Thursday, June 26, 2014

Spiritual Discernment In The Fog, At Night, and Without My Glasses

Passions are like some hard [dark] substances that, standing in the midst between the light and vision, prevent the latter from discerning the difference of things.
St. Isaac the Syrian  Homily 66

St. Isaac the Syrian speaks of noetic vision as natural knowledge, that is, knowledge of God, of one another and of created things that human beings in a healthy (not sinning) state would know, not rationally (by deduction) but by seeing with their noetic eyes, the eyes of their soul or mind.  In English we might refer to this kind of knowing as intuition or as spiritual knowledge, or we might use a phrase like “knowing something in your heart.”

St. Isaac likens this noetic or spiritual vision to physical sight.  Just as there are many factors that either enable or interfere with one’s ability to see things with the physical eyes, so there are many factors that influence our ability to see spiritually--what St. Isaac calls discernment.  

The two essential factors in spiritual sight, or discernment, are a sound mind (nous) and Grace, which is “the sun that enables discernment.”  I cannot help associating “sound mind” with 2 Timothy 1:7 “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind (or self-control, sofronismos).  A sound mind, a healthy mind, is one that is under control.  Bringing our minds under control is healing our minds--it’s the same thing.  But if our minds continually wander and are easily caught up in arguments and “high things”(c.f. 2 Cor. 10:5 and Psalm 131:1), then no matter how much God shines His Grace upon us, our spiritual sight, or discernment, will be corrupt, fuzzy, and just plain wrong--like a blind man in full sunlight trying to guess the colour of the flower he smells.

A healthy mind is necessary for discernment, but so is Grace.  Grace, the light from God, does not always shine with the same intensity in our lives.  That is, sometimes God withholds a certain amount of Grace.  (Of course, God never completely withdraws His Grace, for then all creation would cease to exist.)  God may withdraw Grace for many possible reasons--or for no reason that reason can comprehend.  God is God.  However, one reason St. Isaac mentions for the withdraw of Grace is “stinginess,” and he even quotes a verse from the (Syriac) Old Testament: Ecclesiasticus (a.k.a. Wisdom of Sirach) 14:3 “Riches are not comely for a stingy man.”  

Riches here refer to the Grace of God, but stinginess, what can that be referring to?  After all, St. Isaac is a hermit writing to other hermits.  I don’t think he is referring to sharing your grace-filled insights with others.  In fact, I’m certain that is not what he is referring to because elsewhere he repeatedly exhorts his readers not to leave their cell on the pretext of edifying someone.  What then can this stinginess be referring to?  My best guess is that it is a reference to trying to save one’s own life (c.f. Matt. 16:25).  When we try to save our life, we lose it.  The riches of Grace are not comely for a person who is stingy with his or her life--trying to save it, not willing to lose what she or he thinks is important, not willing to die (spiritually) in secret, not willing to give up the delusion of control.  It is not comely for God to pour out much Grace (spiritual light) on those who hang on to life in this world (as it is) in a stingy manner, not wanting to give this paltry worldly existence completely over to God, not willing to let go in their hearts.

If this is what St. Isaac means, then no wonder I am so spiritually dense.  I am nearly blind wandering by the light of a crescent moon and a few stars.  Maybe the moon is the Theotokos, our Mother, shining with the reflected light of the Sun (Her Son), and the stars are the saints praying for us, the meandering ones.  But even the crescent moon and the stars are enough light to walk a well-trodden path.  It’s not enough light to see very far down the path or to see much of what’s off the path; but it is enough to put one foot in front of the other.  I know this is true physically for I have hiked in the dessert and mountains at night--it is possible, so long as the trail is well trodden.

I guess this is one of the main reasons why we need the Church--the well-trodden pathway to Christ.  St. Mary of Egypt gave herself completely to God and thus experienced tremendous Light, and as her mind healed, was able to live in the desert with God and without any direct, physical contact with the Church for 37 years (or was it 47, I don't remember).  I, however, hold back so much.  I fear so much.  Except for brief moments, my mind is a busy intersection of thoughts going this way and that.  It would not be comely for God to shine the riches of His Grace too brightly on me.  But I don’t despair.  I have a well-trodden path to follow.  I have enough Grace to see what is before me today: to say my prayers today, to control myself today, to manage my schedule so that I can go to Church on Sunday to receive the Precious Body and Blood of Christ.  One day at a time, one step at a time, through the prayers of our Immaculate, Most Blessed, and Glorious Lady Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary and all of the Saints.  One day at a time.

St. Isaac speaks of other ways our spiritual vision is obscured.  Passions, he says, are like dark objects or clouds that come between the Grace of God and our minds (our spiritual eyes).  God may be pouring out His Grace abundantly on us, but because of our passions, we cannot see a thing.  I have hiked mountain passes that were shrouded in fog so thick that you could barely see your own feet--a dangerous state of affairs when the wrong move can send you plummeting several hundred feet.  This is what the passions do to us spiritually.  God may be giving us all of the Light possible, like the midday sun, but our passions shroud us like a thick fog and we make stupid mistakes and are easily seduced off the trail to our own (and other’s) hurt.

Another factor affecting discernment is ability.  That is, just as people with healthy eyes still have different abilities, so people with healthy minds still have differing abilities (remember, St. Isaac is writing in the 7th century, before anything was known about lenses and how the eye actually works).  There are one talent, two talent and five talent minds.  Not everyone has the same capacity for spiritual discernment.  What’s important is not how much or how little one sees or knows in their hearts.  What’s important is what they do with what they do see and know, how their knowledge of God leads them to repentance, how their knowledge of God leads them to surrender everything--rather than trying to save their own life like the servant who buried his talent because he was afraid.

Other factors that influence one’s discernment are  “the hinderances of times, places, and means.”  This is referring, I think, to the seasons and circumstances of life.  A parent raising small children is laying down her or his life in an very Christ-like way, but not in a way conducive to developing the inner life and prayer to a large degree.  It is a season. It is a season during which desire and longing can build so that when the season changes, longing and desire will lead you into the life of prayer that you have been longing for.  But even as a busy parent (or business person or auto mechanic or school teacher or nurse), just the longing itself and the mere desire for prayer and peace and stillness have a wonderful way of creating opportunities even in the midst of the zaniness, like a quiet park in the middle of a city.  The inner hermit in the cell of your heart can pray even while the “wild beasts” roar around you.

There are other factors too that St. Isaac mentions affecting our ability to develop the knowledge of God.  A weak will, the lack of a spiritual father or mother, a disposition (temperament or personality) not suited for spiritual pursuit.  None of these are unchangeable conditions.  God’s in the miracle business.  But we all have to begin where we are, with the limited ability and Grace we have, to seek to know, to long to know, to strive to give our lives to God.  If we do our part, God will take care of the rest.   If we follow what we know, maybe God will reveal to us some of what we do not know.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Heaven and Hell and Repentance (on the bus)

"He condescends to our infirmity and reveals Himself to Thomas, but He does not conceal the truth: 'Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed.'"
Archimandrite Vasilios

There is nothing like a day on public transit to reveal your poverty.  Brokenness everywhere calling to my own inner brokenness.  Thoughts stray in increasingly unhealthy directions.  I am disgusted with myself, for a while.  And then I begin to see my arrogance, my self righteousness.  Why do I assume that I would be better than this, I ask myself.  And so on the bus, crowded by hurt, bleeding and silently screaming strangers, I begin to beg mercy.  I enter the cave of my heart as much as I can and beg: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner."

And then in a moment, a brush with Grace.  I come somewhat to my senses.    God condescends, again.  He condescends to be with me, to be with us, to be with the desperate woman before me and the angry man next to me, to be with the worried mother clinging to her baby on my other side and the frightened student behind me.  He comes to be with us. 

I cannot know what others experience in this moment, a faint scent of Paradise on the bus.  I experience a moment of peace.  A brief respite from the bombardment of thoughts.  And I sense a little window into reality, into myself, the truth that Jesus comes into my hell, our hell; and I am reminded that I am the one who turned away.  I am the one who wanted to wander in "a foreign land."

There is no hell too low or wickedness so perverse that our loving Lord will not (and has not) condescended to be with us in.  No matter where, no matter when, no matter how far we have fallen or how messed up we are.  Christ comes to us.  But he always comes with the truth, the truth about ourselves and the truth about reality.

Jesus came to Thomas in his doubt and allowed Himself to be probed by one who could be saved no other way.  Jesus came, but He did not conceal the truth: "Blessed are those who have have not seen and yet believe."  Jesus came to the Samaritan, in her immorality, in her heretical religion. Jesus comes to all who are willing to receive Him.  He condescends to come to us, but he always comes as Truth.  He comes to the Samaritan and also tells her the truth: "for salvation is of the Jews..."

Jesus comes to us where we are and calls us to move toward Him, to repent, to recognize the the brokenness and to call  it what it is.  

And then I am distracted again....

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Unity Through Freedom

Archimandrite Vasilios in the booklet, I Came That They May Have Life, And Have It Abundantly, Available from Alexander Press, makes this statement: “The open door that leads to freedom is the same one that leads to unity." The powerful irony here is no less true for being ironic.  Unity only comes in freedom. The Inquisition of the late Middle Ages and the Communist movement of the 20th century should be sufficient for us to prove at least that coercion does not bring unity.

Archimandrite Vasileios makes this statement in a discussion of Jesus as the Shepherd and as the Door: “I am the door of the sheepfold,” Jesus says. Jesus is the door of freedom that leads to unity.

Unity is extremely important, important not only for the practical reason that we can get very little done in the world if we are continually fighting with one another, but it is also important because Jesus both prayed for and commanded that we be one. But like everything else in the Kingdom of Heaven, the way is the thing. How we become one is more important than that we seem to be one because we can never be truly united by external, worldly means.  Just as many of the first are last and the last are first in the Kingdom of Heaven, so unity only comes about through freedom--the freedom in Christ, the freedom of love, the freedom of self sacrifice and letting go of our illusion of control over others (dying to our visions and plans and ideas of what aught to be to let become what is).

On the family, parish, diocesan and the catholic (universal or ecumenical) levels, the only path to unity is to lovingly let go. The Father of the prodigal son let go of His son and received him again. They had to suffer, the Father more than the son, so that the son could freely choose the Father’s home. The older son did not suffer, except in his own mind, except in the fantasy of his own sense of justice--not receiving even a goat from his employer (notice the older son never calls Him Father), even while a whole fatted calf has been slaughtered and is waiting for him to share in. The older son’s suffering was caused by an idol, a mental image of justice and equality, of “what is right,” that would not let him rejoice in what was true, beautiful and life-giving. The older son could not let go, he could not set his brother free from his expectations of what should be. The younger son had to suffer to “come to himself.”  But the older brother did not know this. He could not conceive of the possibility that someone might have to fall in order to rise.  

And the older son could not even grant his Father freedom to be Father. He could not set his Father free from his own understanding of things, of the way things ought to be. And because he bound his Father in his own mind to his own logic, the older son even lost his Father. Although the Father came out to him, as He did for the younger son, the older son cannot see him as Father, only as employer, only as an employer who is unfair. Love is seen by the older brother as injustice.

I wonder how often I am like that older brother?  How often does my vision of what is right become my own stumbling block to apprehending what is true and life-giving, that which creates unity? How often do I bind in my mind those I should set free to be themselves? How often do I fail to see God as He comes out to me (in the Liturgy, in prayer, in the person of those around me) because in my mind I have not set God free, but keep Him bound by the logic, justice and expectations I have put on Him?

Judas was a disciple, but he entered hell before Pontius Pilate; and Thief entered Paradise before any of the disciples. Judas thought he knew what Jesus should do. He was offended at the waste of the perfumed oil that could have been sold and the money given to the poor. He could not die to his own expectation, his own logic, his own sense of justice; and thus, he could not see Jesus the God-man even as He washed his feet and dipped His bread together with him at the Last Supper. The Thief, on the other hand, said simply, “remember me.” In a single moment, as the hymns of Holy Week tell us, the “Wise Thief became worthy of Paradise.” He did not come with an agenda. He did not have a plan, a better way, the right understanding of how it ought to be done. The Wise Thief brought only faith, trust, and a humble and contrite heart. He knew he had nothing to offer. The King was free to remember him in His Kingdom however He saw fit.

I must confess, that I am much more like Judas than I am like the wise thief. Perhaps I am not the only one. Perhaps this why we review the story of Judas and the Wise Thief every year: to remind us. To remind us zealous ones who actually attend the services of Holy Week of the fate of Judas, Judas the disciple who thought he knew the way things ought to be. And to remind us of the Thief who had nothing but the plea: “remember me.”

Unity in the home or in the ecumene is a gift, it is Paradise. Unity will never come to us so long as we think we know, so long as we have an agenda, a restriction that we feel we must put on others. Rather, like the Wise Thief, we have to die together with Christ on the cross, the cross of trust in God’s power to save both us and others through freedom, the cross of letting go of our idols of how “it ought to be done.” And as we die, we must continually whisper to the One who changes hearts and bring prodigals to their senses: “Remember me, O Lord, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.”

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Getting Started In Psalmody

In response to a recent blog post on psalmody, someone wrote to me asking for advice on getting started (i.e. for a prayer rule). Now ideally, one should go to a flesh-and-blood spiritual father or mother and get this advice. You really need someone who knows you well and can guide you along the way. However, the reality is that many people do not have such a person in their lives—or at least they do not recognize the person who is there. In either case, the result is the same: you don't know where to begin. Spiritual life is a matter of growth. You cannot begin where you should be, you can only begin where you are. And you can't wait until the conditions are ideal. You have to begin with what you have and where you are. As you grow, you will see more clearly and you will be able to discern more often what resources God has already put in your life that you perhaps had not noticed before, or have just heretofore ignored or dismissed. No worries. We are all works in progress. The most important thing is to begin. 

When asked to suggest a prayer book, I usually suggest the one produced by All Saints of Alaska Orthodox Church. You can get it on-line or order it for about five dollars plus shipping.  

Below is a link to the Psalter in pdf. You can take it to any printer and have in printed on half-page sheets and spiral bound for about $20. This Psalter was produced by some monks who actually keep the traditional monastic rule (not all monks do), so this Psalter has been read out loud literally hundreds of times before it was finally made available. The translation is their own, comparing both the Hebrew and Greek (Septuagint) texts and the texts as they are used in the services of the Church. (BTW, that's what the italics means in this Psalter. It means that the verse is quoted in the Church services—as that particular monastery serves them).

You will notice that the Psalter is organized according the monastic reading schedule. The entire book of Psalms is included, but organized according to the days of the week as it would be read in normal monastic practice (the entire psalter is read out loud every week, twice a week during lent [although I don’t know of any monasteries that actually do that during Lent—but that’s the “rule”]). There are 20 sections, called “kathisma” and each kathisma is divided into three “stasis.” (Kathisma means 'to sit' in Greek, because the monks would all sit while one monk stood to read—generally they would stand for the rest of the prayer service). At each stasis, the monks will stand (so that they do not fall asleep during the reading) and say the following with three low bows from the waist touching ground and making the sign of the cross (these are called “metania”).

“Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit
Both now and ever and unto the ages of ages, amen. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Glory to You O God (metania)
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Glory to You O God (metania)
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Glory to You O God (metania)
Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit
Both now and ever and unto the ages of ages, amen.”

(The following is specific advice that I wrote to someone who asked to be guided as he begins to practice psalmody)

Now for you, however, I suggest that you begin very slowly. I suggest that you start with a few prayers from the prayer book and one stasis from the psalter. It is much, much better to be small and consistent and to grow slowly than to start with too much and give up (which is what happens to most people). From the Prayer book, I suggest that you begin with the Trisagion prayers, the morning troparia and then one or at the most two more morning prayers and follow that with one stasis from the psalter. You should plan to do this every morning (or if you pray in the evening, do the same with the evening prayers—or both morning and evening if you are able). This should be followed by reading from the Gospel, Epistle and other spiritual writings. Don’t read much. A few verses that you think deeply about is much more spiritually edifying than reading several chapters. After you have completed your daily minimum, then if you have time and inclination, you can always say more prayers or read more. The trick is to have a small enough minimum that you can do it regularly (planing for everyday but only achieving 75% is very good for most people who lead normal, unpredictable lives—but if you can’t achieve 50%, then your rule is most likely too hard for you). If you find this to be the case (less than 50% daily ability to say your prayer rule), then humble yourself and shorten your rule until you can do it consistently.

Remember, the goal is not to succeed at your rule, the goal is to use your rule as a means to know yourself, your inner life, and through this to know God.  


Friday, June 06, 2014

Holding Jesus in My Arms

It had not occurred to me before that in the Icon of the Mother of God, especially in the Icons such as the Vladimir Icon and the Sweet Kissing Icon, Christ is holding on to His Mother.  The typology and doctrine of the Church is clear.  The Theotokos is the Church, or the Church is type of Mary, the Mother of Jesus; or you might even say that who Mary is, the Church is called to become.  We are all called to conceive by the Holy Spirit Christ in our hearts and to bear Him, or bring Him forth in the world.  

But this very Christ, who is God, clings to us.  God as a man, as a human child, clings to us.  It is almost embarrassing.  God becomes like a child grasping his mother, clinging, refusing to let go.  God loves us that much.

Unlike a merely human child, the God-man as child experiences no separation anxiety, no insecurity, no need for motherly comfort.  Rather, He senses our need to be loved, our need to be clung to, our need to be reassured again and again of our Father's love for us.  And this is how our Father shows us His love, by becoming our child and clinging to us, wrapping His arms around our necks and not letting go.

What condescension!  What humility!  What amazing trust in us, who continually demonstrate our unfaithfulness.  God submits to the abuse of our neglect.  God waits for us to notice Him, to come to Him, to hold Him in our arms.
But will we hold Him in our arms as Mary did?  Will we let go of other things to hold Christ?  You can't have arms full of burdens and hold Christ.  You cant have hands busy with other things and hold Christ.  You can't serve two masters.  

Of course, we don't hold Christ in our physical arms as Mary did; rather, we hold Christ with the invisible arms of our heart--by our inner attention.  What busies the invisible arms and hands of our hearts are fears, fears like balls we must juggle, keeping our mind and heart busy, consuming our attention, but going nowhere, going only around in circles, occasionally falling, but always drawing us back into the same busy circle of anxiety.  The arms and hands of our hearts are too busy to hold Jesus--who so firmly clings to us.

In my life I have responsibilities.  I have balls I have to keep in the air.  That is why the quiet time is so important.  I need to set down the balls, the responsibilities, for a little while every day.  I have to wrap my arms around Jesus--even if just for a little while.  I cannot hold on to Him very long.  I know my love is weak, my attention is scattered, my life is busy.  But He clings to me.  He clings to me waiting for the arms and hands of my heart to be empty, for me to let go internally of the juggling balls which are my responsibilities in this world so that I can hold Him.  And holding Him, even for a moment, makes all of the difference.  For a brief moment I am somewhat like the Theotokos.  For a brief moment, I am moving toward becoming the Icon I see before me.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Silence and Baseball in Chicago

First let us force ourselves to be silent, and then from out of this silence something is born that leads us into Silence itself.  May God grant you to perceive some part of that which is born of silence.
St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 64

I'm at an archdiocese convention in Chicago, in a huge hotel with hundreds and hundreds of people.  Last night, I went to a Cubs game with some of my fellow delegates.  We took the subway (E-ticket ride if ever there was one!)  Lots of shouting and cheering, moderate amounts of beer and an unbelievable "Chicago Style" hotdog.  More meetings today.  More people.

And yet, I have been thinking about silence.  I have been practicing silence--in a crowd.  I explained to someone once that a hermit is the most connected member of the Body of Christ because he or she carries the whole world in their heart.  We who are surrounded by the world, who swim in the world, have hearts that are empty, lonely and selfish.  Silence, it seems to me, functions in a similar way.  Of course, outer silence is part of the way to inner silence; but the "forcing" of silence that St. Isaac is speaking of is not talking so much about that outer silence as it is the quieting of the noise in our minds.  Forcing our thoughts to be silent, we can experience something of a birth into an even deeper Silence--the Silence which is the language of God Himself.  

Even at a busy convention one can take moments alone.  You go to your cell (room), unplug the TV and turn off your phone; or if you have a busy room, then you take a long walk or find a lonely room in the convention centre part of the hotel.  If you look, you can usually find a corner of relative external quiet somewhere.  Here you say your prayers, read your spiritual book, say the Jesus Prayer and do a few prostrations.  Here you force the mind to be quiet.  You let go of all of the world that you mentally started grabbing onto through the day.  You find, or create, the quiet place in yourself and you just stay there for a while, for a few moments, for as long as you can.  

And then you take the quiet with you into the noise.  As your attention is drawn from here to there, for person to person, from responsibility to responsibility, under it all is a kind of eson, a kind of hum of quiet, gentle remembrances from the quiet place.  Sometimes it is a feeling (faint, for sure), sometimes it is a word from your spiritual reading or an impression that came to you in prayer.  You let it re-emerge even in the midst of the hubbub.  It's your little secret thought, your secret communion with God in the midst of the city, the noise, the people.  It doesn't stay long.  As you get tired and busy and passions flare up, the quiet is hidden beneath the layers of noise.  

That's why you have to return to the quiet place.  You have to go back to your corner, go for your walk, hide in your closet...whatever it is that you do to find enough external quiet to force your mind to let go and return to the quiet.  

We can't do anything much about our situations in life.  We are where we are, and we do what we do.  God knows that.  But God also knows that there are closets, quiet places, niches, walks in the park, stolen moments in the middle of the night, God also knows that these are there for us if we want them, if we will look for them.  And God will use whatever it is that we have and whatever we offer to Him to come to us, to help us know His abiding in us.  We can't make that happen.  We can just take advantage of whatever little spaces and places and moments we can find to wait in relative quiet--Just in cast, just in case God at that moment wants to give birth in us something of the Silence that comes from silence.

One of the things I love about St. Isaac it that he speaks not only to those who achieve the heights, but also to us who slog it out in the muddy lowlands.  He prays for us.  St. Isaac prays that God would grant even us who are still in the valley, that even we may perceive some part of that which is born of silence.  You see: even a part.  A part is good.  Just because I will never be in a place in life where I can scale the lofty spiritual heights that St. Isaac knows, still I can know a part.  And as it is with the Holy Eucharist, so it is with any way God comes to us: a part of God is all of God.     

This is the mystery.  This is the irony.  I can fail and still be full, as full as I am capable of being.  God will fill my little cup if only I will make a little effort to hold it out to Him.  Sure saints have much more capacity--they have spent a lifetime purifying themselves so that they can hold more.  But whether our cups are large or minuscule, to be full is to be full.  

Silence is possible in the city--in some small part.  And a small part is huge when we are talking about God.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Compuction and Tears as Prayer

The fullness of prayer is the gift of tears.  
St. Isaac the Syrian

Growth in prayer comes through discipline and routine and the recitation of fixed prayers.  This recitation of fixed prayers, hymns and psalms is often referred to generally as psalmody or one's rule or office of prayer.  Learning to attend to psalmody can bring an experience of "sweetness." Sweetness in prayer is the term used by St. Isaac (and many other Orthodox spiritual writers) to describe peaceful joy and communion with God in prayer--or at least that is what I think he means by sweetness.  

However, psalmody is not the end, it is the means.  Psalmody is a training ground, a place where we can learn to concentrate our attention by paying attention to our thoughts in prayer.  More specifically, in psalmody we attend to thoughts and learn to control them, forcing ourselves to attend to what is true, pure, good and beautiful emerging from our hearts as we reflect on the words of the prayers and psalms.  In psalmody we also learn to attend to compunction, to feel the pain (literally, the puncture) of our heart.  This pain is the mother of the pure prayer that emerges from undistracted thoughts--what St. Isaac calls "unwandering concentrated prayer."  When this feeling overcomes us we can no longer say prayers because this unwandering concentrated prayer is the prayer that overtakes prayers.

St. Isaac says, "When prayer gives you her hand she will take the place of your office."  

Compunction is the pain of heart, or the broken and contrite heart, that God does not despise.  Sometime, however, we wonder: is the pain of heart that I am experiencing godly compunction? Are the tears the "gift of tears" that the holy Fathers and Mothers talk about?  Certainly there is such a thing as selfish tears, tears of self pity and anger.  There are also tears of laughter and sentimentality.  In my experience, it is usually easy to identify selfish tears.  What I cannot identify in my own experience are tears that are godly, that are a gift given by God and offered to God as prayer.

Tears shed in confession, for example, are they holy tears?  My heart and mind is so mixed.  I cannot tell where in myself the tears are coming from.  Do they come from my anger with myself for my lack of self control?  Do they come from my shame and embarrassment?  Do they come from a sadness that I have broken God's commands and alienated myself from Him?  I don't know.  I have stopped trying to figure it out.  Whenever I feel compunction, pain of heart, and that pain leads to tears, I offer the tears to God as prayer.  Sure it is impure prayer.  All of my prayer is impure.  There is nothing pure in me.  Yet all I have to offer God is the mixed mess that I am.

St. Isaac says that the fullness of prayer is the gift of tears.  I don't know if I have ever experienced the gift of tears.  I do know that I have often experienced pain in my heart--pain at the brokenness of the world, of myself, of those I love.  And sometimes, though not often for me, that pain leads to tears--and even if no actual tears appear, I often feel as if I should be crying.  When I feel this way I can only offer this feeling, this sadness, this what I think is compunction, to God: "God you see!  God you know!"  

When I am feeling this compunction, I cannot say prayers.  I cannot read.  I can only sit or stand in pained silence with no thoughts at all, just an overwhelming sense of sadness that is sometimes, but not often, slowly overcome by hope.  Most often the prayerful experience of compunction leaves as my thoughts distract me--almost always thoughts of how I can or should or might "fix" things.  The pain remains, but somehow the prayer is gone.  That's when I have to return to the prayers, to psalmody and reading.

When reading the spiritual advice of saints, I often get the sense that I am miles away from what they are talking about, that the experiences of my heart are nothing like what they describe.  Yet other times I recognize something that is familiar.  Not the same, but familiar.  It is like saying that you know someone.  Having met someone briefly once, you can honestly say that you know that person--you can identify her, you know her name.  However, a lifetime of intimacy is still not enough to really get to know someone--to know as one is known, to know as God knows us.  I think knowing God through prayer and the inner life is similar.  One can read the words of St. Isaac, someone who knows God well, and recognize certain features, certain characteristics of what he is talking about.  What knowledge of God I possess is cursory, fleeting, and very shallow--like the scent memory of a beautiful rose that walked past last spring.  And yet it is real.  And it is enough, enough to keep me seeking, enough to recognize in the words of St. Isaac and of other Saints descriptions of that same Rose, and to trust their advice, to let them guide me again toward that garden.    

Whether the pain I feel in my heart is real spiritual compunction or not, I do not know. Whether the few tears I shed are due to a genuine gift I tears, I doubt.  And yet, my experience has the faint fragrance of something St. Isaac is speaking about.  And if all I have to offer God is something that smells faintly like what St. Isaac speaks of (even if it is also mixed with a whole lot of what smells putrid), so be it.  It is what I have.  It is what I am.  And in the end, that is all any of us have to offer God: ourselves.