Sunday, 13 November 2011

Remembering my grandfather on Remembrance Sunday

Looking down on the city of Thessaloniki and out to the Thermaic Gulf ... and recalling my grandfather’s days here during World War I (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

The Second Sunday before Advent,

Sunday 13 November 2011 (Remembrance Sunday)

11.30 a.m., The Eucharist

Judges 4: 1-7; Psalm 123; I Thessalonians 5: 1-11; Matthew 25: 14-30


May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

I missed being here for our previous residential weekend because I had a prior commitment to preaching in Liverpool Cathedral, and earlier I had spent a week in Thessaloniki.

I love Greece, and often get there twice a year – sometimes more.

Thessaloniki has long been a favourite place of mine. But there were special family reasons too for being there last month.

One sunny afternoon, I climbed up through the narrow back streets, cobbled alleyways and steep steps that lead up to the old city, or Ano Poli (Άνω Πόλης) and the Kastra or Castle and the Byzantine Walls that mark out the top of the hills overlooking the city. There you can see the monastery of Aghios Pavlos (Άγιος Παύλος) hanging precariously over a cliff edge, almost as though it were about to fall down on the city.

It is a demanding climb for those who walk it rather than taking the easy option of a taxi. But it is a climb that is worth it, for this is truly picture-postcard Greece, with hanging balconies, houses painted in bright primary colours, and tiny cafés.

As the city fell away beneath my gaze, and the view of the Thermaic Gulf spread out below, I thought of my grandfather, who had been brought there with his regiment, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, having barely survived the disasters at Gallipoli and Suvla Bay in 1915.

As the Turkish gunners looked down at those poor young, frightened soldiers being landed on the beaches below them, did they think, with their 20th century equivalents of chariots and troops, that those innocent Irish soldiers had been given into their hands, like a scene from our reading this morning from the Book of Judges? (see Judges 4: 7).

Only three years beforehand, Thessaloniki had been liberated and incorporated into the modern Greek state.

Stephen Edward Comerford and Bridget Lynders on their wedding day, 7 February 1905, in Donabate

As I made my way up above that city, I wondered: was my grandfather, Stephen Comerford, housed in a makeshift camp on these slopes and hills I was climbing?

He must have prayed so often that bitter winter for his wife, Bridget (Lynders), my grandmother, and his sons and daughters left at home in Ireland. Did he imagine he would ever see them again?

He was then 46 or 47 years old. As he watched his comrades die from the wounds they received in Balkan battles, from the bitter cold of winter and from the frostbite – many of them young enough to be his sons, perhaps encouraging them, building them up (I Thessalonians 5: 12) – how could he imagine he would ever have another son?

Were his wife and children praying in Ranelagh for his safe homecoming?

His parents were long dead. But were my grandmother’s parents, Patrick and Margaret Lynders, praying in Portrane for their son-in-law’s safe homecoming?

On my way up, I was conscious of his presence on those slopes in Thessaloniki, and imagined the prayers he prayed as I stopped at a church here, a monastery there.

On those slopes, did my grandfather lift up his eyes towards those monasteries and churches, towards God enthroned in the heavens, praying that he would “have mercy upon us ... for we have had more than enough of contempt. Our soul has had more than enough of the scorn of the arrogant, and of the contempt of the proud” (Psalm 123: 1-5)?

I was heading up those hills and slopes to the Monastery of Vlatádon – the Holy, Royal, Patriarchal and Stavropegic Monastery of Vlatádon (Η Μονή Βλατάδων) – and for the Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies, which is part of the monastery complex.

The church in the monastery dates back to the 14th century, but is said to stand on the point where the Apostle Paul preached to the people of Thessaloniki. There are beautiful views across the city, and there are dozens of friendly peacocks – bred by the monks because the peacock was traditionally seen as a sign of the resurrection.

Once again, I prayed in thanks that my grandfather had returned alive from this city – otherwise, my father would not have been conceived, and I would not have been born.

The people of Thessaloniki, the Thessalonians, who Saint Paul preached to on those cliff edges, are the same people who received his two Letters to the Thessalonians. Over the past few weeks in our lectionary readings, we have been reading from I Thessalonians. Those readings come to a conclusion this week, but they only began the Sunday after I was in Thessaloniki, the Sunday of that last residential weekend I missed.

Saint Paul, in our reading this morning, repeats a common experience that when people just come to the point of thinking they have peace and security, sudden destruction comes upon them, and there is no escape (I Thessalonians 5: 3).

Having been sent into Serbia, Grandfather Stephen returned to Thessaloniki, and suffered – like so many in the Thermaic Gulf in those days – an attack of malaria, perhaps as he fell asleep on those slopes.

He was sent home, and would die – not from heroic action or war wounds – but from the onset of madness that then inevitably followed malaria, and was buried in the small Church of Ireland churchyard in Portrane.

Were those men who were disgorged heartlessly onto the beaches of Gallipoli and Suvla Bay, in fives and twos and ones – were they wasted talents, misspent by capricious and careless generals who never answered for the talents that had been entrusted to them?

Certainly, as I look at my grandfather’s grave, I think those generals literally and truly went and hid in the ground the talents entrusted to them (see Matthew 25: 25).

Did those men who were left to die of frostbite on the hills of Thessaloniki or to contract malaria from the waters in the gulf below, feel it was they and not their generals who had been thrown into the outer darkness, where they found there was weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 25: 30)?

The Monastery of Vlatádon .. a quiet and undisturbed corner in the hills above Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

As I left the Monastery of Vlatádon, I was still thinking of my grandfather’s time in Thessaloniki almost a century ago. I never knew him; he died when my father was only two.

But I reminded myself that had he not survived his time there, my father would never have been born. And so I cannot be angry, I cannot even be upset. “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Thessalonians 5: 9).

The malaria my grandfather contracted in Thessaloniki eventually killed him. But it was because of this malaria that he was sent back to Dublin. And it is because of that, I know, I am alive today.

I have much to be sad about in that city, but I have much to be thankful for too. This city is part of my life and part of my story, and this is my Thessaloniki too.

The peacocks in Vlatádon ... bred by the monks as a sign of the Resurrection (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

As I walked back down to the city from Vlatádon, I reminded myself of the friendly peacocks in the monastery courtyard – the peacocks bred by the monks as signs of the resurrection.

In war or peace, in prosperity or adversity, no matter how others see us or how they treat us, we can be assured of how God sees us, and how God treats us.

“When they say, ‘There is peace and security’, then sudden destruction will come upon them ... and there will be no escape” (I Thessalonians 5: 3) … Saint Paul preaching in Thessaloniki, a fresco in the Cathedral Church of Saint Gregory Palamas in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

And I was reminded too that on the Sunday I was missing here that you were reading that opening passage from Saint Paul’s first Letter to the Thessalonians, in which he commends the people of Thessaloniki for their resurrection faith and tells them not to be afraid. He rejoices that they have become imitators of the Lord, “for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy ... and ... you turned to God ... to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead – Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming” (I Thessalonians 1: 7-10).

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Eucharist in the institute chapel on Sunday 13 November 2011.

Collect:

Heavenly Father,
whose blessed Son was revealed to destroy the works of the devil
and to make us the children of God and heirs of eternal life:
Grant that we, having this hope,
may purify ourselves even as he is pure;
that when he shall appear in power and great glory,
we may be made like him
in his eternal and glorious kingdom;
where he is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Post Communion Prayer

Gracious Lord,
in this holy sacrament you give substance to our hope.
Bring us at the last to that pure life for which we long,
through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Introducing Orthodox Spirituality

An Orthodox convent on a small island off the coast of Corfu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2006)

Patrick Comerford

Introduction:

Orthodox liturgical music:

Tracks 26 and 27 from Russian choir, Gregorian and Orthodox Chant: My Soul doth magnify the Lord; and the Great Doxology (Znamenny Choir)


There is a story in the Orthodox Church that when Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, was still a pagan at the end of the 10th century, he sent out envoys to discover what was the true religion and to advise him on which religion should be the state religion.

The envoys first visited the Muslim Bulgars of the Volga, but found no joy among them “but mournfulness and a great smell.”

In Germany and Rome, they found the worship and liturgy was without beauty.

But when the envoys reached Byzantium, they were so dazzled by the splendour of the Byzantine liturgy in the great church of Aghia Sophia they instantly decided that Orthodoxy should be the faith of the Slav people. “We knew not whether we were on heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among humans, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.”

The beautiful interior of the Church of Aghia Sophia in Thessaloniki ... its design is a replica of the great Aghia Sopha in Byzantium (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

In ministry in Ireland today, we need to be aware of the Orthodox churches not merely because of the beauty of their worship and liturgy, but for practical and pastoral reasons too:

1, Enhancing our cultural experiences: we cannot understand many modern movies – from Zorba the Greek to My Big Fat Greek Wedding or Captain Corelli’s Mandolin; modern literature – from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov to the novels of Nikos Kazantzakis, the poems of Yiannis Ritsos or JD Salinger’s Franny and Zooey; or the music of composers like Rachmaninov and John Taverner, without an introduction to Orthodox piety, practice and spirituality.

2, The current world situation: Four EU member states have an Orthodox majority– Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria. How did Orthodox spirituality sustain the people in Soviet Russia or in Ceausescu’s Romania? What was the role of faith in the horrors of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia? What form of spirituality is sustaining the people of Greece in their current economic and political crisis? Who are the Christians caught between the extremes of militant Zionism and militant Islam in the Middle East? Or, how should I behave when I visit a church while on holiday in Greece, Cyprus or Russia?

3, The current situation in Ireland: Orthodoxy may be the fastest growing Christian tradition in Ireland today. There are five Orthodox churches in Dublin, Greek, Russian, Romanian, Antiochene and Georgian, with the Romanians and the Russians using former Church of Ireland parish churches. In addition, from the Oriental Orthodox tradition, there are Indian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox communities in Ireland. The Indian Orthodox Church worships in a Church of Ireland parish church. In addition, the Mar Thomas Church, which uses the Church of Ireland church in Tallaght, has its roots in Syrian and Indian Orthodoxy, and is in full communion with the Anglican Communion.

4, Orthodox spirituality offers many rich gifts and insights into worship, liturgy, spirituality and prayer. Indeed, Orthodox insights on prayer and spirituality have enriched many Anglicans, including Archbishop Michael Ramsey and Archbishop Rowan Williams, and many Anglicans have been helped to pray through the books of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom.

I have been privileged to spend time in many Orthodox countries, experiencing the worship and prayer life of churches and monasteries in Greece, Romania, Cyprus and Egypt, especially on Mount Athos, Mount Sinai, Patmos, Thessaloniki, Crete, Samos and the Western Desert in Egypt.

Orthodox understandings of prayer

The life of an Orthodox Christian is one of prayer ... inside an Orthodox church in Samos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2008)

The life of an Orthodox Christian is one of prayer. In the Orthodox tradition, it is the person who truly prays who is a theologian and a God-seer. The purpose of all life is to be filled with the Holy Spirit and to become one with Christ, so that we may “become participants in the Divine Nature” (II Peter 1: 4), or Θέωσις (theosis) as it is called in the Orthodox tradition. Everything an Orthodox person does should be to further the goal of living a life of active love for all people. A life of prayer is filled with mercy, forgiveness and love.

For the Orthodox, prayer is doxology, praise, thanksgiving, confession, supplication and intercession to God. “When I prayed I was new,” wrote a great Orthodox theologian, “but when I stopped praying I became old.” For the Orthodox, prayer is the way to renewal and spiritual life, is being alive to God, is strength, refreshment and joy, is a personal dialogue with God, is a spiritual breathing of the soul, is a foretaste of the bliss of God’s kingdom.

The Orthodox teach that God does not ask us to talk with him using beautiful words, but to talk to him from a beautiful soul. For that, we need no particular eloquence. He hears us no matter how softly we speak, he understands us even when we say little. All hours are appropriate and all places good. It is sufficient that we want to pray; learning comes after that.

However, there are some specific aspects of Orthodox spirituality that I want to touch on briefly this morning: the Liturgy; Daily and Personal Prayer; Icons and Prayer; the Jesus Prayer; and the monastic life.

The Liturgy

The iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The first experience many have of Orthodox prayer, worship and spirituality is as a visitor to an Orthodox church. That first experience of the Orthodox liturgy can be so overpowering that many people agree with the envoys from Kiev who said: “This we know, that God dwells there among humans.” But Orthodox liturgy has had an immense influence on the western liturgical movement, reforming and transforming, for example, our understandings of the separate Services of the Word and of the Sacrament, the Gospel procession, the ἐπίκλησις (epiklesis) in the Eucharist, even the fact that we stand far more often during the liturgy.

The word Orthodoxy means, primarily, not right doctrine but right worship or praise, and doctrine is understood first and foremost within the context and setting of divine worship.

As the Russian theologian Father Georges Florovsky (1893-1979) writes: “Christianity is a liturgical religion. The Church is first of all a worshipping community. Worship comes first, doctrine and discipline second.”

Or as Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says: “Orthodoxy sees human beings as liturgical creatures who are most truly themselves when they glorify God, and who find their perfection and self-fulfilment in worship.”

We use the word liturgy loosely, meaning all the public offices of the Church. But in Orthodox theology, the Divine Liturgy refers only to the Eucharist. Although the Liturgy may be celebrated on most days, there is no tradition of a daily celebration in parish churches, and the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated on weekdays in the penitential season of Great Lent.

The sense of worshipping the Lord in the beauty of holiness is experienced in the singing and in the decoration of churches, with their frescoes and icons. The singing is often a capella, and generally there is a noticeable lack of seating or pews (Canon 20 of the first Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in the year 325 forbids all kneeling on Sundays). There is a mixture of formality and familiarity that is particular to Orthodox participation in worship, for the worshipper knows he/she is in the house of their true Father. The church and the liturgy are truly meeting points between heaven and earth.

Daily services and daily prayer

Apart from the Divine Liturgy, on a daily basis the Divine Offices of the Orthodox Church, the daily services, are conducted each day in the church by the clergy, and must have at least one other person present. Traditionally, the services follow a daily schedule:

● Vespers (Ἑσπερινός): at sundown, the traditional beginning of the day;
● Compline (Ἀπόδειπνον), “after supper,” after the evening meal, prior to bedtime;
● The Midnight Office (Μεσονυκτικόν), in monasteries;
● Matins (Ὂρθρος), the first service of the morning, usually starting before sunrise;
● The Hours (1st at 7 a.m., 3rd at 9 a.m., 6th at noon, and 9th at 3 p.m.).

These services sanctify those times of the day. They consist mainly of readings from the Psalms and prayers, with the Psalms arranged so the entire Psalter is read over a week, and twice a week during Great Lent.

Alongside the public prayer of the daily offices and the Liturgy, Orthodox Christians are taught that their daily prayer should include Morning, Midday and Evening prayers. Personal prayer in the home often includes morning and evening prayer, usually before the family icons, with either the whole family or individuals praying on their own. When they pray on their own, they are still praying with the Church.

As Georges Florovsky writes: “Personal prayer is only possible in the context of the community. Even in solitude, ‘in the chamber,’ a Christian prays as a member of the redeemed community, of the Church.”

And, as the Russian theologian, Paul Evdokimov, remarks: “Our whole life, every act and gesture, even a smile must become a hymn or adoration, an offering, a prayer. We must become prayer – prayer incarnate.”

Icons and prayer

The Hospitality of Abraham ... a contemporary icon of a much-loved traditional theme

Orthodox prayer, both public and private, is also marked by the use of icons, and, in a very developed way, by the use of the Jesus Prayer.

Through the traditional use of icons, the Orthodox Church has had a remarkable influence, not just on aesthetic considerations, but on our theological journey too. Our understanding of the Trinity, for example, has been transformed by the way in which many theologians have come to a fresh way of talking about the Trinity because of insights developed through Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Visitation of Abraham.

Apart from a cross, there are five icons on the wall in my study: an icon of Christ from a monastery in Corfu, which is a copy of an icon from Patmos; a copy of Rublev’s Visitation of Abraham; a copy of an icon of Christ as the Great High Priest from Mount Athos; an icon of the Apostles Peter and Paul, which is the icon of Christian unity; and an icon of Saint Catherine of Sinai, patron of the institute where I have studied in Cambridge. [(Pass around icons.)]

An icon of Saint Catherine of Sinai, patron saint of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge

The icon of Christ in this chapel is a copy of the earliest surviving icon of Christ, from Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai.

There are four smaller icons in the sacristy: Christ the Pantocrator; Saint John the Theologian in the cave on Patmos, dictating the opening verses of the Book of Revelation to Prochorus; an icon of the Last Supper; and a modern icon of the Supper at Emmaus; as well as a larger icon of the Day of Pentecost.

For the Orthodox, the church building, the whole edifice, is one great icon of the Kingdom of God. The frescoes, the icons and the icon screen (εἰκονοστάσι, iconostásis) separating the congregation from the sacred mysteries behind the royal doors are not to make the church look more pretty or beautiful, but are central to understanding Orthodox worship and life, liturgy and prayers.

The dispute over the doctrinal orthodoxy of icons and their place in the Church was settled at the seventh Ecumenical Council in 843. Icons are part of the heritage of the undivided Church before the Great Schism. Their use has increased among Anglicans in recent decades, although some Anglicans treat them as decorative religious items rather than aids to prayer, while others raise questions about idolatry or, at the least, about an emphasis on things seen rather than faith.

An icon of Christ in an antique shop in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The word εἰκών simply means a depiction, image or representation. The New Testament describes Jesus as the eikon or the image and exact representation of God (Hebrews 1: 3). The Ecumenical Councils declared the incarnation had made it permissible to represent God in visual form. If Christ himself made God visible, then visual theology was as authentic as verbal theology. But the Orthodox say that an icon is written rather than painted, and speak of icon writers rather than icon painters, and carved or graven images are still unacceptable. Icons used in the Liturgy and in prayer are no more worshipped than the pages, ink and typeface of a prayer book, so that the Orthodox pray through but not to an icon, and while an icon is given reverence it is never worshipped.

Christ Pantocrator in the dome of a church in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Large icons can be found on the walls of churches and icon-style frescoes usually cover the inside walls. They begin with more worldly scenes at ground level, and work their way up through the Gospel stories and the stories of salvation. In this way, as we are distracted by worldly thoughts during the Liturgy, we are called back to the purpose of worship, until our eyes are drawn ever upwards, and in the height of the dome we see the evangelists and angels surrounding the highest and holiest of all, Christ the Pantocrator, the one who rules all and through whom all things are made.

Orthodox homes also have icons on the wall, usually on an east-facing wall in a place where the family can pray together, illuminated by a candle or oil lamp. Besides the practical purpose of making icons visible in an otherwise dark church, both candles and oil lamps symbolise that Christ is the Light of the World.

The Jesus Prayer

Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, Υἱὲ τοῦ Θεοῦ, ἐλέησόν με

The Jesus Prayer, also called the Prayer of the Heart by some Church Fathers, is one of the best known spiritual traditions within Orthodoxy. It is simple: Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, Υἱὲ Θεοῦ, ἐλέησόν με τὸν ἁμαρτωλό (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner).

This short, simple prayer has been widely used and taught throughout history. For the Orthodox, it is one of the most profound and mystical prayers. It is often repeated continually as a part of personal ascetic practice. The theology of the Jesus Prayer was most clearly set out by Saint Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), and its practice is an integral part of Hesychasm, the subject of the Philokalia, a collection of texts on prayer compiled in the late 18th century that has become a key compendium of Orthodox spirituality and prayer.

An icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, from the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai

The practice of repeating the prayer continually dates from at least the 5th century. It is first referred to in the writings of Saint Diadochos of Photiki (400-486), is described by Saint John Cassian, who died in 435, and is recommended by Saint John Klimakos of Mount Sinai (523-603) in The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Today, Mount Athos is a centre of the practice of the Jesus Prayer.

The use of the Jesus Prayer is the subject of the Russian classic, The Way of a Pilgrim, which became familiar to many western readers in JD Salinger’s 1960s novel, Franney and Zooey. The Russian pilgrim in The Way of a Pilgrim discovers the Jesus Prayer and the answers to many of his questions in the Philokalia. With the Scriptures and the Philokalia in his hand, he places himself under the guidance of an experienced elder and begins his life-long struggle to develop inner prayer.

In its simplicity, the Jesus Prayer is rooted in Scripture, echoing the cry for mercy of the blind man near Jericho (Luke 18: 38), of the ten lepers (Luke 17: 13), of the publican in the Temple (Luke 18: 14), and of the penitent thief on the cross (Luke 23: 42). Let us listen to a similar theme in The Cry of the Thief Crucified by the Russian composer Pavel Grigorievich Chesnokov (1877-1944), who suffered greatly under Stalin – when the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, where he was the last choirmaster, was torn down, he stopped writing altogether. The tenor singing here is the Russian Evgeny Akimov (1910-1949).

Play: The Cry of the Thief Crucified by Chesnokov (Track 13, Authentic Russian Sacred Music).

The Jesus Prayer is a way of taking one of the most important first steps on the spiritual journey: recognising my own sinfulness, my estrangement from both God and the people around me. The Jesus Prayer is a prayer in which I admit my desperate need of my Saviour. For “if we say we have no sin in us, we are deceiving ourselves and refusing to admit the truth” (I John 1: 8).

Saint Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894) was one of the greatest Russian spiritual writers. A persistent theme in his writing is developing an interior life of continuous prayer, learning to “pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5: 17), as the Apostle Paul teaches in his First Letter to the Thessalonians – which we finish reading from in the Lectionary cycle in our Liturgy later this morning (I Thessalonians 5: 1-11).

Saint Theophan the Recluse sees the Jesus Prayer as a way of fulfilling this desire of Saint Paul, and identifies three levels in saying the Jesus Prayer:

1, It begins as oral prayer, a simple recitation that is prayers’ “verbal expression and shape.” But this level of prayer is still external and only the first step, for “the essence or soul of prayer is within a man’s mind and heart.”

2, As we enter more deeply into prayer, we reach the point where we begin to pray without distraction. At this point, “the mind is focused upon the words” of the Jesus Prayer, “speaking them as if they were our own.”

3, The third and final level is prayer of the heart. At that stage, prayer is no longer what we do but who we are. It is a return to the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit, which is the purpose of all Christian spirituality; it is to be open to the presence of the Kingdom in our midst.

The author of The Way of the Pilgrim says the Jesus Prayer has two transfiguring effects on his vision of the world.

1, It transfigures his relationship with the material creation around him. The world becomes transparent, a sign, a means of communicating God’s presence. He writes: “When I prayed in my heart, everything around me seemed delightful and marvellous. The trees, the grass, the birds, the air, the light seemed to be telling me that they existed for man's sake, that they witnessed to the love of God for man, that all things prayed to God and sang his praise.”

2, The Jesus Prayer transfigures his relationship with other human beings, giving them form within their proper context: the forgiveness and compassion of the crucified and risen Lord. “Again I started off on my wanderings. But now I did not walk along as before, filled with care. The invocation of the name of Jesus gladdened my way. Everybody was kind to me. If anyone harms me I have only to think, ‘How sweet is the Prayer of Jesus!’ and the injury and the anger alike pass away and I forget it all.”

Monks often pray this prayer many hundreds of times each night in private in their cells. Under the guidance of an Elder (Russian стáрец, starets; Greek γέροντας, gérontas), the monk aims to internalise the prayer, so that he is praying unceasingly, answering that exhortation from Apostle Paul to “pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5: 17).

When it is practised on a continuing basis, the Jesus Prayer becomes automatic. It is prayed repeatedly, often with the aid of a prayer rope (Greek: κομποσκοίνι, komboskíni), sometimes accompanied by the sign of the cross and even prostrations.

In the practice of the Jesus Prayer, there is an emphasis on humility, with countless warnings about the disaster that befalls those who use it in pride, arrogance or conceit. There are warnings that seeking after unusual “spiritual” experiences can cause great harm, ruining the soul and the mind of the seeker. Seeking after “spiritual” experiences can lead to spiritual delusion, where a person believes himself or herself to be a saint, or has hallucinations in which he or she “sees” angels, Christ, etc. This state of spiritual delusion can be a pleasure in a superficial or egotistical way, but can lead to madness and suicide.

In many texts, it is also said that that the Jesus Prayer must only be prayed by members of the Orthodox Church in good standing.

The monastic tradition today

The Monastery of Vatopédi (Βατοπέδι) on Mount Athos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2004)

Mount Athos is the most important centre of monastic life in the Orthodox world today. There has been a recent revival in the fortunes of many of the monasteries on the Holy Mountain, with new monks arriving from Cyprus, Romania, Russia and Australia.

The mountain is loved among the Orthodox for nurturing great writers in spirituality and on the life of prayer. Three of the best known of these writers in the 20th century were Saint Silouan (1866-1938), his disciple Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov (1896-1993), founder of Saint John’s Monastery, which I visit each year, and Elder Joseph (died 1959).

Although some of these great writers also lived as hermits, they gathered many followers, and were particularly known for their practice of the Jesus Prayer.

The Monastery of Vlatádon ... a working monastery with strong links with academic theological life in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Some thoughts or questions for reflection in our quiet time:

In our quiet time, may I suggest some thoughts or reflections for consideration?

● Consider using the Jesus Prayer for your own meditation and as a spiritual discipline: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner.”
● Read through the lyrics of the hymn, O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness (Church Hymnal # 196). This hymn was written Canon by John Samuel Bewley Monsell (1811-1875) of the Church of Ireland. How or where do you find the “beauty of holiness” in worship and liturgy?
● Borrow one of the icons I have been handing around, or one the icons I have left in the Sacristy, and consider your own possibilities of using them for meditation, or reflect honestly on your own difficulties about using icons.
● Reflect on your own engagement with immigrants.
● Reflect on how and why you visit or do not visit other churches during your time on holidays abroad.
● Or stay here in the chapel in silence, while I leave some Orthodox liturgical music on in the background to help your meditation.

Conclusions

Evágrios Pontikós (Εὐάγριος ὁ Ποντικός, 345-399), one of the fathers of the Western Desert in Egypt, once wrote: “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.”

To pray truly, we can learn from the traditions of others. There are rich treasures in each and every Christian tradition that we can draw on without compromising our own Christian tradition, experience and spirituality.

The beauty of the Orthodox liturgy, the insights provided by Orthodox use of icons, the practice of the Jesus Prayer, and the rich treasurers in the writings of Orthodox monks can help each of us to develop our own practice of prayer.

Closing music:

Our closing music is the opening of the Liturgy, sung in Greek by a Romanian Orthodox choir. The call to worship begins with the sounding of the semandron or long wooden bar and the monastic bells calling people to prayer. Then the call to prayer includes the Δóξα (Doxology), the call to open the Doors of Penitence (Της μετανοíας), and the prayer, Come, let us behold (Δεύτε ίδωμεν την ζωην).

As the music continues, feel free to leave the chapel in silence at your own pace and time.

Readings and resources

(Bishop) Hilarion Alfeyev, The Mystery of Faith (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2002, ISBN: 0-232-52472-6) ... written as an introduction for English-readers to Orthodox theology.

(Archbishop) Anthony Bloom, Living Prayer (London Libra, various editions 1966-1971) … may be out of print now, but worth looking for in libraries.

(Archbishop) Anthony Bloom, School for Prayer (London Libra, various editions 1970-1972) … again, may be out of print now, but worth looking for in libraries.

(Archbishop) Anthony Bloom and Georges LeFebvre, Courage to Pray (London: Darton Longman & Todd Libra, various editions 1973-1974) … once again, may be out of print now, but once again worth looking for in libraries.

(Metropolitan) Anthony (Bloom) of Sourozh, The Living Body of Christ (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2008) ... a series of talks and interviews about what we mean when we speak of the Church, and in which he speaks of the Church as an icon of the Holy Trinity.

Sergius Bulgakov, The Lamb of God (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2008) ... one of the most remarkable books on Christology of the 20th century.

The Divine Liturgy of our father among the saints John Chrysostom (Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire: Nigel Lynn, 2011, on behalf of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain) ... a revised and updated version of the simple bilingual (Greek-English) presentation of the main Orthodox liturgical texts and prayers.

E Kadloubovsky and GEH Palmer, Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart (London: Faber and Faber, 1992, ISBN: 0-571-16393-9) ... access through the English language to selections from the major Orthodox work on spirituality.

John Anthony McGuckin, Standing in God’s Holy Fire: the Byzantine Tradition (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2001) ... a vivid introduction to the leading figures, key themes and values by a priest of the Romanian Orthodox Church and church historian (part of the Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series).

Frederica Mathews-Green, Fracing East: a pilgrim’s journey into the mysteries of Orthodoxy (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006) ... the journey of an evangelical family, described by a well-known author and blogger.

Charles Miller, The Gift of the World, an introduction to the theology of Dumitru Staniloae (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000, ISBN: 0-567-08732-8) ... an English-language introduction to the Romanian Orthodox theologian whose stature has been compared to Barth, Rahner and Schillebeeckx.

Solrunn Nes, The Mystical Language of Icons (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2004, ISBN 1-85311-657-2) … lavishly illustrated, beautiful thoughts as well as images.

Nicholas V. Sakharov, I love, therefore I am (Crestwood NY: St Vladimir’s, 2002) ... deep insights into one of the great, influential spiritual fathers of Orthodoxy.

Deborah Sheldon, Gospel Icons (Cambridge: Grove Books, 1999, ISBN 1-85174-401-0) … Grove Spirituality Series S 69, addresses many evangelical questions about the “orthodoxy” of icons.

Graham Speake, Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002) ...a guide to life on Mount Athos by a regular visitor.

(Metropolitan) Kallistos Ware (Timothy Ware), The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin, 1997, new ed, ISBN: 0-14-014656-3) … the standard introduction in plain English to the Orthodox Church … covers history, liturgy, church calendar, theology, &c.

(Metropolitan) Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002, ISBN 0-913836-58-3) … a good general introduction to Orthodox doctrine, worship and life.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This lecture was delivered in the institute chapel on Sunday 13 November 2011 as part of the “Spirituality” lecture series with part-time MTh students.