Thursday, 15 October 2009

Discovering the Saints

When I started to read Fr John's book "The Living Tradition of the Saints", I realised at once that it was going to take some time.  I had already read Fr John's booklet that explains the fundamental elements of Orthodox Tradition. And I was familiar from the works of Fr John Main OSB and Fr Laurence Freeman OSB with their ideas, derived in part from Saint John Cassian's documentation of the ascetic tradition of the Desert Fathers, and their modern rediscovery of Benedictine Christian Meditation.  Fr John had also explained the concept of Theosis to me in conversation.

Now to my simple mind (ha!) the ideas seemed very similar, and also struck chords with Zen and other mystic eastern ideas. Calm the ego, focus the mind on a simple idea, and then wait for the change to happen.  But walking this path with Our Lord, his Holy Apostles, and the Saints discovers a completely different perspective.  The issue is not the method, the issue is the objective.  It is the fundamental question: "Do you want to be eternally in the closest possible relationship with God?"

I say "do you want" because the concept of Free Will comes across as the single greatest respect that the Creator has for his creation.  God never forces anything on us, and if it seems like He is, then you have misunderstood.  This is Love, love is Respect, respect taken to the ultimate level.

I say "eternally", because once embarked on, this journey leads beyond the grave and "forever and ever" or, as the orthodox prayers have it "to the ages of ages".  And a wonderful idea is developed in this concept of eternity, that the relationship can get closer even after death.

I say "closest possible" because when we start on this journey we have no concept at all of how close the relationship can be.  The best guess we have comes from Our Lord's references to the first person of the Trinity as Father, we may be lucky and understand that a little, but maybe not.  What heights can this relationship reach?

And "relationship" is what it's all about.  All the stories of the Saints tell us this, a Saint is one who demonstrably achieves a close relationship with God.  We can tell this from their demeanour, from their works, and from their effects on others.

Finally, ultimately, the most important word is "God".  God is the end of all prayer, of all worship, of all longing, indeed all living.  There must be acceptance that the relationship is of creature to Creator.  The wonder is in discovering that this surrender is victory - if you doubt this look at the story of The Cross.

Fr John's book describes his journey through the scriptures, and by meeting the Saints in their stories.  He draws out the little nuggets of great wisdom from all this.  It is not an easy comfortable read.

So I started, I found I could read maybe half a page at a time, perhaps two pages a day.  There are 375 pages, and it took about nine months.  I did stop on occasion and read other things.  I also started, for the first time in my life, to really pray.

I found that I now had a method of prayer that works for me.  I'm not decrying others their methods, but for me I need a deep sanctity and a peace that I find now both in public and private prayer.

In private prayer, I sit alone, preferably in the quiet dark. I say the Jesus Prayer a few times, then try to concentrate all my attention on God, it's a sense of will, focus, striving, longing.  I have to remember to breathe.  I can't do it for long, so I say the Jesus Prayer again for a while and concentrate on that.  Then back to the focus on God.  At the moment I think of Him as a kind of Bright Darkness all about me - I expect this will change.  This goes on for as long as it does, sometimes just a few minutes.

I also like to stand and say the Hours, or the Rule of Saint Pachomius.  These are for when there is a lot going on in the head. Just the discipline of singing a Psalm or two, and the the ancient prayers as they have been said for almost two millennia, makes worries float away, and grounds me in the importance of my relationship with God.

In public prayer, whether in the local Anglican Churches, or at Matins, Vespers, or even The Liturgy with Fr John, I pray the set prayers with as much ardour as I can muster.  I get so much more from the formal prayer now that I have a proper prayer-life away from the church and the congregation.

And what has this achieved?  Well maybe nothing.  Maybe I would have become more calm, less aggressive, more loving, less critical, and all the other things if I had just prayed like my Anglican brothers.  I don't know.  This is certainly harder work.

I have not made the step of becoming Orthodox, I'm not able to cut myself off from communion with my beloved friends, and I may never do that.  I may never be able to take a full part in the Orthodox Mysteries, at least not here on earth.  At the moment this is a tension, so I'll let The Lord handle it.

There are some downsides to this programme of prayer too.  God shows me quite often how much evil I still have inside me.  I wake from sleep with terrible dreams still echoing in my mind on occasion.  The Fathers say that this is not unusual, God has a lot of unpacking of sins to do before I can move forward.  I have to see these things and, with my free will, throw them away, to forgive myself, if you will.

And sometimes I have to stop and take a rest, not a rest from the relationship with God, but a rest from getting closer.  He is so wonderful that I need time to contemplate Him from this vast distance.

I find having read what I've written here that I didn't say much about Fr John's book after all.  The orthodox insights into the scriptures, the lives of the early Saints, how the schism between the Greek and Latin church evolved, the Saints of the modern era especially St John of the Cross with Saint Teresa of Ávila, and later still Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Saint Silouan of Athos and Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov.  Maybe we can get to that later.

No comments: