Orthodox Spirituality and the Jesus Prayer: an introductory session

UPDATE: Many thanks to a correspondent for highlighting this link to an interview with Kallistos Ware, starts at c 7 minutes, here.

Orthodox Spirituality 

– Some resources for Spiritual Directors

Diocese of Liverpool Spiritual Directors Course, 14th May 2020

Introduction:

Orthodox prayer (not ‘spirituality’ which is modern western term) may be characterised as:

  • ecclesial
  • visual/incarnate/physical
  • liturgical
  • theological
  • disciplined
  • monastic

For a basic introduction to the Orthodox Churc, the book of that name by Timothy Ware (now Bishop Kallistos Ware) hasn’t been matched.

General Theology and Spirituality

If I had to recommend one book on Orthodox spirituality it would be this, an anthology with commentary it is profoundly ecclesial and theological, it is not outwardly abut ‘spirituality’ which is, in any case a modern, western, individualistic, way of thinking. For any directee moving them towards a fuller and deeper immersion on Christian orthodoxy (as distinct from Orthodoxy) is vital. This is a really helpful book for that. Part Three on Contemplation is an essential guide to an orthodox and Orthodox understanding of prayer and what we now call the ‘spiritual life’.:

The Roots of Christian Mysticism: Texts from the Patristic Era with Commentary

Oliver Clément

New City1993

This is the best, encyclopaedic scholarly guide available. Paints the whole picture, ecclesial and theological. Not for the faint-hearted but brilliant:

Orthodox Spirituality

Dumitroe Staniloae

St Tikhon’s Seminary Press 2003

Lossky is really excellent, this is very accessible and readable:

The Vision of God

Vladimir Lossky

ST Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1983

Orthodox theology is not a thing of the past, it is a vibrant living tradition, anything by Andrew Louth is worth reading, this is especially helpful. There isa very helpful chapter on the ‘English assimilation of Orthodoxy’ with material on St Silouan and Fr Sophrony. Louth’s starting point is the Philokalic tradition and so locates that at the start of the ‘modern’ period.

Modern Orthodox Thinkers – From the Philokalia to the present

Andrew Louth

SPCK 2015

This is a really excellent anthology, one for the prayer-desk, or side of the bath! Bite-sized and readable chunks of great spiritual writers within the tradition:

The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology

Tr E Kadloubovsky and EM Palmer

Matthew the Poor is. a monk and spiritual father of the Monastery of Macarius the Great in Egypt He has been the centre of a remarkable renewal of monastic life in the Coptic Church, this is a very accessible book:

Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way

Matthew the Poor

St Vladimir’s Seminary Press 2003

Fasting

It is impossible to understand Orthodox spirituality without recognising the importance of fasting and our neglect of it in the western church, just search for ‘prayer’ in the Bible and you will see its intimate relationship to prayer for Scripture. There are some of my thoughts on fasting my blog:

https://educationpriest.wordpress.com/2018/03/04/there-is-no-lent-without-fasting-fasting-the-mother-of-prayer/

https://educationpriest.wordpress.com/2018/12/02/serious-christianity-fasting/

Icons and Iconography

Just as it is impossible to imagine Orthodox spirituality without fasting, so it is impossible to imagine Orthodoxy without icons. the literature on icons is vast. Much of it really superb, so just two books in my hight recommended category as a starter:

***** If you only read on ebook on this ison or on icpns on general this ought to be it. It will touch your soul deeply:

The Rublev Trinity

Gabriel Buge

St Vladimir’s Seminary Press 2007

A beautiful book to look at, full of deep theology and spirituality:

***** The Meaning of Icons

Vladimir Lossky

St Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1982

The Silouan / Athonite Tradition

The monasteries and hermitages on Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain, are hugely influential on Orthodox spirituality, we are fortunate in the UK in having a monastery in that tradition here at Tolleshunt Knights in Essex – well worth a visit. Founded by Archimandrite Sophrony it is is now led by Achimandrite Zacharias and the following books will be helpful in accessing that:

Arch Sophrony had been taught by Staretz Silouan (1866-1938) . This is a must read.  Very recommendable to directees. The source books on now Saint Silouan are:

Wisdom from Mount Athos: The Writings of Staretz Silouan

St Vladimir’s Seminary Press (1974)

Monk of Mount Athos

St Vladimir’s Seminary Press (1974)

For a general view of Mount Athos this account of renewal of the monastic tradition on the Holy Mountain is very good indeed:

Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise

Graham Speake

Yale University Press 2002

For Sophrony himself (all very readable and accessible):

His Life is Mine

Archimandrite Sophrony

Mowbray 1977. (now St Vladimir’s Seminary Press

On Prayer

Archimandrite Sophrony

St Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1998

We Shall See Him As He Is

Archimandrite Sophrony

Saint Herman Press1988

Archimandrite Zacharias is, I think, a little denser and less readable but worth persevering with:

The Hidden Man of the Heart: The Cultivation of the Heart in Orthodox Spiritual Anthroplogy

Archimandrite Zacaharias

Mount Thabor Publishing 2008

The Enlargement of the Heart: ‘Be ye also enlarged’ 2 Cor 6:13 in the Theology of St Silouan the Athonite and Elder Sophrony of Essex

Archimandrite Zacharaias

Mount Thabor Publishing 2006

Remember Thy First Love: the three stages of the spiritual life in the theology of Elder Sophrony

Stavropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist Essex 2011

Books abut Archimandrite Sophrony’s teaching:

I Love Therefore I Am:  The Theological Legacy of Archimandrite Sophrony

Nicholas V Sakarov

St Vladimir’s Seminar Press 2002

Christ, Our Way And Our Life:  A Presentation of the Theology of Archimandrite Sophrony

Stavropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist Essex 2012

Other useful Texts

Surprisingly readable, this is very accessible, definitely one to recommend to Directees:

From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings

Ed Jean Daniélou

St Valdimir’s Seminary Press 2001

One of the classic texts of the monastic tradition eastern and western, very readable, highly recommended:

The Ladder of Divine Ascent

John Climacus

Classics in Western Spirituality Paulist Press1982

This is useful to give a picture of the reception of Orthodoxy in the West (particularly in Paris) in the period following the Russian revolution and the Second Word War, it helps to understand the competing jurisdictions and the complications of ecclesiastical politics as well as the culture, all within a biography of one, person. Not an easy read but good:

Lev Gillett: A Monk of the Eastern Church

Elizabeth Behr-Sigel

Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius 1999

Rowan Williams can sometimes be a hard read, Dostoevsky can be equally difficult, so this may not encourage to look at this book, but it actually locates Dostoevsky within the Orthodox tradition and is just brilliant:

Dostoevsky: Language Faith and Fiction

Rowan Williams

Baylor University Press 2008

Likewise Sergei Bulgakov is probably (in my view) the greatest Orthodox theologian of the 20th century. he is really excellent on the place of the holy Spirit in the Christian life. A little more dense than the Dostoevsky book this is worth persevering with especially a sit shows an Orthodox engagement with political realities.

Sergei Bulgakov: Towards a Russian Political Theology

Ed with commentary by Rowan Williams

T and T Clark 1999

Liturgy

Orthodox worship has to be experienced. It is a rich tapestry of icons, movement, vesture, music, texts. Looking at any written text of Orthodox worship is totally inadequate. They are deeply doxological and the communion of saints is tangible. It may be worth looking at some to get that sense, or tor reflect on, but the best thing is to find an Orthodox church and go.

There is no single Orthodox ‘service book’, each language tradition ha sits own books which for any one service will be many. Some western or uniate groups have produced service type books (eg Byzantine Daily Worship or Isabel Hapgood’s Orthodox Service Book) but they are totally inadequate to appreciate Orthodox liturgy. Two publications that provide some indication of the richness may be worth flicking through but I don’t particularly urge you to get them:

The Festal Menaion

Faber and Faber 1969 now from St Tikhon’s Seminary Press

The Lenten Triodion

Faber and Faber 1978 now from St Tikhon’s Seminary Press

The Pilgrim

The Jesus Prayer has become popular and known in the West mainly via two texts, ‘The Way of A Pilgrim’ and ‘The Pilgrim Continues His Way’. The texts are Russian and  probably 19th century. They are a short and easy read and really the foundation text for us, well worth recommending. The easiest and most accessible translations are by R.M. French. It’s the first version I read as teenager and I was deeply moved by then. They also give some indications to Directors in working with individuals, the balance of the Jesus Prayer with the reading of the Gospels is hugely significant. It is available on Kindle and now in one volume, slightly dated and sometimes criticised for romanticising the translation:

The best scholarly edition with really important essays on the origins of the text and its various versions is in the Classics in Western Spirituality series:

The Pilgrim’s Tale

Ed. Aleksie Pentkovsky

Paulist Press1999

There are other editions which are new translations:

The Way of A Pilgrim and the Pilgrim Continues His Way

Tr Helen Bacovin

Doubelday 1978

This is useful for a close reading of the text with some helpful notes, I would recommend French or Bacovin for a first unadulterated read which I think is the best way to read it to start with, the story, the narrative is compelling without any notes, this might be useful for a later read:

The Way of A Pilgrim: Annotated and Explained

Tr and annotated: Gleb Pokrovsky

DLT 2001/2003

The Philokalia

The Philokalia: The Complete Text (four volumes, a fifth is promised)

Tr GEH Palmer, Philip Sherrard, Kallistos Ware

Faber and Faber 1979 – 1995

From my blog: Reading the Philokalia: A Beginner’s Guide

https://educationpriest.wordpress.com/2019/07/15/reading-the-philokalia-a-beginners-guide/

Reading the Philokalia (2)

https://educationpriest.wordpress.com/2019/07/15/reading-the-philokalia-a-beginners-guide-update/

The Wikipedia article on the Philokalia is very good:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philokalia

Dumitru Stãniloae and His “Philokalia”

An article on the number of Philokalia and particularly the Romanian version:

http://www.maciejbielawski.com/dumitru-staniloae-and-his-philokalia.html

On translations of the Philokalia:

The Philokalia Englished

This is probably the best academic study of the Philokalia available. Excellent. A good read, ecumenical and very useful for those offering Spiritual Direction.

Reviewed by Pieter Dykhorst here.

The Philokalia: a Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality

Brock Bingaman and Bradley Nassif, eds., Oxford University Press, 2012, 349 pp

Anything by Andrew Louth is worth reading, here is a good essay on the Philokalia

This doctoral thesis is fascinating:

Authority and Tradition in Contemporary Understandings of Hesychasm and the Jesus Prayer

The Jesus Prayer

If you search for Jesus Prayer in Amazon there is much available, all of it is good as far as I know, these are my highly recommended:

Praying the Jesus Prayer – A Beginner’s Guide

The Body in Prayer: Prostrations and the Jesus Prayer

Rowan Williams Promoting the Jesus Prayer as Answer to Modern Angst:

On Practicing the Jesus Prayer

St. Ignaty Brianchaninov

*****  Written by a recently deceased Anglican bishop this is one of the most accessible books on the JP, and is HIGHLY recommended, very good as a first suggestion to directees: 

The Jesus Prayer:  A Way to Contemplation

Simon-Barrinton Ward

*****  Also by SBW this one with Brother Ramon is another highly recommended. Ramon is a slightly neglected author at the moment well worth reading:

Praying the Jesus Prayer Together

Simon Barrington-Ward and Brother Ramon SSF

Adapted from previous year’s notes for this session:

The Jesus Prayer

The words:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner. (full version)

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. (shorter version).

Greek: Kyrie Iesou Christe: eleison me

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-collector: Luke 18:9-14

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”13 But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled.

Useful definitions:

Hesychasm  (ἡσυχασμός): “stillness, rest, quiet, silence”): mystical tradition of prayer the Eastern Orthodox Church and Eastern Catholic Churches of the Byzantine Rite. Based on Christ’s injunction in the Gospel of Matthew:  “when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray”.  Hesychasm in the tradition has been the process of retiring inward by ceasing to register the senses, in order to achieve an experiential knowledge of God (theoria).

Some quotes from the Philokalia (an ancient collection of teachings of the eastern monastic fathers which has passed from Greek to Russian to an English translation in two volumes by Kadloubovsky and Palmer, Faber and Faber 1951).

St Isaac of Syria (7th century):

Try to enter your inner treasure-house and you will see the treasure-house of heaven. For both the one and the other are the same, and the one and the same entrance reveals them both. The ladder leading to the kingdom is concealed within you, that is, in your soul. Wash yourselves from sin and you will see the rungs of the ladder by which you can ascend thither.

St Gregory of Sinai (14th century) 

In the morning force you mind to descend from the head to the heart and hold it there, calling ceaselessly in mind and soul: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me!’ until you are tired. Transfer you mind to the second half, and say, ‘Jesus, Son of God, have mercy upon me!’ Having many times repeated this appeal, pass once more to the first half. But you should not alternate these appeals too often through laziness; for just as plants do not take root if transplanted too frequently, neither do the movements of prayer in the heart if the words are changed frequently.

When you notice thoughts arising and accosting you, do not look at them, even if they are not bad; but keeping the mind firmly in the heart, call to Lord Jesus and you will soon sweep away  the thoughts and drive out the instigators – the demons – invisibly scorching and flogging them with this Divine Name. Thus teaches John of the Ladder. saying: with the name of Jesus flog the foes, for there is no surer weapon against them, either on earth or in heaven.

The Monks Callistus and Ignatius (14th century)

Prayer practised within the heart, with attention and sobriety, with no other thought and imagining, by repeating the words ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,’ silently and immaterially leads the mind to our Lord Jesus Christ Himself.  By the words ‘have mercy on me,’ it turns it back and moves it towards him who prays, since he cannot as yet not pray about himself. But when he gains the experience of perfect love, he stretches out wholly to our Lord Jesus Christ alone, having received actual proof of the second part (that is, of mercy). Therefore, as someone has said, a man calls only: ‘Lord Jesus Christ!’ his heart overflowing with love.

Deep from the Great Tradition: Litany in a time of Pandemic

When we wrote The Manual, the way of life of the Sodality, the community of priests I belong to, we included this important paragraph:

Sodalists will be at the forefront of those seeking to understand what it means to ordain men and women to all orders of ministry; we will particularly celebrate women saints and integrate the writings of women and men into our experience and understanding of priesthood.

Slightly tongue-in-cheek, in the early days of the Sodality I described us as ‘Extreme Anglo-Catholics in favour of the ordination of women.’ Tongue-in-cheek as it was ( and far too limiting of the breadth of the vision God was calling us to) there was some truth in it. I quite liked it when the bishop of Croydon described us as the Trappists of the catholic stream of Anglicanism “of the Strict Observance.”

Rigour and high demands are important, and were what led to the flourishing of Anglo-Catholicism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They enabled the ministry to the poor and the work for social justice that was the essential outworking of that spirituality. Without outward facing work for justice, spirituality simply strokes the ego and enhances rather than crucifies the ego. Rigour and high demands are not rules to be kept or hoops to be jumped through. Better to think of them as a balloon flying freely into the sky, or a kite carried by the wind.

The Great Tradition (see footnote below) is ‘ever ancient, ever new’ (St Augustine). Drawing deeply from the tradition is vital, and it must bear fruit in the new. My great mantra for the Christian life is : Jesus centred – Spirit filled – bible based.

There is great flowering of creativity in the Sodality: blogs, litanies, such as the one above written by Mother Ayla, Mother Berni, Father Angela, Mother Sally and Father Steven.

The Litany is a great example of ‘ever ancient, ever new’. It is deeply rooted in the tradition and also creative and responsive to the needs of our time. I am deeply grateful for this gift.

Another example of this is the book Prayers for An Inclusive Church. by Fr Steven Shakespeare an aspirant to our Sodality. The title doesn’t quite reflect the content. It is a deeply traditional collection of Collects for the three year cycle of readings in the Revised Common Lectionary. Traditional in that each Collect is constructed with the ‘noble simplicity’ of the western Collect form, at which Cranmer was so gifted. Creative and new in the images used, which are truly Jesus-centred and Spirit filled, drawing on the Scriptures in the lectionary it is bible-based.

There is much in the tradition to help us pray this current pandemic. Christians have lived with plague in many circumstances and many times. I often find myself at the moment re-reading Julian of Norwich who experienced plague more destructive than our current afflictions and who saw in the cross a life-giving tree. Ever ancient, ever new.

The Great Tradition

This description of the spiritual life of the church is one I first came across as a teenager at the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, Crawley Down in West Sussex, I would recommend Fr Steven Underdown’s book Living in the Eighth Day: The Christian Week and the Paschal Mystery as a further explanation of this. He writes in that book:

“Three men, whom CSWG now accounts its joint-founders, not only shared a common experience of ministry among the disadvantaged and marginalised, they also shared the conviction that is was the specifically spiritual dimension in Christian life that was most in need of renewal. A saying attributed to Fr [William] Sirr has been seen as encapsulating their common belief:

“The mission of the church is weak because its prayer is weak.” Only though the renewal of the Church’s mystical and ascetic traditions – that is its vision of God and its tradition of conversion of life – could the life and witness of the the Church be renewed.”