An Orthodox Perspective on Presence

On the same day that I made my last post, I completed a book I was reading about the Jesus Prayer. The author is Frederica Mathewes-Green. The title of the book is The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer That Tunes the Heart to God.

I forwarded my post to Frederica, asking her to let me know if I was on the right track. She was kind enough to write back right away with her thoughts. She was also kind enough to allow me to share what she wrote with you.

As you can see below, her advice comes from a different perspective than I am used to. But that’s fine, as it helps clarify the difference in approach between the Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic churches. She and I have never met, spoken or exchanged emails before, but her reference to Ignatian spirituality is spot on. She could tell that putting myself in scenes is something I do regularly.

I am sure it will take me some time to process what she is suggesting. Not sure I am ready to drop methods that have been very productive in my spiritual development. But her point of view is challenging in a great way. It makes me think about Christ and prayer in different, new and broader contexts, which I count as always a good thing.

I am particularly intrigued about experiencing an encounter with Christ as the presence of a person. (The italics were hers, not mine.) I have no idea how to do that, but perhaps when I am ready, and if I am patient as Frederica suggests, Christ will open that door to me.

Here is the full text of her reply, shared with her gracious permission. Her comments at the end about repentance are especially timely as we head into Holy Thursday tomorrow.

“Hello, Tim! I’m so glad my book was useful to you. 

I was tracking with you right up until halfway through this paragraph: <<Perhaps this inner place where I might meet Jesus is not a room? In fact, even though this place is still interior, it can be any peaceful place that I can imagine or recall from my past? It is often described as a temple, but a scene from nature can be a temple as well?>>

I felt unsure of the role you expect your imagination to play in this process. It sounds perhaps too trusting of the things that come to us through our imaginations, our inner associations, our “poetic side.” Orthodox spirituality is very skeptical about all that. Ignatian meditation, for example, would make no sense in an Orthodox context. You don’t have to use your imagination, because Christ is right here. Bringing in imagination will only confuse and distract you. The task is to cleanse the nous (*see below for a partial definition) so we can perceive him, already here. Like if you had lunch with someone you really admire, but spent the whole time wrapped in your imaginative thoughts about him. 

<<Now I have a scene to familiarize myself with that will help me experience the encounter when I am otherwise ready for it?>>

No, let those images go. Orthodox teaching is to never cultivate interior images, never take them as authoritative, they are just as likely to be demonic. Sometimes an image gives you a passing blessing, but let it go and return to pure prayer.

Don’t worry about whether it’s like a room or the outdoors or anything. Expect it to be like the presence of a person. Any substitute ideas will only distract you. 

It is true that the heart, like the Tardis, is bigger on the inside. 

I was blessed to know Fr Roman Braga, who was imprisoned by communists in Romania. He often said, “Thank God for the communists.” Before imprisonment, he knew about God from the bible and other books, but he didn’t know God directly until he was deprived of his books. He said that he looked around his prison cell saying “Where are you, God?” until the only place left to look was inside himself. Many of these prisoners said that, in later life and freedom, they never attained the heights of prayer they knew in prison. 

A good quote from Macarius the Great (300-390): The heart is but a small vessel; and yet dragons and lions are there, and there likewise are poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There also is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there. (Homilies 43:7)

I want to encourage you not to foreclose the possibilities of prayer by trying to nail down too swiftly what you should expect and what it’s going to be like. That will get in your way. 

What you need is overwhelming gratitude to God, an overflowing heart full of gratitude. How you attain that is you repent. Never cease repenting. Always remember that you deserve hell. Focus on that, and God’s goodness really appears overwhelming. The contrast is just incalculably great. That is why the great saints became more and more aware of their sins as they grew older. Because that experience of gratitude is what gives you wings. 

Charmolypi, “joy-making sorrow.” 

You’ll know when you’re on target because you will become more aware of your sins and your unworthiness. You’ll sense the sharp pang of joy that comes when you see his love contrasted with your sin. Repentance is the only sure path. “

* Nous (pronounced “noose”) is a word that does not translate well into English. Frederica spends a couple pages trying to explain it in the book. Hopefully this will help a little:

“Nous primarily indicates the receptive faculty of the mind… is a perceptive faculty, capable of recognizing truth …… the nous perceives truth in a direct, intuitive way …… it is placed in us so that we can perceive God’s voice and presence. But in the Fall the nous was damaged. Healing of the nous (one of the primary actions of the Jesus Prayer) involves getting rid of the erroneous thoughts and emotions that cloud our mind.”

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