Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Stillness Must Win Out

     A dear friend, a priest of the Orthodox Church, an anchorite, who has been shut up to prayer for 19 years with Psoriatic Arthritis in 41 joints of his body, said to me concerning prayer, "The silence must win out."  He was repeating to me what has been said concerning prayer since the beginning of the Church and before.  "Be still and know that I am God."  St. Ignatius the God-bearer said, "those who have acquired the word of Jesus, must go on to know His Stillness so as to be perfect."
Yet for many Chrstian life begins with a great burst of emotion.  When one is awakened to a relationship to God through Jesus Christ, has experienced the forgiveness of sins, has begun to feel the Energies of God vivifying his soul and body,  in the Protestant and evangelical West, one feels very drawn, not into silence, but great emotional excitement and celebration and all that goes with it these days-  praise choruses, guitar Liturgies,  emotion- filled preaching, dancing in the aisles, and so forth.  This is the common response.  Yet, as reinforcing as these things are to early Christian life, there is an inherent roadblock in them as well, if the great Saints of the ages are to believed, yes, and even if Scripture is to be believed as well.
The early experience of Christian life is often loaded with feeling, and the structures that support those stages of Christian life support that and institutionalize that.  The experience of the Energies of God in the early stages are but a preparation for a deepening of ones inner life- and that preparation for entry into the the Stillness that is in the heart.
Early Christian life is usually characterized by a real sense of the forgiveness of sins and of  the experience of the voice of the Lord in the leadings of the Holy Spirit.  Yet the eye of the understanding (Eph 1:18), called the 'nous' in the classical prayer literature of the Church, is still not yet at the place where it needs to be.
The nous, which is the subtle attention of our souls, is still an exile from the heart, and  needs to find its way back.  The very songs and styles of worship that often accompany the early stages of Christian growth, send the nous in the wrong direction- they send the nous out into the feelings, or if the person is intellectually inclined, out into the thoughts, neither of which is the place that the nous needs to recover.  The nous needs to find its way back into the heart, in the place where the Revelation of the Father takes place. The Spirit is sent into the world to reveal to us Jesus. Jesus who is the Word of God, in turns shows us the Father, in whose Presence we find the great Stillness, which , rather than being any abyss of nothingness,  comes to be experienced as the Home that we had always been exiled from.
The Stillness must win out.  Sufferings and the process of repentance and the process of learning unceasing prayer will enable the young believer, in time, to differentiate his heart and with perseverance, allow his nous to return to the heart.  However, such a process will inevitably lead him out of the forms of worship where he at one time felt comfortable.  He will find himself gradually estranged from them, as he finds himself being progressively called into degrees of stillness.  The pursuit of the Stillness of the heart begins with bodily stillness, putting away the myriad of sensory distractions and activities that draw the nous away from its pursuit of God.
The outer Stillness may be confused for the deeper Stillness of the heart, for it is an image of it, and an anticipation of it and preparatory for it.
I remember in 2006 when I had begun to pray an abridged form of the Hours of Prayer. I talked to a monk and told him of my struggles in keeping the Hours.  He said to me 'you are not there yet.' I am certain he meant that I had not yet found the descent of the nous into the heart and the Stillness. I thought perhaps I had.  I had a similitude of stillness but it was not the stillness of having the descent of the nous into the heart. It was the preparatory forms of outward bodily stillness I had found.  He also talked about experiencing the services on a 'different level', and of praying the Jesus prayer while the Services were going on.    I thought perhaps I knew what he was talking about. I know now that I did not.  At that time I had found my nous, and the process was going on where it was being withdrawn from the senses and the emotions and the thoughts; my nous knew the word of Jesus, His Voice, but had not yet found its way back to the Father.  The Silence had not yet won out.
Orthodox worship is configured so as to assist the descent of the nous into the heart and to call it away from the distractions both of intellectualism and emotionalism.  Orthodox worship forms are configured to help us so that the Silence wins out.
During the years I was a charismatic Christian there was great blessing in the exhuberant and emotion-packed and romantic songs of praise and worship that we sang. But it was also my observation that there was an invisible ceiling in those assemblies that prevented Christian growth.  Everyone seemed to be locked in a spiritual adolescence.  There is great vigor in adolescence; however, its immaturity fails to come up to the high standard of revealing who God is in Christ.
The forms of our worship therefore are not a matter simply of taste, but actually conform us to something, or block our being conformed to something else.  The forms of our worship matter, and that means that Church matters, for It,  the Church, is given to us as the pillar and ground of our growth in Christ.  It was Church that both wrote the Bible and decided which books would be in it and those that would not.  It is within Church that we either experience the icons of the Father in the hierarchy of the Church, and so learn both submission and obedience, and the fruits of that which are blessing and growth.  There is no growth apart from relationship to fathers, to the Father.  Thus, it is not only the worship forms that help to foster or hinder growth in Christ, but also the forms of authority that we have as well.
In the heavenlies, the Father is the Source, from which the Son is eternally begotten, and the Spirit eternally proceeds.  In His humanity the Son of God always submitted His will to the Divine will of the Father.  In the Church, it is in the icons of the Christ, the pastors and the Bishops that we find the locus to submit in Christ to the will of the Father, so fostering our growth. It is not, therefore, a matter of personal taste what sort of Church government we have, but the government must be an icon, an image of the heavenly government, for us to grow. Fathers foster growth.
Out of this also flows an attitude towards the past and those who went before  us.  As we must honor the Fathers in our midst in order to grow, we must also honor the Fathers before us in order to avoid error and to grow as well.  It is the adolescent who stands proudly aloof from the fathers, in his exalted sense of self-worth, judging those who went before him, not having within him the humility that comes from seeing his own imperfections, nor having the experience that causes him to treat all men subject to the human condition to the greatest of benefits of the doubt.
Church matters.  If we would grow and the Stillness win out, we must find ourselves in that which Christ prepared for us to take us on to God.  The Church is the ground and pillar of the Truth.  

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