On afternoons of drowsy calm
We stood in the panelled pew,
Singing one-voiced a Tate-and-Brady psalm
To the tune of 'Cambridge New'.
We watched the elms, we watched the rooks,
The clouds upon the breeze,
Between the wiles of glancing at our books,
And swaying like the trees.
So mindless were those outpourings!
Though I am not aware
That I have gained by subtle thought on things
Since we stood psalming there.
From Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (1917)
By Thomas Hardy
It has taken me a long time to learn to appreciate "mindless outpourings." Becoming Orthodox, it took me years to overcome the fear of vain repetition--a phrase over-used and misunderstood. I was able to accept repetition so long as it was not mindless. My mind had to be engaged.
However, long hours of "psalming" with the brothers in the middle of the night at the monastery and my own regular habit of recitation have beaten my mind into a kind of mindless submission. There is a kind of calm uniting that takes place in psalmody, a uniting beyond the "subtle thought on things." It is a uniting of my heart, my intuitive knower, my inner self with the words of the psalms as they interpret realities to me beyond mindful reason. To speak of these realities is useless for words are a paltry lie. If words could convey this reality, then mindful attention would be sufficient. But it is not.
Prayer through the repetition of Psalms or the continued recitation of the Jesus Prayer or other short prayer seems to open a space in us, a space usually blocked by a busy mind. Entering this space beyond mindfulness, I think we come close to what the Fathers call entering our heart. Here, sometimes, both the joy and sorrow of repentance are expressed in tears or tear-like pain. It is as though the armour formed by words and concepts drops away from us and our naked heart stands in the Garden before God: weak, vulnerable, sometimes ashamed, often comforted.
It is not that I am against book learning. I think we should all study and learn as much as our busy minds will let us. But I think Thomas Hardy has it right. I don't think we gain much at all "by subtle thought on things," especially if we have not learned to know God in mindless prayer.
"...the armour formed by words and concepts..." well said, Father Michael.
Dear Fr. Michael,
If vain repetition isn't mindless, what are we being warned against?
The word 'vain' does not mean mindless, it means empty or useless. That our culture has taught us to so value our mind that for many mindless is synonyms with vain speaks volumes. Blaise Pascal--himself a great thinker--acknowledged that the heart has reasons that reason knows nothing about. There are ways of knowing, especially of knowing God, that transcend what we usually mean when we speak of mind, and learning to keep that aspect of the mind in check is part of learning to know God in places deeper than the rational mind. There is nothing empty or vain about prayer that teaches us to know God in ways that transcend reason and even words and concepts. Mindless prayer can be full of the knowledge of God.
How do we know our prayers are empty or useless, then? I understand and appreciate what you are saying about the mind. Thank you for this clarification.
That, I think, is an excellent question. And if it can be answered, it would only be by a lifetime of experience.
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