The Jesus Prayer I: Posture, Pace, and Breathing

These posts assume at least passing familiarity with the prayer practice known as The Jesus Prayer.  It is an ancient form of prayer which, while more popular in the Christian East, is also practiced somewhat widely in the West and is commended in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 2668).  Those unfamiliar with the prayer may wish to read the article by Peter Kreeft linked in the first sentence of this post.  For those wishing to go deeper, the website www.chotki.com by Alexander Dragos offers a substantial and impressive collection of resources for learning about the prayer as well.  

I have been praying The Jesus Prayer for close to 20 years now, but until 2015 my practice had been somewhat irregular.  Long stretches of regular practice alternated with periods where the Jesus Prayer only filled in the “down times” of my day.    In the last year or so, the daily practice of the Jesus Prayer has become the center of my prayer life.

What I’ve noticed is that, in reading the literature on the Prayer, there’s plenty written on the theological and “spiritual” dimensions of the Prayer, but relatively little about the physical dimension.  I’m going to write from my own experience– not at all as an authority– and to try to explain what has worked and what hasn’t.  I welcome correction from those holier and more experienced than I am.  I am still, after all these years, very much a beginner.

Posture

The most common advice given is to be in a position where you’re comfortable and free of distractions.  This means, for most folks, sitting.  Some of the Fathers who write about the Prayer encourage sitting on a low bench.  I prayed the Prayer while sitting for most of the years I’ve been doing it.  I will say,  the low bench has been much more conducive to focus in prayer than the living room chair had been.  In the last few months, though, I’ve switched to standing.  I have found that standing is an enormous help to attention, and it is in a sense a form of asceticism, too– it’s harder to stand than to sit.  However, the benefits to standing have, for me, been very real.  Breathing is easier, attention is easier, and doing bows and prostrations (which I’ll get to later) is much more natural. Here are the details of what I do when i’m at home and have privacy:

  1. I stand before an icon with a candle or two lit in front of it.
  2. I stand with my feet spread comfortably apart, about as wide as my shoulders.
  3. I have a “spot” where I stand that’s sort of my “home base”– having this tends to remove distractions and to allow me to refocus.  Moving around is a real temptation when you’re standing– the heat can be adjusted, the match you used to light the candle can be thrown away, the sneakers on the other side of the room can be moved from your sight.  Having a single place where you’re committed to stay can help stave off the impulse to wander and can help steady the mind when other more serious distractions start getting the best of you.
  4. That said, I am not terribly neurotic about staying in that one place, especially if I’m very tired.  Sometimes focusing my attention requires moving a bit.
  5. I always hold the prayer rope (“chotki”) in my left hand.
  6. I bow my head so that my eyes are aimed toward my chest.
  7. My chotki is a 100-knot wool one with wood beads every ten knots and a knotted cross at the center.  I do a bow at the waist on every wood bead and a prostration every time I finish 100.

Pace and Breathing

There are some accounts (especially the classic Russian text Way of a Pilgrim) that seem to suggest a pretty rapid pace for the Prayer– the anonymous author receives advice to pray the Prayer thousands of times a day.  I often pray the Prayer while driving and I’ve found myself praying 200+ prayers in 15 minutes when things are stressful.  It is an intense pace.   I have tried to move away from that.  It’s not conducive to either praying the words with intention or to seeking to turn the mind and heart toward Jesus.  It feels nervous and mechanical.  But that’s the sort of pace that’d be necessary to meet the suggestions the Pilgrim receives.  It amounts, really, to saying the Prayer almost as quickly as the mouth can move for many hours each day.   There has been a strongly negative reaction to the methods described in the Way of a Pilgrim among many Orthodox experts on the Prayer including Theophan the Recluse.  They argue convincingly that the practice of massive numbers of repetitions is not conducive to true prayer.

Nevertheless, recommendations for the pace of the Prayer seem to vary among the theologians.  I seem to have settled on a pace of approximately 100 repetitions every 15 minutes.  I am sometimes faster when I am distracted and am using the Prayer to ward off thoughts, but when my my mind is peaceful it can be somewhat slower than the usual.

Grave caution has also been encouraged regarding particular breathing techniques.  What I have settled on, after reading Theophan and several others, is simple and practical:  I breathe in enough to be able to say the whole prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” in one exhalation.  I don’t breathe particularly deeply or focus much on the breath.  During those times when I have the grace to be able to pray the Prayer in my mind alone (without moving my lips or saying the words vocally), I keep the same pace.  The purpose of the Prayer is to encounter Jesus, and the method, such as it is, is to pray the prayer deliberately and with attention to what you’re saying.  The Lord himself cautions against vain repetitions, so intention and attention are critical.

Bows and Prostrations

As I mentioned above, I do a simple bow and make the sign of the cross every tenth bead.  This is nothing unusual– just a bow at the waist as I make the sign of the cross with my right hand.  I usually bow as I’m breathing in and then say the prayer in the bowed position.

At the end of each cycle of 100 prayers (when I get back to the cross on the chotki) I do a prostration.  Now, when Catholics hear “prostration,” they think of the position the priest assumes at the beginning of the Solemn Liturgy on Good Friday (or, if they’ve been to an Ordination service, the position those getting ordained assume during the Litany of the Saints)– flat out, face down.  That is indeed a full prostration, but that’s not what I am talking about.  This is different.  Although a lot of people think of this as a “Muslim” position for prayer, it was actually used by both Judaism and Christianity long before Islam.  Buddhism, too– in fact, it’s one of the only near-universal positions for prayer or devotion across religions.  Here’s this guy, sort of doing it.  I tend to lower my backside down more than he is.

Prostration.jpg

So, I kneel and then lean forward, touching my forehead to the ground while praying a Gloria Patri.  As I return to my standing position, I tell Jesus that I love him.

And really, that’s it.  The critical thing is not the method– which is quite easy and straightforward– but the encounter with Jesus.  You have to show up, and you have to stay there with attention and with humility. Why?  Because Jesus is already there, but you need to let him quiet all the noise and the pride and the brokenness so that you can be present to him as he is, always, present to you.

In Part II of this post we’ll look at the “gear” for the Prayer– items people have used as aids to praying the Jesus Prayer.


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