Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Book- Breathing Yeshua- Christian Meditation in the Way of the Heart
Sr. Antoinette Traeger O.S.B. exclaimed with determination, "The only thing I could do was sit and breathe." Antoinette Traeger, a partner in Prayer of the Heart ministry and an 80 year old monastic spiritual elder, spoke a simple and deep wisdom in response to a challenging moment in her life. Sometimes in life we realize to sit and breathe, to be with the experiences of life with wholehearted presence and loving intention, is all we can do; and it is sufficient and complete. My wife, Jeanette, a Zen meditation practitioner, has a calligraphy on her wall "Sit and Breathe" to remind her in a similar way of her spiritual practice.
Our inner spiritual work turns on the tension of the mind's compulsion for control and the freedom of the heart's willingness to open and surrender in love. We can learn to breathe and both receive and give ourselves in love to the "I AM," Who is Love, Who offers Itself to us eternally. Our mind agendas always fall short and are filled with faulty assumptions. In every moment the one thing we can do is "sit and breathe." In contemplative Buddhism this has long been the mantra. In Christianity this "I AM" in life is revealed to us with fiercely personal intensity in the face of Jesus and oceanically in the universal Heart of Christ. In contemplative Christianity and the tradition of the Prayer of the Heart the one thing, the central thing, we can always do, is "sit and breathe Yeshua." To sit and breathe Jesus, or Yeshua, in the Aramaic, is to sit and inhale in receptive presence and adoration, and to exhale in the self-offering Agape that is Christ. To breathe Yeshua is to unite our life with His life in us, each moment of life. This is not an ideal to aspire to, but a practice to be actualized and lived.
In the Christian tradition this practice of uniting ourselves with the inner Life of Christ in prayer word and breath comes to us from the desert fathers and mothers of early Christianity. In his book on Christian Contemplation Brian Taylor speaks of this development in Christianity:
"However, at some point these desert contemplatives began to use the name
of Jesus as their invocation. In the fourth century text, The Life of
Anthony, by Athanasius of Alexandria, there was already a practice of
invoking Christ in a repetitive prayer, even linking the breath to its
repetition, as if the one who prayed was actually breathing Jesus: 'Anthony
called his two companions...and said to them, "Always breath Christ. ' " (Taylor, p.73)
We know this practice as the Prayer of the Heart. When Christianity was a vital movement and not yet an institution, the ancients of the early centuries fled the towns and cities of North Africa and the Middle East to realize the simplicity and singled hearted life of the Kingdom to which Yeshua invites us in the Gospel. The Good News proclaimed by Yeshua is that God is accessible to all, and our call in this life is to become wholly accessible to God. Hence there is something we must do to become single hearted; to live a life wholly consecrated to God.
From this desire for the singular, undivided life came the word "monos" and the creation of the monastic life. The early men and women monastics were intent on realizing a life consecrated to union in Christ. They lived as hermits and as cenobites, or in communities. They gathered around teachers or guides who were called "abba" or "amma", spiritual father or mother. The desert ammas and abbas sought to give their lives completely to prayer both in solitude and silence, and in activity, and to guide others to the same singular life of the Heart. Sr. Antoinette is a modern descendant of these followers of Christ, a true Amma of the desert tradition. Her simple wisdom is their wisdom too.
The term that the ancients used for this inner transforming work of union with Christ was "Purification of the Heart." They did not intend that the Heart or spiritual center was unclean, but rather that our life, our will and consciousness, needs to be undivided or purified in its orientation to the singular purpose of the Heart, communion with God in Christ. Therefore the goal is to be undivided, wholly committed, fully consecrated to Christ in all things.
Like all of us the ammas and abbas realized that the primary impediment to the undivided life is the divided attachments and culturally conditioned purposes of the mind. When they went into the desert seeking simplicity and commitment, they brought their mind and its incessant thoughts and traffic with them. Therefore to be fully given and to rest in communion with Christ in the Heart they realized they must find a freedom from the mind's tyranny. These seekers formulated a simple schema in their prayer life. They understood that a person thinks about God in the prayer of the mind; a person speaks to God with the prayer of the lips; and a person experiences God in the silence and interior communion of the prayer of the heart. To assist in this process of anchoring in the Heart or spiritual center they understood that using a prayer word in alignment with breath was most efficacious. They chose a word or phrase from the scriptures. And for many the most powerful word of all was the name of the Redeemer Christ, Jesus, or Yeshua. Over time for many in Eastern Christianity the form of the Prayer of the Heart most commonly known was the Jesus Prayer. An expanded form of the Jesus prayer ("Lord Jesus, Have Mercy.") was used by many based on the Gospel exclamation of Bartimaeus, the blind man. "Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me."(Mark 10:47) Various forms of the Jesus prayer have been used through the centuries, but the simplest and most easily aligned with the breath is the holy name of Jesus or Yeshua. Again Brian Taylor speaks of this ancient tradition of inner communion with Christ:
"This rich and focused tradition is perhaps the only specific, practical
teaching about contemplative prayer in all of Christendom that has been
handed down faithfully and precisely from master to disciple, remaining
intact over sixteen hundred years. In this sense, the Jesus Prayer/Prayer
of the Heart tradition is more akin to the way in which Buddhist or Hindu
meditation is handed down from generation to generation than it is to
anything comparable in the West.
The use of the Jesus Prayer and the teachings about contemplation that
surrounded it spread from master to disciple through the deserts of Egypt,
and then came into prominence in the sixth century at the well-known and
ancient monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai, established by Emperor
Justinian I in 527. In the fourteenth century the center of the Yeshua
Prayer movement moved to Mt. Athos, Greece.
…In our day, Mt. Athos and to a lesser degree, St. Catherine's
of Sinai, continue as centers of practice of the Jesus Prayer."
Prayer of the Heart was understood then and now to be the way we anchor our attention (awareness) and our intention (will), fully in the Heart of Christ. This practice takes place during formal times of prayer in silence and sitting. The Prayer of the Heart is also a practice that is ceaseless. It takes place throughout the day, in the midst of activity, with a habitual and ongoing return to the name of Yeshua in moment to moment presence and self-offering love, in all that we do, in our natural inhalation and exhalation of the breath. This way the invitation to a life of ceaseless prayer from Yeshua and the apostle Paul is seen as both possible and desirable for all. All who breathe can breathe Yeshua.
We have an expression of reassurance in our culture when a person is fearful; we say "Breathe easy." When we are in the middle of life, breath is a way that we re-orient to abiding in the present moment when our consciousness has been captivated by memories of a painful past or a dreaded imagined future. When we can root and ground in the present moment we can live where God lives, in the present eternal moment.
"In the seventh century, John Climacus advised: 'Let your calling to mind of Jesus be continually combined with your breathing and you will know the meaning of silence.' " (Taylor, p.73)
Indeed to breathe is to breathe Life, and a powerful word for God in the Jewish tradition is Ruach, or Life-Breath. To breathe fully with attention and intention is to participation in the flow of the Spirit God who is our true Life. This is our antidote to the mind's compulsion for control and fixation with past pain and future possibility. To breathe Ruach, or Life- Breath, is to breathe Yeshua, and to root and ground in what is real and true. Actualizing this Truth of the Christ Life is much beyond any relaxation technique.