The best sort of Apostolic Exhortations are the shortest. Such as this one from St. Paul:
“We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, cheer the fainthearted, support the weak, be patient with all. See that no one returns evil for evil; rather, always seek what is good for each other and for all. Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil.” (I Thess 5:14-22)
All good stuff. Straightforward. Easy to understand. Even if it might not be as easy to do.
Especially that bit about praying without ceasing. How does one even do that?
As a Protestant, I was taught to avoid the “vain repetitions of the gentiles who think they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7, also translated as “do not babble like the pagans.”). We took this to mean don’t pray like Catholics with their set repeated mantras. Never mind that Jesus himself teaches one of those set prayers: the Our Father. (We called it “The Lord’s Prayer” and were careful not to say it too often lest it become a vain repetition like those heathen Catholics had made it.) Our Protestant prayers had to be extemporaneous, consciously composed as we prayed. This made us aware that we were talking to God from our own heart. The only problem is that unless we were poetic geniuses, it wasn’t long before our stock of fresh phrases was exhausted and we were engaged in vain repetitions, simply repeating the same old phrases in a different order.
So how does one pray without ceasing…without repeating oneself?
I found the answer while finding my way to the fullness of the faith—which surprisingly turned out to be the Catholic Church. I had one main spiritual guide: G.K. Chesterton. But he had some help. I should probably mention the Holy Spirit. Nor should I neglect all the saints. And I found out there were a lot of people who were praying for me.
But Chesterton’s most interesting allies in bringing me to the Catholic Church came from the East, like the Wise Men who came to worship the Christ Child. I took the longest road possible to Rome.
When I say East, I mean Eastern Orthodoxy. Like many other Evangelicals who realize there is more to the history of Christianity than what happened in the Book of Acts and then after the Reformation, but who still are quite sure that Rome and the Pope must be gotten around, I took a long look at the Eastern Church. It represented a more profound tradition, a richer liturgy and worship, and a deeper spirituality than I found in any of the Protestant churches with their bare walls and blond wood and bland hymns. And what introduced me to the Eastern Church was a simple and sublime spiritual classic, The Way of a Pilgrim.
The anonymous writer, a 19th century Russian, describes his similar reaction to St. Paul’s exhortation, “Pray without ceasing.” How…?
The pilgrim brings the question to a holy monk, who tells him about the Jesus Prayer. It is based on the first line of the great penitential Psalm 51, but also on this parable from Jesus: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Lk 18:10-14)
It’s pretty clear that it does not do any good to recite our own accomplishments to God. The Pharisee made the easy mistake of thinking that he was somehow worthy of God’s blessings. And that is how he lost his blessing. The despised and dishonest tax collector knew his sins. He simply beat his breast (as we do in at Mass in our opening confession), and begged for God’s mercy.
The Jesus Prayer is simply this: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
The pilgrim prayed this prayer over and over throughout his day, thousands of times. He found that his mind and spirit were transformed. Prayer is always a blessing that embraces other blessings. But it is also a purification. Only the pure in heart can see God, and so the more our heart is purified the closer we are drawn to God.
So I tried it.
Just like the pilgrim, when I was engaged in some menial task, I would repeat the Jesus Prayer over and over again. I slowly realized that there was nothing empty or idle or “vain” about it. It was talking to God, and drawing closer to him with every breath. When unpleasant or unedifying thoughts would enter my head, bad memories, bad reactions, I could easily and instantly chase them away with the Jesus Prayer. It was something that I could do all day long, always conscious, always filling empty space.
The pilgrim was also advised to read the Philokalia, a collection of writings of the Eastern fathers. So I did that, too. Thus I discovered St. Hesychias, who was a 5th century monk in Jerusalem (though scholars, as is their wont—and their want—claim that the St. Hesychias of the Philokalia was a different monk of the same name from some other place, some other time). He says that the mind that is actively seeking God “longs to enjoy holy thoughts” and is watchful, attentive to virtue, and does not allow itself “to be plundered away when vain material thoughts approach it through the senses.” So he recommends focusing on the Holy Name of Jesus. This was once a widespread devotion in the Western Church.
It would be years before I would say my first “Hail Mary,” let alone pray a Rosary. But I never would have found my way to meditative prayer had it not been for the Jesus Prayer. I still pray it. All the time.
It is a perfect prayer for Lent. It is also a very succinct and easy-to-remember act of contrition in the confessional. And in many ways, St. Faustina’s Divine Mercy Chaplet is an extension and elevation of the publican’s honest, heartfelt plea to God.
But before there was the Divine Mercy Chaplet, there was the Jesus Prayer.