From "The Book of Mystical Chapters" by John Anthony McGuckin. c 2002 John Anthony McGuckin. Excerpted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston,

For those who wish to deepen their spiritual practice in the Christian tradition, the Desert Fathers and other early contemplatives left behind a wealth of mystical teachings. The following "sentences" (meaning in ancient Greek a unit of thought, or paragraph) are taken from writings from the 4th to the 11th centuries. The next time you have a free moment, try engaging your spirit with one of these meditations.

The following are examples from a collection of Christian monastic wisdom, a very small portion of the vast amount of teachings that exist and are still used in the monasteries of the Eastern Christian world to this day.

Each single sentence is meant to be taken as a day's reflection. It was first supposed to be learned by heart, at the beginning of the day, and then repeated as the daily text in every spare moment of quiet. Such moments of hesychia (quietness of soul) were structured by the early monks around the simple repetitive tasks that made up daily life in remote deserts. The regular monotony of basket weaving (a favored monastic employment) was interspersed with the repetition of prayers and the musing on the "sentence" of the day.

Today life is busier and more demanding, but even the busiest of us have moments of hesychia, in those times spent waiting for buses or trains to arrive or depart, or when we are driving or walking or simply sitting idly for a moment. Such times are ideally suited for the recitation of the sentence and its dialectic--teasing out the implications of what such an aphorism could mean: how have we already experienced it; how could it illuminate a truth about our own heart or the troubles or our friends' hearts of the secret ways that God wishes to develop our seeking soul?

The Threefold Ascent: Praxis, Theoria, and Gnosis

The earliest writers tended to divide their spiritual teachings into three basic categories, suitable for the stages of the first searchers, young monks of several years' standing, and finally, the more advanced. The instructions were usually arranged as short paragraphs, meant to be learned by heart and meditated on over and over again for a day or even a week until the paragraph had opened like a fruit on the tongue of the monk and revealed its inner flavor to the searching mind. The same practice was adopted in regard to phrases from the Scriptures, especially the Psalms.

The first stage of teachings was called Praktikos. This was like a stage of "exercises," or basic matters of technique and preparation in the life of prayer and mystical searching. It was predominantly concerned with the need for disciplined attention and the skills required to scrutinize the often complex paths that made up the psyche of the searcher. It was a firm belief of the monks, based upon the Christian idea that the soul was made after the image and likeness of God, that a mastery of the knowledge of the inner self was necessary before one could presume to discern the more mysterious workings of the divine Spirit in a human life. The contemporary word psychology (and perhaps even the focused modern interest in psychology as a quest for the authentic self) derives from the Christian interest in mapping out the inner life of the monk as a first stage in mystical journeying.

The impressive twentieth-century advances in psychological understanding have rendered obsolete some of the ancient psychological teaching (particularly its ready ascription of passionate desires to demonic influence), but they have not superceded its central tradition of wisdom. This is especially true in regard to what it was trying to say about spiritual subjectivity, or the unmasking of the multiple versions of the false self we often construct, or the quest for personal psychic calm, integrity, and stability. Moreover, although "psychologia" was of fundamental importance for the early Christians, it was only the first stage in a threefold path of increasingly transcendent journeying.

Once the lessons of Praktikos have been absorbed, the spiritual quester moved on to seek guidance in resolving the difficulties of the inner life. The second stage focuses on what were the recurrent problems that stopped a spiritual person from progressing. The level of Theoretikos is like that developmental stage in a musician's career when the elementary exercises have been completed but the player wishes to break through the barrier of the limitation of his or her present technique to reach a stage of virtuosic ability. What is it that prevents different individuals from advancing beyond their prejudices, and repressions, so as to become increasingly illuminated? Theoria probes this issue from a variety of angles.