Essays















What the Thunder said

Someone important in our Church [the Bishop] once asked in general, and me in particular, why anyone would read the Philokalia from start to finish. He indirectly asked me that question, because that is what I was and still am doing.

The answer is manifold. People like me read the Philokalia principally because we are part of a society where you generally educate yourself, if you want education. You find your own way. I don’t want to make statements about ‘the West’ here; I am not going to diminish my country and its education, as if it needed to think less of itself than it already does…

People like me receive so little spiritual or valuable instruction during childhood and adulthood, that it is always a case of holding on very tightly to what you have learned for yourself, and, then seeking out what reinforces it and confirms it.

When not held back by idleness and the lesser demons of our world, I set aside time to meditate; I do this because praying and meditating answers to the deepest need of my character. I want to know why anyone exists; and I want to know how to overcome my own pettiness, and the nightmare condition of the average man, who is locked in his own self.

Being alive and conscious, at any time, at any time of my life, in any place, and I expect on any planet, in any city, has a double essential face: at the same time as you feel yourself thwarted, and slightly stupid, or very stupid and dull, you also feel the call from somewhere to become your true self, and to do something important.

A friend of mine once said that this line of Pink Floyd:

‘Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way’

Is the epitome of life as an English person. Annoyingly, he was right. There is something worth hanging on for, but we don’t know what it is. And in the meantime, we grow desperate, and fail to find out what it was all about. We are speechless before the problem of life.

The primary question of the queen of the sciences is: Why is there something rather than nothing?, or, Why do we exist. The answer is simple: we do not know. I suppose that this was and is the way of responding to that call, the underlying bass motif, below the melody of your life. You want to answer the call of life; you want to become your true self; you want to do what is most important; you want to know the absolute truth? Then find a way of entering into Not Knowing.

Sooner or later, whether it is when you die, or before then, one enters willingly into the Nothingness. All it requires, is a method of entering the Nothingness in full conscious awareness of doing so; and the method is Eastern yoga. By ‘yoga’ I mean, that sort of exercise of sitting or praying which involves control of diet, posture, breathing, concentration, and moral discipline, where we seek to let the mind and body become still, and open to the yoke to what is outside of ‘the world’.

But, doing yoga is a religious act, and, it is religious because we do not enter into pure Nothingness; we enter into the presence of God. Now, just as the Buddhists eat and fast, so do the Christians eat and fast. And just as the Buddhists do yoga, so the Christians do yoga. And, we read the Philokalia in order to learn the Christian yoga. And this answers the question which the Bishop asked me.

A question is raised here, by anyone who has a Protestant background: why should Christians do yoga? The answer to which is: Christians used to do it, until Protestantism denied it (and started the downhill trajectory of our faith).

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The answer to that life-long desire for something else, which I have suffered (I cannot speak for others), is in the closeness of God which you find in prayer or yoga, or ‘orison’ as Williams James calls it, when referring to Catholic mystics and saints and what they do. I want to make some remarks on Saint Peter of Damaskos, as published in the Philokalia, third volume. You do search almost in vain, in his writing, for signs of ‘yoga’. But not quite; it is owing more to St Peter’s strange indirect method of writing, that this seems to be the case.

At the very end of his entry there, St Peter has written about ‘Conscious Awareness in the Heart’. At the outset, we must agree, he and I, and you and I, on this fundamental principle, without which nothing else makes any sense; the principle which stands above all others of any kind.

1. That God created the world, and that he continues to sustain it, at every moment. And that he gave us conscious awareness.

1.1 That doing so was an act of kindness, or love.

1.2 And that the remembrance of this creation, sustaining, and love, is the reason that we are obliged to love Him in return.

1.3 And that love begins in fear; we fear our life being taken away, or fear being ungrateful.

1.4 But the proper and more advanced response is a reciprocal love.

2. The reason we were created like this is, that we should love God.

2.1 The way to do this is to set aside the world, and face toward God.

2.2 The way to face him, with all other things set aside, is in prayer, or, ‘yoga’ – as a start.

I don’t know how prevalent or fearful this idea is, but I shall set it out in the open. A temptation for me has always been to not only be near to God, but to hear him speak to me, and give guidance. In fact, that person who has not wanted this for himself, who has not wanted God to speak to him, and regularly, and yet says that he is a Christian, has a very shallow faith.

As a beginner in Christianity, I imagine that everyone should expect God to talk. For me, to be able to speak to God, and then to hear words coming back to my ear, would be the greatest of all happiness. And, God has spoken to men, as far as we are concerned, so it is not impossible. What else is Scripture, or what else was the Son of God, than a man to whom the Creator gave words?

Now, it is with yoga, the word of God, the things God wants to show some of us, and with prophecy, that Saint Peter of Damaskos is concerned in his final essay. It is here that he makes his summary conclusion about the revelation of the meaning of life, and how it is expressed to us by God.

(I set aside the final revelation and the final reward, which is made after death, in eternity.) We are concerned here with what can be given to people alive in this era only.

St Peter’s method of learning to control yourself, and get close to God, as if in a yoke to him, is by ‘patient endurance’. One takes up an attitude toward one’s life and one’s own personal fate, such that we must simply endure it, patiently. By doing this, then all good and evil events which come our way (as if we were on a pilgrimage, or a journey, or a test program) must be endured, as tests. And, by putting this into effect, we are aiming to give up our own thoughts; we also aim never to do anything by our own choice. Our own thoughts should be suspicious to us; any thoughts may be God’s voice to us, or may not be. Also, he says that we should be suspicious of any advice from other people of any kind, too.

We want to hear God speaking to us, but we should distrust voices and ideas. We aim, rather, for stillness of all thought. By the patient endurance of what comes about, and without exploiting it or thinking about it as our own, we can come back into possession of our own intellect. It is the intellect of God.

To give up concern for your own thoughts and actions means: to give up interest in your body, and your possessions. The voice of God will come as follows:

‘We should therefore put questions to Him through prayer from the heart, in faith hoping His answer will manifest itself in our thoughts and actions’ (Vol. 3, page 269).

He adds that, if we think we have thoughts directly sent by God, then only those which endure with us over years should be trusted as such.

In possession of a spotless intellect, we will find ourselves thinking always of the miracle of being alive at all, and reflect always that existence was given by God. This will be a complex passion of fear and love in us.

The mind should become free of anxiety about life, death, or anything else. All events and historical actions will be seen to be guided and given by God, in order to teach and train us. And so, we start to see, after years of this kind of self-loss, the purpose for which the world was created.

You can see how St Peter means to point out that God’s word to us is his creation itself. His word and his voice to us is the world itself. When we see its purpose and its inner total meaning, then we are seeing God’s mind at work. If we contemplate creation, then we see God revealed. Seeing the meaning of the world in this way is spiritual knowledge.

It is great ‘faith’ to put all of your cares and self into the hands of God.

‘This is the great faith which makes it possible for us to put all our cares into the hands of God. The apostle calls it the foundation (cf. Heb. 6:1), St John Klimakos, the mother of stillness, and St Isaac, the faith of contemplation and the gateway of the mysteries. He who possesses this faith is completely free from worry and anxiety, as were all the saints’ (ibid. 276).

Before going on to talk about prophecy, and the direct word of God to any particular man, notice that this is where the title of his essay makes any sense, or has any application (the essay was supposed to be about ‘Conscious awareness in the Heart). He says that you will gain the divine Intelligence, and that this is gained in full with ‘imageless and formless prayer’, and that along with conferring this on the one who wants to have it, God also permits that person to be ‘seized’ in ecstatic ‘rapture’, and that he will see true theology, and the life after death.

Note on impersonality

It is noteworthy, that whoever has attained to patient endurance and who has given up his own personality and his own thoughts, will no longer be so concerned with personally hearing the voice of God. He will see it in the world at large, and in creation, and in the events which come his way. He should also start to see other people as if they were as important as himself. He will have a vision of society as a whole, or existence as a whole, where once he saw only his own fears and anxiety.

I must admit, I am usually still preoccupied with myself. Anyway, if I do not treat myself with absolute humility in this matter, then all benefit and any truth and importance of my praying and meditating is all lost.

Note on vision

It is my view that the vision of creation and reality which you have when you are given spiritual insight or knowledge is a true vision of reality in its true form. However, it is rarely spoken of (just as soldiers rarely speak of what they have seen of battle) because it is not easy to put into words. How would you put into words a vision of creation as a whole, in its inner meaning, where God reveals himself? Such a vision is possible, but speaking of it is not typical.

Williams James, who studied some of these things, referring to Catholics and Protestants only, has the following, about St Ignatius Loyola, and St Theresa of Avila:

1. ‘Saint Ignatius confessed one day to Father Laynez that a single hour of meditation at Manresa had taught him more truths about heavenly things than all the teachings of all the doctors put together could have taught him… One day in orison, on the steps of the choir of the Dominican church, he saw in a distinct manner the plan of divine wisdom in the creation of the world. On another occasion, during a procession, his spirit was ravished in God, and it was given him to contemplate, in a form and images fitted to the weak understanding of a dweller on the earth, the deep mystery of the holy Trinity. This last vision flooded his heart with such sweetness, that the mere memory of it in after times made him shed abundant tears.’ (Quoted in James, Varieties of Religious Experience (Penguin: 410)).

2. Similarly with Saint Teresa. ‘One day, being in orison, it was granted me to perceive in one instant how all things are seen and contained in God. I did not perceive them in their proper form, and nevertheless the view I had of them was of a sovereign clearness, and has remained vividly impressed upon my soul. It is one of the most signal of all the graces which the Lord has granted me. … The view was so subtile and delicate that the understanding cannot grasp it’ (ibid. 411).

Note on prophecy

St Peter devotes several pages to the direct speech of God in prophecy. God speaks like this to people when there is a general need in society for it. Direct speech of God to a person will happen when the society or a group is in need of it (cf. 273).

Conclusion

What St Peter of Damaskos means by prayer, or ‘conscious awareness in the heart’, is that stillness and bodily and mental control which is open to anyone (with guidance and study). It is what makes one into a Christian. Starting to do it with humility will reveal the meaning of life, and answer all desires of the human being.

It will be asked, as I ask: why is it necessary? Why can’t we just have it from birth? The answer to which is our ancestral fallen condition. Along with your tribe, your society, your race, the human race, you have either for them, or with them, or on behalf of them, to perform this task.



Design Jason Powell, 2020.

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