Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Prayer without ceasing

One of the greatest books about the Jesus prayer is one I was asked to read and review while in Theological College called "The Way of the Pilgrim". In fact it was reading this book that started me using the prayer. It tells the story of a Russian peasant who makes a journey of discovery about the Jesus Prayer. This is how he begins:

"By the grace of God I am a Christian man, but by my actions a great sinner.....On the twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost I went to church to say my prayers there during the Liturgy.  The first Epistle of St. Paul to the Thessalonians was being read, and among the words I heard these - 'Pray without ceasing' (1 Thessalonians 5:17). It was this text, more than any other, which forced itself upon my mind, and I began to think how it was possible to pray without ceasing, since a man has to concern himself with other things also in order to make a living."

Several things strike me here:
1. He acknowledges that he is a "great sinner". This surely is an important prerequisite for saying the Jesus prayer as half the prayer is a cry for mercy and an acknowledgment of sin.
2. Out of all the different scriptures that were read that day the Pilgrim only "heard" those from 1 Thessalonians - surely the inner voice of the Spirit calling him. I seem to have read somewhere that the Fathers talk about being 'called' to say the prayer in the sense that not everyone gets on with it or feels they can or should pray it?
3. It was the Pilgrim's concern to obey and explore Paul's command to "Pray ceaselessly.." that led him to the Jesus Prayer. It was not a direct path but it nevertheless led him ultimately to it as he asked the question it posed about how to "make a living" and pray at the same time.

Following the call to prayer without ceasing the Pilgrim wanders from church to church to listen to sermons but was unable to find the answer he desired. Finally he met a holy staretz who said to him:

"Ceaseless interior prayer is a continual yearning fo the human spirit towards God. To succeed in this consoling exercise we must pray more often to god to teach us to pray without ceasing. Pray more, and pray more fervently. It is prayer itself which will reveal to you how it can be achieved unceasingly; but it will take some time."

Then the holy staretz taught the peasant the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me." While travelling as a pilgrim through Russia, the peasant repeats this prayer thousands of times with his lips. He even considers the Jesus Prayer to be his true companion. And then one day he has the feeling that the prayer by its own action passes from his lips to his heart. He says:

"....it seemed as though my heart in its ordinary beating began to say the words of the Jesus Prayer within each beat....I gave up saying the Prayer with my lips. I simply listened carefully to what my heart was saying."

Reading this wonderful book - and it's sequel "The Pilgrim continues his way" - inspired me to start praying the prayer. I recommend it as a great 'way in' to discovering the prayer and encouraging anyone who wants to begin their journey of prayer.

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