Category Archives: Reflections

Aside on monastic life

Reading blogs in the Thessaloniki airport while waiting for my flight out of Greece, I came across a lovely little post on a Catholic site that, I think, speaks also to the attitude of the Athonite monks I met. I recommend it to you:

http://beginningtopray.blogspot.com/2011/07/wisdom-of-god.html

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Day 39, things and prayer

After dinner last night, I sat a moment in the refectory with Fr Zacharias. I commented on the Scripture verse on the handle of his cane, “Thy right hand upholdeth me,” that Orthodox Christians often think to make such connections between Scripture and common things.

Fr Zacharias said that we can make that kind of connection all the time. Fr Sophrony did so with many things. As he closed the door to the refectory behind us, he moved it back and forth and said, we can say, “Open to me the doors of repentance…”; when we wash our hands, we can say, “I will wash my hands in innocence…”. Everything can be accompanied by a prayer.

The prayers that accompany the gestures of the Liturgy are not inherent to the rite, but they were added later, so that no gesture is unaccompanied by a prayer.

He told me that when he used to serve as acolyte to Fr Sophrony, when they served Liturgy in the old chapel, the altar table was very small, and after the Gospel reading there wasn’t room on the Holy Table to put the Gospel book on it and unfold the antimens, so Fr Sophrony always handed him the Gospel to put on a table in the corner. And Fr Zacharias found that every time Fr Sophrony handed him the Gospel and he would lay it aside, he would say the verse from the long Psalm, “Your word burns exceedingly, and your servant loved it” [Ps 118.140 LXX]. That’s the way the prayers of the Liturgy develop.

Day 5, a little about prayer

Chapel of the Little Children

I am one of those people who is tempted to read about something rather than actually do it, and it is the same with prayer. Sometimes I think I haven’t spent as much time praying as I have spent reading about prayer. Here at Lebh Shomea I’ve been given an opportunity to do something to change that. Apart from my usual level of mindfulness of God throughout the day (minimal); reading and meditation on Scripture (Bible? What Bible?); the (very) brief prayers I pause to offer; and wandering around the grounds prayer rope in hand (gawking at the wildlife); I’ve settled into this daily routine of formal prayer:

5:30 am, Morning prayer rule (45 min).
7:00 am, Mass with the community (30 min).
10:55—11:55 am (when the lunch bell rings), Jesus Prayer (60 min).
4:55 – 5:55 pm (when the dinner bell rings), Jesus Prayer (60 min).
6:30—6:45 pm, evening prayer rule (15 min)
Bedtime prayers (5 min)

That’s 3 ½ hours of standing-before-the-Icon kind of prayer a day. It ain’t easy, especially the Jesus Prayer part.

I say the Jesus Prayer before lunch and dinner because it’s easier to concentrate when I’m not full from a meal, and also because the bell will tell me when my hour is up and I can better resist the temptation to go look at the clock to see if I’m done yet. (Yeah, it happens to the best of us.)

I remember reading about Elder Sophrony, when he was still a monk at St Panteleimon’s on Mt Athos, how a respected brother came to visit him and Sophrony was offering him hospitality by brewing a pot of tea. The monk asked Sophrony about prayer, and Sophrony said to him, “You stand at the edge of the abyss for as long as you can stand it, then you step back and have a cup of tea,” and he served the monk a cup of tea. I am trying to push myself a little, to stand, if not at the abyss, at least within sight of the abyss, for a little longer than I think I can stand it, because I’m figuring I underestimate what my endurance really is, and I know where the desire for that cup of tea comes from.

Some observations about prayer, a few of them actually based on experience:

It’s better to keep your eyes open when you pray, even if you catch yourself studying the patterns on the wall.

Staying in the present moment, in the here and now, is very hard work. Don’t beat yourself up when you fail. Repeatedly, ’cause you will. And then you’ll fail some more. Just bring your attention back to the prayer.

When you get tired, simply try to focus and keep your mind on the words of the prayer, which St John Climacus says is the safest way to practice the Jesus Prayer anyway.

Don’t expect to pray well. Don’t expect to pray poorly. Don’t expect anything at all.

Just showing up to pray is half the battle. Continuing to show up, moment by moment, is the other half.

Prayer won’t get any easier with practice. One of the Fathers of the desert says, “Prayer is warfare to the last breath.” That shouldn’t discourage us from praying; it should just clear away some false expectations.

The best prayers seems to be the briefest, like the Jesus Prayer, or the prayer of the Canaanite woman (“Lord, help me”), or the prayer of the father of the paralytic boy (“I believe, help my unbelief”), or like the Psalms (“Give me understanding according to your Word”).

Thinking about prayer isn’t praying. Reading about prayer isn’t praying. Wanting to pray isn’t praying. Intending to get up and go pray isn’t praying. Praying is praying.

If your attitude toward prayer is carnal or psychological, feelings matter. If your attitude is spiritual, they don’t.

One of the Fathers says, if prayer goes well, everything goes well.

The Benedictine abbot, Dom Cuthbert Butler (no relation) said, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.”

Day 3, The Noonday Demon

Yesterday morning, a little before lunch, I was looking out the window of my cell, when I remembered this little gem from Abba Evagrius:

The demon of acedia, also called the noonday demon, [see Psalm 91:6] is the most oppressive of all the demons. He attacks the monk towards the fourth hour [10 am] and besieges the soul until the eighth hour [2 pm]. He begins by giving the impression that the sun is hardly moving, or not moving at all, and that the day has at least forty hours. After this, he continually draws the monk to his window; he forces him to go out of his cell to look at the sun and calculate how much time still separates him from the ninth hour (that is, the time for Vespers and dinner), and finally to look about here and there to see if some brother is not coming to see him…

I have new respect both for Abba Evagrius and for this demon. I knew that coming to a hermitage and plunging into a week’s worth of solitude would be tough, but I didn’t expect this particular visitation within the first 24 hours. Here is a partial list of what Demon Acedia (pronounced ah-keh-DEE-uh) has visited upon me:

  • Restlessness, an inability to sit still. I find myself jumping up from my prayers or from my reading or writing and realizing it only after I’m already on my feet. (The fact that every chair in the whole place is hard isn’t helping).
  • Literally getting up and going to look out the window like the hapless monk in Abba’s story.
  • Boredom. Again, I’m astonished it hit after only one day. Fills me with the idea that this is going to be a lo-o-o-ng week.
  • Sleepiness. I took two naps yesterday, one in the morning and one before dinner. The last time I napped twice in one day I was laid up with the flu.
  • Mental fog. Difficulty concentrating on what is at hand and of remembering what I was just reading.
  • Yearning for self-medication: coffee (there isn’t any here, of all the God-awful tricks to play on me); chocolate, candy, salty snacks (of which there are none); surfing the ‘Net, reading blogs (my internet connection is very weak and sporadic at best), so none of these things is possible. Depriving me of coffee, chocolate and internet all at the same time is probably a task for a mental institution, four-point restraints, and the careful supervision of a doctor. Instead, I am learning patience and fortitude, all under the gentle tutelage of Acedia.
  • Wanting to check my e-mail and my blogsite for signs that people are reading what I write and responding with approval. My vanity and self-esteem want their strokes… badly. Is my writing engaging, witty? Am I missed yet?
  • Wishing I had someone to complain to, who would offer me sympathy and comfort. This is just bullsh*t, and I know it, but the “pull of regression” is there for all of us just when the going gets tough.

And those are a few of the things I’m okay with mentioning (this is a G-rated blog, and we’ll pass over in silence the more chthonic fruit of concupiscence and irascibility).

One of the other desert Fathers said, “Sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” I can see how this is true; it would have been helpful for the good Father to have mentioned, if only in passing, that you are not going to like what you learn, even though it’s the best thing for you.

(By the way, I am much better today. Establishing more structure for my time and sticking with it helps a lot. As Brother Akedia has wandered off to afflict one of the other guests here, I expect some other of his infernal brethren will be along directly to teach me humility in his/her/its own way…)

Day 2, reflections

1 hour a day, 3 times a day

Awake at 4:15 this morning (still on Eastern Time). No going back to sleep, and with my choir already starting Matins, I got up for my rule of prayer.

Attended Mass with the other retreatants. The Catholic Mass can be beautiful, even when done with spare simplicity, as it is here. (I can’t abide, however, some Catholic casualness, like sitting through parts of the Anaphora, and I had to stand up.) There was one interesting departure from standard Catholic practice: after the Scripture reading, we were invited to turn to our neighbor and say, briefly, what had struck us most from the readings. They had read from Acts, 11.19-26, about the founding of the church in Antioch (“where the disciples were first called Christians”), and I was struck by the disciples who went to Antioch and dared to preach to the Gentiles, thus violating the the early Church’s expectations and practice of preaching only to the Jews. I noted how God blessed their efforts, even though they disregarded the boundaries, went outside the “safe zone” and preached to people who “aren’t like us.” Perhaps this was a word for the man sitting next to me. He was struck by the description of Barnabas being “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” Perhaps this was a word for me? The recollection of it certainly stayed with me all day.

Arranged to see Fr F. Kelley Nemeck after lunch for spiritual direction. He suggested that, for my time here, I pick one book out of the Scriptures, whichever appeals to me, for spiritual reading. Read it whenever it strikes me to read it, and for however long, then put it down again. But read it without purpose or agenda, not looking to find something in particular in the text, but to read it simply, as Eli told Samuel to respond, “Speak, Lord, your listening servant.” Leave God free to speak through His Word, or not.

He also suggested I pray three times a day, for an hour at a time, simply listening to God. The Jesus Prayer is okay for this. (As Fr Zachariah says, simply to “present myself before the Lord.”) But don’t read Scripture during prayer time.

I had asked him about hearing Confessions, or listening to people who come to me for counsel. He says it isn’t always necessary to answer. If God doesn’t give us a word, that’s okay (note that Fr Kelley implies that it is God who answers, not us). Listening, and listening well, is very important. It’s also important not to fill all the time with talk: let the silence be. (We shouldn’t be too quick to speak because we can’t stand the silence ourselves; this may take some work on our part.) The silence is important because it leave the other person free (by not imposing our words, or worse, our preferences, opinions or agenda) on him/her, and it also leaves God free to speak, both to the other and to me, if He chooses.

In all that Fr Kelley said, the common theme was not to impose my own agenda or assert my will when I go to encounter God or my neighbor, but rather to leave both God and neighbor free when we meet.

T minus 6 days (Has it started already?)

Well, some things have started already. Like what, you ask?

Well, I have to admit I’ve had short-timer’s disease since I finished Agape Vespers on Pascha. That’s pretty much normal for everybody. I’ve started no new projects and am busy trying to get many things, personal and pastoral, wrapped up so that I can leave with a clear conscience. That’s okay.

Then there’s the emotional part of getting ready to leave, which I’ve been able to step back a little and watch unfold. For example, I was angry for a few days last week. Not at anybody in particular; nobody had done anything to get me riled up; life had not been unfair. I simply woke up mad at the world, and I didn’t want to be around anybody (because I know how I am when seized by a mood). I think this is part of the emotional reaction to the sabbatical getting close. A big transition is near, and transitions are always tricky things to manage (which is why we surround them with taboos and mark them with ritual; think about the sacraments and all the other services connected with birth, marriage, and death, for example). Transitions require careful navigation, and it’s really easy to get thrown over if you don’t watch out. I’ll have to be on especially careful guard over the next week, keeping very carefully to my usual routines for normality’s sake, recognizing that I’m not my usual self and holding myself in closer check. (Forgive me now already if I don’t manage it.)

I remember when I was a child and my family was going on a trip my mother would always get furious over everything that wasn’t just right, and even over things that were just right, and she would yell at everybody and storm around the house in a fine lather, and my sisters and I would make ourselves scarce, which usually didn’t help the situation any, because we had things to do, but that’s how it was. I don’t want my leaving to be like that. (Ma, if you’re reading this, you know I love you. And if you’re not reading this, writing about you will make sure that you do read the blog from now on, ’cause there’s no telling what I might say…)

Someone told me that, in the Navy, sailors and their wives would very often have huge fights the night before the sailor went off to sea. Why? It’s easier to say goodbye when your angry. So that’s wisdom for me, and wisdom for you, too.

And then there’s the Major Catastrophes that always have to happen in the last week before something significant takes place. Leave aside for now what the Major Catastrophe(s) is/are. It’s enough to know that something always crops up, just to be sure I don’t have a moment’s peace until after I’m gone. So I have this major eruption of chaos in my life that ruffles all my feathers and paws my well-laid plans. Yes, yes,”man proposes, God disposes” and all that. I should know by now. But I’m not an Eeyore kind of guy, losing this moment’s happiness because I’m dreading what’s coming next.

So I’ve had this major dose of chaos. But, chaos is often indicative of a time of transition, of liminality (if you want the $10 word). So after I had a little pity party for myself, I began to consider the situation: I thought I was in control. I am not in control. My plans may be important to me, but the world really doesn’t give a damn.  If there is chaos, loss of (ego) control, and humbling experiences, God must be in all of it somewhere. After all, I was going to all these monasteries to spend some time with God, so what if He didn’t get the memo that said we were starting next week, and He decided to show up this week instead.

Well, I’ve had arguments with God before and know how those all turn out. So I thought to ask, Where is God in all of this? My default response would be to fall back into humor: Did you check behind the couch? That’s where He was last time… But this is a serious stuff. I’m sure God is in here somewhere, but I don’t see Him. And He’d better be in control, because I’m sure not. But in the midst of this little cloudburst of chaos, I actually found my balance, and leaned upon the habits of prayer I’ve cultivated in good times and in bad, and maintained the disciplines I’ve established for myself, and you know what? I’m gonna get though this, and it’ll all be okay however things shake out, and in all of it, God be praised. (By the way, one of the secrets to good liminal space is firm containment; there is another secret, which I happen to know, but will not divulge to you in this blog, because y’all don’t get all of my hard-earned wisdom for nothin’.)

I’ve often told my congregation that it is a notable achievement to stand in Liturgy on Sunday morning, when you’re sick, out of work, worried, scared, or clawed by the demons of chaos or despair, and still be able to lift up your voice and sing, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy Name.” Well, I try hard not to be a hypocrite and preach about things I’ve no experience with. So chalk one up for me.

‘Nuff said.

I suppose I’m special

I remember seeing this “ortho-graph” when Steve over at the Pithless Thoughts blog initially posted it. I can’t resist reposting it here, because I’m probably right off the scale.

(Hat tip to Steve and kudos for keeping us all humble and smiling at the same time.)

What would make your heart sing?

The basic question which Lilly Foundation asks you when you want to apply for a grant is simple: what would make your heart sing?

Everybody has dreams — even clergy — and like most people, clergy have to put their dreams on a shelf in the closet when they’re young so that they can get on with the business of getting an education, starting a family and landing a job. But the dreams never go away, do they? And there’s never enough time, or money, or freedom to make many of them real.

Lilly determined that one of the best ways they could help a large number of people in a community would be to help their clergy to get a little rest and to be able to pursue one of their dreams, to do something that would make their heart sing. Renewed and refreshed pastors would bring new life back to congregations, and everyone would benefit. That’s the idea behind the grant.

So, what would make my heart sing? Forgive me if it takes me a bit to put it into words and if the words come up a bit short of the reality: we’re dealing with heart and song here…

I suppose the 25-words-or-less answer is that I feel the need for some spiritual direction and haven’t found yet what I’m looking for. So I’m going to go look for it.

What do I mean by “spiritual direction”? I don’t want to find some holy staretz who will take responsibility for my life, to whom I can go running every time a problem comes up. That may be fine for monks, but not for me. If anything, I need to have some responsibility thrown back in my own face. I’m not looking for somebody who will make my life “easier” or “more spiritual” or “answer all my questions”. I’ve been through enough to appreciate that life is hard; that “spiritual” looks more like blood, sweat and tears than like sunshine and well-performed liturgies; and that questions are often better than answers. I’m not in quest of the “warm fuzzies.” Quite frankly, I hope — I expect — to be terrified by being questioned, most especially by God. I suppose I want to “find myself” in a way, but the way I’ve been framing that question lately is, “Lord, who do You say that I am?” I hope to have the courage to keep on asking that question and to have the courage to stand up like a man and hear the answer when it comes. As someone once said, “Truth is not always a polite tap on the shoulder; sometimes it’s a howling reproach.” However Truth comes to me, I hope to have eyes to see and ears to hear and the heart to take it, even if my knees knock.

But more than that, I’ve noticed a trend over the last few years, that a few people have begun to come to me — even from outside the parish and outside the Orthodox Church — looking for much deeper counsel than I’ve been asked to provide in the past, and I’d like simply to be more adequate to their needs than I am now. So, I’m hoping to be able to ask better guides than myself how I can be a better spiritual father to the people who come to me.

(For those in the knee-jerk crowd, no, I’m not out to get my bona fides as a geronda or staretz. Whom God sends my way, He sends my way. I’m not hanging out a shingle saying, “The Elder Is In.” I’ve no delusions about that. On the other hand, I have to admit that it’s been hard finding good counsel in tough times in the circles in which I move. Somebody needs to be able to provide that kind of support, and I do think it’s perfectly reasonable and praiseworthy to want to be a good enough spiritual father to my flock and to those who seek my counsel. If you have problems with that, we’ll agree to disagree.)

So, on my sabbatical, I will be looking for counsel for my own heart and counsel on how to be a better spiritual father to others. In addition, I’ll have almost a month of vacation with my family, and a few weeks’ time just being at home with nothing more than a “honey do” list to keep me occupied.

In my next post, I’ll detail where I am going to find this counsel, and why.

So why a sabbatical?

Well, a couple of years ago, a dear friend of mine, Fr John Reeves, who has known me since before I was a catechumen, suggested to me that I look into taking some time off from my parish by applying to the Lilly Foundation for one of their grants through their National Clergy Renewal Program. (You can read about their program here.) Fr John, who has always been something of a mentor to me, had seen in me clear signs of ministerial burnout and figured I needed a break for some R&R. The Lilly Foundation provided a possible way to do that.

Fr John had applied to Lilly for–and won–a sabbatical grant for himself. He took his sabbatical last summer. He decided to follow the route of St Herman in coming from Valaam Monastery on the Russian-Finnish border, across European Russia and Siberia, to Alaska, and to serve for a while in an Alaskan village church. This is the blog he wrote for his sabbatical.

It sounded like a good idea to me. As those of you who know me well know, the last three years or so have not been easy for me. Without going into details, I’ve had personal issues, health issues, family issues and parochial issues, not one after the other, but one on top of the other. Of course, I am not alone: other people who are close to me, and some  for whom I have pastoral responsibility, have been through the wringer themselves, and I have helped them to bear their crosses. I have been a poster-child for midlife crisis, parental angst, compassion fatigue and clergy burnout all rolled into one. It ain’t been pretty…

So, with the blessing of Archbishop Job (of blessed memory) and with the help and support of my parish council, I wrote up a grant proposal for a 3-month sabbatical from my parish and submitted it late last spring. In November, we received word that Lilly had approved our proposal, and the parish & I were awarded a grant of $38,698. Here is the press release for all of this year’s winners.)

That’s how it all got started. In the next post I’ll say what I’m looking to do on my time away.