Father Serafin's lessons
© John Bereza OSB
I read the teachings of meditation by Father Seraphim from Mount Athos for the first time at a Benedictine monastery in Montreal. The monastery was established by Father John Main OSB together with Father Lawrence Freeman OSB in order to meditate and teach Christian meditation. It was a two-page text telling a story of a philosophy student from Paris who came to Mount Athos to learn the prayer of the heart from spiritual fathers of the Eastern Church. The text engraved in my memory so hard that I remembered it throughout my several-month journey to Canadian and American meditation centres. While I was staying at the Osage Monastery of Benedictine sisters I wrote its poetic version. Several years later, I came across the book entitled Ėcrits sur l’hésychasme. Une tradition contemplative oubliée by Jean-Yves Leloup (Paris, 1990). To my great surprise, the first chapter of the book described the very same story of the philosophy student from Paris and Father Seraphim; however, it was a much longer version than the one I had read some years before. It was difficult to refrain myself from not writing a longer commentary to the Meditation of Father Seraphim. This is how I wrote a text which, amended and edited, accompanied me while sharing my reflections on the practice of Christian meditation with others. The commentary presented below is a part of the original text. I know that it has helped many people who have entered the path of Christian meditation. I hope it will also be helpful to you.
MEDITATION – THE PRAYER OF THE HEART
Everyone who came across the spiritual tradition of the East, also the East situated closer to us, usually inquires about the value of Jesus Prayer, which has its roots in the oldest Christian tradition, the tradition common for the Christianity of both the East and the West. Such a question was also asked by Pope John Paul II. On November 3, 1996, before the Sunday prayer of Angelus Domini, he spoke of meditation called the prayer of the heart, which, by reciting the words Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner becomes as if the breath of the soul. “Uttered in the depths of our heart, this prayer has a mysterious community reference. Little prayer, as it was called by the Fathers, is a great treasure and unites all people who pray in the face of Jesus Christ”. The Pope pointed out that the prayer also referred to as the Jesus Prayer, was spread in the West thanks to the book entitled Pilgrim’s Progress.
Although Jesus Prayer was developed by the Eastern Churches, its roots are common for rosary prayer, which is, at times, called the Jesus Prayer of the West. A. Rosenberg says: “Those who search for the renewal of the whole person and the union with God rightly reach for such a guide to silence and peace. They can do it without any fear as this method of meditation, known as the prayer of the heart, refers to spiritual exercises dating back in their essence and intention to the Apostolic Times”. (Rosenberg, A. 1995. Das Herzensgebet. Mystik und Yoga der Ostkirche. München, p.5). This type of prayer has an ecumenical and inter-religious dimension as the silent repetition of a prayer-word is known in many religions.
Nowadays, many young people travel east in search of teachers of prayer and meditation. They wouldn’t have to do so if they were shown the path of Jesus Prayer. “Many more people would be able to practice mental prayer but nobody taught them. So now, with no inner life, believers lose their vitality, their prayer becomes a clanging cymbal and their religious practice, if exists, is impoverished” (See Gentili, Antonio. 1989. Chrzesscijanie a praktyki medytacyjne wielkich religii azjatyckich, Karmel 1(30):9) Thus, the rediscovery of Jesus prayer should be treated as the grace that comes in the right moment chosen by God so as we can fulfill the order of Scriptures to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16).
LESSON I – BE AS A MOUNTAIN
When you pray…
When you meditate be as a mountain
motionlessly settled in silence.
Its thoughts are rooted in eternity.
Do nothing, just sit, just be
and you will learn the fruits of prayer.
So many people nowadays complain about difficulties they encounter when praying. The reason for this is that we frequently forget about our body although Christian theology is the theology of incarnation. The fact that Christ became flesh and assumed human nature testifies to the importance of human body in the act of salvation. Old men who were teaching Jesus Prayer recognized the role played by human body during prayer. They were convinced that prayer is not only about talking or thinking about God but primarily about being with God and that is why they encouraged others to pray with all their hearts and bodies. The teachings of Father Seraphim from Mount Athos reflect on it. This is what he said to the young philosophy student who wanted to learn Jesus prayer: “Before you start pondering about Jesus prayer, first you should learn how to meditate as a mountain. Ask it what it does in order to pray” (page 18). Meditating as a mountain teaches us not only to experience Existence in itself, the very simple fact of being, but also reminds us of the words of Jesus: You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church (Mathew 16:18).
At the end of the 14th century, two monks from Mount Athos, Callistus and Ignatius of Xanthopoulos, in their work entitled Centuria, presented the teachings of the Desert Fathers and hesychasts for whom Jesus prayer was a fundamental practice. The work includes recommendations of Gregory Synait on the position of the body while praying: “Early in the morning, sit on a low stool, move your spirit from your head to your heart and keep it there. Bow until you feel pain; with your chest, shoulders and neck straightened recite continuously in your soul and spirit: Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner! In this way you will resist temptations that harass you”.
LESSON II – BE AS A FLOWER
When you meditate be as a flower,
always facing the sun.
Its stem like a spine, always straight.
Remain open, ready to accept everything without fear,
and the light will always shine on your path.
The mountain taught the young philosopher what eternity and permanence, are whereas the flower taught him about passing and evanescence of human existence. The flower teaches us not only proper body posture (straightened back just like a stem is extremely helpful in the concentration of the mind) but also directing the mind towards the light. This very practical approach to the study of prayer was very well known in the first centuries of Christianity. The relation between praxis and theoria was emphasized. Praxis meant “active life” of Christians but not in the sense of a mission or performing deeds of mercy (although they were included in praxis) but in the sense of “an effort to gain virtue”. Theoria, usually translated as contemplation, meant a certain “vision of light” analogous to the vision of apostles at Mount Tabor. Although it was believed that both were full of grace, there was a conviction that on the path to Lord we are not passive. Theoria will not be given to us if we do not search for it [see: Losski, Vladimir. 1993. The Vision of God. London, p. 47]. The tradition of the West is also familiar with the experience of the “vision of light” – thanks to St. Benedictine who “saw the world in one sunbeam”.
Just like the flower bending in the breeze, the psychophysical aspect of Jesus prayer is found in the bowing practice. Early monastic rules recommended even 100 bows during one prayer.
“The rose is without “why”; it blooms because it blooms it cares not for itself; asks not if it’s seen”, wrote Angelus Silesius. In a similar way we should repeat the words: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us” without asking why. The student of philosophy by staying among flowers taught himself selflessness while praying; it was the prayer for the love of God, who is the award.
Lesson III – BE AS AN OCEAN
When you meditate be as an ocean,
in its depths always unmoved.
Its waves come and go.
Remain calm inside
and evil thoughts will go away.
This is the nature of our mind – thoughts come and go. If we try to control the mind using the mind then we create more chaos. It is best to leave it in peace. Quiet, silence, solitude and also simplicity are indispensable if we want to pray well. The knowledge which analyses, generalizes, abstracts and evaluates may constitute a great obstacle in praying as it deprives us of spontaneity and consequently of simplicity and sincerity. Theoretical thinking in the modern sense is alien to the Bible. The teachings of the Desert Fathers were simple and sincere although many of them were educated men. Such an attitude did not result from the hostility towards the intellect but from the sense of mystery, i.e. unknowability of God and divine matters in a rational way but only through the experience in admiration. Reading the Bible was monks’ main duty. Some of them knew it by heart, at least New Testament and Psalms; however, as we can learn from numerous apothegms, they never discussed the Bible. The most well-known apothegm refers to St. Anthony the Hermit, who while discussing an extract from the Bible praised Abba Joseph’s statement “I do not know” [see: Borkowska, M. OSB (translation). 1993. Ksiega Starców. Cracow, p.53]. However, one has to know a lot and experience a lot to be able to stand in front of this Mystery, to which the path always leads through night and darkness, and have the courage to say: “I do not know!” “Sit in silence, and go into darkness – says the Lord.” (Isaiah 47:5)
The Russian Pilgrim, after some time of practising Jesus Prayer, wrote: “I became so accustomed to the prayer that when I stopped praying, even for a brief time, I felt as though something were missing, as if I had lost something. When I began to pray again, I was immediately filled with an inner lightness and joy. (…) All thoughts seemed to vanish on their own, and I thought of nothing else but prayer. My mind was recollected and attentive to it, while at times and of its own accord, my heart would feel warmth and a kind of pleasure”. (Sasin, Olga. The Way of a Pilgrim. 2001. Shankhara Publications. Massachusets, p. 11-13).
Without fear and despite difficulties he was able to recite the words of the prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”.
LESSON IV – BE AS A BREATH
When you meditate remember about the breath.
Thanks to it, the man became a living thing.
The breath comes from God and returns to God.
Unite the prayer word with the stream of life
and nothing shall separate you from the Giver of Life.
The Hebrew word ruah means wind, breath and Spirit. Breath, understood as the breath of life, gave power to the word which became as if granted with life, had its own existence. That was why Esau could not receive the second blessing. The word has such a great power that God creates the world through the WORD and through the WORD He redeems the world. The word in the biblical tradition does not provide a meaning but it brings elements to life. It is especially true for a name; that is why all the epiphanies on Old Testament were accompanied by the question about the God’s Name. The man has always been reciting the name of the Lord and the entire history of Israel proves that God always answered the call.
It might be easier now to understand why sometimes the words of the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me” were recited in the rhythm of the breath, just as John Climacus (7th century AD) recommended: “Let the memory of Jesus be connected with every breath”.
LESSON V – BE AS A BIRD
When you meditate be as a bird,
singing ceaselessly in front of the Creator.
Its song raises like incense smoke.
Let your prayer be like dove’s cooing
And you shall not surrender to discouragement.
The meditation prayer was called ruminatio, which means chewing. This term referred to the Old Testament where reference is made to pure animals which chew. St. Augustine adopted this ancient tradition and encouraged people to chew, i.e. to meditate in order to become “a pure creature and not impure one”. The most well-known animal which chews is of course the cow and for this reason it was often given as an example for those who wanted to meditate. In the Hebrew tradition the notion of meditation was described using the term haga. Isaiah used the term to talk about lion’s roar, dove’s whimpering or bear’s grunts. There were no bears, lions or cows at Mount Athos so the dove prayer was taught. The bird teaches freedom, selflessness and crossing earthly limits. The dove is also the symbol of Holy Spirit.
Nowadays, we are served ready answers to all our problems. We also like to have everything named, explained and described. It is a disease leading to spiritual death, because just like a bird caught in our hands loses its freedom and dies, everything described by and locked in words becomes ordinary, mortal knowledge. In his nature the man is free as a bird. Love is like a bird, and the way is like a bird, and thousands of other things are like a bird – they all need freedom to live and to show the happiness of their existence in silence. (Isaiah 30:10)
Silent and monotonous reciting of simple prayer words may remind us of bird’s singing. The Russian Pilgrim, following the recommendations of an old man, recited the prayer three and then even twelve thousand times a day. This number may sound absurd; however, the pilgrim followed the recommendation of his teacher and experienced how the words of the prayer constantly resounded inside him although he didn’t really recite them during his sleep, work, meals or rest. He then understood what it meant to pray incessantly. “Initially shocking mechanism”, writes Walter Nigg, “leads to the elimination of all external aids and turns out to be the way to one of the greatest elevations of spirit, the way to incessant internal prayer” [Nigg, Walter. 1954. Des Pilers Wiederkher. Zurich p. 166]. The Desert Fathers had deep experience of prayer and they were not naïve to think that the quantity is most important. Reciting and repetition leads to memorizing, it creates a habitual attitude, as if a habit of constantly remembering about God, which itself becomes a prayer. John Cassian, who in his Conferences made the teachings of Christian monks from the Egyptian desert popular in the West, gives us many precious pieces of advice: “For he prays too little, who is accustomed only to pray at the times when he bends his knees. But he never prays, who even while on his bended knees is distracted by all kinds of wanderings of heart. And therefore what we would be found when at our prayers, that we ought to be before the time of prayer” [Cassian, John. The Conferences. X. 14:2]. Therefore, for the life of prayer everything we do in our daily life is important.
LESSON VI – BE AS ABRAHAM
When you meditate be as Abraham
sacrificing his only son.
It was a sign that he was ready to give up everything.
Give up everything
and in this abandonment God will fill you with His presence.
Lord said to Abraham: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:6). Philo of Alexandria, as many other mystics, interprets these words in an ascetic-mystical spirit as abandoning all early disorders and thoughts. John Tauler compares the words from the Book of Genesis with the words of Christ: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29). Abraham was to sacrifice his only son - that is absolutely everything that he loved. God does not want human blood sacrifices. He accepts the readiness of our heart to give up everything in love. Complete renunciation means total poverty. Jesus prayer seems to be the simples and the “poorest” prayer. Can you imagine something simpler than reciting one simple sentence: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”? It is probably easier to get rid of material riches, or to use them in such a way that they do not become an obstacle while praying, than to get rid of the wealth of thoughts and images. The Desert Fathers recommended: “When you pray, do not imagine God with a visible image. Do not allow your mind to catch even the tiniest trace of thoughts – remain immaterial in front of the Immaterial”. While praying, we get rid of our knowledge of heaven and earth, of life, love, the way or even the knowledge of God; prayer is not the knowledge of reality; it is the reality itself, just as it is; it is not the knowledge of the heaven, but it is the heaven itself; it is not the knowledge of love but the ability to love; it is not the knowledge of life but entire life itself; it is not the knowledge of the way, but the way you can take; it is not the knowledge of God but being with God.
LESSON VII – BE AS JESUS
When you meditate it is Jesus
who prays inside you to the Father in the Spirit.
You are carried by the fire of His love.
Be as a river which serves everyone,
and the time will come when you become Love.
God, as we know from the Bible, is present in the name. When praying we recite the name of Jesus, He becomes present inside us and among us; He is our teacher and master. And though the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left” (Isaiah 30:20-21). Our prayer leads to our understanding of the closeness and presence of God in everything that happens to us, both in the pleasant and in the difficult and the painful. The Desert Fathers spoke of walking in the presence of God, of life “in the face of the One who looks at us from above”. To recite the name of Jesus is to call “Maranatha” (Our Lord, come! Our Lord, come!). John Main, an English Benedictine monk, who in the 20th century re-discovered the practice of Christian meditation, recommended to his students to recite the Christian prayer-word Maranatha during meditation. Nowadays, there are more than 1,000 meditation groups around the world, which follow the teaching of John Main. “All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Luke 10:22). That is why the Desert Fathers cared more to be with God rather than to talk about Him. When the young philosopher asked Father Seraphim about Jesus, he heard the following: “To pray like the Son, one has to become a son and maintain the same close relationships with the One who is called by the Son our Father; this is the work of the Holy Spirit who reminds you of everything Jesus said” [Leloup, Jean-Yves, p.26]. Reciting a simple prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” is to remain in prayer with Jesus at Gethsemane who “prayed the same thing” (Mark 14:39).
Surprising and varied consequences are brought about by Jesus prayer when we practice it with dedication and devotion for a longer period of time. Russian Pilgrim, who experienced numerous consolations, both in spirit, feelings and in revelations, mentions them. “In spirit we experience the sweetness of God’s love, internal peace, delight of mind, purity of thoughts and beatific thinking about God. In feeling – pleasant warmth of heart, sweetness filling entire body, trembling of the heart and lively lightness; we experience life as something nice, we are not troubled by illnesses or worries. In revelation – illumination, penetration into the Holy Scriptures, we understand the language of creation and we feel disconnected from the earthly turmoil; we learn the sweetness of inner life, we are sure of the closeness of God and His love for us” (Sasin, Olga. The Way of a Pilgrim. 2001. Shankhara Publications. Massachusets)
Each of us may reach the peak of Jesus prayer without any techniques apart from one – the “technique” of love. Without love prayer means nothing. Prayer, as we said at the beginning, is grace, the gift we receive freely, but it depends on us what we do with it. Where there is greatest good it is the easiest to spread greatest evil, therefore it is difficult to expect great fruits of prayer without serious asceticism and sacrifice.
Ultimately, Jesus prayer, like any other prayer, is the expression of love and leads to love. Love in itself is enough. It does not ask: “Why?” because it finds the answer and support in itself. I love for the love’s sake and I have the courage to be loved. It is only through love that man can respond to unconditional love of his Creator and Saviour.
When we advance in the path of prayer, words gradually cease and silence is born in which the love of God manifests as “God is love” (1 John 4:8). When we beam with love, we draw others close to God and Jesus prayer becomes the greatest evangelical work. However, we always need great faith. “Holy Fathers, writes the Russian Pilgrim, assure us that if we ask with faith and good intentions even a Saracen then he might tell you something useful, but if you do it without faith and with evil intentions then even a prophet will not console you” (Sasin, Olga. The Way of a Pilgrim. 2001. Shankhara Publications. Massachusets).