MAY 25, 2003, 6TH SUNDAY OF EASTER- CHAPTER 

WE SHOULD REALIZE THAT IT IS NOT BY MANY WORDS THAT WE ARE HEARD BUT BY PURITY OF HEART AND TEARFUL COMPUNCTION. St. Benedict=s teaching on prayer is simple and direct. He does not have any lengthy treatise on the subject, but what he does teach is at once clear and challenging as we soon discover upon striving to put it into practice conscien­tiously. Perhaps the best illustration of this is found in his chapter entitled: AOn the Discipline of Psalmody@ where he gives out the well known principle @let the mind be in harmony with the voice.@What he implies here is that we should be attentive to the words of the psalm we are singing or, at any rate, to the sense of the psalm if not to the meaning of each word of its text. As simple as this sounds, it proves to be a very demanding discipline, as anyone soon discovers who participates in the Divine Office regularly. In fact, experience reveals gradually that in order to carry out this program of prayer we can do not better than adopt the technique of the hesy­chasts that consists in causing the mind to descend into the heart. The advocates of Centering Prayer make this the center piece of their method as well. For only when we manage to unite our thoughts and our inner feelings and desires of the heart are we able for any length of time to keep the mind and the voice of prayer in harmony. 

Writing in Egypt150 years before St. Benedict, Evagrius Ponticus attests to the difficulty of this program of praying the psalms from the undistracted heart in his typically lapidary fashion. AA great thing indeed- to pray without distraction; a greater thing still- to sing psalms without distraction@ (The Praktikos, 69). He obviously speaks from his own experience and that of his disciples whom he trained. Since psalmody is a major element in our daily prayer as monks throughout our life, then, we assume an arduous and challenging task in committing our self to the Benedictine Rule until death. We need not be surprised then if we find that we must struggle with the problems that inevitably arise as we enter upon and pursue this program. Nor should we settle for a mediocre achievement in our manner of carrying out this injunction of our Father St. Benedict.  

There are three kinds of preparation that must be employed in order to succeed in making psalmody a form of pure prayer. We must study and reflect on the psalms; we need to bring our lives into harmony with the Gospel and so purify our heart; finally we must apply ourselves to prayer of the heart in private. These three are not alternatives but complementary; all three should be utilized or we shall fall short in our effort to carry our this high purpose.

 

 


Benedict himself mentions the first when he directs that after Vigils the time should be spent in studying the Psalter or the lessons. We become familiar with the various psalms after a few years, but as we grow interiorly we need to revise our understanding of these inspired texts or they will cease to remain significant for us. At times we can refresh our appreciation of a psalm simply by praying it in private or reading it attentively when alone. This is not always sufficient, however. As we develop in our spiritual understanding our minds must also be actively engaged if we are to keep pace intellectually with the new spiritual insights and fresh perceptions that follow upon the evolution we have undergone. We see this kind of development operative in the New Testament writings. Later documents, such as the Gospel of St. John, display an intellectual world that has advanced over earlier Gospels in keeping with further insights into the spiritual significance of Jesus life, death and resurrection. In addition the insights of a large number of holy and learned persons who have written on this book of the Bible that we have not assimi­lated in earlier reading or which were not available to us before for one reason or another, can serve to add to our appreciation of the psalms. In this way we find assistance in our effort to bring our mind into accord with our voice. To the extent we pray in this way we unite and focus our awareness at a more personal level and come closer to the center of our self. 

As we move into this more peaceful consciousness we also encounter the more firmly rooted obstacles to being wholly present to the hidden God abiding at our center, or as some prefer, at the high point of our spirit. The distractions and dividedness we meet with are indications of our need to purify our hearts further by a more searching, appropriate discipline ordered to favor the growth of good habits and dispositions. The classic monastic practices of silence, service, humil­ity and fraternal charity admit of many degrees of attainment. As we gain experience of life and grow in self knowledge by daily efforts honestly to evaluate our behavior and our attitudes we obtain more sharply focused insights into the precise changes we must bring about to remove what is defective and to strengthen further what is healthy and good. Such changes in character com­monly come about only with extended periods of daily effort, so deeply fixed are they. Habit is a second nature, the saying is. But experience reveals that with prayer and steady application a man can change over time. We see instances of such change not only in certain of the well known saints, such as Charles de Foucauld, but also in less prominent and less gifted people who persevere in this kind of personal honesty and seeking. The best teachers of the life of contemplative prayer in the monastic tradition insist on the need for this continual striv­ing after purity of heart and freedom from our selfish passion for the pure prayer. In fact, it is with this aim in view that the monastic life was established. St. John Cassian made this clear by putting at the head of his 24 Conferences the one treating of Purity of Heart as the aim of all our practices. He shrewdly understood that the large majority of men become absorbed in the details and inter­ests of their immediate tasks and must make a special effort to orient their efforts to the not only to their ultimate goal. They must keep in view the condition for attaining that final end.  He puts in the mouth of Abba Moses this basic insight. 

But what is the immediate goal you must earnestly ask, for if is not in the same way dis­covered by us, we shall strive and wear ourselves out to no purpose...The end of our pro­fession indeed, as I said, is the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven, but the imme­diate aim or goal is purity of heart, without which no one can gain that end.(Conferences I.4)

 

 


By affirming this orientation of the monastic life to purity of heart Abbot Moses and Cassian who gives such prominence to this teaching, give a norm for discernment that can assist the monk in ordering his daily life. How much to direct one=s energy to a articular practice, for in­stance, will be decided more prudently if the individual has as his immediate aim to cleans his heart from selfishness in its various forms and to bring all his inner life into conformity with God=s will. This is what purity of heart means. Such a practical aim extending to all the doings and thoughts of each day brings an increment of meaning to all of life; nothing is without signifi­cance since all is done and willed in view of this high purpose of forming an inner purity that renders a man like God  and thus capable of seeing him, darkly in prayer now, but clearly in the next life. In so far as someone carries out this program he finds in all he does a measure of high­er purpose that he actually experiences. In a personal way he already discovers something of eter­nal life in all his endeavors. Obviously such a way of carrying out one=s duties is already a form of prayer and experienced as a  conscious communion with the Lord. 

The third preparation for the undistracted psalmody that St. Benedict sets as the ideal for his disciples is the practice of imageless prayer of the heart at times of private prayer. In practice it is hardly possible to bring the mind into harmony with the voice while chanting the psalms un­less there is a familiarity with the innermost sources of thought and desire. The mind like the rest of nature abhors a vacuum. It will occupy itself with ideas, images, plans and thoughts of all kinds unless we have learned by repeated practice to submerge the mind in the quiet caverns of the heart. Even more than the other preparations of the mind and heart for pure prayer, this pray­er is the possible only when grace is received and acted upon. The Holy Spirit alone teaches this prayer in its fullness. However, we can and must dispose ourselves for responding to such a grace when it is offered. 

The antecedents giving rise to the teachings concerning this pure and transcendent prayer are very ancient though not always explicitly stated. Among other witnesses in the Scriptures St. Paul is outstanding. In the account of his rapture, he states that he Aheard things which must not and cannot be put into human language@ (2Cor 12: 4). Evagrius Ponticus followed up on the topic of pure prayer.A Do not by any means strive to fashion some image or visualize some form at the time of prayer@, he wrote (Chapters on Prayer #114).He has a series of beatitudes in this same work that bring out further his views on purity of prayer: AHappy is the spirit that attains to perfect formlessness at the time of prayer A (#117) @Happy is the spirit which, praying without distraction, goes on increasing its desire for God. (#118) AHappy is the spirit that becomes free of all matter and is stripp­ed of all at the time of prayer.@(119)   AHappy is the spirit that attains to complete unconsciousness of all sensible experience at the time of prayer.@(120) Cassian took up this doctrine and conveyed it to monks of the West summarizing it as follows: AThat prayer is not perfect in the course of which the monk is aware of the fact that he is praying.@ (Conference 9:31)

 

 


In the East the hesychasts integrated this teaching on what is the nature of  pure prayer in their practice and devised a technique for arriving at the goal it set as far as that depends on human cooperation. Numbers of mystics who wrote on contemplative prayer in the West and in the East have also adopted this doctrine that pure prayer is beyond words, images and even, in its higher states, beyond consciousness of self. Notable among these are St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing and, in recent times, Thoms Mer­ton. Following in this same line Dom Thomas Keating and Fr. Basil Pennington adapted this pray­er to lay persons who did not have the many helps to attain to such concentrated and pure prayer as the silence and solitude of the cloister provide. They gave it the name of Centering Pray­er but, as F. Basil states explicitly, only the name is knew and he points out that it has the same aim as Prayer of the Heart.  

One of the key elements of this technique is the use of a short prayer that one repeats in order to remain focused on the immediate presence of the Lord within the heart. Already in the desert of Egypt such a way of prayer was already in use prior to John Cassian=s time in the desert in the fourth century. He reports his conversation with Abba Isaac who explained this way as follows. 

I must give you a formula for contemplation....The formula was given us by a few of the oldest fathers who remained. They communicated it only to a very few who were athirst for the true way. To maintain an unceasing recollection of God , this formula must be ever before you. The formula is this: AO God, come to my assistance, O Lord, make haste to help me.@ (cited in Pennington, 27, 28). 

This practice of repeating a formula given by a master on which to focus attention is used in Zen Buddhism as well but with a more rigid adherence to use of the mantra than in Christian circles. The Russian mystic, Theophane the Recluse, made it clear that since the purpose of the prayer formula is to arrive at full attention to the present Lord, repeating the prayer should be used only to the extent that it served this purpose. Having learned by persistent effort to pray in this manner enables the monk to make use of an analogous technique at the time of psalmody. He can make use of the words of the psalm as a means of concentration by focusing attention on the meaning of the meaning of a significant word or words such as mercy, fidelity, goodness of the Lord. This drives out distracting thoughts. By attention to the words the monk is led to awareness of the Lord himself to whom the words are addressed or of whom they speak. Thus not only does his mind harmonize with his voice but he becomes aware of being in the presence of God then and there. By forming the habit of praying the psalms in this way, gradually psalmody comes to continue the same work as the private Prayer of the Heart, with the added dimension of sharing with the community and the Church as a whole in the worship of God. As this development takes place the monk begins to realize consciously why some of the early Father derived the word >monk= from >monotropos= in Greek, that is to say, >the one with a single way= for all he does is experienced as a step on the way that bring him closer to his goal: oneness with God the Father with Christ Jesus  in the Holy Spirit.

  Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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