Lecture by Met. Jonah (OCA)

+Jonah spoke at Atlanta's Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation last night. UPDATE: This was apparently part of the OCA diocese's Parish Life Conference, and the local OCA parish does not have that kind of capacity.

It was an informal homily. He was in a cassock and gave no opening prayer. It was a good, dense talk. My middle-aged brain struggled to grasp all the points at that time of evening. It was also well-attended: probably 250 people with a number of clergy.

His topic was spiritual maturity and the centrality of prayer--and in particular the Jesus prayer--to that process. Again, dense stuff; I felt like a novitiate getting his first lecture on asceticism.

This process starts with the virtue of detachment, loosing yourself from the things of this world: passions, material goods, relationships (to the extent we define ourselves through them), and also the superficial 'trappings' of Orthodoxy. In his words, we need to 1) sit down, 2) shut up and 3) know that God is present. We begin by saying the Jesus prayer, but at some point this process must move from saying the Jesus prayer to praying in Jesus. In other words, as we say, "Come Holy Spirit" in the Liturgy, at some point we must be silent and acknowledge that the Holy Spirit has come.

He spoke at length on the nature of prayer, and the fact that it is not so much intercessory by us, as it is the Spirit praying within us. The process is one of apotheosis: we move from "me and God" to "only God." He exhorted the audience to do this for at least a few minutes every morning and evening, but no longer than twenty minutes without circumstances allowing that degree of rigor, and even then under the guidance of a spiritual father. As noted, in many ways it was a technical lecture, practically a primer on ascetic prayer.

The intended result of this daily spiritual discipline is a spiritual stability that nothing can shake, least of all the passions stirred by recent scandals and controversies (this was his only reference to governance issues). From this place of individual spiritual maturity, the community of the Church can become the transparent image of the Kingdom of God. This was another launching point, and he spoke at length on Christian community, describing a vision of the local Churches as places of unconditional love for all members. He referred to the efforts of an apparently prominent OCA cleric (I want to say 'Dmitri') to restore widespread practice of the kiss of peace in the Liturgy, and a number of clergy grunted their approval. He stressed that this vision of community in the local Church takes ascetic effort on the part of lay members. He reminded everyone that, quoting one of the Russian fathers, my neighbor is the criterion of my salvation.

A couple of highlights from the Q & A:

A young seminarian wanted to know what he thought of dreams as vehicles for divine inspiration. He agreed there have been instances of this, but that the demons can speak to us through dreams as well. The monastic fathers warned against them.

He regards Father Thomas Hopko as his biggest theological influence. I believe also that +Jonah remains deeply impressed by his monastic experience. There were frequent references to monastic practice and livelihood in his talk.

Asked what advice he would give parish priests, he again quoted a Russian father who told parents to pray for their children ten times as much as they speak to them. This prayer will become contagious through the community. His former abbot has prescribed a rule of two hours daily private prayer for the brothers in addition to their four to six hours of public prayer and worship.

He recommended all Orthodox study the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil, as in really read it, take notes, get a commentary and track down the Scripture references, etc. He called it the sum of all Orthodox dogma.

He warned against compartmentalization. We are as much Orthodox and in Christ when we go forward to commune as we are (or should be) when we go into a business meeting. We must not divorce our spirituality from our day-to-day life: work can be sanctified. He knew of one congregant who went on a Holy Week pilgrimage and spent the whole time laying brick with the brothers. Our whole lives are to be made holy.

Many years, Master!