Prayer of the Heart in an Age of Technology and Distraction, Part 2
By Fr. Maximos (Constas)
The sayings of the desert fathers are really remarkable—some of the oldest Christian literature we have and yet it sounds so contemporary, fresh, modern, and relevant, partly because the whole ethos is just stripped down to the essentials and simplicity of the desert. There is a story from Abba Poemen who is one of the more prominent desert fathers. Apparently a layman from a nearby city had heard about his reputation and wanted to meet the great desert father, so he packs his belongings, treks across the desert and goes into the mountains to find the place where Abba Poemen lived. He knocks on the door and Abba Poemen invites him in. They sit down, Abba Poemen offers him some sustenance, and immediately the man is eager to start talking about the Kingdom of Heaven, and the moment that Abba Poemen hears this, he recoils from the man, and basically turns his back to him. The man realizes that something has gone awry and doesn’t know what to do so he stands up, collects his things, and heads back down the mountain.
But as he’s trekking through the desert his thoughts begin to work within him: “I came all this way to see this man, I expected to be greeted by him and I wanted to talk about the Kingdom of Heaven, and what kind of treatment was that?!” and he starts to get angry, and he turns around and decides to go back and confront Abba Poemen. So he returns to Abba Poemen, demanding an explanation. And Abba Poemen looks him straight in the eye and says, “If you come here wanting to talk about the Kingdom of Heaven, I have nothing to say to you, but if you come here and you want to talk about the passions, well then sit down and open up your heart and I will fill it with every manner of good thing.”
The man wanted to talk about the Kingdom, but we need to talk about the passions first, because they are the very things that came into our existence when we lost the Kingdom of Heaven. How can we talk about the Kingdom without addressing the real state we find ourselves in? We want to talk about light but we’re filled with darkness. We want to proceed to the higher mathematics—reading the Philokalia and having mystical experiences—before we’ve read the New Testament or committed ourselves to a basic Christian discipline or before we’ve had the courage to face the darkness of the passions within us. The word “passions” is problematic because it doesn’t mean much in our language anymore—we have a passion for golf or politics—a better word is “addiction”—passionate attachments, whether to physical things or ideas and images like my own sense of self. Just like food, there is no limit to the things that people can get hooked on or the places that people can get stuck in their development. It’s a strong and hard word, but it’s a better word and consistent with the Fathers.
The spiritual root, in a sense, of all addictions is this impassioned condition that all of us have. Our focus here is about inner attention, not about being distracted or concentrating on things outside of ourselves, but about the inward turn to discover the grace of the Holy Spirit within us given at Baptism. When we withdraw our libidinal investment from the world and turn our attention inward again, in addition to the presence of God we will find within the core of our bodies and being the darker things within us, and maybe it’s their presence that prevents us from looking inward, because its messy, and it’s been festering so long, and we’re in denial, and we don’t want to deal with it. So the focus on the Philokalia is not just about the Jesus Prayer, although that’s central, but there are other things that come with it. And a big part of that is seeing and recognizing and struggling with the passions. I won’t say conquering the passions because we can’t do that. Elder Aimilianos, former abbot of Simenopetra, says when you’re tied up (which is what being in an impassioned addicted state is), you can’t untie yourself. Someone else has to come along and untie those chains and locks, and of course that is the grace of God. What belongs to us is first to discover the darkness within ourselves, and it’s a very hard thing to see.
Progress in the life of virtue is not about feeling better and better about yourself or thinking you’re becoming more virtuous, but the more someone progresses spiritually the more of their inner darkness God will allow them to see, because it’s very hard to see, and He won’t let you see it if He knows you can’t handle it. It’s a crushing, devastating thing to see, and it’s also humbling, and God gives His grace to the humble. That acknowledgment of our incapacity and weakness is what attracts the grace of God to us. There can be no authentic encounter with the holiness of God that doesn’t simultaneously result in a revelation of my own unholiness.
For me the great Biblical image of this is St. Peter in his encounter with the Lord when they’ve just finished fishing and caught little or nothing, and the Lord tells them to go and try again. Of course St. Peter knows his trade, he’s a fisherman, and here comes some carpenter to tell them what to do? Peter doesn’t say “Hey, wait a minute.” We tend to be very sensitive about our turf, and don’t like other people to tell us what to do. So Peter is a professional fisherman, but he goes and casts his nets again, and they are filled to the brim, and Peter realizes that whoever this Jesus is, He’s not an ordinary person. There’s something about Him. And what does he do? He turns to Jesus, and although we’re used to it from hearing the Gospel so often, he offers a really striking response. He falls on his knees before the Lord and he says, Depart from me O Lord for I am a sinful man. There it is. The revelation of the holiness of Jesus, of God, is authentic for Peter here because with it comes awareness of his own unholiness. It’s not putting Peter down, it’s not diminishing or belittling him. He’s not damaged psychologically. It’s a saving wound. It’s a compunctionate experience that allows him to know himself and at the same time reveals the fullness of the presence of Jesus to him.
St. Maximus the Confessor, in a play on words, says, “to discourse (“logos”) on the passions, is to descend into Hades with the Word (“Logos”).” Someone may begin a logos on the Logos “not in order to remain there, but to break the bonds of the soul’s attachments to the world and so rise with the Word.” That’s very consistent with the teaching of Abba Poemen that we need to descend deeply into discourse on the passions, not to stay and take up home there, but to rise up from that depth and be resurrected and be revitalized with the word of God.
~ “Prayer of the Heart in an Age of Technology and Distraction” delivered by Fr. Maximos (Constas) on Feb. 2014 to the clergy of diocese of LA and the West of Antiochian of N. America at the invitation of His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph. The audio version of this lecture first appeared on Patristic Nectar Publications, and is published here by permission.
Fr. Maximos is the presidential research scholar at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of theology in Brookline, MA. He is an Athonite monk, one-time professor at Harvard Divinity School, accomplished author and translator and lectures internationally in both academic and parochial venues.