Holy Assumption Orthodox Church
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St. Jacob of Alaska Speaker Series

Mount Athos and Prayer

Poet and author Scott Cairns said he had practiced the “Jesus Prayer” for 10 years and was “not getting anywhere.” His struggle to learn true prayer of the heart led to him to Mount Athos, the place “where Earth meets Heaven,” as he says in his 2007 book “Short Trip to the Edge.”  Cairns spoke after Great Vespers at Holy Assumption Orthodox Church in Canton on Feb. 11 as part of the St. Jacob of Alaska Speaker Series. Earlier in the week, he spoke, visited classes and did a poetry reading at Malone as part of the university’s Writers Series.  Asked to describe his experience on Mount Athos, Cairns borrowed a term used in Celtic Christianity: “Thin space.”  “There is a veil between what is apparent and what is actually there: God with us,” he said. Mount Athos is a place “where that veil is very thin.” Cairns said most monasteries on Mount Athos have cemetery chapels that contain the remains of monastics who died there over the centuries. In these chapels, one can’t help but get an idea “of how long men have been giving themselves in prayer,” he said. “Every so often, I would close my eyes and have the sense of someone talking to me,” Cairns said. “These are places where the ‘cloud of witnesses’ we speak of is apprehensible.” At Mount Athos, he found not one spiritual father, but many. He also found Father Iakovos, one of the few Americans on the holy mountain, who is now Cairns’ confessor when he visits. Fr. Iakovos was interviewed by CBS’s Bob Simon for a “60 Minutes” episode that aired on Easter Sunday last year.He has been invited to Boston to investigate the possibility of establishing cenobite monasteries in the United States, Cairns said. He said the first time he venerated the holy relic of the hand of St. Mary Magdalene on Mount Athos, he was astonished that it felt “so profoundly alive. You kiss it, and it feels like a warm, living hand on your lips, while the gold around it is so cold.” When he expressed his surprise to Fr. Iakovos, he merely said: “Aha! She is not dead.” While he was there, Cairns was told that monks who die on Mount Athos do not experience rigor mortis, but appear as though they are only asleep. Other monks who prepare their bodies for burial seem to find comfort in that, he said. “There’s a glorious, recurrent theme on the holy mountain,” Cairns said. “It is that the line between life and death is so hard to draw.” Fr. Iakovos and his other spiritual fathers helped him in his struggle to practice true prayer of the heart. “God led me to a place where I could hear what I needed to hear,” he said.  The fathers told him: “It is not you praying. That is why you must listen and learn that it is God who prays in you.” When a parishioner said she had difficulty focusing and preventing other thoughts from coming in during prayer, Cairns said he also has what he calls his “inseparable interior monologue.” “Lots of fathers speak about that,” he told her. “It’s not just us.” He said he complained to Father Palamas, his Mount Athos confessor before Father Iakovos became a priest, “that I’d been saying the Jesus prayer for ten years and not getting anywhere.” He said Fr. Palamas asked him, “Do you listen to the words? Do you listen to the stillness between the words? Focus on that, and the other (thoughts) will go away. Wait between words and appreciate the stillness as God letting you know He’s there.” Cairns said he learned to just let the extraneous thoughts occur during prayer, “but don’t pay attention to them.”  “Don’t get angry, just keep praying,” he advised. “Try to sink below that static, that white noise. It doesn’t necessarily go away, but you don’t notice it. You can still pray.” Cairns also talked about “certain words to which the early church had access,” but that have literally been lost in translation from the Greek. For instance, the Greek words nous and cardia have been “rendered, surrendered” and “sorely diminished” to mean only “mind” and “heart” respectively. With the reduction of those words, “what should be an actively performed faith, a lived faith, becomes little more than an idea,” he said.  “Their language has loaded terms,” Cairns said of the Greek. “The greatest danger is that by selling the vocabulary short, we satisfy ourselves with half-truths.”  “As soon as we start to receive some of the teachings of the early faith, we find great assistance,” he said. “They had a number of words that contained a number of amazing truths.”  A parishioner noted that words like nous and cardia are “more than words, they’re concepts,” to which Cairns added:  “Truth is even bigger than concepts.”

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