Saturday, July 21, 2012

Find Christ Everywhere - Create Silence: The Two Uses of the Jesus Prayer Part 1

I am a big fan of what I call "practical spirituality." Practical spirituality is nothing more or less than taking the grandiose ideas and teachings of the Church's great mystics and applying them to our every day life and experience. So often when we read the mystical Fathers and Mothers of the past or present we may find ourselves overwhelmed with the lofty ideas expressed, or even some of their practical suggestions. We start to think that holiness and a deep and intense prayer life must truly be something reserved for hermits and members of religious communities, the monastic tucked safely away from the world in his/her "skete," as we say in the Byzantine East.

I remember once reading or hearing the late Fr. Thomas Dubay - not only a leading expert in Carmelite spirituality, but also a great spiritual master in his own rite - say that all Christians should be spending at least 2 - 3 hours a day in prayer; by which he meant sitting down and devoting that amount of time to prayer daily. When I first heard this, so many years ago, my heart sank because I knew for me it would be impossible to devote that amount of my time daily to focusing 100% on prayer. I was in college at the time, working very hard on my degree while trying to maintain some semblance of a social life, as well as going to daily Mass and finding some time for my own private prayer as well as group prayer. I found that I actually didn't have 2 - 3 hours to just sit and pray the way he recommended. Now nearly a decade later, I find I have even less time. With a wife and two children (one of whom is special-needs), a job, and a small "apostolate" I find I barely have time to breathe, let alone pray for 2 - 3 hours at a time.

Fortunately for me, and for the rest of us, there are a great many other spiritual masters in our own day. Two that I've come to appreciate more and more (and whom I've also had the privilege of meeting in person and working with on occasion) have been Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia and Fr. Robert Taft, S.J. Both men have spent their lives working for the Lord in the academic field, and both have provided for me a great deal of insight into the spirituality of the busy person.

In his talk on the Jesus Prayer that I posted a few weeks ago, Met. Kallistos revealed two moments or uses of the Jesus prayer with the phrase, "Find Christ everywhere: Create silence." In the first phrase we have the "prayer on the go" mentality, which I'll talk about in the next post. For now, let's talk about "creating silence." This is what most of us think of when we think of prayer. We sit down with our materials for prayer - a prayer rope, a prayer book, the Bible or some other spiritual reading, the Liturgy of the Hours, or whatever - and we go through our normal rule of prayer. I remember when I was a boy I had a rather long rule of prayer every morning that required me to use three or four different prayer books at a time. I eventually had to trim down my prayer rule because it was just too long and I had farm work to get done. Today my little prayer rule consists in nothing more than my prayer rope on which I pray the Jesus Prayer. That's about all I have time for.

With our daily prayer rule, our daily creating of silence, there are two things we need to remember: 1) be consistent, 2) stick with it. By being consistent, according to Fr. Taft, we ought to have a basic rule of prayer from which we ought not to deviate very much. For some folks that means praying the Liturgy of the Hours (although this is not entirely possible for Eastern/Byzantine Christians), for other folks that means following the standard rule of morning and evening prayers contained in various prayer books, and for yet other people that means praying the Jesus Prayer, the Rosary, or some other form of chaplet in the morning and evening.

Something that I've come to find very helpful is to do what Fr. Taft calls "praying ahead." This is basically the reverse of the evening "examination of conscience." When we pray ahead in the morning, we think of the things we have to do that day, we give them over to God, asking Him to bless the work of our hands, talking to Him about potential temptations and begging Him to keep us free from sin. In short we give the entire day over to God and resign ourselves to His will. Then in the evening when it comes time for our examination of conscience, we go through the day and examen where we have fallen short, where we have given in to temptation, where we have not given the day over to God, etc. This, I find, not only makes us acutely aware of our own sinfulness (thus making it less likely that we'll judge others), but it also makes us acutely aware of our dependence on God and on our need for His loving mercy throughout the day. By "praying ahead," I find, it also makes it more likely that we'll talk to God as we go about the rest of our day.

I find that sticking to a rule can be very difficult. Fr. Taft, quoting another Jesuit priest, says that for most people sticking to a daily rule would be no problem if we just learned to go to bed on time. Although I completely agree with this based off of my own experience, I personally find it rather difficult to go to bed at a regular time simply because my children do not yet go to bed at regular times - although they are getting better. But even when that is the case, we should schedule a time for prayer. Set aside at least 15 minutes in your day to focus on prayer. I find I am better able to focus on prayer in the morning, so that's when I like to really focus on the Jesus Prayer. For others, 15 minutes in the evening or immediately after lunch might be a better time. Whatever! Just pray. That's all that really matters.

As far as how long one ought to be praying is concerned, St. Theophan the Recluse and others have said that we ought to start small and work our way up. Start with 10 or 15 minutes in which you focus intensely on your prayer, then work your way up to 20 or 30 minutes, or an hour! That's all you need to do. What matters isn't the quantity of our prayer, but its quality. If you find that you are not yet able to pray intensely for more than a few minutes, don't force yourself. As my spiritual father has so often told me: "Calm down. Be patient." We can't expect to be granted a deeply intense prayer life over night (although that's not been unheard of). For the majority of us, deep and intense prayer comes only after years and years of struggle, aridity, suffering, effort, and pain. But stick with it. The saints tell, and show us through their lives, that the fruits of prayer even in this life are well worth the effort.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Liturgical Prayer Ropes!!!

I've pointed out in one of my previous posts that it is the Byzantine tradition to pray the Jesus Prayer in place of the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours when participation in the Hours is simply impossible. I've also seen elsewhere that praying the Jesus Prayer can replace attendance at Divine Liturgy when such attendance is impossible for legitimate reasons. In an attempt to reorient us towards a more liturgical "usage" of the Jesus Prayer - and in order to highlight that all prayer is first Liturgical because it is in the Liturgical life of the Church that our Mother, the Church, teaches us how to pray - I've decided to start making prayer ropes according to the liturgical colors of the Byzantine Church year for folks who are interested in having these small reminders of the Mysteries we celebrate in the Liturgy.

The colors to be made available are as follows:

Light Blue
Dark Red
Dark Blue
Dark Green

You'll notice that black will still be very much available as this is the "traditional" color of the prayer rope. It is also a color that is used during Great Lent.

In a future post I plan on explaining which colors go with which liturgical seasons, but I thought I'd get the ball rolling on this just in case anyone is interested in "liturgical" prayer ropes.

Incidentally, August is coming up. During August we celebrate the Transfiguration of Our Lord on Mt. Tabor. The liturgical color for the feast would be Gold or White. :)

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Brigittine (Carmelite) Rosary

Following is another order from my friend, Alexander Roman. This is a traditional six-decade Brigittine or Carmelite rosary. Not sure what the mysteries are that are prayed on it. Perhaps that can be the topic of a later post.

Another Big One!!!

Here are some pictures of another 300 knot rope that was ordered from me awhile back. This was for my friend, Alexander Roman, up in Canada. It is a Greek style rope, but made with a tassel at Alex's request. I believe it turned out quite lovely.

Some New Rope Orders!!!

Today has been a busy day for new posts. I've already put up a number of videos, and now I'm adding some photographs of a couple of new ropes I've made for some folks. Both ropes are in the Russian style. One is a 33 knot rope and the other is a 50 knot rope. The 33 knot rope was originally intended to be a 50 knot rope, but I hadn't cut enough material so it became a 33 knot rope. :) You'll notice that the 33 knot rope is divided every 11 knots instead of every 10. This is done so that there will actually be 33 knots not including the beads in the traditional Russian style. You'll also notice that I have "spacers" before the beads. This really serves no practical purpose, but is primarily decoration. Enjoy!

Eastern Catholic Theology PART 2 with Fr. Abbot Nicholas of Holy Resurre...

Eastern Catholic Theology PART 1 with Fr. Abbot Nicholas of Holy Resurre...

"Who are Eastern Catholics?" PART 2 with Fr. Maximos of Holy Resurrectio...

"Who are Eastern Catholics?" PART 1 with Fr. Maximos of Holy Resurrectio...

I want to share four relatively short video interviews conducted by Catherine Alexander with the monks of Holy Resurrection Romanian Greek Catholic Monastery. Although the video descriptions mention the monks as living in California, in the past year or so they have moved to Wisconsin.

These four videos are an excellent introduction into the uniqueness of Eastern(Byzantine) Catholicism in the Catholic Church at large, as well as the Eastern(Byzantine) Catholic approach to the Faith of the Church.

Sunday Night Prime - Eastern Catholic Churches - Fr. Groeschel with Fr. ...

Happy Sunday Everyone!!!

I thought I'd share this video today. Although there is a bit of information here that could've used more elaboration, it is still an excellent broadcast about the Eastern Catholic Churches, particularly the Ruthenian and, to some extent, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Churches. May our heavenly Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, further Fr. O'Loughlin's ministry in his parish(es).

One thing I'd like to mention. The specifically mention the excellent book Finding a Hidden Church by the incredible Fr. Chris Zugger. Not only is Fr. Chris a good personal friend of mine, but I also had a hand in the production of this book as I was working for that particular publishing company at the time of its publication. Fr. Chris is an amazing priest and man of God, and I feel very blessed to know him, consider him my friend, and to have had a number of uplifting conversations with him. May our Lord further his ministry as well.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Penthos, Compunction, Tears: A Matter of the Heart

During the early days of my relatively short involvement in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal I remember hearing of people who prayed for the gift of tears. This always sort of baffled me as I never understood the purpose of such a gift. For one I did not understand what exactly folks were weeping for; was it sorry, joy, awe at God's omnipotence, marvel at the beauty of His creation, gratitude for what He has done for us throughout salvation history culminating in the giving of His own Son, etc., etc., etc. Not being a very "weepy" person to begin with, this desire for the gift of tears always confused me.

Fast forward a number of years later and imagine my surprise to discover that the early Fathers of the Christian East - and all subsequent Eastern mystics - have encouraged us to pray for the gift of tears. This gift purifies the soul and softens the hardened heart. But again I have had to ask, why are we shedding tears? What are we weeping over? St. John Climacus provides the answer: "Groanings and sorrows cry out to the Lord. Tears shed from awe and reverence intercede for us; but tears of all-holy love show us that our prayer has been accepted" (from the Ladder of Divine Ascent). So sorrow for our sins leads to weeping. Awe and reverence in the face of Almighty God leads to weeping. And love of God leads to weeping. But the Eastern Fathers seem to emphasize especially weeping out of sorrow for one's sin - which in reality is also a form of weeping out of love for God.

This interior sorrow that may lead to external weeping is called penthose in Greek, and is translated into English as compunction. When we encounter the living God through prayer and through life in Christ by participation in the life of His Church, we realize just how much we fall short of being God's likeness in the world. When faced with total purity, we see more clearly our own impurity. When faced with pure light, we see more clearly our own inner darkness. When faced with the total self-emptying love (kenosis) of Christ, we realize just how completely self-centered and self-loving we are. In short, one of the first effects of a lived relationship with God is to reveal our own sinfulness.

Now I realize that the word "sin" isn't one of the most popular words in our day, even in many Christian circles. No one wants to be told of their own failings and shortcomings. "Pointing fingers" is rude. We are told that we shouldn't "judge others" by calling their actions a sin (which, incidentally is not judging at all. Judging others involves placing ourselves in the position of God when it comes to another's own salvation; i.e. determining whether or not someone is going to hell or heaven). Priests are often afraid to speak of specific sins from the pulpit for fear of offending someone in their congregation.

The sad truth is that we today have a sort of twisted understanding of sin. Most of us today tend to think of sin in the sense of moral transgression: we have failed to keep some aspect of what is often perceived as a rather vague moral law imposed on us by "God the Almighty Judge" for no other real reason than He likes watching us squirm. This was not the original sense of sin. Sin is a falling short or missing the mark. If we, as Christians, truly believe that we were created in the image of God, and are called to strive after His likeness, then we ought to see just how high of a mark we've been given. Being created in the image and after the likeness of God does not mean being endowed with a rational mind and a free will, although that is certainly an aspect of it. Rather, it means that we were created in Christ, and called from the beginning to be Christ-like. Sin, therefore, is not merely a failure to uphold a moral code imposed on us from without. In its fullest and most serious sense, sin is a failure to be what we truly are - God's image - and become what we were created to be - God's likeness.

In realizing the seriousness of sin, therefore, the Fathers saw the necessity of weeping. We weep because we have offended God our Father and Creator, yes, but we weep also because we have failed to live up to the purpose for which we were created. Penthos develops more deeply within us this awareness of the seriousness of our sins, and thus softens our hearts to be more receptive to the transforming grace of God's actions in our lives to convert our hearts. Tears are nothing more or less than the outward expression of penthos/compunction. We needn't weep profusely. St. John Climacus says that saw folks who wept few tears after a great deal of labor, and others who wept profusely with little effort at all: "I judged those toilers more by their toil than by their tears, and I think that God does too." So don't be discouraged if the gift of tears doesn't come right away, or if you don't find yourself with tears flowing down your cheeks like a raging river. Simply pray and develop within yourself compunction.

It is interesting to note that the mystics of the Christian East and West offer us pretty much the same advice for developing within ourselves a deeper awareness of our own sinfulness, which results in a deeper penthos/compunction. First and foremost, daily examination of conscience is absolutely necessary. I remember reading of some saints who did an examination in the morning, another in the afternoon, and another in the evening before retiring to sleep. One saint (I wish I could remember who) recommended simply doing a brief examination around midday and a more in-depth examination in the evening. Reflecting on our day and recognizing our failures will reveal to us not only our sinfulness, but also the areas in our lives that more specifically need conversion. It can be a source of spiritual healing as well as a source of deeper compunction. As they say, recognizing you have a problem is the first step to healing.

Another way to foster inner compunction is to remember our death. We live in a society that does not like to think on death. Our media has created an idol of "eternal youth," and folks are obsessed with products that will help them look and feel young for as long as possible. Personally I've never really understood this mentality. From an early age I've always looked forward to getting old. Perhaps this was because I admired my grandparents greatly and I just wanted to be like them. But I've never really feared the "march of time." Birth, aging, and death were things that I learned to live with on the farm. The idea of being eternally young has always just struck me as very unnatural. But there it is. Our culture doesn't want to admit that each of us will age and eventually die. This has impacted greatly how we Christians live our faith. When we live as though we are not going to die and face the dread judgment seat of Christ, then no action is off limits because we truly have nothing to fear by way of consequences for our actions. Incidentally, we also have nothing to look forward to by way of reward for a life well-lived. Quite honestly, I believe this aversion in our culture towards taking a serious look at death has created a hunger in many Christians for homilies on the "Four Last Things" (death, judgment, heaven, and hell). But that is a conversation for another time.

The final way that we can foster true compunction is simply by moderation in all things. The Fathers speak of moderation in laughter, moderation in dry rationalistic speculation, moderation in talking with others, moderation in food, etc., etc., etc. We today could add moderation in watching television, moderation in our use of the internet, moderation in listening to music, etc. Again, we live in a society that does not want moderation. We want abundance in everything, food, noise, sex, laughter, cars, houses, you name it. But such immoderation leads only to further attachments, great spiritual unease, and a general lack of contentment. Moderation teaches us to rely on God for all things, and to be attached to Him alone.

In short, the goal is not tears or penthos/compunction. These things, as indispensable as they are, point beyond themselves to the infinite love of God, and, paradoxically, lead to a deeper interior joy. One thinks of the great saints such as a Seraphim of Sarov or a Francis of Assisi, both of whom had a very deep penthos over their own sinfulness, and yet were some of the most joyful men the world has ever known. Penthos does not lead to a guilt-complex. Rather, true penthos, like true conversion, leads to a deeper joy-filled life in Christ, lived with the humble recognition that God loves us beyond any measure and sent His Son to die for us, not because we were perfect, but while we were still in sin.

I realize now more and more how much I need this gift of penthos and tears. May heaven consume us!