This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.
Khouria Frederica points out that Orthodox Christians, at least those who actively practice their faith, take a more serious attitude toward spiritual disciplines than a lot of what you find today in the other Christian traditions.
This rests on the assumption that life is serious, salvation is serious, and in every moment we must decide anew to follow Christ.
It’s not that there is any question about God’s love or his forgiveness, as we’ve said; our salvation was accomplished on the cross. “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). But we retain this terrifying freedom: we are still free to reject him. Judas’ tragic story is a sobering example. The end of our own story is not yet written, and every day exposes us to new temptations. The devil knows our weaknesses, probably better than we do, and “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).
That is why there is in Orthodox spirituality a quality of urgency. We don’t assume that we have already made it to the end of the race, put “press on,” as St. Paul said.
I think I’ve always intuitively understood that the things we do shape us — that they matter — and I’ve always had at least some awareness that we become like what we worship. In fact, I think I’ve sometimes confused my fellow Christians when I’ve told them I’m not interested in their arguments about the correctness of their particular vision of God. I’ve understood the image of the God they describe and it’s not a God I’m willing to worship, much less love. Once I’ve made that decision, I no longer care about their arguments or their logic behind their vision and understanding of God. I reject their version of God whether they are right or wrong, so I might as well assume they are wrong. It makes perfect sense to me, but it often seems to confound certain sorts of Christians. They are so used to living within their arguments and logic — within the cogitative intellect — that they don’t seem to know what to do when someone refuses to engage the entire framework itself. “I don’t care about your arguments” doesn’t seem to be a response for which they are prepared. When I wasn’t Christian, I used to have fun from time to time deconstructing some of the arguments and leading people in circles, but as I Christian I see that was mean-spirited and ultimately destructive, not least for what it did to me. So I try to catch myself now and simply disengage. Or describe the God I perceive, however dimly, to the best of my limited ability, and just continually return to that rather than engaging in arguments. Or say nothing to start with if I don’t think it will be helpful. That’s probably the hardest thing of all for me to do.
With that said, I think it’s important that I pass along Khouria Frederica’s warning. The Jesus Prayer is a tradition embedded within the entire context of the life of Orthodoxy and it can be spiritually dangerous to try to lift it out of that context and practice it alone. Spiritual disciplines are accomplishing something real or there is no reason to practice them. If that is true, then without the proper context and guidance, they can be particularly risky. A spiritual practice will generally change you, for good or ill.
When you pray the Jesus Prayer, you are invoking the name of Jesus of Nazareth. You are proclaiming him the Jewish Messiah. You are acknowledging him as Lord and God. And you are asking his mercy as both God and King. These are not light things. Moreover, it matters who you say Jesus is when you do this. The less your perception of Jesus aligns with his reality, the more distorted your practice becomes. If that were not true, then it would not have mattered that the Arians believed him to be a creature or that the Nestorians believed his divine nature had obliterated his human nature. A spiritual discipline undertaken wrongly can engender pride, among many potential pitfalls. I agree with her warning.
Obviously that’s an odd thing for me to say. I’m not Orthodox. I have no spiritual father or mother. Yet I practice the Jesus Prayer. That’s true, and I freely confess I may be foolish in my actions. I certainly don’t recommend that anyone use my practice as a guide.
The only thing I can say is that the Jesus Prayer came to me unbidden. It came when I knew practically nothing about Orthodoxy (even if I later discovered they believed and taught so many of the things I had come to understand and believe about God). The Jesus Prayer came to me when I hardly knew who Jesus was or which of these myriad Christian Gods described in modern Christianity was real. My rule of prayer remains a poor one, but I don’t think I could stop praying the Jesus Prayer now any more than I could stop breathing.
I accept it humbly as a gift of God.
I will note that I don’t “play” Orthodox as I’ve heard some do. My fast is the one required of me by celiac disease. I don’t try to follow Orthodox fasting rules. In some sense I’m just not very good at prayer. In another sense, I deliberately keep my prayer rule simple. I think I can be prone to pride and it’s better if I don’t foster it. I don’t have an icon corner. I take spiritual practices seriously and I recognize fully that I am not Orthodox. I try not to delude myself.
So yes, I practice the Jesus Prayer, at least to a limited extent. But absent spiritual guidance, you may not want to try this at home. I feel I would be remiss if I did not share this warning from the book.