Monthly Archives: December 2010

The Potato Eaters

Let us consider Van Gogh’s painting, “The Potato Eaters.”  It is one of his very early works, perhaps not as famous as some of the later work, but a truly remarkable and religious work of art.  Usually people refer to a work of art as being “religious” if what is being depicted is somehow a theme from the Bible or a religious source.  However, every true work of art points us in the direction of a transcendent reality, connects us with what is truly religious, and opens our hearts to a truth that is beyond our surface lives.  (Incidentally, that is why postmodern art like with Andy Warhol is so deeply and seriously a distortion—it proclaims “the surface” as the total reality and celebrates that fact.)

To make this reflection a bit easier for anyone who has not seen this painting, here is a link to view it:

What a remarkable scene!  So many would find this sad, even depressing.  There is a sense of darkness–it is night.  Five people are seated around a square table.  Perhaps they are a family; perhaps not. But it is a community of sorts.  Four women and one man.  Potatoes are visible, and perhaps tea is being poured.  The faces and hands reveal life’s toll on these people–it has been hard, very hard.  You will see such faces and such hands in any large city if you take the bus at 6am in the morning with people going to work, or at 6 in the evening with people coming home.  They are all there.

It is a meal of sorts.  It hints of a ritual–as any meal does.  One of course begins to discern a kind of “Eucharistic gathering” here.  A community has gathered around a shared meal, meager as it is.  However, there is no bread and wine here.  That kind of fare would seem to elevate the gathering to a higher social/economic class.  These people cannot afford even bread and wine.

The four faces we see are all different in their expressions.  Two of them look sad or very tired and seem to have given up on life.  Two others show a kind of reaching out in hope.  They are reaching out to the two others.

Note again the darkness.  You can see the windows in the background, and it is night outside.  And the darkness has penetrated and filled the little cottage.  However,….however, there is something else here also….and very prominent, in the center of things.  There is an oil lamp right in the center of the painting, a source of light,  but above the heads of the gathered group.  Note its centrality in the painting–a position of great importance and emphasis.  This light does not overwhelm the darkness; it does not drive it out.  It is simply there, silent, simply present, and although the eaters participate within its glow, they seem to be unaware of the light—it is not something they focus on, but in its glow their life unfolds.  It is always there, above them, almost unnoticed, yet essential for all they do within this darkness of their human condition.  It is also by this light that we are able to see them, their condition, their need.

What is this light?  It is the light of the Resurrection.  It is the light of the Transfiguration.  It is the light seen on the face of St. Seraphim.  It is the light within the darkness of our own situation–it is always there, gentle, soft, not overwhelming in our history, but absolutely essential for our “going on.”    We walk in this light so unaware of its presence.  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him.  He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.  The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world” (John 1: 5-9).

But there is more.  So far we have ignored the one figure whose face we cannot see but who sits right in the center of the gathering.    She is facing away from us and toward the group; we can only see her back.  The reason we cannot see her face is that this is our face—it is you and me there, whoever we are.  No matter who we are socially, we are “among these poor ones.”The observer of this scene is also at this gathering and also practically unaware of this light, though living in it and by it.  And what is our response?  What is the expression on our face?

The Art of Prayer, Part IV, God, Death, Continual Prayer, Etc.

Have I missed anything in this title?  Oh yes, taxes and the proverbial kitchen sink!  Only kidding.  But seriously, this chapter (Chapter III) of The Art of Prayer is very long, very difficult for proper interpretation, and very important.  So let us begin with a few preliminary remarks.


One cannot overstate the importance of the Mystery of God in our apprehension of what this work says about prayer.  This blog has previously made a big point about the role of a notion of God in our spiritual life in general.  The deeper the sense of the Mystery of God the deeper will be our spiritual life. In fact, without a truly mature sense of the Mystery of God our piety will tend toward a shallowness that is just plain sad–I mean we are called to so much more.  That is just one reason why I am a bit sceptical about people who promote a “personal relationship with the Lord” as the center of their piety.  There is a profound truth in that kind of language but it also can lead to a kind of spiritual Facebook where you “friend” Jesus and share things with him and he helps you, etc.   Even if this is a starting point in the spiritual journey, there is so, so much more than that.  Sadly too many stay right there.


Now not many spiritual writers or theologians have written well on the subject of the Mystery of God–needless to say.  From the early Church with Pseudo-Dionysius to a modern western theologian like Karl Rahner, there are very few who have taught with some depth on God as Ultimate Mystery.  The great problem with general piety and popular piety is to fix on outward images, like paintings and statues of Jesus and holy figures, and then even more importantly to fix on inner images we have of Christ and God.  If you walk into a Catholic or Orthodox church you will find it filled with such images.  Now all this is very good and proper theologically.  It all forms a fitting ambience for worship with all our senses being focused on a transcendent reality.  However, for too many, and this includes monks, they get fixed on the images and make them into a kind of inner reality that becomes the focus of their prayer.  This is not meant to demean any simple person’s prayer, but they are invited to “go up higher, friend.”  In the Orthodox church and in Eastern Christian monasticism the role of icons is enormous and very important, but St. Nil Sorski, the great hesychast, tells us:  “…while practicing inner prayer, do not permit yourself any concepts, images, or visions.”  And St. Theophan the Recluse:  “You ask about prayer.  I find in the writings of the Holy Fathers, that when you pray you must dispel all images from your mind….”  Many other spiritual guides, both East and West, tell us the same thing.  The icons serve as a kind of focusing lens for our heart, the center of our being.  But it is the Mystery of God into which we plunge as we enter true prayer–and with that there are no images, only a profound and unfathomable Presence.



Now something about death.  Why?  Most modern westerners consider this a morbid topic.  That in itself is telling–most spiritual traditions in one way or another consider it as a fact of life needing our attention if we are to make progress on the spiritual journey.  The stereotype of the monk meditating on a human skull is exactly that–a stereotype.  Nevertheless that picture points to a deep truth.  Some Christians will cry foul at this and say that we are to focus on the Resurrection, not death.  They miss the point entirely–first of all, the Resurrection is part of the Mystery of God, so you better be careful in appealing to the Resurrection as if it were something you understood or knew; secondly, it is only when we really know the reality of death that we can begin to grasp the significance and meaning of the Resurrection.  To put it another way–the Resurrection is not a “lifeboat” for our ego self as it starts going down in death.


Well, we will not truly know what death means until we actually experience it, and then it won’t really matter!  But we can at least begin to get some sense of it, and this will make a big difference in our spiritual journey.  It will help if we engage in a kind of imaginative acting out of our own death in our own mind–a kind of mental exercise of our imagination.  So what happens?  Let us imagine a slow death, not through some traumatic sudden event, but one that slowly unfolds within us.  We will certainly feel those last moments as life ebbs from our bodies and our organs begin to shut down and just before we pass into an unconscious state.  All that we have done, all our accomplishments, all our victories and all our gains, all this will seem like nothing at that moment.  The consumer self, the person with all these credentials, the one who lived for recognition, the one who had so many friends, that self will be melting away as a snowman on a warm winter day.   If we are a believer and regret our “sinfulness”,  it may be that we might cry out-silently-to God—like a drowning man’s last cry for help.  It also may be that we have built up a very strong religious ego that seems to rest secure in its confidence in its relationship to God until the very last moment when a great darkness meets it, and there is a moment when that religious ego is shattered and a great doubt arises.  In any case, as our external world vanishes, there is precisely this ego self, this self-constructed world of meaning and various identities and self-constructed narratives about who and what one is that suddenly begins to dissolve.  There is nothing to hold on to.  And who is this who wants to hold on?  Just let go of trying to hold on and let the Darkness and the Nothingness come.    Does this sound scary, morbid, etc.?   Perhaps.   Not really.  First of all, our very ego identity is a kind of nothingness.  It’s “substantiality” is one of the fictions of our life–like Plato’s “noble lie”–something that seems necessary for the moment but the wise person knows otherwise.  But even more importantly, the most initimate encounter with God is at first as if it were an encounter with Nothingness.  Jesus’s words, “Fear not,” are applicable here.  But returning to that fixed identity we have, there is something terrifying in us about being reduced to a common humanity with no credentials.  Various spiritual traditions teach this in various and different ways.  Consider this word from a modern Sufi master:


“When people die, they lose all identities.  They are no

longer Black or Asian, Jewish or Muslim, since they

go back to their origin carrying in them the whole

adamic inheritance.  One day while the Prophet, peace

be with him, was sitting with a group of companions, a

funeral procession passed by, and the Prophet, peace

be with him, stood up.  One of the comrades said,

‘Those are the remains of a Jew!’  The Prophet, peace

be with him, answered, ‘Stand up to honor the son of

Adam when you see a funeral procession.'”


There is nothing the modern world fears most than the thought of death; there is nothing the modern world works at most to conceal and distract us from than this.  Because it puts into question our whole present social matrix.  But more importantly, for our purposes, this kind of realization opens up the door for a deep and fundamentally different sense of inner prayer than popularly understood.  To truly understand what Chapter III in The Art of Prayer is saying, what it’s getting at,  one needs at least all of the above as a kind of primer for benefitting from what is said there.  As we said once before, we are all beginners in the reality of inner prayer, and this is merely a “kindergarten” for a great learning process.


To fully comment on Chapter III alone would require writing a whole book.  So here we will give scattered comments about certain statements.  The chapter itself is divided into 4 parts, and part 1 is called “Secret Meditation.”


What is this “secret meditation”?  Not much is directly said about it, but it’s merits and benefits are listed lavishly by all included authors.  In a sense both words in the term are unfortunate because they can lead to great misunderstandings.


The segment from the Life of Abba Philemon is helpful.  It comes in the form of an archetypal story of disciple and teacher.  The new monk is struggling with his attention being all over the place.  Philemon gives him the Jesus Prayer as a practice, but more importantly he points the monk to be aware of what might be called the “intentionality of the heart”—-what is the heart turned towards.  He is iniating the monk into an inner practice of keeping his intentionality always turned towards the reality of God.  This “secret meditation,” whatever form it takes is merely a tool towards that end.


The next section from the works of St. Theophan the Recluse is interesting in a new way.  Theophan makes the emphatic point that the new monk (or the person beginning the spiritual journey) should begin this inner focus, this inner turning immediately—not after some time doing some preparatory stuff.  The title of the section: “Inner work must begin as soon as possible.  This is extremely important.”  Then: “We may leave all else and turn only to this work, and all will be well.”  The whole point of being a monk or being on the spiritual journey is this, but many forget that and substitute other elements for their concern.  Theophan will return to this point again and again—as you go through the day, doing whatever you need to do, what is your heart turned towards, what is it attentive to, and how do you discern the mystery of God in all this?


Now we come to Part 2, entitled “Unceasing Prayer.”  Indeed, a big topic–but once our attention is fixed within the mystery of God in all we do, this “unceasing prayer” unfolds by itself.  For Theophan and this whole hesychast tradition, unceasing prayer does not mean a kind of continual work or striving or “producing” prayer.  Rather:  “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….”  Furthermore, Theophan makes the point that this unceasing prayer is not some “extra” thing about being a Christian but rather it is the “essential characteristic” of being precisely that.  Wonder what would happen if you started talking about unceasing prayer from the modern pulpit in a modern suburban parish!


Throughout this section Theophan gives all kinds of practical advice about “setting the stage” for this unceasing prayer.  Here you have to remember that the writings are taken from concrete advice given to concrete people who approached him with their own difficulties.  In other words, do not follow his words like in a cookbook.  Get the gist, the spirit, the essence—you may have to leave other things behind that don’t apply to your own particular circumstances.  But always he comes back to the essential points:  “Standing always before God with reverence is unceasing prayer.”  This is quite a loaded sentence even in its brevity.  Some considerations:  standing before the Living God and not just some idea of God means standing in the presence of Mystery, means losing your life in that Mystery, means your own identity is in question–forget who you think you are–drop the credentials—who are you anyway?  Or as a zen master might put it:  Who is it that is standing before God?  (In a Rinzai monastery then you would get whacked with a stick for giving some “smart” answer!!)  Anyway, get the idea…..?


Now we arrive at Part 3, which is all about the Jesus Prayer per se.  For Theophan and this whole hesychast tradition, the Jesus Prayer is “the easiest way to acquire unceasing prayer.”  Of course when they use the word “easy” it is not quite in our sense! Certainly it is not some mechanical procedure that “gets one there.” Nor is it really a technique for them though to someone on the outside it may look like that, and to take it that way may mislead one very seriously.  It is certainly not any kind of shortcut in the spiritual life.


One very important point made in this section is the injunction to avoid all visualizations, images, conceptualizations.  So again to stand in the Presence is not to stand in our idea of the Presence.  In the beginning there is the temptation  on the part of some to imagine the reality of God or Jesus as standing there.  Forget it.  Allow yourself to get lost in the Mystery of God that surrounds you and dwells within you.  Yes, you can have your body turned toward an icon or a crucifix, just as a Moslem turns toward Mecca in prayer, but your heart must dwell in the mystery which is then manifest in every real thing around you, like the boiling water, like the smile on someone’s face, like the hawk circling above, etc.  Let your heart abide in the Mystery.


Theophan also tells us: “No progress without suffering.”  A difficult topic.  This is not meant as a call to masochism; rather it is a sober appraisal of the spiritual journey–that it will be marked by suffering.  There are several levels to this suffering.  It ranges from physical pain to the depths of the heart.  At the deepest level it is said in this tradition (and in the Sufi tradition and perhaps in the Hasidic) that real prayer only begins with a breaking of the heart.  A sobering thought, but it is also an anticipation of the death of an ego identity.


Finally we get to Part 4, the last part, “The Remembrance of God.”  Perhaps not the best choice of words for our purposes because “remembering” is an act that implies a kind of distance.  You remember a dead parent, an absent friend, a past relationship, a forgotten occurrence, etc.  Keep in mind Theophan’s earlier term:  “aliveness to God.”  That is what he is really talking about.  Just another way of talking about unceasing prayer.