Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Universal Impulse to Contemplation

(not just for contemplative nuns!)
Jesus, sweetest name, be the daily music of my soul and the joy of my heart that when in the agony and pangs of death the last sigh of my soul may be "Jesus."

We have come across a comparatively new magazine entitled Spirituality & Health. The subtitle reads "the soul and body connection." It would be hard to find something more indicative of specific features of today's popular culture. First, it points to the distinction made these days between being 'religious' and being 'spiritual.' Two of my three sons, real Gen-Xers, have told me that when engaged in conversation with those curious about their mother's life choice, they find themselves speaking of me as not typically 'religious' (read as: institution-bound, conservative, narrow minded) but rather as 'spiritual' (read as: one following a contemplative path, searching for universal truth via the divine, open minded). These distinctions reflect an abhorrence for institutionalization of any kind which is perceived as automatically threatening to personal freedom.

The second value of current culture demonstrated here is the emphasis on the body; its appearance, its comfort; its general health. This focus includes at its extremes addiction to diet and exercise as well as drugs, an explosion of anorexia and bulimia, a preoccupation with fashion and generalized materialism.

However, when I open the magazine I wanted to cry out, "Me thinks they doth protest too much." The contents draw readers over and over again to philosophies and practices rooted in the world's great religious traditions. A sample of articles is revelatory: "Do You Need a Spiritual Teacher?"; "Bead Here and Now" - How and why to make prayer beads; "Extreme Simplicity" - A theologian takes us on a guided tour of timeless lessons form the fourth-century desert dwellers. There seems little awareness that in rejecting the institutional, aka the established world religions, the very environments which gave birth to these traditions is being jettisoned. These traditions give testimony to the universal human impulse to contemplation; to the fact that human beings are innately spiritual and drawn to the transcendent.

A particular article especially drew my attention: "The Sufi Practice for Healing Your Heart - A crisis in the life of a cardiologist open him to the miraculous power of an ancient cure." The author describes a practice from the tradition of the Sufis, the mystical branch of Islam. This points to the fact lost to many, that each religious tradition has a mystical expression. Jewish mysticism is expressed in the Kabbalah. Perhaps the most well known expressions of Christian mysticism may be found in the writings of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.

The Sufi practice, as out lined by the author, can be summarized in this way:

Use meditation beads

Set aside at least 15 minutes a day initially

Sit comfortably erect

Breathe through the nose and exhale deeply and rhythmically

On the exhale speak the name "Allah" slowly

Allow the sound to resonate in the region of your heart

Aim for 500 repetitions

As I read, I thought immediately of the most ancient and honored Christian tradition of the Jesus Prayer. I must say that the article served a good purpose in bringing me back to this prayer in my own life. However, it seemed a pity that many nominal Christians reading this piece would not be aware of its roots in their own tradition, a tradition which came to birth within an institution.

I renewed my devotion to the practice of the Jesus prayer, rejecting the beads, but placing my right hand over my heart and slowly invoking the name of Jesus at exhaling each breath. In the healing context, utterance of The Name was, for me, an invocation, an appeal, for its healing power to enter into my heart and spread like a balm within every corpuscle. It is a prayer for healing and simultaneous conversion of heart.

The process drew me to a venerable text in our monastery library, The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology (London: Faber and Faber, 1966) complied by Igumen Chariton of Valamo and edited with an introduction by Timothy Ware. The author was a Russian monk who, during the years between the two world wars, put together a volume of passages concerning prayer from sources dating from the 4th century Desert Fathers into the 20th century. It is a gold mine. These holy souls speak of the ancient tradition of the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner."

Here are two excerpts from the text, both from Theophane the Recluse(1815-94):

To raise up the mind towards the Lord, and to say with contrition: "Lord, have mercy! Lord, grant Thy blessing! Lord, help! - this is to cry out in prayer to God. But if feeling towards God is born and lives in your heart, then you will possess unceasing prayer, even though your lips recite no words and your body is not outwardly in a posture of prayer.

You regret that the Jesus Prayer is not unceasing, that you do not recite it constantly. But constant repetition is not required. What is required is a constant aliveness to god - an aliveness present when you talk, read, watch, or examine something. But since you are already practising the Jesus Prayer in the correct manner, continue as you are doing now, and in due course the prayer will widen its scope.

Quite an invitation! What a calling!

The little quote offered at the beginning of this essay is a pious ejaculation taught to my sophomore class in high school by a blessed Sister of St. Joseph of Brentwood, New York. It is one of the few things I remember verbatim from those years. But that invocation of The Name has stayed with me through the years, an example of the durability of ancient traditions in our Church, which are today being rediscovered in the most unlikely places. The Holy Spirit is, indeed, at work in our world.