Friday, August 15, 2008

On praying the Jesus Prayer...

I was thinking this morning that though I've often mentioned the Jesus Prayer in this blog, I've not written much about actually praying the Prayer.

Obviously, as I've written elsewhere, the Jesus Prayer is a prayer of repetition. Not the "vain repetition" of the King James Version translation of Matthew 6:7 (which the NRSV translates, more accurately, as "heap up empty phrases", which is more a criticism of long, wordy prayers than of repetitive ones), but the insistent, longing prayer of the blind men of Matthew 20:30-31, who would not keep quiet, but went on and on calling out to Jesus, "have mercy on us!" (The prayers of Isaiah 6, and Revelation 4:2 and 5:11-14 are prayers of repetition too, but of praise rather than of supplication or intercession.)

In the Orthodox tradition, the Jesus Prayer is usually counted by the 100 - this takes around 20 minutes, and is a convenient practical measure - and is prayed with the aid of a 50- or 100-knot woollen prayer rope, or a chotki, a set of simple wooden beads, often 33 in number.

In the West, a standard set of Latin Rosary beads is often used, or an Anglican Rosary.

These methods are all good, and have a long tradition supporting them, but the use of beads or a knotted rope will not suit everyone, since for some people the mechanical process will in itself be a distraction, rather than a defence against distraction. Some have found that the use of a visual focus, a candle maybe, or a crucifix, will bring the mind to the necessary level of concentration to avoid wandering thoughts and drifting attention - as well as having its own symbolic value; but for myself, nothing replaces the tactile. I have discovered that by far the most effective focus for me is a holding cross.

The holding cross can be used in both formal and informal prayer times, when walking for instance, and while it is ideally suited to the Jesus Prayer, it is most certainly not confined that that, or indeed to any, form of words. In fact that is for me one of its great benefits: unlike beads or a rope, the holding cross allows the Jesus Prayer to shade off into the prayer of silence, and back again, without any loss of rhythm or "falling behind", which so easily pulls the mind back, away from God, onto the mechanics of counting.

It is best to approach saying the Jesus Prayer with as few preconceptions as possible. Although I have read widely, and I hope deeply, on the Prayer over the years, I began saying it when I knew very little of the tradition, or the traditional methods, of praying the Prayer. It took hold, as God had obviously intended it should, and became simply part of who I am before God. The accounts of Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52), and the tax-collector at the temple (Luke 18.10-14), became part of my own story. In fact, although when I was first introduced to the Prayer by Fr. Francis Horner SSM back in 1978, he gave me Per-Olof Sjogren's wonderful book to read, a good deal of what happened in the years following were things for which I had no frame of reference. I only discovered much later that they were commonplace in the experience of those who pray the Prayer!

So don't be afraid, if God calls you on this way of knowing him, to strike out into the deep. After all, even the best maps can do no more than hint at destinations, and maybe warn of shoals; they can convey nothing of the sea-wind, the endless cry of the gulls, the wonderful scent of the waves as they break, or the peace there is in the lift and rock of the deep-water swell...

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