Friday, February 23, 2007

Icons from Sinai and Advice for the Pilgrim

The Annunciation, St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai

"Sit down alone and in silence. Lower your head, shut your eyes, breathe out gently and imagine yourself looking into your own heart. Carry your mind, i.e., your thoughts, from your head to your heart. As you breathe out, say `Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.' Say it moving your lips gently, or simply say it in your mind. Try to put all other thoughts aside. Be calm, be patient, and repeat the process very frequently."
-- St. Symeon the New Theologian, The Philokalia

It's said that St. Catherine's Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai in Egypt is the oldest continually working Christian monastery in the world, and the smallest diocese. It is also a repository of some of the world's finest Orthodox icons and mosaics.

Since November, and running until March 4th, forty-three icons, six manuscripts, and four liturgical objects from St. Catherine's are on display at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in an exhibition called Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai.

Press release describing the exhibit.

See here and here for more images of Sinai icons.

Starets, pl. startsi: A monk distinguished by his great piety, long experience of the spiritual life, and gift for guiding other souls. Lay folk frequently resort to startsi for spiritual counsel; and in a monastery a new member of the community is attached to a starets, who trains and teaches him.

Looking over some of those icons put me in mind of the great Russian Orthodox classic, The Way Of A Pilgrim, widely recognized as a masterpiece of a treatise on the Jesus Prayer.

The story is believed to have originated in Russia during the mid-Nineteenth Century, and to have been transcribed by monks at Mount Athos. It tells of a wandering pilgrim and spiritual-seeker who is taken up by the Apostle's exhortation to "pray without ceasing", but has no idea how to go about doing so. After getting unsatisfying answers from several monks and holy men, he makes acquaintance with a certain elderly starets...

At last towards evening I was overtaken by an old man who looked like a cleric of some sort. In answer to my question he told me that he was a monk belonging to a monastery some six miles off the main road. He asked me to go there with him. " We take in pilgrims," said he, " and give them rest and food with devout persons in the guest house." I did not feel like going. So in reply I said that my peace of mind in no way depended upon my finding a resting-place, but upon finding spiritual teaching. Neither was I running
after food, for I had plenty of dried bread in my knapsack.

"What sort of spiritual teaching are you wanting to get ? " he asked me. "What is it puzzling you? Come now! Do come to our house, dear brother. We have startsi of ripe experience well able to give guidance to your soul and to set it upon the true path, in the light of the word of God and the writings of the holy Fathers."

"Well, it's like this, Father"' said I. "About a year ago, while I was at the Liturgy, I heard a passage from the Epistles which bade men pray without ceasing. Failing to understand, I began to read my Bible, and there also in many places I found the divine command that we ought to pray at all times, in all places; not only while about our business, not only while awake, but even during sleep, `I sleep, but my heart waketh.' This surprised me very much, and I was at a loss to understand how it could be carried out and in what way it was to be done. A burning desire and thirst for knowledge awoke in me. Day and night the matter was never out of my mind. So I began to go to churches and to listen to sermons. But however many I heard, from not one of them did I get any teaching about how to pray without ceasing. They always talked about getting ready for prayer, or about its fruits and the like, without teaching one how to pray without ceasing, or what such prayer means. I have often read the Bible and there made sure of what I have heard. But meanwhile I have not reached the understanding that I long for, and so to this hour I am still uneasy and in doubt."

Then the old man crossed himself and spoke. "Thank God, my dear brother, for having revealed to you this unappeasable desire for unceasing interior prayer. Recognize in it the call of God, and calm yourself. Rest assured that what has hitherto been accomplished in you is the testing of the harmony of your own will with the voice of God. It has been granted to you to understand that the heavenly light of unceasing interior prayer is attained neither by the wisdom of this world, nor by the mere outward desire for knowledge, but that on the contrary it is found in poverty of spirit and in active experience in simplicity of heart. That is why it is not surprising that you have been unable to hear anything about the essential work of prayer, and to acquire the knowledge by which ceaseless activity in it is attained. Doubtless a great deal has been preached about prayer, and there is much about it in the teaching of various writers. But since for the most part all their reasonings are based upon speculation and the working of natural wisdom, and not upon active experience, they sermonize about the qualities of prayer, rather than about the nature of the thing itself. One argues beautifully about the necessity of prayer, another about its power and the blessings which attend it, a third again about the things which lead to perfection in prayer, i.e., about the absolute necessity of zeal, an attentive mind, warmth of heart, purity of thought, reconciliation with one's enemies, humility, contrition, and so on.

But what is prayer? And how does one learn to pray? Upon these questions, primary and essential as they are, one very rarely gets any precise enlightenment from present-day preachers. For these questions are more difficult to understand than all their arguments that I have just spoken of, and require mystical knowledge, not simply the learning of the schools. And the most deplorable thing of all is that the vain wisdom of the world compels them to apply the human standard to the divine. Many people reason quite the wrong way round about prayer, thinking that good actions and all sorts of preliminary measures render us capable of prayer. But quite the reverse is the case, it is prayer which bears fruit in good works and all the virtues. Those who reason so, take, incorrectly, the fruits and the results of prayer for the means of attaining it, and this is to depreciate the power of prayer. And it is quite contrary to Holy Scripture, for the Apostle Paul says, `I exhort therefore that first of all supplications be made'. The first thing laid down in the Apostle's words about prayer is that the work of prayer comes before everything else : ‘I exhort therefore that first of all . . .' The Christian is bound to perform many good works, but before all else what he ought to do is to pray, for without prayer no other good work whatever can be accomplished. Without prayer he cannot find the way to the Lord, he cannot understand the truth, he cannot crucify the flesh with its passions and lusts, his heart cannot be enlightened with the light of Christ, he cannot be savingly united to God.

None of those things can be effected unless they are preceded by constant prayer. I say `constant,' for the perfection of prayer does not lie within our power; as the Apostle Paul says, `For we know not what we should pray for as we ought'. Consequently it is just to pray often, to pray always, which falls within our power as the means of attaining purity of prayer, which is the mother of all spiritual blessings. `Capture the Mother, and she will bring you the children,' said St. Isaac the Syrian. Learn first to acquire the power of prayer and you will easily practice all the other virtues. But those who know little of this from practical experience and the profoundest teaching of the holy Fathers, have no clear knowledge of it and speak of it but little."

Here is what the Catholic Catechism says of the Jesus Prayer:

2667 This simple invocation of faith developed in the tradition of prayer under many forms in East and West. The most usual formulation, transmitted by the spiritual writers of the Sinai, Syria, and Mt. Athos, is the invocation, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us sinners." It combines the Christological hymn of Philippians 2:6-11 with the cry of the publican [Lk 18:9-14] and the blind men begging for light.[Matt. 9:27] By it the heart is opened to human wretchedness and the Savior's mercy.

2668 The invocation of the holy name of Jesus is the simplest way of praying always. When the holy name is repeated often by a humbly attentive heart, the prayer is not lost by heaping up empty phrases, but holds fast to the word and "brings forth fruit with patience." This prayer is possible "at all times" because it is not one occupation among others but the only occupation: that of loving God, which animates and transfigures every action in Christ Jesus.

More images from Sinai...

The Ladder to Heaven

St. Theodosia

Christ Pantocrator

One eye, loving and forgiving teacher and redeemer. The other eye, stern judge.


Liam said...

Beautiful post, Jeff. We need to look east more often.

There were some beautiful icons at the Met show on Byzantine art a couple of years ago, some from St. Catherine's, which is not only the oldest monastery in the world, but also the coolest-looking one. I long to go there.

cowboyangel said...

pxsjdVery nice, Jeff. Beautiful images, some excellent links, and a great topic. I spent a period of my life trying to recite the Jesus Prayer on a continual basis. I can still see myself walking down a tree-lined street in Denver, murmuring the words to myself, feeling a certain power and calmness. A memorable experience, though I can't say I was able to do this for very long. I think I was inspired by Tolstoy, though I can't remember now what I had read. It could have also been reading Richard Foster's The Celebration of Discipline, a book I really enjoyed back then. Don't remember now how I cam across the prayer.

Liam, you're right, we really should look east more often. You, for example, might even see Port Jefferson. The train from Penn Station heads in an almost due easterly direction. :-)

Still have to see Tarkovsky's Andrei Rubelev. Have you seen that, Jeff?

crystal said...

Great phtots :-)

I've never recited the Jesus prayer, but it reminds me of the idea of the Eastern mantra. Mount Athos is beautiful!

Jeff said...

Hi Liam,

Thanks, I agree. I think we do need to look East more. That St. Catherine's Monastery is something else, isn't it? It looks like a cross between The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and something out of Beau Geste. If you ever wanted to go and just disappear and get away from everything for a few months, it looks like it would be a great place to go.

Were you all able to watch the video piece on the Getty Center website? It was fascinating.


Glad to hear that you were a devotee of the Jesus Prayer. I think I have gone through periods when I've tried to interiorize that prayer, and I've had the same feelings of inner peace. It is hard to keep up with, though. The starets in the book was talking about having to say it 6,000 times a day, or something along those lines.

How long were you in Denver, and why were you there? I went to a Pats game once in Foxboro, but due to a strange series of circumstances I happened to be sitting in the Bronco's visitors section. This was the game where Shannon Sharpe got on the phone on the sidelines and famously shouted "Call the police, call the army, call the national guard! We are killing these Patriots!" It was a traumatic experience. I can't imagine being surrounded by Bronco fans all the time. :-)

Yes! I have seen Andrei Rubelev. Brilliant. Very long, and a little ponderous at times, but very good all the same. I actually found myself more interested in the peripheral characters than the main title character himself.

There are several unforgettable scenes, one being the invasian of a rather defenseless town by the Tatars, and the Rus wind up barricading themselves in the Church and stoically chanting the Divine Litugy while the Church is being fired. Some really innovative scenes and shots. A few survive, and the simple minded girl (Durochka?) who's been tagging along with the band of artists since they came across her in a pagan festival, attaches herself to one of the Tatar warriors and leaves with him to keep from starving. Very powerful film.


Mount Athos does really look like a beautiful spot, doesn't it? Of course, we recall that it was also the scene of the recent Christmas Rumble with crowbars and fire extinguishers that left several monks injured. What was the cause of the beef? The Pope. What else? Isn't it always? :-D

cowboyangel said...


I went to college in Colorado, a small state school up in the mountains, and moved to Denver afterwards. Lived there two different times for several years. It's a nice place. Can't vouch for Broncos fans on the road - they must be a hardcore lot - but, in general, I thought Denver fans were the best. A much nicer atmosphere at games than in any stadium I've been to in NY. It seemed, for one, that more ordinary people would go to the games, as opposed to NYC, where it seems to be the wealthy and the rabid, longtime fans. Amazing, given NY's incredible ethnic diversity, that most fans at a Jets game all seem to be white. I had the good fortune to be in Colorado while Elway was playing and got to see some classic duels at the old Mile High.

Will have to definitely check out Andrei Rubelev, as Liam also highly recommended it. Taking a break with Tarkovsky right now, though, as his last film did not go down well.

Have you ever read Celebration of Discipline? It may not have been as popular with Catholics, as they already have an appreciaztion of liturgy and the spiritual disciplines. It was probably meant more for Evangelicals, who don't have that tradition (apart from the Epicopalians).

Jeff said...


No, I haven't read Celebration of Discipline. Thanks for the tip.

cowboyangel said...


Thanks for the Last Week recommendation. I got it today and will start reading it after I finish Barack's book, which should be in the next day or so.

Jeff said...

That's good. I'm looking forward to reading your take on it. I think these guys have some very interesting thoughts on scripture.