Follow Your Heart: An Orthodox Journey to God

That’s right folks, I said the “O” word. A lot of Catholics freak out when they see the word “orthodox.” They immediately think of the Eastern Orthodox church, which, as we know is not in communion with Rome. And worse, when Eastern Catholics refer to themselves as Orthodox in Communion with Rome, the immediate image that comes to many peoples mind is that these folks are nominally catholic but adhere to all the teachings of the Orthodox Church and thus deny things such as Papal Supremacy and Papal Infallibility. While there are certainly factions within the Eastern Catholic Churches that do ascribe to such things, the very fact of the matter is that Orthodox simply means “of true belief” or better yet “true-believing.” So, we are in fact Orthodox Christians. We are Orthodox Catholics in communion with the Pope of Rome. But when I said “Orthodox” in the title, I am more referring to Eastern Orthodox spirituality.

Why are we so afraid to embrace anything that has to do with Eastern Orthodoxy, save the liturgy and some devotions, such as the Chotki? The Eastern Orthodox Church does not have a monopoly on Eastern spirituality, and furthermore, Eastern Spirituality is by no means heretical. The Eastern Spirituality is the other lung which Pope St. John Paul II spoke of. If we are to be that Eastern Lung, we must bring all we can to the table. We shouldn’t imitate the Western Lung, otherwise we are compromising our own functionality, and thus the functionality of the entire Church! The fate of the Church truly depends on us being as fully Eastern as we can be, and by doing such, will support our Western brothers by supplying to the Church the grace of our prayers. We MUST pray the traditions that were handed down to us. We cannot try to hybridize the East and the West into some universal individual lung. The Roman Church tried that after the Second Vatican Council. That attempt is known as the Novus Ordo, or among some Neo Conservative circles as the “Ordinary Form of the Mass.” And we know what effect that is having on the Church. We cannot turn our own traditions into an Eastern Novus Ordo. We must preserve our traditions. If both feet curved to the same direction, we would stumble. If both hemispheres of our brains were the same, we’d only have half the functionality of a full brain. We are the mirror to the West, just as the West is a mirror to us! So, with that being said, without further ado, let us proceed to the matter at hand.

FOCUSING ON OUR HEART

In Eastern Orthodox spirituality, there are two main centers in our body. That is our heart and our mind. With our mind, we produce rational thought, we contemplate things, we form opinions, and we learn. In fact, we spend most of our time using our minds, and furthermore, it is with our minds that Satan convinces us to fall into sin, time and time again. Our heart is different. Our heart is where the law of God is written upon. It is written on everyone’s heart, and this is in a multitude of scriptures. While our mind has to learn the law, our hearts already know it. It is almost as if our heart has a homing beacon set on God. It is for this reason that Christ teaches “Blessed are the Pure of Heart.” No where in the beatitudes does Christ say “Blessed are the Brainiacs” or “Blessed are the Scholars.” Yet, he mentions the heart. In fact, some people believe that we don’t need to read a lick of theology, listen to any sermons, or even know a single verse of scripture since the law is written on our hearts. If we listen to our hearts, we will know all that we need to know. In fact, there is a line in the Imitation of Christ, a Western work, which states “It is better to feel contrition than to know how to define it.” This feeling stems from the heart.

It is further believed that the heart is the one place in the body that is free from carnal desires. In the mind is pride, jealousy,  envy. In the gut is gluttony, lust, and sloth. Between the both is wrath shared,  but in the heart, since it is where the Holy Spirit dwells within us, is the one place free from these vices. That is why we are told to not harden our hearts, since from our hearts flows any hope we have for holiness. We fast from food to weaken our gut. Our lengthy prayers strain our minds. But in both, our hearts grow stronger. This is one aspect of the theology behind the Chotki.

CHOTKI: THE PRAYER OF THE HEART

The Chotki is a prayer used by Eastern monks. The prayer recited is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is this basic prayer which sums up what it means to be a Christian. We acknowledge Jesus as the Lord, the Christ, and the Son of God, thus making him God the Son. Through this we acknowledge the Trinity. We beseech mercy, and in doing so, thus repent of our sins and ask Him to pour out His grace upon us so that we may be healed from our sins. The last part is the acknowledgement of our sinfulness. That is our confession. We sinners acknowledge that the Lord is God and has revealed himself to us, and that through Him our sins will be forgiven, and we will be healed. There have been entire books written on that one small prayer.

However, the Chotki is more than a mindless repetition of those words. The first step of the Chotki is to control your breathing. The goal is to have your body pray along with your mind. With praying these words as every breath enters in and out, we fulfill the commandment to pray without ceasing. But it goes even deeper than this. The next step is to have the prayer start matching the rhythm of your heartbeat. It is advised not to attempt this until you have been praying the chotki for many years. I do not know the exact reason behind this, but I can speculate that it is more of a physical concern as opposed to a spiritual concern. The greatest concern monks have for new people praying this prayer is that they will damage their lungs and  for no avail, since they are praying it wrong.

The last step is to move your consciousness to your heart. This is by far the most difficult step. The idea behind this is that you will be able to follow your heart closer to God and that by doing this you will slowly but surely turn away from all sins. The danger here is indeed spiritual. The monks caution people to not try this without being under the direction of someone who is  experienced. The danger is that one could bring their prayer down to their gut, which is the seat of carnal desires and thus become enticed into sin. I am certain that these monks speak by experience and not by conjecture.

So, how ought we pray it? Unless you have a good spiritual father guiding you in this, I strongly recommend you heed the monk’s warning. The Jesus Prayer is indeed a powerful prayer and if you do not pray it properly, you can easily be deceived by Satan. As crazy as that sounds, we know that Satan prowls about like a lion to devour his prey, and that he comes disguised as an angel of light. We are the most vulnerable in prayer since that is when we least expect the onslaught of the enemy. Thus, an experienced Father can guide us and help us to know if it’s God we are experiencing or something more sinister.

For those of us who do not have an experienced Spiritual Father or are just starting out, you begin with focusing on your breathing pattern. There is a wealth of information about this online. You focus on the words and try to clear your mind. The Jesus prayer isn’t meditation like the Rosary is. We aren’t contemplating events or feelings or anything. This is in sharp departure from most Western Catholic perspective. Western Catholics think it is dangerous to try to pray without utilizing the full faculties of your mind. They are correct. However, Western Catholics, especially those who follow the method Ignatius, follow spiritual exercises which  are completed totally within the imagination of the mind. Eastern Catholics also say this form of rationalization is dangerous. The overall point here is that something being dangerous doesn’t mean it is wrong or bad. It means that you should not pass without a guide. The path to heaven is full of dangers and perils. A wrong step can misdirect you onto the path of hell. Follow your guide . It is their job to lead you to heaven.

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Fasting in our Church

For Eastern Christians, Fasting is a common occurrence. The Roman Catholic is expected to abstain from meat every Friday (with a couple exceptions), and to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. A fast for the Roman Catholic is 1 meal and two snacks that together would not equal a full meal. They are encouraged to do extra penances during Lent (and some do it during advent) but it isn’t required. The attitude I’ve experienced from Romans regarding fasting is that they do the requirements. There seems to be a hostile attitude to those who go above or below the norm. To go above is to be sanctimonious to some, to go below is to be in violation of Canon Law, thus putting them into mortal sin.

Now, let’s look at the Eastern Orthodox. They are required to fast every Wednesday and Friday as provided by Chapter 32 and 33 of the Typikon. In addition, there are 4 fast seasons. A fast varies depending on the nature of the day it occurs on. The Strict Fast prohibits meat, dairy, wine, oil, fish, and requires one to not eat until the 9th hour (that is to say 3 P.M.). Then there are days when oil and wine are permitted. Then there are days when fish, oil, and wine are permitted. Then, there is a week known as cheesefare week when everything, except meat, is permitted. But as for the legal requirements, it differs from Church to Church. The typikon is viewed as a guideline on how to fast and fasting rules are developed for each individual by their spiritual father. The Greeks say fasting is required but there is no sin if you don’t fast, however, you may not partake of communion the following Sunday. The Russians say, you must fast if you want to go to communion, and if you don’t fast, you have also committed a sin and must go to confession.

Eastern Catholics, however, have a different view. We still maintain the same guidelines provided in the Typikon. However, they are not mandatory, but rather strongly encouraged. What is mandatory (using the Ruthenian Rite for an example) is fasting from meat every Friday of the year with the exception of the four fast-free weeks. On the first day of Lent and on Good Friday, Cheese and Meat is abstained from. Also, Wednesday and Fridays during the fast are days of abstinence from meat. So we have the minimums and the guidelines, and most people usually hit somewhere in-between.

In my opinion, having the ability to fast according to one’s ability is one of the greatest strengths of our church. It changes fasting from a legal observance to an observance of love. Love for God. There are many reasons why we fast, which I explained in a prior post, and if we fast earnestly and for the right reasons, we will have ourselves a tool to pull us into heaven. A sword is sharpened by grinding it against stone; metal is purified by heating it to extreme temperatures and scraping the impurities off the top (repeatedly). Fasting is how we sharpen our ability to combat sin, and through fasting, we purify our souls.