Ceaseless Prayer (Kyriacos C. Markides)

Many people who come here or visit Mount Athos assume that we monks are possessors of magical formulas and apocryphal secrets. They expect that when these esoteric formulas are passed on to them they will be on the road to spiritual perfection. I am not aware of such secrets,” Father Maximos declared as we took a short afternoon walk and sat on a bench under a shady oak tree overlooking the Panagia monastery.

Fondling his komboschini, he explained that according to the teachings of the elders, the path to spiritual perfection is none other than full participation in the methodology of the Ecclesia. That presupposes prayer, fasting, obedience to an elder, confession, repentance, communion, study of the word of God and the writings of enlightened elders, and so on. “We have no occult secrets and formulas on how to reach God,” he scoffed. “Once you seriously begin to participate in the prescribed methods of the Ecclesia, you are invigorated and spiritually uplifted. You are offered the kind of spiritual nourishment that is uniquely appropriate for you.”

“Will this happen automatically?” I wondered.

“Look at it this way. The Ecclesia is like the manna with which God fed the starving Hebrews. Manna food was the same for everybody. Yet, through God’s Grace it was transmuted in such a way as to fulfill the specific nutritional needs of every individual. Let us say someone needed vitamin B, then manna gave that person more of that vitamin. Somebody else needed vitamin D, once again the manna was transformed in a miraculous way into that vitamin. God nourished His people in a personal, individualized way.

“The same principle applies to the Ecclesia,” Father Maximos continued while stroking his beard. “During Divine Liturgy the Holy Spirit is activated differently for each individual. In one person it may generate a deep sense of sweetness, in another a profound sense of reverence. Every person is given what is needed for spiritual growth. This is the reason why, as I mentioned the other day, we must not be concerned about how far we have progressed.”

Father Maximos went on to point out that human beings vary greatly in their level of understanding and spiritual maturity. They are not all of the same spiritual age. Yet, all of them can be accommodated within the Ecclesia precisely because the Holy Spirit works in this mysterious way, offering each person a correct and specific amount of nourishment.

“Contrary to what some people believe, no one has ever been taught any hidden lessons that led to their spiritual development, absolutely no one. All of us start in a very simple way and proceed on the basis of our receptivity and level of development. Most of the teachings of the elders are really forms of practical exercises to overcome pride and develop true humility and compassion. There is no spirituality without genuine humility. That is an axiom.”

Father Maximos smiled as he remembered an episode from his own apprenticeship. “The first assignment that I received from my elder was to go and wash the floor of the church. I had expected him to instruct me on the secrets of mental prayer and so on. Instead he handed me a broom, a sponge, and a bucket of water. . . .”

“The experience you just described is similar to that of another novice who went to Mount Athos to become a master of spiritual secrets,” I interrupted while taking out of my handbag a book I was reading. I began flipping through the pages. I then translated a relevant passage into Greek, sentence by sentence.

“Not too many years ago,” I read, “a young monastic aspirant went to Mount Athos. In talking with the venerable abbot of the monastery where he wished to stay, he told him, ’Holy Father! My heart burns for the spiritual life, for asceticism, for unceasing communion with God, for obedience to an elder. Instruct me, please, Holy Father, that I may attain spiritual advancement.’ Going to the bookshelf, the abbot pulled down a copy of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. ’Read this, son,’ he said. ’But, Father!’ objected the disturbed aspirant. ’This is heterodox Victorian sentimentality, a product of the Western captivity! This isn’t spiritual; it’s not even Orthodox! I need writings which will teach me spirituality!’ The abbot smiled, saying, ’Unless you first develop normal, human, Christian feelings and learn to view life as little Davey did—with simplicity, kindness, warmth, and forgiveness—then all the Orthodox spirituality and Patristic writings will not only be of no help to you—they will turn you into a spiritual monster and destroy your soul.’ ”1

“Nice!” reacted Father Maximos. “This is what the elders warn us time and again. Spiritual knowledge by itself does not lead us to God. It may in fact push us in the opposite direction. We may succumb to the temptation and fantasize that because we are knowledgeable we are especially favored by God. It could stimulate our pride and vanity,” Father Maximos pointed out as I returned the paperback to my handbag.

“Father Maxime,” I interrupted him abruptly with urgency in my voice, “in a few days I’ll be leaving the monastery and I still have some questions I would like clarified.”

“Well, what are you waiting for?” he prompted me as he gazed at Morphou Bay stretched out in the distance through the ravine below the monastery’s grounds.

“You constantly emphasize the centrality of ceaseless prayer for the spiritual life. The question that many people would raise is the following: why engage in prayer and not in something else, meditation, for example? First, what is the purpose of prayer? Second, how does one engage in ceaseless prayer?”

Father Maximos fiddled with his komboschini for a few seconds to collect his thoughts. Then, after filling his lungs with a deep breath, he replied. “The Ecclesia, as we have discussed many times, has as its primary objective the restoration of human beings to their natural state, unity with God. We said that prior to the Fall, human beings lived in a state of continued contemplation of God. After the Fall, our minds and hearts were scattered and focused on the objects of this world and we were therefore cut off from this sacred unity and connection.

“Do you know the real meaning of sin?” Father Maximos asked abruptly, as if changing the subject.

“Well,” I replied, “people think of sin as a violation of some moral code. But I know this is not what you have in mind. The ancient understanding of amartia, of sin, is to be ’off your mark,’ which means being cut off from God.”

“Good. When we say, for example, that such and such an act is sinful, somebody may wonder why this is so? Why is lust a sin, since it brings pleasure to a person and doesn’t hurt anyone? Why is avarice a sin, or gluttony for that matter?

“The elders teach,” Father Maximos continued, “that when your mind and heart, your nous, gets stuck on the objects of this world, whether these objects are called money or pleasures of the body, or egotism or opinions or ideologies or whatever else, then you are committing an amartia, a sin. You become enslaved by these distractions that keep your heart and mind away from God.”

“Are you implying then that we should all abandon the world and join a monastery?” I reacted with a dose of protest in my voice.

“Nothing of the sort. Simply be aware not to enslave your mind and heart to the objects of this world that keep you cut off from God. Do you know what else the elders say? That it is possible for a person to be extremely rich, yet not be considered rich in the eyes of God. Someone else may own only a single needle and be rich in the eyes of God. On the other hand a wealthy person may be freed of avarice and psychologically completely liberated from his wealth and be close to God, while a person who owns only a single needle may have his mind and heart stuck on that needle.”

“So Jesus’ statement that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven should be interpreted in this light.”

“Of course. The ’rich’ person who cannot enter Heaven is the person who is obsessed about things of this world, whether it is his millions or his needle. Entering the Kingdom of Heaven means liberation from the objects of this world, what the elders call kenosis, or emptiness.”

“What about prayer?”

“I am getting there. The methodology of the Ecclesia is to help us reach that freedom, that kenosis from passions. Prayer is the force that propels a human being in the direction of reconnecting with God. Prayer necessitates shutting all doors to thoughts, ideas, and obsessions, and directing all of one’s energies towards this personal God. It is not a movement toward some abstract impersonal intelligence out there beyond the manifest world or beyond the clouds. Rather, the moment I begin to invoke the name of God, I begin to establish a personal relationship with Him. It is toward that Person that my soul begins to move as I pray.”

“In practical terms, how should one pray?” I interjected.

“As you know, there are many ways and forms of prayer,” Father Maximos replied. “One way is to pray along with others. We are not isolated atoms in the universe. We are persons in relationships. Communal prayer reaffirms our connection to each other and to God.

“There is also personal prayer. The Ecclesia, based always on the experience of the holy elders, has offered us a plethora of prayers that we can resort to when we pray by ourselves. There are prayers for all occasions that we can utilize, depending on the problems we face.”

“And these prayers are charged with spiritual energy,” I pointed out.

“Always! They were written by God-conscious holy elders who were filled with the Grace of the Holy Spirit. Their love for God was overflowing as they composed their poems, in the same way that lovers write poetry to express their love for each other.”

“Saints are the lovers of God,” I reiterated as I remembered a previous conversation with Father Maximos. During that discussion he claimed that the so-called “fear of God” is a gross distortion of Christianity based on an infantile understanding of God. The “fear of God” of the saints, he claimed, refers to the fear of losing their connection with God, the Divine Lover, and not the fear of a patriarchal despot that rules over the universe with an iron fist.

“It was in that spirit that the hymns of the Ecclesia were written,” Father Maximos repeated. “By getting into the habit of reading prayers written by saints, we become connected with the spirit of holiness that prompted the writing of these prayers. The energy of divine love as it is embedded in this poetry is then transferred onto our own souls. That is the reason why it is important to learn how to pray using these well-established prayers. Let us suppose, for example, that you experience something which causes you deep sorrow. You could then read either the paraklesis, or supplication canon, to the Holy Virgin or the paraklesis to the Christ. By focusing on the words of the hymns, the Psalms, or the Gospel, you link up with the divine energy that was the very source of inspiration which led to the writing of these verses.”

“But sometimes, Father Maxime, people don’t understand their meaning.”

“It doesn’t matter. You can still get the benefit. The spiritual energy emanating from these words can still affect you in ways that you may not be aware of.”

Father Maximos then talked about the Efche, the “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner,” a subject that we had discussed earlier. This special form of prayer has been considered by the holy elders as central to the spiritual life. He reminded me that the Prayer is to be recited continuously by the serious pilgrim and full-time practitioner of the spiritual arts. It is, he claimed, the most potent medicine for the cure of the soul, the “science of the sciences,” precisely because it is the method which, once mastered, can lead to the opening of the doors toward God. Repeating these simple words, Father Maximos said, by virtue of their power, can lead us into realms beyond the words and into the great mystery of Theosis.

“Perhaps these are the spiritual secrets that people are looking for,” I suggested.

“Wait a minute. Whatever secrets are revealed are not the result of intellectual knowledge of some occult formula. They are revelations that come from above as a result of the purification of the heart through deep metanoia and humility. As elder Sophrony writes, it is when the Prayer is energized like a soothing flame within the individual that divine insights and inspirations are offered. It is, in his words, ’the sweet feeling of God’s love which snatches the mind and exposes it to spiritual visions, which is occasionally accompanied by visions of the Divine Light.’2 They are the gifts that are offered to the struggling soul for union with God.”

“They are secrets that cannot be unlocked by pure reason,” I added as I thought of the Kantian idea of the impossibility of reason to know the nature of ultimate reality. I kept these thoughts to myself as Father Maximos continued.

“When you practice the Jesus Prayer systematically, it is as if you move about within a polluted city wearing an oxygen mask over your face. Nothing can touch you.”

“It sounds simple,” I said, “I mean, to repeat over and over the ’Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.’ ”

“It’s simple in its expression but rich in its energy. It is also simple in its implementation, at least in its initial stages. I first thought that learning about the Efche, the Prayer, was some sort of a complex initiation that I had to go through, but when I first met my elder he just handed me a komboschini and asked me to begin reciting the Prayer with humility and without fantasies, nothing else. ’Go and do it,’ he urged me, ’and then we’ll talk again.’ ”

“How long should those of us who live in the world devote to the Prayer?” I asked.

“You can start with as little as five minutes each day. But it is important to be consistent. After a few weeks you can devote more time, like ten minutes in the morning and ten at night, but always at the same hour of the day and in a quiet place. At first it may be difficult to concentrate. Your mind may wander away but you must persist. Expect that the moment you begin the Prayer, you will start remembering all the work that you needed to do, all the things that you forgot to do during the day and so on. Do not give up under any circumstances.”

Father Maximos went on to say that before starting with the Jesus Prayer it is helpful to “warm up the heart” with a few minutes of regular prayer. After that, one can begin to recite and focus on the Jesus Prayer, chasing all other thoughts away.

“The moment you realize that your mind is wandering here and there, you should make an effort to bring it back and keep it focused on the words of the Prayer. This is the first step on how to pray ceaselessly.”

Father Maximos laughed as he recalled an incident with a fellow monk at Mount Athos. “He was always very forgetful, he claimed, but fortunately for him the moment he began to pray, the devil would always remind him of all the things he forgot to do during the day.”

Father Maximos claimed the Jesus Prayer can become a habit that can generate the kind of energy that may “crack our hearts open.” A human being, then, begins to manifest a radically different sensitivity. “Grace visits the heart, leading to the resurrection of dormant powers, and the person begins to function within the energies of God. You know,” he went on to say with a serious tone in his voice, “for the saints, the Jesus Prayer was more important than their very breathing.”

“So the mysteries and secrets of God are revealed through Grace as the natural outcome of the Jesus Prayer,” I concluded.

“It is a key factor. But this stage cannot be reached so easily. In order for the Prayer to reach the deepest recesses of the soul it requires constant and persistent spiritual struggle. Once that is achieved, the person becomes enlightened and endowed with wisdom. At that stage a different instrument of understanding, beyond logic and the rational mind, gets activated. In fact, it guides logic as it is superior to it. A person who reaches that state of mind judges everything only after it passes through the test of the Prayer. If a message comes during prayer that goes contrary to logic, then such a person will obey the message that comes while in prayer, no matter what conventional logic dictates. Really, Kyriaco, when the spirit of the Jesus Prayer takes over the heart, only then do people get healed within the depths of their being. The flame of God has now been ignited in the heart.”

“Father Maxime, the other day someone who was waiting for confession mentioned to me that whenever she is in a plane ready to take off, she begins to recite the Prayer. But she feels as if she is not honest. That somehow she has an ulterior motive, to keep herself safe. When that idea enters her head she loses the urge to pray.”

“It does not matter what your motives are when you concentrate on the Prayer. Even if your intentions are not perfect, with time the systematic practice of praying will also perfect your motives. What happens, you see, is that the Jesus Prayer teaches you how to pray. Do the Prayer and then God will take care of the rest. He will lead you to Him through the Prayer.”

– Artículo*: TonyPedroza –

Más info en psico@mijasnatural.com / 607725547 MENADEL Psicología Clínica y Transpersonal Tradicional (Pneumatología) en Mijas y Fuengirola, MIJAS NATURAL

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