Category Archives: Prayer

A Request From Moscow

I read very sad news last night that someone whom I had known for years passed away in June. Her name is Natalia, aged 80. Her husband, Dmitry, is a famous professor from the university where I studied between 2003 and 2013. They are very spiritual and sincerely Orthodox people, with no signs of hypocrisy, phariseeism or neophytism at all. They were a very united couple who lived together for over 50 years. They converted to the faith after the very early death of their son in the 1980s. And between 1994 and 2019 they performed a very great feat: they organized and ran a centre for the Orthodox education of military servicemen in the centre of Moscow, formally attached to St Tikhon’s University of Humanities, but in fact carrying everything themselves on their shoulders, with very limited resources, in poor premises, and many other problems – day after day till late evening for 25 years, inviting some of the best priests as their teachers.

We first met them both in 2004 and between 2004 and 2006 we regularly attended the lectures that they organized (absolutely on a voluntary basis). It was they that acquainted us with Fr X and Fr Z in the 2000s. They also have a daughter and four grandchildren. They were a very, very beautiful couple. It is a pity that her husband has been widowed now. I contacted them by email last year and they replied several times, but not this year. As early as 2004 Dmitry arranged for me to read a report at one of our most prestigious universities for which I received a grant. I remember Natalia had cancer in 2004 or so, but after serving a single moleben everything was healed at once. Their labours were incredible, based on enthusiasm and love. Please can you remember her? Thank you.

On the Prayer of the Heart

Q: Can the Jesus Prayer be dangerous?

A: Everything can be dangerous: it all depends on the user. Thus television can be used to broadcast spiritual programmes or else scenes of debauchery and violence; computers can be used to establish a gambling addiction or else to provide Church information websites. So too the Prayer of the Heart (miscalled by some the Jesus Prayer – a purely Non-Patristic term) can be dangerous.

If the Prayer is used with the imagination and mental images, as a form of meditation or contemplation as Roman Catholics do, which is strictly forbidden by Orthodoxy, it leads to a state of delusion. Thus, if someone repeats ‘the Jesus Prayer’ over and over again as a mere technique, without love for others, with a cold heart, because he thinks he will go heaven in this way, without seeing anything except his ‘prayer’ and his own selfish and narcissistic ‘spirituality’, this leads to spiritual death. He sees and loves only himself and his own speculations, reflections of his own sinful mind, not God, only his imagination of God. This is the definition of spiritual illusion (plani/illusio/prelest). This is an illusion because such prayer has no humility, no heart, it is merely an intellectual desire. This is precisely NOT the prayer of the heart, but the prayer of the head, accompanied by delusional emotions. I have seen very many who have fallen in this way. They always end up by lapsing from the Church, because in their insanity the think they are too good for the Church, above others.

In other words, if you want to get to heaven by yourself, by pride, you will meet the Devil, the Deceiver. We can only get to heaven with God, with humility. That is the only way. In prayer, we must pay no attention to feelings, thoughts and mental images, especially if they give us a feeling of sweetness and make us ‘feel good’ or feel relaxed. They are all there to distract us.

The key to all this is humility. If prayer makes you humble then it is good. Others will let you know about this, whether in a monastery or in your family – listen to them and their frank opinions. If you feel insulted and offended by them, then you are in a state of pride, spiritual delusion. If ‘prayer’ makes you feel superior to, better than, others, and you cannot possibly go to their ‘inferior’ churches, then that is not prayer, but the thought of yourself, not of God.

This is why there is no meditation in Orthodoxy. For Orthodox it leads to sin. Self-concentration and focusing on your internal abilities only increases pride. But we seek humility. This difference is a result of the different theology or understanding of how the Holy Spirit comes to us. For Orthodox it is directly from God the Father, for Roman Catholics through some human mediation, thought (contemplation or meditation), study or manipulation. This is why for Orthodox there is no difference between action and contemplation. All is one.


Change and the Church

Politics used to be about left and right. However, negative attitudes to the EU, for example, Brexit, are supported by both those on the left and those on the right. This is because politics today is no longer a division between left and right, but between patriots who love the people and so are social conservatives who desire social justice, and globalists, who love their passions and so are social liberals who desire personal wealth.

We are living through a period of generational change. Just as the social changes beginning in the mid-1960s resulted in revolutions in Paris and Prague in 1968, the US defeat in Vietnam and revolution in Lisbon and invasion of Cyprus in 1974, just as the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 led to the collapse of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, the invasion of Iraq in 1991, war in Yugoslavia, famine in Russia and the Twin Towers attack in 2001, so today we are going through generational change. We have seen the anti-democratic seizure of power in the Ukraine, the appearance of ISIS in the Middle East and North Africa, terrorist attacks in France, the debt crisis in Greece, the refugee crisis, Brexit and revolt in Turkey.

Who knows what is next? The implosion of the fragile EU as it limps from one self-made crisis to another is just one possibility. After all, Brexit came about because of the refusal of the anti-populist EU bureaucratic elite to be flexible and concede to the popular will. The possible election of Trump in the US or Le Pen in France are others. The collapse of NATO, ex-Yugoslavia and the Ukraine are yet others. And then there is a host of unpredictable events.

In times of generational change, in times of political turbulence, the only thing we can be sure of is the Church, even though it too can be victim of the fashions (‘politics’) of this world. The Church is like a flotilla of fourteen ships, big and small. The Russian Church is the flagship of the flotilla, by far the largest, the multinational 75% of the whole, and attached to it are three small and dependent ships, those of the Church Outside Russia, the Church of Japan and the Church of China, as well as a large lifeboat temporarily launched from the mother-ship for some North Americans in danger. In fairness to those who criticize, it must be said that there are indeed some strange, liberal-looking characters clinging on to the sides of the Russian ship.

Just by it, but quite separately, are the small ships of the Churches of Bulgaria, Georgia and Antioch. Not far off sail the smaller ships of the Churches of Poland and Czechoslovakia. Near them sail the ships of the Churches of Greece and Cyprus. They are followed by the ships of the Churches of Alexandria, Jerusalem and Serbia. They are followed by the large ship of the Church of Romania, at times in difficulty because of simony, and then the small ship of the Church of Albania. Finally, zigzagging some way behind and bringing up the rear because of damage to its American-made steering, sails the small ship of the Church of Constantinople. If it is still in the flotilla and afloat, it is only because of the prayers of Athonite fathers. For on prayer we all depend.

What is Art?

We can define art in its broadest sense by its etymology: art means something artificial, that is, manmade. However, anyone can see that there are great differences between manmade things, manmade things fit into different levels. Thus, there is a great difference between a spade and an antique vase, or a 1960s block of flats and a palace, a Picasso and a Rembrandt, or heavy rock music and a Strauss waltz. All are manmade, but the former examples reflect a lack of inspiration as compared to the latter. What then is inspiration?

Inspiration is the reflection of the soul. Hence the attraction of art made by more refined souls, who have put thought and effort, technique and skill into art. The nobler and finer the soul, the nobler and finer the art. Here then we have the fundamental difference between two different levels of art – what can be called low art and high art. Indeed, so low are mass-produced manmade items, for instance, consumer goods, that some would say that they are not worthy even of the name ‘low art’. After all, they are not manmade, but machine made. On the other hand, there is art that clearly belong to the world of ‘high art’, art that can move the soul by its beauty. However, there is also a world of art higher than ‘high art’.

Here we are talking not just about art inspired by noble and fine souls, but about art inspired by the Divine Spirit. Here we are in the world of Orthodox Christian art. What is the difference between Orthodox Christian art and all other art, low or high? We have spoken already of low and high art, for example a piece of modern art and a Rembrandt painting. But higher than this there is the icon. What is an icon? It is a painting in front of which we want to pray. I have not yet heard of anyone wanting to pray in front of a painting by Picasso, or a painting by Rembrandt, even if its subject was religious. But people want to pray in front of icons. Why?

This is because an icon represents a Divino-human reality and it is painted not just through inspiration of the soul, but through Divine inspiration acting on the spirit. The same is true of Church music, Church architecture and Church artefacts. They all inspire prayer. However beautiful or interesting high art, a piece of classical music, a palace or an antique vase, it does not make us pray. We admire it or are even moved by it, but no more. We cannot forget the stories of SS officers who listened to Mozart before they went off to slaughter some more concentration camp prisoners. Here is the difference between high art and Orthodox Christian art, much greater than the difference even between low art and high art.
We can conclude that there are three levels of art: low art, high art and Orthodox Christian art.

Low art includes everyday manmade or artificial objects, like spades, mugs, cars, flatpack furniture, blocks of flats. This art is so low that only the broadest possible sense of the word art can include them. Low art contains very little inspiration, very little ‘soul’, rather it reflects the fallenness of humanity.

High art is inspired, it is handmade, it contains thought and soul, effort and skill, it reflects the values, nobility and finesse of the soul of its author and can even move by its beauty – but no more.

Finally, there is Orthodox Christian art. This is the art that can bring us to prayer and repentance. It reflects Divine inspiration, the Spirit of God that has inspired the soul and mind and hand of man. In this respect it approaches the beauty of the Unfallen Creation, of Paradise, which can sometimes be picked up by the soul as it looks at what remains of God’s Creation in even this fallen world, the Divine Inspiration behind the forests and the oceans, the mountains and the stars, for these too can bring us to prayer and repentance.