Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Arena: St. Ignatius Briachaninov's Councils on Prayer: Part 1 Preparation

This is the first part of a planned series of meditations on St. Ignatius Brianchaninov's councils on prayer from his book The Arena. I'm not yet sure how long this series will be. As of right now I'm planning on doing one meditation per chapter that he has explicitly devoted to the practice of prayer. We'll have to wait and see what happens though. Who knows. I could find that there's a lot more to say than I think there is. :)

St. Ignatius' first chapter is devoted to preparation for prayer. In this chapter he isn't caught up so much in the "practical" concerns of preparation - setting up an icon corner, preparing prayer texts, meditating on Scripture passages, etc. Rather he's concerned more with preparing one's very self, one's life, for prayer; he calls this a "disposition of the soul." With this in mind there are a number of essential attitudes that St. Ignatius lists as being a necessary preliminary to our actual prayer time.

He tells us that in order to pray properly and in a way pleasing to the Lord we must first reject attitudes of resentment and condemnation of our neighbors. This I find particularly pertinent to the practice of the Jesus Prayer. After all, one of the New Testament passages from which we derive the Jesus Prayer is the story of the Pharisee and the Publican. In that story we see the Pharisee standing before God and singing his own praises, even to the point of thanking God that he is not like other sinners, particularly the publican that stood off in the distance begging God's mercy. The attitude of the Pharisee here is the exact attitude that St. Ignatius is warning us against, and it is an attitude all too easy for us to fall into throughout our daily lives, as those of us who spend any amount of time in the secular world can attest to. We see around us folks who have no problems with alcohol and drug abuse, elicit sex lives, and overall general immorality and it's easy for us to condemn them. From my own experience I find it rather easy to be resentful when I see immoral people prospering and their ways seeming to be "blessed" when I myself struggle to even scratch out a decent living. But remember what St. Ignatius said about considering all others to be angels and yourself to be the only sinner among angels. We must leave no room for resentment and condemnation.

Secondly St. Ignatius tells us that we must have a contrite and repentant attitude. The reality is that we do sin. We do become resentful and condemnatory of others. We allow ourselves to be distracted at prayer. We forget God's presence. Because of this we need to cultivate penthos, an attitude of true repentance and contrition in our hearts. In Byzantine spirituality there is a strong emphasis on tears, whether physical tears or "tears of the heart." These tears are representative of our sorrow for our sins and failings. St. Ignatius tells us, "assist your prayer by sorrow of heart, sighs from the depth of your soul, and abundant tears." For men in particular this may be particularly hard to do. In general we have a hard time weeping over anything, let alone something that seems so abstract as "sin." But when we come the realization that sin is not the breaking of an arbitrary moral code, but rather the fracturing of an all-important relationship, then tears may become a little easier. For those of us who are married you know how hard it is knowing that you have done something that has greatly offended and hurt your spouse. There is this sense that you have let your spouse down and done something that has caused them a great deal of emotional distress. I, for one, can't stand to see my wife weeping over something that I did wrong. It tears me apart on the inside. I remember too when I was growing up I used to get disciplined rather frequently. It wasn't the discipline so much that hurt, as seeing my mother weeping over having to punish me. It was hard to realize just how much I had let her down. Such things do represent a very real fracture in relationships. Do we think of this when we sin? Do we realize that we are neglecting the one relationship that matters the most? We were created out of love and our lives were given to us as a gift. We need not be here. God need not have created us. And yet, here we are. Any sin we commit, any offense against God, is not a mere breaking of a moral code. Rather, it is a very real rejection of a fundamental relationship that we have to God as our Creator, and most importantly, as our loving Father, our Redeemer, and our Life-Giver.

This actually brings us to the third attitude or disposition that St. Ignatius says we must have in preparation for prayer. We must cultivate an attitude of thankfulness, gratitude. We live in a society that has a very strong sense of entitlement. We believe that we deserve and are entitled to certain things, and God help the world if we don't get those things. But think back again to the fact that God created us from nothing and need not have created us at all! Our life itself is a gift! Are we grateful for this gift? Are we grateful for the things that God has provided for us in order to sustain the gift of life? Are we grateful above all for the spiritual gifts that God has given us in order to sustain us, particularly the Church and Her Sacraments? Spirituality is often defined very vaguely in our day and age. People somehow believe that they can be "spiritual" without being "religious," or that they don't need Church, they can just sit at home and pray on Sundays. This is a failure to recognize the gifts that God has given us to sustain our spiritual lives. We need to learn to cultivate a "eucharistic" attitude. Eucharist, in the original Greek, means "thanksgiving." We we attend the Divine Liturgy, the Mass, the Qurbono, or whatever you may call it, are we attending with an attitude of thanksgiving. The Eucharistic Liturgy is the most profound act of gratitude for God's work of creation, and so often we attend it without a sense of gratitude. How often have we gone to Mass or the Divine Liturgy with the mentality that it is nothing more than a "Communion dispenser." Many times in the past I've heard folks reply that they go to Mass just to receive Communion. How sad that that's their only attitude. It misses the whole point! The reception of Communion isn't done in a vacuum, as if the rest of the Mass is just sort of nice trimmings that we add on to fancy things up. Rather Communion is the culmination, the high-point of an entire act that is taking place throughout the Mass. The act is an act of gratitude and celebration of Who God is and what He has done for us! In the end, the supreme act of gratitude that is the Eucharistic Liturgy is meant to be carried over into our lives outside of Church. Our lives themselves much become eucharistic liturgies, celebrations and services of thanksgiving to God for all that He has done for us. When our lives become this, our prayer reflects this as well.

Finally St. Ignatius tells us that we must develop an overall awareness of God's presence. In particular he says that we must be aware of God's presence as Judge. This is not so much to cultivate a sense of depression at the fact that we are sinners before an all-just God, but rather in order to cultivate a true sense of repentance. Remember, when we sin we do not break a moral code arbitrarily defined by a cruel God that just likes to watch us squirm. Rather sin is the fracturing of a relationship with our loving Father who wants nothing but what is best for us and is willing to do anything to show His love for us and win our love for Him. To be aware of God's presence as Judge is not merely to stand before Him in fear and trembling (although this attitude is necessary as well), but it is also to stand before Him Who loves us eternally and to measure our love for Him in comparison to His love for us. Have we measured up? Has our love measured up?

St. Ignatius does provide us also with a couple of physical postures that we can adopt in order to aid prayer and our sense of contrition. Standing with our weight equally distributed, not swaying one way or the other, with our heads bowed can aid in this sense of contrition and the awareness of God's presence. This, he says, is particularly good for beginners "in whom the disposition of the soul conforms largely to the posture of the body." But we will go into postures more in a future reflection.

1 comment:

  1. I struggle the most with the first attitude being addressed. I still have memories of times, when I was a kid doing the Lenten fast, with my other siblings. Back then, it was almost about who broke the vow first. But, thinking back, I may have done such deeds in order to build up my self-righteousness.

    As I attempt to live out the nativity fast, I fear that same attitude, then, would creep in, now.