Posts tagged ‘prayer’

August 23, 2018

if she ever took to praying it would be for that time and all those people

From Lila by Marilynne Robinson:

She meant to ask him sometime how praying is different from worrying. His face was about as strained and Weary as it could be. White as it could be.

Now here she was again, worrying over people who were long past help. You can’t even pray for someone to have his pride back when every possible thing has happened to take it away from him. She thought, everything went bad everywhere and pride like his must have just drifted off the earth, more or less, as quiet as mist in the morning, and people were sad and hard who never were before. Looking into each other’s faces, their hearts sinking.

If she ever took to praying it would be for that time and all those people who must have wondered what had become of them, what they had done to find themselves without so much as a good night’s rest to comfort them. She would call down calm on every one of them, on the worst and the bitterest ones first of all. Doane and Arthur walking away; Mellie, too, never looking back, leaving her an orphan on the steps of a church. Without the bitterness none of that would have happened. If Boughton dropped a lamp and set his house on fire, what would the Reverend say about that? He was looking at her then with as much fear in his eyes as she had ever seen anywhere, even counting those poor raggedy heathens who never thought the Almighty would have the leastibit of interest in them.

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May 2, 2018

not in the head but in the chest

The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, edited by E. Kadloubovsky and E. M. Palmer (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), pp. 190 to 194:

To stand guard over the heart, to stand with the mind in the heart, to descend from the head to the heart—all these are one and the same thing. The core of the work lies in concentrating the attention and the standing before the invisible Lord, not in the head but in the chest, close to the heart and in the heart. When the divine warmth comes, all this will be clear.

…When we read in the writings of the Fathers about the place of the heart which the mind finds by way of prayer, we must understand by this the spiritual faculty that exists in the heart. Placed by the creator in the upper part of the heart, this spiritual faculty distinguishes the human heart from the heart of animals…. The intellectual faculty in man’s soul, though spiritual, dwells in the brain, that is to say in the head: in the same way, the spiritual faculty which we term the spirit of man, though spiritual, dwells in the upper part of the heart, close to the left nipple of the chest and a little above it.

From The Heart of Centering Prayer by Cynthia Bourgeault:

It is certainly true that the heart’s native language is affectivity—perception through deep feelingness. But it may come as a shock to contemporary seekers to learn that the things we nowadays identify with the feeling life—passion, drama, intensity, compelling emotion—are qualities that in the ancient anatomical treatises were associated not with the heart but with the liver! They are signs of agitation and turbidity (an excess of bile!) rather than authentic feelingness. In fact, they are traditionally seen as the roadblocks to the authentic feeling life, the saboteurs that steal its energy and distort its true nature.

And so before we can even begin to unlock the wisdom of these ancient texts, we need to gently set aside our contemporary fascination with emotivity as the royal road to spiritual authenticity and return to the classic understanding from which these teachings emerge, which features the heart in a far more spacious and luminous role.

According to the great wisdom traditions of the West (Christian, Jewish, Islamic), the heart is first and foremost an organ of spiritual perception. Its primary function is to look beyond the obvious, the boundaried surface of things, and see into a deeper reality, emerging from some unknown profundity, which plays lightly upon the surface of this life without being caught there: a world where meaning, insight, and clarity come together in a whole different way. Saint Paul talked about this other kind of perceptivity with the term “faith” (“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”), but the word “faith” is itself often misunderstood by the linear mind. What it really designates is not a leaping into the dark (as so often misconstrued) but a subtle seeing in the dark, a kind of spiritual night vision that allows one to see with inner certainty that the elusive golden thread glimpsed from within actually does lead somewhere.

…Unanimously, the Christian wisdom tradition proclaims that the source of this lower-level noise is “the passions.” As the Philokalia repeatedly emphasizes, the problem with the passions is that they divide the heart.15 A heart that is divided, pulled this way and that by competing inner agendas, is like a wind-tossed sea: unable to reflect on its surface the clear image of the moon.

Here again is a teaching that tends to set contemporary people’s teeth on edge. I know this from personal experience, because the issue comes up at nearly every workshop I give. To our modern Western way of hearing, “passion” is a good thing: something akin to élan vital, the source of our aliveness and motivation. It is to be encouraged, not discouraged. At a recent workshop I led, a bishop approached me with some concern and explained that in his diocese, following the recommendations of a church consultant, he had managed to boost morale and productivity by significant percentages simply by encouraging his clergy “to follow their passions.”

Well-nigh universally today, the notion of “passionlessness” (a quality eagerly sought after in the ancient teachings of the desert fathers and mothers) equates to “emotionally brain dead.” If you take away passion, what is left?

So once again we have to begin with some decoding.

If you consult any English dictionary, you will discover that the word “passion” comes from the Latin verb patior, which means “to suffer” (passio is the first-person singular). But this still doesn’t get us all the way, because the literal, now largely archaic, meaning of the verb “to suffer” (to “undergo or experience”) is literally to be acted upon. The chief operative here is the involuntary and mechanical aspect of the transaction. And according to the traditional wisdom teachings, it is precisely that involuntary and mechanical aspect of being “grabbed” that leads to suffering in the sense of how we use the term today. Thus, in the ancient insights on which this spiritual teaching rests, passion did not mean élan vital, energy, or aliveness. It designated being stuck, grabbed, and blindly reactive.

This original meaning is clearly uppermost in the powerful teaching of the fourth-century desert father Evagrius Ponticus. Sometimes credited with being the first spiritual psychologist in the Christian West, Evagrius developed a marvelously subtle teaching on the progressive nature of emotional entanglement, a teaching that would eventually bear fruit in the fully articulated doctrine of the seven deadly sins. His core realization was that when the first stirrings of what will eventually become full-fledged passionate outbursts appear on the screen of consciousness, they begin as “thoughts”—logismoi, in his words—streams of associative logic following well-conditioned inner tracks. At first they are merely that—“thought-loops,” mere flotsam on the endlessly moving river of the mind. But at some point a thought-loop will entrain with one’s sense of identity—an emotional value or point of view is suddenly at stake—and then one is hooked. A passion is born, and the emotions spew forth. Thomas Keating has marvelously repackaged this ancient teaching in his diagram of the life cycle of an emotion,16 a core part of his Centering Prayer teaching. This diagram makes clear that once the emotion is engaged, once that sense of “I” locks in, what follows is a full-scale emotional uproar—which then, as Father Keating points out, simply drives the syndrome deeper and deeper into the unconscious, where it becomes even more involuntary and mechanically triggered.

What breaks the syndrome? For Evagrius, liberation lies in an increasingly developed inner capacity to notice when a thought is beginning to take on emotional coloration and to nip it in the bud before it becomes a passion by dis-identifying or disengaging from it. This is the essence of the teaching that has held sway in our tradition for more than a thousand years.

Now, of course, there are various ways of going about this disengaging. Contemporary psychology has added the important qualifier that disengaging is not the same thing as repressing (which is simply sweeping the issue under the psychological rug) and has developed important methodologies for allowing people to become consciously present to and “own” the stew fermenting within them. But it must also be stated that “owning” does not automatically entail either “acting out” or verbally “expressing” that emotional uproar. Rather, the genius of the earlier tradition has been to insist that if one can merely back the identification out—that sense of “me,” stuck to a fixed frame of reference or value—then the energy being co-opted and squandered in useless emotional turmoil can be recaptured at a higher level to strengthen the intensity and clarity of heart perceptivity. Rather than fueling the “reactive ego-self,” the energy can be “rejoined to its cosmic milieu, the infinity of love.” And that, essentially, constitutes the goal of purification—at least as it has been understood in service of conscious transformation.

See also my previous post: Tips I’ve Heard About How to Pray and Worship in an Orthodox Church.

April 14, 2018

Tips I’ve Heard About How to Pray and Worship in an Orthodox Church

In no particular order and from various sources, here are some tips that I’ve heard regarding how to pray and worship in an Orthodox church (and which also double as tips for all of life):

1. Keep your mind quietly within the present moment and only in the present moment. God only meets with us in the present, but we spend most of our time in either the past (nostalgia, regret, bitterness, etc.) or the future (worry, fear, ambition, etc.).

2. Be open, alert, simple, and honest within your heart and mind to all that is within you and around you. Notice your inner emotions and your surroundings, but do not dwell on them. God, who is truth and the Author of reality, will commune with us as we see clearly all that really is. (Our perceptive or intuitive ability—nous—is typically overpowered by our abilities to judge, categorize, plan, and experience emotions. We therefore must quiet our hearts and our minds—not making plans, forming judgements, imagining beautiful things, or dwelling upon emotions—so that we can see and hear clearly everything that truly is. We are not emptying ourselves but quieting ourselves to perceive clearly and alertly.)

3. Stand guard over the heart. Stand with the mind in the hear. Descend from the head to the heart. All these are one and the same thing. The core of the work lies in concentrating the attention not in the head but in the chest, close to the heart and in the heart.

4. Everything that you are is important because it is known and loved by your Creator. Everything around you also is vitally important because it is a good gift from your Maker:

  • the incense rising through the air
  • the splash of holy water against your face
  • the candle flames
  • the smell of myrrh in the anointing oil
  • the icons before, beside and above you
  • the words of scripture, song and prayer
  • the cadences of the singing and chanting
  • the play of light
  • the people all around you
  • the child at your side and the baby in your arms
  • the parent whose suffering you recall as you pray for all those who are sick.

5. Follow the most experienced worshippers around you (but without worrying about actions and details that are confusing or uncomfortable to you in any way). Save questions for later (after the service) when it is good to ask and learn as much as possible, year after year, about each stage of the service, each personal activity, and the meanings associated with everything.

6. Experience your whole body and with your whole body. Your bodily existence is a gift and a key aspect of being in God’s image. Being aware of your body and of your intentional use of it within worship is a blessing (aa well as a powerful aide to remaining present and attentive).

7. Stand straight but relaxed (with hands inactive and arms hanging straight at your sides). If standing becomes so uncomfortable as to distract you, sit down and rest with an upright posture whenever it is most suitable. Be prepared to stand for each of the most solemn moments and activities in each service (if at all possible without injury to yourself).

8. When the priest is visible or audible, pay particular attention to all that is done by him (and to those supporting him) as Christ’s representative within the service.

9. Do nothing to draw attention to yourself or to distract others (other than the most simple acts of helpfulness or kindness).

10. Do nothing to direct or correct others (adults or children) unless you have a particular responsibility, but even then keep all direction to the simplest possible minimum.

11. When caring for young children, the elderly, or the ill, remain as participatory as possible but consider every need of theirs as a part of the body of Christ which you have the privilege to serve.

12. Do not pursue great thoughts or wonderful feelings. Sentimentality is the greatest impediment to true depth of feeling and profundity is the greatest impediment to true clarity of thought.

13. Admit and accept your frailties (wandering thoughts, physical fatigue, inattentiveness, carelessness toward others, etc.), but do not indulge them.

14. Stand quietly before your God and allow Him to enter into your heart. There, He desires to heal you and to commune with you.

15. Attend church services whenever you can do so without neglecting your responsibilities to others, and prepare faithfully at home. Stand in church where you can see and hear. Attend to the beauty of your prayer corner at home. The daily and weekly patterns of prayer and spiritual disciplines as well as the yearly church calendar will continually invite you into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In my very small experience of them, these practices (when returned to after each falling away) will gradually increase:

  • your ability to use and enjoy your body and to stand still for long periods of time
  • your ability to pay attention and to notice details in everything around you
  • your awareness and honesty with your self regarding your own frailties, failures, and self-deceptions (as chief of sinners) as well as your sense of individual calling and gifting by God
  • your sense of joy and gratitude for the way in which you are known and loved
  • your deep sorrow over your own life of indifference and animosity
  • your deep sorrow over your suffering and the suffering of all those who you know
  • your desire for communion with God.

P.S. Two readers later added these two excellent points:

  1. Be yourself. [A true and wise paradox. Personhood and a free will are found only in communion with God, and God only wants all that we uniquely are as a person. Much more to unpack here.]
  2. Don’t get too stuck in the service books or the pews.

Image credit: from the Atlantic’s “Photos of the Week.” They published it with the caption: “Russian Orthodox believers attend the Orthodox Easter service in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, Russia, on April 8, 2018.”

March 25, 2018

the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God

What is a merciful heart?
It is a heart on fire
for the whole of creation,
for humanity,
for the birds,
for the animals,
for demons,
and for all that exists.
By the recollection of them
the eyes of a merciful person
pour forth tears in abundance.
By the strong and vehement mercy
that grips such a person’s heart,
and by such great compassion,
the heart is humbled
and one cannot bear to hear or to see
any injury or slight sorrow
in any in creation.
For this reason, such a person
offers up tearful prayer continually
even for irrational beasts,
for the enemies of the truth,
and for those who harm him,
that they be protected and receive mercy…
because of the great compassion
that burns without measure
in a heart that is
in the likeness of God.

+ St. Isaac the Syrian

July 16, 2016

the full participation of the living with the dead

How the First Christians Changed Dying by William E. Kangas:

The fathers of the church did not view theology as being dangerous if it denied God’s wrath, but rather if it denied God’s suffering.

…As many Christians were killed for their faith, the book of Revelation opens up heaven and shows the reader that death is not an end. At the center of the worship of heaven is a Lamb who was slain. The martyrs are there with Christ, as are the apostles. The format seems to follow some of the early conventions of worship at the time. In many ways the book of Revelation teaches the early Christians that their worship together is a way to participate with all those who have gone before in feasting with the crucified Lord that reigns in heaven.

…Although we cannot know for certain how the author of Revelation viewed their work in relation to the liturgy, it seems clear that there is a reflection of many liturgical themes throughout the book. The author clearly believed there was a connection between how the Christians in his community worshipped and how the dead in Christ worshiped. Christian worship, in a very real sense, was seen as a foretaste of death. Because of Jesus, death was no longer something bitter, but it had become something sweet. The sacrament was a window into eternal life and offered a picture of death to the living.

…For those born in the first century CE the understanding of death was significantly different from how many in the west today experience it. If one was a Roman or a Greek, the traditional religion would have taught them that the dead were inaccessible. The souls of those who had passed away would have been drawn into hades, where no one could enter.

…No matter who one was or where they were born one thing would be certain: the dead and dying were dangerous. Death could have meant many things for a person in the first-century. One might have believed in a bodily resurrection; one might have believed in a spiritual existence; one might not have believed there was existence after death at all. No matter what one believed, no person would have been comfortable with the dead. This is one of the reasons Jesus was so revolutionary.

…The church began to treat the dead as if they were welcome in their lives, rather than curses to be avoided. As Christianity became the dominant form of faith in the Roman world the practice of burial shifted. People began to be buried within the city walls. When the dead cease to be a threat, a burden to, and an adversary to people, there is no longer a need to keep them far away. When the dead become a help, the treatment of their remains reflects this shift. Corpses moved from a place of exclusion at the outskirts of society to a place where they were embraced at the center of the community’s life. Since the body is seen as something that will be raised, it becomes something that is treasured and treated as holy.

…Sometimes scholars are shocked to see how flagrantly Christians violated the social norms of their day relating to death. They wonder why Christians began to embrace the dead, bringing them into social spaces and bringing the remains into their worship together. They would gather the bodies of those who had died (and even the scraps of their clothing) and hold them close to them, treating them as “gold and precious stones.” They would even make a point to travel to the remains of the dead on pilgrimage. From a sociological perspective, this kind of behavior seems baffling, but if one tries to imagine what the message of Jesus would have been like to people in the first centuries of the church it is easier to understand why the world began to change.

The full participation of the living with the dead was seen as an integral part of the gospel since all were made one in Jesus. To be able to come with joy to the dead was revolutionary.

…In a world where the corpse can no longer contaminate, the dead are no longer to be feared. This is an emerging epoch and a new reality. Although it is still sad to be parted from loved ones, the sadness of the grave does not deprive a mourner of their friend or relative completely.

…At first this idea seemed to resonate among the disenfranchised in the Roman world. Those who had been controlled through the fear of death by those in power found this new reality to have an unheard of potential to bring freedom. Death was not an end but a beginning. Execution was not a shame any longer but it could be a glory, if a person gave their life as a result of imitating Christ. There was a power in poverty that could break the authority of the rulers.

…The freedom of the Christian from death was infectious. When people heard the news it was difficult to believe, but as time went on the lives of Christians showed a real conviction that God had indeed achieved victory over death. Christians were living differently, and their lives became testimonies that they did not fear death any longer.

…The Christians did not only flaunt death at the hands of the Empire, they also showed no regard for it in their service to the dying. Christians were known for their compassion for the sick; when the plague would come into a city, they cared for the afflicted. While everyone else fled the city in fear, the followers of Jesus would stay behind with the suffering. …People were amazed at the compassion of these early Christians and saw evidence in their seeming supernatural resistance to disease of God at work in their lives.

…By the middle of the third century the church had become centers of care throughout the empire for all people in need. In Rome alone the church was supporting fifteen hundred people in need. They took in the widows, the homeless, and the sick. They cared for the destitute and the shipwrecked. These early Christians would seek out those in the most need and hold them as their dearest treasures. These Christians saw Christ in those who were broken and sought to bring the new economy of Christ to them through their own love and care.

…Christians saw Jesus as a man who walked through death and brought forth life. …As the first Christians looked to Jesus, they began to see their life together as part of a new reality, one that restored what they believed had been lost long ago. …Irenaeus of Lyons taught that the new paradise on earth was the church. He stated that the church was planted by God to restore again what was lost before.

…Death was no longer a force of chaos, and the dead were no longer gone. …The dead were tangible members of a tangible world that was being transformed…. History had a place in this new reality, and the dead were seen as just as much a part of the world as the living.

July 11, 2015

In the mind alone

God gaurd me from the thoughts men think / In the mind alone….

Yeats in “A Prayer for Old Age” quoted in Our Only Wolrd by Wendell Berry (7).

October 22, 2014

using my most tender memories as tools

Poem by Nate Pruitt.

Mist Everywhere

When the afternoon light
touches the broad orange petals
of the tiger lilies, mute tongues
curled, I pray hard
for such joyous sights to continue.

But I pray wrong, selfishly.
I don’t know where the words
are going.

I struggle to recall
even the names of my old friends.

When I remember, I try
to search them out but I don’t
have any illusions about their lives.

It rained last night & all day today
so the lake I can’t quite see
over the tree line is pure frothy white.

There is mist everywhere
& I am alone in it.

The white light
burns my eyes, sears a holy purpose
in my human frame.
I’m setting out
on a new journey, ever faithful.

Early on, I walked away
from everything, from things I loved.

But now, when I come to the ocean,
as I know I will, foaming
like some impossible hell,
I won’t despair or surrender.

I’ll find a tree, growing from a crag
on the shore & I’ll cut it down
with the force of my loneliness.

There is the shape of a boat
hidden beneath the bark,
I know it.

So I’ll release it,
using my most tender memories
as tools. I’ll continue.

Nothing
will block my way.

September 1, 2014

Job himself recovers by his praying for them

In this passage near the end of the book, Job appears preeminently as an effective petitioner on behalf of his friends. These men are restored to God’s favor by Job’s praying for them, and Job himself recovers by his praying for them. …We learn of Job’s intercessions almost before we discover anything else about him. Concerned for the welfare of his children, we are told, Job “would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all” (Job 1:5). Let me suggest that between Job’s intersessions at the beginning and the end of the book, we may regard chapters 2 through 37 as a kind of Satanic distraction to Job’s life of prayer.

From The Trial of Job by Patrick Henry Reardon (8-9).

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October 12, 2013

the personally transforming power of this prayer

The scene of Jesus praying in the garden, on the night before his death, is among the most disturbing presentations among the gospel narratives. Specifically, Jesus’ immense sadness and personal distress seem much out of character with what the gospel stories—up to this point—would lead the reader to expect. What has become of the serenity and self-assurance that tells the leper, “I will it; be cleansed” (Matthew 8:3)? Where now is the confidence that announces to the centurion, “I will come and heal him” (8:7), or commands the wind and sea, “Peace, be still” (Mark 4:39)? In short, the image of Jesus in the garden stands in stark contrast to the picture we have of him from all prior scenes in his life. From very early times, pagans themselves were quick to notice in the agony what they took to be an inconsistency with Christian belief in the divinity of Christ. Late in the second century, when the critic Celsus wrote the first formal treatise against the Christian faith, he cited Jesus’ fear and discomposure in the garden as evidence against the doctrine of his divinity. Celsus inquired, “Why does [Jesus] shriek and lament and pray to escape the fear of destruction, speaking thus: ‘Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me’?”

…Even as we reject that critic’s conclusion, we are obliged to recognize its force. That is to say, the fullness of Jesus’ humanity was most manifest in the event described in the epistle to the Hebrews as “the days of his flesh” (5:7). In the Savior’s agony, believers perceive the most profound and disturbing inferences of the doctrine of the Incarnation—the “enfleshing” of God’s Son. More than anywhere else in the New Testament, the garden scene presents us with the phenomenon of frailty and conflict in the mind and heart, as Jesus struggles with the trauma of his impending Passion. Indeed, he speaks of this conflict in terms of spirit and flesh. It is during—and with respect to—his experience in the garden that he declares, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). To be in the flesh is to feel weak. He knew whereof he spoke! Whether the conflict is portrayed in terms of sorrow (Matthew and Mark) or of fear (Luke and Hebrews), the New Testament sources agree that Jesus did not want to suffer and die this painful and most ignominious death, and he prayed to be delivered from it.

…Here, above all, we are presented with the profound mystery of self-emptying that the apostle Paul called “the weakness of God.” Each account of the agony likewise demonstrates, nonetheless, how “the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25). The inner conflict described in the New Testament was based on an opposition between the powerful psychological disposition of Jesus—his desire to live!—and what he perceived to be the will and call of God. The two options were mutually exclusive. Luke calls the experience a “struggle,” an agonia. In this scene, according to all four sources, Jesus’ intense psychological experience of weakness and turmoil was followed by a determined resolution, which is perhaps the most significant element in the story. Jesus was clearly stronger and more serene when he left the garden, even though his captors had forcefully bound him.

…His final statement to the Sanhedrin was both solemn and self-assured. No less dignified and confident were his few pronouncements to Pilate, and he honored Herod’s curiosity with not a single syllable (Luke 23:9). In all these cases, Jesus acted with a dignity beyond his tormentors’ reach. This renewed strength, moreover, was conveyed to Jesus through his experience of prayer. According to all four accounts of the event, it was in prayer that Jesus resolved the conflict in his soul. In fact, each writer goes into some detail to describe this prayer and the transforming resolution to which it led. We recognize, in short, that Jesus’ prayer in the garden—his prayerful acquiescence in the Father’s will—strengthened him for the dreadful ordeal to come. The Passion story testifies to the personally transforming power of this prayer.

…Only Peter, James, and John were permitted entrance into the chamber where Jesus confronted and conquered the power of death in the person of Jairus’s daughter.6 These three, likewise, were the sole witnesses to Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain. Over the centuries, Christian homiletics and hymnography have copiously testified to a common Christian persuasion on this point: Peter, James, and John received these special revelations of Jesus’ innate glory and his sovereign power over death, in order to be strengthened to endure the sight of his agony in the garden. We do well to consider the element of “planning” in this matter because the preservation of this story was neither a decree of fate nor an accident of circumstances. It was entirely deliberate. Jesus could certainly have suffered this agony in solitary privacy, but he determined that there would be witnesses to it—close enough to behold the scene—because he wanted this scene to be recorded!

…It is important to reflect that we are acquainted with the failure of these apostles because they were the ones who testified to it. Their failure was part of the story, and they recognized it as such. Consequently, when they later narrated to others the events of that night, they made sure not to omit the account of Jesus’ disappointment with them. Indeed, they failed the Savior. Had Jesus seen the three of them steady at prayer, supporting him in his time of fear and sorrow, his spirit—like any human spirit at such a time—would have been strengthened. Thus, an added component of his trauma that night was the loss of human encouragement from those witnesses, who should have supplied it. He knew these men well enough, nonetheless. Earlier in the evening, had he not told them, “All of you will be tripped up tonight” (Matthew 26:31)?

…The epistle to the Hebrews—which may be our earliest written reference to the agony—let us begin with this account. It is the shortest, speaking only of Jesus, who, in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save him from death, and was heard because of his godly fear, though he were a Son, yet he learned obedience by the things which he suffered. (Hebrews 5:7–8) This terrible scene took place, says Hebrews, “in the days of his flesh.” The “flesh” here refers not to the Incarnation as such (because the Word’s assumption of our humanity is permanent, not temporary), but to the condition of human weakness, which God’s Son willingly assumed so “that through death he might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14). This is a major argument in the epistle to the Hebrews. The author of this work speaks of Jesus’ death not just as an objective and clinical fact but as a matter of experience; he employs the metaphor of taste.

…According to Hebrews, then, God’s Son assumed, not simply human nature, but the existential burden of human experience. His was to be a full and felt solidarity, in which “he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying: ‘I will declare Your name to my brothers’” (Hebrews 2:11–12). For this reason, declares Hebrews, “in all things he had to be made like the brothers” (2:17). These “all things” particularly included the tasting of death.

…This obedience of Jesus was not theoretical, detached, or instantaneous. He learned it through the actual process of suffering and dying. Jesus was inwardly changed through this experience, thereby becoming “perfected” (Hebrews 5:9). He was “made perfect through sufferings” (2:10).

…The early believers easily perceived that whereas the first man attempted, in rebellion, to become God’s equal, the second, being in the form of God, did not regard being equal to God a usurpation [harpagmos], but he emptied himself, taking the form of a bondservant, being made in the likeness of men, and being found in shape as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death. (Philippians 2:6–8) It is important to bear in mind the traditional contrast between the obedient Jesus and the disobedient Adam when we come to the Gospel accounts of the Savior’s struggle at “Gethsemani.”12 The very name of this place means “olive garden,” abbreviated to simply “a garden” by John (18:1).

…This petition—“Thy will be done”—does not represent a hypothesis or a limitation laid on the prayer. “What You will” is not a restriction of Jesus’ confidence but an elevation of it. It expresses a constitutive feature of his prayer and an essential component of his faith. The real purpose of the Son’s prayer, after all, is not to inform the Father what he wants but to hand himself over more completely, in faith, to what the Father wants. The purpose of all prayer, even the prayer of petition, is living communion with God. The man who tells the Father, then, “Thy will be done,” does not thereby show himself a weaker believer but a stronger one. Jesus, “the author and perfecter of our faith,” models this prayer. He gives his disciples, in this form, the very essence of true prayer. The “will of God,” in which Jesus places the trust of his petition, is not a blind, arbitrary, or predetermined will. It is, rather, the abiding love of the Father. This theology of prayer is conveyed in Jesus’ prayer in the garden, by which his own human will is obediently united with the will of God.

…First, the sweat of blood is a condition called hematidrosis. This pathology, which results from an extreme dilation of the subcutaneous capillaries, causes them to burst through the sweat glands. This symptom, mentioned as early as Aristotle,19 is well-known to the history of medicine, which sometimes associates it with intense fear. It is not without interest, surely, that Luke, the only Evangelist to mention this phenomenon, was a physician.

…The theological significance of this feature in Luke is that Jesus’ internal conflict causes the first bloodshed in the Passion. His complete obedience to the Father in his prayer immediately produces this initial libation of his redemptive blood, the blood of which he had proclaimed just shortly before, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is shed for you” (Luke 22:20). Prior to the appearance of his betrayer, then, Jesus already begins the shedding of his blood. He pours it out in the struggle of obedience, before a single hand has been laid upon him. In Luke’s account the agony in the garden is not a prelude to the Passion but its very commencement, because Jesus’ stern determination to accomplish the Father’s will causes his blood to flow—already—as the price for man’s redemption.

From The Jesus We Missed: The Surprising Truth About the Humanity of Christ by Patrick Henry Reardon. Also see this poem and this quote.

October 9, 2013

engaged with existence in its fullness

If we reflect that prayer is the highest human activity—the defining purpose of human existence and the goal of human destiny—we should say that Jesus’ prayer reveals more about him as a human being than anything else he did.

…In prayer a human being is engaged with existence in its fullness. First, when a person prays, he represents the whole created order, of which he is the conscious, self-reflective part. It is in the prayer of human beings that creation becomes conscious of its relationship to God. Man is the thinking part of the cosmos. In the entire material world, the only being that even thinks to pray is man. Human thought is the only place where the cosmos is self-reflective. Second, when someone prays, he represents history, which has bequeathed to him the very language he uses to speak and to think. To pray is to take an heir’s possession—by language—of all that has transpired during man’s existence in this world. We are no more able to separate ourselves from the time of human history than from the space of the created order.

From The Jesus We Missed: The Surprising Truth About the Humanity of Christ by Patrick Henry Reardon.

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