Monthly Archives: October 2010

The Art of Prayer, Part III

Chapter 2 of the book is a collection of excerpts from the writings of St. Theophan the Recluse.  In fact the bulk of this book is from Theophan, one of the most remarkable figures in Russian monasticism.  He lived during the peak of the Hesychast renewal in 19th century Russia, and also he was one of the most educated men in Russian monasticism.  For something like 20 years he lived as a recluse, but he guided hundreds if not thousands of people through correspondence.  He also had an enormous library which included not only the Fathers of the Church but also western philosophy.


The chapter begins with a continuing theme: what is prayer?  This may seem like a simple question, but in actuality it is a very complex and deep question.  But St. Theophan has a difficult but practical objective to lead us into the depths of inner prayer:  “What is prayer?  What is its essence?  How can we learn to pray?”  The importance of the question is emphasized: “Prayer is the test of everything; prayer is also the source of everything; prayer is the driving force of everything; prayer is also the director of everything.”  The spiritual life is the ground and foundation of all we do and all we are, and prayer is the foundation of the spiritual life.


Next St. Theophan points to “different degrees” of prayer.  In a sense he starts with the outer layers and moves inward.  The 1st degree has to do with our bodies–this involves reading, bodily posture, and movements like prostrations and kneeling, etc.  This is not superficial stuff because we want to bring our bodies into this flow as it were.  St. Theophan makes a point that this may be hard, especially when we “feel nothing” and don’t feel like praying.  He tells us to have a “moderate rule” of prayer–meaning we should not pile up a lot of physical practices and put large demands on ourselves in terms of getting a lot of vocal prayer done.  But to do something is important, and to keep at it is important because it will lead to a kind of focus on prayer.  And that leads us to St. Theophan’s second degree of prayer.  We are still here in the realm of active, maybe even vocal, prayer, but the important thing is that our attention and our focus is consistently on the reality of God as it unfolds through the words we say or sing.  Then we come to the heart of prayer, the third degree.  Now our focus and attention is continuous.  This is the beginning of inner prayer.  St. Theophan then alludes to an even deeper realm of prayer:  “But there is, they say, [note he does not speak from his own authority–whether this be from humility or because he had not reached that state himself, we do not know], yet another kind of prayer which cannot be comprehended by our mind, and which goes beyond the limits of consciousness: on this read St. Isaac the Syrian.”


Again and again St. Theophan returns to discuss the “essence of prayer.”  Some may find this repetitive, but you have to realize that the editors are simply taking snippets from his extensive writings and lumping it all together in this anthology.  But you can see even from this that St. Theophan returned to this topic all the time.  The essence of prayer is not easy to put into words, but for him and this hesychast tradition it has to do with a kind of turning of the heart toward God and abiding in his Presence.  Let us recall that one of the chief characteristics of being human is “intentionality.”  Intentionality is a kind of turning toward something, a reaching for something, etc.  When we are hungry or tired we turn toward sleep or food–we have an intention to meet that felt need.  When we are in the presence of a friend, we turn toward the person in our attention and relationality.  Our intention is toward fostering that friendship.  Intentions can also be misdirected.  In any case, ultimately intentionality has to do with the core of our being, called “the heart” in this tradition.  What is it turned towards?  That is the key question.  If we understand this, we will understand the real role of asceticism, liturgical prayer, solitude, silence, etc.  We experience a phenominal world, sometime pleasureable, sometime painful; we have a myriad collection of fears, anxieties, desires roaming through our consciousness, we have an ego self, and all kinds of identity markers, both social and inner.  Whatever be the nature of their reality, St. Theophan exhorts us to turn that core of our being toward the Presence of God.  This is going to be real hard work! Precisely because of that whole phenomenal world that percolates in and around us.  Modern life especially wants to capture our intentionality toward consumption and superficial surfaces–it denies the very existence of that “inner room” or it pleads a kind of agnosticism about it.  Ok, so whether it be in St. Theophan’s time or our time, perhaps we will need hymns, vocal prayers, bodily gestures, meditative reading,  etc at the start. The role of the Jesus Prayer comes into play here.  Also, our Islamic brethren can teach us a lot here.  They are called to turn toward Mecca 5 times a day in prayer.  This physical gesture is a physical icon of what they(and we) are called to do at the heart level as we turn toward the Holy Presence.  Once this intentionality of the heart toward that Holy Presence has been firmly established, it will begin to fill all else that we do during the day.  It will also keep us from getting diverted into the superficial realm of modern consumerism.


While at first that turning may have been toward what felt like “nothing” and silence and emptiness, that “nothingness” eventually will become unveiled as a Presence beyond and without words, images, or thoughts.   Then, and this is the big thing, that “turning,” that which we have called prayer, will live in us by a dynamic that is no longer of our own making or effort.  At that point there is only One Prayer and only One who is Praying.


There is one more teaching that St. Theophan alludes to in this chapter, and this is extremely difficult to put into words precisely because it is so easy to misunderstand and misapply.  If we reach that highest level of prayer, we will see that everything in our life is a gift from God.  Everything, and we will accept everything precisely as that.  Thus our sickness, our loss, that “slap in the face,” etc. etc. it is all from God.  Now looking at that “from the outside,” this looks like the worst kind of determinism, a loss of common sense, an abandonment to a sick kind of passivity.  And indeed to teach someone that message without that reality of prayer would be gravely irresponsible.  Here also we touch base with our Sufi friends.  But once we are in that realm of continuous prayer, we see all reality differently.




St. Theophan is also quick to point out to all of us what we have previously termed as “Hesychast’s heart, Beginner’s heart”:

“You must never regard any spiritual work as firmly established, and this is especially true of prayer but always pray as if beginning for the first time.  When we do a thing for the first time, we come to it fresh and with a new-born enthusiasm.  If, when starting to pray, you always approach it as though you had never yet prayed properly, and only now for the first time wished to do so, you will always pray with a fresh and lively zeal.  And all will go well.”








Buddhism & Violence

That combination of words sounds jarring–we are not accustomed to seeing any kind of violence attributed to that tradition.  However, there is a new book out that discusses the presence of violence within the Buddhist tradition.  The title:  Buddhist Warfare , a collection of essays by various Buddhist scholars, edited by Mark Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer, two scholars of comparative religions.  There is also an intriguing review of this book that first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement(UK) by another Buddhist scholar, Katherine Wharton.  The review was also available through and here is the link:



It seems to be an uneven book, and the review even more uneven.  There are a number of problems and questions of interpretation.  But first of all one must acknowledge the sad but undeniable historical record of actual violence by proponents of Buddhism.  To those of us in the “Abrahamic religions”: Judaism, Christianity and Islam–well, we are accustomed to the presence of violence in our various traditions, but most Westerners had looked on Buddhism as not being tainted by that kind of thing.  This book does show that is not quite the case.  On another website, in a personal account, Mark Jerryson, one of the editors, tells us why he took up this research.  Here is that website:


Mark spent a year in Thailand studying Buddhism and was jarred to discover monks with guns.  He knew he had to look into this.



In any case, the book details both ancient and modern instances where people who identified themselves as Buddhists carry out or condone or somehow support violent activity.  Japanese Zen seems to come out very badly in this regard.  In Japan Zen seems to have been associated with the warrior class(the samurai, etc.) quite a bit–it made them better warriors.  In this regard there is at least some ambiguity in some of the things that even the great D.T. Suzuki wrote.  And here we come to some questionable things in the book and even more so in the review–apart from the historical record, there is the problem of how to interpret certain words and expressions in Buddhism.  It seems that what some of these scholars are saying–and especially the reviewer–is at the very least very questionable if not outright wrong.  It may be arrogant on my part to say so, but there is also the historical record of many Westerners, scholars and religious folk, who have definitely “missed the boat” in evaluating Asian religions–either idealizing them and projecting their own constructs, their own needs into them or else painting them in such a negative way as if there was nothing of value there.  So it is not, alas, impossible.


First of all, what these authors say about the Buddhist notions of “no-self,” and “emptiness” seems very wrongheaded.  To attribute  these as a cause of the presence of violence in Buddhism is a misreading.  Yes, one can see how a shallow or distorted understanding of these profound notions can lead one seriously astray. But in their essence these are very deep teachings that actually lead one in the opposite direction when correctly grasped.  Thus the importance of a true teacher because Buddhism is primarily learned from a teacher and not from texts.  There are several comments after the book review by various kinds of people and most of them are superficial, but there are at least two comments by informed Buddhists who make this very point.


Another terrible misreading is blaming Taoism for the justification of violence in Buddhism.  Here Taoism is seen as “identification with the raw forces of nature.”  Wrong!  Absolutely wrong.  Sometime soon we will have to discuss Taoism at length.  Needless to say both Zen and Taoism have been used to justify various hedonistic and antinomian ways of life that may include violence–also including a superficial spontaneity.  To name names: Alan Watts came close to this in his books in the 1950s and 60s, and he was very popular in his time.


Another problem both in the book and in the review is the lack of sensitivity to the many-layered nuances of the language in this tradition(and actually in all religious traditions).  Even in American “pop Buddhism” to say “kill the Buddha” is clearly not seen as an invocation to violence.  It refers to a ceasing of objectification, of trying to find a Buddha outside one’s self.  There is a certain amount of this kind of language in Buddhist literature, and we must grant that this kind of language is problematic today.  It can also be found in the other great traditions.  Afterall, the Bhagavad-Gita takes place in the middle of a battlefield, the Jewish Psalms used in Christian worship are filled with language about “smiting the enemy,” etc., etc.  One has to find a way around this language and get to the meaning behind it.  But like the good commentators on the review point out, one also has to look at some very fundamental Buddhist teachings that call one to compassion, to doing no harm to anyone, etc.  And as for D.T. Suzuki, well, he once did say that the essence of enlightenment was to feel the pain of another as one’s own.  Whatever else he might have said, that’s pretty good!


Whatever the failings of this book may be, whatever the problems with the review of the book, they both do remind us that there is a “dark side” in every religious tradition.  Whether this be a misinterpretation of a teaching, or a misappliction, or a cultural distortion of a perfectly good doctrine, whatever be the case, one has to be alert.  Just because something is labeled as “religion” or “spiritual” does not mean we set aside our critical faculties and deny what’s right in front of our noses.  Christians have been doing this for centuries!  Buddhists, welcome to the club!





The Art of Prayer, Part II

Now we plunge into the bulk of the text, and the first chapter is an excerpt from a  late medieval Russian hesychast, St. Dimitri of Rostov.  He is a figure almost unknown in the West.  His spiritual writings bridge that span when Russia crosses over from the medieval into its own early modern period.  It is a time before the great hesychast renewal inaugurated by the translations of Paisius Velichkovsky of the Greek compilation known as the Philokalia.  The hesychast tradition was alive and well in the small sketes and hermitages in the Russian wilderness and in certain of the large monasteries, but the general populace and most monks and priests were not much “into it” as we would say today.  Thus St.Dimitri tells us of the paucity of knowledge about inner prayer among people in his time (and this may surprise some or they may consider it an exaggeration).  We might want to say to St. Dimitri that you don’t know how really bad it can get!  And Merton in his The Inner Experience echoes such sentiments.


There is a lovely book on Zen called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.  There is the sense that what St. Dimitri is talking about is not only a description of a certain situation in his own time, but more like a state of mind that one should have at any time in approaching the reality of inner prayer.  In a sense, he is saying that we all need to have this attitude of being beginners as far as inner prayer goes.  A clumsy adoption and adaptation of the Zen title would be: Hesychast’s Heart, Beginner’s Heart.  Andre Louf, a Trappist monk and a hesychast teacher of prayer, also points to this as an essential attitude and state of heart as we approach the reality of inner prayer.  St. Dimitri: “Therefore some idea of inner training and spiritual prayer is given here for the instruction of beginners….”  Make no mistake about it, we are all beginners as far as this awesome reality of inner prayer and communion with God goes.  And if we want to make progresss, we will always be beginners–that is the great spiritual paradox.


The title of the chapter is “The Inner Closet of the Heart,” and the word “closet” is a poor translation of the word from the Gospel of Matthew that is often translated simply as “room.”  Nevertheless the idea is the important thing, and St. Dimitri and the whole hesychast tradition relies heavily on this text about prayer.  There we find this call to go into a secret room, an inner room, in order to pray.  Obviously this is not a physical space as such but a whole understanding of the human makeup.  For St. Dimitri and many others, there is this anthropology of “dual spaces” as it were:  the “inner man,” and the “outer man.”  This is found all over in classic Christian spirituality and it has its roots in the Gospel and St. Paul.  If one does not misunderstand it, if one does not take it too literally but sees the metaphorical nature of such language, if it doesn’t become a rigid structure of fixed ideas about the human, it will prove to be helpful and clarifying.  For there is such a thing as outer prayer, for example, and inner prayer–as St. Dimitri points out.  In outer prayer we say a lot of words, we use books, we use gestures, we sing hymns, etc.  The world of inner prayer is quite different.  However, this kind of breakdown of the human world into two parts can also be very misleading.  In a sense there is no outer or inner with regard to prayer.  In fact the hesychasts themselves, as we shall see later, want to lead us to a place where prayer suffuses everything, penetrates everything, fills up everything that we are and we do.


In the hesychast tradition the world of inner prayer has to do with the heart, and this word “heart” is actually a very rich and complex term.  It does not have a simple reference to that physical organ by which our bodies function.  The “heart” here of course refers to the very depths and center of a human person.  It is the place where you and God are one in love and freedom.  We say “in love” because you and God are not physically one, but one in terms of love.  God’s love for you is absolute and infinite and always there–otherwise you would cease to exist. That stranger over there who is a stranger to you is also loved infinitely by God and walks in His Light–unawares though he may be.  So by the mere fact of your existence you are totally one with God in His Love.  What of course is called for is that you respond to this love with your whole being.  That’s the point of the First Commandment.  We also say “in freedom” because tragically enough we can say “no” to this Love.  Nevertheless our freedom (and this we shall have to discuss at length at some point because of its pop misuse), our freedom is already a sign of God’s Presence to us–it is that Divine Life flowing in us of which we are normally so oblivious.


In a sense the very meaning of inner prayer is to abide in that Love and that Freedom, and to abide in it constantly with awareness.  To live by it.  This is the “true bread” “in the desert.”  Our existence itself is a kind of desert.  Because we are scattered creatures filled with varying and diverse desires, fears, anxieties, an outer structure of prayer is very much needed to help us focus.  Furthermore, as St. Dimitri points, a brief, oft-repeated prayer, like the Jesus Prayer helps one focus on that Presence in the heart.  There will be much more about this in later chapters by other authors.  Suffice it to say that St. Dimitri points us in the direction of “continual prayer,” or “unceasing prayer,” which is really a conscious, gentle abiding in the Love and Freedom that brings one existence from moment to moment and every gift moment to moment.  There is nothing that is without that Love, whether it be a trillion stars in the thousands upon thousands of galaxies spread over unimaginable space where light takes billions of years to travel through, or it be a blade of grass, an ant, a little flower, a drop of rain rolling down your window, etc.  In the end you will discover that there is ONLY the Presence of Love, and inner and outer are just temporary terms.


But in the meanwhile let us turn to that inner place and place our attention there and hear our name being called as we are called into existence from moment to moment out of pure emptiness and into the Fullness of Love and Freedom.  As St. Dimitri puts it:  “Man needs to enclose himself in the inner closet of his heart more often than he needs to go to church….”








Moneyless, Etc.

There have been some recent news stories, feature stories, and websites that have highlighted this interesting phenomenon of people moving toward a lifestyle of living without money.  The most recent example is this Englishman, Mark Boyle.  Here are two links to stories about him:

Then there is the German woman Heidimarie Schwermer, and here is the link to a story about her:

And then about 2 years ago there was a spate of stories about an even more radical American living in a cave outside of Moab, Utah.  He even has his own website which he manages from a public library computer:

Apparently there are a lot more people moving in this direction, although of course they are nothing compared to all those who seek more money, etc.  This is actually very interesting for many reasons.  Although there are some real differences among these folk, they do share a basic fundamental thrust which separates them from the “way things are”–which many see as natural and as inevitable as the sun rising and setting.  In one sense there is nothing “religious” about their way of life or their “philosophy”; but in another sense they have a very deep connection with a fundamentally religious view of life and a very real connection to all those who follow a monastic way.  Although there is nothing intrinsically “evil” about money and to be “against money” is not particularly religious in any sense, there is this thing about our relationship to money that is indeed a problem, both socially and spiritually.   And these people have a good sense of that–unlike so many of “professional religious.”

Now if one lives or has lived in a monastery or a Catholic religious house, or if one has visited such a place, one inevitably will realize at some point that one is “encased” in an entity that is worth millions in many instances–the Carthusians in Vermont built their place with very expensive granite, and recently I have been reading of these Carmelite monks in Wyoming who are planning this massive gothic monastery in the Rockies that will cost millions and will depend on a lot of donors.  These days Catholic religious will tell you they are “cash poor” but maybe land rich.  Monasteries/religious institutions that are large landowners are an ambiguous reality at best.  Also, you will see very often these religious institutions being very friendly with rich and powerful benefactors who have acquired their money in very ambiguous ways.  For example:  the Catholic, Peter Grace of the former Grace Corp., who gave lots of money to Catholic religious institutions, also let thousands of people suffer through the notorious pollution the company caused and then refused to take responsibility for it and fought to avoid making it up to the people.  Whatever be the case, it is so amazing how many religious people are either naïve, blind or willfully overlooking their very compromised relationship to money and wealth.  Our secular moneyless friends are there to remind us there is another way.

The traditional defense of the large, well-endowed monasteries is that the individual monk “owns” nothing–it is only their for his use as needed, and the security it provides enables the monk to devote more of his time and energy to prayer and meditation–the main point of his life.  However you deal with that line of thought, it has a long and venerable tradition, and no doubt many good monks and nuns have lived in such a context.  Also, this position seems to appear in other religious traditions–like Buddhism, etc.  The Dalai Lama himself has pointed out that one of the problems with earlier Tibetan Buddhism was that the monasteries were these huge landowners that dominated the whole society–it seemed that everyone was working to support the monks.  He has gone so far as to say that in some ways when the Chinese took over and took everything away from the monks, that at least in this regard they are better now.

Now of course there is a completely different Christian monastic tradition, even older, that takes a completely different approach.  It is against monks owning large institutions, and indeed it suspects all kinds of ownership.  Seeking the same ultimate goal but interpreting the monastic charism in a very different way, it points to poverty in every sense of that word as very essential to the monastic identity.  At the origins of Christian monasticism this is very apparent with our dear friends, the Desert Fathers.  Plenty of stories about that!  When Christian monasticism becomes very institutionalized and very big, reform movements almost always pushed in two directions: solitude, and poverty.  Again, the Desert Heritage.  St. Francis is another interesting example–his focus on poverty is so intense that even in his own lifetime  his own followers abandon that commitment, and he is deeply saddened by that.  In medieval Russia there was this battle of visions of what Russian monasticism should be like.  The two conflicting groups were called: the Possessors, and the Nonpossessors.  The contrast is self-explanatory.  Historically the Possessors won out, and Russian monasticism developed rich, well-endowed monasteries.  However, the Nonpossessors did not disappear.  On the contrary they continued in their own small way, and this is the primary locus for the development of Russia’s greatest spiritual treasure–Russian Hesychasm.  This developed and flourished in the small sketes and hermitages in the forests of Russia.  And yes, to be fair, hesychasts were also to be found in the large monasteries.

Now with all that let us return to our secular moneyless friends!  Are they a kind of hidden monasticism?  Maybe.  Probably not, but why bother with labels.  When Merton met with some of the student leaders of the uprisings in 1968, they told him in effect, “We are the true monks.”  And Merton accepted this challenge and developed it for his very last talk.  He appreciated the fact that they understood better than the official monks that being a monk also meant being in a certain critical relationship to the social fabric of money, ownership, possessions, power, etc.   Otherwise the monk’s renunciations were a mere fiction, a mind-game.  Well, perhaps our moneyless friends and the movement they are part of seems to say something similar.  In any case I find them engaging, challenging, and inspiring.  Yes, certain criticisms could be leveled at them.  For one, they seem inconsistent or  worse, “moochers,”–take Suelo in Utah, for example, he hitches rides when he goes somewhere.  Well, he can only do that because someone else HAS BOUGHT A CAR WITH MONEY!  Or he goes to the library and uses a computer–that’s only there because of someone else’s money.  Suelo has an answer for that:  he uses the example of a bird in a downtown area of a city–the bird makes a nest on one of the ledges of a skyscraper.  So be it.  The bird is not “mooching”–just making use of what’s there to live his life.  Incidentally, the father of this whole movement, Thoreau, was also accused of being inconsistent, and Emerson wrote in his defense, “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds!”

Now one could easily say that money in itself is not the real problem and that these people may be missing the main point: what’s in the heart.  True enough.  Suelo comes very close to saying that money in itself is the problem, but the others seem more nuanced.  But what they all point to is the enormous corrupting influence of money in all our institutions: religious, political, social.  Money and all it represents seems to drive our social order.  You know the old saying about the “Golden Rule”:  he who has the gold, sets the rules.  And our friends do this critique in a very quiet, “monastic” way by simply living very, very differently.  Monks could learn a lot from them instead of participating in a social, economic realm that is ordered by and for greed.

A further point:  people have this sense that the given social and economic order is “natural,” “inevitable,” can’t be changed, that there are no possible alternatives.  Our friends here suggest otherwise.  Mark Boyle, the Englishman, does point out that the whole world could not take up his way of life tomorrow–that would be catastrophic, but he does rightly point to the fact that people can do a lot to simplify and reorder their lives around something more than being consumers.  That they can slowly deconstruct this enormous edifice of acquisition, consumption, entertainment gluttony, etc. Again, one can see a very monastic dimension to all this.

Now moving to another voice and quite a different piece of writing, let us turn to the social critic Chris Hedges.  This man is one of the deepest thinking people writing on our social condition today, and his weekly essay can be found on–usually appearing on Mondays.  This particular piece should be read by everyone, and here is the link to it:

Many people find his analysis too much to swallow–it is so uncompromising and so bleak, but I think he hits the bullseye almost every time. (Incidentally, Merton in some of his writings already was hinting at this kind of diagnosis in the 60s).  But now come some questions for us on the monastic path.  Given Hedges’ analysis and given the humble alternative lifestyles of our moneyless friends, inquiring minds should be asking themselves:  What is the role, the place of the monk in the world that Hedges describes?  How can one expect any traditional monasticism to be renewed/rekindled in such an age?   Are our moneyless friends perhaps harbingers of a radically new universal monasticism that will start to appear–a monasticism that might not even carry that label.  The charism does not depend on labels, on institutions, on appearances.  Some have pointed toward something like this years ago.  Certainly there will be monks and nuns who are strictly ecclesially oriented, and that’s ok–many of them are good people who have something to contribute, but the real answer to the technological barbarism and human desolation that we are entering into will come perhaps from monks who hardly look like monks….  One major proviso: yes our friends seem to have one piece of the puzzle of how to live in this civilizational nightmare, but another piece is badly needed.  Those who have gone deep into the human heart, deep into the center of their being, and stand in the Presence from moment to moment–speaking only of my own tradition now, others can be put it in their own terms–hold an absolutely essential other piece of the puzzle of how to live in this kind of age.  Only People of the Heart, as I call them, will be able to navigate through this kind of world without getting lost.  They will be marked by nonviolence, compassion, freedom, perhaps silence and solitude, but not necessarily–also not necessarily with robes or titles for sure.  The “world” as the New Testament would call it, or today we would say, “the System,” is marked by the “sign of the Beast”:  greed, consumption, acquisition, war, violence,  fear, hatred, porn, exploitation, etc., etc.  In a sense the monk’s way has never been clearer!  Something to think about…..