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Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Journey With a Russian Mystic

During Lent, I have used our church mission statement (lifted from St. Benedict) which serves as a pretty thorough overview of the Christian life: To be a worship community committed to prayer, study and work (work is defined as inreach to other disciples and outreach to proclaim the kingdom in word and deed). I challenge everyone to focus deeply on one aspect of the mission and to use the forty days of Lent to prepare to be a new creation for Holy Week and Easter. My commitment has focused on prayer (the Jesus Prayer) and study (reading The Way of the Pilgrim:The Jesus Prayer Journey).

I have in the past worked with the Jesus Prayer, usually with mixed success. Now as I am making a serious effort to integrate the Jesus Prayer into my life I am finding some blessing. It is hard to know why things go that way. I want to share briefly that I have not found late adulthood to be an especially fertile time. I would hesitate to share this (in part because it does not speak well of me) if I did not  hear the stories of other men in similar straights. My theory is that having lived for many decades there is a sense of "been there, done that." We are also tired, less energetic and less hopeful that we will get better. Perhaps the best part of this stage in life is a deep and abiding awareness of my own need for salvation, my helplessness to become the man I long to be and my certitude that if there is any hope, it is in God alone.

Combining study (of The way of the Pilgrim) and prayer (constant recitation of the Jesus Prayer) has proven to be helpful. The book, first published in 1881 (he dates to our own Civil War period) is very simple and relatively short. The Skylight Illuminations version ( is 131 pages, half of it text and the other half informative notes (on opposite pages).

The Jesus Prayer is defined as "the uninterrupted, continual calling upon the divine Name of Jesus, with the lips, the mind, and the heart, while calling to mind His constant presence and beseeching His mercy, during any activity with which one may be occupied, in all places, at all times, and even while sleeping." (p. 15) The prayer phrase he uses is Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. He also refers constantly to the Bible and to the Philokalia (I wrote on the latter in the past. It is a collection of teachings from Eastern Orthodox Church Fathers dating to the early church.) As the pilgrim says, the Philokalia teaches one to read the Bible as it reveals the deeper truths. [In fairness, most of us secularized, rationalist Westerners struggle with such an approach, even when we think of ourselves as spiritual.]

Many are put off by the idea that a Russian mystic can inform contemporary folk about prayer. The Jesus Prayer is more at home in the spiritual enterprise of monks or solitaries, people removed from the frenetic pace of our lifestyle with its endless demands and distractions. Perhaps, too, we wonder if God really wants us to spend so much time repeating any prayer, over and over, even if it is such a sweet sounding prayer. Aren't we supposed to be busy proclaiming the kingdom, serving the poor, bringing the lost to Jesus?

Well, in honesty, as much as we talk about doing such things, truth be told we spend precious little time doing them. We are self deceiving creatures. We reject a way of prayer because we say a life of service matters more, and then we rarely get around to the service. At least based on my experience and observation.

Perhaps the words of  the monk (called a staretz, a wondering teacher in the ways of holiness which were widepsread in 19th Century Russia) can address our concerns. This is found on page 13:

Many good works are required of a Christian, but it is prayer which must come first and foremost, for without prayer no other good work can be performed and one cannot find a way to the Lord. (he goes on to list the fruits: acquiring truth, crucifying lusts and passions and union with Christ and being filled with His light)...perfect prayer lies beyond our abilities. The Apostle Paul says, 'For we do not know how to pray as we ought.' (Scripture is always the source of the teachings)... the frequency and the regularity of prayer are the only things that lie within our abilities."

Then this take away line: First learn to pray, and then you will easily perform all good works. The spiritual master points out that we see things backwards. Many people treat prayer in an inverted way, thinking that it is one's efforts and preparatory steps that give rise to prayer, rather than the prayer itself giving birth to good works and all virtues. In this case , they mistakenly see the fruits and resulting benefits of prayer as the means to its end, thereby denigrating the very power of prayer.

More on this to come, but I want to point out two things. First of all, the phrasing varies from teacher to teacher. It can be longer Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. It can be any variation of additions. In shortest and simplest form, Lord Jesus, mercy or perhaps your own variations the key is focus on the Divine Name, the Lord Himself and the invocation. The beauty of the cry "have mercy" is it covers a wide variety of circumstance (mercy= forgive our sins or help us in our need). The repetition frees us from the need to create some beautiful sounding prayer (so that we focus on our own creativity) and the repetition does have impact. I know that repetition has an impact as habits create character. A person constantly aware of a need for Jesus' mercy will find it easier to become merciful. It is harder to sin when one is regularly invoking the Lord Jesus by name...

Driving to work, meditating on the daily readings, sitting in a chair breathing for a few minutes, walking to get a drin of water; whatever, whenever, the repeated use of this prayer does have an effect. But it takes time and discipline. And faith. I will share more on this in the days ahead. I pray God will deliver you in your Lenten disciplines from all evil and into the hands of Jesus His Son.

Jesus, Son of God, Son of Mary, Son of David, Son of Man! Jesus, Lamb of God, Lord of Lords, King of Kings, Savior and Redeemer! Jesus, Messiah, have mercy on your people. Come Jesus to guard and guide us! Come Jesus to rule and govern us! Come Jesus to heal and forgive us! Come Jesus, today, again and again, to make us yours, one with You, just as You are one with the Father! Thank You Jesus, Thank You, Bless You, Praise You. Amen. (say that one hundred times a day and see what happens)

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