How I Pray: The Very Reverend Archimandrite John Panteleimon Manoussakis

jmI wanted an Orthodox voice in How I Pray, and Artur Rosman suggested The Very Reverend Archimandrite John Panteleimon Manoussakis, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross and an Honorary Fellow at the Australian Catholic University. He is the author of God After Metaphysics (2007) and more recently of For the Unity of All: Contributions to the Theological Dialogue Between East and West (2015). I’m honored that he took the time to participate.

Read more entries in the How I Pray series.

Who are you?

This is indeed the perennial philosophical question. It has often led us astray for the question “who are you?” excludes the place we occupy (the “where”) and, therefore, our body by means of which we find ourselves in both space and time. Recall also that the first question God addresses to us in the person of Adam is not “who are you?” but rather “where are you?” (Genesis 3:9) and it is not, therefore, so much a question of who we are but rather of where we are. Do we “stand in truth” (John 8:44) or not? If not, no matter which identity we give ourselves it has no reality. There have been people living under assumed identities that either they themselves or the world around them created for them. On the other hand, we are reminded of Francisco de Quevedo’s words: “Soy un fue y un será y un es cansado” (“I am a was, a will be, and a weary is”). The very same time that disperses us may also recollect us into unity.

What is your vocation?

I have always felt (and this “always” is not an exaggeration as our vocation exceeds the limits of our biological life) that I was called to the Church. In what capacity is perhaps irrelevant. As it happened, I became a monastic and a priest. Continuing in a long tradition that goes back to the middle ages, I also serve the Church through teaching and scholarship (the University was, after all, the Church’s child). However, these two—classroom and altar—are never equivalent. Scholarly achievements may make better people out of our students, they may even change their lives, yet they can never compare to the difference that the celebration of the Eucharist makes. Knowledge, regardless of how instrumental might be to faith, cannot promise, let alone deliver, salvation.

What is your prayer routine for an average day?

One could perhaps object to the conjunction of these two words, “prayer” and “routine.” Yet this objection springs from our romantic ideas that fancy prayer to be some kind of “event.” In reality, judged externally, when we pray nothing happens. In the eyes of the world that evaluates everything in terms of production and consumption, the time of prayer is a “dead” time, a waste even of time that could have been used more productively. It is precisely because we fight against such a perception that a “prayer routine” is essential. What is most difficult in prayer is persevering in it. Ideally, I would like to maintain a schedule of praying daily the liturgy of the hours, beginning with matins and concluding the day with compline. This practice bestows one’s life with a rhythm that is transformative.

How well do you achieve it, and how do you handle those moments when you don’t?

Worldly cares and the old enemy of every life of prayer, acedia, always interfere with our best intentions and efforts. This should not discourage us (and I say this as one who has often been discouraged and frustrated). Prayer knows of other ways—it can, in fact, transform this very frustration into a prayerful cry. What I am trying to say is that carrying on with one’s daily humble duties, attending to those same worldly cares that seem to be the stumbling block to our devotions might be itself a form of prayer. After all, our goal is not to carve out from our days a few hours dedicated to God, but to offer our whole life and all of our actions as a prayer to Him. The distinction between sacred time and secular time—a time for the world and a time for God— that this mentality presupposes is ultimately false and even dangerous.

Here, too, our example is that of the Virgin Mary. One must imagine the Blessed Virgin Mary in the world, carrying on with her domestic tasks and duties. The customary depiction of Mary carrying the baby Christ in her arms indicates precisely that: for what else is most worldly than a mother attending to her child? And, yet, at the same time, this also indicates her detachment from the world, since the child she holds is none other than the world’s creator. So, in another sense, this illustrates her complete devotion to God. In Mary the distinction between the contemplative and the active approach is brought to unity and, therefore, transcended.

Do you have a devotion that is particularly important to you or effective?

In the spirituality of the Eastern Church, the most widespread devotion is that of the “Jesus prayer”—that is the “ceaseless” (after 1 Thessalonians 5:17) repetition of the brief prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” Early Christians believed that the Lord’s name is powerful and the invocation of that name is indeed the most powerful prayer. There is indeed “no other name under heaven given to mankind” (Acts 4:12) for our salvation. Because “no one can say ‘Lord Jesus’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3) the invocation of the Lord’s name takes us to the heart of the mystery of the Holy Trinity. The whole of the Church’s theology is embedded in that brief phrase.

Do you have a place, habit, or way of praying?

As perhaps expected, icons play an important role in my prayerful life. We should not disparage these “externals” as superfluous to “true” prayer. Christianity is through and through incarnational and, therefore, faith is greatly aided by such materials as, in turn, it sanctifies these objects used in our devotions. This is not the place to expound the Church’s theology of icons—yet, it should be clearly stated that they are far more than “visual aids” or “religious decoration.” In my room I have a little corner with a few icons, there also I keep my prayer books, a bottle with holy water and a censer for burning incense (this is not something peculiar to me as a clergyman, in every house of an Orthodox Christian one could find similar devotions). Even when I am not in front of them, their presence alone is a constant reminder of God’s sanctifying presence.

Do you use any tools or sacramentals?

We pray with the words that the Church has given us—that is, we speak to God in the words that He has first addressed to us in the Holy Scriptures. But also we should pray with our bodies, for man is not only a mind. Whether standing or kneeling, whether reading or chanting, it is good that our prayer does not remain only mental. At other times of the day, however, it is the mind or, better yet, the heart that prays “in wordless groans” (Rom. 8:26).

What are your relationship with the Rosary?

In the Eastern Church there is an equivalent to the Rosary, a “praying rope” as it is called. During my years as a novice, when I lived in my monastery, I used it often. Now I have also a rosary. Last year, during a trip to Mexico as part of my Marian pilgrimage (to Guadalupe, Lourdes, and Fatima) I happened to be at the Cathedral of Mexico City during the recitation of the rosary. It was a particularly meaningful occasion for me: one moment I was a stranger, a tourist, in a foreign land, the next moment I was inscribed by prayer in this community under our common Mother.

Is there one particular book or spiritual work that has been particularly important to your devotional life?

I have a particular devotion, if you like, to St. Augustine. I came to his works by means of my academic duties, yet when I read his works is not easy, if not altogether impossible, to tell whether this is “academic” work or prayer. This is especially true for the Confessions, which is in its entirety a long prayer. I am also devoted to the works of Hans Urs von Balthasar. The synthesis accomplished in his works—the last one in our times—of scholarly theology, liturgy, and the arts is unsurpassable.

What is your current spiritual or devotional reading?

Literature, especially Dostoyevsky’s works. There is little that any devotional book could add to The Brothers Karamazov. I’m currently reading The Idiot. Speaking of spiritual or devotional practices, we should not forget that not all such practices need to involve “reading.” Of equal importance, if not more, in the spiritual formation is the role played by music. Johann Sebastian Bach’s music is the pinnacle of Christianity’s expression in that medium. A similar observation can be made for the works of Arvo Pärt. Here, too, once could say a great deal about music’s indispensable role in worship. We don’t imagine angels reading thick volumes and with good reason. They sing.

Are there saints or other figures who inspire your prayer life or act as patrons?

I have already mentioned St. Augustine (and von Balthasar whose help I once invoked while at the ER). Of course I have a special devotion to my patron saints after whom I was named—St. John the Confessor, whose incorruptible body is kept in my native island, and St. Panteleimon (known as Pantaleon in the West), one of the fourteen holy helpers.

What is one prayer you find particularly powerful or effective?

I said above that the invocation of the Lord’s name and thus the “Jesus prayer” is particular effective. However, prayer is most efficacious when it is communal—that is, when “two or three are gathered” in His name (Mt. 18:20). This takes place, above all, in the celebration of the Eucharist, where not only the people present but all of them with whom we share the same faith (the communion of the saints) are present. In the Eucharist it is indeed our Lord Himself who prays with us and on our behalf to His Father.

Have you had any unusual or even miraculous experiences in your prayer life?

Prayer itself is the miraculous, and not the means to miracles. I would be careful in avoiding the temptation for the miraculous which is nothing more than the lure of the spectacular (see Christ’s temptations in the desert). Most often than not miracles passed unnoticed as they occur in one’s heart—there, where not even oneself has full access. Isn’t it a great miracle the conversion of one’s heart? And yet, all the externals remain the same; in a sense, nothing has happened. What is it that makes us fall in our knees and pray? Or address God in a silent cry at a moment of anguish? When a miracle becomes manifest is always on account of (that is, for the benefit of) our weak faith and not a sign of a strong faith. God works through people and through history—even in the miracle of all miracles, His incarnation, he became man and entered history. Nothing more beyond this should be asked.

I’d like to see ______________________ answer these questions.

Prof. Marina McCoy