Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The Jesus Prayer

Dear Friends,

“Are you doing okay?” asked my dentist with some concern in his voice. “You’re very still.” We were in the middle of a very uncomfortable and lengthy root canal, but I was completely relaxed. My breathing had slowed as I sunk deeper in contemplative prayer and I was reciting the Jesus Prayer: LORD JESUS CHRIST, SON OF GOD, HAVE MERCY ON ME, A SINNER. I hate having work done on my teeth and my dentist is always kind enough to offer tranquilizers and sedation. But so far, all I’ve ever needed was Jesus.

The Jesus Prayer can take you into contemplative prayer and it can also fill the secular spaces in our life. When we’re out shopping. Doing laundry. Taking out the trash. Stopped at the light. In the doctor’s waiting room. That’s when our minds wander toward the trivial and these are the empty spaces in our day that we can fill with prayer. The Jesus Prayer redeems those moments and turns the secular into the sacred. 

The Jesus Prayer starts out in our mind with intentionality, and as it becomes the repetitive prayer of our heart, it comes to our thoughts spontaneously and without effort on our part. When the Jesus Prayer becomes embedded in our soul, we will find our thoughts praying it constantly and unconsciously as it becomes the background music of our life. I wake up in the night and in that hazy mental state, when my mind is not yet fully awake and I’m floating in a free-flowing stream of unconscious thoughts, I’ll find myself praying the Jesus Prayer. While we’re sleeping, the Holy Spirit is praying in us to Jesus and through Him to the Father. Even in sleep, our spirit connects with His Spirit. Prayer is our intrinsic desire. Our souls cannot develop without prayer. As our lungs must fill with air, our souls must fill with prayer.

The Jesus Prayer is avoided by some because of Jesus’ warning to not engage in repetitious prayers but a careful reading of Matthew 6:7 shows that we are to avoid “vain repetitions” – those that are meaningless and worthless. There is nothing more worthy than the name of Jesus and  from the 4th century, monastics have used a form of the Jesus Prayer throughout their day as a way to “pray without ceasing..” 1 Thessalonians 5:17 Over 1,000 years later, the Roman Catholic Church would develop the “Hail Mary” prayer and the use of the rosary, but the Jesus Prayer has remained the practice of the Orthodox church for over 2,000 years. And now today, Protestants seeking a deeper connection with God have discovered this ancient tradition.

The Jesus Prayer is not a mantra or magic talisman. It is recited with fear (reverence) of God and with faith and love. Speaking the name of Jesus invites and instills His presence. Speaking forth the Holy Name, places the reality of God into our circumstances. Life happens. We get stressed. Thoughts can become unhealthy and can even be incapacitating. We worry. Obsess. Get angry or depressed. Praying the Jesus Prayer at those times will break the bondage of those thoughts and bring the peace of God.

Because I’m a geek for gadgets, I recently bought an inexpensive Pulse Oximeter that clips on your finger to give you a digital readout of your pulse and the amount of oxygen in your blood. One afternoon, I was stressed and very upset at something and could feel my heart beat harder and faster and my blood pressure rise. I clipped on the little device to see what my heart rate was and then, as I normally do when I get stressed, I started to pray the Jesus Prayer using it as a breath prayer. I watched my pulse rate slow down to lower than normal and I was soon relaxed and stress-free. When life happens and we become stressed, we can use alcohol or prescription drugs to self-sooth our soul. Or we can use the Jesus Prayer.

There are also times when I don’t know what to pray. When I need to pray but can’t and I don’t even know how to begin. I always start with the Jesus Prayer and soon the flow of spontaneous prayer comes pouring from my heart.

The Jesus Prayer is LORD JESUS CHRIST, SON OF GOD, HAVE MERCY ON ME, A SINNER. Matthew 16:16 and Luke 18:13 Some people eliminate the last two words. For awhile I did too until I realized I was avoiding this penitential phrase out of a prideful spirit. The Orthodox practice combines the Jesus Prayer with deep breathing. (while inhaling) Lord Jesus Christ, (exhaling) Son of God (inhaling) have mercy on me, (exhaling) a sinner. Even if you don’t normally use the Jesus Prayer as a breath prayer, I highly recommend it during a root canal.

In contemplative prayer, we find a place of silence, solitude and stillness. We can pray the Jesus Prayer continuously without ceasing “until God’s love has been poured into our heart.” Romans 5:5 Greek Orthodox monks use a woolen prayer cord called a “komvoschinion” that has 50 or 100 knots tied in it and they use it to pray the Jesus Prayer hundreds or thousands of times per day. You and I don’t live in a monastery or convent. We live in a very secular, stress-filled world. 

But we can use the Jesus Prayer throughout our day to stay connected with God in both the daily mundane and in the most stressful circumstances. It's difficult to describe, but the Jesus Prayer will allow you to stay focused, relaxed and energized at the same time. This prayer can bring a sense of meditative calmness even in the midst of chaos. We do not disassociate from conscious and discerning thoughts, but we invite the Presence of God into the center of those thoughts and into the ebb and flow of our life by invoking His name in all that we do.

“You have made us for Yourself,O God, 
and our heart is restless 
until it finds its rest in You.” 
Augustine of Hippo ~ 354 A.D.

[The above is a revised and expanded version from an earlier AMEN Corner]

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