I have previously reflected on the top books I have read that impacted me the most. While I may not be ready to re-rank my top 5, The Mountain of Silence by Kyriacos Markides may prove to make my lists of influential books in the future.  It is not often that I read a book where every chapter inspired me and captivated my thoughts for the rest of the day.

MountainFirst, a brief synopsis.  The author, Kyriacos Markides, is a professor of sociology at the University of Maine and originally hails from Cyprus.  Through his studies, he began to explore ancient mysticism, despite being himself an agnostic.  His research lead him to a monastic community on Mount Athos in Greece and a meeting with a young monk named Father Maximos.  This Athonite community saw themselves as preservers of Greek Orthodox traditions and his friendship with Father Maximos eventually led him to spend several summers interviewing the monk at another monastic community back on the island of Cyprus.  The book not only explores the beliefs and practices of these Greek Orthodox monastic communities, but also chronicles Markides’s own spiritual journey back to his orthodox roots.

What is particularly fascinating is how many of these Greek Orthodox practices became lost to the church in the West.  The Greek Orthodox church was associated with the Byzantine Empire of the East and with the Great Schism of 1054, Western Europe became tied to the church of Rome.  East and West followed very different paths, and while the Western church further divided between Catholicism and Protestantism, the Eastern church was fighting for its survival with the fall of the Byzantine Empire.  While its traditions were safeguarded in monastic communities, such as those on Mount Athos, many of them became ignored, foreign to Western Christianity.  The author notes that while Eastern Orthodoxy has preserved knowing God through the “eye of contemplation” – systematic and disciplined practices to open up the intuitive and spiritual faculties – the Western church has come to be dominated by empirical knowledge, philosophy, and reason.

While the history of Greek Orthodoxy is an important thread throughout the book, the story itself revolves around the author’s personal conversations with Father Maximos.  The reader is allowed to sit along side of Markides and absorb the spiritual wisdom of this Athonite monk.

Among some of the ideas that have resonated with me while reading this book:

  • Greek Orthodoxy stresses that our primary aim in life is to attain the unity with God that was lost in the Garden of Eden.  Our purpose in life, then, is to move closer back to the soul’s unity with God.  Yet, we often value ourselves in terms of how much we contribute rather than in terms of who we are.  Thus, even our spiritual disciplines tend to be measured in terms of how much we are accomplishing.
  • Part of this reunification with God is attained through prayer.  Continual prayer is the way we find God.  The Athonite monks believe there are practices that can help us be in a state of continual prayer, even while sleeping.  My own prayer life has been enriched through many insights discussed in the book.
  • Entering the Kingdom of Heaven means liberation from the objects of this world.  While in many ways this is done more easily within the confines of a monastery, we are all called to detach from those objects that preoccupy us.

I am still processing much of what was presented in The Mountain of Silence, even while reading another book by the same author.  Yet I have already felt the impact of the practices from this monastic community charged with preserving the traditions of the Greek Orthodox church.

As you read through the Psalms, there is a reoccurring image that is fascinating to me when properly understood.  In several different Psalms, King David (or psalms ascribed to him) writes of longingly wanting to spend time in the house of God.  This is, of course, a reference to the tabernacle of God, and what would eventually become the Temple, built by his son, Solomon.

One thing I ask of Yahweh, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of Yahweh all the days of my life.

What is interesting about this image is the reasoning behind David’s desire to be near the house of God.  In the Old Testament, we are taught that the presence of God dwelt in the physical tabernacle of Israel.  Whether wandering through the wilderness or settling in Jerusalem, a constant sign of God’s nearness was the tabernacle.  The tabernacle would eventually be replaced by a permanent structure – the Temple in Jerusalem – and this was a sign that God literally lived among His people.

Blessed are those you choose and bring near to live in your courts!

So to be in the courts of the Temple was to be close to God, to be in the inner courts was to be very close, and to be just outside the holy of holies in the inner temple (only the high priest could go this far) was to be even nearer to the presence of God.  Even today, if you take the wall tunnels tour in Jerusalem, one of the most sacred spots is the part of the wall closest to where the holy of holies would have been –  sacredness being determined by proximity.

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Yahweh Almighty!  My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of Yahweh.

So King David can write that it is better to spend one day in the courtyard of the tabernacle than to spend a lifetime in his palace room, or any other place for that matter, because the courtyard represented being in close proximity to God’s presence.  To be away from the Temple was in many ways to be separated from God’s presence.

Better is one day in your courts than a thousand in my own room.

He can even write that he is jealous of birds who have made their nests in the walls of the Temple Mount or perhaps even the Temple structure itself, because of their nearness to the presence of God.

Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young—a place near your altar.

What strikes me about this imagery of being near to the Temple and in the courtyard of God is that with the giving of the Holy Spirit, proximity to God would no longer be an issue.  Through the Spirit and prayer we are able to drawn near to God without ever leaving our couch, home, office, or car.  King David would be very jealous!

Yet one way we can misapply this image today is to substitute the church for the Temple.  In these Psalms, when the Temple is simply swapped out for church, the implication is that we have to go to church – a physical building – in order to be near to God.  A worship service may lift our spirits and help connect us to God, but a building is no longer a barrier.

So as you go throughout your day, what are you doing to stay connected to the presence of God?  Where ever you find yourself throughout the day can become sacred space.  Where ever you are, you can enter into the courts of God!

Person praying at the spot closest to site of the Temple.

Person praying in the tunnel at the spot closest to site of the Temple.

 

I have readily admitted over the years that prayer is a practice that I can struggle with at times.  In a previous post, I mentioned that the single word Amen can be a prayer all by itself.  Several years ago, I memorized the Lord’s Prayer so that I always had a framework for a more in-depth conversation with God.  I also employ a prayer book that has guided prayers for each day.  All these have served to bolster a prayer life that is sometimes wanting.

This past weekend, as I was downloading an app on my phone that had to do with prayer, it occurred to me how many prayer resources are becoming available directly to one’s phone, tablet, or computer.  I thought I would share some that have helped me in the past and still serve me in this area.

  • Pray As You Go podcast – This was one of my favorites for several years.  The Jesuits put together an audio daily guided prayer with scripture and music, which is usually about 10 to 12 minutes in length.  Subscribe to the podcast and you will get the MP3 delivered to your phone or device each day.  Search iTunes for Pray As You Go.
  • The Divine Hours eBook – I have the good old fashioned paper version, but I have noticed that these are now available in digital format that can be downloaded to any e-reader.  These are guided prayers for every day of the year, with a prayer for each office of the day: morning, midday, evening, and night.  I have prayed through these prayers many times over.  Search most online bookstores for The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle.
  • The Daily Office app – I saw this app recommended recently.  I downloaded the app, but the prayer readings can be quite lengthy.  The app will make available two guided prayers each day.  Select the morning or evening prayer and a reading will appear to guide you through the prayer.  Search iTunes for Mission St. Clare.
  • Centering Prayer app –  Contemplative Outreach has just released a simple app to enhance meditative prayer times.  All it does is allow you to select how long you want your contemplative time to be and select the sound that will begin and end your time.  Very simply, but I am already a fan of it!  Search the app store for Centering Prayer.

What about you?  Are there digital resources or apps out in cyberworld that have helped you with the spiritual practice of prayer?Prayer Hands

The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders; where morning dawns, where evening fades, you call forth songs of joy. You care for the land and water it; you enrich it abundantly. The streams of God are filled with water to provide the people with grain, for so you have ordained it. You drench its furrows and level its ridges; you soften it with showers and bless its crops. You crown the year with your bounty, and your carts overflow with abundance. The grasslands of the wilderness overflow; the hills are clothed with gladness. The meadows are covered with flocks and the valleys are mantled with grain; they shout for joy and sing.

– Psalm 65

I was reading this psalm the other day, which praises God for watered lands, abundant crops and hillsides dotted with flocks.  It struck me how easy it is to view a psalm like this as a spectator, perhaps driving through farmland taking it all in from the comfort of my car.  I remember driving from the Dead Sea to Jerusalem and seeing sheep scattered across hillsides.  It was a perfect scene – and easy to give praise to God in that moment.

But what is really taking place in this psalm?  In an agricultural society sheep on the hillsides and grain in the valley represented the mundane and difficult work of a farmer – early mornings tending the sheep, caring for sick animals, plowing fields, praying for enough rain to bring about a harvest.  The observations of the psalm above represent a brief respite from constantly working the land to both give thanks to God and to ask God for blessings on your labor.

 © Copyright Adrian Phillips and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

© Copyright Adrian Phillips and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

It struck me that while it may be easy to read this psalm as I would appreciate a photo of such a scene, the intent was to take a brief break from your labors from time to time and give thanks to God for these blessings.  Would such a psalm today speak of full email inboxes and project deadlines?  What about the ability to fill the cart at the grocery store and getting the oil changed in the car?  Can we lift our heads from our work throughout the day and thank God for jobs, errands, and the comforts of modern life?  In doing so, we may also remind ourselves of the spiritual value of the mundane, be it at work, at home, or at school.  The mundane can take on great spiritual significance when we pause to allow God to water our efforts.

It may not be as romantic as a hillside scene dotted with sheep and a valley full of wheat, but I wonder if it strikes closer to the intent of such a psalm?

Tis the time of year when there will be many year in review type of articles and lists, so I thought I would add to the onslaught by doing a quick review of my own.  The end of the year is a great time to reflect on all that has taken place.  So in this space I want to look back at topics and posts that helped define 2012 for me.  The links will take you to each entry.

I usually begin each year by doing my own personal/spiritual review using the Fruit of the Spirit.  Reading through the Old Testament historical books this past spring, I was reminded that for all the self-examination and disciplines we can engage in, there are still areas in our life that stubbornly remain unchanged.  The Hebrew scripture calls these The High Places.  I’m not sure how I have done at removing mine.

April brought me to the poetic books of the Old Testament (I read through the OT this past year) and the book of Job is a book that seems to yield new layers of meaning each time I read it.  I summarized the most recent layer in Worldviews, Greek Mythology, and Job.  I actually have done quite a bit of reading on Greek mythology in recent months.  It’s one of those subjects I always heard a lot about but never fully understood, so I decided to absorb all I could on the subject.

Speaking of Greek mythology, one of the most interesting books I read this past year was Moonwalking With Einstein.  It is a book about memory techniques, especially those associated with the ancient Greeks.  I am currently using these techniques to recall 100 of the Greek gods and where they fit in the Greek pantheon.  The technique works!

And while we are on the topic of books, I decided to share the Top Five Books That Have Influenced Me thus far on my journey.

One of the more popular posts of this past year was a reflection on prayer and the word Amen.  Honestly, this has not been the easiest or most fulfilling of years for me, so I am grateful that sometimes Amen is all that God needs to hear from me.

Every year brings its share of tragedies to the headlines, but this year seemed especially heavy with senseless violence.  I could have reposted God’s Plan Or Personal Responsibility on several different occasions these past twelve months.  It is always fascinating to observe how people use/misuse or blame God whenever these things occur.

To end on a high note, a fortune cookie once told me that I should write a book.  And that materialized this past year with the release of Ten Essential Words.  If you haven’t checked it out yet, I would be delighted for you to give it a read and let me know your thoughts.  I started writing it back in 2006, so it was a personal milestone to see it come to fruition.

Fortune Cookie

The cookie told me to do it

I’ll continue to use this blog to share what I’m reading, what I’m thinking, and what I’m writing.  Looking ahead to 2013, my brother and I are taking a trip to Greece and Turkey in March, so I’m sure this will turn in to a bit of a travel blog as well.  If you don’t already follow this blog (or my book website) and you enjoy it, please do so.  The content differs between the two, so sign up for both!

Thanks for processing life with me and sharing your comments.  Have a blessed New Year!

Dave

I cannot recall when or why I added this book to my Amazon wish list – it was probably footnoted in some other book I had read –  but it resided there for quite some time before I finally picked it up.  I even began reading it about six months ago and got sidetracked reading other things.  So I was pleasantly surprised when I finally worked my way through Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament by John Walton.

In this book, Walton does a comparative study of the Old Testament along side other cultures of the time to see what can be drawn from the literature of the Ancient Near East (ANE).  Being a comparative study, Walton does not offer an apologetic of ancient Judaism, nor does he try to establish which cultures may have borrowed stories from their neighbors, sorting fact from fiction.  Rather he sets out to establish some commonalities to better understand the writings that make up the Hebrew scriptures: “There is simply common ground across the cognitive environment of the cultures of the ancient world.”

As Walton’s insights relate to the Ten Commandments, I have already shared some observations on my Ten Essential Words site.  I encourage you to check out my posts Written On The Human Heart and The Name of God for these thoughts.  Otherwise, here are some key points I took from this book.

  • “There is no such word as ‘religion’ in the languages of the ancient Near East.”  What we today call superstition was in the ANE a recognition that deities were active in the world around them and most every event could be interpreted as the workings of a deity.  The categories of sacred/secular and natural/supernatural are ones that we have come up with relatively recently, and I wonder if it is a good or bad thing.  Certainly we have more scientific and naturalistic explanations for everyday phenomena, but at the same time has this dulled us to the spiritual world?  A popular expression today is, “I am spiritual, but not religious.”  This would be utter nonsense to the world of the Old Testament.  Nowadays, we live compartmentalized lives keeping science, religion, politics, ethics, and even faith all at a safe distance from one another.  Perhaps it is time to reintegrate our modern lives.  As Walton summarizes, “Life was religion and religion could not be compartmentalized within life.”
  • The role of ethics and morality in the ANE.  Walton uses morality to mean inner convictions and ethics to refer to societal expectations.  While some may contest these definitions, I believe they are helpful ones.  Most of the cultures of the ANE operated on the basis of ethics, and this was a major distinction between Israel and the surrounding cultures.  In giving the Ten Commandments, Yahweh was making a covenant with Israel and that covenant was shaped by morality.  The Old Testament throughout stresses the importance of the condition of the heart – morality, and not ethics.  I wonder about the implications of this dichotomy for our culture today, where political correctness (ethics) rules and those in power get to define what that means.
  • What the gods want.  The gods of the ANE were unpredictable, easily offended, and often harsh in their anger.  Circumstances could help one perceive that a god might be angry or offended, but rarely would the actual offense be known.  Thus, the role of prayer and ritual was to appease the gods.  “This is the plight of those who live in a world without revelation.”  And this is another area in which Israel’s path diverged from that of its neighbor.  That Yahweh could be known and prayer could help one understand what pleased and offended Yahweh represented a new way of relating to deity.  Today, as people of faith, we can take for granted things like prayer, revelation, and morality, but these practices represent a major step forward from other ancient religions and even from much of what passes as spirituality today.

While Walton set out to do a comparative study of the cultures of the ANE, I found myself doing my own critical study between the Old Testament and today’s culture.  There are many points where it can be questioned whether much of our enlightenment has led us in the right direction.  I leave you with one final quote from Walton that captures this tension:

A modern empiricist historian’s response to ancient transcendent historiography might be; “it has not provided information that is reliable, since it is so full of deity.”  The ancient historians’s response to modern empiricist historiography might be: “it has not provided information that is worthwhile, since it is so empty of deity.”

I was reading a newsletter I periodically receive from an organization called Contemplative Outreach. While perusing the newsletter, there was a thought-provoking article on the profundity of the word Amen. The article begins:

If you asked me for one piece of advice about contemplation, I would say to take to heart the meaning of one word: amen. If you asked me how you should relate to God, how you might pray, I would whisper, “Amen.” If I practice only one simple thing at the end of my own life, I hope it will be amen.

As the article points out, amen literally means, “so be it” or “let it be.” It is a way of releasing that prayer “into God with a radical trust that nothing more needs to be said.” In any given situation in our life, it is a way of expressing surrender to God, “Not as I will, but as you will.”

It was not only a needed reminder for me personally, but a meaning that I think needs to be reclaimed by many people of faith.  Consider the ways in which we utilize that simple word, Amen, and the meanings inferred from our usage:

  • At dinnertime, it has come to mean, “Time to eat.”
  • Concluding a prayer, it often means, “I am finished talking to God now.”
  • A friend of mine once described Amen as hanging up the phone – conversation over – instead of simply being a pause until we pick up the conversation with God later in the day.
  • If you grew up in the Baptist tradition, Amen is often a way of expressing agreement with what has been said, often loudly and with enthusiasm – AMEN!  The louder the Amen, the more the person agreed!  Can I get an AMEN?
  • In other religious circles, it has just become another religious expression, spiritual sounding but devoid of any real meaning.

Notice how none of these common uses comes anywhere close to expressing, “So be it.”  Far from being just a word tacked on to the end of a prayer, Amen can be a prayer all by itself – a single word to express what is in the heart, while at the same time deferring our plans to God’s plan.  Since reading that article I have found myself  simply whispering Amen several times throughout the day.  I am learning that when there is so much I want to say to God, sometimes Amen is all that needs to be said.