Sacralicious

Yesterday was a big day for your humble blogger. I had an interview for a teaching position that I would very much like to get. The transition away from ministry is hard in middle age with a large family. We had to move out of the rectory (a.k.a manse, presbytery, parsonage). I had to start from the bottom of the seniority ladder in a unionized field. That means they are protective against people like me who might expect to use life experience to jump the queue. Unfortunately, their protections mean that all my education leading up to a teaching degree is pretty much irrelevant to them. And, of course, theology isn’t recognized as a teachable subject. Forget that it’s a serious academic discipline that bridges history, literature, and classics. Forget that I had to write a 100 page thesis. None of it matters to them. So the process of breaking into a new field has been difficult and disappointing. Combine all these factors and you find that applying for teaching positions brings all kinds of serious ramifications. It’s a big deal. And yet, I felt conflicted about praying about it.

This is the kind of thing we pray for, isn’t it? It’s a daily bread type need. I’m not asking for a Mercedes. I’m asking for a job so that I can pay my bills and we can raise our children. However, I know one of the people also shortlisted. He has children and a mortgage too. Why should my needs be more important to God than his? I feel guilty even thinking that I’m some how owed it more than another.

Truthfully, I don’t pray much at all anymore. That is, I don’t ask for stuff. I still meditate. I still meditate the way I have for over 20 years. I do my best to emulate my desert father hero, Evagrius. When I pray, I do what I hope is a decent rendition of “the prayer of the heart.” At its core is the holy name of Jesus. Any study of Eastern Orthodoxy will eventually lead to this prayer.

I began like so many fledgling mystics do, with the Jesus Prayer. As a self-proclaimed deep thinker, my intellectual and artistic wanderings led me to Franny and Zooey. If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s basically a drawn out argument between Franny and her brother Zooey about faith and prayer. She has shut herself in the family home and lays on the couch all day repeating the Jesus Prayer to herself over and over. Zooey is trying to convince her to get up and get out of the house. To my knowledge, J.D. Salinger never professed faith in organized religion, but Zooey’s arguments are orthodox enough to satisfy The Grand Inquisitor.

Fanny and Zooey was my gateway drug. Franny is inspired to use the Jesus Prayer after reading The Way of the Pilgrim. It’s a story that follows the pilgrimage of a simple Russian peasant who learns to pray the prayer. Naturally, I dove down that rabbit-hole, reading it and its sequel, The Pilgrim Continues His Way. In the early days, I would breath as deeply as possible and use the fullest option of the phrase, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It’s quite a mouthful. Eventually, I slowed the breathing and used just the one holy name, “Jesus.”

This kind of prayer does not facilitate petitioning God for stuff. Rather, it simply points the heart toward Jesus, hoping that through some kind of mystical osmosis we can one day attain theosis (or divinization in Latin). The idea is that the more we pray, the more Christlike we become. Eventually, we become the self we were always meant to be in perfect communion with God. It sounds a lot like Eastern enlightenment but it is definitely derived from Christian theology (albeit probably influenced by Eastern Mysticism). As Athanasius of Alexandria famously put it, “God became human so that humans might become God.” It’s deliciously blasphemous (sacralicious!) to Western ears but it is at the core of Orthodox mysticism.

I haven’t attained theosis. I doubt I ever will. I’m not sure I even believe it is a thing. However, despite my reluctance to affirm doctrine, I am drawn to this doctrine-lite form of prayer. I don’t have to assert any belief. I don’t even have to profess a Trinitarian faith. Arius, whose heterodox view that “there was a time when the Logos [Jesus] was not,” stoked the flames of controversy over the divine nature of Jesus. The Council of Nicaea was called and eventually deemed his views heretical. It marks the beginning of the Dogma of the Trinity. Before him, things were left more unclear. Just the way I like it!

Arius wasn’t an evil man dead-set on destroying the foundations of the Christian faith. He was an ascetic priest who quite probably prayed the prayer of the heart. I’m not going to defend him any further. All this is simply to point out that people faithfully prayed before dogma was ratified. As St. Paul argues,

“For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.”

Romans 4: 13

Whereas Paul is arguing about faith pre-existing the law, I’m arguing that faith pre-existed dogma.

So faith, for a time, was independant of credal formulas. This is putting too fine a point on it, though, as some more simplified formulas did exist in early writings. However, the metaphysical statements we see in the Nicene Creed are definitely new. The statements in and of themselves were controversial because they used non-scriptural language. They chose to describe the essence of God as ousia which is borrowed from Greek metaphysics. The three persons of the Trinity are homo-ousios (one essence) with three hypostasis (persons). The nature of God, then, is being described using human philosophical terms and no longer left in the ambiguity of symbolic language.

If Christians who predate the concilliar pronouncements are still considered legitimate Christians, can I put myself in that era and still be called a Christian?My zealous younger self would say, “No.” My current middle age self hedges and says, “I don’t know.” So I go into all this with my eyes wide open but I will hold onto the hope that Arius was faithful and beloved by God even if the institution of the Church states otherwise.

This is important because I don’t want to buy into an institution. Not out of some po-mo-spiritual-but-not-religious sense. Rather, I love Christianity. I love Jesus, in particular. But my heart and mind cannot make confident claims about his nature. I prefer to just orient my heart toward Jesus whom I still love as deeply as always.

I did tell my father about the interview, though. I knew he and my mom would pray. Did I tell him so that he might pray while I could not? I don’t know my motivations exactly, but I have no doubt this was a way of getting around my pesky overly developed sense of integrity. I could have my cake and eat it too.

Prayer doesn’t work. Or at least, it hasn’t for me. I haven’t performed any scientific analysis. Others have. My understanding is that the results show that prayer doesn’t affect change. The success rates remain the same whether prayed over or not. Of course, these results can be thrown out with a fideistic argument about God not being put to the test. But what else can we go on? And why is God so bothered by tests? It sure would make belief easier.

Pastors will say that prayer changes you more than it does the world around you. I know because I used to say it. Is that a satisfying statement? Does it soothe the soul to know that if you pray hard about something, you probably won’t get it but you will feel better about not getting it?

It doesn’t to me. If I’m asking for something, it’s usually something important. I never pray for Mercedes. I have prayed for work or for the health of my friends and family. I don’t think I have prayed for many selfish things in my life. When I prayed for stuff, I felt right about the possible positive outcome of the prayer. Sometimes I got what I asked for. Other times I didn’t. So what’s the point of prayer?

The problem with prayer is that it seeks to change the way God interacts with the world that God created. If God is good and God made the world the way it is, then who am I to ask God to change it? One response to this is that God includes us in the salvation of the world around us. We bless the broken world with our prayer. That was part of the blessing of Abraham in Genesis,

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Genesis 12:2-3

The truth is, I rarely get it right. When I am most certain that a certain outcome would be best, I find that the actual outcome is often better. This too is what pastors tell us. If God does not answer a prayer, it is because there is something better in store for us. That’s not very satisfying either. I mean, the results don’t change by my prayers, only my own feelings. Why not skip the process and let come what may? Adapt and move on. Either way, as we learn over and over with time travel tropes of affecting the future in negative ways, it’s a comfort to me knowing that I’m not smart or selfless enough to get involved in the alteration of history. I’d rather sit back and let God do it.