From: The Illuminated Heart
Illumine our hearts, O Master who lovest mankind
with the pure light of thy divine knowledge,
and open the eyes of our minds to the understanding
of thy Gospel teachings, for thou art
the illumination of our souls and bodies,
O Christ our God.
(Prayer before the reading of the Gospel
Liturgy of St. James, Fourth Century)
This has been a very brief exposition of the spiritual path of the ancient church. The good news is that this path has been preserved, and resources are available to those who would undertake it seriously today. There are many excellent books, a few of which are listed in the bibliography. But the primary need is for personal guidance from a spiritual father or mother. This is because we lie to ourselves, and we don’t even know when we’re doing it. A spiritual parent can help us see with a keener eye.
The Russians would call a very advanced spiritual teacher a starets (plurel, startsi), and the Greeks would call him geron (“old man,” though the term has nothing to do with age). Such a person need not be a clergyman – just being a wise older sister or brother in Christ may be sufficient. Monks and nuns are particularly apt. He or she fills the role of a personal trainer to an athlete, directing you to the exercises your particular condition needs.
Your bigger problem will be finding someone who has been immersed in the prayers and wisdom of the ancient church, and has assimilated this worldview now so foreign to Western ears. Though much has been kept alive in churches with historic roots in the eastern hemisphere (my personal familiarity is with Eastern Orthodox churches), in some local congregations it is more a memory than a living spiritual path. You may be able to find a guide by phoning nearby pastors or monasteries and asking, “Can you recommend anyone who could guide me in the Jesus Prayer?” While it’s helpful if your spiritual parent lives nearby, a long-distance relationship is not out of the question. Some of our richest spiritual literature is composed of letters between startsi and their spiritual children.
As we say goodbye to Anna and Theodore, we wonder how what seems so natural to them is so awkward and difficult for us. The main reason is that they are members of a community where all these things are alive: They are immersed in the ancient prayers, encouraged by fellow worshipers, personally counseled by a wise old priest, and sustained by the sacred mysteries (the sacraments). The role of a healthy local church, in terms of both community and worship experience, cannot be underestimated.
Thus readers who are members of such churches today would object at this point, “You left out the most important part!” That is, that this journey is not a solo undertaking, but must be done as part of the Body of Christ. They would say that it is only after committing to a local congregation that one can truly begin to grow in these practices, and that even the venerable Jesus Prayer cannot be successfully cut from the whole fabric and applied like a patch on a new garment. I agree with them, but this much is sufficient for now. Only begin to pray and the prayer itself will lead you.
I have rendered as best I can what I understand of this path, and hope I have not distorted it. This wisdom is not my own. I mean that in two senses: I didn’t make it up, and I don’t possess it very well. The notion that “I wrote the book on humility” makes me hang my head in shame. Anyone who knows me personally can tell you how badly I do these things. I hope you can see the beauty of them, though, and desire to move toward them. I will meet you at the end.
Old movies used to depict the passage of time by showing the pages blowing off a calendar, one leaf flying after another, until all was a blur. It is sobering for me to realize how much my life has been like that, and how much time I have wasted in self-pity and self-indulgence while the eager years flew by. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.
I have only begun to reform my mind and heart and tune it to this eternal melody. I hope that I have helped you hear it. I would rejoice for you to outdistance me in this race. I pray that you will take up the challenge, and run with perseverance to the end.