Posts Tagged Jesus Prayer
“The Greeks build metaphysical systems; the Romans build roads.” Old adage comparing Eastern and Western Christian theology
Contemplative prayer was effectively lost to Western Latin (Roman Catholic and Protestant) Christianity by end of the 17th century. It first began to erode seriously in the 12th century when the Western monks re-discovered the works of Aristotle and Aristotelian logic, which fueled the whole “Scholastic” movement in Western Latin theology. Contemplative prayer was further diminished by the focus on the “rational” verbal argumentation and bickering of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century (which continues unabated to this day). The coup de grâce came with the deification of the rational mind in the Enlightenment of the 17th century and the emergence of the scientific method. By that time, true contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer had virtually disappeared even from the monasteries of the West. And so it remains to this day; to the point that the West no longer even recognizes a distinction between the rational mind and “nous” and has no understanding of the difference between the concept of an “individual” and that of a “person”.
And what about the Protestants? Well, to be blunt, they just have no contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer tradition at all. By the time the Protestant reformers came along and broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century, contemplative prayer had virtually disappeared from the church. Sorry, but that’s the truth.
I have to be fair and again stress that the Eastern Orthodox did not ever lose their contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer tradition. As I have mentioned, the Orthodox tradition of “hesychasm” is alive and well today in its monasteries. To their further credit, for centuries the Orthodox chose their Bishops for the institutional church solely from the ranks of their contemplative monks. Much of the wisdom of the early Church Fathers I have quoted comes from an Orthodox book called the “Philokalia” (meaning “love of beauty”). The “Philokalia” is a collection of texts written between the fourth and the fifteenth centuries by spiritual masters of the Orthodox Christian contemplative tradition. First published in Greek in 1782, The “Philokalia” is the foundational text on “hesychasm”, with a long history dating back to the Desert Fathers and Mothers.
All of these facts lend credence to the old adage that, “The Greeks build metaphysical systems; the Romans build roads”.
“It all started with a Trappist monk and mystic named Thomas Merton.” ~ The re-discovery of Contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer in the West
Beginning in the 1960’s, there began a re-awakening in the Western Latin (Roman Catholic and Protestant) Church to their long-lost contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer tradition. That movement continues to grow.
It all started with a Trappist monk and mystic named Thomas Merton. Because of his influence, long ignored Western Latin mystical writings were dusted off and read, like the 13th century “Cloud of Unknowing”, the “Revelations of Divine Love” of Julian of Norwich (14th century), and the works of 16th century Spanish Carmelites Teresa de Avila (“Interior Mansions”) and John of the Cross (“Dark Night of the Soul”). Slowly it began to dawn on these Catholic monks, and others, the exact magnitude and importance of the contemplative prayer tradition they had lost.
The “Centering (contemplative) Prayer” movement in modern Catholicism and Christianity, in general, can be traced back to several books published by three Cistercian monks in the 1970s, led by Abbot Thomas Keating. Also prominent in the current re-birth of the Western contemplative tradition is Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr. Rohr is resurrecting the Western contemplative prayer tradition through the “alternative Orthodoxy” of St. Francis of Assisi and later Franciscans St. Bonaventure and Duns Scotus. He has founded the “Living School for Action and Contemplation” in Albuquerque, NM, to provide a course of study grounded in the Christian mystical tradition. It is open to anyone called to the work.
So there is every opportunity for contemporary Christians, especially Catholics and Protestants, to learn the lost contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer tradition, that “higher place still” of John Cassian. We, too, can experience “theoria”, “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), and find ourselves immersed in the Uncreated Divine Light of God so passionately described by mystics like Symeon the New Theologian (949–1022) and Gregory Palamas (1296–1359). It’s not just for monks, nuns, and saints. Like the followers of Jesus and the first “ekklesías” of Paul, all are invited to follow the Way equally, regardless of background or circumstance.
“…for the Master of the house has come.” ~ Isaac of Nineveh, 7th century
I pray that this series of postings introducing contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer has been instructive and worthwhile; especially to my fellow Protestants (of all flavours) who have none of this tradition in our own. It is in our ancient Christian family tree, for sure, but not in our branch of the family. I would ask that my fellow Protestants not reject the notion of contemplative prayer out of hand, just because Luther and Calvin didn’t do it. Instead, I would ask that they be encouraged and take comfort in the fact that Jesus and Paul did.
I end this series of postings with the reflections of 7th century mystic and Bishop, Isaac of Nineveh, one of the greatest spiritual figures of the Christian East, as he describes for us the “telos”, the fulfilment, of contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer:
“The joy of prayer is one thing; the prayer of contemplation is another. The latter is more precious than the former, as an adult is more advanced than a child. The verses of a psalm may be very delightful on the tongue, and the singing of a single verse during prayer may prevent us from continuing and passing on to another verse, so inexhaustible is it. But it may also happen that prayer gives rise to contemplation, which interrupts what the lips are saying. Then the person is in ecstasy. Contemplation makes him as it were a body without breath. This is what we call the prayer of contemplation… but there is still a measure in this contemplation… it is always a prayer. The meditation has not yet reached the point where there is no longer any prayer. It has not yet arrived at the higher state. In fact, the movements of the tongue and of the heart are keys. And what comes next is entry into the treasure house. Here every tongue and every mouth falls silent and the heart too, that gathers together the thoughts, and the spirit that governs the senses, and the work of meditation. They are like a flutter of impudent birds. Let their activity cease… for the Master of the house has come.” Ascetic Treatises, 31
“Κύριε Ιησού Χριστέ, Υιέ του Θεού, ελέησόν με τον αμαρτωλόν.”
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”
The “Jesus Prayer”, quoted above, is a central part of the Eastern Orthodox contemplative prayer tradition known as hesychasm (Greek: silence or quietude). This contemplative prayer tradition has an uninterrupted history dating back to the 4th-century Desert Fathers and Mothers. A key part of that tradition, the “Jesus Prayer”, in its various forms, is used as a continuously repeated prayer, to quiet and still the soul while invoking the name of the living God.
When I was first introduced the Orthodox “Jesus Prayer”, I was a bit put-off and skeptical. My problem was in saying over and over again, “me, the sinner” … “me, the sinner” … “me, the sinner”. Regardless of how true it might be, I thought, “Oh great, another “church” prayer designed to plunge me into an endless cycle of guilt and self-condemnation, putting me in bondage”.
Not long after my first introduction to the “Jesus Prayer”, I read then-Bishop Kallistos Ware’s book, The Orthodox Way. Bishop Kallistos described the “Jesus Prayer” as consisting of two poles. The first pole is the glory of God as expressed in the words “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God”. The second pole is our post-Fall condition summarized in the words “me, a sinner”. Bishop Kallistos explained that it is the revelation of God in the incarnate Christ who reconciles these poles and announces the “mercy” of God for “me, the sinner”. In other words, I only address myself as “the sinner” in the context of the Son of God already having shown his “mercy” and grace to me. So being “the sinner” is not a problem I have to solve, but something I look back on after the problem has already been solved for me by Jesus.
Calling myself (repeatedly) “the sinner” then, is not so much guilt-ridden, self-flagellation over my sinful state as it is a proclamation of my deliverance and salvation. It is no coincidence that this is the same point that Jesus made in the story of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14), the parable on which the “Jesus Prayer” is based. The Publican called out for mercy in his recognized condition of sin, a problem that had already been solved through the free gift of grace, and he “went home justified before God”. So, the “Jesus Prayer” is really the Gospel message condensed into one short line. The Lord of the universe, Jesus of Nazareth, Christ (Messiah), Anointed (Christos) with the Holy Spirit, Son of the living God, has already provided us mercy (“love in action”) and salvation from our problems (sin and diseased nature) before we ask him. All we have to do is cry out, like the Publican, and receive the unmerited grace already provided for us. That is the heart of the Gospel. That is the life in Christ.
I don’t have a problem praying the “Jesus Prayer” anymore.