Archive for February, 2010

Mysteries of the Christian East

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

Thanks for your interest in my upcoming USC Maymester course: “Mysteries of the Christian East“.

Yes, the majority of the seats are already filled, but there’s still room for a few additional registrants. As you will have noted on the Master Schedule, “special permission is required”, and there will be a small additional fee for the travel component of the course, so do get in touch with me soon ( if you’d like to be included.

While our focus is the mystical spirituality of the Hesychast tradition, the class will also include a brief introduction to Eastern Christian theology, iconography, music, and liturgy, as well as a “crash course” in abecedarian Greek! We’ll be traveling during the second week (May 17-21) to St Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery in the Sonora desert of southern Arizona, one of several monastic communities established by the Athonite elder Ephraim, a former abbot of Philotheou Monastery on the Holy Mountain.

I’ve thought for some time it would be good to create a teaching context that would allow me to draw upon the experiences gained during my pilgrimage to Athos in 2007. Given the Athonite avaton (ban) regarding women, and given the fact that university administrators would no doubt look askance on a course only men could take, a pilgrimage to Arizona seemed a good second best!

Do let me know if you need any further information, including a copy of the tentative syllabus.

Schedule, Posture, Goal, Path

Saturday, February 13th, 2010

Here are some answers (or attempted answers) to the four questions you pose. God knows best.

1. You ask how to “fit” your daily prayers into an already tightly packed schedule. One of the Catholic saints—Francis de Sales, perhaps—said that everybody should pray at least a half hour a day, except for people who are really busy, and they should pray an hour a day! This will seem to you unrealistic, I’m sure—until you begin to see more clearly where Reality lies. In the meantime, you can work toward this ideal incrementally. I would start by trying to set aside ten minutes of quiet, concentrated time for the Jesus Prayer the first thing in the morning, and then again in the evening between supper and bed.

2. The specific posture, or postures, you adopt are less important than physical stability. You want to do whatever allows your body to be at once relaxed and alert and thus whatever facilitates your being able to think about something other than aches and itches. The Yogis teach that one or another of the “cross-legged” sitting positions—such as padmasana and siddhasana—are the most conducive to unbroken concentration, whereas the Hesychasts make a practice of sitting on a short stool or bench, with their knees drawn up toward their chests. Simply standing is of course an option as well. Whatever the posture, you will need to make periodic adjustments—especially at first, as your body grows accustomed to the practice.

3. Calling it the Pax Profunda is a reasonably good way, and of course a thoroughly traditional way, of describing the operative or alchemical goal of any spiritual discipline—at least insofar as there is a “goal”. I add this perhaps surprising qualification because there’s a very important sense in which Prayer of the Heart has no “goal” other than itself. In Hesychast teaching, for example—and this is true mutatis mutandis for other forms of mantrayana—the Name of Jesus is sacramental in character, embodying (like the Eucharist) Christ Himself. In other words the Name is the Named, and for this reason the Prayer is an end in itself, or the End Itself. To invoke JESUS is already to be in His presence, hence in the Kingdom, whether you “feel” it to be so or not.

4. Discursive prayers, including words of praise and thanksgiving, are fundamentally cataphatic in character, whereas contemplative prayer is apophatic; the first corresponds to what we can say and think about God and is addressed to Him insofar as He is an interlocutor and agent, whereas the second corresponds to what we can’t say or think about God and is directed toward Him insofar as He simply is What is, at once higher than the Heavens and deeper than our own heart. These are by no means conflicting approaches, however. The Divine Essence and the Divine Person are not two Gods but one and the same Reality as seen from two different, but complementary, perspectives. In the words of Hermes Trismegistus, “It is not that the One became two but that these two are One.”

2 + 2 = 4

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

So you’re going to be leading a discussion of the great Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church for an adult Sunday school group at your church, and you write to ask whether I have any suggestions? NO! What else could the answer be to a question about apophatic theology?!

But in all seriousness, there’s no way to make the rarified truths of this classic book “user friendly” (your phrase), especially when the users are pious faithful whose relationship with their Lord is almost certainly founded upon images and comforting thoughts. Your audience will—or at least should—be suspicious from the get-go, given where I assume they’re coming from: a solid basis in Scripture.

What you might do, I suppose—speaking of Scripture—is to preface your discussion of Lossky by pointing out that the Name God gives Himself in the Bible—”I am what I am”—proves He is incomparable to anything else; as His own predicate, He conforms to no category: “If He is, we aren’t,” as certain Fathers were wont to insist; “and if we are, He isn’t.” Or again you might try opening your students’ hearts to the operative implications of Philippians 2:5-7. We’re to have the “mind” of Christ, says St Paul, who, “because”—not in spite of the fact that—He was in “the form of God” emptied Himself. One could spend a few decades pondering that single admonition.

In any case, there’s no way to make this dense and demanding text unconfusing without depriving it of its intended effect. The whole point is to be amazed—using that too-often-used word with its full etymological force—by what the Areopagite calls “the unchangeable mysteries of heavenly Truth”, which, he koanically declaims, “lie hidden in the dazzling obscurity of the secret Silence, outshining all brilliance with the intensity of their darkness, and surcharging our blinded intellects with the utterly impalpable and invisible fairness of glories which exceed all beauty”.

The “problem”, of course—I speak now with a serious playfulness!—is that once a person has drunk deeply at this apophatic well and started adopting Christ’s mushin no shin, it’s a slippery slope to becoming … a Christian perennialist! It’s surely no accident that Lossky’s dissertation was on Eckhart, however unfairly critical he may have been of the Master, and there’s a reason Metropolitan Anthony Bloom was able to stump him with a few pearls from the Hindu tradition. Do you know that story? It’s recounted in the 2005 biography, This Holy Man: Impressions of Metropolitan Anthony.

It seems that as a young man the Metropolitan (then Andre) wrote out a list of eight quotations from the Upanishads and took them to Lossky with an apparently innocent inquiry: “Could you help me? I have some sayings from the Fathers here, and I can’t remember who said what. Can you identity them for me, please?” The biographer continues: “Lossky went through the list and without hesitation wrote beside each quotation the relevant name: St John Chrysostom, St Basil the Great, and so on. When the theologian had attributed them all, Andre dropped his bombshell, ‘It’s the Upanishads.’ From then on, he said, Lossky began to look much more sympathetically at other faiths and came to find in them truths he had never before been able to acknowledge” (p. 85).

The moral of this story is that you (and your priest!) mustn’t go blaming me if your Sunday school class decides the next book on their list should be The Transcendent Unity of Religions. 2 + 2 = 4.