“What’s Your Spiritual Exercise?”

[ExploreFaith.com, May 2007]

We sat down recently with Frederica Mathewes-Green to talk about spiritual practice…

Explorefaith: Your spiritual journey has taken you from growing up Catholic, to practicing Hinduism in your twenties, to Anglicanism, and finally, conversion into the Orthodox Church. Would you say it was primarily belief, or practice, that drew to you to Orthodoxy?

FMG: Strangely enough, I had finished most of those changes by the time I was 21; the “wilderness wandering” was brief but intense in my teens. When I came home to Christianity my husband and I went to Episcopal seminary and enjoyed being part of the “renewal” movement in that denomination. In the late 80’s we were concerned about theological drift in that church, and that is why we set out to examine alternatives.

So it was primarily Orthodox belief that initially attracted us; the fact that the Orthodox Church doesn’t “update” its worship services means that it is still practicing the faith of the first few centuries. We were searching for a church that doesn’t change. However, we got more than that in the bargain, and I’d say that the best thing about Orthodoxy is that it preserves ancient wisdom about how to cultivate the presence of God—how to become a god-bearer, like a candle bears a flame. The “science” of how to do this is reinforced by both beliefs and practices, but the centerpiece is the vibrant and transforming presence of Christ.

Explorefaith: Who are some of the real champions of Orthodox spiritual practice in the last century?

FMG: Communist persecution produced some extraordinary saints. The book “Father Arseny” presents an excellent example. During the time this priest was held in a Soviet prison, he practiced such love and humility that even hardened criminals and communist authorities were converted; many miracles accompanied him. The book is a collection of reminiscences by people who knew him from all walks of life, and was circulated underground for many years until the Iron Curtain fell and it could be published.

My own spiritual father, Fr. George Calciu, was another survivor of communist torture and attempted brainwashing. He was imprisoned with Richard Wurmbrand, who became well-known in the West as the author of “Tortured for Christ” and founder of Voice of the Martyrs. I never knew anyone as full of life and joy as Fr. George. He died this past November, and my new book is dedicated to his memory.

Mother Gavrilia is sometimes called “the Orthodox Mother Teresa;” she was a medical doctor, and later a nun, who traveled in India, worked with lepers, and brought healing and the light of Christ everywhere she went.

Mother Maria Skobtsova fought Nazism in Europe , and at one point smuggled children to safety by hiding them in trash cans. She was executed at Ravensbruck.

St. Silouan was a Russian peasant, uneducated and humble, who became an extraordinary “athlete of prayer” on Mt Athos. His biography by Fr Sophrony Sakharov is a staple of Orthodox spirituality.

Among Orthodox, a “champion of spiritual practice” wouldn’t necessarily mean a mystic (we don’t really have the concept of “mysticism”); it would mean someone who was being taken over, inch by inch, by the flame of Christ. It’s expected that the presence of Christ is already within us, and what we have to do is get out of the way, removing fear and sin that block its spread. A spiritual athlete may have extraordinary spiritual events going on internally, but what would be seen on the outside are superhuman love, patience, humility, a presence that transforms others. Saints make everyone they meet more able to be themselves.

Explorefaith: Your new book, “The Lost Gospel of Mary,” tells a story about the Virgin Mother that many people have never heard before. Was that your intention?

FMG: Yes, I think the fact that Mary is controversial among Christians must grieve our Lord, who naturally loved his mother very much. He would want us to love and honor her, but not to worship her; the very idea is horrifying. Since there’s been a see-saw about Mary over the last thousand years, I wanted to go back to an earlier time, before the trouble began, and examine three ancient texts about Mary. I hope that by recovering the understanding of the early Christians, we can stand on solid, common ground.

Explorefaith: There are many spiritual practices for relating to Mary, aren’t there? Are there some that are particularly Orthodox?

FMG: We Orthodox don’t use the rosary, or say the Roman Catholic “Hail Mary,” or honor Mary in any form apart from Christ; there isn’t a form of spirituality directed exclusively at her. We do honor her for her role in God’s plan of salvation: the conception, birth, and mothering of Jesus. She stands for all the human race, in that she loaned her body, an ordinary body like ours, and from it Christ took on flesh. And that very thought is astounding, bewildering; how could God be contained inside a human body, one he himself had made? Orthodox never get tired of exploring that mystery, and in so doing we celebrate Mary and cheer for her as if she’s a hometown hero, sometimes at great length. The third document in my book is a lengthy hymn (actually, a kind of sung sermon) written around 520 AD, celebrating Mary’s role in God’s plan of salvation. Orthodox still offer this worship service every year, near the time of the feast of the Annunciation (March 25).

Secondly, we ask Mary to pray for us—just as we would ask any friend or prayer partner. The second text in the book is a prayer asking Mary’s help, the earliest prayer yet found. There are several short prayers to Mary that are used regularly in Orthodox worship, including one which is like the first half of the Hail Mary, and is made of the Scriptural words addressed to her. Usally the last prayer of a service is addressed to her.

And thirdly, people just love her. Orthodox dote on her, and love to think about her, talk about her, and keep her picture (as a young mom, holding Jesus) all through their homes and churches. The first text in the book is a story about Mary’s conception, birth, and early life, and its distinguishing mark is affection.

Explorefaith: It seems to be acceptable, even normative, for people today to borrow spiritual practices from various religious traditions. I’m thinking of Catholics who do Yoga, or Methodists who do sitting meditation at the local Buddhist center. What do you think of that?

FMG: Sometimes what various religions have discovered is simply a physiological mechanism. If you slow down and take deep breaths, it will calm you – it’s as simple as that, and nothing uniquely “spiritual.” It may well be that faiths that don’t radically separate body and soul are more likely to discover such tools. Christians can take these up, if they are not linked to any contrary religious affirmations.

However, other religions depart from the Christian path sooner or later. We can see this in the different results people report from the two kinds of prayer. Buddhist meditation, for example, aims at freedom from the “delusion” of self-awareness, the supposedly false idea that one’s self has value and permanence. In that kind of meditation there can be a sense of personal boundaries dissolving and personality fading away, as the person becomes one with everything.  This is the kind of thing scientists are looking at when they talk about the “God gene,” the genetic variations or changing brain activity observable in a person who experiences this melt-away kind of  “self-transcendence.” 

That doesn’t happen in Christian spirituality. It’s the reverse; for us, “self-transcendence” would mean “death to self,” humility, a willingness to “count others  better than yourselves” (Phil 2:3) and to submit one’s will to Christ. He liberates us from old sins, learned from misperceptions and fears planted by the devil’s malice. Christ is Truth, and the Truth sets us free.

In the experience of prayer, the distinct person  of Christ becomes more perceptible, and he is clearly a different person from the self, a powerful personality of overwhelming love. The Christian pursues this in prayer, and discovers the capacity to be increasingly filled with that presence. It doesn’t dissolve the self, but fills it with Christ’s warmth and brilliance,  like a piece of iron in a furnace is filled with the light and heat of fire (a biblical analogy would be to the Burning Bush.) It’s a genuine change, not just a matter of thoughts or emotions. Yet it’s the opposite of the boundaryless dissolution above, so the “God gene” arguments don’t apply at all. Rather than dissolving, the self comes into clearer focus, as we become ever more able to bear the truth about themselves, and come to honest repentance and receive Christ’s healing.  We are liberated from old sins, which were learned from misperceptions and fears planted by the devil’s malice. Christ is Truth, and the Truth sets us free.

So the Christian becomes increasingly a unique individual, a healed personality, occupied more and more with love. The personality doesn’t dissolve; it is clarified and restored. Likewise, what we meet in prayer is not amorphous nothingness, but a Person who comes ever more clearly into focus, a Person who is incarnate love. The prayer that developed in the early church, to help believers acquire the habit of “praying constantly,” is a short plea addressed to Jesus, the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” That prayer reinforces the sense that there are two persons involved, rather than a melting, featureless unity. So the experience of Christian prayer is very different from that of many eastern religions. We could even say it is the opposite: it is love between two persons, between Christ and the individual believer, and that contact fills and overflows the believer with Christ’s love for all.

Explorefaith: Would you mind sharing with our readers some of your own personal, spiritual practices? What do you do each day, as an Orthodox Christian, as a human, as whatever, that connects you to the Divine?

FMG: Thirty years ago I began rising in the middle of the night for my daily prayer time. I still do this. Fr George recommended that I begin that time by saying the Nicene Creed and Psalm 50; after that, I say a hundred Jesus Prayers. I go return to bed and go back to sleep in continuing prayer.

When I wake in the morning, I say some prayers before I get out of bed (there are a short series of prayers, called “the Trisagion prayers”, which open virtually every Orthodox service), and greet the icons in my room before starting the day. I put on the teapot and, lighting the candles, say some more prayers in my icon corner; this is when I go through my intercessory prayer list, and each day I pray for a section of the parishioners in our church directory. When I go to my computer, I first do bible study in the New Testament and Psalms, using wonderful Bible software that provides the helps I need to study the texts in Greek.

Throughout the day I try to remember to say the Jesus Prayer. I try to note on the clock whenever a new hour begins, and to say at least some Jesus Prayers during each hour. I am trying to learn to “pray constantly” as St. Paul says.

Three nights a week, and more in Lent, there are church services, which I usually attend (and of course there is the Eucharist on Sunday). At bedtime I say the Trisagion prayers again and go to sleep saying the Jesus Prayer.

I also keep the Orthodox fast, which is to abstain from meat and dairy and some other foods on Wednesdays, Fridays, and during the 4 “Lents” of the church year. Essentially, it’s a vegan diet, and we are keeping it a bit more than half the days of the year. I have hypoglycemia, so I adjust it slightly, and in particular when I’m traveling and don’t have access to “home foods.”

The most important spiritual discipline is how we treat other people, however, so that keeps me involved in volunteer work, financial giving, and attempting to practice love and to subdue pride in every human interaction. This is the most challenging discipline, to me, but potentially the most transformative.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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