Sunday, 1 February 2009

‘The Ears of the Heart … Listening to Prayers from the East’

The Chapel of Christ’s College, Cambridge

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 1 February 2009, The Eve of Candlemas: The Chapel of Christ’s College, Cambridge

Solemn Orchestral Eucharist: Hebrews 2: 14-18; Luke 2: 22-40

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


It is wonderful to be back in Cambridge, in Christ’s College, and in this Chapel once again. Anyone who has loved the poetry of John Milton, who has been challenged by Charles Darwin, or who has delighted in the writings and insights of Rowan Williams, would be delighted to be here.

The Revd Christopher Woods provided wonderful hospitality last year when I was in Cambridge on a course, and I hope many of you will come to realise the wonderful blessing it is when a student becomes a friend, and a very welcoming friend at that too.

It is a particular pleasure to be here for this Eve of Candlemas. The snow today probably reminds us all of Christmas. This feast, also known as the Feast of the Presentation, is a festival in the Church Calendar that bridges the gap between Christmas and Lent; that links the joy of the Christmas candles with the hope of the Pascal candle at Easter; that invites us to move from celebration to reflection and preparation, and to think about the source of our hope, our inspiration, our enlightenment.

The theme of this Lent Term series of sermons is “The ears of the heart …” We are looking at and learning from different styles of prayer and different approaches to prayer, for Candlemas is truly a time of listening and hoping.

Over the years, in my spiritual growth and my pilgrimage through life, I have been shaped and enriched most of all by two traditions in the Church more than any other: Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Both traditions have much in common, and both have much to learn from each other. We share synodical government and an incarnational approach to life; we celebrate diversity in unity; we combine liturgical beauty and relaxed formality; and we appreciate the spiritual richness and value of stillness.

The Eastern Orthodox approaches to prayer can be a rich treasure and can shine a light for the Western Church. So let me share a few of these insights and gifts with you this evening.

In the Orthodox tradition, prayer is not about formulas. It is first and foremost doxology, praise, thanksgiving, confession, supplication, and intercession to God. Prayer is a personal dialogue with God, a spiritual breathing of the soul, a foretaste of the bliss of God’s kingdom.

“When I prayed I was new,” wrote a great Orthodox theologian, “but when I stopped praying I became old.” So prayer is the way to renewal and spiritual life; prayer is being alive to God; prayer is strength, refreshment and joy. Prayer lifts us up into that loving communion with God in which we experience everything in a new light.

There are six aspects of prayer life within the Orthodox tradition that I wish to introduce briefly and share this evening.

1, The Liturgy: The word Orthodoxy means, primarily, not right doctrine but right worship or praise. The beauty of the liturgy is impressive. The story is told that when the ambassadors from Kiev first arrived in the great Church of Aghia Sophia in Byzantium they were so in awe of the beauty and the splendour of the liturgy, they reported:

“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.”

2, Daily and Personal Prayer: Orthodox prayer is not confined to Sundays and the liturgy. How many Anglican churches today continue the cycle of the daily offices? How many of us maintain a regular habit of daily prayer?

For the Orthodox, daily prayer in the church and at home sanctifies the times at which they are celebrated, from early morning to late evening.

3, Icons and iconography: In the west, we still see art, including religious art, in terms of beauty, form and statement. Orthodox icons are not meant to be beautiful – they are meant to provide a window into spiritual reality.

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 separating the congregation in the main body of the church from the sacred mysteries behind the royal doors are there not to make the church look pretty or beautiful, but are central to understanding the worship and life of the Orthodox Church, its teachings, its liturgy and its prayers.

At the present Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, the final treasure, appropriately, is the 12th century Icon of the Heavenly Ladder of Saint John Klimakos. This icon is so well-known that visitors to the exhibition are amazed it is so small. Yet this one small icon is a reminder that at the heart of Orthodox spirituality and prayer is the ability to bridge the chasm between earth and heaven.

4, The monastic life: In the Orthodox tradition, the monastery is not a retreat from the “real world,” but is a fountain for nurturing spirituality and the life of prayer of all believers. Although some of the great writers on Mount Athos lived as hermits, they gathered many followers, and were particularly known for their practice of the Jesus Prayer.

5, The Jesus Prayer: The Jesus Prayer is one of the best known traditions within Orthodoxy. Its words say simply: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner” (Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, Υἱὲ Θεοῦ, ἐλέησόν με τὸν ἁμαρτωλό). This is what some of the Church Fathers knew as the Prayer of the Heart. It is a short, simple prayer, widely used and taught throughout Eastern Christianity.

For the Eastern Orthodox, this prayer is one of the most deep, profound and mystical prayers. It is often repeated, continually and throughout the day, as a part of personal ascetic practice. For all of us, the Jesus Prayer is a way of taking one of the most important first steps on the spiritual journey: the recognition of our own sinfulness, our essential estrangement from God and from the people around us. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner.

6, The Hesychast tradition: The practice of the Jesus Prayer is an integral part of Hesychasm (ἡσυχασμός), a tradition that values stillness and the quiet, not for their own sake, as some sort of comfort zone, but as leading to the contemplation and experience of God as light, what Saint Gregory Palamas was referring to when he spoke of experiencing the Uncreated Light.

The Hesychast, who by the mercy of God has such an experience, does not remain in that state for too long a time, but returns “to earth” and continues to practise the full Christian life.

To summarise: 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 goal of a life of prayer is living a life of active love for all people. And the result of a life of prayer is to be filled with mercy and forgiveness, to bind up wounds and to love.

Evgarius is quoted in the Philokalia as having once written: “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. The beauty of Orthodox liturgy, the insights provided by the Orthodox use of icons, the practice of the Jesus Prayer, and the rich treasures in the Orthodox monastic writings can help each of us to develop our own practice of prayer.

As you pray, may you learn from the insights of others. And may the light of Christ continue to shine in your hearts, in your souls, and in your eyes.

And now, may all praise, honour and glory be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is the Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This sermon was preached in the Chapel of Christ’s College, Cambridge, on Sunday 1 February 2009, at the Solemn Orchestral Mass for the Eve, with Ceremony of Light and Blessing of Candles.


The sermon was part of the Lent Term series, ‘The ears of the heart …’

The other preachers in the series include: the College Chaplain, the Revd Christopher Woods (18 January); Dr Katherine Dell, Lecturer in Old Testament, the University of Cambridge, and Fellow of Saint Catharine’s College (25 January); Father Alexander Lucie-Smith, Cambridge Theological Federation (8 February); Priscilla Slusar, Student Priest, Christ’s College Chapel (15 February); the Revd Anna Macham, Succentor of Southwark Cathedral and Chaplain of Guy’s Campus, King’s College, London (22 February); the Revd Canon Andrew Freany, Vicar of Little Saint Mary’s, Cambridge (1 March).

The Chapel of Christ’s College, Cambridge is at: http://www.christs.cam.ac.uk/college-life/chapel-and-choir/

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