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Introduction by Philip Zaleski
Sometime in the 1850s, on the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, in one of the most justly famous moments in Christian spiritual history, a 33-year-old Russian vagabond chanced to hear the following words from St. Paul read out in church: "Pray without ceasing." The phrase struck the man like a heavenly thunderbolt. Immedi-ately he shouldered his knapsack, pocketed his Bible, and set out to find the answer to this great mystery, the secret of unceasing prayer.
The identity of the Pilgrim remains unknown, although vari-ous scholars have attributed his tale to one Russian monk or another. His anonymity seems wholly appropriate, for the Pilgrim is Everyman, man or woman, who longs for an answer to life's deepest mysteries. The Pilgrim's search led him to a specific solution, the Jesus Prayer, a method of interior devotion perfected in the cells of Russian monasteries and discussed in "Cycle Nine" of this splendid collection by Lorraine Kisly. But the Pilgrim's question has been, is now, and always will be Everyman's question. For by seeking to unravel the mystery of prayer, the Pilgrim is asking how to live the Christian life: What must I embrace, what must I surrender, to find my true self? How can I learn to love God, and love my neighbor as myself? How may I abide in Christ?
These questions resound up and down the millennia, We hear them in the Gospels, in the urgent request in Luke, "Lord, teach us to pray, and in the plaintive entreaty of the bewildered young man in Mark, "Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?" We hear them, as Ordinary Graces attests, voiced down thecen-turies by saints and madmen, scholars and mystics, poets and prophets. We hear them today, not only in the books of the great Christian writers of our age—Thomas Merton, Simone Weil, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and their spiritual kin—but in living rooms, campuses, prison cells, wherever men and women pause long enough to hear the whisperings of the Spirit. To these profound questions there can be no simple answers, for what is at stake is supernally complex, involving the very nature of the human being. The Christian project proposes nothing less than a radical reevaluation of what it means to be human; the Christian is asked to awaken to a new reality — "Arise, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light" as the ancient morning hymn has it—and wipe away the disfiguring crust of years of sin and self-love, a metanoia that will reveal each of us as we truly are, an icon of God. To accept this challenge is to take oneself and the world and God seriously. It is to harken to the Psalm: "Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me" (Ps. 51:10), and to St. Paul: "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new" (2 Cor. 5:17).
How do we shoulder such an overwhelming task? According to Christian tradition, the decisive action belongs to God alone, for God alone can instill faith in the human heart. But the soil of the heart must be prepared to receive the seeds of grace. This cultivation, this striving toward awakening, sanctification, perfection — one can phrase it in so many different ways — has been elaborated in minute detail by the Christian saints. Nonetheless, for reasons both historical and cultural, Christian spiritual practice remains largely unknown to the general public. Many people today are inclined to describe Buddhism as a school of practice and Chris-tianity as a system of belief. The truth is more complicated, for Buddhism has its essential beliefs and Christianity its essential methods. The path that Christ brought is indeed a matter of faith ("He that believeth in me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water" — John 7:38) but it is also, decisively, a Way.
This term Way has biblical antecedents: "I am the way, the truth, and the life," says Jesus to Thomas the Doubter. Within this central mode of abiding in Christ, it seems fair to say that there are as many ways or methods of practice as there are human beings, for each of us, even those in the most orthodox communions, treads his or her own path to God. From the early monastic exper-iments of John Cassian, St. Benedict, and St. Scholastica, through the exercises in attention of Simeon the New Theologian, Brother Lawrence's Practice of the Presence, and George Fox's turning toward the inner light, seekers incessantly devise new means for dis-covering divine reality. Within this immense variety, however, a pattern of ascent toward God may be discerned. Jan van Ruusbroec, perhaps the greatest of the Rhineland mystics, condensed the process into three stages, which he called the Active, the Interior, and the Superessential Life: a threefold process that begins with contrition, self-knowledge, and self-overcoming — especially the maturation of the one absolutely indispensable quality for spiritual growth, humility — and that culminates in a mystical marriage with God. The anthology that you hold in your hands expands fruitfully upon this classical scheme, presenting a 10-rung ladder, or better, a 10-level spiral staircase, as the ascent to God is often indirect, circular, entailing new beginnings at every stage. The first step, as Ordinary Graces presents it, takes us just as we are, frail creatures inhabiting a mysterious cosmos, and asks us to see the beauty and order of the natural world as signs of God's presence; subsequent steps involve the art of prayer; how to bear (and bear with) ones neighbor; the illuminations of faith; and so on, culminating in divine union.
In the end, all depends upon God's grace, and upon our willingness to accept God's grace. We may be transformed in the twinkling of an eye or struggle for a lifetime with few signs of progress. What changes we do discern may come haltingly, with plentiful setbacks checkering the inch-by-inch advance. Real change may take place on levels deeper than our eye can see. The effort demanded of us may shake us to our roots, for to sacrifice ones self-love, to deny oneself and take up one's cross daily, as Jesus asks, is no easy task. But be of good cheer. We have the assurance that the entire cosmos is struggling with us. The animals seek God, as the first entry in Ordinary Graces proposes: "The birds taking flight lift themselves up to heaven, and instead of hands, spread out the cross of their wings" (Tertullian). The cherubim, seraphim, and other angelic orders seek God; the souls of the dead seek God; all creation seeks God, as St. Augustine so majestically proclaims:
"Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee." Along with this guarantee of cosmic solidarity, we are also promised that those who persevere will not fail; for God himself longs for our renewal "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you (Matt. 7:7).
It is impossible to overestimate the importance of a choice pas-sage of writing, such as those found throughout this book, in sparking or sustaining the spiritual quest. For the faith that declares "In the beginning was the word: words can be chariots that carry us to God. No matter how crude or small, every word possesses a certain inherent beauty because it contains meaning and thus signifies the orderliness and lucidity of God's cosmos. The Pilgrim is one link in a great chain of people who discovered their hearts opened and their minds transformed by the power of words. The words that prefigure the Word and transform a life may come under any circumstances. The call came to the Pilgrim during divine services, to St. Augustine while pacing in a garden, to Simone Weil while reciting the Lord's Prayer By echoing this call, the selections in Ordinary Graces summon the reader to a deeper spiritual life.
|Cycle 1||Joy in Your Father's Works||1|
|Cycle 2||The Law of Bearing||28|
|Cycle 3||The True Human Person||56|
|Cycle 4||The Sacrament of Presence||76|
|Cycle 5||Preparing the Ground||99|
|Cycle 6||The Stream of Providence||118|
|Cycle 7||The Heart of Struggle||137|
|Cycle 8||A Recollected Spirit||167|
|Cycle 9||Holy Fire||189|
|Cycle 10||Having Nothing, Possessing All Things||216|
|Acknowledgments and Sources||235|
Posted January 11, 2013
The Ordinary Graces books have been a genuine treasure of inspiration and understanding for me in my journeyI have heard and read contemporary Christian leaders of several Protestant movements assert, with a straight facace, and despairing ignorance,
that there were no real writers of faith besides John Bunyan and a perhaps a paltry few others. And so I believed it, for the most part, for years. Then around the same time I discovered a Richard J. Forester and Ms. Kisl
And so I was introduced to the amazing wealth, richness and variety of the nearly two centuries of Christian thought.
Since then I have been able to explore a whole universe of ideas I never imagined. My journey has gone further, with splendid vistas I'd been blinded to, than I ever would have known.
Read this book, taste and swallow this book, let it be part of new eyes and skin and heart and bone. You can take time and savor each different writer in daily-sized passages, but you'll probably want to devour some faster than others,
taking time to ponder, to let each new idea into your soul.