Thursday, March 26, 2015

Descent into the Heart: "The Way of a Pilgrim" and the Jesus Prayer


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

A dozen words. A dozen words make up the most powerful prayer of the Eastern Christian tradition--the Jesus Prayer, or the Prayer of the Heart.

The Jesus Prayer is one of the most ancient in the Church. When exactly it came into being is unclear, but it was certainly being used by the 7th century, and is probably a good deal older. The text itself is clearly drawn from two Gospel passages--the parable of the publican and the pharisee, and Christ's encounter with the blind Bartemeus--blended into a single potent petition:

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!' (Luke 18:13)
 
And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" (Mark 10:47)
 
The purpose of the Prayer is simple: to put oneself into the presence of God. It is an aid to meditation, meant to be recited slowly, with attention, and repeatedly--indeed, unceasingly. As the Rosary, in the West, has its beads, so the Jesus Prayer has its prayer rope, known as a chotki in Russian. The chotki is typically made of wool, a loop of closely-nestled knots, ending in a cross and tassel. The number of knots varies, but is often 100, divided by beads into sections of 25. On each knot is recited one Jesus Prayer. Other prayers can be said on the beads, if desired. The purpose of the tassel--traditionally--is to wipe away tears of penitence.

I cannot remember when I first learned this prayer. My family entered the Byzantine Catholic Church when I was four. I know my father must have discovered the tradition of the Prayer soon after, but I have no memory of him first teaching it to me and my siblings--in the same way I cannot recall first learning the Our Father or the Hail Mary. I do remember getting my first chotki, when I was six or seven. I remember wearing it doubled around my wrist for years, until the knotted loop stretched out of shape and the tassel at the end wore away to a nub. And I remember my father reading us stories from The Way of a Pilgrim.

The Way of a Pilgrim is considered a flower of 19th century Russian Orthodox spirituality. And yet it is a small book, simple in style and approachable in form. And it's probably the best introduction to the Jesus Prayer. Here is the book's first paragraph:

By the grace of God I am a Christian, by my deeds a great sinner, and by calling a homeless rover of the lowest status in life. My possessions comprise but some rusk in a knapsack on my back, and the Holy Bible on my bosom. That is all.

Thus we are introduced to the Pilgrim,  an anonymous peasant living in mid-1800s Russia. While not considered strictly autobiographical, the stories are likely based around the experiences of a real Russian pilgrim, re-written with the focus of spiritual edification. The tale begins when the Pilgrim, attending Divine Liturgy one morning, hears the words of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, to "pray unceasingly" (1 Th 5:17). These words, recalls the Pilgrim, "engraved themselves upon my mind". From that time on he is launched on a journey--both physical and spiritual--to pursue unceasing prayer.

Before long, he encounters an elder at a monastery, the first person to give him clear guidance on the meaning and method of constant prayer:

As we entered his cell he [the elder] began to speak again: "The constant inner Prayer of Jesus is an unbroken, perpetual calling upon the Divine Name of Jesus with the lips, the mind and the heart, while picturing His lasting presence in one's imagination and imploring His grace wherever one is, in whatever one does, even while one sleeps. This Prayer consists of the following words: - 'Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!' Those who use this prayer constantly are so greatly comforted that they are moved to say it at all times, for they can no longer live without it.

The elder then introduces the Pilgrim to the Philokalia--a collection of writings by the Church Fathers on this practice of inner prayer. This book, along with the Holy Bible, is destined to be the Pilgrim's constant companion on the rest of his journey. As they sit together in the cell, the elder gives the Pilgrim his first lesson in the Jesus Prayer:

He opened the book, and after having found the instruction by St. Simon the New Theologian, he began to read: "Take a seat in solitude and silence. Bend your head, close your eyes, and breathing softly, in your imagination, look into your own heart. Let your mind, or rather, your thoughts, flow from your head down to your heart and say, while breathing: 'Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.' Whisper these words gently, or say them in your mind. Discard all other thoughts. Be serene, persevering and repeat them over and over again."

This lesson is the foundation of all the rest of the Pilgrim's spiritual endeavors. He stays with the elder for a few more months, learning the art of constant prayer, until the old monk passes away (although that is not the end of the elder's teaching--he appears multiple times in the Pilgrim's dreams, continuing, even after death, to give him guidance!) After this, the Pilgrim takes to the road, reciting the Jesus Prayer, reading the Bible and Philokalia, and visiting shrines and churches. On the way, he encounters a host of characters, from robbers and army captains to priests and pious married couples. Many of these have their own tales of spiritual journeys, to which the Pilgrim listens eagerly for his enlightenment.

But the essence of the book still revolves around inner contemplation and the Jesus Prayer. These passages continue the instruction given by the Pilgrim's elder, describing how to time the Prayer with one's heartbeat and breathing--an integrated body-soul experience--all for the purpose of drawing closer to Christ. The Pilgrim exults in the peace, holy longing, and spiritual insight the Prayer gives him. He has his share of trials, too--spiritual and physical--but the pure joy of the Jesus Prayer always buoys him up once more.

The stories in The Way of the Pilgrim are truly life-changing. The instructions on the Prayer of the Heart are so simple and straightforward, that it's actually hard not to try and incorporate them into one's spiritual life. The most difficult thing, I have found, is perseverance. Often the Prayer seems dry repetition; but then I have never yet labored enough to get past that part of the process. However, even in short spurts, it is a beautiful comfort. I pray it before Liturgy, to focus my mind. I wrap my chotki around my wrist every night and recite it while falling asleep. It is always the first prayer to spring to my mind and heart in times of trouble.

The Jesus Prayer is so simple. It is so powerful. If you feel so moved, I urge you to take it up. Read The Way of the Pilgrim. Most of us don't have the time to devote the entire day to inner prayer, as the Pilgrim does. But that is no excuse for not bringing ourselves to Christ. Set aside a little time. Pray the Jesus Prayer. Take a step into your heart, away from the world, and into the Divine Presence of God.