Experience

isaac-the-syrian
For my dear friend and teacher, Jeffrey S. Brooks.

A quote from Saint Isaac the Syrian (pictured above):

Do not seek the advice of him that is not thy fellow in behaviour, though he be very prudent. A layman who has experienced things is more to be trusted than a sage who speaks on the basis of theoretical knowledge but without experience.

What is experience? Experience is not this that a man goes and touches things, without acquiring knowledge concerning their advantages and their defects and without remaining with them during a certain time. How often the faces of things give the impressions of defect, whereas within them is found matter full of advantages. In the same way are to be judged things of the opposite aspect.

This is one message that has gotten through to me, loud and clear — with many thanks to Jeffrey.

Speculation and blind adherence to dogma are one thing.

The words of the wise who have attained through rigorous and skillful practice… this is quite another thing.

Choose wisely, or spend years chasing your tail.

True Prayer

earth-in-milky-way.gif

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.

All Things Orthodox

orthodox.jpg

They’ve got their own Wiki!

Welcome to OrthodoxWiki, a free-content encyclopedia and information center for Orthodox Christianity that anyone can edit. In this English version, started in November 2004, we are currently working on 2,008 articles. Please register or login to post or revise content.

The OrthodoxWiki editors have taken St. John of Damascus as their heavenly patron and intercessor as they seek to further the worship and knowledge of the All-Holy Trinity and the faith of the Orthodox Church by means of these pages.

Please take a moment to read about what OrthodoxWiki is and is not.

I love the Internet….

Deir Sultan

deir-sultan.jpg

I had no idea:

Unknown by much of the world, monks and nuns of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, have for centuries quietly maintained the only presence by black people in one of Christianity’s holiest sites—the Church of the Holy Sepulcher of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem. Through the vagaries and vicissitudes of millennial history and landlord changes in Jerusalem and the Middle East region, Ethiopian monks have retained their monastic convent in what has come to be known as Deir Sultan or the Monastery of the Sultan for more than a thousand years. Likewise, others that have their respective presences in the area at different periods, include Armenian, Russian, Syrian, Egyptian and Greek Orthodox/Coptic Churches as well as the Holy See. As one writer put it recently, “For more than 1500 years, the Church of Ethiopia survived in Jerusalem. Its survival has not, in the last resort, been dependent on politics, but on the faith of individual monks that we should look for the vindication of the Church’s presence in Jerusalem….They are attracted in Jerusalem not by a hope for material gain or comfort, but by faith.” It is hoped that public discussion on this all-important subject will be joined by individuals and groups from all over the world, particularly the African Diaspora.

The entire essay is a good read, with plenty of unknown information, the discovery of which would benefit the world during these trying times.

Before They Had Cameras…

history-of-iconography.jpg

A wonderful page describing the history, purpose and content of Orthodox iconography:

ICONOGRAPHY IS THE ORIGINAL TRADITION of Christian sacred art, and has been an integral part of the worship and mystical life of Christians since apostolic times. Referred to in the Eastern Christian tradition as “windows into heaven,” they have inspired and uplifted millions of the faithful, and have at times been the instruments for demonstrating God’s miraculous intercession in the life of mankind.

Despite my status as full-time iconoclast, I must admit to a long-standing affinity for this particular form of imagery. I’m not drawn to worship or even venerate the personages preserved in these pictures, but I am drawn to the love and devotion poured into them by their creators.

And the icons do seem to beam out some sort of juiced-up spiritual energy, don’t they?

One thing I didn’t know: St. Luke is considered to have been the first iconographer, when he painted the Virgin Mary and obtained her blessing. Apparently at least five of these images are still revered today, 2000 years later.

Cosmology According to the Eastern Church

early-solar-system.jpg

Lots of interesting reading at this site:

It began some 13.7 billion years ago, more or less, on a day without yesterday, when all of creation emerged from nothing except the will of God. The dark and immensely hot plasma of rapidly expanding primordial creation was eventually pierced by light and populated by the evolution of galaxies and stars interspersed by enormous quantities of gas, dust and energy. Some four and one half billion years ago, more or less, in a distant arm of an average spiral galaxy there formed an average star surrounded by an accreting disc of dust, debris and gases which in time took the form of the planets which we know today. On the third planet from that star, our sun, early life appeared which over the eons evolved into higher forms of animal and plant life dwelling in the seas and covering the land of the planet. Very late in this evolutionary process emerged a species of primate called man which was unlike all other primates and other forms of animate creation in that it possessed consciousness, intelligence, and reason – attributes of the divine spark which we call the human soul. Man, unlike the rest of animate creation, was a moral creature, for having “eaten of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”, he possessed the ability to chose between good and evil in his relationships with his Creator and others of his species.

Kind of refreshing, especially when compared with certain other scriptural interpretations of the Creation….

Wheel of Fortunate

gwv.jpg

I do, indeed, feel fortunate for having found (or been found by) Jeffrey Brooks (aka, Jhanananda) of the Great Western Vehicle.

What is the GWV?

Here’s a chunk of it:

The Great Western Vehicle (Mahaparacakkayana), is a 4th wheel (Catutthayana), ecumenical, engaged, ecstatic contemplative Buddhist tradition that seeks to teach Buddhist philosophy and contemplative arts within the context of any culture or religious tradition. We are not interested in Buddhism as a religion, but as a philosophy and practice strategy (dhamma/dharma) that any one can follow to enlightenment, regardless of one’s cultural or religious background. Thus the GWV does not expect nor require conversion to Buddhism, but seeks to forge alliances with other ecstatic contemplatives and their traditions.

[…]

The GWV is first and foremost a contemplative tradition. The teachers of the Great Western Vehicle are all contemplatives. One cannot become a lay teacher or monastic priest in the Great Western Vehicle without leading a life that is dedicated to the daily practice of meditation, which is oriented toward the cultivation of meditative absorption.

The GWV is an engaged, contemplative tradition, because we have dedicate every thought, word, action and resource to the benefit of all beings, Every teacher of the GWV endeavors to be a living example of an ethical life. In fact if a teacher of the GWV is found to not to be leading an ethical life, then he or she is immediately disqualified from a leadership roll within the GWV. We view ethics as not only avoiding the 7 deadly sins, but also leading a harmless life, and a life that meets the needs of the people, culture and environment. Thus, we support peaceful resolutions between peoples, institutions and nations; and preservation and restoration of wilderness areas; as well as environmentally sensitive and sustainable agriculture, habitation and transportation.

We are an ecstatic contemplative tradition because we recognize the meditative absorption states, which are what the Christian mystics called “ecstasy,” and what the Buddha called “jhana,” and what Patanjali called “samadhi.” We find the meditative absorption states are one and the same from culture to culture, and are the very definition of a correctly executed contemplative life, and they are also the defining quality of the 8th fold of the Noble Eight Fold Path. Thus all of the teachers of the GWV are committed to cultivating the ecstatic states, and teaching how one can cultivate those states.

Western ecstatic contemplative traditions need a canon of literature that supports their noble endeavor of leading a contemplative life for the purpose of cultivating the meditative absorption states. We find the early canon of Buddhist literature, as reflected in the Discourses of the Buddha (Sutta Pitaka of the Pali Canon), is one of the clearest and best examples of the ecstatic contemplative path, thus we consider the Sutta Pitaka should be considered a major aspect of the western canon of ecstatic contemplative literature.

[…]

By way of full disclosure, you should know that Your Proprietor completed teacher training this past summer, and is in the process of integrating into the GWV as a faculty member. I’m working on a bio for the faculty webpage, and will provide a link when available.

What drew me to Jhanananda is this business of “meditative absorption,” which is something I’ve experienced all my life — but especially since 1995, when I turned 33 and found that my meditation was filled with bliss, joy and ecstasy. These qualities have “matured” during the intervening years, especially since May of 2003, when I attended my first 10-day retreat with Jhanananda in Riverside, CA. Two years ago (almost — New Years 2007 will make it official) I dedicated myself to a three-hour-a-day meditation practice… which sounds horrific, probably, except that it beats anything I’ve ever done during my 44 years on Earth — including psychoactive drugs, sex, rock n roll, or otherwise partying with my homeys. In other words, spending three hours a day steeped in ever-deepening meditative absorption — and then spending the other 21 hours saturated in a baseline bliss — is a no-brainer, and I can’t figure out why everyone doesn’t do it.

That’s not really true — I know why no one does it, because I avoided it in spectacular ways for many, many years. It’s been a process of surrender to an innate gift, which I believe we all have access to, but which our culture does not understand, let alone support.

So, perhaps this post points to a major reason for my sticking around on planet Earth. Perhaps it says something about my remaining time, in that I do hope to attract others who are discovering this universal gift within themselves, and need a little support in anchoring it in their daily lives.

We’ll see.