Essays















The holy of holies

I looked for methods of entering heaven and knowing everything since I was in my teenage years. I found what I was looking for in the Church.

Other things I tried were: humanistic philosophy, political activism, drugs, religion, ordinary ethical life, tarot cards and I Ching, binge-drinking, sexual promiscuity, rock star fame, excessive reading, and other things. They didn’t answer to the problem. I never tried the expedient of ‘giving up looking’, but who knows if that would have been a solution?

I’m incredibly selfish, or, I don’t understand how other people live, or whether they are looking for the meaning of life. For what it is worth, here is the meaning of life, as I understand it.

Christianity offers eternal life. That is, there is a life after this one, and a Christian will see it, after he dies. While the world and life is changeable, fickle, and subject to time, and is spatio-temporal; by contrast, the after life is eternal, and I will continue to exist in eternity when I am dead.

Life’s meaning is outside it. This is the same for most things. The meaning of work is to get paid. The meaning of eating is to stay alive. The meaning of sexual activity is to have children, and so on. And thus, the meaning of life is to ensure we enter the next life when we die.

It is possible to glimpse the next life; we can enter eternity today. I don’t want half measures, so I want eternity now. The first way of preparing for the next life, and seeing a glimpse of it, is to go to an Orthodox Christian liturgy, where the body and blood of Christ are given. The other way is to pray regularly, in private.

Praying

To pray regularly, in private, resembles a brazen unsanctified entry into the holy of holies, in order to snatch for oneself eternal life, without regard for what other people think about you. By learning how to pray, anybody can come to know the Spirit, the Son, and the Father.

Prayer is very simple to learn, very effective, and addictive. Those who learn how to pray have an almost erotic desire to do it every day. It is perhaps right to say that the love for God is also the love of praying. By this simple act, you find God, and you don’t want to let go.

Everyone is different, and each has their own pathway; but this is universally valid: aim to pray without ceasing. The result will be that you find your eternal self, and see that God created you to be his friend. Like a youth or a young man in love, you won’t really care for anything else but eternity and God afterward.

In the third volume of the Philokalia, the work by Ilias the Presbyter has been collected, ‘Gnomic Anthology’. Ilias wrote this around 1100AD:

’89. Because of long absence from its true home, the intellect has forgotten the luminosity it enjoyed there; hence it must once more become oblivious to things in this world and hasten back to its true home through prayer.
’90. Sometimes prayer will fail to bring spiritual refreshment to the intellect, just as a mother’s breasts, when they cease to give milk, will not solace her child. At other times the intellect in prayer is like a child that sleeps contentedly in its mother’s arms.
’91. In the contrite bridal-bed of the virtuous life the bride – prayer – says to her lover: ‘I will give you my breasts if you dedicate yourself wholly to me’ (cf. Song of Songs 7 : 12).
’92. You cannot become intimate with prayer unless you have renounced all material things.
’93. During prayer alienate yourself from everything except life and breath if you want to be with the intellect alone.
’94. Evidence of an intellect devoted to God is its absorption in the single-phrased Jesus Prayer […].’

Ilias goes on to give advice on how to let distracting thoughts make no difference; how to attain silence and stillness; how to make prayer into contemplation; how prayer reveals the spiritual reality inside all objects; and he points out that somebody who prays becomes well-behaved and virtuous.

As he says, for the one praying, only conscious awareness, breathing, and a simple meaningful phrase, are required.

Christians have always done prayer like this, and it has typically gone along with fasting or asceticism. Fasting is not an end in itself; it is meant, like everything else a Christian should do, to make prayer easier. Thus:

‘83. Strength to pray lies in the deliberate privation of food, and strength to go without food lies in not seeing or hearing about worldly things except when strictly necessary. […] the whole edifice of prayer […] is built on fasting.’

Prayer can, when we fall in love with it, and with God, become the means to everlasting life, and the glimpse of it in this life. But note, that we do not set out to see God – we aim to make ourselves perfect, humble, and to recognise our own eternity.

A man who can pray is no longer afraid of death, knows something of eternal life, and is the friend, if not the Son, of God. He trusts that he will be welcomed after physical death, just as he was welcomed here.

Now on the other hand, there is a second means of preparing for the life after death. This, is to take communion, or, to consume the body and blood of Christ.

Eucharist

Taking communion is to take into your own body the actual blood and flesh of Christ, the Son of God. All of the activity of the church, of all churches, derives from this giving and receiving of communion. This feast of love is only possible within an organisation. And those who receive it must believe – and this means that there is a great deal of preparation, tradition, church organisation and hierarchy, to ensure that the communion is celebrated properly. This small act is at the heart of it all.

It is no stretch of the imagination, for me, to believe that the bread and wine given at communion actually is the body and blood of Christ. Because, very simply, if it is possible for me to be near to God in prayer, and for the Spirit to come to me; then it is also no problem, in my eyes, for the Son to come to the Holy Chalice.

Christ broke bread at the Last Supper, and also passed around wine. Thus (Mark, 14):

‘And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body.

’23. And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it.
’24. And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many.’

And (Luke, 22: 19);

‘…do this in remembrance of me.’

In John (6):

’53. Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except yet eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.
’54. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.
’55. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.
’56. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.’

So, he told them that the gifts were his body and blood; and he told them that they must consume the body and blood in future times.

At the liturgy of an Orthodox ceremony, the act of eating the gifts is said to forgive the sins of the person receiving the body and blood. Christ was without sin, and those who take his body and blood are without sin to the extent that they receive his flesh and blood in their own bodies.

For that person who cannot easily approach God through the discipline of prayer, the taking of communion means that they will be accepted by God in eternity. It is not a question of feeling different in your body after eating that food. But, rather, that person should feel differently because of a rational calculation:

- the materialistic and ignorant life, which I lead is no barrier to my meeting God, now that I have eaten, because my material life, and my errors (sin), are forgiven, because I have Christ’s body and blood in me. And, I will be raised up after death.

Now, on Radio 1 in recent times, due to the absence of any religion in society for children and young adults, that radio station has been broadcasting breathing and stillness advice, along with atmospheric music. Mindfulness training has been popular amongst older people. And so on. For the literate, Buddhist or TM teachings are available. These are the symptoms of a society, our society, falling apart, trying to pull itself together by any means possible. Trying, that is, to grasp at the truth and at eternal life when its history and its elders and native church have led it over the edge of a cliff.

Yesterday, we celebrated the resurrection of Christ at our church. That celebration is concerned to commemorate the moment at which humans were guaranteed eternal life by God. The meaning of life is, that we are going to die, and then go into eternity.

What is best in life is, to prepare and to get ready for eternity, by one way or the other. So let us get on with it!



Design Jason Powell, 2020.

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