Pray Like a Cicada

By Matthew J. Milliner, originally published by Plough.

The western suburbs of Chicago, where I live, are at the epicenter for the seventeen-year hatching of cicada Brood XIII. Just south of us is the even thicker Brood XIX, which hatches every thirteen years. The convergence of the two hatches this year, which has not happened since Thomas Jefferson was president, puts parts of Illinois squarely in what we might call the cicada path of totality.

All these cicadas have got me thinking of the counsel offered by an anonymous monk of Mount Athos in his book The Watchful Mind. The manuscript is dated to 1851 and only came into public view in 1978, when it was discovered at the Xenophontos Monastery on Mount Athos. It was published in several Greek editions, and in Romanian and Russian, but was only translated into English in 2014. The subject of the manuscript is the prayer of the heart, also called contemplative or noetic prayer, because in this form of prayer the intellect (nous in Greek) is watchful and alert. If you want to learn this kind of prayer yourself, cicadas – the monk explains – will show you how:

Beloved, when you wish to pray noetically from your depths, let the prayer of your heart imitate the sound of the cicada. When the cicada chirps, it does so in two ways. At first, it softly chirps five to ten times, but then its ending chirps are more pronounced, drawn out, and melodic. And so, beloved, when you pray noetically within your heart, pray in the following manner: First say, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me” about ten times, forcefully from your heart and clearly with your intellect from your depths, one time with each breath. Restrain your breath a little each time you say the prayer as your heart meditates from its depth on the words. Once you have said the prayer in this fashion ten times or more until that place within you has become warm where you meditate upon the prayer, then say the prayer more forcefully, with greater tension and forcefulness of heart, just as the cicada ends its song with a more pronounced and melodic voice.

This is unusual counsel. Many of us are drawn to excessively comfortable prayer practices. Should the chance for prayer present itself, we pull back the recline handle on our La-Z-Boys of the soul. But the monk from Mount Athos shows us how the cicada exerts effort. Other passages in the same manuscript call to mind the cicada corpses that Midwestern feet are crunching. “Crush your heart with the prayer, so that Satan who deceives you will be smashed to smithereens.” The monk does not hesitate to use an even more violent analogy. “Did you lose your heart because of the force of the prayer? You saved your soul and gained paradise. Did you give blood from your heart? Your soul received the Holy Spirit.” But there is also a marked tenderness in his counsel. “Did you crush your heart with the prayer? Your soul was fed by divine eros and your heart mystically felt the inexpressible sweetness of Christ your Creator.”

Perhaps what I like most about this monk’s spartan advice is the way it counters our contemporary regime of self-care, where too much severity or rigor is assumed to be harmful.

If you do not receive tears when you force your heart with the prayer, know that you have not attained pain of heart. You have not yet reached the point of wounding your heart so much that the place where the prayer is being said aches with a sharp pain, as if that place of the chest were being stabbed with a sharp knife.

The violence is not due to self-hatred, but due to the heart’s being – disconcertingly enough – the devil’s throne. This is not to say we are demonically possessed. Instead, the monk is pointing to something far less dramatic, and therefore insidious. Thoughts of anger, envy, and greed betray patterns more commensurate with hell than with heaven, and to put it bluntly, the devil must be actively rooted out.

The battle takes place with the head inclined to the chest, targeting the devil’s dominion, and the weapon is what we today call the Jesus Prayer, deployed like the revving wings of the cicada: “Satan sat there on an exalted throne, boasting about the intricate method of his deceptions. But when the blessed and mighty prayer of the Lord’s name reached there, it overturned Satan’s throne and silenced his boasting.” The deafening sound of the cicada, that is, the Jesus Prayer, sends the devil packing. “Not only does a demon, which is a servant of Satan, flee from the presence of a crushed heart, but also Satan himself, the chief of demons, flees faster than lightning from the presence of a heart that has been crushed by the prayer.”

Rumors have long swirled about contemplative practices secretly preserved by the monks of Mount Athos. The Watchful Mind reveals these practical, and difficult, prayer practices. This summer we will see them demonstrated, in my state at least, by trillions of cicadas, perfectly timed to challenge the increasing fashion for contemplative prayer, which is far more difficult than many take it to be.

Lest we think the Athonite monk’s nineteenth-century advice is rigid, unkind, or outdated, a contemporary master of contemplative prayer, Martin Laird, offers similar counsel in his book A Sunlit Absence:

After we have long been dedicated to silent prayer and experience it largely as restful and peaceful, it is easy enough to feel quite happy simply to stretch out in this hammock of contemplative practice and enjoy a martini of quietude…. Just because our practice has led us to a certain inner calm and recollection, we should not assume that we are home free. Saint Augustine speaks to this when he says, “Take care that a time of calm repose does not lead to laxity and forgetfulness of God.” There is a way to recognize the state of awareness that indicates when this calm repose has been besotted…. Very soon after settling into our practice (if not immediately after), a dull, inattentive, graying-out settles in.

Laird explains that while those who style themselves as contemplatives may not be engaging thoughts in the same way they once did, thoughts find another way in. The state of spiritual turpitude into which some of us lull ourselves means the thoughts are simply disguised, being “thick and dense, characterized by a lethargic calm that is really a dulling of awareness … not terribly far from a state of dozing off.”

If someone looked at us sitting in prayer, he or she would not see an engaged and vigilant peace in our face and bearing, but instead a drooping face ready to nod off at any moment; the breath is short and shallow, as far from the abdomen as possible; the body not alert but slightly hunched over…. If we stay in the comfy hammock of lethargic inattentiveness, we slow our cooperation with what is trying to come to birth.

This is where the cicadas come in. Their deafening chirps remind us that contemplative prayer is compatible with fervor, and is the opposite of sloth. Zen aloofness is one thing; Christian contemplation is quite another. Although severe, there is nothing masochistic or laborious in the monk from Athos’s counsel, and it is impossible apart from grace: “The wound you willingly receive from your forceful prayer – as God is my witness – will become a spiritual fount of divine compunction, from which compunction will always flow without any effort.”

“Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Eph. 5:14). As the cicadas awaken, may their racket stir would-be contemplatives from slumber as well.

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