I came across this lecture from Eastern Orthodox theologian Kallistos Ware, lecturing on the Philokalia (a collection of spiritual writings from the Eastern church between the 4th and 15th centuries) which you can download here in .pdf format. I have hardly any exposure to it, but in a recent lecture by Dallas Willard he mentions the Philokalia as a great source of early Christian Spiritual Formation.
As I listened to the lecture, I became very distracted by his voice, which sounded like Christopher Lee playing Saruman in Lord of the Rings! I decided to read through it as I had time, and found some really excellent points encouraging me in my recent attempts to practice the presence of God and live as an apprentice of Jesus more intentionally throughout my day to day life.
In part 1, I will post part of Ware’s introduction which provides an amazing meditation on Exodus 3 (Moses at the burning bush). It’s in a very distinctive Orthodox theology and style, which will encourage some significant reflection. In subsequent posts I will post some of his teaching on the Philokalia, particularly on what is called the “Jesus Prayer.”
Now, by way of introduction, let me set before you, as in an icon, a decisive moment in the Old Testament: Moses at the Burning Bush, as described in Exodus 3. As Moses stands before the bush in the desert, that burns but is not consumed, God says to him two things. And he says these same two things to you and me and to everyone who seeks to enter into the mystery of living prayer.
First of all, God says to Moses, “Take off your shoes.” Now, on the interpretation of the Greek Fathers, for example, St. Gregory of Nyssa, shoes, made from the skins of dead animals, signify the deadness of repetition, boredom, inattentiveness. “Take off your shoes” then, means, symbolically: “Free yourself from what is lifeless, from enslavement to the trivial, the mechanical, the repetitive. Shake off the deadness of boredom. Wake up. Come to yourself. Open your spiritual eyes. Cleanse the doors of your perception. Look and see! Listen!” [he notes here that the title to the Philokalia includes this concept - “Philokalia of the Holy Neptic Fathers” or “The Fathers Who Taught Wakefulness.”]
Our [primary] problem . . . is that we are bored and so we grow fragmented and dispersed. . . . We are not truly present where we are, gathered in the here and now, practicing what has been called “the sacrament of the present moment.”
So, returning to Moses, what happens next, after we have symbolically removed our shoes? God then says to Moses, “The place on which you are standing is holy ground.” What do we experience when we take off our shoes and begin to walk barefoot? We suddenly become sensitive, in a good way. Vulnerable, in a positive manner. The earth under our feet comes alive. We feel grains of dust between our soles. We feel the texture of the grass. So it is spiritually. Removing our shoes, freeing ourselves from inner deadness, we begin to realize that God is very close. The world around us is holy. We renew our sense of awe and wonder before each thing. Each thing, each person, becomes a sacrament of the Divine Presence, a means of communion with God.
So, let us apply the story in Exodus 3 to our prayer. To pray in spirit and in truth is to stand like Moses before the Burning Bush. To take off our shoes, to strip ourselves of deadness, to awaken, to experience all things as fresh and new, to recognize that we are standing on holy ground, to know that God is immediately present before us and within us.
I really love this meditation. It shows a meditative, contemplative way into the event at the burning bush that helps me shed all that is false and seek to see with new eyes.
Prayer is both putting off the old and putting on the new. There is a letting go before there can be a taking up. Detachment from what is false and dead often must precede attachment to God.
There is here a holiness that is earthiness, a way of feeling our vulnerability as creatures of the dust, in touch with the creation around us and under our feet as we relate to God in prayer.
If we followed this meditation we could be a lot more honest with God, I think, and isn’t that a huge purpose of prayer? Thoughts?