Saturday, February 28, 2015
Stand, Bow, Prostrate: The Prayerful Body of Coptic Christianity
Coptic monastics were indeed wary of the hesychastic practices of the Jesus Prayer that developed later in the Eastern churches, and it may seem that such suspicion is somehow a teaching against engaging the body in formalized asceticism – for example, of sitting in silence and using the recommended breathing exercises. Yet the suspicion of hesychastic practice is not, in fact, a suspicion of the use of the body in prayer, but instead simply a rejection of the complicated system of hesychasm. Fr. Matta el-Meskeen, for instance, in his book on Orthodox Prayer Life, comments that hesychasm made the method of unceasing prayer lose its former simplicity. He claims that the method of unceasing prayer “shifted from its ascetical position as a humbling practice by itself to a mystical position, with programs, stipulations, technical and mechanical bases, degrees, objectives, results…” Instead, he prefers the simplicity of praying while working and in common human duties, which is likewise a practice found in both Eastern and Western Christian monasticism, stating that this allows for God to share in human work, and helps the person to discern God’s calling in regards to work. It is believed that work by itself does not help to save a monk or nun from distractions and temptations, but that the necessity of repeating short prayers along with working helps to keep the mind occupied. Labor mingled with constant prayer, whether short formulas of Psalms or the Jesus Prayer, allows the person to express his love for God continuously. This practice of praying unceasingly while working became one of the accepted forms of prayer in the Coptic Church.