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The Table Video

Frederica Mathewes-Green

How to pray without ceasing

Author and Cultural Commentator
January 31, 2014

How can we pray without ceasing? Author Frederica Mathewes-Green explores the history and theology of prayer, pulling out practical ideas to implement in our busy lives.


Thanks for clicking on this video from the Table Conference on the topic of mind your heart. In this video you’ll hear from Frederica Mathewes-Green, an Eastern Orthodox writer and speaker and she’s going to be talking about prayer. How do we pray without ceasing and what does that look like in the Christian life? Frederica will be exploring various traditions in Christian spirituality to help us understand the importance of prayer in the Christian life.

I thought I would start this morning, this afternoon just summarizing my conversion story which I’ve told many times before maybe you’ve already heard it. I’ll know when it’s to stop retelling it when I see people lip syncing in the back. [crowd laughs]

I abandoned Christian faith at 13 or 14. I went through high school, through college Buddhism, transcendental meditation, all kinds of [mumbles], all kinds of different things and I guess I mostly settled on Hinduism. It wasn’t that I really became a Hindu, it was that I thought calling myself a Hindu would be really cool. [crowd laughs]

And it was like a fashion choice. I thought it was gonna make me look really cool. And so, my husband and I, we were married out in the woods, I had flowers in my hair, it was a period piece, this hippie-dippy wedding. And then we had a vegetarian reception, for example. And then we went off to Europe and we were hitchhiking around Europe. Going in museums and famous sites and if you’re in Europe, and you’re a tourist, you have to go in churches.

Even if you’re totally anti-Christian. It’s just one of those things you have to see. So, well, I was gonna say one day, I can tell you precisely it was June 20th, 1974, I’m coming up on my 40th anniversary, you go with 39 years. June 20th we had arrived in Dublin. We found a bed and breakfast, put down our backpacks, went out to look around. It was now getting middle to late afternoon just to see if anything was still open that we could go in and take a look. And we found a church. So, we went inside the church.

There wasn’t a service going on, but you go in and you look at the statues, you look at the stained glass windows. I kinda wandered off by myself up beside the altar and there was a side altar with a statue of Jesus on it. So I was looking at it, kind of in art critical mode, evaluating it as a statue and looking at the details, they cheat on the fingernails, that’s where you can catch them. They try to cut corners there. So I was just looking at the details and thinking very critically of it. And somehow I realized that I had fallen to my knees.

I realized that I was in the presence of something overwhelming and I could hear a voice, not with my ears. I’ve never heard anything with my ears, but it was an interior voice. When I try to describe it afterwards I said it was like there was a radio in my heart. And I never knew it was there. It was like it was just waiting there in my heart for this moment. And the radio snapped on and the voice said, “I am your life.” I am your life. It said more than that, I’m not gonna go into all the details, it’s on my website

I wanted to just pause there, though, and think about how do we apprehend the presence and the voice of God? How does that work? What was that? When I heard this interior voice. What made that possible? I am your life. Of course, then I didn’t know about the I am sayings. What a joy it was later to see I am the good shepard, I am the door of the sheep, I am the way, the truth, the life. And that He said to me I am your life. It’s still a mystery. I don’t know what… For the rest of my life I would be unpacking what those profound four words meant.

That He said that to me. I’ve never gotten over that moment and I rejoice that it has continued. That the Lord has been walking with me every day for these 40 years. He was walking with me before that, but I didn’t know it. It’s partly about becoming aware, isn’t it? That’s really what prayer is. It’s becoming aware of His presence. Learning to tune in, learning to use discretion so you’re not fooling yourself.

What is that? How does it happen? So I want to make two points briefly. One is that I think everybody has something that has happened to them. Everybody has some experience where you felt like you’re in contact with something supernatural. I hope that it was something good. It was the presence of the Lord.

Possibly, it was something that just felt really creepy and evil and it felt like it was really real in a way that just mere badness had never covered before. Maybe you had a dream, maybe you had a premonition. Maybe you heard the voice of the Lord like I did. I think that everybody has some experience like this it sort unsettles their expectations of how ordinary life is gonna go. And if we don’t have a way to kind of fit that into our worldview we forget it.

A lot of people forget these little things that happen because they can’t make sense of it. It doesn’t make familiar sense to them. So that’s one of the points I wanna make. I think that each of you has had some supernatural sort of experience. I pray it was a good one. But, we do tend to forget them. So, we need to learn a way to make room for those and to record them in our memory and return to them. The second point I want to make is that prayer is a two-way street.

Prayer is an activity… Well, usually when we use the term we’re thinking about saying prayers or just spontaneous prayer or being in church and praying along with the liturgy. But, also God can speak to us. We can cultivate an ability to hear and to apprehend that voice. Plenty of examples in the scripture of God communicating with people. From the prophets, from Elijah hearing the still, small voice.

The virgin Mary hearing the angel Gabriel’s greeting. God has interacted with people throughout the scriptures in many different ways. Is it possible? Is it safe to want to hear that voice? To want to get better at hearing that voice? That can initially be a very alarming thing to consider. It naturally makes people feel a little uneasy. If you talk about getting messages from God, history is littered with catastrophes based on that [mumbles] who thought God had told them to do something and it probably was not God it was probably the other guy telling them. We can’t take it face value every single thing that passes through our consciousness. But if we dismiss this possibility completely, if we say I’m just never going to take seriously anything that comes to me that feels like it might be from God, then we do violence to our very deepest hopes. Isn’t this what we most want to know? Is that He knows us.

That He knows us personally and individually. That he loves us individually. Not just he loves everybody. I once heard somebody give the example of the husband says to the wife, “I love you, I love you, I love you.” She says, “Why do you love me?” He says, “Oh, I love everybody.” [crowd laughs] It was not really the same thing. We want to know that He knows us. That wonderful line in 1st Corinthians 13 where Saint Paul says one day we will know even as we have been known.

One day we will understand even as well as we have already been understood. That we have in our Lord a love that is beyond any love that anyone else has ever had for us. It is the most complete, profound eternal love. Perfect love. More than we love ourselves. But also that He knows us better than we know ourselves. The person with the capital ‘P’ in the entirety of creation and beyond. Who knows you thoroughly and knows everything about you. Loves you eternally. Loves you more than the capacity of your mind and your heart to absorb. Loves you utterly. Loves you completely. Even though He knows everything. Probably knows more about you than you know about yourself. That ultimate love. Isn’t that what we all hunger for? Is to hear that voice. To hear the love in that voice. To know that we are loved and to let that love begin to transform us. The things that [mumbles] just said about the transforming power of love. I’d like to say as spirituality becomes more popular in America all different kinds of spirituality.

It’s all about people want to be transformed. I’d like to say everybody wants to be transformed, but nobody really wants to change. [crowd laughs] And that’s where the rubber meets the road. It’s gonna involve changing at some point. So, I think that it is good to be skeptical, to be hesitant, to use good discernment when we talk about hearing the voice of the Lord. But we should not entirely block off that possibility. About 20 years ago I became a member of the Eastern Orthodox church.

I think I’m probably the only Orthodox speaker at the podium this weekend. And there was a lot I didn’t know about it. A curious thing about Eastern Orthodoxy is it’s always been in a context where there weren’t other kinds of churches. So it hasn’t had to defend or define itself as a particular kind of Christianity. It’s defined itself against communism in the last century. Defined itself against other religions, pagan religions, Islam, defined itself against non-Christian religions. But it’s kind of hard to get to know it because there’s so much they just take for granted that all religions do, all Christian faiths, all Christian denominations do or have or teach or say and they don’t realize really there’s some uniqueness. I think the main uniqueness I found in Orthodoxy is it is a therapy.

Everything in the church, everything we do, everything we say is designed to heal you. To clarify your mind. It has a lot to do with mindfulness. It’s funny to hear mindfulness being talked about when I think that’s the church Fathers. That’s the Desert Fathers, that’s the entirety of Eastern Christianity that ancient practice in monasteries for men and women is that every day the monk or the nun would go to the abbeys or the abbot and talk about her thoughts. These are the thoughts that tormented me today.

These are the thoughts that attacked me. These are the thoughts that I’m wrestling with. And gain strength and get counseling for how to defeat those thoughts. How to recognize lies. They’re not only coming out of an inaccurate part of your brain. I think the scriptures would say as our Lord taught. We have an enemy. An enemy has done this. We have an enemy who hates us and the evil one throws these thoughts into your mind and waits to see you react. And we can train ourselves to gather quietness.

To stand in the presence of the Lord and to develop that part of our hearts, that part of our minds that is able to look at our mind. We have a mind that can think about our mind. Standing in that quiet place substituting the truth for the lies that the evil one throws at us. This is… I think sometimes the spirituality fad, don’t you think it sounds like it’s all about it’s kind of like a beauty parlor for your soul? It’s like I’m gonna gain all the spiritual knowledge, I’m gonna learn the vocabulary so I can drop words and I’m gonna become this spiritually beautiful person and everybody will envy me and I’ll be superior to other people because I’ll be so spiritually wonderful. [crowd laughs] Sometimes in the world I sort of hear it presented that way in a faddish way.

Of course, in Christianity it’s all about humility and any kind of pride or narcissism is gonna work backwards for you. But another thing that I gained in my Orthodox faith is that it’s always about other people too. It’s not like we do the inner work then we do the outer work. It’s that we can do the interaction with other people. Each one loved as much by God as you are. We can do that interaction, because our heart is getting more and more filled with light. If you are becoming filled with the life and the presence of Jesus Christ, you’re gonna intercede more. You’re gonna spend more time praying for others.

You’re gonna become more generous. When you talk to somebody, your ego can disappear and you can let them pour out their hearts because everybody needs somebody to listen to them. You’ll be able to become a listener. So it’s not just sort of private spiritual mountain climbing. It’s transformation and love becoming stronger, becoming more peaceful, more able to love others. Every kind of good work we do is going to come out of that center Christ in your heart speaking to you and being with you.

So, to go back just briefly to that Dublin church, that little radio. I said we have this little radio inside. I had been reading in Eastern Christianity for a long time when it hit me. They never separate mind from heart. That is not in the Bible. The Bible never says you have your reason and you have your emotions and they are two different things and then even worse, you start saying and they’re two opposite things. They’re in conflict. This isn’t true. These are both parts of a common function. If you’re having an emotion it’s because of something you’re thinking.

And we all know how our thoughts can be influenced by our emotions. It’s all the same thing. It just flows together. Scripture does not make that distinction, but it does distinguish between the kind of thinking where you’re cogitating. You’re kind of going forward you’re planning something, you’re thinking something through. That’s called the dianoia. That’s discursive thought. But there’s another kind. The nous. The nuadic function. Rhymes with poetic, nuadic or nous. N-O-U-S. This is the receptive mind. Like the mind has two gears, forward and reverse. When you’re going forward you’re arguing with somebody or with yourself. You’re talking about ideas, you’re thinking it through.

Reverse is when things start coming in to you. Remember how when Christ appeared to apostles after the resurrection it’s Luke 24:45 it says, “He opened their nous to understand the scriptures.” Saint Paul says, “We have the nous of Christ.” Somebody else quoted Romans 12:2 earlier today. “Be transformed by the renewal of your nous.” The nous is damaged by the fall like everything else about us. The nous is damaged. It’s darkened is the phrase they often use in Eastern Christian writing. And because of that we don’t perceive accurately how many of our conflicts between people are because we misread what the other person said. Because we take things in through a darkened intellect where we’re going to think somebody’s looking at you funny when they’re not looking at you at all actually.

We mishear tones of voice, we misunderstand, our egos are jumping around. All of that can be healed through holding your mind open in the presence of Christ. Listening for His voice. “My sheep, hear my voice.” They know the voice of the shepard. Training yourself to stay there in quietness. Gaining that stable place to stand where you can see the thoughts coming and turn them away. You don’t have to engage that thought. That thought is a lie. You will always have disruptive thoughts, but it’s like a brick thrown through the window. You’re not guilty of the strange, bizarre, ugly, cruel screwed up kind of thoughts that pop into your head.

They don’t come from you. This is the evil one trying to tempt you and trying to mislead you. Don’t despair when you have temptations. Just make the choice not to follow that temptation, not to go on thinking about those words. So the nous, the healing of the nous is the… I guess we could say the main purpose of our lives on earth.

Orthodox Christianity has 2000 years of experience proven, tried and true of how to do that. One of the main things we do is the Jesus prayer. I’ve got a book about the Jesus prayer out there in my workshop. We will talk more about it. This is a prayer that was invented by the Desert Mothers, Desert Fathers. These are men and women who went out into the deserts of Egypt and Palestine beginning in the 200s. They wanted to do as Saint Paul said. “Pray constantly. Pray without ceasing.”

How do you do that? They very quickly realize the reason you don’t pray without ceasing is because your mind gets distracted. It’s a matter of your thoughts. Your thoughts go trailing away after other things. You fight a thought with a thought, so, what they first tried was take your favorite scripture, memorize your favorite scripture. Keep it in the back of your mind. Instead of letting your mind wander around seeking something to keep it entertained, just revert back to that scripture again and again. Then they said, “Well, let’s do just short prayer.” You could just say save me Lord, make haste to help me.

Short little prayers like that. About the year 500 a particular form of prayer emerged which became the standard. This was like, this is the right prayer. It’s got the name of Jesus in it, it’s got a very simple request for mercy, it’s a simple prayer. You can… It fits in your pocket. You can take it anywhere. The Jesus prayer is, Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Keeping that as background music for your life and forming every interaction you have. Every bit of news, each of us is gonna hear bad news one day. If you spent years saying Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

And it’s just part of your thinking now. He will be there with you. When you reach the end, when you finally take that last breath, when you step through the veil to see the one that you’ve longed for all your life. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. That will be your last thought. Equi ring that habit of this prayer is very powerfully, spiritually healing and it cleanses and renews the nous and helps you to read things accurately instead of being tossed about by all kinds of crazy ideas. So, that was what I wanted to say today.

I just want to say something about this icon. I chose this. It’s called The Christ of Sinai. I chose The Christ of Sinai because it comes form that same time and place. This icon has been, ever since it was painted about the year 550, it’s been in a monastery of Saint Catherine which is on Mount Sinai. And when I… This is maybe number one of the hit parade of icons, right? This is like the most fa– This and The Rublev Trinity.

Maybe that’s number two. This is about the most popular icon in the world and the first time I saw it I thought there’s something wrong with the eyes, right? [crowd laughs] I guess he didn’t know how to paint eyes. Well, no. That can’t be it because it’s exquisite. Because the complexion is wonderful. It’s really a terrific painting. So why did he, quote, get the eyes wrong? If you take a piece of paper or just take your hand and cover up this side. Cover up what’s your left, the left side, look at just the right side of that face. That’s a pretty severe face, isn’t it?

That’s a piercing expression. It’s the expression of a surgeon who says, “I see it. I see it now. This has to come out. And there’s gonna be complete healing.” There’s a relentlessness, there’s a purpose, it’s dynamic and there’s even a little tiny bit of humor because the corner of the mouth is raised a bit. There’s a little quirk in the eyebrow. It’s sort of like that’s the side of the Lord whose saying, “I’ve got your number. I know you through and through.

I know what needs to change. I have the power to change it in you. Now cover up the other side. Cover up the right side and look at the left and you see utter compassion, patience, tranquility. A listening face, isn’t it? This is a listening eye ready to take in whatever you need to pour out of your pain and your confusion. Your disappointments with Him. You can say anything to that facial expression. If you look at the whole image together again you see the artist was trying to show us two important parts of our Lord’s relation with us. That are simultaneous, but we have to go over it in sequence over and over again just because of our limits.

We need both that piercing surgical insight of the Lord who knows transformation requires change. But we also need that tender compassion. We need that so much. It is His love, it is His tenderness that lets us know that we can trust Him. And that makes us want to run toward this beautiful gaze. Thank you.

Thanks for watching everyone. If you want to watch other videos from the same session, check them out right here. And if you really want to follow all the videos that are coming out at the Center for Christian Thought, make sure you subscribe to our channel.