|III The Time of Prayer|
In my presentation this morning I want to develop the “vision” of the Christian Faith that inspires what I teach and preach. The Christian Faith is more than an ethic. It’s more than being religious or embracing intellectively a set of religious ideas. It is a whole other life different from this worldly life in kind and in quality. What eye has not seen, what ear has not heard, this we declare to you, says St Paul somewhere. This that we declare to the world, of course, is the resurrection of Christ, which is the life of God that has conquered the grave and that comes to us from the other side of the grave. It is not of this world, but it extends across the grave into this world and manifests itself in the Church, in her doctrines and in her hierarchical and liturgical and sacramental worship. By laying hold of the ascetic disciplines of prayer, one is laid hold of by the original life of creation that has been sown in the field of this world of space-time like a seed and now has openings, gates on every street corner and in every field where there stands a Church, through which you can descend beneath the earth and into the cave of Christmas, the tomb of Pascha, and come upon the Garden of Eden, the Kingdom of Heaven in the midst of this dark, fallen world. It is not the life of the belly that grows from the tree of good and evil and that spills out into the nothingness of the abyss. It is the life of the heart that grows from the fruit of the Tree of Life and rises up from the depths of hell to heaven in the Holy Ascension of Christ who is the fruit that the Tree of Life, the Cross, carries like a cluster of grapes full of life. (From the Elevation of the Cross, Sept 14.)
I want to develop this point by talking about the “time of prayer.” But by time, I don’t mean clock time, as in: it’s now 3 o’clock, time for the ninth hour prayer; or, it’s now 9:30 am on Sunday, time for the Divine Liturgy. I mean the time that moves in another realm than this one, the time of prayer, so that when you take up the prayers of the Church, you are leaving this world of space-time and entering into the time, the kairos of the Kingdom of Heaven.
A parishioner made the point to me that time doesn’t really exist: it’s really just the measurement of decay.
I congratulated him for the observation. It is really quite profound and full of philosophical import. One of the most brilliant and influential of the ancient pre-Socratic philosophers, Heraclitus, taught that the principle of all things is fire. In other words, just as fire is constantly changing, so the fundamental principle of reality is itself, change. Heraclitus, however, may well have learned this from his contacts with the very ancient religious traditions of the Far East. A sacred text of ancient Chinese religion is called the I Ching, the Book of Changes, and it is based on the fundamental truth that reality is constantly changing. So, to say that time is the measurement of decay – or the measurement of change, of growth and decay, is to see what the wisest of the ancients saw.
Look deeper into this observation and you will come to the insight of Buddhism. If the fundamental principle of time is change itself, or of growth and decay, that means that the fundamental reality that underlies all things is nothing. This, of course, is one of Buddhism’s fundamental truths; and it is also the teaching of Holy Scripture. The world and everything in it comes to be from nothing – from the formless void.
Everything comes to be. That means that everything comes into existence by means of movement; all things move from nothing into existence. Movement or change, then, is the principle of everything that exists.
It comes to be from nothing: that means that everything in the principle of its being is nothing. Nothing in the world, not even the world or space-time itself has real substance. At the core, everything is nothing.
However, if we think like this, we’re thinking only as philosophers and according to the wisdom of human opinion; or according to what we are able to see with our own mind. Scripture reveals an even deeper truth about us and about time that we could not otherwise see. The Scriptures tell us that though we came to be from nothing, we were not made by nothing. We were made by That which truly is, God; and we were not made for nothing; we were made for something –specifically, we were made for God, He Who truly is. As the Lord says through his prophet Isaiah, “My word that goes forth from my mouth shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the purpose for which I sent it.”
Now what is this purpose for which God sends forth his Word to create the world – whom Scriptures reveal to be the Person of Jesus Christ?
The writer of Genesis says of Adam and Eve: For this reason the man shall leave his father and mother and shall cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. St Paul and the unknown preacher of 2 Clement bear witness to the early Christian teaching that this refers to the mystery of the divine Word’s incarnation. Christ, the Second Adam, who thought it not robbery to be equal with God, empties himself and takes the form of a servant. He leaves “Father and Mother” (heaven or the throne of God, let’s say) and he cleaves to his bride, the Church, the Second Eve, the world that he created from nothing, and the two become one flesh. The Something of God is joined to the nothing of the world in the personal mystery of Christ and the Church, his bride, and the nothing becomes Something as it partakes of Him Who Is, Christ God, in the sacred love of what our Holy Tradition calls the Spiritual Marriage of Christ and his Church.
St Peter tells us in effect that this is what we were made for: to become partakers of the divine nature. It is St Maximus in the 7th century who particularly develops this apostolic doctrine. It is saying that even had there been no sin, no fall in the Garden, God the Word still would have become flesh and dwelt among us – for that was why the world was created in the first place: that God the Word might leave “father and mother” and become one flesh with his bride, the Church, the creation in her primordial goodness.
But we did sin, and we fell back into the darkness and nothingness of the abyss. The incarnation became as well a “rescue” operation, as St Paul writes in Hebrews: “Inasmuch as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared in the same, that through death he might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil.” Jesus Christ, He Who Is, who clothes himself with light as with a garment, in these last days, clothes himself with space-time, with that which has no real substance inasmuch as it is the measurement of decay and death, and he unites it to himself. He fixes it to himself by nailing himself to it with the nails on the Cross.
For what purpose did he do this? What was the thing he meant to accomplish? St Paul writes: “That he might destroy the devil who held the power of death and deliver all who through fear of death had been made slaves to life-long bondage.” And these whom he delivered were his own creatures whom he had made from nothing for the purpose of granting them to become partakers of his own eternal and truly substantive life.
Therefore, in the union of this spiritual marriage of Christ and the Church, the movement of time becomes not the measurement of decay, but the call from nothing into being, from death to life, and from merely existing to a never-ending ascent from glory to glory; and this ascent from glory to glory is itself a never-ending deepening of intimacy in love between God the Word and his bride, the Church.
This ascent to God accomplishes God’s purpose in creating the world in the first place; and, it also perfects the essence of the creature. This is what St Maximus the Confessor says: “There are faculties in us that are [unconsciously or instinctively] searching out divine realities. They were implanted by the Creator in the essence of our human nature at its very entrance into being.” In another place, St Maximus speaks of these faculties that search out the divine and that were implanted by God in the essence of human nature as erotic desire. St Maximus writes:
God is said to be the originator and begetter of love and the erotic force. For, he externalized them from within himself; that is, he brought them forth into the world of created things….He himself, as its begetter, is said to be in movement, while because he is what is truly longed for, loved, desired and chosen, he stirs into motion the things that turn towards him. You should understand that God stimulates and allures in order to bring about an erotic union in the Spirit. He impels each being, in accordance with its own principle to return to Him.
In this light of the Church’s teaching, which is not of the wisdom of human opinion but of the Wisdom of God, our eyes begin to open from their spiritual blindness and we see the movement of time in the principle of its being to be not the measurement of decay, but the movement of God’s love. In time, more specifically, in the fullness of time – that is to say, in his love for mankind as for his bride – God descends into the world, and in time, i.e. in the creature’s love for God as for her Bridegroom, the creature ascends to God in the bosom of the risen Christ her Bridegroom. The movement of time is this descending and ascending movement of Christ God and his bride to and in one another.
To say it simply: the teaching of the Church reveals the essence of time to be the movement of erotic love: that love that proceeds from the heart in search of the beloved. We should say, then, that time in its primordial essence as “good”, as created by God, is not the measurement of decay but the movement of desire; and as such it does not desire to descend into decay and death; it desires to ascend to God in the consummation of the spiritual marriage between Christ and his Church. The goal of time, then, the purpose of its movement, is Christ; its fulfillment, its consummation is Christ all in all; for the principle of time is the capacity of the creature to partake of Christ in his Holy Spirit. This is to say that in the spiritual marriage of the Church, to die is to give yourself in love to God, the Beloved – as he gave himself to us in love by dying for us on the Cross; and to live is to receive the Beloved, God the only Lover of mankind, into the bridal chamber of our heart, just as the Theotokos received him into her womb, that we might become one spirit with him who, out of his love for us, became one flesh with us.
Decay, then, is not the essence of time; it is the sign that the world is in bondage to the devil. When Adam and Eve transgressed the commandment of God and were expelled from the Garden, the movement of time was expelled, too and separated from its erotic essence. It became naked - stripped of the Spirit of God in whom alone it truly exists - in whom it alone truly moves and has its being. Time, too, then, was covered with garments of fig-leaves – fig-leaves of decay and death. It was then that it fell away from being the movement of love and became the measurement of decay and death.
Outside of Christ, the movement of our life through time from birth to death is a descent into an ever-deepening darkness of meaninglessness that ends in the nothingness of the grave. Outside of Christ, all that happens in this journey of our life through time is lost; each moment fades away like the morning mist in the heat of the sun. But united to Christ in holy baptism and holy Eucharist, the movement of our life through time from birth to death becomes an ascent into the eternal life of God who descends to us in the mystery of his Incarnation to deliver us from bondage to darkness and death and to call us into the marvelous light of his Heavenly Kingdom – into his Church, the ekklesia, “She who is called out into the life and love of God”. Descending with Christ into the waters of the Jordan, time becomes that by which God himself strips us in our baptism of the corruptible garments of our decaying flesh that he might raise us up as his children, born of the Spirit from above and clothe us in the incorruptible garments of his immortal, spiritual light. United to Christ, all that happens to us in this journey of our life from birth to death is taken up into God and purified to uncover the principle of our movement through time as an ever-deepening love for God. Anointed with the dew of heaven, the Holy Spirit, our soul, our mind, even our body become, in this love of God, spiritual; this mortal flesh is transfigured, in the love of God, into – or perhaps we should say restored to its original freedom as – a seed of the Spirit that in the living, Spiritual Light of God’s Holy Church naturally springs up into eternal life.
Outside of Christ, we read the Gospel stories as moments in history long ago. United to Christ, we read them as moments in time that have been taken up into the timeless eternity of Christ – and therefore, as moments in time that are joined to the moments of our life in Christ here and now, today. Let me take as an example St Matthew’s story of the two demoniacs. In the Orthodox lectionary, this was our Gospel a few Sundays ago. (Matthew 8:28 – 9:1, together with Romans 10:1 – 10)
Christ came to these two men living in the tombs as he came into the world fallen into the outer darkness to shine the unconquerable light of his Holy Spirit in the darkness of the abyss; as he came to us in our baptism when we were dead in our trespasses; and as he comes to us even now in the sacrament of Holy Eucharist to give us to drink the living waters of his Heavenly Spirit and to anoint us with the oil of gladness, the oil of divine light and spiritual joy. He separates the two men from the demons who tormented them as he separated the waters from the waters, the light from the darkness; and as he separated us in our baptism from the devil, from all his angels and all his host and all his pride, and brought us into the light of the Eighth Day of his Holy Resurrection.
As we grow and mature in the grace of our baptism, there comes a moment when we realize that at every moment of our life we are standing, in terms of this particular Gospel, on the one side between a herd of swine, their herders, and the townspeople whose livelihood depended on those swine; and on the other, the company of the saints, led by the holy apostles and all those who are disciples of Christ. I say that we are standing between these two groups in this moment of our life; but in fact, we are not standing because as we have been saying, time doesn’t stand still; it is constantly moving. The Church, as I have briefly described her teaching this morning, reveals to us that we are moving in each moment of time; and, what is moving in us is the impulsion of erotic desire; and our erotic desire is demanding to serve something, and it desires to become one with whatever it serves. St Paul tells us that we can present the members of our body as instruments of unrighteousness to obey its carnal lusts, but then we become slaves of its carnal desires, and we are compelled to obey its lusts. This Gospel of the two demoniacs shows us as it showed the swineherders and the people of the village what will become of us who give our erotic desire to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. We are driven willy-nilly into the herd of swine – we become unclean, covered with skins of the stench of decay and corruption – and our new masters, the demons, will compel us over the cliff and into the abyss. Then the movement of time in this world becomes the measurement of our progress towards that cliff over the abyss; and in the end, when we die and tumble into the sea, every moment of our life will be swallowed up in the abyss of the outer darkness and lost forever. How tragic that the townspeople were so consumed with their desire for the things of this world that they were angry with the Lord. He had delivered the demoniacs from their bondage to the devil and death. But they demanded he leave their country. He came to his own and his own did not receive him because their deeds were of the darkness, and they loved the darkness more than the light.
In the Gospel, I think Christ and his bride, the Church, are calling out to us: “Come, step in with the saints behind the Savior. Present the members of your body to God and become a slave to his grace and to the freedom from death that he alone has the power to give. Give your desire to the treasure of heaven and become one with God the Word, the Heavenly Bridegroom. In this slavery of love, be delivered from the devil and from the fear of death and be united to the Holy Spirit in God the Word through his Cross.” This is a call to take up the discipline of prayer with the promise not only of blessings to come, but of blessings that begin to be poured out on us even now in the gift of prayer, Christ’s Holy Church. Therefore, fear not the pain of the cross, the difficulty of the Church’s ascetic disciplines of prayer. Study the Gospel and see that the ascetic disciplines of Christ’s precious and life-creating Cross do not impel us on a mad rush into the abyss; his discipline is a yoke that is easy, its burden is light because it brings us in the sweet sorrow of contrition for our transgressions into the tomb of the Savior as into the bridal chamber of our heart. In the tomb of the Savior, the bridal chamber of our heart, death is transfigured at the Midnight hour into the liberation of the heart’s erotic desire from her bondage to decay and the beginning of her life in Christ, He Who with the Father and the Holy Spirit alone truly Is. And our moving in time becomes, according to the witness of the apostles and of all the saints, the experience of the love of God that reveals the movement of time as God’s unspeakable love for mankind, and the creature’s unbounded love for the Heavenly Bridegroom, a movement that becomes, through the descent of Christ in obedience to the Father even to the point of death on the Cross, our ascent in the life of Christ from glory to glory, and an ever deepening intimacy of love in Him who alone is Good and the Lover of mankind.
On the foundation I have laid in these three lectures, I’d like to show how the liturgical cycle of the Church is an entrance into this deeper, more primordial movement of love between Christ and his Church, the Sun of Righteousness and the Moon.
In the fallen world, time is measured by the movement of sun and moon. In antiquity, this movement was felt intuitively as an archetypal reality and produced the mystical and dramatic rites of the hieros gamos, the sacred marriage. The sun was the god represented by the priest of the cultic rites, and the Moon was the goddess represented by the priestess. The movement leading to their sacred union was the measurement of time; the womb of the Goddess, impregnated by the seed of the god, was the matrix of being and life.
In the doctrine of the Church, however, we learn of a light that was even before the sun and moon. It is the light of the Church. Her Lord is Christ God, the Sun of Righteousness. Time in the Church is measured by the movement of the union of Christ and his Church, the Sun and Moon that were before sun and moon. The movements leading to their union in the spiritual marriage of the Church measure a time that is deeper and more primordial than the time measured by sun and moon. I call it biblical time that hides as the seed sown in the field of calendar time by the Word of God. It is the kaivroV, the time that measures the growth of the Kingdom of Heaven in the earth or in calendar time. The birth of the Holy Virgin is the branch of Jesse, the Tree of Life that was in the Garden sprouting through the soil of calendar time. The birth of Christ from the Holy Virgin is the blossoming of the precious rose in the cave (from the feast of Christmas): the rose of the Kingdom of Heaven.
This is the time in which the life of the Church moves and has its being. It is the time of the Kingdom of Heaven that is within you, in the heart, the bridal chamber of each one of us by virtue of Christ’s Incarnation. For the Word did not take to himself a particular man, Jesus; he took to himself our nature, so that he took to himself the whole of creation. In the heart of each creature the Word of God dwells. From this perspective, the Church in her iconographic structure and character is not just the Garden of Eden, but in her ascetic disciplines she is showing to us the better and changeless path that ascends to God in the movement of the Church’s biblical time; a movement from the belly to the heart, from death to life, from darkness to light, from the abyss of nothingness to wonder of being, from being to well-being, from well-being to eternal being in the partaking of the divine nature through the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ. That is to say, the prayer of the Church in both its aspect as ascetic discipline and as gift is nothing other than to bring us from our head down into our heart and from our belly up into our heart and to make us ready to receive the Heavenly Bridegroom who comes at Midnight.
The movement of this biblical time is measured in the Church in her liturgical cycles. I teach my parishioners that when they enter into the Orthodox Church, they are leaving the world of calendar time and coming into the biblical time of Christ and the Church, that time whose movement is deeper than the empty, cold, lifeless movement of sun and moon because it is the movement of the love of Christ and his bride, the Church.
This time of the Kingdom of Heaven hiding in the field of calendar time is revealed in the different liturgical cycles of the Church. The liturgical year, for example, contains twelve major feasts, which orbit like the signs of the zodiac, round Pasha, which is the union of Christ the Sun and the Church the Moon, a union that is more primordial and deeper than the union of sun and moon that you see in the skies, a union that takes place in the tomb of the soul, transfigured by the bride’s ascent to Christ and Christ’s descent to his bride in the field of time into the bridal chamber of the heart.
The liturgical cycle of twelve major feasts orbiting round Pascha begins with the birth of the Theotokos and ends with her falling asleep. All the mysteries of Christ take place within the life of the Theotokos. The Theotokos is an icon of the Church and the icon par excellence of the human soul. The iconography of the liturgical cycle then is reflecting the mystery of Christ that is to be found in your own heart. The Kingdom of Heaven is within you. You hold in your body, in the bridal chamber of your heart, this priceless treasure of divine life that has destroyed the power of death. Your body is the world of calendar time that holds in its bosom, as the Church, the Theotokos, holds in her bosom, the movement of the time of the Kingdom of Heaven: the movement of God’s love for his bride, the Church, and the Church’s love for her Heavenly Bridegroom, Christ God. When you come into the Church and are caught up in the movement of her liturgical cycles, you are descending beneath the movement of space and time in this fallen world and coming upon the seed of divine love that moves in the biblical time of the Church and that has been planted like a seed in the field of space-time.
Within the yearly cycle of the twelve major feasts is the weekly cycle, that moves through eight tones. Eight, of course, is the number of the resurrection. Within the year of calendar time is the biblical year of the Church that is moving in the fullness of Christ’s holy resurrection.
Within the weekly cycle of the eight tones is the daily cycle which consists of seven services: Vespers, Compline, Nocturns, Matins, 3rd hour, 6th hour and 9th hour. Seven of course is the number of this world. These seven daily offices and services are getting us ready for the eighth service of the cycle, the Divine Liturgy. In this way, as we embrace and absorb the daily cycle of the Church into our daily life, the Church transfigures our movement through calendar time, which is a movement to our grave, into our movement to the Bridal Chamber. In this way, it reshapes the character of our movement through the days of the week and of our daily dying, by which we come closer and closer to our grave, into a pouring out of ourselves in love into Christ. It transforms our daily life through the weeks and years into the “garage sale’ by which we are daily, bit by bit, selling all that we have for the sake of Christ and the Gospel. In this way, it is preparing us for that moment of our death so that we can experience it as a “sweetness,” as St Simeon experienced it when he held the Savior in his arms, because it becomes for us that moment when we consummate the purpose of our being created in the first place in the love of God: we become lovers of God when we give ourselves wholly to him in the moment of our death, and our death is transfigured into our being born from above. Our Falling Asleep is joined with the Falling Asleep of the Theotokos; our life is joined to her Yes to God, and our falling asleep in the Lord becomes the death of the old man and the law of sin that is active in us, and the rising up of the new man, and the opening of our eyes in the resurrection of Christ to see him face to face in accordance with our faith, our love, and the purity of our heart.
Entering the Church in this mind, we become like the seed sown by the sower in the field. Through the discipline of prayer, we descend into the waters of baptism. That is, we descend into the depths of our heart as into the tomb, to discover our tomb transfigured into the bridal chamber, our death in Christ into our being born from above as children of God, we penetrate the field of space-time and come upon the deeper movement of primordial, biblical time that is governed by the union of Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, and the Church, the moon.
It’s like a magical journey – only it’s real. Muggles really can become magicians – or let’s say, Christians, lovers of God. The icon of the Church shows us muggles how to become Christian.
Let me close with a final word about the transition between the Dormition of the Theotokos at the end of the year, and the nativity of the Theotokos at the beginning of the New Year. The Feast of Transfiguration is placed not before Pascha, where it falls according to the Gospels, but before the falling asleep of the Theotokos, to show, I believe, that when we unite our life to the falling asleep of the Theotokos, in other words to her Yes to God, which was her dying to this world and giving herself in love to God, our whole life and our death is transfigured into a Falling Asleep in the Lord: in other words, into a dying to this world and a rising up in the life of the Kingdom of Heaven, the life of Christ’s holy resurrection.
Between the Feast of the Transfiguration on Aug 6 and the Elevation of the Cross on Sept 14 is a period of 40 days. In that period, the Theotokos dies and is born as a “daughter of God.” This turns the transition from the end of the old liturgical year to the new liturgical year into an icon of our own passover from death to life in the yes of the Theotokos and in the Passover of her Son and our God. With the Theotokos, we die in Christ and with her, in the New Year, we are born as daughters of God. We take up the Cross 40 days after transfiguration to begin another liturgical cycle, which is seen by the eyes of faith, through the discipline of prayer, as a descent deeper into the mysteries of the Gospel – the mysteries of dying to our evil self-love that we may be raised up in the uncorrupt and spiritual self-love of the resurrection of Christ as children of God, a self-love that wants to give itself in love to God and to the world for whom Christ gave himself.
This is the environment in which the discipline of prayer takes place in the Orthodox Church. Time is movement. Movement in its essence is the movement of love. The “time of prayer” is the movement of our mind into our heart – this is the movement of finding the headwaters of our erotic desire where they’ve been polluted by the venom of the Evil One and opening the doors so that the living waters of the Holy Spirit can pour in and wash them clean – and the movement of uniting them with the movement of love between Christ and his Church. This movement is natural to us, it is not unnatural. It is according to our nature, it is not against our nature.
Prayer is communion with God. Prayer, then, both as discipline and as gift, is the movement of love. Now you can see that prayer is the work of discovering our true self as beloved of God called to become a lover of God by dying to our self for the sake of Christ. We see from this that to die in Christ is to love Christ. The Gift of prayer is the bliss of receiving the love of God and being given life. Prayer then is dying and being born again as a child of God. Prayer is the work of putting our self-love to death that we can be free to love God as he has loved us, with our whole heart, soul, strength and mind. Prayer is giving ourselves to God in love, and receiving God in love. Prayer is communion with the God who is love. Prayer is the work of those who have been created in the image of this God who is love. Prayer, then, is the work of those who have been created in love as beloved-lovers of God.
And the work of the Church, in these terms, is all about getting us into our heart and getting us ready for the coming of the Bridegroom at Midnight. Amen.
 Isa 55:11
 Gn 2:24
 2 Clement 14.
 Phil 2:5-6
 2 Pt 1:4
 Heb 2:14
 Heb 2:15-16
 Fourth Cent. Var. Txts, §18. Philo II, p. 239.
 Fifth Cent. Var. Txts, §87-88, Philo II, 281-282
 Jn 1:5
 Rm 6:12-13.