About this content: What follows are notes taken from previously recorded audio lectures given by Father Thomas Hopko to seminarians. The recording audio quality was poor at times since they were converted from cassette tapes to mp3. The date of the recordings is uncertain. It seems Father Thomas named this series of lectures “The Practice of Personal Prayer and its relation to the Spiritual Life in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition”. With God’s help, this series of posts simply aims to share some of the main points of this teaching with other people who have a sincere longing for God.
“The acquisition of Christian books is necessary for those who can use them. For the mere sight of these books renders us less inclined to sin, and incites us to believe more firmly in righteousness.“
“Reading the Scriptures is a great safeguard against sin.“
“Ignorance of the Scriptures is a precipice and a great abyss.”The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (p 58)
– Epiphanius Bishop of Cyprus (4th C.)
Path to Perfection
- When we read meditatively and prayerfully to discover God, one’s self is discovered too.
- When we discover God we discover our true self.
- The Christian life is a path to “perfection” as described in Psalm 14 (15) below:
O Lord, who shall abide in Thy tabernacle? and who shall dwell in Thy holy mountain?
He that walketh blameless and worketh righteousness, speaking truth in his heart
Who hath not spoken deceitfully with his tongue,
neither hath done evil to his neighbour
nor taken up a reproach against those near him.
In his sight he that worketh evil is set at nought, be he glorifieth them that fear the Lord.
He giveth oath to his neighbour, and forsweareth not.
He hath not lent his money on usury,
and hath not received bribes against the innocent.
He that doeth these things shall never be shaken.
- The goal of the Christian life is to dwell on the “holy hill of God” as described above.
- As Christians struggling to live a holy life, we have three possible responses to temptation:
- Give in to the temptation and commit the sin [which has its own set of additional consequences, including temporary if not permanent alienation from God].
- Struggle with the temptation in one’s own strength which [ultimately] leads to insanity.
- Cast the burden of the temptation on God and He absorbs it and destroys it [enabling the Christian to advance in holiness by the grace and strength of God].
- [When done with faith and love,] psalmody, prayer and spiritual reading fills us with the Word of God to purify us [and assist us in our struggle to live a holy life].
What if I can’t remember what I read?
- Some may say “there is no sense in reading if I can’t remember what I read”.
- The Fathers teach that we do not read in order to retain, but in order to be cleansed.
“The Word of God is not remembered in the brain it is remembered in what you do”.
– St John Climacus
- [The ultimate goal of spiritual reading] is not to retain the content, but rather to experience the effect – to be struck by the Word of God.
- We do not have to verbalize everything.
- We must learn to be silent some times.
- We don’t need instant recall for everything.
- We know a lot and understand nothing.
- There is a saying… “He who can never be silent must never speak.”
- In Christ we can [truly] read the Word of God.
- With the outstretched arms of Christ, the book, the Word of God is open.
- God’s message is most eloquent in silence when Christ hangs on the cross.
- The icon of Christ on the Cross can be read by literate and illiterate people alike.
- Never try to measure your spiritual own progress, you don’t know and only God knows. If you try to know, you ruin it.
- If our minds wander during psalmody, reading, prayer or in the liturgy just bring it back as soon as you realize it, but don’t be anxious or proud about the fact that your mind wandered, just bring it back gently and calmly.
- Thoughts are the great enemy of spiritual life.
- Thinking our own thoughts is to be in delusion.
- Rather, we want to gain the mind of Christ – to do this, we stop our thoughts and let God’s Word enter into us.
- [Gaining the mind of Christ] is done through psalmody, reading and prayer. This is not the time for study and analysis.
What is Meditative Reading?
- Meditative reading is not necessarily spiritual reading.
- Meditation is simply thinking about something.
- [In Christian meditation, we] let the Word come into our life and do with us what it does, we don’t manipulate it, [we] just let it come.
- Meditative reading is not imagining one self in the biblical story, rather [we] put the biblical story into your own life
- [We] are not there [in the Bible story].
- There [the Bible story] is here [in that it applies to our lives].
- Avoid your imagination during psalmody, reading and prayer since it is not real.
- Imagination is ok during study as necessary.
- Since we read in light of what we know and experience, we do not commune with our own thoughts or products of our imagination. To do this is delusion.
- Rather through prayer, we try to go out of ourselves, into divine reality.
- Through psalmody and reading we try to bring the divine reality into our current situation, here and now.
- We know God as He is now and Jesus Christ as He is now – the risen Christ.
- There is no need to imagine things during prayer, the liturgy or communion or to form mental images of any sort. Rather, empty all images to allow the true image of God to speak.
- Icons are not a reproduction of a historical person or event, rather they are a biblical, liturgical, hymnographical, dogomatic statements for mystical contemplation. You let the image of the icon enter, you don’t imagine anything else about it.
- Meditate the icons in silence, stop thinking about it, just absorb it as it is.
- Reading the Word, stop thinking about it, just absorb it as it is.
- Pseudo-Chrysostom wrote “stand before your icons, close your eyes, so you are in the presence of the icons, and you are aware, but not staring into them as you pray”.
- Meditation and contemplation in Orthodoxy, always includes prayer and reading.
- Prayer accompanies reading, psalmody, contemplation but not during watchfulness (vigilance).
- Watchfulness is just observing reality in stillness.
- Watchfulness involves no reading, no studying, no contemplating an icon, no psalmodizing but it does lead to contemplative prayer, such as the Jesus Prayer.
- Be careful, as contemplative prayer can become a form of idolatry if it is not used as a means to an end – that being communion with God.
- Transcendental Meditation, Zen meditation, other mystical meditation techniques and mindfulness are [not part of the Christian Tradition and are]… at worst idolatry of self-realization and/or delusions with unworthy purposes.
Real Communion with God
Real communion with God is a free act of grace on the part of God. God knows what is going on and will respond accordingly. Christian meditation always includes faith, grace, prayer and above all, love.
For more information on Meditation, see The Orthodox Faith Volume IV by Father Thomas Hopko