Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Humility and the Jesus Prayer

The power of the Jesus Prayer lies in its expression of humility and need. "Have mercy" is the cry of the humbled heart for the salvation that only God can give. We cannot save ourselves but we know someone who can, and this knowing causes us to cry out with all our hearts "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." The Desert Fathers and Mothers consistently taught the need for humility:

Theodora said that neither asceticism, nor vigils, nor any kind of suffering are able to save. Only true humility can do that. There was a hermit who was able to banish the demons. And he asked them: "What makes you go away? Is it fasting?" They replied: "We do not eat or drink." "Is it vigils?" They said: "We do not sleep." "Then what power sends you away?" They replied: "Nothing can overcome us except humility alone." Amma Theodora said: "Do you see how humility is victorious over the demons."

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The Power of the Name

Just bought another book on the Jesus Prayer called "The Power of the Name" by Alphonse and Rachel Goetmann who are the directors of Bethanie, intriguingly described as "a Centre for Spiritual Encounter located in the city of Metz in eastern France. Father Goetmann is an Orthodox priest.

In the blurb on the back the authors write:
"This book has grown out of lived experience and not out of theory. The Jesus Prayer has been the foundation of our lives for over forty years." In other words if you are looking for the next best thing to a neighbourhood staretz, they are it. However that is only my first thought. Alphonse and Rachel make no such lofty claims. In fact in their Preface they are reassuringly humble stating: "We have dared to write a book on the Jesus Prayer...." Although this clearly expresses their wish to distance themselves from being considered experts in any way, it does encourage me - and anyone buying the book - to believe that here is someone who can tell me something that I don't know about this ancient prayer. In my continuing search for help and guidance here is someone at whose feet I can sit for a little while.

The chapters that follow take us through the power of the Name in the Old and New Testaments (chapter 1) and the Jesus Prayer in the early tradition (chapter 2) before getting down to the practicalities of praying the Jesus Prayer (chapter 3). In this chapter they explain how to simply recite the prayer slowly, counselling the pray-er that the prayer is "...pronounced with our lips, in a more or less rapid rhythm, but always putting our heart and mind into it, lovingly focusing our attention on God, each word of the prayer absorbing our whole consciousness". (page 31).

They go on to talk about the importance of recollection, posture, forgiveness, relaxation, what to do with distractions and breathing etc.  What they have to say about breathing was very helpful as that has become, form time to time, a real problem in saying the prayer as it has led me to breathlessness and a sense of heaviness.

Chapter four is entitled "The Jesus Prayer as a way of life" linking it in with the need to read and become familiar with the Bible, with Chapter Five - the Path of Conversion and Asceticism  - underlining our call to follow Jesus which necessitates self-denial and the battle against sin. In other words it reminds us that here is not disconnected form of spirituality which has become all the rage at the moment where the Jesus Prayer becomes yet another 'option' for those who call themselves 'spiritual' but not 'religious'. For such people the Prayer is taken from the same shelf as TM, yoga or other New age forms of spirituality as a way of achieving inner peace. But to link it to Christ and his call to follow him, and the need to identify and fight against human sinfulness is to place it very firmly within the Christian Tradition.

The final chapter is entitled "The Meaning of the Prayer" which goes through the theology of the words of the prayer. This may seem an odd place to put such a chapter. Wouldn't it have been better to explain it first before asking us to practice it? However as we read the New Testament it is always this way round - the experience of Jesus leading to an understanding or explanation of who He is.

So an excellent book by people who know what they are talking about and who certainly practice what they preach.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Trial, and error?

Saying the Jesus Prayer I have noticed several things which seem to reoccur in varying degrees each time:

First that it takes about 20 repetitions before my mind really starts to get itself sorted out. Initially I may be able to concentrate on the prayer for one or two repetitions, but then a recent film I have watched or some forthcoming event pops into my mind and then for one or two repetitions I am caught up in saying the prayer but thinking about something else. So like a sailor trying to regain control of a wayward ship, I wrestle the prayer back on course and for one or two repetitions I am moving forward again until the next distraction chases me down.

Second, when I am able to focus on what I am saying two things happen:
One, I 'connect' with the name of Jesus and, fleetingly, seem to 'touch' the person I am addressing. That's the only way I can explain it. When I do there is a slight emotional lift and then it's gone again. This can happen for one or several repetitions and then back to the minding wandering off course again.
Two, sometimes I connect with the 'have mercy on me a sinner' part and this time I experience a different sort or emotional lift where I am yearning for mercy and grace or more of God. It is, I think, and acknowledgement of hunger - of wanting more.

These occasions are rare but they are frequent enough to keep me going with the prayer and give me a sense of getting somewhere even if that somewhere is not really where I am meant to go or the real aim of the prayer. The trouble is I have no way of knowing if this is right or wrong or that I am being led along a wrong path or being deceived or whatever. This surely underlines the need for a spiritual guide rather than books.

But it is better to pray than not too pray and besides, all is grace.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Pray - like a child

St. Isaac the Syrian once wrote: "When you turn to God in prayer, be in your thoughts as an ant, as a serpent of the earth, like a worm, like a stuttering child. Do not speak to Him something philosophical or high-sounding, but approach Him with a child's attitude" (Homily 49).

Those who have acquired genuine prayer experience an ineffable poverty of the spirit when they stand before the Lord, glorify and praise Him, confess to Him, or present to Him their entreaties. They feel as if they had turned to nothing, as if they did not exist. That is natural. For when he who is in prayer experiences the fullness of the divine presence, of Life Itself, of Life abundant and unfathomable, then his own life strikes him as a tiny drop in comparison to the boundless ocean. --St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov)