Seeking and Searching
Why Not Try Eastern Mysticism?
Office of Educational Services Melkite Eparchy of Newton
Today the desire for some form of mystical experience is fairly evident when one considers the degree to which a variety of eastern religions, philosophies, exercises and practices are in vogue. We can not help but notice the attraction that the exotic religious practices of the East hold for many searching for spirituality. Polls tell us that Americans are looking for personal ecstatic experiences of God. As teachers, we hear young people tell us that they don’t want to hear that Joan of Arc had a vision, they want to have a vision. They want it to happen for themselves.
We are living in confusing times. It was just about fifty years ago that the cover of Time magazine confronted its readers with existential anguish with the question “Is God Dead?” The culprit was science that triumphed in the belief tht “what cannot be known by scientific methods seems uninteresting and unreal.” Since that time , we have seen an increase in automation, technology and the mechanization of life, all of which have contributed to the dehumanization of society in pursuit of a philosophy of life that advocates the enlistment of a bureaucracy of highly trained engineers, scientists, or technicians to run society.
This has had a devastating effect on the human psyche. We hear complaints that the pursuit of technology has made people feel as mechanical as the technology they created.
Our modern arts are a good index of what has been happening. In theater, painting, sculpturing, music, dancing and singing, we encounter a violent rebellion against static, “clear and distinct” Cartesian forms.
Unfortunately, the scientific age has also contributed to a spiritual crisis which acquires with each passing year truly universal dimensions. The result is a world that is not neutral, but a world that challenges us and tries to reduce us to values, philosophies of life and world views profoundly different from our Christian faith. These ideas have crept into the formation and development of our children and have had more impact on their lives than our Church teachings. Sadly, many young people confused and ambivalent about their beliefs are walking away from their churches.
The crisis of the modern world is a crisis of ideas. Thought determines action and ideas shape our lives. Without using our God given gift of discernment, we are likely to accept as gospel the banter of ideas manufactured for us by the media. These ideas are communicated powerfully yet subtly via every political, cultural and social medium. These are the signs of the times and the fruits of the philosophies that mark this moment in history.
It should not surprise us then, that those seeking to make sense of the chaos would resort to consumer driven marketing techniques offering a variety of pseudo spiritual techniques and programs to fulfill the interest in spirituality as a way to transcend the frenetic pace of life and its accompanying anxiety. These are basically eclectic teachings drawn from the traditions of exotic religions and practices.
Today there are innumerable ways of expanding consciousness. For most of these techniques the originators have carefully analyzed the American mind and come up with practical do-it-yourself, non complicated systems. The latest in the stream of self help and self hypnotic techniques is “Reiki” joining “Holistic theology”, Mind Control and variations of transcendental meditation, all with promises to deliver transcendence, universal compassion, earth healing, transmutation of fear, clearing cellular memory grounding, and creating peace.
These programs play on the vanity of Americans who seem convinced that if they are charged “x” number of dollars for the course, they would get their money’s worth – more so than if it were offered free by some church group. It waves enticing slogans that are hard for the bedraggled American to pass up. Sure he wants inner peace and prosperity. Who wouldn’t want to increase his happiness? His wealth? His creative powers? Everyone wants to get along with everyone else. It will take away headaches, tensions and restore you to your pristine health of body and mind. International peace and an end to the ecological problem will result. Sweeping statements in Horatio Alger style of almost instant panacea for all ills – and all one need to do is to pay and then meditate twice a day – not too bad for what one will receive.
The question is – What is the true path to spirituality? “How do we put ourselves back together?” How do we become focused?, How do we become centered? How do we find out who we really are? How do we discover our true nature? How can we live according to our true nature if we don’t know what it is?
That people seek to find wholeness, harmony, peace, and tranquility. is natural. That people seek higher levels of consciousness is also natural. God made us to seek higher levels of consciousness, intimacy, and relationship with Him. How do we go about it? How do we find the transcendent? This is the age old question.
We may find these moments of stretching toward our transcendent self in beautiful music, a good book, a stimulating conversation with a dear friend. There are innumerable ways of expanding our consciousness. In all such methods, the key to pushing ourselves beyond our habitual experiences of ourselves toward the world, to other persons and to God Himself is concentration. This requires silence, inward stillness and the avoidance of distraction.
The two things lacking in most people’s lives are intimacy with God and intimacy with self. The quest for spiritual union with God is as old as mankind. Our Early Church Fathers had answers – in mysticism – the real experience of God. It is in the encounter with God that our lives are transformed. All the knowledge and formulas about God will not change lives. Knowledge about God is different from the experience of God. Unless dogmatic faith is supported by the personal experience of God Almighty, it remains empty.
The first characteristic of our faith is the important truth for spirituality that God is Trinity. The spiritual relevant meaning and implications of this fact is that reality is ultimately and inescapably interpersonal communion. The experience of God presupposes a continuous and progressive series of changes in our created nature and a more and more intimate communion of the human person with the Holy Trinity. Our personhood as human beings ranges widely over space and time and beyond space into eternity. Our human vocation is “theosis” – divinization. As St. Basil the Great says “the human being is a creature that is called to become God.”
So we see that the limits of our personhood are very far ranging and the answer to the question “Who am I?” is not at all obvious. Each of us is a mystery. We are God’s living icons. Each of us is a created expression of God’s infinite Self expression. This means it is impossible to understand ourselves apart from God. Humans cut off from God are no longer authentically human. If we lose our sense of the divine we equally lose our sense of the human.
The novelly emerging fads, couched in spiritual language, do not have the potential to deliver spiritual growth that is borne of a relationship with God. Although these programs borrow physical and mental practices from exotic mystical traditions, they are unable culminate in the mysticism of the Triune God. If we learn and practice these techniques without a true faith in God Trinity, we will never experience God, the essence of spirituality. Our spirituality is about relationship with God that leads to mystical union and our transformation into the ‘likeness’ of God.
God for us is Trinity. – and as we are made in the ‘image’ of God we are in the ‘Image’ of the Triune God. The key to understanding personhood according to the Trinitarian image is not isolated self awareness but relationship in mutual love. In the words of the theologian Dimitrios Staniloe “Insofar as I am not love, I am unintelligible to myself.” What a pity that in a recent survey of people who claimed to believe in God, 62 percent did not believe that God intervenes in their lives.
On the optimistic side, the interest in spirituality has generated what might be called a springtime in the Church, the scientific age that created an existential anguish over the question Is God Dead? has now been replaced by an era of round the clock televangelism. The wind of the All-Holy Spirit has dispelled the effects of technology and dehumanizing rationalism. And as the Psalmist says, mountains of rocks have been transformed into fountains of living waters. And in this continued movement of hungry people looking for a deeper relationship with God, it is a likely moment that we as Eastern Christians are impelled to return to our roots and rediscover the tradition of our Early Fathers. Their mystical practices allow us to overcome our frenetic state of anxiety dealing with the world around us and encourage descent into our hearts from this disordered state. This explains the revival of the Jesus Prayer among those searching for the experience of God. On the shelves in most Religious book stores today we can find a variety of books on the practice of the Jesus Prayer written by authors of many Christian denominations.
The Jesus Prayer is an ancient form of prayer used in the Eastern Churches, based on the repeated invocation of the name of Jesus. It has many different forms. The most traditional one – “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” All of them have the same theological basis and meaning: to let us enter into the divine mystery and to experience the presence of Jesus in our everyday life.
Can such a simple turning within our “heart” and repeating the name of Jesus synchronized with our breathing really be an effective prayer for us today? This is surely the basic technique common to all transcendental forms of meditation; a fixation on a mantra (the name of Jesus) while slowing down one’s breathing and sinking into a state of relaxation. Using the Jesus prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God. . ., have mercy on me a sinner.””
It behooves us also at this time to rediscover our own Eastern Mystical tradition. Let us use the simple but powerful spiritual techniques that are being practiced by all seekers of enlightenment.
The mystical encounter is not exclusive to the ascetic and the disciplined spiritual athlete who goes off into the desert. Inasmuch as we are all temples of the Holy Spirit, He lives and breathes in us When we turn within to listen to that breath breathing in us then we become true temples of prayer. For the mystics, prayer is a state of existence, rather than an action. It is man standing before God in as great a consciousness as man can possess of the awesome, transcendent holiness of God and of his own utter poverty and lack of completeness. The mystic is simply a person like all of us, who meets God in an ever deepening openness to the “Living Mystery” within him. The mystic is the one who consciously lets the Breath of God breathe in him.
He is, as St. Irenaeus says, “The glory of God – a man living to the fullest.” The mystic is the person always becoming more human as the Holy Sprit divinizes the powers placed in man when God made him “according to the Image and Likeness” of God. A fully realized human being has to be a mystic in the truest sense. We should not limit our understanding of mysticism to the aberrations that accompanied the prayer life of the great saints.
The Fathers of the Sinai taught that when we combine the name of Jesus with the regular flow of breath we find that our attention is more easily kept on the One to whom we are praying. These fathers came to be associated with the form of spirituality called hesychasm which developed in the monasteries of Egypt around the fourth and fifth century. Hesychasm refers to the inner tranquility of spirit needed for any deep communion with God. From about the sixth century, this practice called the Jesus Prayer was followed by the monks who lived this hesychastic way of life attempting to achieve inner rest and stillness by laying aside all earthly cares, by quieting the cravings of our fallen nature which get in the way of a deeper relationship with the Lord.
This coordination of the Prayer with the bodily activity of breathing became an important part of hesychast spirituality in the Middle East. Hesychasts would spend great amounts of time ‘practicing the Prayer’ so that it would move from being a conscious, vocal activity to a subconscious one. They wanted the Prayer to be literally unceasing (1 Thess.5:17) This is not something that happens over night, but rather in stages. In the first state, we pray with words on our lips. In the Jesus Prayer, we say the prayer over and over again. In the Second stage, the prayer moves from the lips to the mind. The prayer starts to become a part of us. We become conscious of saying the prayer when we aren’t thinking about it. We don’t will it. It just happens. This may be frightening because we are so accustomed to being in control, and now we hand over control to God in order to move on to the third stage, where the rhythm of the prayer is the rhythm of the heart In the heart we find the peace, joy and fulfillment of living in the overwhelming love of God.
The practice of the Jesus Prayer spread to other parts of the Christian East through the influence of monasticism. While many teachers and advocates of the Jesus Prayer seem to be monks, it is actually an anonymous layman who wrote the book The Way of the Pilgrim that has drawn the attention of Christians today. It tells the story of a simple, vagrant who tried to find out what “Prayer without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17) could mean and came upon the Jesus Prayer. His story has touched countless believers in East and West and helped make the prayer a viable source of spiritual strength for modern man. We can know if the Prayer is giving us a true experience of God by observing what Jesus taught us: “By their fruit shall you know them” (Mt 7:16)
More learning takes place by doing than by hearing. We best learn to pray by praying. We should not think of the prayer as too difficult or not intended for lay persons. That is the beauty of the Jesus prayer, it is for all who wish to experience the Jesus Prayer as a Christian mystical experience.
The following are suggestions to begin to pray the Jesus Prayer.
- Create an atmosphere that contributes to the experience by providing an environmental enhancement for stillness and relaxation as a psychological preparation for inward prayer. The quiet, structured environment removes exterior distractions.
The use of the traditional icon corner builds on the Byzantine understanding of the use of icons in prayer. We pray before an icon because the icon manifests graphically the presence of God and serves as a “window to heaven”, inviting us to personally recognize the presence of the One before whose image we stand.
- Sit in a comfortable position, and try not to move so as not to be distracted or to expend unnecessary energy.
- To feel that you are going down deep within yourself, you may use any of the commonly accepted countdown exercises Feel yourself as totally relaxed as you continue to go deeper and deeper into yourself.
- Breathe deeply – inhale and push out with your diaphragm (repeat this several times. Feel yourself breathing in God’s life. Repeat these words to yourself “Jesus Christ, come into my life”
- As we exhale, let us ask God to have mercy on us. We are going to breathe in Jesus’ life and exhale our sinfulness. Breathe in “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” . . .exhale, and say to yourself, “Have mercy on me a sinner”; breathe in repeat this and silently close out all distractions. Continue to pray in your mind . . .feel Him in your heart . . .breathe in God’s breathe . . .push out that which keeps you from God.
- If you feel yourself surfacing, breathe deeply and start over again.
- Continue to breathe deeply and sit quietly – allow God to speak in your heart.
In the tradition of the true eastern mystic, St. Gregory of Sinai (14th century) describes Christian transcendental meditation as man standing before God in prayer, with concentration by the grace of faith in the indwelling Trinity and he “forces his mind into his heart.” Man in prayer seeks to move beyond images and words to reach an inner stillness (apatheia) or tranquility where he is freed by grace to experience God at the depths of his being. The goal of such spirituality is not to reach a religious “high” or to have an ecstatic experience. It is to fulfill the injunction of the New Testament to pray always. It is to be re-created into the fullness of matured sons and daughters of God. It is to let go of our creaturely hold on our lives in order to enter into a conscious relationship with God as Creator but above all as a loving Father, and to live each moment in the light of that relationship. From the earliest Christians tradition, man has been encouraged to stretch forth to attain an ever greater awareness and honesty in his relationship with God.
The bottom line is that people who are looking for the experience of God will not find it in techniques and recipes. It is only the experience of God that will transform us.. Other practices can alleviate anxiety and stress and claim to provide rejuvenation and refreshment. Our society traditionally emphasizes the immediate, the new and the temporary. They are all fads of escapism. The true mystic enters into life not runs from it.
We all live lives of contemplation. The question is, what do we contemplate? Why not contemplate Jesus. Is it riches, power, prestiege, fame? Or do we contemplate the wonders of God, the glory of his creation, and the joys of the spiritual life. It is not necessary to go away to a monastery to live a life of contemplation. We are all contemplatives. And what we contemplate will play a significant role in the life we live. This is why it is essential that we help our students discover the tradition of the Eastern mystics.
One of the great Christian mystics of the 14th century, Jan Ruysbroeck in his Mirror of Eternal Salvation, writes:
“Above the reason in the depths of the intelligence, the simple eye of the contemplative soul is always open. It contemplates and gazes at the light, the Word. With pure gaze, enlightened by the Light itself, eye against eye, mirror against mirror, image against image.”
We as catechists are called to do more than teach about God, we are being called to help our students to know God –– To enter into a relationship with the God they love – a relationship centered in the heart – It is important for them to be aware of the great mystical tradition of the East that will enable them to live a truly spiritual life and not be deluded by fads that promise much and deliver little. It is also important for them to experience a transforming spirituality that will make them amenable to the generosity of God, who created them to be gods.
The person who is not exposed to the presence of God within will easily accept the absence of God as real. Gradually what the person accepts psychologically becomes real for him. So we should help are student acquire a sense of the reality of God.
The challenges facing us as teachers can be addressed only by a transformation of consciousness. We must encourage our students to push aside all the fads and follow the path of the mystics? God is very much alive in the hearts of those who seek him. How to have a relationship with God has to be treated seriously. It is about time that we stopped looking for something to keep us grounded and follow the way of the Fathers of the Church. Concentrate on the simple but powerful techniques that have been a part of our tradition. Meditation is second nature to the Eastern Christian. Our own conversion and the conversion of the world by the power of God’s love in us is our vocation.
Then that prophetic word moves us to our response. We move outward to build a like community of joy and love that we have experienced through the gratuitous love of the Father for His children. Having been accepted in love by God we have a sense of real identity.
Within our tradition, there is an understanding that the goal of religious education is to form a “whole person” and that achieving this goal involves a dynamic and endless process of growth. Growth and development are seen positively; in terms of personhood, they are endless. Growth in personhood has as its aim growth towards God-likeness, which is ultimately endless because God is a mystery: “ineffable, beyond comprehension, invisible, existing forever and always the same.” Growth in personhood is growth and development of one’s humanity and is consistent with growth toward God-likeness. St. Irenaeus asks, “How could you be God when you have not yet become human?” The human vocation;, in this view;, is to grow from God’s image towards God-likeness. Growth and progress are not only possible but essential to human existence. Each one of us is on a journey; “to be human is to be a traveler, always on the move. It should not surprise us that modern man yearns to be free to discover who he is and not be as many people encountered by him in the course of a day. Bent 0n Personhood implies constant discovery, ever new beginnings, increasing self-transcendence.” (Adversus-Haeresis4:20:6 Irenaeus of Lyons)
“Private interpretation” of the scripture with its roots in the “will of man” underlies heretical teaching (2 peter 1:20,21) So mind expansion techniques and exercises rooted in the “will of man” are false teaching. Simply because If man had the potential of infinite capabilities on his own why would he need God? Gnostic fads make many claim for peace and tranquility but the practices of the mystics go beyond the serenity of the world , but lead us to discover the ecstatic joy of a relationship with God.