Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Hesychasm for Laymen

Metropolitan Jonah recently delivered a message on spiritual growth to our Diocese. He is not only our Metropolitan but locum tenans of the South, and that is us- we Christians here in Atlanta.  In the message he underscored that the spirituality of Hesychasm, is at the heart of  the Orthodox method of spiritual growth, and within or related to hesychasm was the pursuit of unceasing prayer, and particularly aided by the Jesus Prayer. So, in the Orthodox Method, we have hesychasm, the pursuit of unceasing prayer, and the Jesus Prayer.
As I read the offerings of Orthodox on the internet, I find almost nothing of practical value on the practice of hesychasm for laymen.  We read about the hesychasm of the monks and the ascetics, but not much of the layman and it seems like it is almost a territory that we laymen are not able to enter.
Yet I would like to suggest that the Holy Spirit also works with laymen in the pursuit of hesychasm, which is not the pursuit of stillness for itself , but as a means of becoming participants in the Divine Nature.  Hesychasm means Stillness, and what stillness has to do with the pursuit of God is especially difficult for Western Christian expecially since we tend to be so fixed on doing things to advance the Kingdom over Being certain sort of people.  And as Laymen we are busy in the world  having families and jobs and being involved in bunches of activities that keep us- busy.
However, the faith is one faith. There is not the faith for monks and the faith for laymen.  It is all one faith.  Monks are specialists is it true and it is their special calling that keeps alive the vision of prayer and of hesychasm itself. We would be lost without them. Churches that have lost monasticism or have had it sullied by modern trends of social gospel and activism to replace the life of prayer, have suffered an incalculable loss, for it is the monks that have kept the high tradition of prayer, and of stillness alive as a witness to us who do not have the calling or luxury of monastic poverty and givenness to prayer.
So, the Holy Spirit is working in our midst, if we will but listen to the word of Jesus; He is working to call us to hesychasm, to Stillness. The Hesychast interprets Christ's injunction in the Gospel of Matthew to "go into your closet to pray," to mean that he should ignore the senses and withdraw inward. St John of Sinai writes: "Hesychasm is the enclosing of the bodiless mind (nous) in the bodily house of the body." (Ladder, Step 27, 5, (Step 27, 6 in the Holy Transfiguration edition).) {quoted from } But what is it exactly that we are being called to?  The human personality is deranged by its fall into sin, and as participants in Adam's fall we suffer from this derangement.  On the level of man's psychology the nous of man has lost its primordial focus on the vision of God and has changed its gaze outward into the senses and the thoughts.  Man's nous has been cut off from the Stillness that is the Presence of the Father, and that ought to reside as the Secret Place within each man's heart and be the residing place of each man's nous or spiritual attention or spiritual focus or spiritual eye.
The nous then as the eye of the heart has lost the vision of God and needs to find its way back.  Classical outlines of the spiritual life speak of purgation, illumination and Theosis as the steps back into full union with God.   The call of hesychasm is an aspect of that and involves the weaning of the attention off things that are sinful, of course, but also things  of the world that are not evil, in and of themselves, but are distractions to the real call of our nous and the source of a fundamental derangement and dis-integration of the human personality.  This aspect of hesychasm is outward or bodily hesychasm for it does not yet reach in a conscious way the inner sanctum of the heart, an experience that comes as a consequence of and subsequent to the practice of bodily hesychams.  Outward hesychasm finds its fruition in the eventual descent of the nous into the heart, which is recognized by the experience of a deep inner Stillness that one has not experienced before, no matter how zealous a Christian. One may have experience great relief and peace through forgiveness of sins, and great joy at the Providences of God, and been astute in the perception of the voice of Jesus and the leadings of the Spirit, but those are not the same thing.  As St. Ignatius the God-bearer said, 'those who have really acquired the word of Jesus must go on to know His Stillness so as to be perfect.  "Be Still and know that I am God",  says the Scriptures.  The word of Jesus was sent out into the world and is revealed to the human heart by the Holy Spirit. The word of Jesus in turn, to complete the transaction with the human heart, must necessarily lead us ever back to the Stillness of the Father.
This process is seen in the very work of the Incarnate son of God, who came into the world, who was revealed and believed in, who suffered, died and was buried, and who rose again from the dead. Who, thereafer, ascended into heaven and was seated at the right hand of the Father.  Such cycle must also be recapitulated in us who belong to Him.  It is three-fold; it is Trinitarian. Scripture speaks of the three stage of Christian life, 'little children, young men, and fathers', writes the Revelator in his epistle.  Little children experience the converting work of the Spirit, young men learn to acquire the word of Jesus and begin to move forward in spiritual victory, and fathers- fathers, know the Father, by having entered the Secret Place of the most high.
Well, back to Western Christianity.  So focused on justification and conversion has been the evangelical movement and so hostile in a reactive sort of way to anything of Tradition that was not explicitly spelled out in Scripture, the Western Christian man for the most part lost the aspect of the Faith that is the descent of the nous into the heart, the seating of the soul in heavenly places at the right hand of the Father, and has confused aspects of Christian life for the secret place that were not precisely what the Christian Tradition had in mind.
Even the leading thinkers of Christian formation, such as Dallas Willard and Richard Foster do not seem to have gotten a clear bead on it, even though Dallas Willard's books on spiritual life are some of the best out there, period. 
Well, we've lost our way.  How do we find our way as laymen back into a life that has practical hesychasm?
The more gross aspects has to do with obedience to the commands of Jesus.  Decades ago the word of Jesus to me  'thou shalt not look on a woman to lust after her in your heart' became a powerful focus in the organization of my inner life in a hesychastic direction. Young men, might I say all men of the normal orientation, spend a lot of time looking and lusting, and the Holy Spirit spends a lot of time, if we are attentive in reproving such behavior.  If one pays attention to those promptings of the Spirit one will begin to get an inner sense of the item of human personality which is called the 'nous' traditionally and which will eventually descend into the heart into the stillness of the Father if we give heed to the word of Jesus.  It worked for me that way.  The constant vigilence, guarding the heart, by not giving my eyes or my thoughts over to lust, had a way of giving shape to my nous, even at the time, I did not, as an evangelical, have a name for it, and would have called it my spirit.  It formed a habit of inner possession of my nous, as it were, and the rudiments of governing my mind that also has bearing on the hesychastic life.
Any number of other commands could have that same effect on one's inner life.  Thou shalt not covet.  Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people.  In everything give thanks.  When you speak, speak as the oracles of God.  All these commands, when heeded and practiced have the habit of forming our inner life so that we gain a spiritual sense of our nous, a constant inner spirituality before God.  Yet these are aspects of outward hesychasm  and as salutory as they are, are also preparation for the things of God that are to come along the way.
The things I have mentioned have to do with aspects of thought and behavior that involve sin. there is also the aspect of bodily hesychasm that has to do with things that are not sin, in and of themselves, but things that preoccupy our attention and keep us from being the little Christs, the participants in the Divine nature, the Gods we are called to be by grace.  And we poor Americans are so beset with these things.  Our whole continent is one big, grand theme park for the titillation of our senses, the entertainment of our bodies, the satiation of our appetites, the comfort of our bodies, the distraction of our attentions- away from the emptiness that exists within at the core of our being.  Imagine being by yourself in a room with no computer, no television, no radio, no magazine, no art on the wall and no window to look out of, for three hours.  You are left to yourself. When you are left to yourself, would that be a miserable and painful experience? Is there so little down there deep within that if you were left with yourself alone, that it would be painful and miserable?
For most of us the answer is, yes, and for that reason we keep up the distractions of thought or of sense or of activity, to avoid the inner emptiness.
Yet that is not what we are supposed to be inwardly. We are supposed to be, deep down within our heart, a glorious Temple, wherein exists all the angels of heaven, the souls of just men made perfect, and the on-going communion of the Holy Spirit.  There is supposed to be a Place down there where there is the perfect home for our souls to rest.  That is where Jesus proposes to take us if we give heed to his word, yet it is the ignorance of that place by most of us in the West that keeps us frenetic in our activities, frenetic in our worship, frenetic in our sensory stimulation, and with lives often shattered. 
The Place that we seek is the citadel of our hearts, where, for the Christian dwells the Godhead, where is the Stillness of the Father, which is our native Home.  Hesychasm is a help to getting there. But, as I have said, the Holy Spirit will also work, not only on those sins that distract  us, but also the things that are not sins in themselves, but which also distract us from being who we ought to be in the Godhead, by keeping our spiritual attttention, our nous, the eye of our heart pre-occupied.  The list of these sort of things is legion.  The most common ones are the most obvious. Television, radio, computer time, Ipods, stereos, entertainment events, games, sports, culinary preoccupation, preoccupations with comforts and so forth.  If one is listening to the Spirit, one will notice that the Spirit is calling us away from inordinate time on the internet, from time soaking up television, from ceaseless business pursing this or that activity, even from the ceaseless spiritual activities that sometimes draw us away from where we ought to be.  I mention the Spirit as the one who does the work, but it must be said, that the Tradtion points to a spiritual father who will point the way.  Unfortunately, we have so few spiritual fathers that have found their way, that most of us are left to our own devices, to our readings, and to the sense of the voice of the Spirit that we have hopefully acquired through the years.  There are very few starets, spiritual elders, to lead the way. But we must take heart, Ezekiel 34 tells us when the spiritual leaders fail us the Lord will be the shepherd and bishop of our souls.  Fear not, for it is the Father's good pleasure to give you the Kingdom, says the Good Shepherd.
Pay attention to the subtle nudges of the Spirit. You are watching that tv program, and yet it does not bring you the satisfaction you thought it would or that it once did; that could be a call to turn off the television and sit still and read the Psalms.  The radio you listen to on the way to work- brings a sense of disquiet. that could be the Spirit saying, turn off the radio and listen to me and say the Jesus Prayer and pray the Trisagion Prayers.
The classical music you click on when you get home to an empty house- it may sound to you strangely vain-glorious and pompous instead of grand-  is that the Spirit calling you to quiet and stillness that you may draw near to God?  The disquiet you feel preparing grand feasts for your dinner, could that be a call to simpler foods so that you are not spending your energies titillating your gustatory organs?   The volume of books you plow through every week; are you beginning to feel an ennui in the reading of them? That cold be the Spirit calling you towards the Stillness.  All these things and a myriad more like them, are the things that the Spirit will call us away from in order that we might approach the threshold of inner hesychasm.
These are things that laymen can turn away from and find copious amounts of time for the work of Stillness.
These are the things that one can refrain from. There are also positive things that we laymen can do to pursue hesychasm in our life.  The practice of the Jesus prayer is chief among them.  The Jesus prayer is great as a discipline of the Spirit when we are in the waiting places of our busy lives. Waiting in the doctor's office; waiting in lines of traffic of in the grocery store; while commuting to and from work. There are so many times that the Jesus Prayer can be practiced.  There are the times when you are doing repetitive activities that don't require much mental activity.  Slicing the veggies.  the repetitive actions of housekeeping or of factory work. While standing and waiting at the Trade Show waiting on prospective customers to show up.  Between innings at your child's softball game.  At the side of a loved one's bed of sickness.  All sorts of opportunities to pursue God through the Jesus Prayer. 
The use of the Jesus Prayer historically has led many Christians towards Theosis and along they way they found the descent of the nous into the heart.  The found the Stillness of the Father.  The classical book The Way of the Pilgrim is just such a story of one such layman. His was a unique circumstance. He was called to a life of pilgrimage that was especially suited for the pursuit of unceasing prayer, of which hesychasm is the concomitant. Nevertheless, we are all called to such a life, and if we are seeking the Way will be opened, no matter the structure of our life.
Such was the case for me.  My life required a three year hiatus for the pursuit of unceasing prayer.  I went to prison.  I went because of a conscientious struggle with our Government but they decided I ought to be in jail and 96 percent of the time they take a person to Court that is where they go.  But Federal Prison Camp was a temporary call to a sort of monasticism.  Prior to going I went on a pilgrimage to St. Gregory Palamas monastery and the idea came to me there to take up the habit of praying the Hours of prayer, in Reader's fashion, as did the monks. So when I got back home from the pilgrimage, as I had been rendered unemployed by the actions of the Court, I had time to take my Horologion and pray the Hours of Prayer.  Along the way I was also able to memorize most of the prayer snd the Psalms that are routinely done in the Hours, including Matins and Vespers, so that, when the locked me up, I was pretty well equipped to continue the Hours as time allowed.  Circumstances also had it that I was placed in a 'job' that had no work and I had a corner of a carpenter's shop where I could be by myself all day.   There were the natural  impediments to distractions of normal life, and I found I had no desire to watch television, nor to listen to the radio. My reading was very limited. There it was, my monks cell for the prayer of the Hours, and in the morning was the handball court where  no one was yet active, and in the evening the track where one could have relative time to oneself for Vespers.  I undertook the Hours, and for several months I also added an almost daily prayer routine, trying to pray for every person that I could remember from the entirety of my life.
Towards the end of my stay, the Spirit was working and I came to the point that all my thoughts and my words were shown to be intersticed with pride.  There seemed to be nothing left to do.  I decided for my final 33 days, to do nothing but pray the Jesus Prayer. It was an amazing experience and things took place that I never expected would be my experience.  For this reaons and others the whole episode, as traumatic as it was, was worth it.  The Orthodox path of hesychasm; the pursuit of unceasing prayer; the use of the Jesus prayer all showed them to be intimately vital and real as far as the pursuit of deepening life in God is concerned. 
Since that time the Prayers memorized and some of the habits of prayer had continued to mold my days.  I find one can pray some of the Hours while on breaks at work, or while commuting to and from work, and as Iwork the night shift, in the late hours of the night when I am at home, and all is quiet.  The descent of the nous is real, and the pursuit of unceasing prayer is something that is the calling of us all, layman or monk.
I only wish had had enough faith and vision that I could have sold my business years ago, and taken off two years for prayer, but I was too spiritually dull to have conceived such a plan.  Perhaps there are those of you out there who want more of God.  Why not sell your businesses and take a three year Sabbatical, to spend time seeking God thorugh unceasing prayer? You might find things beyond your wildest imaginations.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post. Thank you. I first experienced the energy at my heart at rehab when making eye contact with others and eventually heard the voice of Christ there. I'm now interested in taking up hesychasm in order to purify myself.