Search Words

Friday, June 20, 2014

Fr. Maximos' Reading List

Some of you have inquired about Fr. Maximos' suggested order to reading the Philokalia.  Rather than respond individually, I'm posting it here as it was distributed to us.  Just a note: for my class, I reversed the first two readings and started with the general introduction, the went into the text he mentions first (“Guarding the Mind and the Heart”).  It has worked out just fine.
I am deeply indebted to Fr. Maximos for his presentations.  When it comes to prayer, I need all the help I can get.
Before reading any of the works in the Philokalia, it will be helpful to read the following two items. The first is St. Nikodemos’ outstanding summary of all the principle doctrines and practices that the reader will encounter on the traditional path of entry into the Philokalia. The second is his Introduction to the Philokalia, which was omitted by the English translators.
St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain, “Guarding the Mind and the Heart,” in id., A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, trans. P. Chamberas (New York, 1989), 153-172.
St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain, “Introduction to the Philokalia,” trans. C. Cavarnos, The Philokalia, vol. 1 (Belmont, 2008), 27-40.
* The following works constitute the traditional path of entry into the Philokalia. When read in this order, they gradually and wisely initiate the reader into the practices of inner attention, spiritual sobriety, and the Prayer of the Heart. Moreover, they amply demonstrate the Biblical and Patristic foundations of these practices, as well as their direct connection to the sacramental life of the Church. Because the mind must first be recalled from its many distractions, these works encourage the practitioner to use the breath as a way to lead the mind to the heart, and from there to invoke the name of Jesus Christ. Having read and understood the basic principles and practices presented in these works, one may afterwards move more freely throughout the other works in the Philokalia.
1. St. Nikephoros the Hesychast, On Watchfulness and the Guarding of the Heart
2. Saints Kallistos and Ignatios, Directions to Hesychasts (WfPh, pp. 164-270).
3. St. Hesychios, On Watchfulness and Holiness (EPh 1:162-198).
4. Evagrios, On Prayer (EPh 1:55-71).
5. A Discourse on Abba Philemon (EPh 2:344-357).
6. St. Symeon the New Theologian, On Faith (EPh 4:16-24).
7. St. Symeon the New Theologian, The Three Methods of Prayer (EPh 4: 67-75).
8. St. Gregory Palamas, In Defense of Those who Devoutly Practice a Life of
Stillness (= Triads 1.2) (EPh 4:332-42).
9. St. Gregory of Sinai, On the Signs of Grace and Delusion (EPh 4:257-86).
 EPh = The Philokalia, vols. 1-4, translated by G.E.H. Palmer, P. Sherrard & K. Ware (London, 1979-
1995). The 5th and final volume, containing the works of Ss. Kallistos & Ignatios and other writers, has
WfPh = Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, translated from the Russian text by E.
Kadloubovsky & G.E.H. Palmer (London, 1951).

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Some Guidance from the Philokalia

Back in February of this year, our Antiochian Diocese of Los Angeles hosted Fr. Maximos (Constas), a monk of Mt. Athos and professor at Holy Cross Seminary.  The recordings of his presentations are well worth listening to.
He inspired me to return to the Philokalia, which I had given up on years ago as a disjointed collection of complex and nearly-unreadable chapters, bound together with only what seemed to be the thinnest threads of topical relevance..  Fr. Maximos pointed out that the books are not meant to be read in order of appearance, but rather in a certain order which he set out.
So, I took his list, and soon discovered that the required order isn't even included in any one edition.  That meant I had to search around to find all the various chapters and compile them into a single document.  I would post them here, but that would get into copyright infringement and controversies I don't need right now.
After the Paschal stand-down from Lenten services, I began a 'Philokalia Study' in my parish, where we read the text and discuss it.  To say that it is fascinating is an understatement.  We began with the first two chapters recommended by Fr. Maximos, and so far the class has really brought to light some very profound teachings regarding the human person.
His description of the human person is, I believe, extremely important.  Of course, it is also quite ambiguous and hard to present in terms of a few pull quotes, so I recommend you read it yourself (St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain, “Guarding the Mind and the Heart,” in id., A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, trans. P. Chamberas [New York, 1989], 153-172).
In it, he describes human consciousness in terms of the 'heart,' which integrates all of the thoughts and sense of the person.  He portrays this consciousness as having 'ebb and flow' not unlike the tides, passing through the entire person like a wind.  It is poetic language, sometimes hard to grasp with our modern minds so used to technical jargon.  Oh, there's plenty of that, too.  But, in this case, he is arguing for an organic wholeness to human consciousness and personhood.
What this means is that thoughts are part of consciousness, but they are not the whole thing.  They certainly don't dominate the human heart, with is much greater expanse, though they do play an integral role.
According to St. Nikodemos, we are not just our thoughts.  Our thoughts are, in fact, only one player and open to redirection.  This means that man cannot think his way out of his problems.  His thoughts are influenced by this organic whole of consciousness.
Our modern narrative is that we can control our perceptions by controlling our thoughts.  We can talk ourselves out of major perceptual problems if we just thought the right way.  Psychology tells us that talking therapies are all about replacing bad thoughts with good thoughts, which in turn change the whole person.
This is not what St. Nikodemos is saying.  In his world, the thoughts do not reign supreme over the person.  The picture is far more complex and nuanced.  It is akin to the entire natural order of the world around us.  That has a lot of moving parts.
We know that he is on to something when we look at the failure of 'talking therapy' to deal with a whole host of problems, from depression to addiction to personality disorders.  At best, therapy can only change a few thoughts in a more positive direction, but the underlying problem is left to the Russian Roulette of psychotropic medications and resignation to impairment.
I will note here for clarification that I am a believer in medications when they are properly (which means closely) supervised and are able to work.  If you are taking meds and they work, then I say praise God!  But, they are not a remedy to the problem of the distorted consciousness.
If you follow this description to its natural conclusion, then the human consciousness can only truly be changed by Divine intervention.  We have the option to change certain influences (such as ascetical labors to relieve us of the burdens of the Passions), but we cannot say that this is enough to effect a real change in our perceptions.  Only God can.
Recovery is about asking God to reign in the wild winds that blow within us and drive us into the reefs of misery and sin.  Only God is capable of exacting a million little changes to our internal 'weather' which can make us better and more peaceful.
I urge you to read these works.  They are very helpful in understanding addiction and recovery.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Turning Off Your Warning Light

I have enough construction projects around my house that I ended up buying a cheap welder to fabricate parts with.  It has come in handy, even though I am far from professional.

The welder has a 'warning light.'  It tells me when there is a problem, whether it is overheating or there is a system over load.  It is a one-light-for-all-problems.  It is meant to get the operator to stop and examine the work and the machine.  Think of it as a 'check engine' indicator on a car.  Sometimes they go on for minor problems, other times for major ones.

We humans also have our own 'warning lights.'  Sometimes we get a 'creepy feeling' about someone.  Sometimes we look at someone and notice that something is off.

Popular culture tells us to ignore those 'warning lights.'  It tells us not to 'judge.'  We are expected to routinely override our indicator lights.  How many of you have heard, "Don't judge a book by its cover"?

The problem here is that a book's cover serves a purpose, and it you don't understand that purpose, you may find yourself in bad circumstances... because you can tell a lot about a book by its cover.

Let's apply this to people: when you see a person's appearance, you can draw a lot of conclusions.  I like to think of it this way:

When your own warning light comes on with people, it is important to acknowledge it and examine why.  It is there for a reason.  It could be that something is new for you.  OK, ask yourself what is new, and also never forget one thing:
Common sense.
This is important because recovery requires and demands common sense.  Addicts take themselves into dark places, and they do so by turning off their own warning lights.  Codependents and enabling family members do the same thing.
I'm always amazed when I talk to intelligent and well-educated people who ask me things like, "My daughter is about to go into treatment for the fourth time.  Should I pay for it?"
Oh, yes, you should absolutely pay for something that has not worked three times before, because this time, your addict has told you 'this time it is different.'  Look at the warning light.  It is blinking.  Fast.  Perhaps it is just a 'Sarcasm Alert.'
The gut feelings we get are for a reason.  God gave them to us, and so we should use them.  Now, it is quite possible to reprogram those 'sensors' so that what is unhealthy can bypass those indicator lights, and where what is good can spook us out.  This is why common sense is all the more important, as is the ability to sit down and analyze a problem and our reaction to it.
You can't always judge a book in its completeness by its cover, but you can learn a whole heck of a lot about it.  You can learn about the places it has been, and how it has dealt with the world around it.
Just watch out for the 'Little Tiffany' that presents what at first seems like a perfect exterior, until you notice that there is something dangerously wrong (if you don't get the reference, watch the video).


Monday, June 16, 2014

Why I have been silent

For those daily readers, I apologize if my silence has been a disappointment.  However, there are times when I simply don't have anything constructive to say.  There are other times when I run across something that stuns me into silence.
One of my goals here is to show a balance between Spirituality and the medical understanding of the human person.  We are spiritual-rational-emotional-physical beings.  Our language poorly expresses the reality of our consciousness, even in merely scientific terms.  It is multi-layered and yet entirely integrated.  This is hard for us to grasp as 'linear' thinkers... 2 + 2 = 4.  Sometimes, when dealing with humanity, it seems more like 2 + 𝑥 = 4, 𝑥 ≠ 2.
While I know that a purely medical explanation of addiction, as well as its treatment, is insufficient, I do think that it is necessary to get the whole picture of what God is doing in us.  So, I read what I can, to the extent that I can understand it, about the scientific advancements of the brain.  Some of it I publish here.  Other things I am still kicking around and have not yet written because I don't want to start a controversy.
We are awash these days in fundamentalists of various kinds, and they are a vicious lot.  If I have to go to war with them, I want to make sure my facts are in order. 
So, someone recommended I read a book, On Killing.  You may ask, "What are you doing reading that?!"  Well, when it comes to addiction, we are often talking about not just PTSD, but the entire topic of fear.  So, LTC Grossman's book explores the topic of fear from the angle of war and the taking of human life.
The descriptions he has of how men have processed these profound fears of death, injury, and failure have been extremely enlightening.  How?
Well, let's think of it this way: the same human that fights in war is the same human that becomes addicted.  So, the test of this humanity in one area should be able to shed light on other areas as well.  In this case, Grossman shows how the human person reacts to powerlessness and the stress of combat.  Combat and killing reveal the inner conflict of man between the preservation of life and the rage that leads to killing.
If you go back to Genesis, you see that the problem of humanity in the Bible circles around killing, from Cain to Lamech to the Pre-Flood era, and even after that.  Moses himself is a murderer, and King David kills in war.  Yet, we would also say that human life is sacred.  Then, Joshua commands all the Canaanites be slaughtered at the Battle of Jericho (Joshua 6:16-17). 
God commands that human life be preserved from the commandments to Noah on through the Deutero-Levitical law.  Then, we see so many exceptions... like the frequent use of stoning.
There is something about humans that at once wants to kill, and yet finds the experience of it oftentimes harmful and psychically maiming.  Many veterans struggle with their memories of taking human life, even when they know that what they did was necessary or even unavoidable.  Under these conditions, the human person is pushed and stressed to the point that we can see things going on within them that we would not otherwise see.
Addiction operates not on a psychological level, but on the deepest parts of our existence which are partly inaccessible to our rational processes.  This is why God is necessary when the disease goes so deep, too deep for mere words.  Recovery is a process that cannot be utterly explained or even described, no matter what we have to say.
I keep re-encountering this reality as I plunge deeper into this 'sink hole.'  I do not know where it goes.  I suppose it is what St. Nikodemos says about the human person:
Making the body out of matter and placing inside it a soul which He created, He set man as a sort of a cosmos, great by virtue of the soul's many and superior powers, in a small cosmos. He placed man as a contemplator of Visible Creation and as an initiate of Intelligible Creation, according to the Gregory (bishop of Nazianzus [c. 329-390]) who is great in Theology.  (St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain, Introduction to the Philokalia, trans. C. Cavarnos, The Philokalia, vol. 1 (Belmont, 2008), 27.
The exploration of this Human Cosmos has given me more than my share of surprises.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

A Bit More on the Senses

"Well, there's good news and bad news about being an alcoholic, kid.  The good news is that it is just a problem of perception.  The bad news is that perception is a really big problem."
That's an old saying that has bounced around meetings for years.  What does it mean?
Perception itself is a combination of things: sensory input interpreted by pre-programmed reflex-oriented parts of the brain, followed by higher-levels of interpretation and then a final reaction.  But, the question remains as what senses really do for us.
Well, to put it simply, our senses help us relate ourselves to the rest of the world.  They help us define who we are, and who others are, and where they are in relation to us.
When you take a drink or use a drug, it is also a sensory experience, since your body uses its senses to determine what you have ingested and whether it is good or bad.  The body can initiate some instant reflexes (i.e. vomiting, choking, coughing, etc.).  The body can also come to the opinion that what is being ingested is 'good' or 'pleasurable.'
Pain itself, according to Dr. Ramachandran, is not a direct sensual experience, but rather an 'opinion' of the health of the body.  That's why some people can do terribly 'painful' and seem to have little effect.  Pain is an opinion, and so if you don't have the opinion there is a problem, you won't notice it.
Sounds extreme, but that's because we live in an age where pain tolerance is no longer taught.  We have come to expect that any sensory input must be taken seriously and remedied, or else we have lost 'control.'  So, off we go to the doctor for a handful of pills, or a psychologist for a pep talk.  Our ancestors expected pain, and so they were able to better endure it.
Let's think about PTSD: why is it so rampant?  Imagine hundreds of thousands of soldiers during the US Civil War who stood in long lines and got shot at, watching thousands of men die at their feet... and in a few years they were back home and the country went along much as it had before.
Modern thought cannot bear such images, and yet death and hardship were far more part of life back then than they are now.  We pump our soldiers full of propaganda that they are invincible, and draw they from a society that seals off death and suffering in sterile rooms.  Heck the average soldier who watches his friend get blown to bits has never seen an animal get slaughtered for its meat, let alone seen a dead body that wasn't embalmed and cleaned us.
The senses get overloaded, and the result is PTSD.  The reality being experienced and the reality that is expected become two different things, and the mind can't handle the differences between perception and expectation.  One of them has to win.
The addict is also one with a perceptual problem, in that the addict's sensory experiences become distorted, and so what he perceives and what is really out there gradually lose connection.  This is why addicts make such horrible decisions: their perceptions are effected because they have distorted sensory experiences.
How does this begin?  It stars at that lower stage of the reflexes.  When the senses bring in information from the physical world, the brain must assign a value to the experience and 'create' a perception.  If the brain messes this process up and assigns the wrong value to the perception (desirable versus avoidant, good versus bad, etc.), decisions based on that perception will always go wrong.
This means that if you 'perceive' something as good, then you will choose it even when it is objectively bad.  That's because your perception does not align with reality.  Thus, change means not just 'thinking' in a different way in terms of opinions, but perceiving the world in a different way.
So, you may know that most spiders are harmless, but still suffer from arachnophobia.  You still need to perceive spiders in a different way in order to overcome your irrational fear of them.
There is more to this, which I will address in my next post.