Tag Archives: Silouan the Athonite

The Source of Our Hope

In the October 2017 issue of Friends Journal, Quaker psychotherapist Daniel O Snyder writes:

If you travel in Quaker circles, I’m sure this isn’t the first time you’ve heard this advice. But there is another aspect to [nonviolence] that I believe is just as critical and a profound source of hope. It is this: The very same dynamics of nonviolence that bring about transformation in the political world are also at work in the inner world. The nonviolence model can also revolutionize how we understand prayer, the second leg of the stool. We are accustomed to thinking of prayer as a place of comfort, and certainly it is that. We are accustomed to the idea that prayer grounds and seasons our outward action, that it refreshes the soul and prepares us to return to the fields of outward engagement. That too is important. But there is yet another critical feature of this leg of the stool that we sometimes fail to consider: prayer itself is a transformational process both in the inner world of the one who prays and in its outward fruits. Transformational work crosses the inward–outward barrier; it may even erase it. Prayer is essential to the praxis of faith because prayer is itself a field of engagement.

I know this is a bold claim: prayer is, within its own dynamic and apart from outward action, a type of intervention. There are obvious problems with this claim. Karl Marx named the biggest one: religion (when it is reduced to mere piety) is an opiate, drugging us into complacency. I’m not talking about piety. Here’s another problem: prayer is often taken to mean a type of pleading, an appeal for special intervention. I’m not talking about a request for outside help. Now, here is another: prayer is imagined as being exclusively inward, going to the Well, or a return to Sanctuary. Prayer is a refueling station. This one may be closer to home for many of us Quakers. It is supported in much of our literature, such as in Thomas Kelly’s wonderful line, “Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul.” Further on in A Testament of Devotion, however, in a passage that could be easily overlooked, he laments the necessities of time: “linear sequence and succession of words is our inevitable lot and compels us to treat separately what is not separate.” Kelly, like many earlier Quakers, had awakened to an interconnected world.

We Quakers are children of the Enlightenment. We were born into a world that was already defined for us before we got here. Like Kelly, we submit to the necessities of our inward–outward language, but we do not have to accept the worldview it enshrines. I have found that regular discipline in prayer ultimately cracks open my assumptions about the nature of self and world. The Divine Comforter is also a Divine Disturber who relentlessly overthrows the internalized regime of my idols. There is a peace and a deep quietness that comes, but it is on the other side of God’s nonviolent revolution of the soul. Small wonder that Margaret Fell warned that the Divine Encounter “will rip you up and tear you open.” Prayer is serious business if we are willing to submit to its alchemy.

Daniel Snyder has here put his finger on something I have struggled to say for a long time on this blog and elsewhere: prayer is not merely a way to make myself feel better, not a plea for God to rearrange reality by supernatural intervention, not merely a way to recharge the batteries before another burst of political activism, but is itself a field of engagement.”

Snyder goes on:

Most of us trust the power of prayer implicitly despite being trapped in a worldview that doesn’t allow us to see how it could possibly make a difference. We “hold each other in the Light” and trust that it matters that we do so. Most of us also have stories of openings, resolutions of difficulties, even physical healings that we may not talk about for fear of being thought naïve, gullible, or worse. It’s time we gave up our shyness about such things. Prayer matters. Serious and committed inner work not only prepares us for faithful outward action, it is itself a type of engagement. As Walter Wink writes in his extraordinarily important work Engaging the Powers, “history belongs to the intercessors.” If in addition to study groups learning about nonviolence, every meeting also had committed prayer groups, holding our country in the Light, we would be adding another essential leg to the stool. We are not just refueling in order to return to a field of engagement, we are showing up for the Divine Encounter, presenting ourselves as willing subjects for transformation and as willing instruments for transformation in the world. Prayer has a way of shifting not only how we see the world but also how we see ourselves. We are called to love the world as we have been loved, to confront the world as we have been confronted, to forgive as we have been forgiven, and to be instruments of its healing as we ourselves have been healed. Only the forgiven truly know how to forgive, and only the healed know how to heal. Prayer restores savor to the salt; it returns us to our essential nature. As saltiness is the essential nature of salt, so is ours the Indwelling Spirit. Grace is the ground of our being and the source of our hope.

We cannot know the use of such a prayer as this. Simon Barrington-Ward writes of Silouan the Athonite:

…he began to recognise that [his sense of darkness and isolation] was in part the oppression of the absence of the sense of God and the alienation from his love over the whole face of the globe. He had been called to undergo this travail himself not on account of his own sin any more, but that he might enter into the darkness of separated humanity and tormented nature and, through his ceaseless prayer, be made by God’s grace alone into a means of bringing that grace to bear on the tragic circumstances of his time. He was praying and living through the time of World War I and the rise of Hitler and the beginnings of all that led to the Holocaust [not to mention the Russian Revolution, and at the very end of his life, Stalin’s Great Purge]. And with all this awareness of pain and sorrow, he was also given a great serenity and peacefulness and goodness about him, which profoundly impressed those who know him.

For all of us in our lesser ways, [contemplative prayer], as well as bringing us into something of this kind of alternation which St. Silouan so strikingly experienced, also leads us on with him into an ever-deepening peace. You can understand how those who first taught and practiced this kind of prayer were first called “hesychasts”: people of hesychia or stillness.

On not knowing how to pray…

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

Romans 8.26-27 NRSV

When we pray the Jesus Prayer as a way of coming into the Presence of God, we should not forget that it is not always an easy or painless way. We cannot approach the infinite clarity, truth and power of God without becoming aware of the abyss that separates us. This is why, in the understanding of many of its early teachers, we cannot really undertake to practise the Jesus Prayer seriously unless we first realise our own poverty and the need of God’s mercy and are willing to ask for it ceaselessly, as long as we live.

When we say the words “Have mercy on me, a sinner” – for the prayer always implies those words, even if the form we use does not include them – we must be ready to recognise that we are, in fact, sinners, in need of God’s forgiveness and healing. We must also be ready to believe that God will never refuse to grant us forgiveness, that his mercy is inexhaustible. At least we must be willing to try and believe that even if we are not quite able to do so. The Prayer of Jesus is a prayer of repentance. It is a prayer of sinners, not the virtuous.

Irma Zaleski Living the Jesus Prayer: Practising the prayer of the heart

I wrote myself, elsewhere:

Once we find ourselves on the way of the Jesus Prayer, we discover that it is not by any means a comfortable shortcut, a way out of confronting the pain and emptiness of the world. As we begin to travel this path, to pray the Prayer consistently, we find that we become more and more aware of our own pain, and the darkness that lies within our own hearts. To cry out continually, “have mercy on me, a sinner”, as did the tax-collector in Luke 18.10-14, breaks down the defences we have built up against looking directly at ourselves in the clear mirror of repentance.

We in the West have generally grown up thinking of sin as committing acts contrary to some kind of code, or list, of Bad Things that must not be done. But the Desert Mothers and Fathers don’t seem to have looked at sin like this at all. The Greek word used for sin, αμαρτία – amartia, apparently means something much more like “missing the mark” than “doing bad stuff”, as does the equivalent Hebrew term, syn

If we can get past the musty atmosphere of “owning up” which we have come to associate with repentance, and see it as taking an accurate view of ourselves in relation to God, and in relation to what we ourselves could be were we only open to love God as God loves us, then we begin to see that there really is very little difference between us and anyone – anyone – else. The seeds of cruelty and selfishness are sown deeply in all our hearts, and we cannot stand in judgement over another, no matter what they have done. This is hard, not only to identify with the pain of the victims, but with the cruelty of the victors and the perpetrators of darkness.

The country is rightly grieving over the events in Manchester on the evening of May 22nd. Christians and others all over the world must be struggling to know how to respond in prayer to events like this, which deliberately target the innocent and vulnerable in the cruellest way. It feels presumptuous, sacrilegious almost, to offer to God anything we might be able to frame in words. But to offer to God the brokenness of our hearts, our pain and confusion, our sense of injustice and our helpless concern for the victims and those who love them… perhaps this is possible without words, or with the barest framework of words, such as those of the Jesus Prayer.

We cannot know how God may use such a prayer as this. Simon Barrington-Ward writes of St. Silouan:

…he began to recognise that [his sense of darkness and isolation] was in part the oppression of the absence of the sense of God and the alienation from his love over the whole face of the globe. He had been called to undergo this travail himself not on account of his own sin any more, but that he might enter into the darkness of separated humanity and tormented nature and, through his ceaseless prayer, be made by God’s grace alone into a means of bringing that grace to bear on the tragic circumstances of his time. He was praying and living through the time of World War I and the rise of Hitler and the beginnings of all that led to the Holocaust [not to mention the Russian Revolution, and at the very end of his life, Stalin’s Great Purge]. And with all this awareness of pain and sorrow, he was also given a great serenity and peacefulness and goodness about him, which profoundly impressed those who know him.

For all of us in our lesser ways, the Jesus Prayer, as well as bringing us into something of this kind of alternation which St. Silouan so strikingly experienced, also leads us on with him into an ever-deepening peace. You can understand how those who first taught and practiced this kind of prayer were first called “hesychasts”: people of hesychia or stillness.

If we can offer to those who suffer, those who grieve, this peace that God gives to us in prayer, and return ourselves to “the darkness of separated humanity and tormented nature”, then perhaps we shall have done what we we can – unless we find ourselves, like the Liverpool taxi drivers who drove over to Manchester to offer free lifts home to stranded Liverpudlians, in a position to do something practical ourselves. Until then, we can only pray as we are led. Christ, have mercy…

[Also published on The Mercy Blog]

Beyond redemption?

Alastair McIntosh writes, in today’s issue of The Friend,

It was the American writer James Baldwin who suggested that: ‘One of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.’

We sideline the pain of spiritual growth when we reduce it to questions like: ‘If there’s a God, how can “He” allow evil?’

Imagine how it would be if every time some human folly (or even cruelty) were about to happen, the ‘Great Cosmic Health and Safety Officer’ zapped it from on high.

We would never get to feel the pain of others, or of ourselves. We would remain in spiritual infancy, devoid of empathy, unexercised by the evils of the world. For love to be free, evil has to be an option.

Therefore, said saint Silouan of Athos: ‘Keep thy mind in hell and do not despair.’

I think that what he is saying is: fully face the brokenness of the world, but never forget that God’s not sleeping.

It is a reminder of hope, and of deeper processes at work that might transcend our conscious ken. A reminder, too, that nothing, and no one, is ever beyond redemption.

I myself wrote recently,

These are, to say the least, difficult and puzzling times. The merest glance at the headlines will suffice to demonstrate that, and to demonstrate the further fact that the media, almost without exception, have a perfectly understandable commercial interest in keeping our hearts in our mouths.

In the face of massively publicised and widespread cruelty and injustice, violence and deceit, it is increasingly hard to avoid the current zeitgeist of taking sides, adopting entrenched positions, and demonising the “opposition”.

It is seems more and more popular to represent “the other side” as beyond redemption, and yet sometimes if we will only listen, they will shock us by their humanity and their vulnerability. Not long ago I was speaking with a prominent Tory MP and (then) cabinet minister, when he expressed his genuine grief at the assumption that he and his party were trying to punish and oppress the disabled. For a moment, real pain peeped out from behind the urbane mask of the seasoned politician, and I found my own heart grieved for him. More of these moments are scattered throughout our days, I think, than we would imagine, if only we are open to them, if only we can allow the clamour of the populist voices, and of our own assumptions and prejudices, to die away in an interior silence and openness that I have found comes only through continual prayer.

Repetitive prayer, whether a Christian practice such as the Jesus Prayer, or a Buddhist one such as the Nembutsu, has a way, eventually, of attaching itself to one’s life rhythms – the breath, the heartbeat – till it becomes an integrated part of one’s existence, drawing the heart (understood as the centre of our personal being) not away from “the outer world of sense and meanings” (Thomas R Kelly) but always towards the source of all that is.

This is not a difficult, technical exercise, nor one reserved for men of unusual and select spiritual gifts, but one for all of us, female or male, artisan or intellectual, old or young. It is so simple, whether as a side-effect of a practice such as the Nembutsu, or just to “maintain a simple attention and a fond regard for God, which I may call an actual presence of God.” (Brother Lawrence)

St Silouan the Athonite, whom Alastair McIntosh quotes, was an Eastern Orthodox monk born in Russia who travelled to Mount Athos while still only in his twenties, and lived there at St. Panteleimon Monastery as a brother until he died, in his seventies, just before the outbreak of World War II. In common with other Athonite monks, Silouan’s main form of prayer would have been the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Very early in the history of the Christian church, certainly by the 4th century, the term hesychasm, the life of silence,  began to appear in the writings of scholars like John Chrysostom and Evagrius Pontikos, as well as in the writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Hesychasts, as they became known, were practitioners of a tradition of contemplative prayer based on the Jesus Prayer that was available to everyone, regardless of education, ordination or formal membership of a monastic community.

The Anglican Bishop Simon Barrington-Ward writes that

This prayer is marked by a compunction and penitence. It has the sense of a kind of joyful mourning of one’s own and the world’s pitiableness. It knows our need to be rescued and saved, with tears. It is expressed in short, urgently or longingly repeated prayer directed to Jesus present in the heart, a presence to which the person praying seeks to turn his or her waking and sleeping thoughts (‘I slept but my heart was awake’, Song of Solomon 5:2) and whole life.

There is a sense of immediacy, of personal experience of the presence of God, from the very start of the hesychast tradition, that will be immediately familiar to Friends. Writing of the work of Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) Barrington-Ward goes on to say,

For Symeon, the resurrection is not only in the future. It begins here and now… He wrote out of an overwhelming encounter with the living Christ and with the Holy Spirit, through whom he claimed the resurrection of us all can occur.

By the 15th century the tradition had established itself in the monasteries of Mount Athos in Greece, and was from there carried to Russia by St Nilus of Sora (Nil Sorski) where it established itself in the forest communities in the far north, which were consciously modelled after the early desert settlements in Egypt in the times of the Desert Mothers and Fathers. There the way of the hesychasts flourished right through until the years following the Russian Revolution in the early 20th century, when many of its practitioners took refuge once again on Mount Athos, some eventually, like the great writer and teacher on prayer Sophrony Sakharov, even turning up in England. It was to St. Panteleimon Monastery that many of these Russian monks came; Sophrony himself became a disciple of Silouan.

Sophrony wrote,

The Jesus Prayer will incline us to find each human being unique, the one for whom Christ was crucified. Where there is great love the heart necessarily suffers and feels pity for every creature, in particular for man; but our inner peace remains secure, even when all is in confusion in the world outside…

It has fallen to our lot to be born into the world in an appallingly disturbed period. We are not only passive spectators but to a certain extent participants in the mighty conflict between belief and unbelief, between hope and despair, between the dream of developing mankind into a single universal whole and the blind tendency towards dissolution into thousands of irreconcilable national, racial, class or political ideologies. Christ manifested to us the divine majesty of man, son of God, and we withal are stifled by the spectacle of the dignity of man being sadistically mocked and trampled underfoot. Our most effective contribution to the victory of good is to pray for our enemies, for the whole world. We do not only believe in – we know the power of true prayer…

I am always reminded by this passage of Thomas R Kelly who, writing of solitary prayer, comes very close indeed to restating the hesychast tradition himself. He describes how “[the] processes of inward prayer do not grow more complex, but more simple” and he recommends using a short phrase, whether from Scripture or from one’s own imagination, and he advises, “Repeat them inwardly, over and over again.” He goes on to say,

But the time will come when verbalisation is not so imperative, and yields place to the attitudes of soul which you meant the words to express… Behind the foreground of the words continues the background of heavenly orientation, as all the currents of our being are set towards Him. Through the shimmering light of divine Presence we look out upon the world, and in its turmoil and fitfulness, we may be given to respond, in some increased measure, in ways dimly suggestive of the Son of Man… All we can say is, Prayer is taking place, and I am given to be in the orbit… Sometimes the prayer and this Life that flows through us reaches out to all souls with kindred vision and upholds them in his tender care. Sometimes it flows out to the world of blinded struggle, and we become cosmic Saviours, seeking all those who are lost.

Reading Quaker faith & practice Chapter 20

Those of us known as ‘activists’ have sometimes been hurt by the written or spoken implication that we must be spending too little time on our spiritual contemplative lives. I do know many atheists who are active to improve the lot of humankind; but, for those of us who are Friends, our attendance at meeting for worship and our silent prayerful times are what make our outer activity viable and effective – if it is effective.

I have similarly seen quieter Friends hurt by the implication that they do not care enough, because they are not seen to be ‘politically active’. Some worry unnecessarily that they may be doing things of a ‘less important’ nature, as if to be seen doing things by the eyes of the world is the same thing as to be seen doing things by the eyes of God… I suggest that we refrain from judging each other, or belittling what each is doing; and that we should not feel belittled. We cannot know the prayers that others make or do not make in their own times of silent aloneness. We cannot know the letters others may be writing to governments, similarly… We were all made differently, in order to perform different tasks. Let us rejoice in our differences.

Margaret Glover, 1989QFP 20.14

The place of prayer is a precious habitation: … I saw this habitation to be safe, to be inwardly quiet, when there was great stirrings and commotions in the world.

John Woolman, 1770 – QFP 20.10

I have sometimes struggled with the temptation to suspect that by following the path of contemplative prayer into the rather more mystical byways of the Quaker way, I am in some way dodging the difficult work of, on the one hand, traditional intercessory prayer, or on the other hand dodging the difficult work of activism, protest, demonstration, civil disobedience or whatever – or at least volunteering to do Useful Things.

In the next chapter of Quaker Faith & Practice we read:

Those of you who are kept by age or sickness from more active work, who are living retired lives, may in your very separation have the opportunity of liberating power for others. Your prayers and thoughts go out further than you think, and as you wait in patience and in communion with God, you may be made ministers of peace and healing and be kept young in soul.

London Yearly Meeting, 1923 – Quaker Faith & Practice 21.46

I would want to add the word “calling” to the first sentence here: “kept by age, sickness or calling…” Throughout history, even in times of great social need, the calling to a retired life of prayer and contemplation has been recognised. Julian of Norwich, for instance, lived during the time of the Black Death that swept Europe in the Middle Ages, yet seems to have lived out much of her life as an anchoress, devoted to prayer, contemplation, writing, and probably what we would call these days counselling, or spiritual direction.

Simon Barrington-Ward writes of St. Silouan of Mount Athos:

…he began to recognise that [his sense of darkness and isolation] was in part the oppression of the absence of the sense of God and the alienation from his love over the whole face of the globe. He had been called to undergo this travail himself not on account of his own sin any more, but that he might enter into the darkness of separated humanity and tormented nature and, through his ceaseless prayer, be made by God’s grace alone into a means of bringing that grace to bear on the tragic circumstances of his time. He was praying and living through the time of World War I and the rise of Hitler and the beginnings of all that led to the Holocaust [not to mention the Russian Revolution, and at the very end of his life, Stalin’s Great Purge]. And with all this awareness of pain and sorrow, he was also given a great serenity and peacefulness and goodness about his, which profoundly impressed those who know him.

For all of us in our lesser ways, the Jesus Prayer, as well as bringing us into something of this kind of alternation which St. Silouan so strikingly experienced, also leads us on with him into an ever-deepening peace. You can understand how those who first taught and practiced this kind of prayer were first called “hesychasts”: people of hesychia or stillness.

Of course all this is by grace, entirely by grace, God’s life and presence given to us freely in Christ, and encountered directly in silence. We are called into this. I honestly don’t think we could choose these things for ourselves. Even if we could, they would fall into disuse by our own inertia. We would become bored with the life of prayer, terrified by the darkness and the identification with the pain and alienation of the world. Why would we choose such a path, hidden as it is too, mute and inglorious?

Barrington-Ward again:

After all, the whole prayer becomes an intercession. Soon I find that I am on longer praying just for myself, but when I say “on me, a sinner” all the situations of grief and terror, of pain and suffering begin to be drawn into me and I into them. I begin to pray as a fragment of this wounded creation longing for its release into fulfillment… I am in those for whom I would pray and they are in me, as is the whole universe. Every petition of the prayer becomes a bringing of all into the presence and love of God…

What is required here has to be a retired life, given for some large part to prayer and silence. How this will work out in each of our lives cannot be prescribed. It will have to be worked out with fear and trembling, in the mercy of the ground of being itself, and it will probably look quite different for each of us. I think we have, if we find ourselves called to the life that is lived within the practice of prayer, to be prepared to walk into the dark, as it were, unknowing, and see how things work out. The path may be quite straightforward; or it may be quite scandalously tangled and broken. That is not for us to choose. All we have to do is walk in it, I think.

(An earlier version of parts of this post was published on The Mercy Blog)