Friday, July 24, 2015

Better Late Than Never?: Twilight

Ok, I'll admit to being curious all these years. How could I not be? When 85% of the female population is swooning over a book it's hard not to take note. Especially when it's met with such horrific critical reception. Either the ladies are crazy or it's another Lord of the Rings type event, where the critics hate it because it goes against their ridiculous materialistic ideology so hard their genetics prevent them from liking it, even as us unwashed riff-raff praise it for being true. So, out of curiosity, I watched the first movie. 

Heh, go figure. They're both right. Bloody fantastic.

I'm not going to do everyone reading this blog post the indignity of telling you what Twilight's about. If you don't know by now you've been living under a rock and this blog post won't really apply to you anyway. The point that I want to make is that, had this thing actually been taken seriously by the author, it would have been a really good tragedy. Bella was bored with the inanity of this life and thus wanted something real. And can you really blame her? Highschool isn't a real place. What works there sure doesn't work in the real world. I'd even go so far as to say that movies are more realistic than high school. So, Bella being bored was pretty easy for me to sympathize with.

But... vampires? Really?

Of all the places to go?

She's running for her life while her highschool acquaintances are out having a good time, and for what? So she  can be part of something that's real? How is running for your life more entertaining than highschool? (11 Bravos be quiet) In her wish for something not quite so mundane Bella mistakes the terror that is dating a vampire for something real. It's a pretty sad look at our society, isn't it? That what our culture offers is so bad that dating a vampire while staying human is preferable. Does that make anyone else sad? Cause it does me. 

Something else that maddens me about this movie is Edward's attraction to Bella. Now, Bella's attraction to Edward makes sense to me, as I've already spelled out. But Edward is 117 bloody years old. That's more insight than the oldest person alive currently by a long stretch. This guy has probably seen it all. So what makes Bella so unusual? The movie never explains it. Bella and Edward are shown talking for hours and hours but you have no idea what they're talking about or why they click the way they do, you're just told that they do. That's not good enough if you want me to buy in, which I unwittingly found myself wanting to do!

Excuse me. There's some wine in my kitchen that demands my immediate attention. I'd go get something stronger but I'm broke.

Friday, July 17, 2015

What is Tradition?


....OK, I'm done. Really.

Tradition is a very loaded word in the Christian world. The Protestants hate it because they think it was the garbage that magically showed up after Constantine legalized Christianity, the Catholics mention it but think they seem to think the Pope has authority over it somehow, and the Orthodox think they follow it but pick and choose what they like and don't really enforce it. There's nothing more important to Christianity and nothing more misunderstood (which is sad, cause there's a lot of things on the top of the list).

Protestants have always had this idea that the Bible is the only legitimate authority and that there's no need of tradition, which I've always wondered at, because no where in the Bible does it say that scripture's the ultimate authority. Oh sure, the scriptures are edifying and good for salvation, but what constitutes scripture? It's no wonder there's 8,000+ Protestant traditions running around: it's unavoidable. You can't not have tradition, a fact that most Protestants are in deep denial about. 8,000+ times.  And furthermore, the idea that Constantine somehow wrecked the Church makes a liar of Christ, who promised that Hell would not win against the Church. The idea that somehow the Protestants revived the Church after a 1200 year stint in error is nothing short of madness. Besides, name one culture that has survived exclusively off one book (or a singular collection of 72 books). Can't? There's a reason why.

Catholics know that Tradition exists, that it's necessary for salvation, and that a Church is necessary for it, but most Catholics I've talked to seem to have a hard time figuring out what Tradition is or why they should or shouldn't listen to the Pope. Most of them would say that Tradition is the collection of doctrine that Jesus and the Apostles passed down through the bishops, which seems to insinuate that bishops somehow have the ability to teach it. Given how categorically untrue that last part of the statement is I'm inclined to disagree. Tradition is not doctrine, although it encompasses doctrine. And yes, bishops have something to do with it but, for everyone's (especially the bishop's) sake I hope they try and mess with it as little as possible.

OK, that last paragraph was a bit unfair, it makes me sound like I don't like my Roman Catholic brethren. Nothing could be further from the truth! But sometimes I get really frustrated as I watch them pronounce how important Tradition is to a Protestant and then do... nothing... for feast days. Tradition is a lot more than doctrine, I've always felt that. If doctrine doesn't make it's way into the practical aspects of your life then what's the point? I mean, it used to be there. One good visit to the Fish Eaters website and it's obvious that Roman Catholicism used to have a very beautiful Tradition, one that's been forgotten about in the wake of Vatican II.

And then there's the Orthodox. To them the Tradition is the lived experience of God in the lives of Christ, the Apostles, and the Saints, passed down and guarded through the bishops, whenever the bishops bother to guard it. In this viewpoint the bishops are simply guardians of what's true. They don't define it individually so much as to make sure no one crosses outside the magical lines that's been defined in the Ecumenical Councils (those rare times when bishops DO lay down what's Tradition). The problem here is that the Orthodox are notoriously hard to get together because of political reasons that are about as important as who the next Disney channel star is. Blinded by their own stupid politics they're unable to lay down edification for their churches, so the lay people try their best. It doesn't really work, since it's not the lay people's role to protect the Tradition, not as the frontline defense anyway.

I'm really most partial to the Orthodox interpretation of Tradition, flaws and all, as it seems to create the best lived experience of the Gospel. Tradition is for living, and if it's not livable I have a hard time seeing it as Tradition. That may be because it's hard to see it if it isn't being lived. If your religion isn't changing you then it's worthless.

But then how do we ensure that people are actually living it? By making it as attractive as possible. If you're living a wonderful life that's filled with love and able to show the superiority of our way through that life then it goes a long when you say "Hey, my way's best", because you really don't have a whole lot left to prove. Someone can make the claim that abortion is necessary because a person's worth is only in what he can contribute to society and we've deemed him unworthy all day long, but if his life doesn't add up to anything that begs imitation then it really doesn't matter how reasonable it sounds. The same is true of Christians. If you're a person filled with more anger with hardly a hint of love in sight how can you claim that your way is the truth? By your fruits shall you be known, and Tradition is the blueprint for making good fruit.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Star Wars: The Mortis Machete Order

A few months ago I wrote a review of the Star Wars Machete Order, the definitive way to watch Star Wars. Episodes 4,5,2,3,6 set up the Star Wars narrative at it's most satisfying and, if you have access to nothing else in the Star War universe, the way you'd get the most out of Star Wars. But there is another. Way, I mean. And it involves adding three episodes from the cartoon The Clone Wars: the Mortis trilogy, season 3 episodes 15-17. This, in my view, completes the story by bringing in the last bits of what you'd need to know from what is implied in the other episodes but brought out here fully.

Anakin, Obi-wan, and Anakin's padawan Ahsoka Tano are doing a mission in the Clone Wars when they get side-tracked by what's essentially the three gods of the force: the Daughter (Light side), the Son (Dark side), and the Father (who balances them both). The Father and Daughter's aim is to get Anakin to accept his rightful place as the chosen one, replacing The Father. These three individuals are so overwhelmingly powerful in the Force that they must stay on the planet Mortis or else overwhelm the rest of the galaxy with their power, and it is the Father's unenviable job to keep his progeny in check. Except now it's Anakin's turn. Anakin refuses, and the tragedy is played out to the harm of everyone in the galaxy.

I'll avoid spoilers as much as possible except to comment on the chief event. In the last episode of the Mortis trilogy (which I'll dub Episodes 2.5) the Son gets the drop on Anakin and shows him all the evil he'll do in the name of the Empire, overwhelming Anakin. In that moment of emotional weakness the Son brainwashes Anakin into joining his side, promising him that together they can stop the bad events that Anakin saw from happening. How does it all play out? Go watch it, I ain't ruining the rest for you! It's on Netflix so it's not hard to find.

But here's where things get interesting. Take a look at Anakin brainwashed here:

Does this look familiar? It should.

 Anakin Skywalker was brainwashed by Lord Sidious and it never fully wore off until Episode 6. Anakin is not doing things of his volition. Canonically speaking, to the best of my knowledge, that's what the yellow eyes mean. It's subtle in Episode 3, but 2.5 makes it clear. With the knowledge we get from 2.5 and 3 we can say a few things about brainwashing in the Star Wars universe:

1) It is not mind control. It's putting your influence where it doesn't belong and that person warping themselves around your influence. Anakin did terrible things in Episode 3, but he did them as Anakin, not as a mindless robot. He just had someone else working in the background to influence him.

2) Brainwashing can only happen at moments of emotional weakness on the part of the subject. You can't just force your way in; it's impossible for even someone as power as The Son. What you have to do is wear them down and worm your way into their consciousness and then, at their weakest, plant a thought and force an inception. That person then incorporates it.
3) To undo the brainwashing you remove the inciting incident from their memory, thus removing the toe hold.
Which brings me to Return of the Jedi. Armed with this new knowledge about how brainwashing works, the picture's a lot clearer: Anakin has been taken advantage of by Palpatine and has committed some of the most horrific acts of evil that one can do. But the question is: is the good side of Anakin completely gone? Luke doesn't think so. Unlike his mother, who saw the offer as a sign of how far gone Anakin was, Luke sees it as the one saving grace Anakin has left.

So he surrenders himself up to Vader and starts chipping away at the armor. Unlike The Father, who undid Anakin's first bout of brainwashing by just removing the inciting memory, Luke goes straight for Anakin with his own Force influence, trying to counteract the effects of the brainwashing without removing any memories. Including Episode 2.5 adds an entire layer of subtext into Episode 6 that makes Luke that much more impressive. He not only resists Palpatine but rescues his father by using the first trick Obi-wan showed him back in Episode 4: persuading the weak-minded.

And, after all that you've seen Anakin do, what is he if not weak-minded?

Now, there are some people who are going to have issue with modifying the Machete Order. The first (and biggest) objection is that Episode 2.5 is from a long running TV show, The Clone Wars. I've got good news: these are some of the most self-contained episodes in the entire show. Most of the developmental arcs do not impact these three episodes. Ninety-nine percent of what shows up in 2.5 is completely new. So context really isn't a big deal for what came before those 3 episodes. Another argument might be that, with the inclusion of 2.5, Episode 1 becomes necessary, because of 2.5's Qui Gon Jinn appearance.  But it's such a minor event (especially in comparison to Snips's appearance) it's more of a nitpick, at least in my opinion. If you wanted to you could show Episode 1. But that would require not loving the people you're showing this epic sprawl to. Which doesn't make sense; who else would you show this to but someone you love?

Friday, July 3, 2015

American Humanism

There's a new religion out there. Well, it's really an old one (humanism) with a new, American twist, and it's central doctrine just got summed up in the hollow ending of Arrow's third season. If I had to name this religion I'd call it American Humanism. But we'll get to that in a minute, cause where this started is important to understanding my viewpoint.

I used to watch the show Arrow, right up until the ending of season 3. Contrary to what a lot of people were saying about it I really liked the third season. Oliver was finding that he didn't necessarily want to be a mythological figure and that may be OK, until he bumped into Ras Al Ghul, a man who is a myth. For obvious reasons this didn't quite work out in Oliver Queen's favor, because a myth is true no matter what, that's the point of a myth. Don't fly too close to the sun or your wings will melt cause they're not real, make sure you change the sails on your ship or your father will kill himself, all power comes at a great personal cost and the hatred of others with power. And, in Arrow's world, the League of Assassins is an unstoppable force. Oliver tried to stop Ra's once and failed, because he is not the Arrow in the way that his opponent was Ra's. To Ra's there was no other man in him, he was the myth, the legend, and that made him unstoppable.  In true American fashion Oliver Queen decided that being Oliver Queen was good enough and took out Ra's single-handledly in the finale of the third season. It was an amazingly hollow end to an otherwise great season. Arrow hasn't stuck a landing since the first season finale, but for whatever reason this one really got my goat. So much build up to.... nothing.

So I called my friend Marty, who usually is kind enough to listen to me rant and rave about shows that he has absolutely no liking for (he hates American TV). But this time he had an insight to it. Now, Marty and I share a passion for mythological themes in shows and literature. It's our little geeky thing we talk about where we start going "ooh, did you see that?" Heck, he ran a beautiful Torchbearer game for Andy and I that just blew our socks right off.

Anyway. Erhem.

 I was telling Marty how the whole ending just felt off, and he said the magic words "Why, because he invented his own myth and somehow it worked? Yeah, I didn't think you'd like that." After the light bulbs in my head dimmed enough for me to sleep I did so, but here's the thing: myths aren't made up, they're inherited, passed down to the next holders who live it out and add their own selves to it. It's a corporate and individualistic experience because the interpretation of the myth is up to you. So long as you remain loyal to the myth your interpretation adds to what's passed on. It's one of the reasons why I love being an iconographer: I am part of something more than myself and yet my contribution matters, because it's then added to the whole.

Which is why American Humanism is so sick. It's the idea that you define your own mythology, you are the center of your own little world, and that the larger world has no place in defining it with you. Oh wait, what were those suicide numbers again, particularly for men, who have based their lives off of mythology since the world was young? Oh yeah, that's working really well. Isolating us from a whole is a really great idea.

And, before anyone goes "that's not true!" I ask you to look at our culture today. Actually look at it as an overarching pattern. What's been going on for awhile now? Well, the LBGT crowd's having a field day, pedophilia is slowly being accepted as just another sexual orientation, and then there's this whole "I feel like I should be disabled" thing going on, and that's before you start talking to "regular" people. If you, the reader, feel that whatever people do is fine so long as it doesn't hurt you or others then you espouse American Humanism. What right have you to mess with someone else's domain? Their life, their mythology, their religion is paramount. So long as no one challenges your own sovereignty it's all good. Right? Right!

I proclaim all of you gods.Go, spread the faith of yourself! No one's going to listen cause they have their mythology, and so therefore you'll do little good, but what does that matter? The telling's what's important, right?

Now, before anyone gets on their little "the individual's choice matters!" soapbox I'll stop you. Yes, the individual's choice matters, otherwise there's no point to a collective myth or anything else collective. But there must be a collective, humanity's too group based to not invent mythology and cults to enact it. That's popularly known as religion. But one thing's for sure: fighting for your own sense of identity ain't what's gonna work. And the ratings of the ending of that 3rd season certainly seem to back it up.

And also, for all you guys reading this who are going "I don't do this, I am my own person!" I'd like you to remember the last time you had something very precious and dear to you like football, gaming, a spouse, etc, insulted, and remember feeling indignant not just because they were insulted but you were insulted because you identified them with you. That feeling? You expanded your sense of self to a greater whole. That's myth. That's religion. And you have proven my point. You can't not be part of a whole, which is why American Humanism is so dangerous. You are not an autonomous individual, but an individual inside of a larger collective that you can either benefit or hurt. You matter and so do "they". As a matter of fact, you are, to a certain extent, "they". And their well-being impacts you as much your well-being impacts them.

Ain't it glorious?

A note: Yes, I know what I've been writing about is called moral relativism philosophically speaking. I have taken that philosophy and re-phrased it into properly religious terms, thus legitimizing it. Just as certain philosophies are a natural outgrowth of  some religions, moral relativism comes directly out of American Humanism. Except that the people practicing it generally aren't aware they're practicing it, but that's half the point, isn't it?

I mean, how it could be religion (such a patently trite thing!) if it isn't universally true?

A further note: I wrote this about a month ago and just happened to schedule it for July 3rd, didn't notice for two weeks, and then chuckled when I did notice. Well, with the advent of the Supreme Court's ruling on gay marriage I feel that my point has been illustrated better than I ever could attempt. The fact that this post will be appearing July 3rd is a deep knife twist now. If anyone even attempts to tell me on this blog that my religious freedom will not be impeded I will kindly ask you to drink your American Humanist beverage far away from this blog. Thank you.

Friday, June 26, 2015

On Environment and the Troubles that the Church is Having

Last week I put up a post about the Byzantine rite and what it was like in the ideal, what we all needed to strive for. I went and re-read the post, and realized that my point really wasn't communicated. So I'm going to try again.

The Church has one goal, and only one: salvation of the human race by being wrapped up into the mystery of the Holy Trinity. There is nothing else more important, for if we all know the Trinity then paradise would happen. That is the most important goal of the Church, to bring paradise to earth and help earth ascend to paradise.  We have lost sight of that as a Church. Instead we think of the Church as a place to teach right doctrine, to have charity outreach, and to make sure our families continue in their viewpoints, unchanged. Nothing could be further from the truth, because those things I just listed (and so many more!) are just symptoms of the central reality, which is the the face of God. If we can give people access to God then all would change.We have Christ, we must show Him to the world and convince the world that receiving Him is the only way.

But how do we do this? By beauty. You cannot argue people into it, except by assuring them that the beauty they see is real and to help them get the courage to take the plunge into the darkness of God. But you must help them experience that beauty first. Not everyone is a Scott Hahn, who can walk into Mass and realize that it's the book of Revelation enacted. No, you must be able to show them how beautiful and awesome God is. That beauty and awesomeness is called the Liturgy, which is so special that it must happen in it's own house, called a church.  The church shows what heaven is like, in signs and symbols, since none can go to heaven yet. The Liturgy is the place where Heaven and Earth literally meet and time stops even as it keeps going.

Now, that's all well and good, but humans are not overly mental creatures. We can't just make up essences in our minds or see the face of God peaking through reality or all the angels and demons fighting over us while the saints intercede to get us home. We are not built like that. So, in order to help us get to a point where we can see the face of God imprinted in creation we need to actually design a liturgy and a church that help us focus on this truth. Nothing else is more important.

The first requirement of a liturgy is that it be born of the mystics. Only the people who can see the face of God peaking into our world can actually design something to help us do the same. It's a design that requires as much care as mathematics and an intuition that only the deepest artist could feel. They must be together and whole. Only a mystic could do that.

The second requirement of a liturgy is that it must emphasize the nearness and otherness of God simultaneously. The transcendent God comes and exchanges Himself for meager bread and wine. There's an awesomeness and an intimacy to that action that cannot be understated. You cannot  emphasize the nearness of God because then you lose fear of Him and you cannot emphasize the majesty of God without forgetting that He is like a lover in His closeness.

The third requirement is that scripture be used as the primary inspiration and source. God's words are the easiest way to get into contact with God Himself. Become one with God in words and you will become one with God in mind as well.

The fourth requirement is that all hymns not scriptural must be written by saints, people who have seen the face of God and have written down what they said to Him when they saw Him. To be with God you must know what to say to Him and the saints know how to do that.

The fifth requirement of liturgy is that the passing of time and the timelessness of eternity must be remembered. Remember who the saint is of the day while outside of time, because both are valid and true.

The sixth requirement of liturgy is that the people must be able to edit it as time goes along. Liturgies usually gain complexity over the centuries and develop meanings of their own, separate from the meaning intended by the original liturgist.

A liturgy must happen in a church. The church is a building which helps the minds of the faithful enter into the mystery of eternity by putting their bodies into something as close to paradise as possible. Churches have their own criterion as well.

A church must be other. It must communicate that Someone is here, Someone who cannot be transcribed or controlled while assuring one that this Other is to be trusted. A church must also communicate who this Other is: the Holy Trinity revealed in the Incarnation of Christ. It must show His message and that it is most important this message be received. A church's ambiance must have an identity in and of itself. It cannot feel like a school, or a hospital, or a gas station, or even your own bedroom. It must be complete in and of itself.  It must have it's own interior logic, dictated by the mystical experiences of the liturgy that it houses. The liturgy must be the ultimate authority on what goes into a church. And, like the liturgy, the church's initial designs must be done by mystics, people who can see God peaking in through creation a bit more easily.

Without liturgy we cannot accomplish our mission as a church and, as a church ,we have lost sight of what is most important. We cannot change the world, only God can. Our job is only to get out of the way and allow God to act. Liturgy is how we do that.

Friday, June 19, 2015

How to Save the Church Part 2: East (Byzantine)

The Christian East has a full and rich liturgical history. Originally starting with the Liturgies of Saint James, Brother of the Lord, and Saint Mark, both were adapted into the Liturgies of Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Basil. The Estern liturgical hours are of similar origin, being combined from the cathedral (emphasizing hymns) and monastic (emphasizing scriptures and psalms) traditions. The Byzantine tradition brings about prayer by repetition of memorized words while appealing to the senses with icons to create an environment conducive to prayer.

Notice something "missing"? There are no pews. Hang onto that, cause we'll get back to it.
Byzantine churches are to be covered in icons. From the walls to the ceiling, the faithful are given a lot to look at. On the ceiling  is Christ Pantocrator (Ruler), with His closed gospel book which means that all is decided, even if you don't know it. This is what must be on the ceiling of all Eastern Churches, if you're going to have an image there (which you should!).

In the sanctuary, beyond the iconostasis, is the Playtera (More Spacious than the Heavens) icon, which hangs right behind and above the tabernacle. It's usually the only icon you can see through the iconostasis, and it's almost always the first thing you see when you enter an Eastern Church. Mary's and Christ's arms are wide to receive you.

The iconostasis is a wooden screen that blocks off the sanctuary from the nave. It has icons on the outside and represents the veil between heaven and earth, showing just enough for us to know that where we're going is good, but not too much so we have something to be surprised at when we get there. There must always be an icon of Christ on the right and an icon of Mary on the left. In the center are what's called the royal doors, which only the priest can enter through (or the deacon if he has the gospel or communion). On those doors is the Annunciation. The two side doors (known as deacon doors) usually have St. Stephen and St. Lawrence, two of the Church's first martyrs, although you can put angels or even St. Dismas and the tools of the crucifixion on there normally. But it's not a totally hard and fast rule. The point is to have something that reminds you of going between earth and heaven. Finally Saint John the Baptist or Saint Nicholas and the patron of the church are on the last two spots that are usually available. This can be adapted as needed.

All the dots in the floor plan are icon stands. These have icons for the people's veneration and are spots for everyone to congregate around but there is no requirement that they do so. Which is why there are no pews. It's assumed by the layout that, as the people sing the hymns that they've memorized, that they are going to the icons (be they on the walls or stands or ceiling) and praying there. The church is open and you are not bound to stay in one place and, in fact, you really can't. The deacon's got bells on his censer, and when he moves through the congregation the people move out of his way. When processions happen everyone moves away so the procession can go through the church. Yes, benches are on the sides of the church, but they're for the infirm, pregnant, and old. And if you're sitting there and not in one of those three categories it's just a sign of laziness.

Now, I know a bunch of Eastern Christians (Catholic and Orthodox alike) will be reading this and going "We don't do that! Our congregation doesn't sing! And we have pews!" I'm well aware, and that's what makes me sad. The Byzantine tradition uses the senses to invite  the christian to pray and if that's limited by putting said christian in a coffin-I mean, pew (eh, coffin really is a better word)- then how on earth can people be invited to pray? If you'r not singing the music then how can you burn it into your soul, melody and all? Don't say "I'll manage", because it's clearly not working for the vast majority of people. Church numbers keep dropping, a sign that something isn't going right and, provided that the people are taught what prayer is and are inspired to do so, the very design of the church will do half the work. Besides, I'm sure a nice Protestant parish will benefit from the nice pews if sold to them and the Eastern church can make a little money from the sale.

You can't have a rite that emphasizes the body's participation, block out movement by throwing people into coffins, and then expect everything to go well. Nor can you make an easily memorizable liturgy and then only have the choir singing and expect people to care. It just won't work.

Now, these aren't the only problems liturgically with the Eastern Rites. Matins is a mess that needs direction. Married priests are necessary. But getting rid of the pews and getting everyone to sing again's a really good start. All while educating the people on the importance of prayer. Because nothing else will save our Church than God's direct intervention.

Friday, June 12, 2015

How to Save the Church, Part 1: Introduction

Over on my Facebook I've been posting all sorts of smart-alecky links about how the Church's bad liturgical hijinks are killing it. I mean, why go to Church if it doesn't mean anything more than a crappy concert? Lots of people commented going "Hell yeah! Authentic liturgical tradition will save us!"

And that's when one of my priest friends commented, bringing his usual common sense. Even where liturgical traditions are more intact the numbers are down. Why? What's going on in our world? Why isn't there a cure-all for the lack of religion in America? I'm partially tempted to be a smart-ass and say "Christ is the cure", drop the mic, and walk out, but that really doesn't help, does it?

I'm a firm believer that liturgical tradition is a huge part of what will get us back on track as a Catholic and Orthodox Church. In fact, I believe it's our only real shot to bringing us to Christ; the liturgical experience is the best place to encounter Christ in a group setting, allowing the individual to experience Christ as a corporate body. East and West have both developed techniques to get us there, we just need to use them. The whole point is to allow everyone to pray individually and, once they've found the Kingdom of God within, to allow them to realize that the Kingdom of God is without as well. But this means everyone in the congregation needs to know how to pray in the first place. And, since we aren't teaching the mystical truths of Christianity for fear of offending people, nothing is going to work, because no one is being renewed from within, which then means that nothing can happen outside.

If there's anything we should be teaching right now, it's how to pray. Both East and West have differing ways of praying that I'll get into in the next few posts. We'll start with the East, since that's what I know best, comment on the Western way of doing things, and then do a sum up post at the end. But, for now, the only thing that needs to be said is that the only thing that matters is prayer. Everything else is a distraction.

But what's the point of talking about prayer if we don't have some definition?

Prayer is the lifting of one' self to God. Nothing more. Nothing less. Nothing is more important than being in God's presence however one can. But there are ways to be with God that are more effective than others, and that's what Tradition has handed down to us: how to best be with God.

Prayer has three elements: physical, mental, and spiritual. These elements are co-existent, like rings in a tree or layers in  an onion. All three of these layers must be there, otherwise prayer is difficult if not impossible.

The physical element of prayer deals with gestures, space, and images. Gestures include standing, the default stance of prayer, kneeling ,which shows deep respect in the West and profound sorrow in the East, sitting, which means to listen and be instructed, and bowing, which is a sign of respect. All these are meant to help focus the mind on the action of prayer.

Space has to do with making a holy space to pray in. In the East this is called an icon corner and it's where you go to pray. You set up a small table and on it put a Bible and anything else you use to pray, like rosaries and prayer books. Make sure it faces East, for this is the direction that Christ is said to come again and has been the way to pray since the Early Church. Having a physical space and a specific direction to pray helps with the focus as well.

And finally we deal with images. According to the 7th Ecumenical Council it's heretical to not have images. They're emblematic of our Christian faith, as Christ, being the image of the unseen Father, became a man seeable for all. So it's a very Christian thing to have images, it's incarnational. And, practically speaking, it's very useful for prayer. The Fathers talk the necessity of a clear mind for prayer to happen and images like icons and statues allow one to have images outside one's mind to focus on, crucial for us image-based humans.

The mental element of prayer consists of what your mind is doing while you're praying. Most of it consists of focusing on the words you're saying and nothing else. That means excluding all mental images, thoughts, and feelings to the best of your ability. This is extremely hard to do,  and not all mental stuff should be blocked out, depending on the subject matter. Sometimes you don't have the strength to focus that hard and that's OK, that's when your prayer becomes "God, I'm tired, but I want to talk to you anyway. You are everything to me, even when I can't focus on You." It's also very important to keep your mind sharp and free of anything impure. Yes, I mean things like porn and fornication. Those things distract from God, which is why the Church frowns on them. Also? Put good stuff in your brain. Read, a lot. Or, if you're going to watch TV, make sure it's actually good stories that help you hope, that inspire you. Keep your brain food good and your ability to pray will also increase.

Finally there's the spiritual element of prayer. This is where God comes to you and all is a beautiful silence. This is not due to any effort on your part, it is specifically God coming to you and filling you with peace. The first two elements make you more receptive to God so that you may receive Him, but everything else can line up just right and God may still not make Himself present to you. If He doesn't come to you that's OK, it may not be time yet. There may be things that you haven't resolved that God doesn't want to bring up prematurely. Or maybe there's another reason far beyond any human to comprehend. Whatever it is, don't be troubled. God is near, even if you can't sense Him.

All these things need to be laid down because I'll be referring to the three elements through the next two posts, which deal with the Eastern and Western approaches to prayer. Just, as we go through all these approaches and thoughts, don't forget the most important thing: to be with God.

Eastern post next week!

(Also, in case I didn't make it apparent, I'll be concentrating on the liturgical expressions of the two sides of the Church. There's so many private devotions I could never possibly do them justice.)