Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Saying of the Day

Keep a careful watch over yourself, and do not allow yourself to be swept away by external obsessions. The tumultuous movements of the soul, in particular, can be rendered quiet by stillness (hesychia). If, however, you keep encouraging and stimulating them, they will start to terrorize you, and can disorder your whole life. Once they are in control, it is as hard to heal them as it is to soothe a sore that we cannot stop scratching.
- Abba Philemon
Directions: Repeat this until you stop obsessing about the president, economy, HDTV and drill presses.

(HT: Mind in the Heart)


  1. Ben said...

    Thanks for these, I may not always comment but I always appreciate them.

  2. Ezekiel said...

    Drill presses?

  3. Mike Baker said...

    Hmm... I disagree.

    Sin is resisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit and not through our works. Because of this power over sin is not acheived internally through existintial meditation, but externally through the reception of Holy Word and Sacrament.

    Contemplative prayer does not minimize sin, but magnifies it as we too easily curve in ourselves.

    That is not to say that fasting, prayer, spiritual discipline, and poverty of spirit are not fine and saluatry works. They should be encouraged, but only as outpourings of faith and not works in and of themselves.

    This is why we pray with humble spirit "lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."

    (perhaps there is more to this quote... is there context that better clarifies this quote?)

  4. Anonymous said...

    I think you misunderstand the aim of hesychia. It is by no means an "internal" activity as you describe it here. I am going to grossly oversimplify this (so those with more knowledge please forgive/correct me), but the the "goal" of hesychia is to achieve stillness so that we may commune with God. I think of it this way: it's a way of trying to tune out all the "noise" within us. This does indeed take effort, and doesn't just happen. But, again, this quieting and stillness is not an end in and of itself. It is so that we may become more attuned to God. I hope that helps a little.


  5. Christopher D. Hall said...

    Ben--you're welcome

    Ezekiel--yes, drill presses, at least for me :)

    Mike--as Christians we resist sin and do good works in cooperation with the Holy Spirit. His gifts are free, yet we use them, albeit in a weak and poor manner. The Confessions teach this in a number of places.

    As Chris Jones points out, what this is speaking of is resisting the world and our passions, i.e., putting ourselves and the world behind us.

    Secondly "contemplative prayer" means something different to Abba Philemon than it does to post-schism Roman Catholics. Contemplative prayer is not an emptying, but a razor-sharp focus on Christ and His mercy.

  6. Anonymous said...

    Dear Mike,
    I just clicked on you name above and went to your blog. I see that you are serving in the US armed forces overseas. I just wanted to say Thank You! Know that you are in my prayers daily.


  7. Mike Baker said...

    You are welcome, Chris. Thank you for your words. It is an honor to serve the Citizens of the United States. The privilege of wielding the sword of the earthly kingdom is a heavy and significant duty that truly humbles me.


    I am by no means and Eastern Orthodox expert, but I do not speak about hesychasm out of ignorance. I am academically familiar with the practice. I also have a passing knowledge of the hesychast controversy between Barlaam of Calabria and St Gregory Palamas.

    My study of this topic reveals that the formal principle of this type of contemplative prayer is centered in knowing God in His energies (not His essence) through what can only be described as far eastern meditation techniques. So, in truth, it is exactly like post-schism western monasticism… because it is centered on the same faulty assumptions about justification and sanctification. I believe that I own enough books and have studied enough of the writings of both eastern and western mystics to know that they are cut from similar cloth.

    It seems to me that it is not a Christocentric focus that clears the mind for reception of the means of grace, but rather a works-centered meditation based on philosophical speculation about energies and essences. It is often stated that the highest goal of hesychasm is to use meditation to gain an experiential knowledge of God. In fact, many of the arguments for hesychasm are identical to the supporters of the rosary in the west.

    Chris Jones himself has pretty much agreed with me in his comments. It is not about clearing the noise out of your sinful mind to hear the word. The goal of hesychasm is “to better to achieve stillness so that we may commune with God”. This is why I warned against incurvates en se in my original comment. This is a climbing of the ladder of mysticism to believe that we can work to approach the throne of God at all… let alone by our own meditation and techniques.

    As a former charismatic Pentecostal/Baptist, I recognize many of the underlying themes covered in this form of mystical enthusiasm. My belief in communing with the Holy Spirit and contemporary worship techniques originally attracted me to Christian mysticism. But it is antithetical to Lutheran teaching to believe that this kind of enlightenment, communion, and holiness is possible apart from the spoken Word and the Sacraments [SA P3, VII:10-11].

    I am open to a more detailed education on hesychasm. Perhaps I have misunderstood what I have studied so far on the subject. Please point me to some good sources that refute my assessment.

  8. Mike Baker said...

    P.S. - I would like to reiterate that I am not speaking against good Christian discipline, prayer, contemplation, fasting, beating down the flesh, etc. I certainly agree with Pr. Halls statements about resisting temptation and using the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

    Also, the Smalcald Articles reference that I made should be VIII and not VII.


  9. Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

    "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." That's not Christocentric? (It's the prayer that the hesychasts pray.)

  10. Mike Baker said...

    Fr. Hogg,

    You are correct, the far eastern mantra that they repeat is Christocentric in theme.

    ...but that does not make the practice Christocentric.

    By this over-simplified standard, the exorcism of the Jewish exorcists in the 19th Chapter of Acts was Christocentric.

    Invoking the Lord's most holy name, even if we do it over and over again, does not make a meditation holy or useful. One can claim that this discipline is Christocentric, but the writings of the practitioners and teachers prove otherwise.

    I suspect that you will not see this distinction. I have found that it is hard for mystics (and their supporters) to draw distinctions between the operation of the Holy Spirit and the works of man. Once a person has found a secret or little-known way to commune with God, his discernment goes out the window. In the minds of the mystic, there are no stictly human works... everything becomes the will of the Holy Spirit. He may not even realize that he is calling a bad thing good and a vain thing "Christ".

  11. Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

    Mr. Baker,

    Francis Pieper says, in his dogmatics, that Christology is "merely the presupposition" of justification by faith alone.

    But he is Christocentric, no doubt, and those who pray "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner" are not.

  12. Mike Baker said...

    Fr. Hogg,

    I do not wish to wrangle with you about who is Christocentric and who is not. I do not have the energy to smite strawmen all day. It is also not my task to judge who is Christocentric, but only to give testimony to those teachings and practices which turn focus away from Christ so that it can be directed towards us and what we as Christians are doing.

    Do you have some writing or source that illustrates the Christocentricity of this type of contemplative prayer? Is there something that you can point me to that supports the claim that this is about Jesus and not the practitioner... other than falling back on a single sentence that could be (and often is) prayed by anyone and does not need hesychia to be salutary and true?

    I have no quarrel with Eastern Orthodox Christians. In fact, I own the very book that this quote comes from. I support and love EO teachings where I find them to be true. It cannot be said that I am being partisan to the Western Rite or Protestantism here. I have defended EO against both on several occassions and I seek to be educated on the practices and beliefs of my eastern brothers and sisters when I can see that I do not clearly understand them. If that is the case here, then please humor me and give me information that is sufficient enough to change my opinion.

    I also count myself among the people who pray "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." The words are beautiful... but they should be directed to Christ's ears and not our navels.

    I want this discussion about this topic to be informative and not combative.

  13. Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

    Mr. Baker,

    I have found St. Gregory Palamas' writings--for example, his 150 Chapters--to be very helpful. I commend them to you.


    Fr. Gregory Hogg

  14. Mike Baker said...

    Thank you. I am searching for a way to read this text without having to pay nearly $100 for a copy of my own. I do not have access to a library where I am at. I will get back to you once I have found and read it.

    While we are waiting, I do have questions which I offer to you and any supporter of any form of mystical contemplative prayer.

    First: I have difficulty making it through the Lord's Prayer even once without inattentiveness or selfishness and I consider myself fairly diligant when it comes to prayer. How does one achieve the neccessary focus to prevent this kind of thing from happening during contemplation?

    Second: Yoga and meditation from the eastern religions are consistant in both practice and philosophy because a focus on the status of the self in meditation lends well to the focus on the self required to find the enlightenment that is at the core of buddhist mysticism. These things are similar in thesis. In Christain mysticism we have a thesis and an antithesis with no appearant synthesis. How does Christian contemplative prayer reconcile a subjective focus on the status of the self during meditation with the objective, external focus that is at the core of Christianity: namely the person and works of Christ? Is that not an irroconcilable paradox?

  15. Christopher D. Hall said...

    Mike--perhaps Fr. Gregory or someone else can answer better, but here goes:

    I think your Hegelian language is confusing. Any rate: Contemplation *is* prayer. It is focused on Christ. If you wish to really push the issue, you could say it is focused on self, but only in the sense of Christ's mercy to me and prayer for true repentence. There is the self who is praying to Christ.

    The stillness (hesychia) is simply the absense of logizmoi--i.e., temptations and other distracting thoughts. This is the way we are all to pray--this is self-denial, this is knowing only Christ crucified, this is fleeing temptation.

    The Jesus Prayer--or ANY prayer by ANY Christian for that manner is prayer to God, enabled and given by the Holy Spirit. I think our Orthodox brothers and sisters would agree with all of this...and I don't think any Lutheran ought to disagree either.

    Now to back up to your first question, let me be blunt, since you asked. You cannot focus on the Our Father because you don't pray well. You are too full of sins and passions and are a like a child whose gaze is first drawn this way and then that way. Now this is true of all people who are learning to pray (myself included). One could say that few, if any, ever fully learn.

    You also asked how you can achieve the necessary focus. I think the only answer that is possible is that only the grace of God can give you that gift of undistracted prayer.

    But let us Lutherans remember, this life is not binary. God's gifts are neither ones nor zeros, on or off. He gives as we are able, and He gives for us to use.

    One of the problems we Lutherans have is believing that the gifts of God are either 100% given and present in our lives, our not present at all. In speaking about justification as the full and complete fogiveness of sins, we confuse this with sanctification and fail to see that in our Christian lives we are on a range or a scale. While a Lutheran would never say that I am "a little justified" or that I am "pretty close to be being fully forgiven" we can, and should, be thinking how wicked or holy we are, how sanctified we are or not. God does not give instant and total sanctification to us. He desires it, and gives us His Spirit, but we must use His gifts and rely on His Spirit and make use of what has been given to us in returning the invetment--to mix metaphors.

    The irony of course, is that the more sanctified we are, the less we consider ourselves. Thus one of my favorite sayings of a Saint on his deathbed, "I have only begun to repent." Or as someone else said, "We are only beggars."

  16. Mike Baker said...

    Pr Hall,

    I only push the issue because I know from personal experience that there is not just the Holy Spirit prompting down there in the self. There is alot of adam, the world, and the devil in there too.

    With regards to your assessment of me, blunt is usually what I usually need. I find your assessment about my weaknesses in prayer to be accurate. It is something that I have been struggling with.

    I understand what you mean about life not being binary and about humility increasing as holiness increases. It is consistant with observations that I have had over the last few years. The more I grow in the Spirit the more sinful and weak I appear to be in my own eyes. I count this to Paul's observation that the Law increases knowledge of sin. You are right, it is a life-long process.

    I am a very young Lutheran. My background comes from Pentecostalism which has elements of mystical prayer in it. My gut concerns about contemplative prayer have very little to do with justification and sanctification.

    I am concerned about what happens when the Christian beings to try to grow in the Holy Spirit using methods that are not objectively means of grace. I think that we can all agree that there are serious discernment challenges that face sinful people when they start looking inside of themselves for any reason.

    To borrow your analogy, prayer is not binary. There is not good prayer on one end and self-serving rambling on the other. There is a sliding scale there too and I know first hand that there is great danger and error that can creep in through some mystical practices.

    I guess that would be the next question. For lack of better phrasing, where is the rudder on this subjective ship? How does one remain grounded in truth and not open to the whims of other spirits?

  17. Christopher D. Hall said...

    And in case I didn't make it clear, I too, struggle with all kinds of distractions in prayer. And I have been Lutheran for 35 years. It is always a struggle, and I too am an infant.

    Thank you for sharing more of your background. I think I can understand your hesitancy about this topic because of your background.

    As to your question, as a Lutheran pastor I would suggest that 1) prayer is always connected with the sacraments--you are baptized and presumably receiving the Eucharist regularly.

    Second, any kind of prayer is not about receiving experiences of any kind, unlike in Pentecostalism. Having a mystical experience is rare, unusual, and to be avoided for the most part.

    Third, we are not lone rangers, and you should have a pastor who is involved in your spiritual life. In my experience, that is severely lacking, but regardless, it is another safeguard.

    Fourth, since we have been discussing Orthodoxy, I'd invite some of our Orthodox friends to chime in, but my understanding is that hesychist prayer (with the breathing and whole nine yards) is NOT to be done without very close direction.

    But this is, and has been, somewhat of a sideline in the discussion. I can't recommend such an advance Orthodox practice because I'm not Orthodox and don't have the experience.

    However, the principle of loosing the thoughts/temptations that plague us and distract us is the main point of the quote and the reason I posted it. This we can certainly ponder and attempt to practice, at least in our weak ways.

  18. Mike Baker said...

    I have done some surface research in this topic over the last few hours and I have had many of my major fears regarding Pentecostalism soothed. It is clear from listening to the accounts of some of these mystics that enthusiasm is not their goal.

    I am concerned with the theosis that lies at the center of this view of prayer. My initial concern remains true: this does not appear to be very Christocentric. There is alot of talk about the Spirit and God, but Christ seems only to be mentioned in passing, almost as an enabling agent for the process. I also am uneasy about the parallels to Methodism and Pietism. This seems to be a very exotic form of "The Changed Life" formal principle.

    As a student of Lutheranism, my "theology of glory" radar has gone off. Ascetic monasticism... ascribing heavenly value to our works... unlocking the goodness in human nature... these are things that Luther rightly rejected. They are all overly focused on the needs, desires, and potential of man.

    ...and this continues to be a very interesting discussion.

  19. Fr. Gregory Hogg said...

    Dear Mike,

    I picked up my copy of the 150 Chapters at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies for very cheap--I think it was about $10 on a sale table? Happy hunting.

    You ask how to gain focus on the Lord's Prayer. I wish I knew. I know that for myself, it helps to pray with icons. They keep my mind from wandering and help me to focus.

    Quick answer on the second topic: Lutheranism tends to focus on the extra nos, because of texts like "I know that in me, that is in my flesh, there dwells no good thing," and because, at a deeper level, the western denial of the essence/energy distinction is connected to covert fears of idolatry. (This takes a lot of fleshing out to explain...) Orthodoxy tends to focus on the internal, relying on texts like "the Kingdom of God is within you," and "that you may be strengthened with all might in the inner man."

    Also vital to this and many other issues you might have with Orthodoxy is the fact that Orthodoxy has no notion of merit, as is present in the west. We teach that the human will is free; but that does not mean that exercising our will to believe in Christ carries any merit at all. God can never be in our debt. St. Mark the Ascetic (4th cent) cites the same passage from Luke as do the Lutheran Confessions: "When you have done all that is commanded of you, say, 'we are only unprofitable servants.'"

    Fr. Gregory

  20. Mike Baker said...

    I have been sorely convicted by the Holy Spirit regarding the feebleness and inadequacy of my ability to pray.

    During today's Midday office, my strongly formulated opinions regarding this subject were replaced with shame and inadequacy.

    I have been doing a great deal of speck inspecting on this comment thread when the real plank has existed in my own eye all along. I ask for your forgiveness for my arrogant presupposition and hypocrisy... both of which I have only now been shown.

    I have lost sight of just how much of a student I am.

    I still maintain that prayer must be Christ-centered, but in my current position as barely a novice when it comes to all matters of prayer, I leave such a complex and weighty determination up to individual Christians and those teachers with far more discernment than I have.

    Let’s please continue this conversation.

  21. Christopher D. Hall said...

    Since you asked, I forgive you. I appreciate your humility--it's a rare thing, especially when arguing on the web. Which is not to say I don't have specks in my own eye either.

    Now, it is not my job to argue for Orthodox prayer. However, I found it interesting that you worried that theosis is not Christocentric. Theosis is not foreign to Lutheran theology (n.b. Mannermaa). But theosis is by definition only the work and theology of Christ and His incarnation. "Christ became man that we might become God," Athanasius wrote (and all the other fathers agree). He is the first fruits of the resurrection, and we are the second, so to speak.

    Why don't they talk about Christ so much then? Good question. I think the Orthodox (who do most with theosis) would say that He is at the center of it and everything, but that we know Him by the Spirit, who is the promised Paraclete.

    So I guess the real question is, when you write that "prayer must be Christ-centered" what exactly do you mean?

    I am enjoying the conversation too! Thanks for keeping it going.

  22. Mike Baker said...


    Focused on the centrality of the cross, undertaken in the light of our salvation, enabled by the Word and Sacarments, presented in humility to the Triune God in the name of Christ.

    Not centered on our glorification for our own sake. Not using Christ and the cross superstitiously. Not using Christ as a sort of "helper" that enables us to be holy. Not focused on our own works and proceedures. Not present as to draw attention or glory to ourselves. Not intended as a good work that contributes to our justification. Not presented to persons or forces outside of the Godhead.

    What is "Christ-centered" to you?

  23. Mike Baker said...

    You said, "theosis is by definition only the work and theology of Christ and His incarnation."

    Theosis (n): "Participation in the divine majesty."


    By definition, it is not "only the work" of Christ. In fact, it looks like alot of our work.

    You said, "Theosis is not foreign to Lutheran theology."

    Yes. We participate in the divine majesty and have sins forgiven every time we partake of the incarnate body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Eucharist... not through a ladder climbing system of synergism.

    So I think I have good reason to be concerned that "theosis" is not Christ-centric... since Christ is not the only one in the center of justification and sanctification appearantly.

    Did I miss something?