Ibn Khafif once. On one occasion Ibn ‘Ata sent him a message.

“Master, ask pardon for the words you have spoken, that you may be set free.”

“Tell him who said this to ask pardon,” Hallaj replied.

Ibn ‘Ata wept when he heard this answer.

“We are not even a fraction of Hallaj,” he said.

It is said that on the first night of his imprisonment the gaolers came to his cell but could not find him in the prison. They searched through all the prison, but could not discover a soul. On the second night they found neither him nor the prison, for all their hunting. On the third night they discovered him in the prison.

“Where were you on the first night, and where were you and the prison on the second night?” they demanded. “Now you have both reappeared. What phenomenon is this?”

“On the first night,” he replied, “I was in the Presence, therefore I was not here. On the second night the Presence was here, so that both of us were absent. On the third night 1 was sent back, that the Law might be preserved. Come and do your work!”

When Hallaj was first confined there were three hundred souls in the prison. That night he addressed them.

“Prisoners, shall I set you free?”

“Why do you not free yourself?” they replied.

“I am God’s captive. I am the sentinel of salvation,” he answered. “If I so wish, with one signal I can loose all bonds.”

Hallaj made a sign with his finger, and all their bonds burst asunder.

“Now where are we to go?” the prisoners demanded. “The gate of the prison is locked.”

Hallaj signalled again, and cracks appeared in the walls.

“Now go on your way,” he cried.

“Are you not coming too?” they asked.

“No,” he replied. “I have a secret with Him which cannot be told save on the gallows.”

“Where have the prisoners gone?” the warders asked him next morning.

“I set them free,” Hallaj answered.

“Why did you not go?” they enquired.

“God has cause to chide me, so I did not go,” he replied.

This story was carried to the caliph.

“There will be a riot,” he cried. “Kill him, or beat him with sticks until he retracts.”

They beat him with sticks three hundred times. At every blow a clear voice was heard to say, “Fear not, son of Mansur! “

Then they led him out to be crucified.

Loaded with thirteen heavy chains, Hallaj strode out proudly along the way waving his arms like a very vagabond.

“Why do you strut so proudly?” they asked him. “Because I am going to the slaughterhouse,” he replied. And he recited in clear tones,

My boon-companion’s not to be Accused of mean inequity. He made me drink like him the best, As does the generous host his guest; And when the round was quite complete He called for sword and winding-sheet. Such is his fate, who drinks past reason With Draco in the summer season.

When they brought him to the base of the gallows at Bab al-Taq, he kissed the wood and set his foot upon the ladder.

“How do you feel?” they taunted him. “The ascension of true men is the top of the gallows,” he answered.

He was wearing a loincloth about his middle and a mantle on his shoulders. Turning towards Makkah, he lifted up his hands and communed with God.

“What He knows, no man knows,” he said. Then he climbed the gibbet.

“What do you say,” asked a group of his followers, “concerning us who are your disciples, and these who condemn you and would stone you?”

“They have a double reward, and you a single,” he answered. “You merely think well of me. They are moved by the strength of their belief in One God to maintain the rigour of the Law.”

Shibli came and stood facing him.

“Have we not forbidden thee all beings?” he cried. Then he asked, “What is Sufism, Hallaj?”

“The least part of it is this that you see,” Hallaj replied.

“What is the loftier part?” asked Shibli.

“That you cannot reach,” Hallaj answered.

Then all the spectators began to throw stones. Shibli, to conform, cast a clod. Hallaj sighed.

“You did not sigh when struck by all these stones. Why did you sigh because of a clod?” they asked.

“Because those who cast stones do not know what they are doing. They have an excuse. From him it comes hard to me, for he knows that he ought not to fling at me.”

Then they cut off his hands. He laughed.

“Why do you laugh?” they cried.

“It is an easy matter to strike off the hands of a man who is bound,” he answered. “He is a true man, who cuts off the hands of attributes which remove the crown of aspiration from the brow of the Throne.”

They hacked off his feet. He smiled.

“With these feet I made an earthly journey,” he said. “Other feet I have, which even now are journeying through both the worlds. If you are able, hack off those feet!”

Then he rubbed his bloody, amputated hands over his face, so that both his arms and his face were stained with blood.

“Why did you do that?” they enquired.

“Much blood has gone out of me,” he replied. “I realize that my face will have grown pale. You suppose that my pallor is because I am afraid. I rubbed blood over my face so that I might appear rose-cheeked in your eyes. The cosmetic of heroes is their blood.”

“Even if you bloodied your face, why did you stain your arms?”

“I was making ablution.”

“What ablution?”

“When one prays two rak’as in love,” Hallaj replied, “the ablution is not perfect unless performed with blood.”

Next they plucked out his eyes. A roar went up from the crowd. Some wept, some flung stones. Then they made to cut out his tongue.

“Be patient a little, give me time to speak one word,” he entreated. “O God,” he cried, lifting his face to heaven, “do not exclude them for the suffering they are bringing on me for Thy sake, neither deprive them of this felicity. Praise be to God, for that they have cut off my feet as I trod Thy way. And if they strike off my head from my body, they have raised me up to the head of the gallows, contemplating Thy majesty.”

Then they cut off his ears and nose. An old woman carrying a pitcher happened along. Seeing Hallaj, she cried, “Strike, and strike hard and true. What business has this pretty little Woolcarder to speak of God?”

The last words Hallaj spoke were these. “Love of the One is isolation of the One.” Then he chanted this verse: “Those that believe not therein seek to hasten it; but those who believe in it go in fear of it, knowing that it is the truth.”

This was his final utterance. They then cut out his tongue. It was the time of the evening prayer when they cut off his head. Even as they were cutting off his head, Hallaj smiled. Then he gave up the ghost.

A great cry went up from the people. Hallaj had carried the ball of destiny to the boundary of the field of resignation. From each one of his members came the declaration, “I am the Truth.”

Next day they declared, “This scandal will be even greater than while he was alive.” So they burned his limbs. From his ashes came the cry, “I am the Truth,” even as in the time of his slaying every drop of blood as it trickled formed the word Allah. Dumbfounded, they cast his ashes into the Tigris. As they floated on the surface of the water, they continued to cry, “I am the Truth.”

Now Hallaj had said, “When they cast my ashes into the Tigris, Baghdad will be in peril of drowning under the water. Lay my robe in front of the water, or Baghdad will be destroyed.” His servant, when he saw what had happened, brought the master’s robe and laid it on the bank of the Tigris. The waters subsided, and his ashes became silent. Then they gathered his ashes and buried them.

It amazes me how religion purports to offer a Path to God (or Source, Nibanna, Enlightenment, Moksha, Satchitananda, Salvation, Oneness, etc.)… but when a person attempts to follow that Path to its final destination… that person is persecuted, tortured and martyred, cast out of the fold, spat on, condemned to Hell.

What is wrong with humanity, that it is so shallow, so distant from its Source, that it does not recognize a perfect opportunity for realization when it presents itself?

Today’s Rumi Moment

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Masnavi I, 2880-2901:

Whatsoever the man in love (with God) speaks, the scent of
Love is springing from his mouth into the abode of Love.

If he speaks (formal) theology, it all turns to (spiritual) poverty:
the scent of poverty comes from that man of sweet and beguiling
discourse.

And if he speak infidelity, it has the scent of (the true) religion,
and if he speak doubtfully, his doubt turns to certainty.

The perverse froth that has risen from a sea of sincerity-
that turbid (froth) has been set out by the pure source.

Know that its froth is pure and worthy: know that it is like
revilement from the lips of the beloved,
Whoso unsought reproaches have become sweet (to the lover)
for the sake of her cheek which he desires.

If he (the lover of God) speak falsehood, it seems (like) the
truth. O (fine) falsehood that would adorn (even) the truth!

If you cook (a confection) of sugar in the form of a loaf of
bread, it will taste of candy, not of bread, while you are
sucking it.

If a true believer find a golden idol, how should he leave it
(there) for the sake of a worshipper?

Nay, he will take it and cast it into the fire: he will break
(destroy) its borrowed (unreal) form,
In order that the idol-shape may not remain on the gold,
because Form hinders and waylays (those who seek Reality).

The essence of its gold is the essence of Lordship (Divinity):
the idol-stamp on the sterling gold is borrowed (unreal).

Do not burn a blanket on account of a flea, and do not let
the day go (to waste) on account of every gnat’s headache.

You are an idol worshipper when you remain in (bondage
to) forms: leave its (the idol’s) form and look at the reality.

If you are a man (bound) for the Pilgrimage, seek a pilgrim
(as your) companion, whether he be a Hindoo or a Turcoman
or an Arab.

Do not look at his figure and colour, look at his purpose and
intention.

If he is black, (yet) he is in accord with you: call him white,
for (spiritually) his complexion is the same as yours.

This story has been told up and down (confusedly), like the
doings of lovers, without foot (end) or head (beginning).

It hath no head, inasmuch as it existed before eternity; it
hath no foot: it has (always) been akin to everlastingness.

Nay, it is like water: every drop thereof is both head and foot,
and at the same time without both.

This is not a story, mark you! God forbid! This is the ready
money (presentation, here and now) of my state and yours;
consider (it) well.

Because the Sufi is grand and glorious (in his spiritual vision):
Whatever is past is not remembered (does not enter his mind).

“The Mathnawi of Jalalu’ddin Rumi”
Edited and translated by Reynold A. Nicholson
Volume I, verses 2880-2901
Published by “E.J.W.Gibb Memorial”,
Cambridge, England.
First published 1926, Reprinted 1990.

* I.e. “every trivia vexation.”

UPDATE: Here’s a bonus Sufi essay, just for kicks….

Today’s Bliss, Joy and Ecstasy Moment

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On days like today, I gain succor from the Phala Nikaya (i.e., the Buddha’s discourses on meditative attainment).

Here’s a section of the Mahaasaccaka Sutta (MN 36), known as The Major Discourse to Saccaka (On the pleasure of meditation (jhana) the fruits (phala) of the contemplative life, and the Dark Night of the Soul). This section deals with the attainment of jhana, or meditative absorption:

Aggivessana, then it occurred to me, whoever recluse or Brahmin experienced sharp, rough, unpleasant feelings, in the past, he did not experience anything more than this. Whoever recluse or Brahmin, would experience sharp rough unpleasant feelings in the future, would not experience anything more than this. Whoever recluse or Brahmin experiences sharp, rough, unpleasant feelings, at present, he does not experience anything more than this. It occurred to me: Doing these difficult exertions, I will not attain, any noble distinctive knowledge and vision above human. There should be some other method for the realization of enlightenment. Then Aggivessana, I recalled the experience under the shade of the rose apple tree near my father’s field: Secluded from sensual thoughts and secluded from thoughts of demerit, with applied and sustained attention (vitakka and vicára) and with joy (sukha) and pleasure (piiti) born of seclusion, I attained to the first jhana. Then the awareness arose this is the path to enlightenment. I thought, why should I fear this pleasantness, which is other than sensual pleasure and away from thoughts of demerit.

Aggivessana, then it occurred to me, it is not easy to attain that pleasantness with this emaciated body, what if I take some coarse food some cooked rice and bread. At that time the fivefold bhikkhus attended on me, thinking whatever noble thing the recluse Gotama attains he will inform us. When I partook of coarse food such as cooked rice and bread, they went away thinking the recluse Gotama has given up exerting and has returned to abundance.

Partaking coarse food and gaining strength, secluded from sensual thoughts and thoughts of demerit with applied and sustained attention (vitakka and vicára) and with joy (sukha) and pleasure (piti) born of seclusion I attained to the first absorption (jhana)…

Aggivessana, even those arisen pleasant feelings did not take hold of my mind and settle. Overcoming thoughts and discursive thoughts, with the mind internally appeased, and brought to a single point, without thoughts and discursive thoughts and with joy (sukha) and pleasantness (piiti) born of absorption I attained to the second absorption (jhana). Aggivessana, even those arisen pleasant feelings did not take hold of my mind and settle. With equanimity to joy and detachment abode mindful and aware, and with the body experienced pleasantness and attained to the third absorption (jhana). To this abiding the noble ones said, abiding mindfully in pleasantness. Aggivessana, even those pleasant feelings did not take hold of my mind and settle. Dispelling pleasantness and unpleasantness (sukha & dukhha), and earlier having dispelled pleasure and displeasure, without unpleasantness and pleasantness and mindfulness purified with equanimity, I attained to the fourth absorption (jhana). Aggivessana, even those pleasant feelings, did not take hold of my mind and settle.

To those who insist that meditation is a waste of time, or that it increases attachment to ego-identity, or that it actually leads away from ultimate realization… I’m sorry, but they don’t know the first thing about a skillful and rigorous meditation practice. This is why instructions like these are such a boon.

Speaking from direct experience, I can say that it delivers what it promises.

Documentation

I’ve decided to allow one comment (out of literally dozens of vicious spam messages received so far) to post, as this one contains an explicit threat against my being. It’s important to document this sort of thing, so here it is. I am saving other messages that contain similar threats and innuendos.

From what I can tell, the person who is writing all these messages is angry because I am “censoring” his inaliable right to say whatever he wants in my blog comments. I would encourage this person to get his own blog, so that he will not be restricted from saying what he wants.

There is deep tranquility and equanimity in my life, and I genuinely hope the best for this unfortunate person.

A Small Request

To my friends who comment here from time to time: Due to a parasitic spam invasion, I’m having to moderate all comments before they post.

So, if your comment does not show up right away, be assured that I’ll be monitoring new comments as often as possible, and that your words will appear in due course.

Hopefully, this person will find someone else to prey upon, so that we can take comments off moderation and return to our normal programming.

[Actually, I shouldn’t wish this person on anyone else — but you understand my meaning….]