Sunday, 8 September 2013

The Jesus Prayer, emotion and experience

In recent posts where I have been reporting on my experiences of saying the Jesus Prayer I am aware - and concerned - that I have been giving the impression that any 'feelings' I have had are somehow proof of the efficacy of my praying. Moisture in the eyes and the occasional tears, or 'feelings' of warmth and well-being may have been some kind of emotional response to saying the Prayer but I do not claim that they are in and of themselves good, or desired or signs of 'success' (another word I am wary of). One thing I have learned from my reading of the Fathers is that they rend to warn about putting too much onus or importance on such things.

However I am re-reading a book I reported on in earlier blogs called "Living the Jesus Prayer" by Irma Zaleski and in her chapter 'Awareness and attention' she writes:

"...we should not seek any special experiences in prayer for they may prove to be not a help but a hindrance to us. They may distract us and keep us focused on ourselves, on our own thoughts and emotions, and not on God. This is true, but the experience of the presence of God in Christ of which we are speaking here is not a matter of our own thoughts, feelings or imagination. It is a matter of awareness: of becoming aware of what is real, of what is always there, but that we are usually too busy and distracted to notice and pay attention to."

But what does she mean? She continues:

"The kind of awareness that the Jesus Prayer may lead us to is very simple. We do not try to imagine that Jesus is there, and even less what he looks like or what he says. We do not engage in any imaginary conversations with him. We simply try to be aware of him and attentive to him in a similar way as we are aware of the presence of someone we live in the next room, or a mother is attentive to what her children are doing, however busy she is. We believe - we know by faith - that God in Christ is here, with us and in us. Our task is to try to remember him and be attentive to him. It is this attentiveness that is the door to our experience of the presence of God. We cannot summon this experience at will. We cannot grasp at it as if it were a possession. It is, like the Prayer itself, a gift. Ours is only a discipline of faith and perseverance. The experience, when it comes, will come of its own accord, and will be nothing like what we could ever imagine. God is immensely bigger than our imagination. Our hope is that when he comes, when he reveals himself to us in the Person of Christ, we will be able to recognize him, like the disciples recognized Christ when he visited them after the Resurrection....."

However the question I would ask is this. Isn't emotion a kind of response to the presence of God? Isn't it possible to be moved by the proximity of God as he touches our hearts? While emotion isn't necessarily proof it is also surely not necessarily the opposite either? The point is to seek God and not the emotions.

In the Bible emotion seems to be a regular response to the presence of God whether tears of repentance, shouts of joy or even abject terror and fear! Isaiah mourns, Jacob smarts, the disciples fall over like drunk men and Wesley was warmed when he heard Luther's Preface to the Romans being read. Peter throws himself at the feet of Jesus - as does John - and was Mary stony faced when she bumped into the Risen Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane? The point I am making is that an encounter with the living God is not going to leave us unaffected and whether that be an emotional effect or some other, then experience of some sort is surely not altogether wrong or mistaken.

So the upshot of this? I can't ignore the feelings I have been experiencing but I will not wear them as badges of authenticity. If they come - good. If they don't - that's good too. For God is what is important and not the effects of being in His presence.

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