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 faithwhich 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
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 wontand
their wantclaim 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.