2016-06-30
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From "The Book of Mystical Chapters" by John Anthony McGuckin. c 2002 John Anthony McGuckin. Excerpted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston, www.shambhala.com.

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.

The third stage of the monastic instructions was reserved for more experienced monks and was often the subject of long discussions from which junior monks would be excluded. This stage was called Gnostikos. It is a word that means the state of knowing, or understanding. In Christian circles, from the late third century onward, when the writings of the earlier Gnostic movement had largely been sidelined by the main tradition's bishops and theologians, it was used as a technical term in monastic literature to connote esoteric speculation and reflections on the higher mysteries.

Many of these later Christian "Gnostic treatises" also fell under the disapproval of the bishops and were suppressed, or even destroyed. Some of the Gnostic chapters survived, however, as the more advanced monks kept the tradition of spiritual wisdom alive, despite all opponents--those outside the church and even those within it--who have often tried to stifle the inner currents of Christian mysticism because of their unease with a fiercely personal wisdom tradition that was not always easy to control or define.

The books of Gnostic chapters are often enigmatic and difficult to interpret. Unlike the other two types of book, the practical and the theoretical chapters, they were not meant to be a teaching tool for those who had not yet experienced such things. The Gnostic chapters, by contrast, were meant to be a signal to those who had already experienced some of these things that others were around them who had also experienced the moving of the divine Spirit within and who were ready to communicate on an equal level about the higher mysteries.

Practikos

After our baptism, an even greater baptism--
if I may make so bold as to put it that way--
is the baptism provided by our tears.
Our first baptism cleansed all our former sins.
The baptism of our tears cleanses us anew
by the gift of compassion
God gives to the human race.
--John Klimakos

If you store up grievances
and nurse old animosities inside yourself,
and then try to pray,
you will be like someone going to a well for water
with a bucket that is full of holes.
--Evagrios of Pontus

The first stage of the spiritual life,
the beginning of it all,
is to gain some control over the passions.
The second stage is to devote oneself
to the vocal recitation of the psalms,
for when the passions have been calmed
and prayer has brought some order
in our quest for pleasure,
then the psalms can bring us great delight,
and they are pleasing in God's sight.
The third stage is to pray with our mind.
The fourth is when we ascend to contemplation.
--Symeon the New Theologian


Theoretikos

When you are praying, do not try to envisage
the Godhead within you in any imagined form.
Do not let your mind be cast in the mold
of any particular figure.
Instead, draw close to the Immaterial One immaterially,
and then you will understand.
--Evagrios of Pontus

The whole purpose of the Savior's commandments
is to liberate the intellect
from its malice and crudeness
and to lead it into his love
and into the love of one another.
Out of this love shines
the radiance of mystical knowledge
that God's holy power makes possible in us.
--Maximus the Confessor

If you assiduously concentrate on the interior life,
you will become restrained and patient,
kind and humble.
Then you will also be able to contemplate,
theologize, and pray.
This is what the apostle Paul meant when he said,
"Walk in the Spirit."
--Maximus the Confessor


Gnostikos

God hides the mysteries he offers us
so that he might teach us to search for them in love.
Narsai of Edessa

If you really long for mystical knowledge,
the certain assurance of salvation,
then first make a concentrated effort
to break the soul's obsessive bondage to its body;
strip the soul of the garments
of attachment to materiality
and then let it dive down naked
into the depths of humility,
for it is there you will find
the precious pearl of your salvation,
hidden in the shell of divine knowledge.
Theognostos the Priest

The spirit is life, light, and peace.
If you are illuminated by the divine Spirit,
your life will be established in peaceful serenity.
A spring will gush out within you,
which is the wisdom of the Logos
and the mystical knowledge of existent being,
and you will come to have the mind of Christ.
Then you will know the mysteries
of the Kingdom of God
and will enter the depths of the deity,
day by day speaking words of life for others
from a heart that is calmed and enlightened.
Niketas Stethatos

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