This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.
In her introduction to the book, Frederica Mathewes-Green is careful to state that she is no expert in the practice of the Jesus Prayer. In fact, like most of us, she tends to often live as though she could “pull down a window shade” between God and herself. It’s something most of us do. We don’t pray constantly because we don’t live with a constant sense of the presence of God. If you pause and consider the way we live, it’s a bit ridiculous. In many ways we’re like the small child who hides her eyes and believes we can’t see her because she can’t see us. It’s endearing in a toddler, but we would look askance at an adult who still lived as though that were true. Yet, there is no place we can go where God is not.
Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from they presence? If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there! (Ps. 139:7-8)
Indeed, since God is the source of life and sustains all that is, if we could escape God’s presence, we would immediately cease to exist.
The Jesus Prayer is a means by which we learn to experience God directly. Our problem is that we do not perceive reality truly. I was listening to a lecture and I was struck by something said about the Transfiguration of our Lord. Jesus did not change during the transfiguration. He was always God — always filled with the divine uncreated light. Rather, people — including his disciples — were not able to see him truly. And in the Transfiguration they were granted the grace to experience the full reality of Jesus. We still have the same problem today. All creation is filled with the glory of God and we do not have eyes to see it.
Khouria Frederica mentions the nous in her introduction. I’ve written about it before, but I like the way she describes it. The cogitative part of our mind, the intellect, is not the nous. Rather, the nous is the receptive part of our mind. It’s the part that experiences, that understands. The Jesus Prayer helps us still our noisy intellect so we can perceive and hear God. That strikes me as an especially good description.
There is an aspect of learning to still the mind in forms of meditation that I’ve practiced in the past. I’ve always had a sense that some aspect of that was needed in Christian practice even before the Jesus Prayer came to me. “Be still and know that I am God,” the psalter exhorts, but the truth is that we do not know how to be still. Our minds never stop whirling.
When Christians pray the Jesus Prayer, we are trying to still our mind in order to open our nous to God. It’s a very specific goal and we call on Jesus as Lord to have mercy on us and help us. As someone who is now a Christian looking back on some of those other forms of meditation I’ve practiced I see the danger that I didn’t see then. We do not wish to open ourselves, our nous, to receive anything or any experience. That is unwise. Rather we seek to hear and experience the one we call Lord.
I found this book a good, practical guide to the Jesus Prayer. This is the prayer that came to me some years before I even knew it was a tradition. I thank God constantly for that grace. And I look forward to reflecting on it once more.