Category: Prayer

The Jesus Prayer II: Objects for Prayer

In my first post about the Jesus Prayer, I focused on the “bodily” dimensions of my practice of the Prayer.  This second post will touch on the choices I’ve made regarding the physical items I use.  The reason for this post is simple:  I had to reach my conclusions largely through trial and error and extensive research.  I am hoping that those starting out with the Prayer but lacking guidance on how to begin will find these posts helpful.  As always, check my advice against what your spiritual director and the saints say, and listen to them if our opinions are in conflict.

A quick note:  Absolutely none of these items are essential.  This is important.  We can’t buy our way to holiness— in fact, it’s WAY easier to spend our way into Hell than into Heaven.  That said, I have found these items helpful.  But I can– and have– done without all of them at times.

The Chotki, or prayer rope:  I’ve owned several types.  I tend to fall back on the 100-knot wool prayer rope as it seems to be the most practical and the one requiring the least thought and calculation.  If you are praying the Prayer in multiples of 100, you won’t have to remember how many times you’ve gone around a 33 knot chotki.

image
My prayer rope, with the tassel cut off.

One can spend a lot of money on chotkis.  This seems silly to me.  I have also purchased one that was made of lovely beads, only to have it fall completely apart in my pocket after a few uses.  The prayer rope is a tool for prayer, not a piece of jewelry.  Find one that is simple, sturdy, traditional, and well-made and then stop worrying about it.  The important thing is the encounter with Jesus.

For a time. I wore my chotki on my wrist when I wasn’t using it.  There are photos of Pope Francis where it appears he is wearing one, and this seems to be a somewhat common practice.    While there are advantages to having one constantly on your person in case you have time to pray or need a reminder to pray, a rope worn on the wrist can quickly become an object of spiritual pride.  I generally don’t wear one anymore, though I might do so if I ever take a long hike again.

The tassel at the end of most Russian chotkis is to be used to wipe the tears of the one who is praying.  I used to think that was a silly affectation (even going so far as to cut the tassel off my main chotki), but now I have learned that there are all kinds of reasons one might find oneself needing to wipe away tears during prayer.  Who knows what kind of failure or loss you will bring to Jesus in prayer?  It’s best to be ready.  If you pray enough, you will eventually use it and you’ll be glad it’s there.

Clothing:  Nothing special is required.  Be comfortable, and dress in such a way that your clothes are not a distraction to you while you pray.    In the last few months I’ve grown to love cotton-soled canvas martial arts shoes because I feel more grounded when wearing them while standing to pray.  I often wear a cotton hoodie as well, but that’s because I pretty much always wear a cotton hoodie.  I am not trying to impersonate a monk.  You shouldn’t, either.

Icons:  This topic is a complicated one, and there are many opinions.  First things first:  You are not, as a rule, to be looking at the icon while you pray the Jesus Prayer.  You are not praying to the icon– you are praying to Jesus.  The icon is more than a pious decoration, of course, but it is also not an idol.  Think of it as a window that lets the light of heaven into your prayer space.

For several decades my prayer space had one main icon– a beautiful Bulgarian-styled Theotokos (Mary, Mother of God, holding her son, Jesus).   I am presently having an iconographer make me a Pantocrator (Christ in Glory) based on a 14th Century Greek icon of Jesus.  This will be the new center of my prayer space.  I already have a large digital print of the original icon on my wall which occupies the space as a place-holder.  There are many wonderful sources for printed copies of icons, and these are perfectly acceptable if this is what your budget allows.  I am particularly impressed with the reproductions at Legacy Icons.  Although I’m not much of a stickler on these matters, I prefer their “Classic” icons to the “Masterpiece” icons; although the depth of color on the Masterpiece icons is impressive, the texture of cotton canvas is not at all like traditional, hand-painted icons.

The Catholic Church seems to have a pretty pragmatic approach to sacred art in personal prayer spaces– if it helps to lead you into prayer, it’s fine.  While allowing for a considerable amount of variation,  Orthodox writers seem to have more specific recommendations about images in a home prayer space, and their recommendations and preferences emerge from a particular theology of icons and of prayer.  But that is the topic of another, much longer blog post.  My decision to have a single main icon of Jesus at the center of my prayer space emerged from my desire to grow closer to Jesus and to know him as friend, savior, Lord, and judge.  When you are making this decision, it’s probably worth discussing this choice with friends or with a trusted spiritual advisor.

Bridegroom
The Bridegroom.

Choose something that draws you more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s love for you.  Take some time with the decision.  Don’t get anything too season-specific.  I have been very drawn to the icon known as “The Bridegroom” for several reasons– it is the icon that sits above the stone of Golgotha at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and it is a powerful image for my ordination, as Christ is portrayed as a suffering servant.  However, a friend of mine who is an Orthodox priest advised me against getting a Bridegroom  icon as my main icon because the image dwells on Jesus’ humiliation and death– a worthy topic during Holy Week, but certainly not the end of the story.

Candles:  I like to use candles.  I have settled on these beeswax tapers for several reasons.

  1. Each candle lasts more than an hour.
  2. They do not drip, which is a small miracle after using paraffin candles for years.
  3. They do not deform like pillar, votive, or tea candles do, so there’s rarely wasted wax.
  4. They are not that expensive when purchased in bulk.
  5. The smell is amazing.

Many Orthodox monasteries also make beeswax candles to order and sell them by the pound.  Since I live so close to Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY, I will probably buy my candles from them henceforth.

candle box.jpgI use a small, clay box filled with sand to place the candles.  I made the box many years ago when I worked in a shelter for homeless families.  A lovely volunteer hosted sculpting and pottery classes at the shelter while I was working, and I made a box.  You know– because, of all the possible things I could make, it somehow seemed wise to my 22-year-old brain to make the most boring possible thing.  It’s useful now, though.  We used to store nail clippers in it.  This is probably a better use for it.

Incense:  Does one need incense for prayer?  Certainly not.  Should I use incense for prayer?  Maybe?  Do I like using incense for prayer?  Most definitely.  That’s why I use it.  It helps me to settle my mind and to focus.  Some studies actually laud the anti-depressant qualities of Frankincense, but I don’t know what to make of those.

Here’s a warning:  Almost all stick incense out there is terrible stuff.  Some is even apparently made of animal dung.  Some of it is very smoky and unpleasant– especially the stuff you will find in places like record stores or flea markets.  For some people, incense brings to mind efforts to cover up smells that would suggest illegal activity.  If you’re one of those people, maybe it’s wise to skip the incense for now.

The only good stick incense I’ve found from a Christian supplier is from Legacy Icons.  Their Frankincense sticks are very nice and largely smoke-free.  That said, the claim on the web site that the sticks last an hour is false.  They last approximately 40 minutes.

For immaculate quality stick incense, try Japan Incense.  They make a number of different kinds of sticks and the burn times on the web site are accurate for the types I’ve tried.  It’s not a Christian site, and some folks are weird about that.  I am not.  When I am through my stash of incense from Legacy Icons, I will buy a box of Frankincense sticks from Japan Incense.  Their Reiryo Ko incense (which is a traditional incense used in Zen monasteries) is just great and I have found it to be a lovely aid to prayer.  That said, some struggle with the idea of using items in prayer that are commonly used by other religions.  My opinion about this is simple:  Items that are essentially religiously neutral (e.g. candles, incense, and the like) are OK to use and not harmful if (1) they are being used within a Christian framework for prayer and if (2) the person using said items is growing in discipleship through their practice of prayer.  If the items are a distraction or if they lead one away from Jesus and the Church, they become suspect and should be rejected.  This is the sort of thing one needs to discern with oneself with the help of a spiritual director.

Of course, if you like your incense old-school, it’s hard to beat using loose incense over charcoals.

However, this type of incense tends to do two things:  (1) fill the room very quickly with amazingly good-smelling smoke and (2) burn out pretty quickly.  If your goal is to fill the room with a strong scent and keep it that way, loose incense is a good option.  If, however, you want a more measured amount of scent dispersed evenly over a longer period of time, you may want to go with stick incense.

Timer:  You need some sort of way to know that your prayer time is over.  Many wise people just decide on a number of repetitions of the Prayer and use that as the end point– they pray 100, 200, or 300 repetitions and they grow accustomed to the amount of time that will usually take.

As for me, I use a timer.  Specifically, I use an iPhone app called “Meditation Timer.”  I am sure there are better apps, but I sort of don’t care.  I can set it for up to an hour and I can add chimes at certain intervals.  My standard practice is this:  I will set it for one hour, with a chime at the 30-minute marker.  The 30 minute chime is a sort of “check in” that gives me a sense of whether I’m distracted or going at an unusual pace.  I add a 20 second preparation period at the beginning of my prayer time to still myself.   Then, I pray and forget all about the timer.

As I pray, I focus on Jesus and on addressing the words of the prayer to him with a sincere heart and full attention.  It is hard going at times, and distractions are still extremely common.  In fact, you could say that distractions are the norm.  That said, I have felt God quieting my spirit and leading me toward real prayer.  And this is important to remember as we wrap up this discussion of “gear”:  It’s really, really not that important, and the goal isn’t to create a magnificent prayer space but to create a useful one, where you can forget about stuff and focus on Jesus.  Because this is what it’s about:  God heals his children in their prayer time, in the time when we open a window to heaven and let in God’s rays.

 

 

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.