The Jesus Prayer
The Ancient Desert Prayer That Tunes the Heart to God
by Frederica Mathewes-Green
168 pages of text plus notes and citations
This book is a feast, both appetizing and nourishing for anyone who even remotely wishes to learn about prayer. Though the writing seems to address beginners, the author's understanding and presentation of the subject are so richly nuanced, it is hard to imagine anyone, even the most experienced person of prayer, failing to benefit from it. And it's so much more than just a book on "technique"--I came away from it feeling as though I'd been offered a glimpse of the heart of God.
The book provides a clear, insightful introduction and discussion of the Jesus Prayer in terms of history, Scripture, meaning, and context, and contains much explication in ordinary language, many helpful anecdotes and examples, and a lot of searing, and yet hope-inspiring quotations and passages from both ancient and contemporary sources. There's a lot of "unpacking" of "how-to," but it's quite the opposite of a paint-by-number approach--as the author states, "[i]t's not as if anyone could make a detailed map, because everyone's makeup and history is different. What's more, our omnipotent God is free to do whatever He wants...Still, it can be helpful to get an overview of what others ahve observed."
This is an incredibly practical book, not only addressing what the Jesus Prayer is and is not, but dealing with all kinds of questions and roadblocks, including those with which we may have struggled inchoately before finding that the author has put them into words for us.
Here are some of them:
How should I prepare to start practicing the Jesus Prayer?
And then what? How do I begin the Prayer itself?
How many times should I say the Prayer during one practice period?
When I do spend time practicing the Prayer, how do I keep track of repetitions?
Should I have a special place for prayer in my home?
Where am I supposed to get this stuff--icons, prayers ropes, and so forth?
Should I picture Christ looking at me or anything like that? Or should I keep looking at an icon of Him while I pray?
What if I don't want to include formal repetition of the Jesus Prayer in my daily prayer time? What if I don't even have a daily prayer time?
What form of the prayer should I use?
I'm still not very comfortable with all this begging for mercy.
How fast should I say the prayer?
But what if I don't feel awe--what if I don't feel anything?
But haven't we progressed beyond fear of God? It sounds so negative.
What good is repentance, though? What's the point?
Is it right to ask over and over for anything? Didn't Jesus say something about "vain repetition"?
So the content of the prayer seems to change as you say it, over the years?
What does it mean to have the awareness rooted in the heart? What is the heart, anyway?
I don't get it. You can transport your mind around to different parts of your body?
What about moving the nous down to the heart--what in the world does that mean?
Do these four natural levels of attention correspond to levels of the Jesus Prayer?
Have you experienced any part of this firsthand?
This business about going from the head to the heart sounds like an Eastern religion. Isn't there something in Hinduism about different energy locations in the body?
But don't Buddhist and other meditation techniques result in tranquility and quieting of thoughts, like the Jesus Prayer does?
Still, all this repeating of the same words sounds like a mantra.
Does this business about feeling prayer inside the head or the heart have anything to do with the reports about "God in the brain," the theory that spiritual experiences are just ordinary, biological brain events?
How can you kow whether the spirit you sense listening or responding to you is really Jesus?
Can someone fall into delusion, even though trying sincerely to practice the Jesus Prayer?
But I can't forgive my enemy. Not because of what happened in the past; it's because I'm afraid he'll do it again.
I'm discouraged. I can't do this at all. I'm distracted every minute.
But how can you fight against thoughts, or logismoi?
Aren't visions sometimes the real thing?
I don't want to offend God if He's trying to tell me something.
What kind of "peace" does the Jesus Prayer aim at? Does it mean making your mind empty?Can I say the Jesus Prayer as intercession, putting someone else's name instead of "me"?
Can I say the Jesus Prayer during church?
Could you pray the Jesus Prayer with other people, either silently or out loud?
It sounds like saying the Jesus Prayer is all about having spiritual experiences, which, no matter how elevated, have no impact on the world.
Despite everything, it still doesn't seem like God is really here. I don't know if it really is possible to have direct contact with God.
I really don't think I have the personality for this; I don't think God can do much with me.
Here are just a few lines and passages that moved me:
"Reality is God's home address." "A nun had been assigned to care for an elderly monk with advanced dementia. One day his babbling was of a kind that was distressing to her. Suddenly he broke free, as it were, looked her in the eye, and said, 'Dear sister, you are upset because of what I am saying. But do not fear. Inside, I am with God.'“
"We don't merely encounter Christ or imitate him, we don't merely become like Christ; we actually become one with him, saturated body and soul with his life."
"Salvation means healing from the sickness of sin, so we are always seeking to confront the sin that infects us, and be healed at ever deeper levels...Only Christ the Physician can know how the healing should progress, how quickly things should be dealt with, or in what order. Nothing found there will be surprising to him, because he sees all the way through us already....You may feel aware of one particular sin...that embarrasses or frightens you. You feel certain that it has to be the first to go, and so devote to it all your fretful attention. You have made vehement vows to never fall again, and you have fallen numeroud times...But the Lord may know something about the underlying structure of your sin that you don't. It may be that some other debility, maybe something you're not even aware of, is holding that big sin in place, and that has to be dealt with first. You might think that the Lord cannot stand the presence of your ugle sin, but he has been standing it a long time already, and he's not going to stop loving you now. If he can be patient enough to bring about a healing that is permanent, you can too..."
"Everyone wants to be transformed, but nobody wants to change."
"...some folks have a more sober quality, while others are full of joy; there isn't any one personality type. If anything, the indwelling Christ enables each person to be more himself than he was ever able to be before."
"That 'still small voice' is more like what we're looking for. So don't expect something overwhelming and showy, but instead something subtle but real. Silence is necessary because we're trying to learn how to hear something; we must learn discernment...My son Steve is a piano tuner in his spare time, and even though electronic tuners are a big help in that business, there is no replacement for acquring an exquisite sense of pitch. If you picture yourself trying to gain that ability, to be able tell C from C# while it's hanging in the air, then you know the kind of silence I mean."
I've read this this book a couple of times, and plan to do so again, as well as loan it out to others--truly, it's a treasure.