What’s a Church of Christ Boy To Do?

One of the core axioms of Church of Christ theology is the supremacy of reason in discerning matters of doctrine.  It is said that, while our emotions may lead us into all sorts of danger, the faculty of reason can always be trusted, if applied honestly.

For my part, this thread started to unravel when I began to look at the history of the Restoration Movement (from which come the Churches of Christ, the independent Christian Churches, and the Disciples of Christ). It is said that Alexander Campbell, one of the primary founders of the movement, carried a copy of John Locke with him in his saddlebags, next to his bible. As you might imagine, he believed that scripture should be read in a very rationalistic way. This has produced one of the core tenets of Church of Christ belief, which is that that anyone who approaches the scriptures rationally and with honesty will reach the same conclusions about belief and practice as anyone else who does the same. It is believed that if we can use reason to agree on the true meaning of scripture, we can unite the Christians from all of the denominations into the one Church of Christ. The only hinderances to this process are the existing traditions, creeds, and biases that men (and women) bring with them when they read. Thus, creeds and traditions must be rejected outright. It is believed that such an approach to God’s word will enable us to fully recreate the church of the first century, which is now so long obscured by the abuses of history that we must discard all we have inherited and start afresh. Indeed, the New Testament is viewed as the blueprint for the Church of Christ, sent down to us by the Master Architect, and we must follow its pattern exactly. This is sola scriptura, par excellence.

The problem with this framework, as it has turned out in practice, is that men do not and cannot read the scriptures alike.  To make matters worse, if two individuals disagree on an interpretation of scripture, it follows that at least one of them is either mentally deficient or perverse in some way.  This lends a serious air of vitriol and superiority to any debates on doctrinal issues.

The truth is that it is not possible to read the “plain” meaning of scripture, because it is not possible avoid the coloring of our reading that comes from our own experience. It is interpretation “all the way down.” The postmoderns among us would say, “well, duh,” but I think the Orthodox do a little better than that in pointing out that our reason is just as much a part of our fallen nature as, for instance, our emotions. That is not to say that reason is useless, but in practice it fails to be authoritative. Even within the Church of Christ, there are the mainstream, the non-institutionals, the one-cup non-Sunday school crowd, the progressives, and so on, and all claim an authoritative reading of scripture based on reason.

To further emphasize the point, the mainstream churches of Christ have changed dramatically over the last century, though from what I can gather, we have no idea of it. A Church of Christ 125 years ago would have been functionally non-institutional, non-Sunday school, and had one-cup communion. Its women wouldn’t have dared show up without their heads covered, and only the elderly and infirm would have prayed while sitting in a pew. Everyone else would have been on their knees when praying, or occasionally standing. There would have been no located salaried “minister”, rather, the preacher would have varied from week to week or month to month, as preachers were itenerant and focused primarily on evangelism and church planting.  Many congregations would have been staunchly pacifist, and regularly heard pacifist sermons.  All of these practices were considered “scriptural” and based on a rational reading of scripture, just as today, we base our non-practice of them on a rational reading of scripture. Clearly, something is wrong with our basis of authority!

This, however, is where I find myself in a pickle.  Once you reject the authoritativeness of a rationalistic reading of scripture, where do you go? Where do you get your authority?  At the moment, I can see three basic options, represented by three groups: the Charismatics, the Emergents, and the Orthodox.

The first option, represented by the Charismatic and Pentecostal churches, is the direct and immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit.  That is, the Holy Spirit speaks to us directly as individuals to give us guidance in all matters of belief, practice, and life.  If there seems to be a contradiction between those directions and the scriptures, we should go with the more recent orders of the Spirit, who is the final authority.  From the little experience I have of the Charismatic movement, this does not look like the way for me to go.  The situation is ripe for abuse, as when I visited a Charismatic mega-church a few years ago, and one of the pastors got up to say that he was receiving a message from the Holy Spirit at that very moment that the congregation needed to be putting more money in the collection plates that were being passed around.  Often times, it all seems to devolve into “Jesus made the light turn green for me,” or, “I can hear the Spirit telling me to move on to this bigger paycheck and buy a new SUV.”  Perhaps I am being unfair, but for multiple reasons, this option is unappealing.  How do I discern between the messages of the Holy Spirit and my own delusion?

The second option, which I have said is represented by the Emergents, as far as I can understand them and as far as they can be pinned down, is that I myself become the final authority.  Of course, they would never put it that way, but the practice seems to be to take (for instance) a little contemporary worship music, a little Orthodox artwork, a little Reformed theology, a little classical spiritual formation, a little Quaker discernment, all from different “traditions”, and roll them up into one until you get a church.  (Anything edgy like a soul patch or a tattoo is a bonus.)  In full postmodern style, whatever works for you is OK, as long as you don’t judge the way I choose to respond to the story of God.  So for instance, one might hold that the Virgin Birth is true, not because it actually happened, but because it is beautiful.  Again, perhaps I am being unfair, as I know some Emergents who are good, loving, righteous believers and whom I consider friends.  But the final authority in this model is what I consider to be beautiful and helpful, and as we all know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  This seems too much to me like the days when Israel had no king, and “each one did what was right in his own eyes.”

In addition, I don’t think it is fair to scavenge ideas from all of the existing Christian traditions to piece together your own hybrid church.  The pieces you are scavenging were formed within the context of the tradition from which you scavenged them, and only reach their full expression within that same context.  Thus, to play Gregorian chant to create a “mood” of reverence before the praise band starts jamming at the beginning of service is to do a disservice to both the Catholic church which originated the musical style and the participants in the service, who get musically and cognitively lurched around a bit.

In this model, as there is no authority outside the individual, there can be no heresy either, as we all are just in “different stages of our journey towards God.”  Therefore, even though I am a generational Millennial, I’m afraid I cannot go along with the forecasters for my demographic into the trendy new Emergent churches.  Whatever authority I end up accepting, I’m pretty sure it’s not supposed to be me.

This brings us to the Eastern Orthodox.  Most of what I’ll say here could be applied to the Roman Catholic Church (and to a lesser degree the Anglican Church) as well, but for multiple reasons the Orthodox are where my interests lie.  The interpretation of scripture that the Orthodox hold to be authoritative is the one they received from the previous generations of believers, all the way back to Jesus and the apostles. This is a part of what is referred to as the Tradition.  Tradition and scripture are not at odds for the Orthodox; rather a part of the Tradition is a particular reading of scripture that is purported to have been given by Christ directly to his disciples.  For more on this topic, I point the reader here and here.

This view of the matter is very appealing.  For one thing, it makes a place for history in discussions of the life of the Church.  Indeed, as G. K. Chesterton said, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.”  It also relieves some of the burden I’ve placed on myself of having to have it all “figured out”.  I don’t have to fully comprehend everything, I just need to accept what has been faithfully passed on to me.  It is possible for distortions or impurities to enter into the Tradition, but there is also the ongoing work of the Spirit and of the bishops to repent and return to the purity of the Faith that has been delivered to us.  When problems arise, Christ is seen as still active in his Church through the Holy Spirit, and this is particularly manifested in the collective discernment of the bishops in councils.  Thus, the doctrinal purity of the Kingdom is preserved by Christ himself.  Of course, the things that matter most for me are those that pertain to communion with God, to salvation and sanctification, and these are clearly established and do not change.

I mentioned the work of Church Councils, and this topic points to an important reality that we have long ignored in the Church of Christ: as much as we like to claim that we have restored the New Testament Church, we are deeply beholden to the believers who have come before us, indeed to the Tradition which they have passed on to us, despite the fact that we normally consider them to be apostates.  The canon of scripture was established by the painstaking work of the early Church Councils, as they sought to determine which books and writings were consistent with the Tradition that had been passed on to them, and which were heretical or superfluous. The canon was later revised by the Reformers (also “apostates”), and this version of the canon we have accepted unquestioningly.  The way we generally explain this (if somebody asks troubling questions) is to say that the Holy Spirit was at work in these men, even though they were apostates, so that the pure canon would be faithfully delivered to us a few centuries later, who could rightly discern it.  This is an extraordinary exercise in hubris, to say the least.

As I have said earlier, reason is not without a place in the life of the Christian, it is just not our final authority.  And it so happens that many of the “new” conclusions that Campbell and others reached about the life of the Church are those that Orthodox Tradition had taught all along: for instance, weekly Communion, baptismal regeneration, and acapella worship.  To me, this is a good sign.  In fact, with the exception of this core matter of interpretation, as far as I’m aware there is little-to-nothing the Church of Christ teaches or practices that Orthodox believers would find problematic.  (Obviously, the reverse does not hold.)  Yet, the beauty of the faith and practice presented by Orthodoxy is absolutely stunning to me.  These people really know how to be in the presence of God, to partake of his Body and Blood, to worship, to repent, and to pray.  Orthodoxy has been described as “the fullness of the Faith”, and when confronted with such richness and fullness, it is hard not to feel sometimes that one has been living in theological poverty.

So then, what’s the dilemma?  Why have I not yet jumped on board with the Orthodox Church?  There are multiple reasons, one of which is that my wife and I are attending a Church of Christ congregation that we love very much.  We have formed some wonderful relationships with the Christians there, and we can see the image of the “family of God” at work among us.  Such ties should not be dissolved lightly or quickly.  More deeply, the Church of Christ is my heritage; it is what I was raised to believe.  I am chafed by the idea of following the generational herd and ditching my parents’ church for whatever is new and exciting to me.  Again, such decisions are often made too quickly, and care is advised. I must “count the cost”, lest my latter state become worse than the former.

Finally, in good Protestant style, I have a “hang-up” with the Tradition as delivered to me by Orthodoxy, and that is infant baptism.  The topic has taken up all the more importance as my wife and I begin to think about having children.  I have read arguments for both sides, and both sides have some darn good ones.  It is not my desire to start a debate on this issue here, but simply to say that I am not ready to embrace this practice.  The Orthodox baptismal liturgy itself, which is quite beautiful, seems so much more meaningful if engaged in by an adult catechumen, rather than a proxy godparent.  And yet, here I judge myself, for I am elevating my own Reason to the place of final authority against the claims of Tradition.

There may be yet another option, besides the three I have discussed.  I have seen it referred to here and there as “re-traditioning”.  The idea is that we (the Church of Christ) let go of this paradoxical stance of being an a-traditional tradition and rather embrace the tradition from which we have come.  Reaching back into our past, we dust off our copies of Cambpell, Stone, Lipscomb, Sommer, Lard, Richardson, Srygley, and all of our other “Fathers”, and allow them to critique who we are today. We drop the pretense that our interpretations are authoritative on the basis of Reason, and accept that they may be quite valuable, nonetheless. This would also allow us to accept the idea that we may not be the only True Christians while at the same time affirming that the issues on which we disagree with others still matter. Closely related to the strict Church of Christ re-traditioning option is to reach back even further and embrace what we have rejected from Christian history.  This would include things such as liturgical worship, the works of the Church Fathers, and the communion of the saints.  We could do either one, or both.

This course is not without its own perils, though.  Any Church of Christ congregation which started to do this would quickly find itself anathematized by the rest of the brotherhood, “congregational autonomy” be damned.  My own attempts (in conjunction with a few others) to introduce some old-style Church of Christ as well as some liturgical elements at our congregation have not been very successful. According to Father Stephen, the liturgical side of these attempts are misguided, and I’m somewhat inclined to agree with him.  And once again, I am judging myself, for like the Emergents, I am pulling practices I like out of their ecclesial contexts and trying to get them to take hold in a place where they don’t make sense.  But perhaps a strictly Restoration Movement re-traditioning may yet yield some valuable fruit.  I point here to the work of Richard Hughes, John Mark Hicks, and many others.

To conclude, it seems I cannot escape making myself the ultimate authority in some sense, because I am the one who has to decide to which authority I will ultimately submit.  For now, I am biding my time, praying and repenting with the Church, and waiting for more clarity in my path. The only thing that is clear right now is that I cannot stay where I am, theologically speaking, forever. Thus, I welcome your comments, readers, especially if you see other options I have not considered, or if you believe I have mischaracterized something or someone.  And I put the question to you: what’s a Church of Christ boy to do?

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Go, Read

…and be blessed. Orthodox interpretation of scripture never ceases to amaze me. From Father Stephen’ blog, here:

We refused to keep the proper fast in the Garden, eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil when we had been told it was the only tree from which we were not to eat.

Left untouched was the Tree of Life. To guard that tree, and to prevent man from becoming an everlasting, unrepentant demon, we were cast out of the Garden and an angel with a flaming sword was set to guard the tree’s approach. Of course, we now understand that the Cross is itself the Tree of Life, and Christ Himself is the Life that hangs from that Tree.

It is the fruit of the Tree of Life that is brought forth in the Cup in the Holy Eucharist. The doors of the iconostasis are opened (like the very gates of paradise) and the Deacon comes forth chanting, “In the fear of God, with faith and love draw near.” The Banquet of Life begins.

Interpretation and Politics

Scripture and the Church” by Fr. Stephen Freeman

Father Stephen has a very concise description of the issues surrounding scriptural interpretation and church tradition.  Most interesting to me is the connection he draws between interpretation and politics.  He suggests that sola scriptura is directly tied to the rise of the State in the West.

I wonder if there is also a connection with sola fide, the second pillar of Protestantism.  Could it be that the emphasis on faith as intellectual assent outside of works paved the way for the Secular State?

Maybe that’s a dumb question.

Pro-America, in the only Good sense of the expression

Fr. Jonathan Tobias has an excellent set of articles called “Prospects” concerning (Orthodox) evangelism in America. I have tried in vain to select a few short quotes to tease your interest, but I’ve found it impossible, as the whole thing is just so good. Therefore, I will simply link to the four posts.  The fourth is the best, if your time is limited.

Part 1: Ebb Tide
Part 2: Bad News before the Good
Part 3: The American Genius
Part 4: The American Gospel – Orthodoxy at the End of the Sawdust Trail

God, Judgement, Evil, and Hell

Or, “The River of Fire“, by Alexandre Kalomiros.

I’m not all the way through this, yet.  You have to get past the fact that he is a bit harsh on “Western theology”, which I am certainly an heir of.  Still, what I have read so far is an excellent interpretation, based largely on the Church Fathers, of how a loving God and hell can both exist in the same universe.

Do Not React

This is by Jonah Paffhausen, who is the new Metropolitan of the OCA.  (I think Metropolitan is equivalent to “arch-bishop” or something like that.)  In any case, this is long, but it is an excellent discussion of struggling with sin.  I have copied it in full because links to this sort of thing sometimes stop working.  (H/T Father Stephen’s blog).

Do Not Resent, Do Not React, Keep Inner Stillness

When I was in seminary I had the great blessing of becoming the spiritual son of a Greek  bishop, Bishop Kallistos of Xelon. He ended his life as the bishop of Denver of the Greek  Archdiocese. It was he who taught me the Jesus Prayer. The whole spiritual vision of  Bishop Kallistos had three very simple points.

Do not resent. Do not react. Keep inner stillness.

These three spiritual principles, or disciplines, are really a summation of the Philokalia,  the collection of Orthodox Christian spiritual wisdom. And they are disciplines every  single one of us can practice, no matter where we are in life – whether we’re in the  monastery or in school; whether we’re housewives or retired; whether we’ve got a job or  we’ve got little kids to run after. If we can hold on to and exercise these three principles,  we will be able to go deeper and deeper in our spiritual life.

Do Not Resent

When we look at all the inner clutter that is in our lives, hearts and souls, what do we  find? We find resentments. We find remembrance of wrongs. We find self-justifications.  We find these in ourselves because of pride. It is pride that makes us hold on to our  justifications for our continued anger against other people. And it is hurt pride, or  vainglory, which feeds our envy and jealousy. Envy and jealousy lead to resentment.

Resentfulness leads to a host of problems. The more resentful we are of other people, the  more depressed we become. And the more we are consumed with the desire to have what  they have, which is avarice. Often we’ll then engage in the addictive use of the substance  of the material world – whether it’s food or alcohol or drugs or sex or some other thing –  to medicate ourselves into forgetfulness and to distract ourselves from our resentments.

One of the most valuable and important things that we can thus do is look at all of the  resentments that we have. And one of the best ways of accomplishing this is to make a  life confession. And not just once, before we’re baptized or chrismated. In the course of  our spiritual life we may make several, in order to really dig in to our past and look at  these resentments that we bear against other people. This will enable us to do the difficult  work that it takes to overcome these resentments through forgiveness.

What does forgiveness mean? Forgiveness does not mean excusing or justifying the  actions of somebody. For example, saying “Oh, he abused me but that’s O.K., that’s just  his nature,” or “I deserved it.” No, if somebody abused you that was a sin against you.  But when we hold resentments, when we hold anger and bitterness within ourselves  against those who have abused us in some way, we take their abuse and we continue it  against ourselves. We have to stop that cycle. Most likely that person has long gone and  long forgotten us, forgotten that we even existed. But maybe not. Maybe it was a parent  or someone else close, which makes the resentment all the more bitter. But for the sake of  our own soul and for the sake of our own peace, we need to forgive. We should not  justify the action, but we should overlook the action and see that there’s a person there  who is struggling with sin. We should see that the person we have resented, the person  we need to forgive, is no different than we are, that they sin just like we do and we sin  just like they do.

Of course, it helps if the person whom we resent, the person who offended us or abused  us in some way, asks forgiveness of us. But we can’t wait for this. And we can’t hold on  to our resentments even after outwardly saying we’ve forgiven. Think of the Lord’s  Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” If we  don’t forgive, we can’t even pray the Lord’s Prayer without condemning ourselves. It’s  not that God condemns us. We condemn ourselves by refusing to forgive. We will never  have peace if we don’t forgive, only resentment. It is one of the hardest things to do, and  our culture does not understand it. It is to look at the person we need to forgive, and to  love them – despite how they may have sinned against us. Their sin is their sin, and they  have to deal with it themselves. But we sin is in our reaction against their sin.

Do Not React

So this first spiritual principle – do not resent – leads to the second. We must learn to not  react. This is just a corollary of “turn the other cheek.” When somebody says something  hurtful, or somebody does something hurtful, what is it that’s being hurt? It’s our ego.  Nobody can truly hurt us. They might cause some physical pain, or emotional pain. They  might even kill our body. But nobody can hurt our true selves. We have to take  responsibility for our own reactions. Then we can control our reactions.

There are a number of different levels to this principle. On the most blatant level, if  someone hits you don’t hit them back. Turn the other cheek – that’s the Lord’s teaching.  Now, this is hard enough. But there is a deeper level still. Because if somebody hits you,  and you don’t hit them back – but you resent them, and you bear anger and hatred and  bitterness against them, you’ve still lost. You have still sinned. You have still broken your  relationship with God, because you bear that anger in your heart.

One of the things which is so difficult to come to terms with is the reality that when we  bear anger and resentment and bitterness in our hearts, we erect barriers to God’s grace  within ourselves. It’s not that God stops giving us His grace. It’s that we say, “No. I  don’t want it.” What is His grace? It is His love, His mercy, His compassion, His activity  in our lives. The holy Fathers tell us that each and every human person who has ever been  born on this earth bears the image of God undistorted within themselves. In our Tradition  there is no such thing as fallen nature. There are fallen persons, but not fallen nature. The  implication of this truth is that we have no excuses for our sins. We are responsible for  our sins, for the choices we make. We are responsible for our actions, and our reactions.  “The devil made me do it” is no excuse, because the devil has no more power over us than  we give him. This is hard to accept, because it is really convenient to blame the devil. It is  also really convenient to blame the other person, or our past. But, it is also a lie. Our  choices are our own.

On an even deeper level, this spiritual principle – do not react – teaches us that we need  to learn to not react to thoughts. One of the fundamental aspects of this is inner  watchfulness. This might seem like a daunting task, considering how many thoughts we  have. However, our watchfulness does not need to be focused on our thoughts. Our  watchfulness needs to be focused on God. We need to maintain the conscious awareness  of God’s presence. If we can maintain the conscious awareness of His presence, our  thoughts will have no power over us. We can, to paraphrase St. Benedict, dash our  thoughts against the presence of God. This is a very ancient patristic teaching. We focus  our attention on the remembrance of God. If we can do that, we will begin to control our  troubling thoughts.  Our reactions are about our thoughts. After all, if someone says  something nasty to us, how are we reacting? We react first through our thinking, our  thoughts. Perhaps we’re habitually accustomed to just lashing out after taking offense  with some kind of nasty response of our own. But keeping watch over our minds so that  we maintain that living communion with God leaves no room for distracting thoughts. It  leaves plenty of room if we decide we need to think something through intentionally in  the presence of God. But as soon as we engage in something hateful, we close God out.  And the converse is true – as long as we maintain our connection to God, we won’t be  capable of engaging in something hateful. We won’t react.

Keep Inner Stillness

The second principle, the second essential foundation of our spiritual life – do not react –  leads to the third. This third principle is the practice of inner stillness. The use of the  Jesus Prayer is an extremely valuable tool for this. But the Jesus Prayer is a means, not an  end. It is a means for entering into deeper and deeper conscious communion. It’s a means  for us to acquire and maintain the awareness of the presence of God. The prayer  developed within the tradition of hesychasm, in the desert and on the Holy Mountain.  But hesychasm is not only about the Jesus Prayer. It is about inner stillness and silence.

Inner stillness is not merely emptiness. It is a focus on the awareness of the presence of  God in the depths of our heart. One of the essential things we have to constantly  remember is that God is not out there someplace. He’s not just in the box on the altar. It  may be the dwelling place of His glory. But God is everywhere. And God dwells in the  depths of our hearts. When we can come to that awareness of God dwelling in the depths  of our hearts, and keep our attention focused in that core, thoughts vanish.

How do we do this? In order to enter in to deep stillness, we have to have a lot of our  issues resolved. We have to have a lot of our anger and bitterness and resentments  resolved. We have to forgive. If we don’t we’re not going to get into stillness, because the  moment we try our inner turmoil is going to come vomiting out. This is good – painful,  but good. Because when we try to enter into stillness and we begin to see the darkness  that is lurking in our souls, we can then begin to deal with it. It distracts us from trying to  be quiet, from trying to say the Jesus Prayer, but that’s just part of the process. And it  takes time.

The Fathers talk about three levels of prayer. The first level is oral prayer, where we’re  saying the prayer with our lips. We may use a prayer rope, saying “Lord Jesus Christ,  have mercy on me,” or whatever form we use. The next level is mental prayer, where  we’re saying the prayer in our mind. Prayer of the mind – with the Jesus Prayer, with  prayer book prayers, with liturgical prayers –keeps our minds focused and helps to  integrate us, so that our lips and our mind are in the same place and doing the same thing.  We all know that we can be standing in church, or standing at prayer, and we may be  mouthing the words with our lips but our mind is thinking about the grocery list. The  second level of prayer overcomes this problem, but it is not the final level. The final level  of prayer is prayer of the heart, or spiritual prayer. It is here where we encounter God, in  the depths of our soul. Here we open the eye of our attention, with the intention of being  present to God who is present within us. This is the key and the core of the whole  process of spiritual growth and transformation.

II. So how do we do this?

The Prayer of Stillness

The foundation of the spiritual process is learning to keep inner silence, the prayer  of stillness.  On the basis of this, we gain insight into how to stop resenting and to stop  reacting.  Then the process goes deeper and deeper, rooting out our deeply buried  resentments and passions, memories of hurt and sin, so that the silence penetrates our  whole being.  Then we can begin to think clearly, and to attain towards purity of heart.   Before beginning this process, it is important to have an established relationship  with a spiritual guide, a father confessor or spiritual mother, to help you.  Confession is a  central part of the spiritual life, and things that come up in prayer, as well as resolving  resentments and other issues, are part of that.  It is also valuable to expose obsessive or  sinful thoughts to your confessor.  Simply exposing them deprives them of their power.   We always need to be accompanied on the journey within.  Prayer is always a corporate  action, leading to the transcendence of our individual isolation into a state of communion  with God and the Other.

The Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,” or  some form of it, can be used as a vehicle to help us bring our attention into a prayerful  state.  The Jesus Prayer states the intention of our prayer, and we use it first verbally and  then mentally until it goes beyond word and thought and becomes pure intention in deep  silence.

A prayer rope is very helpful to get started, not so much as to count prayers, but  to keep the physical level of attention.  We say one prayer on each knot, going round and  round the rope, until our attention is focused in prayer.  Then we can stop moving around  the rope, and be still.  The rope is not important in and of itself; one can pray just as well  without it.  It is an aid.   Another aid is to follow your breath.  What is important is not  to get caught up in technique, but to pray.

The Prayer can be said standing, kneeling or sitting.  If one is ill, lying down is  acceptable; but it is hard to preserve focused attention while lying down.  Prayer is not  relaxation.  It may relax you, but that is not the point.  Posture is important to help keep  your attention focused.  If you’re sitting, it helps to keep your back straight and your  shoulders back.  One can also be prostrate on the ground, but it takes practice to let go of  the physical distractions.   In beginning to pray, remember that God is “everywhere present and filling all  things.”  In prayer, you make yourself present to God.  Open your mind and heart, your  awareness of God, so that the sense of God’s Presence fills your consciousness.  At first,  we may not have a sense of God’s Presence.  But the more disciplined our practice of  prayer, the more that conscious awareness of God will fill our mind and heart.  This is not  an image, a thought “that” God is present (though this is a place to start), or a feeling or  physical sensation.  It is simply an awareness.  This is the beginning of spiritual  consciousness, where our awareness moves from the head to the heart, and from God as  an object to a sense of being rapt in God’s Presence.

How to Enter the Prayer of Stillness

In short, sit down and collect yourself, and remember that God is present. Say the  Trisagion Prayers if you wish. Breathe in slowly and deeply a couple of times, following  your breath to the center of your chest. Begin to say the Jesus Prayer quietly, slowly,  until you have a sense of God’s Presence.  Then let the Jesus Prayer trail off, and go into  silence.  Thoughts will come, but simply let them go by.  Don’t let them grab your  attention.  But if they do, gently dismiss them and bring your focus back to God’s  Presence, perhaps using the Jesus Prayer to reestablish your intention to pray.  Go  deeper within yourself, below the thoughts, into the deeper stillness and awareness of  Presence, and simply abide there.   The period of prayer should start out with a few minutes, and may entirely be  occupied at first with the Jesus Prayer.  Eventually, over a period of weeks or months, as  you begin to master keeping your attention focused and dismissing thoughts, let it expand  up to twenty or thirty minutes.  Two periods of prayer, early in the morning and early in  the evening are an excellent discipline.

Surrender and Detachment

The Prayer of Stillness is a process of inner surrender to the Presence and activity  of God within yourself.  Surrender your thoughts, feelings, emotions, ideas, agendas,  plans, images and submit them to the Divine Presence.  This is surrender of the ego, and  the enkindling of our spiritual awareness.  We stop our ego and its thoughts from  distracting our attention, and permit God’s energy to work within to heal our souls.  This  is a kind of active and willful passivity, so that God becomes the active partner in prayer.   It becomes obvious that we cannot hold any kind of rancor or resentment, lust or  passion, in our minds while trying to enter into silence.  In fact, all our attachments to  things, people, concepts and ideas have to be surrendered during silent prayer, and thus,  they are brought into perspective.  The more we connect with God in prayer, the more  detached we become.  It is a necessity if we are going to progress in prayer and in  communion with God.  All things that are obstacles to our living communion fall away, if  we let them.  The key, of course, is to surrender them and let them go.

The Emptying of the Subconscious

One critically important process that occurs is the emptying of the subconscious.   After we have gotten to a point of stillness, over a period of days or weeks, we will be  flooded by memories of past hurts, sins, resentments, images and sensations, and wrongs  done to us.  At first, we feel like we make progress in the prayer, and it is nice and  peaceful.  Then, with the flood of memories, we feel like we are going backwards.  This is  progress!  It is the beginning of the process of the purification of our soul.  It is extremely  unpleasant, at times, but the key is to not allow ourselves to react.   These memories have  been suppressed, and are now coming to awareness so that they can be dealt with.  This  purification is already the action of grace illumining your soul.   During prayer, make a mental note of the memory or sin, and then take it to  confession.  Sometimes these memories and the feelings connected with them can be  overwhelming.  This is why accompaniment on the spiritual journey is so important.   You need someone who can encourage and reassure you, as well as help you resolve the  issues that come to awareness, and forgive your sins.  It is extremely distressing when  suppressed memories of abuse and violent emotions come up.  It can not only be  confusing, but it can dominate our consciousness.  We have to deal with these issues, as  they come up, in order to be purified and open ourselves to God.  This means working  through forgiveness, accepting forgiveness, and forgiving ourselves and God.

The Imagination

Another thing that comes up is images, which play on our mind and imagination.   There are two main levels here: first, the memory images we have seen that are connected  with our passions; the second, images from our imagination.  All the images we have ever  seen are stored in our brain.  They range from the face of our mother from our infancy,  and other joyful images, to pornographic and violent images or those who have hurt us.   These images are especially powerful if they are attached to some kind of passionate act,  of lust or anger.  They can be a strong distraction from awareness of God.  What is  important is to remember that these are just thoughts, memories, and we can dismiss  them.  They have no power over us that we do not give them.  The task is to get beneath  them, and let them go, and eventually take them to confession.   The second level of images is what is produced by the imagination.  We quiet  down, and start to pray, and go into all sorts of imaginal realms, populated by angels,  demons, and any and everything else.  Many people take this as spiritual vision.  But it is  not.  It is the realm of delusion, and there is nothing spiritual about it.  This is especially  dangerous if one has a past with hallucinogens and other psychotropic drugs.  The task is,  first, to stay with the Jesus Prayer.  Then, after much practice, go into silence and be  absolutely resolute to allow no images, even of Jesus or the saints, into one’s mind during  prayer.  The imagination is still part of the mind, not the spirit (nous).  Even icons are not  to be contemplated in an objective sense, bringing the image into the mind.  As St John  Chrysostom wrote, somewhere, “When you pray before your icons, light a candle and  then close your eyes!”  The icon is a sacrament of the Presence.   Spiritual work is very serious business.  If we do not work through the issues that  arise in a healthy way, they can literally drive us crazy.    It takes a deep commitment to the spiritual process, so as not to be distracted by  the emptying of our subconscious, and led into despondency or despair.  The task is to  persevere, and let the process take its course. This means confessing our thoughts and  resolving our resentments, and receiving absolution of our sins. Eventually, it works itself  through, though it may take months or years to do so.  As Metropolitan Anthony Bloom  said, somewhere, when it gets too heavy, sit back and have a cup of tea!  God is going to  be there; it is we who have to work through our issues so we can be present to Him.

Dealing with Resentments

Resentment and reaction are deeply interrelated.  Resentment is an impassioned  reaction, based on a judgment of a person (or the self), where our passions are ignited.  Resentment is a reaction which we hold within ourselves, and allow ourselves to nurture.   It comes from and feeds off our passions, from judgment of others.  Resentment is  judgment and objectification of a person according to his actions which have offended us.  The real key to resolving resentment is to realize that it is not the other person  who is causing it, but that it is our own reaction.  The actions of the other person may  have precipitated the reaction, his words or deeds, his sin; but the reaction to those sins,  words or deeds is purely our own.    We can only control what belongs to us; we cannot control another person.  It is  our decision to allow ourselves to be possessed by our passions and reactions, or to take  control over our own lives.  It is our decision to take responsibility for our own reactions,  or to allow ourselves to be caught in the vicious cycle of blaming the other person, in  resentment and self-righteousness.  Blame and resentment lead nowhere, except to bitterness and unhappiness.  They  make us into helpless victims, which in turn robs us of the power to take responsibility  for ourselves.  Resentment comes when we refuse to forgive someone, justifying ourselves by  our self-righteous indignation at being hurt.  Some of these hurts can be very deep: abuse,  abandonment, betrayal, rejection.  Sometimes they can be very petty.  We keep turning  the hurt over and over in our minds, and refuse let it go by justifying our anger.  Then we  feel justified in hating or despising the person who hurt us.  Doing this, we continue to  beat ourselves up with someone else’s sin, and compound the other person’s sin by our  own resentfulness.  We blind ourselves to our own sin, and focus only on the sin of the  other, and in so doing, we lose all perspective.  We have to put things into perspective, and realize that the other person’s actions  are only part of the equation, and that our own reaction is entirely our own sin.  To do  this, we have to move towards forgiveness.  To forgive does not mean to justify the other person’s sin.  It does not mean that  we absolve the other person—not hold them responsible for their sin.  Rather, we  acknowledge that they have sinned and that it hurt us.  But what do we do with that hurt?  If we resent, we turn it against ourselves.  But if we forgive, we accept the person for  who he is, not according to his actions; we drop our judgment of the person.  We realize  that he is a sinner just like me.  If I am aware of my own sins, I can never judge anyone.   We can begin to love him as we love ourselves, and excuse his falling short as we forgive  ourselves.  It helps when the person who hurt us asks for forgiveness, but it is not  necessary.  We must always forgive: not only because God forgave us; but also because  we hurt ourselves by refusing to forgive.  Our resentments can also be extremely petty.  Sometimes we resent because we  cannot control or manipulate someone to behave according to our expectations.  We  become resentful of our own frustration, where the other really had nothing to do with it.   All our expectations of other people are projections of our own self-centeredness.  If we  can let other people simply be who they are, and rejoice in that, then we will have  tremendous peace!   We have to be watchful over ourselves, so that we do not allow ourselves to  project our expectations on others, or allow resentment to grow within us.  This kind of  awareness, watchfulness, is nurtured by the practice of cutting off our thoughts and  practicing inner stillness.  By this, we practice cutting off our reactions, which all start  with thoughts.  We can come to see what is our own reaction, and what belongs to the  other.    Eventually, we see that our judgment of the other is really about ourselves, our  own actions, words, attitudes and temptations, which we see reflected in the other  person. To face this means to face our own hypocrisy, and to change.  If we judge and  condemn someone for the same sins, thoughts, words and deeds that we have ourselves,  then we are hypocrites.  We must repent from our hypocrisy.  This is real repentance: to  recognize and acknowledge our own sin, and turn away from it towards God and towards  our neighbor.   We have to see how our sins distract us from loving our neighbor, and from loving  God.  Our love of our brother is the criterion of our love of God.  St John tells us, How  can we love God whom we have not seen, if we can’t love our neighbor whom we can?  If  you say that you love God and hate your brother, you are a liar. If we love God, then we  will forgive our neighbor, as God has also forgiven us.    The conscious awareness of our own reactions and judgments, of our attachment  to our passions of anger and our own will, is the first level of spiritual awareness and  watchfulness.  We have to move beyond self-centeredness (oblivious to others), to  becoming self-aware, aware of our own inner processes through watching our thoughts  and reactions.

Repentance and Confession

Awareness of our sins and hypocrisy, our short comings and falls, leads us to  repentance and the transformation of our life.  Repentance, conversion, the transformation  of our mind and our life, is the core of the Christian life.  Repentance does not mean to  beat ourselves up for our sins, or to dwell in a state of guilt and morose self-  condemnation.  Rather, it means to confront our sins, and reject and renounce them, and  confess them, trying not to do them again.     What this does is, that to the extent we renounce and confess our sins, they no  longer generate thoughts, which accuse us or spur passionate reactions.  Sometimes we  have to confess things several times, because we only repent of, or are even conscious of,  aspects of the sin.  Things that make us feel guilty, provoke our conscience, or that we  know are acts of disobedience all should be confessed.   We have to train our conscience,  not by memorizing lists of sins, but by becoming aware of what breaks our relationship  with God and other people.  We need to be conscious of God’s presence, and realize what  distracts us from it.  These things are sins.  Of course, we are experts at deluding  ourselves, when we really want to do something, and we know that it is not blessable.   Confession is not only Christ’s first gift to the Church, the authority to forgive  sins in His Name; but is one of the most important means of healing our souls.   Sins are  not sins because they are listed in a book somewhere.  They are sins because they break  our relationship with God, other people, and distort our true self.  Sins are sins because  they hurt us and other people.  We need to heal that hurt, and revealing the act or thought  or attitude takes away the shame that keeps it concealed, and prevents healing.  We need  to confess the things that we are the most ashamed of, the secret sins which we know are  betrayals of our true self.  If we don’t confess them, they fester and generate all sorts of  despondency, depression and guilt, shame and despair.  The result of that is that we  identify ourselves with our sins.  For example, same-sex attraction becomes gay identity.   Failure in some area becomes a general self-identification with being a failure.    What is critically important is that we are not our sins, thoughts or actions.  These  things happen, we sin, have bad thoughts and do wicked and evil things.  But we are not  our thoughts or actions.  Repentance means to stop and renounce not only the actions,  but to renounce the identity that goes with it.  Thoughts are going to come. But we can  learn, through practicing inner stillness, to let our thoughts go.  They will still be there,  but we can learn to not react to them, and eventually, simply to ignore them.   The process of purifying our self is hard and painful, at first; but becomes the  source of great joy.  The more we confess, honestly and nakedly, the more we open  ourselves to God’s grace, and the lighter we feel.  Truly the angels in heaven (and the  priest standing before you bearing witness to the confession) rejoice immensely when a  person truly repents and confesses their sins, no matter how dark and heinous.  There is  no sin so grievous that it cannot be forgiven.  NOTHING!  The only sin not forgiven is  thinking that God cannot forgive our sin.  He forgives.  We have to forgive our self, and  accept His forgiveness.   Preparing for confession is an important process.  It means to take stock of our  life, and to recognize where we have fallen, and that we need to repent.   The following  should help to prepare for confession, but it is not a laundry list.  Rather, it should help  to spur our memory, so that we can bring things to consciousness that we have forgotten.   It is more of an examination of conscience.

The Passions: Gluttony, lust, avarice; anger, envy, despondency; vainglory, pride.

The Commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and  with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.

Loving God

Do I love God?
Do I really believe in God, or just go through the motions?
Do I pray, and when I do, do I connect, or is it just mechanical?
Do I rush through prayers, Scripture readings, and spiritual literature?
Do I seek the will of God in all things?
Do I rebel against what I know to be God’s will, and the Christian life?
Do I try  to be obedient, and constantly surrender my life to God?
Do I go to church, go to confession and communion regularly, keep the fasts?
Do I try to be conscious of God’s Presence, or not?
Do I try to sanctify my life?  Or do I give in to temptation easily? Thoughtlessly?

Loving our Neighbor
How do I treat the people around me?
Do I allow myself to judge, criticize, gossip about  or condemn my neighbor?
Do I put people down?
Do I look for their faults?
Do I  condescend and talk down to others?
Do I treat others with kindness, gentleness, patience? Or am I mean, rough and nasty?
Do I try to control others, manipulate others?
Do I regard others with love and compassion?
Do I bear anger or resentments against others? Hatred, bitterness, scorn?
Do I use and objectify others for my own pleasure or advantage?
For sex, for profit, or  for anything else which de-personalizes him/her?
Do I envy and bear jealousy towards my neighbor? Do I take pleasure in his  misfortunes?
Do I act thoughtlessly, oblivious to the feelings or conscience of the other?
Do I lead my  neighbor into temptation intentionally? Do I mock him or make fun of him?
Do I honor the commitments I have made? Marriage vows? Monastic vows?
Do I honor  my parents?
Am I faithful in my relationships?
Do I have stability in my commitments?
Am I conscious of how my words and actions affect others?
Have I stolen anything, abused or hurt anyone?
Have I committed adultery?
Have I  injured or killed someone?
Do I covet other people’s things?
Do I lust after possessions or money?
Does my life  revolve around making money and buying things?

Loving Our Selves
How am I self-centered, egotistical, self-referenced?
Do I take care of myself, physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually?
Am I obsessed  about my self, my image, my appearance, my desires and agenda?
Do I indulge in laziness?
Do I get despondent, depressed, despairing?
Do I beat myself up, indulge in self-hatred or self-pity?
Do I injure myself?
Do I have  low self-esteem, or think myself worthless?
Do I blame other people for my reactions?
Do I feel myself a victim?
Do I take  responsibility for my own reactions and behaviors?
Do I engage in addictive behaviors, abusing alcohol, food, drugs, sex, pornography,  masturbation?
How do I try to console myself when I’m feeling down?
Do I have anger and resentment, rage, and other strong emotions and passions suppressed  within me? Do I act out on them? How do they affect my behavior? Can I control them  or do I abuse other people?
Am I conscious of how my words affect people?
How am I a hypocrite? Can I face my own hypocrisy?
Am I lying to and deluding  myself?  Do I have a realistic idea of myself?
Am I honest with myself and others? What kind of  façade do I put up?
Have I done things which I don’t want to or am too ashamed to admit?  Abuse of others  or animals, incest, homosexual acts, perverse actions? Have I abused drugs, sex or other  things which I don’t want to acknowledge?  Am I afraid that I am those things—an  alcoholic, drug addict, gay, child abuser? Am I afraid to confess them?
Can I forgive  myself for these things?
What do I feel guilty about?
Does guilt control my life?
Am I being faithful to myself, to God, to others?
Does my life have integrity?