Sunday, November 30, 2008

Nativity -- Day 3

I've recently discovered the Russian bishop: Hilarion Alfeyev. His Grace has an impressive repertoire of publications and articles. One of these articles is: St. Isaac of Ninevah and Syrian Mysticism. Here are some excerpts:
The idea of God as love is central and dominant in Isaac’s thought: it is the main source of his theological opinions, ascetical recommendations and mystical insights.

Divine love is beyond human understanding and above all description in words. At the same time it is reflected in God’s actions with respect to the created world and humankind: ‘Among all His actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and the end of His dealings with us’.[2] Both the creation of the world and God’s coming on earth in flesh had the only aim, ‘to reveal His boundless love to the world’.[3]
And what is a merciful heart? - It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and by the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. For this reason he offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner he even prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in his heart in the likeness of God.[29]
When you attain to the region of tears, then know that your mind has left the prison of this world and has set its foot on the roadway of the new age, and has begun to breathe that other air, new and wonderful. And at the same moment it begins to shed tears, since the birth pangs of the spiritual infant are at hand. For grace, the common mother of all, makes haste mystically to give birth in the soul to the divine image for the light of the age to come.
Question: And whence does a man know that his has attained to the perfect love of God? Answer: When the recollection of God is stirred in his mind, straightway his heart is kindled by the love of Him and his eyes pour forth abundant tears. For love is wont to ignite tears by the recollection of beloved ones. A man who is in this state will never be found destitute of tears, because that which brings him to the recollection of God is never absent from him; wherefore even in sleep he converses with God. For love is wont to cause such things.[11]
Abandonment has been an experience of the whole of humanity since the fall of Adam. It is both an experience of believers and of unbelievers. However, for a believer it is an experience of the temporary absence of God, which gives place to an intense feeling of presence, whereas for an atheist it is an experience of constant and irreparable absence. An atheist considers the absence of God as the norm, whereas a believer endures the feeling of absence as a very strong and most painful suffering. He cannot cope with the absence of God: even though in his mind he knows that God has not forgotten him, his soul and heart thirst for conscious experience of God’s presence. The life in God is accompanied with the feeling of God’s presence, and when this feeling is lost, one cannot find calm until it returns.
The periods of darkness and abandonment are compared by Isaac with winter, when natural life almost completely ceases, but the seeds lie in the depth of earth, waiting for spring, when they bring forth shoots. One should not fall into despair but rather wait patiently until the afflictions, despondency and abandonment that one has endured bring their fruits.[18]
The theme of prayer is undoubtedly the most frequently discussed and most thoroughly developed theme in St Isaac of Nineveh. When reading his works, one not only receives a clear idea about how he and other members of the Church of the East prayed in his times: one also gains a detailed picture of the theory and practice of prayer in the whole of the Eastern Christian tradition.
Spiritual prayer, according to Isaac, is participation in the age to come, the experience of paradise on earth. The experience of contemplation which the saints have in the future life is given to one in one’s earthly life through ‘spiritual prayer’: ‘The soul does not pray a prayer, but in awareness she perceives the spiritual things of that other age which transcend human conception; and the understanding of these is but the power of the Holy Spirit. This is noetic contemplation, not the movement and entreaty of prayer, although it has its starting-point in prayer’.[10]
In Isaac the term ‘contemplation’ very often appears as a synonym for the ‘vision of God’. He speaks of the supernatural state of the soul, which is ‘her movement in the contemplation of the transubstantial Deity’.[2] In this state, the soul ‘rushes forward.., and on the wings of faith she soars aloft, taking leave of visible creation; she becomes as one drunken in awestruck wonder of her continual solicitude for God; and by simple, uncompounded vision, and by unseeing intuitions concerning the Divine nature’.[3] At the same time Isaac emphasizes that the righteous cannot see the essence of God: when one is raised to the contemplation of God, one sees not God’s essence, but ‘the dark cloud of His glory’.[4] One can see only a reflection of God’s essence, though this vision will be fuller in the age to come: ‘The more a man becomes perfect with respect to God, the more he follows after Him. But in the age of truth, God will show him His face, although not His essence. For however much the righteous enter into the contemplation of Him, they behold an enigma of His vision, like an image that is seen through a mirror;[5] but yonder they behold the revelation of the truth’.[6]

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Nativity -- Day 2

I have almost completed reading the book: On Prayer, by Archimandrite Sophrony. Archimandrite Sophrony provides a lovely point of contact with the wisdom and humility of the blessed St. Silouan. Here is an excerpt on the distinction between impersonal asceticisms and the personal Christian asceticism:
The way of our Fathers requires strong faith and long-suffering, whereas our contemporaries attempt to acquire spiritual gifts, including even direct contemplation of the Absolute God, through pressure and in a brief space of time. Often one can remark a disposition in them to draw a parallel between prayer in the Name of Jesus and yoga or 'transcendental meditation' and the like. I think it necessary to point out the dangers of this delusion -- the danger of looking on prayer as a very simple, easy 'technical' means leading to direct union with God. I consider it essential to emphasise the radical difference between the Jesus Prayer and all other ascetic theories. All those are deluded who endeavour mentally to divest themselves of everything that is transitory, relative, in order in this way to cross some invisible threshold, to realize their being 'without beginning', their 'identity' with the Source of all that is; in order to return to Him, to be merged in Him, the nameless trans-personal Absolute; in order in the vast expanse of what is beyond thought to unify one's personal individuality with the individualised form of natural existence. Ascetic efforts of this kind enabled some strugglers to a certain extent to rise to meta-logical contemplation of being; to experience a certain awe; to know the state when the mind is stilled, when it goes beyond the bounds of time and space. In like states man may feel the peace of divestment of the constantly changing manifestations of the visible world; may uncover in himself freedom of spirit and contemplate mental beauty.

The ultimate development of such impersonal asceticism has led many ascetics to perceive the divine origin in the very nature of man; to a tendency to the self-divinisation that lay at the root of the great Fall; to see in man a certain 'absoluteness' which in essence is nothing else but the reflection of the Divine Absoluteness in the creature created in His likeness; to feel drawn to return to the state of peace which man knew before his appearance in this world. In any case after this experience of divesture some such form of mental aberration may arise in the mind. I am not setting myself the task of listing all the various types of mental intuition but I will say from my own experience that the True, Living God -- the I AM -- is not here in all this. This is the natural genius of the human spirit in his sublimated impulses towards the Absolute. All contemplation arrived at by this means is self-contemplation, not contemplation of God. In these circumstances we open up for ourselves created beauty, not First-Being. And in all of it there is no salvation for man.

The source of real deliverance lies in unquestionable, wholehearted acceptance of the Revelation, 'I am that I am... I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last.' God is Personal Absolute, Trinity One and Indivisible. Our whole Christian life is based on this Revelation. This God called us from non-being into life. Knowledge of this Living God and discernment of the manner of His creation releases us from the obscurity of our own ideas, coming 'from beneath,' about the Absolute; rescues us from our attraction -- unconscious but for all that ruinous -- to withdrawal from existence of any sort. We are created in order to be communicants in the Divine Being of Him Who really is. Christ indicated this wondrous way: 'Strait in the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life.' Apprehending the depths of the Creator's wisdom, we embark on the suffering through which Divine eternity is to be attained. And when His Light shines for us we unite in ourselves contemplation of the two extremes of the abyss -- one on the one side, the darkness of hell, on the other, the triumph of victory. We are existentially introduced into the province of the Uncreated Divine Life. And hell loses power over us. We are given grace -- to live the state of the Incarnate Logos-Christ Who descended into hell as Conqueror. Then by the power of His love we shall embrace all creation in the prayer: 'O Jesus, Gracious Almighty, have mercy upon us and Thy world.'
pp. 168-170

Friday, November 28, 2008

Nativity -- Day 1

I've come across an interesting article by Bishop Kallistos Ware, entitled: Body, Intellect, Heart: Prayer of the Total Self. Here are some excerpts from the article:
We commune with God, in Evagrios' words, without any intermediary. Prayer at its higher level is an experience of unmediated unity. "When we are engaged in contemplative prayer," says Evagrios, "we are no more aware of the fact that we are contemplating than we are conscious of our own sleep."
What about the heart, now? Let's turn from Evagrios to Macarios. In one of my favorite books, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery, the fox has some very helpful words for us. "Good-bye," says the fox, "and now here is my secret. It is very simple. Only with the heart can one see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye. Only with the heart can one see rightly." My spiritual father, a Russian priest long since dead, always liked to quote those words to me.
Two texts from Proverbs are very popular in the Greek spiritual tradition. They come up frequently in the Philokalia: "My child, give me your heart" (Proverbs 23:26) - that means, "Give me your total self" and "Guard your heart with all vigilance" (Proverbs 4:23) - that means, "Keep watch over the entirety of your inner life, know yourself, know yourself as God granted and God taught." Finally, "The heart is deep" (Psalm 63:6 ). That is another popular hesychast and Philokalic text. It means the human person is a profound mystery.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ostrov, etc

I've recently viewed an excellent movie called Ostrov. Here's the synopsis from imdb:
Somewhere in Northern Russia in a small Russian Orthodox monastery lives an unusual man whose bizarre conduct confuses his fellow monks, while others who visit the island believe that the man has the power to heal, exorcise demons and foretell the future.
Wikipedia has a more lengthy description (with possible spoilers) here.

If you're looking to purchase this movie, the best deal I've found is here.

One of my favourite scenes is here.

A worthwhile article: Paradise and Hell According to Orthodox Tradition, by Protopresbyter George Metallinos. Here's an excerpt:
On the Last Sunday of Lent "we commemorate the Second and Incorruptible Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ". The expression "we commemorate" of the Book of Saints confirms that our Church, as the Body of Christ, re-enacts in its worship the Second Coming of Christ as an "event" and not just something that is historically expected. The reason is, that through the Divine Eucharist, we are transported to the celestial kingdom, to meta-history. It is in this orthodox perspective, that the subject of paradise and hell is approached.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

On Prayer

I've been enjoying the book: On Prayer, by Archimandrite Sophrony. He writes about kenosis and recapitulation:
To transport ourselves in mind, whenever we suffer tribulation, into universal dimensions makes us like unto Christ. If we do this, everything that happens to us individually will be a revelation of what happens in the whole world. Streams of cosmic life will flow through us, and we shall be able, through personal experience to discern both man in his temporal existence and even the Son of man in his two natures. It is precisely thus, through suffering, that we grow to cosmic and meta-cosmic self-consciousness. By going through the trial of self-emptying in following Christ, crucifying ourselves with Him, we become receptive to the infinitely great Divine Being. In wearying penitential prayer for the whole world, we merge ourselves spiritually with all mankind: we become universal in the image of the universality of Christ Himself, who bears in Himself all that exists. Dying with Him and in Him, we here and now anticipate resurrection.

The Lord suffered for every one of us. His sufferings do indeed cover all our ills since the fall of Adam. In order to know Christ properly, it is essential that we ourselves enter into His anguish, and experience it all, if this be possible, as He Himself did. Thus, and only thus, is Christ-God made known, existentially -- i.e., not abstractly, through psychological or theoretical faith that is not converted into deeds.

From the outset when I returned to Christ, with a little more understanding now of Who Jesus was, my heart underwent a change and my thoughts took a different direction. From my inner conflicts I spontaneously shifted to humanity at large, and found myself suffering with all mankind. The experience made me see that we must not only live the ordeals that fall to our lot within the narrow framework of our individuality but must transfer them in spirit to the universal plane -- in other words, realize that the same cosmic life that flows through us flows in the veins of everyone else. Because of this apparently natural psychological impulse, I began to feel all the ills -- disease, disasters, feuds, enmities, natural catastrophes, wars, and so on -- that befall the human race, with increased compassion. This really quite normal compulsion was to bring forth precious fruit for me: I learned to live the fate of all mankind as if it were happening to me personally. It is precisely this that is enjoined by the commandment, 'Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself'.
pp. 76, 77