Have you reached for your smartphone in the last six and a half minutes? In my last post on Isaac the Qatari, I wrote that according to one study, people are checking their phones over 150 times a day! I ended the post reaching for my own phone once again. Much of the earth is connected as never before, in a 24/7 rat-race that makes multi-tasking and being permanently distracted a normal condition. How do we get out of this? If we even see the need for change.
The resources for change are not only in Buddhism, Hinduism or Tony Robbins, but also in the deep roots of Christianity in earlier centuries, particularly in the monastic traditions. The Church of the East in Asia had very rich wells of spiritual practices that helped not only monks and nuns, but also all people, to learn to walk in a different way than the cultures around them. One of those writers was the 7th century Isaac the Qatari, also called Isaac the Syrian or Isaac of Nineveh. (An extremely rich book on writers from the Syriac tradition of the Church is by Sebastian Brock). There is also a new work out that I haven’t read yet, titled An Anthology of Syriac Writers from Qatar in the 7th century, by Mario Koozah.)
One of the greatest “antidotes” we have to this constant distracted state is learning to be still, to have regular times in our day or week that we are quiet. This is not just for introverts! Extroverts also need it, whether they know they do or not. As I said in my last post, my blessed family gave me a smartphone for Christmas. They wanted their aging father to become a master of digital communication. They blessed me, and cursed me. (just joking). How many times since Christmas day have I picked up that phone? (and yes I do love it!) But I am also learning in my life how to build into my day intentional times of listening and stillness.
For Isaac, having a smartphone was not an issue of course. But he did spend several years as a Bishop, with many responsibilities and having to deal with many crises and probably some dumbpeople. (as opposed to smartphones). He became one of the Church’s greatest teachers on the “prayer of stillness”. Like most mystical writers of any tradition, his ideas are grounded in experience and can’t be easily qualified or quantified. He wrote many times of “entering the cloud”, similar to Exodus 24:15ff, where the mystery of experiential knowledge of God could be personally experienced. His theological system, if it can be called that, was based in the deep love of God expressed in Christ and His Incarnation and then sacrifice on the cross.
This depth of love, also expressed in relationships with others, is especially experienced as an ihidaya, Syriac for solitary or single one. Isaac wrote that “Solitude is the internal experience of living within oneself, of withdrawal into one’s inner person, and a necessary action for uniting oneself with God.” (in Alfeyev 2000:63) This stillness, or selya in Syriac, is the “deliberate denial of the gift of words for the sake of achieving inner silence, in the midst of which a person can hear the presence of God”. Isaac goes on to write that stillness is “standing unceasingly, silently and prayerfully before God.”
For Isaac, this inner “prayer of stillness”is one of the characteristic signs of humility. In Isaac’s writings overall, the subject of prayer is the most frequently mentioned topic. That is not of course that unusual for any of the early Christian Fathers and Mothers, but for Isaac particularly the idea of stillness and also “pure prayer” is especially strong. What is “pure prayer”? For Isaac, “pure prayer” is a very high form of prayer, beyond asking for our own needs, and involves the mind and heart together in a fusion of loving adoration of the Trinity. In Isaac’s vocabulary, the “prayer of stillness” and “pure prayer” are somewhat interchangeable. It can be with or without words, and practiced alone or with others.
Isaac the Qatari in his teachings on prayer was building on his own Syriac tradition that included St. Ephrem of Edessa, called the “Harp of the Holy Spirit” for the hundreds of beautiful hymns he wrote in the 4th century. It was an amazingly rich tradition that also included John of Dalyatha, Joseph Hazzaya, as well as mystics from other traditions like Evagrius, Cassian and others. It is so sad that so many of these names and what they taught is so unknown to much of the Christian faith today.
It is also important to remember that the development of ideas like “pure prayer” did not happen in solitary settings alone, but were implemented in monasteries that were deeply involved in scholarship and mission across Asia. These teachings then emanated from the monasteries to the people around them in what were the cities of their day.
The practice of “pure prayer” continues to be taught in parts of the greater Church today, known by other names such as “centering prayer”. One writer I have particularly learned from is Father Thomas Keating, based in a monastery in Colorado for many years. Thankfully, we have not lost the teaching or practice of regular times of stillness in prayer. But solitude is certainly under assault in cultures all over the world. It is not only in the West. I spend much of my year in the nation of India, where smartphones are multiplying exponentially. In China, where I spent several weeks last October/November, there are now 500 million people with smartphones!! India is not far behind. In 2014, 52% of Chinese consumers aged 18 and older used smartphones to regularly read newspapers, books or magazines.
So there are many, many smartphones in our world today. But there are also many, many dumbpeople. Every time I reach for mine 150 times a day, without at least a few periods in the same day of silence and waiting on God in thankfulness and rest, I fall into the category of a dumbperson with a smartphone. We have a lot to learn from people like Isaac the Qatari. The 7th century was really not that long ago.