My Biggest Problem

A Russian monk for a Roadturn article.

One of my favorite books

is The Way of a Pilgrim.

In the tradition of the Philokalia, the Pilgrim seeks true spiritual grounding–and the tool he discovers is simple, yet powerfully effective: The Jesus Prayer.

Western Christians tend to think of the Catholic Church as being represented entirely by Rome. But there is another group–the Orthodox Catholic Church (or Eastern Orthodox Church)–and the depth of their spirituality often seems to put the West to shame.

The Jesus Prayer.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

The writers of the Philokalia recommend this short prayer, repeated over and over again, as a means of carrying out the Apostle Paul’s insistence that the Christian should “pray without cesasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Futhermore, say the Fathers, the Jesus Prayer will lead to a depth of communication with the Heavenly One that most of us never realize: The Prayer of the Heart.

Sounds good. Is it possible outside of a monastery?

Finding myself caught between the real-life necessity of earning a living for my family and a frustrating desire to center my life on the Gospel, I posed that question to a group of contemplatives recently. I wanted to know, not whether it was gratifying to talk about the Jesus Prayer or to find out how much others know about the writings of the Desert Fathers … but to ascertain whether anyone actually practiced the prayer.

One person answered that he had been able, over the past several years, to keep the prayer going consistently. In his estimation, “The Jesus Prayer is like water that is constantly cleansing my soul.”

Another, a Sister of the Faith, responded in a manner that reminded me of my Theology classes in college. “Fundamentally,” she said,  “we are called to become God’s own prayers … we become prayer.”

Why not try it myself?

Some pray in the closet, some in the sanctuary; I pray best on the treadmill. After all, early in the morning I’m guaranteed 20-30 minutes of relative peace and quiet. I’m moving, but going nowhere–why not pray?

I began the Jesus Prayer slowly, concentrating on each word: Lord Jesus Christ …

And I couldn’t get any further.

LORD: From the Greek, Kyrios, the owner; one who has control of the person, the master (Strong’s Concordance).

Jesus: “Yeshua,” The Lord is Salvation

Christ: The anointed one–the promised king and deliverer

Looking at myself–rushing off to another day of incessant business, leaving my children to the care of the secular school system, barely taking time to acknowledge the Creator during the week and generally working right through the Sabbath–how could I call him LORD?

And if the truth is that I arrogantly, selfishly, fearfully run on my own steam day by day–looking to the work of my own hands, rather than to his finished work on the cross–how could I possibly repeat over and over again something, in his presence, that is an outright lie?

No, it seems to me that the Western way of life has continued the tradition He found when he appeared as God Incarnate: We deny his Lordship, place a crown of thorns on his head and mock him with our actions.

My biggest problem is not that I don’t say the  The Jesus Prayer, but that I don’t mean it when I say it.

Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me (Matthew 15:8)


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