Recovering the Millennia-Long Track Record of Praying with Icons in Christian Homes

Bridegroom

Surviving the recent death of my mother after her five-year battle with cancer, my father (an ordained Presbyterian minister who works as a college literature professor) asked me for some simple suggestions regarding how to make use of icons in his home where he lives with my four youngest siblings. Two of these siblings are twin girls still in high school, and two are grown children who stayed home to help with my mother and to support their younger twin sisters. Even more recently, after my father made this initial request, he told all of us about his own fight with a second round of malignant melanoma (a fight that just recently started up again with the removal of cancer-filled lymph nodes and that will now involve more testing and treatments to come). Although these notes are written with my father in mind, I’m posting my thoughts here because I want to include some images and also because I may want to revisit my thoughts on prayer with icons at some time in the future.

In his desire to start making some use of icons, my father is referencing a brief passage in a book that has meant a lot to him recently:

“Icons” have a millennia-long track record with the people of God and can be a powerful way of keeping entire stories and teachings effortlessly before the mind. We might arrange them tastefully present in each of our living and work spaces, so that they are always present in our visual field. We can thoughtfully use them to dispel destructive imagery and thoughts and to see ourselves as before God in all levels of our being. [Dallas Willard in Renovation of the Heart, page 113.]

This passage from Dallas Willard has several key words and concepts to understand and unpack. Here they are in six key phrases.

First, “a millennia-long track record with the people of God:” Before starting to use icons, it is good to start learning a little about the history and the theology of icons (and to keep this up indefinitely as you are able). Here is a simple timeline that will suggest some broad categories in which to search out more articles and books about the use of images by God’s people across many millennia:

  1. God made humans in His own divine image (“icon”). Some Church fathers wrote that this is why humans were not supposed to make any images of God, because we ourselves are the image of God within God’s creation.
  2. In the wilderness, God commanded Moses to build a tabernacle that was decorated with many images of living things, reflecting God’s heavenly throne room, the Garden of Eden, and all of creation. These included images of various kinds of angels as well as many plants and animals. God was not depicted because God was a spirit and was beyond or above (enthroned upon) His creation (not just one of the many wonderful things within His created world).
  3. Each different Jewish temple built by Solomon, Ezra, and Herod followed this tabernacle pattern of ornate images—depicting living things from all parts of creation.
  4. Jewish synagogues (as they developed during the exile and throughout different parts of the world in the Jewish diaspora) were also filled with images of living things as well as many of the great Old Testament saints and prophets.
  5. From the earliest years, Christians adorned their churches and their graves with images of Jesus Christ, his mother, the martyrs, and other great Christians heroes (saints). Many early Christian churches (even house churches and churches in hiding, such as in the catacombs) looked like Jewish synagogues with ornate images. These early Christians also told stories of Greek-style portraits that were painted by Luke (the Greek doctor and author of two New Testament books) as well as of other early images that appeared miraculously, depicting Jesus Christ. As generation after generation of Christians wanted to write their own icons, many sacred patterns and expectations were developed and carefully handed down from one icon writer to the next, so that the key features of each icon would be protected and preserved in ways that would communicate clearly, again and again, across different times and places.
  6. With the rise of Islam, there was a strong pressure to clean up the embarrassing variety of images and strange relics (bones and clothing of saints, etc.) that now filled and cluttered Christian churches and monastic communities. These sacred Christian things were considered very grubby, foolish, superstitious, and idolatrous by the sophisticated, elegant, rational, and tidy Muslims who strictly forbid the use of any images of God and who decorated their mosques with only the most beautiful and sophisticated geometric designs (showing the transcendent beauty of God in ornate yet orderly ways).
  7. Some Christian emperors and clergy began to teach that the ancient Christian use of images and relics was barbaric and a corruption of the pure Christian faith. These were the iconoclasts who often cleaned up churches by force, pulling down icons to put them in storage, paint them over, or even destroy them.
  8. In the Seventh Ecumenical Council, all the leadership of the churches around the Mediterranean world gathered and agreed that the icons (which were so beloved by the people of God) were not only permitted but were required by the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Because of Christ’s incarnation, Christians should make images of His human person which, in its fullness, reveals God the Father to us. It was taught that icons of Christ and of Christ in His saints were an essential weapon against idolatry.
  9. One of the great defenders of these decisions by the Seventh Ecumenical Council was Saint John of Damascus who suffered and saw great wonders in his battle against a second great wave of iconoclasts that came a while after the Seventh Ecumenical Council.
  10. Finally, these holy images have helped people in their prayers (as powerful means of God’s grace) to come very close into the life of the Kingdom of God. So very many close and intimate experiences of God and of His saints (as well as so many astounding miracles) are associated with so many specific images. Many icons have their own special days of remembrance and veneration. To this day, some images also stream myrrh as a powerful testimony to God’s gracious and compassionate presence with us in our suffering. (Myrrh is one of the key ingredients used in the olive oil that anointed the dead body of Jesus Christ as His body was lovingly prepared for burial once all the hopes of His followers had been destroyed by his death.)
  11. To recap, here are the key ideas in this history of how God’s people have used images in worship:
      • Images depict our worship as taking place within all of God’s creation (as we are made to lead, protect, and support all things in the constant and never-ending praise of our wonderful and loving Creator).
      • Humans are made in God’s image.
      • Images of Jesus should be made because He is the fully human incarnation of God the Son (or Logos) who took the specific human flesh of the virgin Mary (who is then literally the Mother of God).
      • Icons of Jesus Christ (as well as icons of Christ within His saints) are actually a necessary protection against false worship and idolatry (that is from developing abstract and disembodied “ideas” of Jesus Christ within our own minds, hearts, and imaginations).
      • Icons help to keep us focused on the historical and embodied Jesus Christ who:
        • actually was born, lived, and died among us,
        • rose from the dead to reign with His glorified body from the throne of God in heaven,
        • and ministers to us through the material stuff of creation within all of the sacraments of His Church.

Second, “keeping entire stories and teachings effortlessly before the mind:” This is true. Icons can convey complexity and whole story lines (multiple periods of time) as simply and simultaneously present with us in a transcendent current moment (a prayer that brings us close to God’s time which links together past, present, and future). However, it is also true that learning to read icons is as involved and intricate as learning to read any written text. In fact, all Orthodox Christian icons are properly said to be “written” and not “drawn” or “painted.” There are many resources for learning to read icons in general as well as in particular. It is always worthwhile to invest in some education regarding any particular icon that you are using or considering for use. A few key ideas to keep in mind are:

  1. Icons are intentionally two-dimensional and somewhat abstract (with a variety of perspectives and instances in time incorporated into one image). Much has been made regarding reverse perspective (also called inverse perspective, inverted perspective, divergent perspective, or Byzantine perspective) within Christian iconography. This is supposed to make the viewer part of the image or to make it seem as if the person in the image is actually viewing the person outside of the image. However, this technique probably has more to do with ancient drawing techniques and understandings of reality than it does with any intentional attempt by Christian iconographers to include the viewer in the image or to make the image into a two-way window. That being said, there are certainly more recent Christian iconographers who purposefully make use of this ancient reverse perspective to help the icons achieve an “other worldly” sense and to invite those making prayerful use of the icon to stand in another realm with Christ and His saints. This can be a blessing and means of grace.
  2. Another important aspect of icons is actually their frailty as human creations. Although they require practice to make and can be very beautiful in the eyes of anyone, they are not made primarily through technical skill or artistic genius. Icons are written primarily through prayer, and they often involve significant human errors or misunderstands while still carrying sanctity and truth as a line of devout connection to Christ or to those who displayed Christ with their whole life and person. In fact, the misunderstandings or errors in icons sometimes communicate meaning and truth of their own, or sometimes just reinforced the icon’s intent of helping to make otherworldly realities present to us.
  3. In addition to reverse perspective and to errors, icons often contain events from different points in time within one compact image. It is as if a modern cartoonist combined multiple frames into one frame. Almost all icons that cover a story will have this feature. In most nativity icons, for example, the infant Jesus is typically reclining beside his mother in a stable cave while also being washed by midwives near the bottom of the image. Sometimes, the same angels are giving instructions all-at-once to Joseph, the shepherds, and the magi.

nativity icon at st catherines monastery

Third, “arrange them tastefully:” It is certainly critical to consult everyone living in the home and to be tasteful. There is no “wrong place” to have an icon with you in your life as you seek to pray without ceasing. However, if you grow more integrated into church worship with icons, there are some ways to consider arranging icons, over time, that might be given to you by the practices of our wise ancestors in the faith (rather than simply being a matter of taste).

  1. An icon corner is normally near an eastern corner of a house so that you can face toward Jerusalem and toward the rising sun during your prayers (as all Christian churches have always done).
  2. Icons are often located in a corner of a room to promote praying in your heart (not before men), to eliminate worldly distractions, and to allow prayer to be more concentrated or focused.
  3. Often, in addition to the icon corner, a family will hang a small “portal icon” (usually of the Virgin and Christ Child) by the door, which is venerated by family and guests whenever going in or out of the house. If the portal icon or the icon corner is located so that it is visible when one first enters the house from the main entrance, an Orthodox Christian will traditionally venerate the icons before greeting the members of the house.
  4. In addition to a main icon corner as a primarily focal point for family prayers (when said all together), there will typically be other places (within private bedrooms or places of study) with smaller icon corners for each individual member of the home.
  5. Finally, icons are often paired or combined together in units that have a family connection. This is because the kingdom of God is truly centered on an actual human family. Every church altar space is lightly screened off from the congregation by three main icons arranged in the same way every time: Jesus Christ, his Mother, and his cousin John. In the Hebrew Bible, under several Davidic kings, the gebirah (“Great Lady”), normally the Mother of the King, held substantial power as an advocate with the king. We see this function throughout the Old Testament and also clearly at work in the wedding at Cana. It is good to have our vision of the heavenly throne room informed by these biblical images. Over time, it is healthy to have some simple reflections of such royal, familial, and traditional “church arrangements” within our homes. The Orthodox call the home the “little church.”

Fourth, “present in each of our living and work spaces and always present in our visual field:” This is a wonderful point. It is helpful (and a widespread practice) to have simple icons continually in view that are appropriate to each space where you live and work (including while at a computer or driving in a car). This is a support and reminder in our desire and our struggle to pray without ceasing—to have all that we do and think be an extension of our ceaseless prayers within the presence of God. In fact, God is always with us, and we are continually able to be present around His throne alongside the saints and angels who worship there without ceasing in the sunlight of His glorious presence.

Fifth, “to dispel destructive imagery and thoughts:” Not only do icons literal allow us to rest our gaze on the King and all the citizens of God’s heavenly kingdom, but the church has consistently experienced the fact that God uses these beloved images as powerful means of grace (in a sacramental kind of way or as “little mysteries of grace” as the Orthodox would say). This grace is tangible and powerful against evil. It is not our own work, but a gift of God as we stumble and struggle toward Him by means of every means of grace that God provides.

Sixth, “to see ourselves as before God in all levels of our being:” This phrase suggests that icons are a point of contact between different realms of reality that compose us and within which we exist. By “levels of our being,” I expect that Willard is referring to those that he writes about: the mind, will, body, social dimension, and soul. In The Abolition of Man, the entire point that C.S. Lewis makes is that modernity has made us into “men without chests.” At the core of our being is our heart (from the Hebrew or Semitic world) or our nous (a Greek word that is typically translated “mind” or “intellect” but that really indicates “our capacity to perceive reality directly without dependence on the physical senses” or we might say our “intuition”). This central area (or chest as C.S. Lewis calls it) rests between the rational thoughts of our brain and the desires, passions, or emotions of our stomach and other lower organs. Our ability to quietly perceive reality with a direct intuition (independent of both calculated thinking and of passionate emotions) should be our most basic capacity as humans and the capacity that we rely upon to give direction to our rational thoughts as well as to our emotions and bodily desires. However, instead, we typically live entirely within our brains or our bellies, and we have left our chests ignored, forgotten, and shut down. Icons can help us to recognize with (and in) our hearts that we are standing before God, at His throne, at all times. Icons can give us a place to rest quietly and patiently, listening for God in our chests. This is not achieved with our eyes or with our sharp mental analysis, but simply with a patient attention to God’s presence. All of God’s creation is made by Him to serve as a means of grace that can help to communicate His presence to us as humans. Icons of Christ and His saints are powerful means of extending this God-revealing quality of creation and of the incarnation into our homes and hearts.

Now to list a couple things that Dallas Willard did not say:

  1. Icons are indented to be aides in the prayer and worship of Jesus Christ (incarnate, resurrected, and enthroned in heaven). This can be done as private, family, or church prayers. If we don’t use icons this way (at least at some simple level privately), we run the risk of abstracting them and of failing to benefit from them as a means of God’s grace.
  2. Also, icons are intended for veneration. They are a tangible focal point and a means of expressing our commitment and love to Jesus Christ. As it feels appropriate and comfortable, it is a blessing to express this love in simple acts of kissing, kneeling, and prostration. This becomes much more understandable and meaningful at home when it is learned slowly (and practiced regularly) within the context of church worship services. However, it is a blessing to learn simple acts of veneration and love within private prayer and devotion even when this is not part of the practice within your church worship.

All this being said, it is best to keep everything simple and small at the outset. Once you begin to make use of icons in prayer, the practice tends to grow naturally.

Regarding what icons to consider starting with, I can give more thoughts if that is wanted. However, the key is really that you find icons that are meaningful and beautiful to you. Do some research and look at a good variety of options on your own. Ideally, the person making the icon should have a deep and prayerful respect for the long history of writing icons under the authority of the church. Here are two great places to purchase icons:

[Note on Christ the Bridegroom Icon at the top of this post: During the first service on Palm Sunday evening, the priest carries an icon of Christ the Bridegroom to the front of the church, where it remains until Holy Thursday. The three days of Holy Week it is there are dedicated to Jesus Christ as the central figure in the parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25: 1-13). This parable is perfect for the week leading up to Easter, as its clear message is to be prepared for the coming of Christ. From the evening service: “Behold, the Bridegroom comes in the middle of the night, and blessed is the servant He shall find vigilant.” (Troparion of the Bridegroom Service) Given the eschatological undertones of the services, it might be expected for the Bridegroom icon to show Christ in Glory, or at His Second Coming. Yet the Icon shows Christ humiliated by Pontius Pilate’s soldiers (Matthew 27:27-31). In a cruel irony, the soldiers mockingly worshiped Jesus and through insults proclaimed Him rightly to be the King of the Jews. Crowned with thorns, cloaked in scarlet, bound and holding a reed, this is how Christ appears in the Bridegroom Icon. The crown is a symbol of Christian marriage in the Orthodox Church, and the ropes binding Christ’s hand are a near-universal symbol of marriage. The reed used as a mock-scepter is a symbol of humility, of a person that does all possible to bend in service to others.]

a mysterious sanctuary where we are inseparably joined to God

And so there is, over and beyond our faculties, at the point where they originate, a mysterious sanctuary where we are inseparably joined to God and maintained by him upon the abyss of void, posed as a living mirror of his life and being. In this mirror, beyond habitual consciousness, our interior gaze meets that of our Creator, outside the confines of space and time.

From The Song That I Am: On the Mystery of Music by Elisabeth-Paule Labat (translated by Erik Varden).

This passage was a generous gift this morning from a mother in the faith. I love this description of a “mysterious sanctuary” existing at “the point where our faculties originate” in which “we are inseparably joined to God and maintained by Him” and also where “our interior gaze meets that of our Creator.” In the last line, however, I would suggest that “outside the confines of space and time” should be amended to say “deeply within the confines of space and time.” Three realities indicate that our union with God is bodily (and therefore profoundly within the confines space and time):

  1. our being made in God’s image,
  2. the incarnation of God the Son (the Logos) as Jesus Christ,
  3. and the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ to ascend into heaven and to be seated on the throne of God.

God placed us in time and space as a means of communion with Him (who transcends time and space). Within the Christian tradition, I’ve read of three ways in which our communion with God is strictly within time and space:

  1. God is only in the present moment. The present is the only time in which we touch God’s eternity and commune with Him. We can be lead astray from God into the past (nostalgia or pride) or the future (worry or hubris). There are right relationships with the past (gratitude) and the future (hope) but only when we are grounded in our present communion with God.
  2. God only meets with us in our particular place (via our bodies and the material world that we inhabit). All of creation is designed to be sacramental and to bring our bodies into communion with God. Material things of all kinds (from the waters of baptism to the bones of saints) can carry great sanctity and be the gracious means of God’s communion with us.
  3. God stands at the door of our heart and knocks. All the saints who speak of communion with God in prayer speak of it as an inward but still clearly an embodied experience (or vision) of transcendent and unifying love, heat, or light. “To stand guard over the heart, to stand with the mind in the heart, to descend from the head to the heart—all these are one and the same thing.” Our intuitive perception of eternal or ultimate truth and love are from the heart (a perceptive capacity that is called the nous). Our intellect (in our head) can perceive with bodily senses and can analyze these perceptions using rational thoughts. Our passions or desires were long associated with the stomach or liver. In between these upper and lower faculties is the heart. C.S. Lewis describes modern people as having become “men without chests” (in The Abolition of Man) because we have lost this middle capacity that unifies our thoughts and feelings with an intuitive inner vision of God’s love. This nous in our heart sees immaterial things, but it still has a strong association with a particular part of our body. Some desert fathers were very specific: “not in the head but in the chest, close to the heart and in the heart …close to the left nipple of the chest and a little above it.” (This quotation and the one near the start of this bullet point are from The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, edited by E. Kadloubovsky and E. M. Palmer, which I posted about here.)

Therefore, to enter this “mysterious sanctuary” wherein “our interior gaze meets that of our Creator,” we must not let our minds or our feelings run freely. We must “descend into our heart” or “stand guard over our heart” and listen quietly there for God. This is not an emptying of our intellect; it is not a denial or leaving of our body; it is not an insensibility to the surrounding world or to the input of our five senses. Instead, this communion with God in the quietness of our hearts unifies and fills all of these other things. Out nous allows all of our other faculties (sensations, thoughts, and feelings) to be made potent and meaningful while remaining only supportive agents of our primary purpose: this steady gazing and quiet listening of our heart’s interior ears and eyes. There we may learn to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).

True, at this table of the Lord, we do feast outside of time with those from many other places and many others times. However, all of us gathered there are doing so within each of our hearts in the reality of our particular places and our present moments. In doing so, we mysteriously bring together many particular times and places—transcending, unifying, and sanctifying these places and times without discarding or annihilating them. Each present time and unique material place gives access to the throne of God, where all times and places have their origins and find their true identities.

we search for You in prayer

From a selection of prayers excerpted by Bishop Theophan the Recluse from the works of Holy Father Ephraim the Syrian:

We search for You in prayer, O Lord, for all is comprehended in You. May we be enriched by You, for You are wealth that does not diminish with the changes of time.

May Your loving-kindness come to our aid! May Your grace defend us! From Your treasury, pour out upon us restoration to heal our sores.

We must seek You above all else, and not seek anything else but You, for he who seeks You finds all in You.

In You is wealth for the needy, heartfelt joy for the sorrowing, restoration for all the wounded, consolation for all who mourn.

Accept our prayer, O our Lord, and grant us Yourself. May we live in You. May we possess You instead of all else, for then all is ours.

Grant, O Lord, that we may be Yours. And according to Your loving-kindness may You be ours: for the righteous Father gave You to us for the healing of our sores.

You are ours according to the will of Our Father; and You are ours according to Your own desire. You are with us, O Emmanuel! You are with us, as our Lord.

Accept these prayers from us, O our God, Who have descended to us. Accept the tears of sinners and show mercy to the guilty.

According to Your desire You have been united with us; be the intercessor of our prayer. Raise it up to Your Father and establish peace in our souls.

if she ever took to praying it would be for that time and all those people

From Lila by Marilynne Robinson:

She meant to ask him sometime how praying is different from worrying. His face was about as strained and Weary as it could be. White as it could be.

Now here she was again, worrying over people who were long past help. You can’t even pray for someone to have his pride back when every possible thing has happened to take it away from him. She thought, everything went bad everywhere and pride like his must have just drifted off the earth, more or less, as quiet as mist in the morning, and people were sad and hard who never were before. Looking into each other’s faces, their hearts sinking.

If she ever took to praying it would be for that time and all those people who must have wondered what had become of them, what they had done to find themselves without so much as a good night’s rest to comfort them. She would call down calm on every one of them, on the worst and the bitterest ones first of all. Doane and Arthur walking away; Mellie, too, never looking back, leaving her an orphan on the steps of a church. Without the bitterness none of that would have happened. If Boughton dropped a lamp and set his house on fire, what would the Reverend say about that? He was looking at her then with as much fear in his eyes as she had ever seen anywhere, even counting those poor raggedy heathens who never thought the Almighty would have the leastibit of interest in them.

not in the head but in the chest

The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, edited by E. Kadloubovsky and E. M. Palmer (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), pp. 190 to 194:

To stand guard over the heart, to stand with the mind in the heart, to descend from the head to the heart—all these are one and the same thing. The core of the work lies in concentrating the attention and the standing before the invisible Lord, not in the head but in the chest, close to the heart and in the heart. When the divine warmth comes, all this will be clear.

…When we read in the writings of the Fathers about the place of the heart which the mind finds by way of prayer, we must understand by this the spiritual faculty that exists in the heart. Placed by the creator in the upper part of the heart, this spiritual faculty distinguishes the human heart from the heart of animals…. The intellectual faculty in man’s soul, though spiritual, dwells in the brain, that is to say in the head: in the same way, the spiritual faculty which we term the spirit of man, though spiritual, dwells in the upper part of the heart, close to the left nipple of the chest and a little above it.

From The Heart of Centering Prayer by Cynthia Bourgeault:

It is certainly true that the heart’s native language is affectivity—perception through deep feelingness. But it may come as a shock to contemporary seekers to learn that the things we nowadays identify with the feeling life—passion, drama, intensity, compelling emotion—are qualities that in the ancient anatomical treatises were associated not with the heart but with the liver! They are signs of agitation and turbidity (an excess of bile!) rather than authentic feelingness. In fact, they are traditionally seen as the roadblocks to the authentic feeling life, the saboteurs that steal its energy and distort its true nature.

And so before we can even begin to unlock the wisdom of these ancient texts, we need to gently set aside our contemporary fascination with emotivity as the royal road to spiritual authenticity and return to the classic understanding from which these teachings emerge, which features the heart in a far more spacious and luminous role.

According to the great wisdom traditions of the West (Christian, Jewish, Islamic), the heart is first and foremost an organ of spiritual perception. Its primary function is to look beyond the obvious, the boundaried surface of things, and see into a deeper reality, emerging from some unknown profundity, which plays lightly upon the surface of this life without being caught there: a world where meaning, insight, and clarity come together in a whole different way. Saint Paul talked about this other kind of perceptivity with the term “faith” (“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”), but the word “faith” is itself often misunderstood by the linear mind. What it really designates is not a leaping into the dark (as so often misconstrued) but a subtle seeing in the dark, a kind of spiritual night vision that allows one to see with inner certainty that the elusive golden thread glimpsed from within actually does lead somewhere.

…Unanimously, the Christian wisdom tradition proclaims that the source of this lower-level noise is “the passions.” As the Philokalia repeatedly emphasizes, the problem with the passions is that they divide the heart.15 A heart that is divided, pulled this way and that by competing inner agendas, is like a wind-tossed sea: unable to reflect on its surface the clear image of the moon.

Here again is a teaching that tends to set contemporary people’s teeth on edge. I know this from personal experience, because the issue comes up at nearly every workshop I give. To our modern Western way of hearing, “passion” is a good thing: something akin to élan vital, the source of our aliveness and motivation. It is to be encouraged, not discouraged. At a recent workshop I led, a bishop approached me with some concern and explained that in his diocese, following the recommendations of a church consultant, he had managed to boost morale and productivity by significant percentages simply by encouraging his clergy “to follow their passions.”

Well-nigh universally today, the notion of “passionlessness” (a quality eagerly sought after in the ancient teachings of the desert fathers and mothers) equates to “emotionally brain dead.” If you take away passion, what is left?

So once again we have to begin with some decoding.

If you consult any English dictionary, you will discover that the word “passion” comes from the Latin verb patior, which means “to suffer” (passio is the first-person singular). But this still doesn’t get us all the way, because the literal, now largely archaic, meaning of the verb “to suffer” (to “undergo or experience”) is literally to be acted upon. The chief operative here is the involuntary and mechanical aspect of the transaction. And according to the traditional wisdom teachings, it is precisely that involuntary and mechanical aspect of being “grabbed” that leads to suffering in the sense of how we use the term today. Thus, in the ancient insights on which this spiritual teaching rests, passion did not mean élan vital, energy, or aliveness. It designated being stuck, grabbed, and blindly reactive.

This original meaning is clearly uppermost in the powerful teaching of the fourth-century desert father Evagrius Ponticus. Sometimes credited with being the first spiritual psychologist in the Christian West, Evagrius developed a marvelously subtle teaching on the progressive nature of emotional entanglement, a teaching that would eventually bear fruit in the fully articulated doctrine of the seven deadly sins. His core realization was that when the first stirrings of what will eventually become full-fledged passionate outbursts appear on the screen of consciousness, they begin as “thoughts”—logismoi, in his words—streams of associative logic following well-conditioned inner tracks. At first they are merely that—“thought-loops,” mere flotsam on the endlessly moving river of the mind. But at some point a thought-loop will entrain with one’s sense of identity—an emotional value or point of view is suddenly at stake—and then one is hooked. A passion is born, and the emotions spew forth. Thomas Keating has marvelously repackaged this ancient teaching in his diagram of the life cycle of an emotion,16 a core part of his Centering Prayer teaching. This diagram makes clear that once the emotion is engaged, once that sense of “I” locks in, what follows is a full-scale emotional uproar—which then, as Father Keating points out, simply drives the syndrome deeper and deeper into the unconscious, where it becomes even more involuntary and mechanically triggered.

What breaks the syndrome? For Evagrius, liberation lies in an increasingly developed inner capacity to notice when a thought is beginning to take on emotional coloration and to nip it in the bud before it becomes a passion by dis-identifying or disengaging from it. This is the essence of the teaching that has held sway in our tradition for more than a thousand years.

Now, of course, there are various ways of going about this disengaging. Contemporary psychology has added the important qualifier that disengaging is not the same thing as repressing (which is simply sweeping the issue under the psychological rug) and has developed important methodologies for allowing people to become consciously present to and “own” the stew fermenting within them. But it must also be stated that “owning” does not automatically entail either “acting out” or verbally “expressing” that emotional uproar. Rather, the genius of the earlier tradition has been to insist that if one can merely back the identification out—that sense of “me,” stuck to a fixed frame of reference or value—then the energy being co-opted and squandered in useless emotional turmoil can be recaptured at a higher level to strengthen the intensity and clarity of heart perceptivity. Rather than fueling the “reactive ego-self,” the energy can be “rejoined to its cosmic milieu, the infinity of love.” And that, essentially, constitutes the goal of purification—at least as it has been understood in service of conscious transformation.

See also my previous post: Tips I’ve Heard About How to Pray and Worship in an Orthodox Church.

Tips I’ve Heard About How to Pray and Worship in an Orthodox Church

In no particular order and from various sources, here are some tips that I’ve heard regarding how to pray and worship in an Orthodox church (and which also double as tips for all of life):

1. Keep your mind quietly within the present moment and only in the present moment. God only meets with us in the present, but we spend most of our time in either the past (nostalgia, regret, bitterness, etc.) or the future (worry, fear, ambition, etc.).

2. Be open, alert, simple, and honest within your heart and mind to all that is within you and around you. Notice your inner emotions and your surroundings, but do not dwell on them. God, who is truth and the Author of reality, will commune with us as we see clearly all that really is. (Our perceptive or intuitive ability—nous—is typically overpowered by our abilities to judge, categorize, plan, and experience emotions. We therefore must quiet our hearts and our minds—not making plans, forming judgements, imagining beautiful things, or dwelling upon emotions—so that we can see and hear clearly everything that truly is. We are not emptying ourselves but quieting ourselves to perceive clearly and alertly.)

3. Stand guard over the heart. Stand with the mind in the heart. Descend from the head to the heart. All these are one and the same thing. The core of the work lies in concentrating the attention not in the head but in the chest, close to the heart and in the heart.

4. Everything that you are is important because it is known and loved by your Creator. Everything around you also is vitally important because it is a good gift from your Maker:

  • the incense rising through the air
  • the splash of holy water against your face
  • the candle flames
  • the smell of myrrh in the anointing oil
  • the icons before, beside and above you
  • the words of scripture, song and prayer
  • the cadences of the singing and chanting
  • the play of light
  • the people all around you
  • the child at your side and the baby in your arms
  • the parent whose suffering you recall as you pray for all those who are sick.

5. Follow the most experienced worshippers around you (but without worrying about actions and details that are confusing or uncomfortable to you in any way). Save questions for later (after the service) when it is good to ask and learn as much as possible, year after year, about each stage of the service, each personal activity, and the meanings associated with everything.

6. Experience your whole body and with your whole body. Your bodily existence is a gift and a key aspect of being in God’s image. Being aware of your body and of your intentional use of it within worship is a blessing (as well as a powerful aide to remaining present and attentive).

7. Stand straight but relaxed (with hands inactive and arms hanging straight at your sides). If standing becomes so uncomfortable as to distract you, sit down and rest with an upright posture whenever it is most suitable. Be prepared to stand for each of the most solemn moments and activities in each service (if at all possible without injury to yourself).

8. When the priest is visible or audible, pay particular attention to all that is done by him (and to those supporting him) as Christ’s representative within the service.

9. Do nothing to draw attention to yourself or to distract others (other than the most simple acts of helpfulness or kindness).

10. Do nothing to direct or correct others (adults or children) unless you have a particular responsibility, but even then keep all direction to the simplest possible minimum.

11. When caring for young children, the elderly, or the ill, remain as participatory as possible but consider every need of theirs as a part of the body of Christ which you have the privilege to serve.

12. Do not pursue great thoughts or wonderful feelings. Sentimentality is the greatest impediment to true depth of feeling and profundity is the greatest impediment to true clarity of thought.

13. Admit and accept your frailties (wandering thoughts, physical fatigue, inattentiveness, carelessness toward others, etc.), but do not indulge them.

14. Stand quietly before your God and allow Him to enter into your heart. There, He desires to heal you and to commune with you.

15. Attend church services whenever you can do so without neglecting your responsibilities to others, and prepare faithfully at home. Stand in church where you can see and hear. Attend to the beauty of your prayer corner at home. The daily and weekly patterns of prayer and spiritual disciplines as well as the yearly church calendar will continually invite you into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In my very small experience of them, these practices (when returned to after each falling away) will gradually increase:

  • your ability to use and enjoy your body and to stand still for long periods of time
  • your ability to pay attention and to notice details in everything around you
  • your awareness and honesty with your self regarding your own frailties, failures, and self-deceptions (as chief of sinners) as well as your sense of individual calling and gifting by God
  • your sense of joy and gratitude for the way in which you are known and loved
  • your deep sorrow over your own life of indifference and animosity
  • your deep sorrow over your suffering and the suffering of all those who you know
  • your desire for communion with God.

P.S. Two readers later added these two excellent points:

  1. Be yourself. [A true and wise paradox. Personhood and a free will are found only in communion with God, and God only wants all that we uniquely are as a person. Much more to unpack here.]
  2. Don’t get too stuck in the service books or the pews.

Image credit: from the Atlantic’s “Photos of the Week.” They published it with the caption: “Russian Orthodox believers attend the Orthodox Easter service in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, Russia, on April 8, 2018.”

the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God

What is a merciful heart?
It is a heart on fire
for the whole of creation,
for humanity,
for the birds,
for the animals,
for demons,
and for all that exists.
By the recollection of them
the eyes of a merciful person
pour forth tears in abundance.
By the strong and vehement mercy
that grips such a person’s heart,
and by such great compassion,
the heart is humbled
and one cannot bear to hear or to see
any injury or slight sorrow
in any in creation.
For this reason, such a person
offers up tearful prayer continually
even for irrational beasts,
for the enemies of the truth,
and for those who harm him,
that they be protected and receive mercy…
because of the great compassion
that burns without measure
in a heart that is
in the likeness of God.

+ St. Isaac the Syrian

the full participation of the living with the dead

How the First Christians Changed Dying by William E. Kangas:

The fathers of the church did not view theology as being dangerous if it denied God’s wrath, but rather if it denied God’s suffering.

…As many Christians were killed for their faith, the book of Revelation opens up heaven and shows the reader that death is not an end. At the center of the worship of heaven is a Lamb who was slain. The martyrs are there with Christ, as are the apostles. The format seems to follow some of the early conventions of worship at the time. In many ways the book of Revelation teaches the early Christians that their worship together is a way to participate with all those who have gone before in feasting with the crucified Lord that reigns in heaven.

…Although we cannot know for certain how the author of Revelation viewed their work in relation to the liturgy, it seems clear that there is a reflection of many liturgical themes throughout the book. The author clearly believed there was a connection between how the Christians in his community worshipped and how the dead in Christ worshiped. Christian worship, in a very real sense, was seen as a foretaste of death. Because of Jesus, death was no longer something bitter, but it had become something sweet. The sacrament was a window into eternal life and offered a picture of death to the living.

…For those born in the first century CE the understanding of death was significantly different from how many in the west today experience it. If one was a Roman or a Greek, the traditional religion would have taught them that the dead were inaccessible. The souls of those who had passed away would have been drawn into hades, where no one could enter.

…No matter who one was or where they were born one thing would be certain: the dead and dying were dangerous. Death could have meant many things for a person in the first-century. One might have believed in a bodily resurrection; one might have believed in a spiritual existence; one might not have believed there was existence after death at all. No matter what one believed, no person would have been comfortable with the dead. This is one of the reasons Jesus was so revolutionary.

…The church began to treat the dead as if they were welcome in their lives, rather than curses to be avoided. As Christianity became the dominant form of faith in the Roman world the practice of burial shifted. People began to be buried within the city walls. When the dead cease to be a threat, a burden to, and an adversary to people, there is no longer a need to keep them far away. When the dead become a help, the treatment of their remains reflects this shift. Corpses moved from a place of exclusion at the outskirts of society to a place where they were embraced at the center of the community’s life. Since the body is seen as something that will be raised, it becomes something that is treasured and treated as holy.

…Sometimes scholars are shocked to see how flagrantly Christians violated the social norms of their day relating to death. They wonder why Christians began to embrace the dead, bringing them into social spaces and bringing the remains into their worship together. They would gather the bodies of those who had died (and even the scraps of their clothing) and hold them close to them, treating them as “gold and precious stones.” They would even make a point to travel to the remains of the dead on pilgrimage. From a sociological perspective, this kind of behavior seems baffling, but if one tries to imagine what the message of Jesus would have been like to people in the first centuries of the church it is easier to understand why the world began to change.

The full participation of the living with the dead was seen as an integral part of the gospel since all were made one in Jesus. To be able to come with joy to the dead was revolutionary.

…In a world where the corpse can no longer contaminate, the dead are no longer to be feared. This is an emerging epoch and a new reality. Although it is still sad to be parted from loved ones, the sadness of the grave does not deprive a mourner of their friend or relative completely.

…At first this idea seemed to resonate among the disenfranchised in the Roman world. Those who had been controlled through the fear of death by those in power found this new reality to have an unheard of potential to bring freedom. Death was not an end but a beginning. Execution was not a shame any longer but it could be a glory, if a person gave their life as a result of imitating Christ. There was a power in poverty that could break the authority of the rulers.

…The freedom of the Christian from death was infectious. When people heard the news it was difficult to believe, but as time went on the lives of Christians showed a real conviction that God had indeed achieved victory over death. Christians were living differently, and their lives became testimonies that they did not fear death any longer.

…The Christians did not only flaunt death at the hands of the Empire, they also showed no regard for it in their service to the dying. Christians were known for their compassion for the sick; when the plague would come into a city, they cared for the afflicted. While everyone else fled the city in fear, the followers of Jesus would stay behind with the suffering. …People were amazed at the compassion of these early Christians and saw evidence in their seeming supernatural resistance to disease of God at work in their lives.

…By the middle of the third century the church had become centers of care throughout the empire for all people in need. In Rome alone the church was supporting fifteen hundred people in need. They took in the widows, the homeless, and the sick. They cared for the destitute and the shipwrecked. These early Christians would seek out those in the most need and hold them as their dearest treasures. These Christians saw Christ in those who were broken and sought to bring the new economy of Christ to them through their own love and care.

…Christians saw Jesus as a man who walked through death and brought forth life. …As the first Christians looked to Jesus, they began to see their life together as part of a new reality, one that restored what they believed had been lost long ago. …Irenaeus of Lyons taught that the new paradise on earth was the church. He stated that the church was planted by God to restore again what was lost before.

…Death was no longer a force of chaos, and the dead were no longer gone. …The dead were tangible members of a tangible world that was being transformed…. History had a place in this new reality, and the dead were seen as just as much a part of the world as the living.

using my most tender memories as tools

Poem by Nate Pruitt.

Mist Everywhere

When the afternoon light
touches the broad orange petals
of the tiger lilies, mute tongues
curled, I pray hard
for such joyous sights to continue.

But I pray wrong, selfishly.
I don’t know where the words
are going.

I struggle to recall
even the names of my old friends.

When I remember, I try
to search them out but I don’t
have any illusions about their lives.

It rained last night & all day today
so the lake I can’t quite see
over the tree line is pure frothy white.

There is mist everywhere
& I am alone in it.

The white light
burns my eyes, sears a holy purpose
in my human frame.
I’m setting out
on a new journey, ever faithful.

Early on, I walked away
from everything, from things I loved.

But now, when I come to the ocean,
as I know I will, foaming
like some impossible hell,
I won’t despair or surrender.

I’ll find a tree, growing from a crag
on the shore & I’ll cut it down
with the force of my loneliness.

There is the shape of a boat
hidden beneath the bark,
I know it.

So I’ll release it,
using my most tender memories
as tools. I’ll continue.

Nothing
will block my way.