During a visit to Mount Athos in the 1980’s I happened to spend a night at the monastery of K. near the village of Karies, which is the administrative capital of the Holy Mountain.
I arrived at the monastery on foot, late in the afternoon. When I entered, I was greeted by the monk responsible for the guests. He treated me to a glass of water and a sweet, but then, without adding much, he vanished and left me waiting alone in the “arhontariki”, the small stone building next to the wall by the gate.
The furniture was simple, made of thick wood. On the wall there was an inscription within a small frame, which read: To be Reborn You Must First Die. From the window one could see the yard, a huge rectangular space.
I was carrying my belongings in a sack, and until I was shown where I could spend the night, I started reading a church book that was there, on the table. It was about Byzantine music and the ritual of Orthodox liturgy. I remember I was impressed by the quality of the text and the authority that the writer’s style emitted.
As I was reading, the question of Gurdjieff’s “objective art” came to my mind. To what extent are Byzantine psalms “objective”? Do they revoke the same exact emotions to all listeners, regardless of their education or their background? Regardless of their religious bearings, even? Can Byzantine music in itself be considered a tool for spiritual evolution?
All of a sudden there was noise at the gate. Through the window I saw a big cart loaded with bricks, drawn by two horses. The hooves of the animals made a lot of noise on the cobbled yard.
The monks, it seems, were waiting for it. Quite a few came out from the buildings all around and started unloading. Two of them climbed on it and started arranging the bricks into small piles; the rest picked the piles up and carried them to the other end of the open space.
It was the beginning of winter. The big vine over the yard had shed its leaves. The sky was clear and the sun still had warmth. I went out to help and started carrying bricks along with the rest of the monks. It took us more than half an hour to unload the cart.
As I was working there, I saw an imposing old monk at the top of a stone staircase nearby. He had come out and was watching, supervising the process. He had to be the abbot. From far away I saw his glance fall on me. He smiled.
When the work was done the monks dispersed. The old man was still there. We were alone in the yard, the two of us. I took up the courage and went closer, walked up the staircase and greeted him. “Bless me, Father”. He was smiling. I told him there was something I wanted to ask him. His attitude was very friendly. My mind was filled with what I had just read about Byzantine music and my questions on “objective art”. Is Orthodox Church music “objective art”? I tried to make the old monk understand my question. He was smiling. He must have thought my approach was too intellectual, that I was expressing ideas with no emotion. But he seemed well disposed and gave me the chance to rephrase my question two or three times before we understood each other. Eventually I found the way to express myself.
– Tell me, Father, does listening to orthodox liturgy music help someone with his spiritual effort?
– Of course, chanting helps. But it helps much more if while one is chanting, he is also praying, at the same time!
Because of the way he talked to me, something happened in my mind and I realized in some depth what he meant. To begin with, I realized I could calm down and relax. The old man was patient and he wanted us to communicate. This gave me joy. I realized that he was ready to expand the discussion beyond theoretical talk; he was willing to express himself through his experience. Anyway, I understood what he meant. That this condition, when someone is chanting while at the same time he concentrates on praying, can give great strength. I wanted to confirm what I understood. It seemed to me that the importance lay on the word “praying”. What did he mean exactly? Did he mean “repeating the words of prayers” or “being in the state of praying”?
– Forgive me, Father, when we say “praying”, what exactly do we mean? Do we by any chance mean remembering God? Suddenly, his smile became wider, much wider. It seemed to me that the man was just as happy as I was that I had understood him.
– Yes! He answered. Praying means to remember God!
I realized exactly what he meant. My mind was open. I absorbed his words. That moment, I felt that I had learned at a profound level something I would never forget. The old man had given me more than I had asked for! What he meant, what he wanted to tell me, I had felt it in my body. Nevertheless, my mind insisted on confirmation.
– Forgive me, Father, I said. And when we say “to remember God”, what do we mean? Do we mean to “remember yourself”?
To my great surprise his smile became even wider. The man was showing me his heart. I felt gratitude even before I heard his answer.
– Yes! Exactly! To remember God means to remember yourself! But we have to get to know each other well and a lot of years have to go by before we are to talk this way. Come to the monastery again!
He turned, climbed up the few steps to the door he had appeared through, went in and disappeared.
I was astonished, stunned. I had understood the meaning of what he had said at a profound level, a level at which I had communicated with only a few people. The feeling I had inside lasted for many hours. I didn’t sleep all night.
Is it really so simple to say that “remembering God” is the same as “remembering the self”? It isn’t, definitely not. It is impossible to talk about Higher Experiences in relation to “God” and the “Self” without running the risk of degrading the whole matter and bringing it to the level of our common, everyday understanding.
But, at the same time, there’s no point in not running this risk. There’s no point avoiding it because of the fear of being misunderstood. If it is worth communicating about the meaning and the content of the revelatory experiences hidden in the descriptions of the saints of our world, about the heritage of their spiritual states which belong to all of us, we have to seek the truth beyond the superficial, social differences that words and dry intellectual descriptions of the mind create.
The practice of Dhikr is for Sufis, the mystics of Islam, the corner-stone of their effort for spiritual development. In Islamic theology, Dhikr is referred to as remembering God. One could say that Dhikr is the practice of remembering God “now”; it is the experience of turning one’s attention towards whatever he perceives as “God” at the moment of his effort, this very moment. This is a very basic notion in esoteric Islam.
· Remember God until you forget yourself [Sufi aphorism]
· The Prophet said, the difference between the one who practices Dhikr and the one who doesn’t is the difference between the living and the dead. [Abu Mousa al-Ashari, companion of the Prophet]
· Allah said, remember me and I will remember you. [Quran, 2:152]
In contemporary western languages the word “Dhikr” is also mentioned as “Thikr”, as “Zikr”, as “Dhekr” and even as “Zerk”. But however clear and simple its meaning may appear at a first, understanding the full depth of “remembering God” demands devotion and persistent effort. The realization of this concept concerns a state of being that is much more substantial than remembering just another word or even bringing to mind an experience. It concerns the very approach to the realm of the sacred; it has to do with having the experience of approaching God, right now.
I copy from an old Sufi book:
· On the journey that reaches the presence of God the seed of remembering must be planted in the heart and be watered with the water of praying and the nourishing of glorifying God, until the tree of Dhikr grows strong roots and bears fruit. This is the power of the journey and the foundation of every accomplishment. This awakens man from the sleep of oblivion; it is the bridge towards the One that remembers.
· Sheikhs struggle to remember Allah in every breath, as the angels are ceaselessly in the condition of Dhikr, glorifying him. If the seeker remembers his Lord every moment he will find fulfillment and tranquility in his heart… and he will find himself in the presence of his Lord. The Prophet said “the men of Dhikr are the men of my presence”.
It is interesting to note that the practice of Dhikr is not uniform; it is not always described in the same way. Actually, one must differentiate among several “kinds of Dhikr”.
· There is the “silent Dhikr”, in which the lips do not move. Here, remembering is “mental”. The aim of this spiritual action which is, by many, identical to the Christian “Jesus prayer”, is for the “prayer” to be repeated “by heart” rhythmically, continuously, to the point that it leaves the mind and comes to actually “spring from the heart”
· There is the “chanting Dhikr”, too, the practice of which concerns individual or group monotonous psalm singing, mainly voicing the divine properties of Allah. This is often accompanied by all kinds of rhythmic movements of the body, of the head and of methods of breath control.
· In the Mevlevi order, the so called “whirling dervishes”, Dhikr takes the form of musical rituals with dancing and whirling.
It is obvious that the true meaning of remembering God goes beyond all verbal descriptions. It essentially refers to a “condition” or a “state that the mind can reach” which the faithful seeks and to which he finally abandons himself, he allows to be conquered.
As it has been written, My beloved, understand that for the faithful seeker (murid) this remembering is the pillar for him to reach Allah. This is the way.
With all due respect demanded so as not to sweep away indiscriminately the existent and very real differences between great spiritual traditions such as Christianity and Islam, the fact is that we can easily discern the parallels between Dhikr and the Christian practice of the “Jesus prayer”. If we consider these two as specific functions of the mind, and not as dogma, it can be said that they are identical, that they are the same thing.
· Gather your scattered mind through remembering Jesus Christ. [Saint Philotheos of Mount Sinai, Philokalia, vol. II, p. 283]
· The mystic experience, which is inseparable from the road to unification, cannot be accomplished in any other way but in prayer and through prayer. [Vladimir Lossky]
· Place the greatest burden of your struggle on prayer, because this is what keeps us in contact with God and this contact must be continuous. [Father Paisios]
· (Through praying)… the mind returns to the heart and remembering God brings sweet pleasure… [Text published by the Holy Monastery of Koutloumousiou]
At the depth of these practices, Islamic and Christian, there seems to be a common denominator, the effort to remember God. This is the attempt of the practitioners to get closer to a higher level of being that exists within them, to a level that each one perceives in his own way to be higher than the world of his everyday reality.
We are talking here about the quest of man to approach his higher nature. Because it is of course impossible for “man to approach God” without him “partaking in the level of higher being that exists within him”. Those two aspects, “God within man” and “man’s higher level of being” are necessarily one in the context of apocalyptic experience.
If something is not refined in man himself, it is impossible for him to perceive anything beyond his own, everyday level at which his mind usually operates. Before perceiving any “union with the higher forces in him”, man must first be awakened, he must enter a “higher state of being”.
Sofronios Zaharoff of Essex in his book About Praying published by the Holy Monastery of Timios Prodromos refers to the potential of experiencing distinctions of the stages of praying:
· The first stage is oral. The prayer is uttered through the lips, while we are trying to focus our attention on the Name (of Jesus) and the words (of the prayer).
· The second stage is mental. We no longer move our lips, but we pronounce the name of Jesus Christ and the rest of the content of the prayer mentally.
· Third, mental-of-the-heart. The mind and the heart are united through their energies; attention is focused within the heart and this is where the benediction is pronounced.
· Fourth, self-activated. The prayer is firmly rooted in the heart, and without any special effort of the will, it is pronounced by itself in the heart, attracting the attention of the mind there.
· Fifth, charismatic. The prayer functions as a tender flame within us, as inspiration from Above, sweetening the heart through the feeling of Love of God and drawing the mind to spiritual contemplation. It is sometimes accompanied by the view of the Light.
The idea of “the quest for God” can only refer to the esoteric quest to reach the higher state in which the human mind can function.
People often adopt some dogmatic point of view about God, such as that “He exists outside man” or the reverse, that “He exists within him”. But it can never be overlooked that the “quest for God” is necessarily the “quest for the Self”. For the mind to truly “remember God”, it has to be awakened to its full potential.
For man to reach a state higher than the one in which his mind usually functions, something in him has to change, something in his mind has to go beyond its usual limits. It is in this context that religion talks about “grace”. Without a “special possibility” opening up for man, without the appearance of a force that comes to his ordinary consciousness from a level in his own mind to which he has no access in normal circumstances, things would perpetually remain for him “the same as usual”. This is the force that sacred texts call Grace. This is an “energy of the mind” that exists beyond the realm of personality. Without it, it is impossible for man to bridge the distance that separates him from “God”. And at the same time it is also clear that without the awakening of the potential for spiritual development it would be impossible for man to perceive this possibility. From that point of view, dogmatic theses and theological theories of “the chicken and the egg” variety, are meaningless. Since they are both essential as elements of spiritual progress, it is pointless to argue whether “grace precedes awakening” or “awakening precedes the advent of grace”. Experientially they are one thing.
The truth is that all men have an equal potential. When compared to other living forms, human minds and human nature have the same complexity.
It follows by necessity that similar are the ways in which human minds are stimulated and awakened to the possibility of working for inner development and of being able to perceive the call to tread the path toward the higher level within.
At the same time, even if the reality of approaching the “realm of God” is charismatic, transcendental and beyond logic, it is a simple fact that theologians of all dogmas constantly attempt to talk about it. They try to describe the stages that this approach goes through and the phases of experience that man faces in his inner path.
“Remembering God” is an experience that is the same for all men. No religion is above human nature. The conclusion is quite obvious: all those who attempt to describe inner awakening are trying to describe a state of mind that is the same for all human beings. The attempt to describe the course for the unification with God is the attempt to describe the one and only possibility for inner development.
It has to be underlined that such development does not concern the “ego” or its improvement. It concerns an experience, the possibility of perceiving inner unity, of perceiving a transcendental condition that is illuminated by the unifying light of consciousness. This charismatic knowledge comes from “above”, from the “higher levels of the mind” to which the “ego”, the “I” or “everyday personality” has no access.
And, of course, this “everyday ego” will never acquire such access, as the realm of its existence is the degraded everyday level, the world of “sin”. It is only the awakened mind that can reach this potential.
At the same time, the fact remains that every attempt to describe inner development will necessarily involve some image of the mind itself and of its functions. If, for instance, one talks about “praying” it means that he accepts that “there is the possibility of the mind going into the state of praying”. No matter how simplistic this remark may sound, it is intended to stress that for any image through which one tries to describe spiritual effort, any kind of spiritual effort, he also puts forward a description of the mind. That is, he also suggests a structure of the mind.
· When one speaks of the “prayer of the heart, where the energy of he mind and the energy of the heart are united” he is suggested that there is something that we can call “the energy of the mind”, that there is something that we can call “the energy of the heart” and that “these energies can be perceived, that they can become the object of experience”, that “one can realize their existence inside him and he can observe them by exercising some kind of “introspection””.
· When one speaks of the “differences between the person who practices praying and the person who doesn’t” he is suggesting that these differences are real, that they can be perceived and that, after all, in some way they can also become the object of philosophical and scientific inquiry.
Many theologians of different dogmas may object to all this. They may say that those mentioned in the sacred texts are “spiritual energies” that “have nothing to do with science or philosophy”. But it is not necessary to consider that such “energies” belong to the realm of conventional physics. For someone to talk about changes he can feel within him, it is enough to accept that the expression “energies” here refers to changes in physical events that can fall within the range of his perception.
The simple fact is that the “metaphysical” descriptions of revelatory experiences are part of our human lore. From this point of view the concepts used in these descriptions follow the rules of language and of logic. And at least in this way they can actually become an object of rational study. This is the object of “philosophical metaphysics”, this is the reason why the philosophical debate on issues such as “duality” and “monism” goes on and theologians of all dogmas rush to participate in it. So, it makes complete sense to expand such a debate to the realm of the metaphysics of the structure of the human mind, and eventually to the realm of the theories for the structure of the mind.
If theologians did not feel the need to communicate with others they could remain silent and abstain from any theological or philosophical discussion. It is impossible to ignore that communicating through words and through concepts necessarily involvessome kind of semantic relationship of these concepts. And this relationship will always imply one or another image for the structure of the mind.
Any attempt to describe experience, no matter how romantically worded, inevitably involves the reference to some structure of the mind.
At the same time, it has to be underlined that the usual “education” is not much of a tool for the full understanding of experiences that involve spiritual development. The reason for this is that such experiences involve the actual sensation of “energies of the mind” that go beyond intellectualizing, those of emotional involvement, for example. These are actual forces and energies of the mind that cannot be reproduced by just talking about them. What is essential for understanding to develop in the spiritual path can be brought only by the voluntary emotional submission to the unifying power that is superior to the usual “ego”. It makes no difference what name one gives to this supreme power-within-the-mind, whether he calls it “God’s will”, “Allah”, “Jesus Christ”, or even “higher self”, “karma”, dharma”, or “Tao”.
What is the point of using words and talking about a “personal God” or about “God as a universal spirit”, if the part inside us that uses such concepts is the usual “ego”, the personality by which we conduct theoretical discussions? If the desire to bridge the distance between the “lower” and the “higher” is not experienced as a real need in oneself and if the person has not consciously decided to serve this need through the necessary struggles and the necessary sacrifice of the “ego” itself, everything he says about “spiritual development” is theoretical, without substantial content.
To be Reborn You Must First Die.
An image serves knowledge better than a thousand words. A moment of inner silence serves knowledge better than a thousand images.
God’s way lies in the direction of seeking unity in our experience of being human. It is the quest for this unity that can give meaning, and light the path of spiritual development.
The bishop of Diokleia, Kallinikos, writes:
A mountant has only one top, though there are many paths that lead to it. As a Christian, I believe that the whole truth exists only in Christianity, only in the faith of Jesus Christ. But I believe that God talks to the hearts of all people, and so I believe that there is a real revelation of God, imperfect but authentic, in the other great religions too. So I believe that they too follow paths that will lead them to the top. And since the mountain has only one top, those of us who are faithful to our way, as long as we respond to the light that has been given to us, shall all meet there.