Wednesday, February 15, 2017

A Deeper Look At The Prayer Of The Heart: The Jesus Prayer As Medicine.

Some priests say that reciting the Jesus Prayer too much or too often or without any spiritual guidance is highly discouraged.  And while I don't think there is anything dangerous about inviting Christ into your depths (why would there be?), I understand their caveat.  The prayer is powerful enough to initiate and catalyze a deep transformation, and in the end - whether we want to admit it or not - sometimes we just aren't ready for a profound Transformation.  Besides the normal "psychological" processes that can take place - the surfacing of unconscious emotions, repressed memories coming back, a sudden unwelcome awareness of previously denied mental content - the prayer also takes on a profound spiritual effect.  In fact, while most Christians claim to have had at least one personal experience of God's presence, I would also venture to guess that most Christians have some level of tacit doubt in God's day-to-day power.  It's only natural in a society that relies primarily on "evidence-based research" to doubt all things supernatural. A generalized acceptance of God's existence and the teachings of the church may reside one's conscious thoughts, but we usually don't walk around day-to-day expecting the miraculous.  So when it does happen, it can be quite a shock.  Even startling.
And this prayer works miracles.

In a previous post, I outlined the Jesus prayer and suggested doing it in day-to-day life in small pieces, but here I will look deeper into the experience.   I write this not from a fondness for theological study, but from my own   experience.  When I first began saying this prayer as a daily practice, I did not expect it to be quite as powerful as it is.  In fact, the skeptical part of me is constantly amazed that this prayer actually works.

Mind In The Heart.   St. Theophan encourages us to keep our "mind in the heart" all the time.   By "heart," I mean everything that we commonly think of it to mean.  Our chest area, the physical organ pumping blood through arteries, our emotional center, and the seat of our core identity.  Indeed, some Sufis identify the place where the soul meets body right behind the heart against the spine.  Yet while the physical organ may be analogous to the spiritual heart, St. Theophan is speaking more of the latter.  Putting a "mind in the heart" is placing the intellect in the soul.  The intellect, rather than residing in a cerebral space of thoughts and analyses, can drop into the depths of one's Being through religious devotion and a practice of disciplined prayer.  Rather than thinking from a space of cognitive associations, one learns to think from a place of faith and reverent love. And this most often flows from the chest cavity, like a fountain of love and sacred desire.  It is God that works through us, allowing the racing thoughts to reach a place of inner stillness  and drop deep down into the heart.  In fact, the tradition of hesychasm, in the Orthodox church, comes from the word hesychia, which means "inner stillness."  The holy name of God gives us this stillness.

The Name Is Medicine.   In the West, both Protestants and Catholics sometimes speak of sin and redemption from a punitive perspective, like sin is a crime for which we must be punished, and, luckily, Jesus paid the price for us.   The Eastern church, though, discusses these things more from a medical and healing perspective.   One interpretation of sin is "missing the mark," and it can be viewed as a spiritual sickness for which we need medicine.  Christ is that medicine, and the presence of Christ resides in His Name.  Praying the Holy Name,   ("Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner") medicates the one who prays.   Mercy, too, is something we often underestimate. The word mercy derives partly from the Greek word eleison, which means oil, or olive oil.  Olive oil was traditionally used in the Near East as an ointment to heal wounds.  So, in saying the prayer, Christ tends to one's spiritual wounds like a healing ointment. This happens automatically; we do not need to will it into happening for it to happen.   Jesus even told his own Apostles to use HIs name  more in the Gospel of John: "Hitherto you have asked nothing in my Name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full" (16:24).

With Love, Not Technique.  How often should you say the Jesus Prayer?  Until you want to say it.   Until it is your heart's desire, and it becomes an act of pure joy to say.   It's called the Prayer of the Heart not only because  the prayer is said from the heart;  the intention to pray the prayer ideally arises from the heart. This is  praying for love alone.  Zen Buddhists have a similar saying about their sitting meditation.  A student once asked a Zen Master, why do we sit?  The Master replied, "Just to sit."  Another way to say that is "we sit in meditation because we like to sit in meditation."  The same is true for the Jesus Prayer.  Saying it simply because you want to say it, deep in your heart,  is the purest way to pray.  And your love meeting God's love in prayer combines to make the best medicine.  

-Clint Sabom is an award-winning writer and former aspirant monk. The Graveyard Cowboy At Midnight is a blog and podcast.  There may be affiliate links in our articles.  We are self-supporting through ads, affiliate networking, and reader donations 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" - A Nice Song, But Are You Willing To Face Your Inner Holocaust?

A look at the deeper meaning of the legendary song, line by line. Leonard once made a special point in an interview to note that the central image of Western civilization is a man nailed to a cross, and only something as intense as crucifixion acts as an appropriate starting point to discuss Cohen's most famous song. No, not crucifixion in some over-arching, vicarious-atonement religious paradigm, personal Crucifixion - the sentiment one might feel while being gassed to death at Auschwitz. Yes, the historical landscape often gets reflected in Cohen's poetics, translating into the interior landscape of the soul, and nowhere is that truer than in his signature anthem. While many poets and songwriters speak of broken hearts and tears, few trod the ground that Leonard does, exposing the kinds of internal vulnerabilities that earn one a clinical diagnosis. In the case of Hallelujah, we also hear of the other side of this pain:: the side that leads to the discovery of one's own divinity.


Cohen admirers are beginning to speak up about Cohen's work being so much more than his virally-downloaded hit, but let's not forget that the song itself may be asking something of the listener - something that does not come easy to everyone, especially those of us born into the denial-in-the-name-of-positivity culture of American mass-marketing. Granted, the song rings out like a glorious hymn of ecstasy; but let's look at exactly what is being celebrated.

"I heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth,
The minor fall, the major lift,
The baffled king composing Hallelujah."

Usually, the only ones who use religion as a weapon are holier-than-thou conservatives, but here, Leonard flips the script, as if directing the power of his spiritual lineage (his last name is Cohen, the priestly class) towards the hubris-filled zealots themselves. So he has the right to his own version of spiritual trash-talk. You may honor the psalms of King David, but I am King David, so listen up. This is how Dave played music to please God, and it's exactly how I play it, and we enter this sacred ground in "baffled" confusion. But you say you don't find God in this rock-and-roll, do ya? Perhaps, it's a lover as well as an enemy (is there any difference?) being addressed, and as he tries to penetrate the blind spots in her awareness, he invokes the ancient Psalmist tradition of holy uncertainty to drive home his contemporary serenade.

Either way, the ethos was captured quite accurately in recent national coverage, when Kate McKinnon, dressed as Hilary Clinton, played the song on Saturday Night Live's cold open following Trump's electoral victory. In regards to public personalities, politics notwithstanding, there is arguably no greater contrast than between the Donald's portended braggadocio and the self-effacing suffering displayed in Cohen's raw liturgies. McKinnon no doubt earned a special place in the hearts of Cohenites - as Leonard's die-hard fans are often called - when she gave this gift to the nation. If Tupac conjured Thug Mansion as his afterlife villa, then Leonard Cohen has erected The Tower of Song somewhere in the bosom of Abraham. If Leonard is a hundred floor below Hank Williams (to paraphrase the actual Tower of Song song) then surely McKinnon can have a place in the tower's lobby, playing piano and welcoming guests. "I'm not giving up and neither should you," she said in closing, on the surface addressing disappointed liberals fearful of a Trump presidency; but really, in the context of Leonard Cohen and the difficult territory of wounded hearts, a battle-cry to push on through, especially now, can apply to anything and everything.

"Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to the kitchen chair,
She broke your throat and she cut your hair
and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah..."

Arguably the most difficult passage of the song, any listener can gather, at the least, that having your throat broken probably hurts a good deal. This is a "hallelujah" that comes with a price. Maybe it's not something to even celebrate. Sure, there's the hair-cutting biblical reference to Samson's source of strength, and the "she" could certainly be a feminine personification of a temperamental muse or a domesticating maternal spirit, masochistically binding the patriarch to the same room (the kitchen chair) where his sexism once relegated his wife.


But maybe...maybe it's just some dude who lives in an apartment. He sees a hot girl on the roof, and he wants to score. He does, eventually, get her, but not until she has first stripped him of his power and voice. Romantic love is hard, and sometimes any glory has to be taken from us by force.

"Now maybe there's a god above
As for me, all I really learned from love
Is how to shoot at someone who outdrew ya-
But it's not a complaint that you're here tonight
It's not the laughter of someone who claims to have seen the light
It's a cold and it's a very broken Hallelujah....
", I've been here before
I know this room and I've walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you-
I've seen your flag on the marble larch
But love is not some kind of victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah...."

Well, after all the lofty praise, apparently all Cohen knows about love is how to out-game and out-manipulate the girl he's chasing at the moment. Oops. What a disappointment. Of course, I'm sure the girl herself was even more disappointed. After all that...., she thinks....this is the Leonard Cohen? Well, at least he tells her it's not a complaint. He kind of wants her to stay. Just don't pretend he is some kind of saint in the throes of celestial illumination. It's not like that.
So what is it like?
He continues....
"There was a time you let me know
What's really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do ya-
I remember when I moved in you
And the holy dove she was moving too
And every breath that she drew was hallelujah..."

So maybe it's further down the line now. Years have passed. Years since the initial chase, years since the initial breaking of ego pride, and years after the Psalmist first began his endeavor into sacred music and erotic communion. He looks back and remembers....the sex, that was the magic, and maybe that's all the magic we have left now. There isn't that deep connection "below" of emotional vulnerability anymore. Layers of illusion peel away, what was once gratification turns to mere physicality, and the "hallelujah" that they once knew - or could have known - may not be the "hallelujah" left now. But, even still, let's just let ourselves go in this nothingness and air-grasping echo, let's just let ourselves go and embrace it anyway.

And if anyone has a problem that we're making our personal lives into a bible verse - well, tough.

"You say I took the name in vain
I don't even know the name
But if I did, well really- what's it to ya?
There's a blaze of light in every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy-or the broken-Hallelujah!"

   Maybe he is taking religious words out of their typical religious context, but he is also reminding us of why the slap-in-the-face moralizing of "Thou Shall Not Take The Lord's Name In Vain," is myopic. Leonard in his smoky studio apartment is not Moses on Sinai, and he doesn't pretend to be. Very few, save some of the ancient prophets, even know the holy name of God, and if one is to take Kabbalah as the meditation-upon-words that it can be, the blaze of light burns eternal whether we know what we're talking about or not. And make no mistake - this hymn is straight out of the Zohar.
   Or The New Testament, for that matter: legalistic Pharisees become speechless in the face of the "good news" pouring through Leonard's song. Oh, yes! The broken, ugly hallelujah is the one we really experience in this world, wished for or not. The gems of wisdom remain buried in the lotus of suffering, (to mix some Cohen-Zen with Cohen-Judaism), waiting to unmask themselves through the scars of human folly.

"I've done my best -it wasn't much,
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch,
I've told the truth; I didn't come to fool ya-
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand right here before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah."

   And at this point perhaps there are no words or interpretations left to do the song any more justice, especially when you've listened to it in real-time. So let's just close with the singer's own quote about it:

"The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say "Look, I don’t understand a fucking thing at all – Hallelujah!"[i] -Leonard Cohen, 1985.

-Clint Sabom is an award-winning writer and former aspirant monk. The Graveyard Cowboy At Midnight is a blog and podcast.  There may be affiliate links in our articles.  We are self-supporting through ads, affiliate networking, and reader donations 

Monday, February 6, 2017

Father John Main's Christian Meditation: Moment of Christ

Father John Main (1926-1982) led many to realize the "peace that passes all understanding," through his teachings of Christian meditation.  A Roman Catholic priest and Benedictine monk, at first his superiors   did not permit him to use meditation as part of his spiritual practices, as it was not deemed Christian.  He honored their instruction with obedience for many years. Later, after reading the Desert Fathers, and especially the Conferences of John Cassian, Main found a form of Christian meditation  similar to the early roots of the Christian tradition.    He asked his superiors again, and this time, permission was granted.  Thus began the prolific influence of John Main's Christian meditation.

The practice is quite simple.  Sit comfortably.  Say the word silently in your heart. The word is Maranatha: it is Aramaic, for "Come, oh Lord..."  Simply sit, eyes closed, in a quiet place, and say the word silently to yourself.  In your heart. Maranatha. That's it.

I first discovered John Main through his book, Moment of Christ.  It was suggested to me by the Abbot of the monastery where I was living.  In suggesting the book, the Abbot wisely gave me very little instruction.  He simply said, "I think if you read this book and do this practice, it would be beneficial."  Likewise, John Main gives very little instruction in his teachings.  Simply say the word silently in your heart.  Mar-a-na-tha.

So  I began to do that at the monastery.  Each night, in the hour that was allotted for silent prayer in the Chapel, I sat there, silently repeating the phrase in my heart.  And there is something to it, something profound.  I, too, hesitate to talk too much about this practice for fear of interrupting the natural process of would-be practitioners.  I only suggest you try it.  As for me, I like to light candles on my altar, maybe read some verses aloud from the Psalms just to get into a prayerful mindset.  And then, sit, in silence, repeating the phrase.  Maranatha.   Come, Lord.

Changes happen.  Moments come.  Moments of Christ.  Moments of Christ like I have not known otherwise.  Try it for yourself and just notice what happens.


-Clint Sabom is an award-winning writer and former aspirant monk. The Graveyard Cowboy At Midnight is a blog and podcast.  There may be affiliate links in our articles.  We are self-supporting through ads, affiliate networking, and reader donations 

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Practice of The Presence of God: Where Mindfulness Meets Centering Prayer

The idea that the presence of God is something I can practice never occurred to me until I stumbled upon Brother Lawrence's book, The Practice of The Presence of God.  A lay brother in a Carmelite order in Paris, Brother Lawrence's writings were compiled posthumously.  He was especially known by other brothers for his uncanny ability to see God in everything.  The title phrase of his book also serves as a great summary of centering prayer, the contemplative life, and the Christian mystical traditional in general. 

We may be told that God is always present everywhere when we first learn of religious concepts, but the capacity to truly experience and feel God's presence is something that usually takes a lot of practice.    Moreover, it is often something I feel unable to develop myself, even with lots of practice-  something that only arrives through Grace alone after all my own efforts have been exhausted. Christian tradition reminds us of the fundamental truths of God's immanence, but, as is often the case in the spiritual journey, the simplest lessons are usually the most difficult to fully grasp. 

Priests like Thomas Keating have suggested  anchoring oneself in a sacred phrase or sacred word when we find our own thoughts drifting during silent prayer.    One of the most powerful sacred phrases to use, I think, is one that reminds us of God's presence in the here and now.  I sometimes use, "God is here now."  I could even use a longer phrase to drive the point home, if my ego is especially jumpy and resistant to the idea of God's presence.   I could repeat silently a few times, "God is here now, with me, in this room."  Eventually, the mind seems to learn what you tell it.   The difficulty lies in the fact that the structure of our daily lives conditions us to be thinking ahead, wondering about what to do next, wanting to make the most of our time.  Sitting still can seem like laziness to an ego conditioned for productivity.  This is why focusing on your physical location in silent prayer (with eyes open in this case) can keep thoughts from wandering into a non-physical location (imagination, future, worry).   After all, we are not trying to go meet God somewhere else: He is already here with us in this moment.

Imagination can work for you or against you.  I seem to have grown up with the idea that to imagine something means that you are pretending something that is not real, is real.  But imagination can also be a way of convincing yourself what you already know to be true.  Or, to put it a different way, aligning your imagination with the truth of God's word can lead to a genuine spiritual experience. Imaginative exercises mirroring biblical concepts are put forth in The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, and while these methods may start off with a conscious image that seems to come from you, the practice often becomes something much more than that.  Many practitioners of imaginative prayer find it the surest way to have a powerful encounter with the divine and a entry point into authentic Christian Mysticism

The same works in regards to imagination with my previous example about centering prayer.  One can know, intellectually, that God is present in the room with them, but the notion may not seem quite real.  However, by consciously imagining God in the room, with the help of the sacred phrase, "God is here now, with me, in this room," one can truly believe it and experience it.  One's silent prayer routine can then be a daily testimony to the Miracle of the ordinary.  

The next time you have ten minutes to sit quietly, try simply repeating the phrase silently to yourself, "God is here now, with me, in this room."   You may feel an overwhelming Grace before you realize what happened. 

Brother Lawrence's book can be purchased through my affiliate link image below. 

-Clint Sabom is an award-winning writer and former aspirant monk. The Graveyard Cowboy At Midnight is a blog and podcast.  There may be affiliate links in our articles.  We are self-supporting through ads, affiliate networking, and reader donations 

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Ambition Addiction by Benjamin Shalva: When The Need To Win Drives You Crazy

In Ambition Addiction, Benjamin Shalva recognizes that some amount of ambitiousness is healthy, but there are tell-tale signs when your desire to achieve success can turn into a destructive disease.   These touchstones served as good guides for me; in fact, the lessons in this book are such that anyone who sometimes stresses out about the fast pace of 21st century life could benefit from reading it. 

Although a Rabbi by training, Shalva also understands the general psychology behind addiction. (Indeed, Psychology Today recently gave his book a noteworthy review.) One indication of ambition addiction, in Shalva's paradigm, is a reverence for the future and contempt for the present.  Always thinking ahead becomes a persistent dissatisfaction with the way things are now.  This is, in a general sense, the fundamental problem of the human mind: thinking that your real life lies in the future when you will really be living, and that the present moment is just a temporary stop along the way.  Sometimes the temporary stop becomes completely intolerable, or as Shalva says on The One YouFeed Podcast, "like a DMV waiting room."  Ben calls this perfect future when everything is just right, your ANY DAY NOW. The specifics of each person's ANY DAY NOW may differ, but all of them are based  the illusion that once we're there, living perfectly in our ANY DAY NOW, the struggle will be over and won for good.  Of course, the reality is that no one ever escapes their human limitations, and the world moves on the same whether you've been successful or not.   So taking time for gratitude of the present moment and the blessings you do have can be a  powerful tool.  Shalva always compliments his diagnosis of the problem with simple solutions.  Throughout Ambition Addiction, he offers a variety of good exercises to do throughout the day to bring yourself back to the present moment.      

As in his previous book, Spiritual Cross-Training, Shalva crafts a well-written and sophisticated book  in Ambition Addiction that does a good job of blending professional expertise, personal experience, and helpful suggestions. For more on Rabbi Benjamin Shalva, check out his book on Amazon or peruse over his own website