He Went Up The Mountain to Pray
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, August 29, 2021.
In our changing times when many are questioning the relevance of the Church, I was reminded of a quote by Carl Jung that sparked this meditation.
“It is high time that we realize it is pointless to praise the light and preach it if nobody can see it. It is more needful to teach people the art of seeing.” How, then, do we teach people to see?
In what Luke implies was the Lord’s inaugural sermon, the reading for that day came from the prophet Isaiah (61:1-2 and 58:6). In it Isaiah writes that “the anointed one” would bring “recovery of sight to the blind.” I believe this refers to all forms of blindness, spiritual and psychological as well as physical.
After feeding the 5,000, Jesus compelled His disciples to cross the Galilee without Him so that He could go up the mountain to pray. I’ve often wondered, how exactly did He pray? The scriptures say nothing about His long prayers in solitude often for hours, over night, and for days at a time.
The clues, however, are found in the prayer practices of the Jewish prophets and mystics before and during the Lord's earthly life. They also spent much time praying in solitude on mountains and in caves and deserts. So, how did they pray?
Among the Old Testament prophets and Jewish mystics a nonverbal form of prayer was in use. Marcus Borg refers to it in his book DAYS OF AWE AND WONDER like this: “Moses and Elijah spent long periods of time in solitude and communion with God. Nearer the time of Jesus Galilean holy men regularly spent an hour ‘stilling their minds’ in order to direct their hearts toward heaven. The tradition in which Jesus stood practiced this kind of prayer.” Reasonably, so did He.
This meditative practice was called Merkabah or throne mysticism. It’s purpose was to focus attention entirely on God so that one might ascend to the ultimate vision of His kingdom. This is a deeper level of prayer than verbal prayer, a mystical form of prayer, that directs all consciousness - the heart and mind – on a single point like a laser. Isaiah speaks of setting his mind “like flint” (50:7) a reference to the inflexible nature of the stone and the single-minded focus of Mystical prayer. James 1:8 speaks of the instability of the double-minded man.
Isaiah’s vision in chapter 6 is a prime example of throne mysticism. “In the year King Uzziah died I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted; and the train of his robe filled the temple.” It is not a stretch to think that our Lord practiced this deep, mystical form of prayer.
I am reminded of a teaching of Jesus that most certainly bears the marks of throne mysticism. “Seek first the kingdom and everything else will be added to you as well.” There it is in red letters! Set your mind and heart on God and His kingdom. This is an invitation to deep and concentrated prayer and not a call, as is so often the unfortunate interpretation, to American materialism. He might reveal to you the Kingdom, but not the Cadillac. The purpose of contemplative prayer is to develop an awareness of the Lord's omnipresence. The stilling of the mind and guarding of the senses are the tools that help us see that the vision of Isaiah has already been placed deep in our hearts. The kingdom of heaven is within us and there the Lord of all has made himself a throne. His train fills the temple - our bodies – and our gathering in the Divine Liturgy as the Body of Christ manifests the internal reality in real time.
The great Karl Rahner said this, “when a man is with God in awe and love, then he is praying.” If all of us would spend time each day clearing the mind's clutter and calming our troubled hearts to prepare to receive the Eucharist on Sunday, our gathering as Church for the Divine Liturgy would be all the more dynamic. “When two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” “In my name" means more than just uttering His name in just the right way. It means to be in Him with all our “heart, mind, soul and strength.”
There was a therapist in Tulsa whose practice drew many from the hyper-religious city. He told my friend Fr. George that the first thing he asked his clients to do was to stop reading their Bibles. In order to reach them he had to wean them away from their toxic interpretations of scripture. Until they let go of their false beliefs and self-centered fantasies he saw no hope for successful treatment. This reminds me of the definition Evagrius of Pontus gave to prayer. Prayer is the “laying aside of thoughts.” I think it is also the laying aside of self.
Let me quote from the preface of one of my favorite books by the lay theologian Olivier Clement entitled THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM written by Jean-Claude Barreau:
“When we see the shallow syncretism, the sentimental fascination with anything Eastern, and the bogus ‘gurus’ crowding around for the pickings, it is easy to sneer. But instead of laughing the Churches ought to be examining their consciences. Whose fault is it that so many have to resort to Tao or Zen in order to rediscover truths which were actually part of the Christian heritage from the beginning?...mysticism is as necessary to humanity as science, if not more so.”
Agree or disagree, I will tell you this. More and more of our young people and laity in general are looking outside the Church for what they are not able to find in their parishes. A good start would be to teach our people how to pray as Jesus did. First we will have to learn it ourselves. Liturgical prayer is wondrous! Jesus went to Temple and synagogue after all. But what about when we are not in Church, but rather in our closets, caves or deserts? Those times are no less important. They are the thread that knits all the aspects of life in Christ together.
I must say before I end that mystical prayer is never meant to serve selfish ends. It is meant to open the heart to God and to nourish the great virtues of selflessness, love and compassion. Orthodox spirituality leads to union, not individualism. All true prayer is an act of humility and self-sacrifice. A transformation of ego into love. The perfect example is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
Unfortunately, so much of what I see in American spirituality (even in the Church) is egotistical, overly moralistic, crushingly legalistic, shame-driven, guilt-ridden and selfish. Above all young people in particular cannot bear hypocrisy, dishonesty or corruption especially if it appears in black robes. They hunger for honesty and authenticity and a safe place to be themselves.
The heart of Orthodox Christianity is far from negative and legalistic. Properly understood it is an antidote to the hatred, greed, anger and ignorance that has led us now to the brink of disaster. The healing of our fragmented world begins and ends with the healing of our fragmented hearts. And it all starts in earnest with the opening of our eyes.