BOOK OF THE MONTH: THE ILLUMINED HEART

Week Four: The Jesus Prayer

Illumined Heart cover

This month we’ve been reading The Illumined Heart: Capture the Vibrant Faith of Ancient Christians. In this short book, Frederica Mathewes-Green explores the wisdom and practices of the early Church to guide us on our walk of faith today. Our previous posts looked at repentance and fasting. Today, we’ll examine the Jesus Prayer.

The Jesus Prayer arose in the early centuries of eastern Christianity. The prayer involves repeating a single phrase: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”

Mathewes-Green explains the rationale behind this prayer:

The Jesus Prayer arose as a way to practice unceasing prayer. It offered a short and simple form that can be repeated in an unhurried way no matter what else a person is doing. Since the prayer is silent and interior, it can be kept going in all situations.

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Why ask Jesus for mercy?

We keep lapsing into ideas of self-sufficiency, or get impressed with our niceness, and so we lose our humility. Asking for mercy reminds us that we are still poor and needy, and fall short of the glory of God. Those who do not ask do not receive, because they don’t know their own need.

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What about when we just can’t do it?

Do not cease praying when prayer comes hard, for fear of doing it imperfectly. If you cease praying when you can’t do it right, the devil gets a victory. So keep offering a broken prayer, and remember that you are only an unworthy servant, and yet Jesus wants you.

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Read more.

For Reflection:

Mathewes-Green week 4

BOOK OF THE MONTH: THE ILLUMINED HEART

Week 3: Fasting
Illumined Heart cover

In The Illumined Heart, Frederica Mathewes-Green explores the wisdom and practices of the early Church.

Fasting is one such ancient practice. Mathewes-Green discusses details of how and when early Christians fasted. Just as important is her exploration of Christian attitudes toward the body:

Our bodies are a part of the creation God pronounced “very good,” and Jesus demonstrated God’s blessing on the human body when he became incarnate. He made the blessing more emphatic when he was resurrected, not as a mere spirit, but in a scar-marked body capable of eating fish. He sealed the blessing in the Ascension, taking that body into the very courts of heaven.

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So why do we need to fast?

Our bodies are blessed, but we don’t know how to live harmoniously in them. We drive them like vehicles, use them like tools to dig pleasure, and in the process damage them and distort our capacity to understand them. Fasting disciplines help us quiet these impulsive demands, so that we can better hear what they need and how they are meant to work. It is a turning toward health, a way of honoring creation and preparing for eternity.

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Read more.

For reflection:

Mathewes-Green week 3

BOOK OF THE MONTH: THE ILLUMINED HEART

Week Two: The Joy of Repentance

Illumined Heart cover

In The Illumined Heart, Frederica Mathewes-Green explores spiritual wisdom and practices from the ancient Christians. Chapters five and six tackle the unpopular subject of repentance.

Mathewes-Green shifts the discussion of repentance from condemnationwhere it usually sitsto joy. I also like her emphasis that repentance unlocks our compassion for others:

Repentance is the doorway to the spiritual life, the only way to begin. It is also the path itself, the only way to continue. Anything else is foolishness and self-delusion. Only repentance is both brute-honest enough, and joyous enough, to bring us all the way home.

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For the Christian, two things seem to be ever linked: sorrow over sin, and gratitude for forgiveness. Repentance is the source of life and joy.

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What’s more, repentance enlarges the heart until it encompasses all earthly life, and the sorrow tendered to God is no longer for ourselves alone. Knowing our own sin, we pray in solidarity with all other sinners, even those who hurt us. With all creation we groan, crying out to God for his healing and mercy.

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Read more.

For reflection:

Mathewes-Green week 2

 

 

BOOK OF THE MONTH: THE ILLUMINED HEART

Week One: Tough Questions

Illumined Heart coverIn The Illumined Heat: Capture the Vibrant Faith of Ancient Christians, Frederica Mathewes-Green shares spiritual practices and wisdom from the ancient Church. I first read this book several years ago, and I thought it was time to revisit it and share some of my favorite parts with you.

As she discusses the early Christians, Mathewes-Green gives us a peek into the life of a fictional fifth-century couple, Anna and Theodore. This is one of my favorite pats of the book, especially when Anna struggles to show love and grace to her mother-in-law.

Mathewes-Green begins with a statement of what we know (intellectually) to be true: in God is life.

Here is communion. In God’s presence we discover ourselves able to love one another, to be vessels of heroic love, even toward our enemies, even unto death. We find all creation in harmony around us, as responsive and fruitful as the Garden was to Adam and Eve. The peace that passes understanding informs our every thought.

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If we know that God’s presence is life and love, why don’t we look like we know it? Mathewes-Green asks a whole series of tough questions I find it really good (and uncomfortable) to consider:

Why are we modern Christians so indistinguishable from the world?

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How come Christians who lived in times of bloody persecution were so heroic, while we who live in safety are fretful and pudgy?

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How could the earlier saints “pray constantly,” while our minds dawdle over trivialities?

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How could the martyrs forgive their torturers, but my friend’s success makes me pouty?

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In the rest of the book, Mathewes-Green considers how the spiritual practices of ancient Christians might help us as we struggle with our faith. For this week, I invite you to wrestle with the tough questions she asks in the first chapter. What might you answer to some of these questions?

Read more.

For Reflection:

Mathewes-Green week 1 corrected

BOOK OF THE MONTH: THE REVELATIONS OF DIVINE LOVE

Week Four: Desire and Divine Will

All Shall Be Well

In The Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich describes our desires and the divine will as these relate to prayer. God gives us what he wills us to have, and then he makes us yearn for it.

I’m pretty blown away by the idea that in prayer, we ask for what God already plans to give us. It’s hard to wrap my mind around that concept! Here’s what Julian says:

Christ told me from whom our prayers come when He said, “I am the Ground.” And we see how they come to life in the centers of our being when He said, “It is my will first that you have whatever it is, and then I make you yearn for it.” The second thing God wants us to understand about prayer is how we should carry it out. The answer to this is that we choose with all our mental powers to align our desires with the Divine Will; this is what He meant when He said, “Then I make you yearn for it.”

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No one sincerely asks for grace and mercy without already having been given grace and mercy.

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[T]he greatest acts of God have already been accomplished (just as the Church teaches), and as we meditate on this, we pray for the action that is already being accomplished: that God directs us while we live on Earth, so that God is enriched by our lives, and that we be brought to Divine Joy in Heaven. And then God will have accomplished everything.

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Our Protector wants us to pray for everything, whether in general or in particular, that God has laid out to happen. As far as I can see, the thanks, joy, delight, and worth that God grants us in return is beyond our ability to comprehend!

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Julian of Norwich (1342 – c. 1416) was an English visionary, mystic, anchoress, and writer. Read about her here.

I’ve been enjoying the Divine Revelations in a modern translation entitled All Shall Be Well.

For reflection:

Julian of Norwich Week 4

BOOK OF THE MONTH: THE REVELATIONS OF DIVINE LOVE

Week 3: Prayer as a Way of Life

All Shall Be WellThe Revelations of Divine Love by English anchoress Julian of Norwich is our book of the month. In this spiritual classic, Lady Julian explains why prayer is a good and necessary part of life.

I am drawn to the ways Julian speaks of prayer, always emphasizing our radical dependence on God. I also like the two metaphors she uses in the first passage below – prayer is like an arrow and prayer is like a shelter. These metaphors seem so different, yet they work together to describe the gift of communing with God.

 

For prayer is like an arrow shot straight toward joy’s completion in Heaven—and prayer is also like a shelter that covers us with the knowledge that we can trust God to grant all for which we yearn. When we fall short of the joy that has been laid out for us, we are filled with longing; but as we cover ourselves with the knowledge of God’s love and with sweet thoughts of our Rescuer, then we are granted the gift of confidence in God’s firm integrity.

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For our part, we must take care to always lovingly choose prayer as a way of life. We may still feel as though we have accomplished nothing—but in reality (whether we can see it or not), we have. And if we do what we can and ask with constancy and faithfulness for mercy and grace, then all that we lack we shall find in God.

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Prayer makes the soul one with God. Our souls are like God in their essence, and they are connected to God with bonds of kinship—yet because of sin, our way of being is often not much like God’s. That is why we need to use prayer as an affirmation that our souls are aligned with the Divine Will. What’s more, prayer comforts our uneasy consciences and becomes a conduit for grace to flow into us.

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 Julian of Norwich (1342 – c. 1416) was an English visionary, mystic, anchoress, and writer. Read about her here.

I’ve been enjoying the Divine Revelations in a modern translation entitled All Shall Be Well.

For reflection:

 

Julian of Norwich - week 3

BOOK OF THE MONTH: THE REVELATIONS OF DIVINE LOVE

Week Two: Seeking God or Seeing God?

All Shall Be Well

In her spiritual classic, The Revelations of Divine Love, English anchoress Julian of Norwich has some amazing insights about how we experience God. In one section of the book, Julian explores the tension between having God and yearning for God; between seeking God and seeing God.

Often these two states occur at the same time, she says. But it’s nothing to worry about. Julian makes the point that seeking God is our job, while seeing God is up to God.

 

All this made me realize that during this time that we suffer on Earth, seeking is as good as seeing. Leave your awareness of the Divine Presence up to God, in humility and trust, to reveal to you as God wants. Our only job is to cling to God with total trust.

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God is pleased when we seek the Divine Presence continually, even if from our perspective, we do nothing but seek and suffer. We see with clarity that we have found God only when the Spirit’s special grace reveals this to us. It is the seeking, with faith, hope, and love, that pleases our Protector, while it is the finding that pleases us and fills us with joy.

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When this [Holy] Presence comes to us, it comes out of the blue, with such speed that we are startled—and God wants us to trust and wait for this Divine Jack-in-the-Box. For God is utterly kind, and the Holy Presence welcomes our hearts with total hospitality. Blessed may God be!

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Julian of Norwich (1342 – c. 1416) was an English visionary, mystic, anchoress, and writer. Read about her here.

I’ve been enjoying the Divine Revelations in a modern translation entitled All Shall Be Well.

For reflection:

Julian of Norwich - week 2

BOOK OF THE MONTH: REVELATIONS OF DIVINE LOVE

Week One: Clinging to God’s Goodness

All Shall Be WellIn the late 14th century, the English anchoress Julian of Norwich wrote her influential book, The Revelations of Divine Love. The book is based on a series of visions Julian received, and its stated purpose is to reveal the divine will, which is to love and know God. The Revelations has become a Christian classic for its unique theological and spiritual insights into God’s love.

In her book, Julian has many things to say about prayer. In the first revelation, Julian writes that prayer is more of an attitude than a set of techniques. I find this encouraging, because it means that we don’t have to approach prayer with a lot of bells and whistles. Clinging to the fullness of God is, Julian says, the “truest form of prayer.”

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What came to mind next was the way we pray: in our ignorance and incomprehension of love, we use many methods for asking God what we want. But I realized now that God is worshiped—and delighted—when we simply turn to the Divine One, trusting totally in that Unity* and clinging to Divine grace.

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Even if we were to practice all the prayer techniques ever used, they would never be enough to connect our souls to God with utter wholeness and fullness, for God’s goodness is the entire whole of reality, a unity that lacks absolutely nothing. By focusing our attention here—on the absolute Unity that never fails—we achieve the truest form of prayer.

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Resting in this Unity is the highest prayer, and it reaches down to our deepest needs. It brings our souls to life; it brings us more of life’s fullness; and our lives expand with grace and strength.

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*Note: In this edition of the Revelations, Julian’s word “goodness” is translated as “unity” to express the idea of the fullness of God, the way he encompasses every part of creation.

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Julian of Norwich (1342 – c. 1416) was an English visionary, mystic, anchoress, and writer. Read about her here.

I’ve been enjoying the Divine Revelations in a modern translation entitled All Shall Be Well.

For reflection:

Julian of Norwich - week 1

BOOK OF THE MONTH: BEFRIENDING SILENCE

Week Four: The Community of Prayer

Befriending Silence

Reading Carl McColman’s Befriending Silence, I found the two biggest takeaways to be the importance of living a life in community and a life of prayer. These two ways of life might at first seem like opposites. Contemplative prayer, after all, is often undertaken in solitude. If we happen to be writers, we spend even more time alone!

Yet McColman reminds us that prayer, even silent prayer, makes us part of a larger community. This is a gift and, for non-monastics, sometimes a challenge. Here’s what McColman has to say about community:

The Cistercian way of life rests on the idea that spirituality needs community.

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Monks and nuns enjoy the support of a community that prays together multiple times every day, where everyone is expected to take part in the liturgy in a public way. Those of us who are not monastics . . . do not have an abbot or abbess who will check up on us if we start skipping prayers, so we have to be truly intentional about our decision to make prayer a priority.

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Christian prayer always has a communal or social dimension to it, even when we pray in solitude . . . Prayer makes a difference in our lives, not just in terms of personal spiritual growth but also as a means by which we discover God’s love and compassion expressed for the world.

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When we pray for our family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, our community and nation, as well as our adversaries, enemies, competitors and opponents, the space to slowly, gradually grow in compassion and love opens within us.

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Read more here.

For reflection:

McColman Week 4

BOOK OF THE MONTH: BEFRIENDING SILENCE

Week 3: Letting Go
Befriending Silence

In Befriending Silence, Carl McColman explores three kinds of monastic prayer that can help us today. In previous posts, we looked at the gifts of lectio divina and the Divine Office. We now turn our attention to contemplative (silent) prayer.

Contemplative prayer gives us much-needed peace and inner rest. When we pray in silence before God, McColman says, “The Holy Spirit invites us to gently set aside our attachments to our interior drama so that we might rest in God’s unchanging stability.”

Since it is mostly without words or particular agendas, contemplative prayer offers an additional benefit that can also be a challenge: letting go of our all-pervasive need for control.

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Contemplation challenges us not only as individuals but as a society because ours is a society that rewards assertive, take-charge, type A behavior, and we want to do spirituality in the same way.

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Think of it this way: every conversation requires both speaking and listening, otherwise it is one-sided. The Divine Office and other verbal prayers invite us to speak to God, while contemplation gives us the space to listen.

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Contemplative prayer fosters an inner spirit of acceptance and receptivity. It reminds us that we are not in the driver’s seat when it comes to prayer (or indeed any aspect of spiritual living). When we pray in silence, we actually embody humility in our prayer. We make ourselves available to God but without presuming to tell God what we want to have happen or what we think should happen. Rather, we shut up and let God take the lead.

Read more.

For reflection:

McColman - week 3