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.

Snags, Logs, and Seeds

Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.”  — Acts 3:6

Even in college, there was gym class, a fact that disappointed and angered me to no end.  Since a Physical Education credit was necessary for graduation at my undergraduate institution, I signed up for a backpacking class.  This seemed a reasonable choice, and the almost perfect lack of content or work for the class suited me just fine.

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On our first hike in the dead of winter, a few of the guys started doing a very “guy” thing— we’d walk up to the trees which, though still standing, looked as if they were sick and vulnerable enough to just get knocked over by a good hit from the shoulder of the hiker.  We’d keep an eye out for trees with woodpecker holes, trees with rot, trees with no twigs.  These dead trees are known as snags.   We’d see the rot and the vulnerability and turned the great tree into a source of amusement and chest thumping.  It’s easy to spot a dead tree in the summer— it has no fresh growth, no leaves.  But in the winter, it’s different, and our stupid game led to some big and dramatic mistakes when one of the guys would walk hard into a tree only to discover that it was still living and solid.  We were surprised, at times, by the vigor of a tree that looked dead.    Now, in the natural course of things, all of those trees would’ve fallen in the forest, perhaps alone (and yes, they would’ve made a sound, wise guy).  My fellow meatheads and I merely expedited a natural process for fun and sport.  But the drama was equally great when one of us would walk toward what looked like a big, healthy tree and knock it to the ground with one good hit.

Beautiful, majestic trees have a life cycle, and the health of any forest depends in large part on the cycle of death, decay, and renewal.  But in any given case, losing a tree is a moment of sadness and a reminder of mortality.

Although it is hard to admit, it is equally impossible to ignore:  Many of our American Christian parishes and institutions are dead and many others have begun the inexorable march toward death.

When you actually sit down and listen to the so called “religiously unaffiliated,” you hear a lot of interesting stories.  A great many of those stories are stories of heartbreak and disappointment.  There are, it seems, millions of casualties of the church’s inability to inspire love, confidence, and celebration.  Many of our beloved institutions have become like those dead, rotted trees, the vitality gone, and with no growth possible.  And, of course, it’s more than that.

When I was in seminary, my friends and I coined (or, more probably, appropriated) the term “the Millstone Club,” a phrase that reflected Jesus’ warning that it would be better for one to have a millstone tied around your neck and be thrown into the sea than to hurt one of his little ones.  The term “Millstone Club” was applied to those clergy we knew who’d ruined lives through sexual abuse, sexual assault, and other horrible behavior.  At the time, we had no idea of just how large or how ruinous the Millstone Club had been for the Church, nor did we know of the complicity of church leaders.

And now for the last decade we have seen this great era of truth-telling and God’s score-settling.  In the Gospels, Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit– his continuing presence in the world– will lead the Church into all truth and that the truth will set us free.  But as David Foster Wallace once wrote, “The truth will set you free.  But not until it is finished with you.”  It seems self-evident that the truth will not be finished with the Church until its leaders thoroughly repent, accept what has happened, and care for the casualties of the Millstone Club.  There are hopeful signs.  Great effort has been made by good people to take the truth seriously and to accept its consequences.  I pray every day that the process will continue and that the leaders of the Church will accept this era’s suffering as, to borrow an image from Thomas Merton, God’s resetting of the Church’s broken bones.

And still, there’s often this attraction to Jesus.  Strangely, Jesus is almost never actually the problem.  Even though he says these difficult and deeply challenging things, people will still give him a listen.  I’ve thought a lot about this, and I think I get why:  The challenges that Jesus presents are things that, deep in our being, we largely know to be true.  We know that our possessions don’t make us happy.  We know that our life and well-being are tied to the well-being of the needy and vulnerable.  We know we need to pray.  We know we need to forgive.  All this is true, and all of this is hard.  It starts to feel impossible when it seems that the institutions given by God to empower us to follow Jesus are themselves in disrepair.

So, when things are broken, we do what we’ve always done:  Retrace our steps and see where we’ve lost our way, what lack of foresight has led to the present crisis.

There is, admittedly, a long list of factors that contribute to our present malaise.  But, whatever else we can blame, we can safely conclude that the Church has frequently been lacking in love, lacking in justice, off-mission and off-message.

There is this great story in the biblical chronicle of the earliest days of the Church called The Acts of the Apostles.   We find the leaders of the Church, Peter and John, are heading to the Temple to say their prayers.  They are greeted with hope by a man who cannot walk.  There are a million things Peter and John could have done, of course, but what they did was extraordinary.  Peter admitted their material poverty– “I have no silver or gold”– but, instead of turning to social services or instead of just saying “I’m sorry,” he did the one thing that Jesus asked him to do:  He proclaimed Good News in the name of Jesus.  In the name of Jesus, rise and walk.  Peter remembered that he had one thing:  A message of hope and redemption.

At the deepest level of its identity, the Church has exactly one thing:  A message.  The message has all sorts of implications for behavior and for our common life, but none of those implications are themselves the message.  Peter understood what Church people need to regain:  It is not about us or our efforts.  It requires, in a sense, our willingness to be vulnerable, to admit our poverty, and to allow the one thing we do have– a message about the reconciliation of all things in the love of Jesus– to come to the fore.

Study of the long history of the church reveals this:  It is in the moments when the church is righting itself after or during a crisis that  the Holy Spirit’s presence is most obvious.  So, for Christians, there is reason to hope, and reason to treat this as an era not of despair, but of expectancy.

The thing to do with a denuded forest and so much death and decay around you is to plant seeds.   I hope to plant some seeds here, and I hope to invite you to do the same in your own life and your own place.

Extremely Small Fidelities

You never know what God’s going to use. You can assume he’s going to use everything.

A long while ago, I was out watching one of my son’s soccer games. I was standing next to a guy I’d known for a few years. I’ll call him Scott. We were talking about this or that the way soccer parents do. And then Scott asked me what I was doing that afternoon. I was semi-embarrassed to admit that I planned to go to Confession, but I just rattled it off as one of my things on the agenda for the day.

“Huh, no kidding. Man, I haven’t been to Confession since I was a kid.”

“Yeah. I go pretty regularly. Good for the soul. Cheaper than therapy.”

The conversation about confession was a little longer than that, but not much. We turned to talking about washing cars or mowing lawns or something.

You can only imagine my surprise when, shortly after the following Easter, Scott saw me and told me the news.

“Hey, remember last year on the soccer field when we were talking? Well, I started thinking about it and I talked to my wife and told her that I was going to go and try Confession. And one thing led to another, and soon we were all going to Mass. And now Jane and the kids got baptized at the Easter Vigil and the whole family is Catholic and we have you to thank for that.”

Except, of course, they didn’t, at all. It was God’s work, the God who uses small things. The small thing in which I was faithful– just a tiny, brief comment, really– was used by God to grow a great thing.

Remember that little story any time you think you know better than God does, and remember it, too, when you find yourself unable to see what God’s doing with your small fidelities.

 

If I Say I’ll Pray for You

One of the commitments I’ve made in the last year or so is that if someone asks for prayer, I write it down on a sheet of paper.  I pray through that list every night during  Evening Prayer. Most people, I’ll admit, don’t get a lot of individual attention unless I know that something in particular is wrong– they’re hurting or unemployed or whatever. If I think things are basically going OK with you, you get mentioned to God with a “whatever he/she needs” attitude.

I came to this idea of a prayer list when I was preparing for hiking the Camino Santiago de Compostela.  I posted this on Facebook:

Facebook Prayer.png

To my astonishment, I had over 100 specific replies to this post, so I decided to enter all those requests into an Evernote document and to print it out and carry it with my passport and credenciál as I hiked the Camino.  I prayed for these people every day, morning and evening.  I added people along the way, too.  I was surprised and deeply moved by people’s responses to my offer to pray.  Several were in tears as I wrote down their names, like the owner of the hostel in France who told me that his wife had left him 25 years earlier. “But we are still married in God’s eyes,” he said, showing me his wedding band.  I promised I would deliver his petition to Jesus at the tomb of St. James.

Tomb of St James
The tomb of St. James, Santiago de Compostela, Spain.  That’s my prayer list in the center of the photo, mangled from the pilgrimage but still readable.  

Another surprise:  Many people I’d prayed for wrote to me after the trip to tell me that their prayers had been answered– some in extremely surprising ways.

There’s a guy I went to high school with who once complained on Facebook that no one who said they prayed for people actually did. So, I added him to my prayer list and now I pray for him every day. I let God sort out what the guy needs. That’s my basic attitude– let God sort it out. I pray for non-Christians, but not for their conversion. I pray for sinners, but not that they’ll stop sinning. I just pray for them, and whatever God does with that prayer is better than anything I could come up with. God’s got some mysterious stuff going on, and I don’t want to mess with it– I want to cooperate with it.

For a while I used an iPad for my breviary I opened a page in “Notes” and typed in a copy of my paper list. Nowadays, I am back to paper. I’ve got about 100 people on there. Some of them, I have no idea how they got on my list. But that’s part of the beauty of it, right?

Whatever else prayer does, it makes you pay attention to God’s ongoing work in the world and among his people.  And daily prayer provides a small but concrete way to love others, to take yourself out of the center of your own narrative and let God occupy the center. I don’t think that’s all that prayer does, but I welcome it.

What it’s Like to Baptize Your First Infant

So, here’s the first thing: I’ve never felt so blessed and so utterly unimportant as I did in the moments when I was baptizing Lala.

You understand in an instant, if you’re paying attention, why it is that John the Baptist is so frequently portrayed as pointing to Jesus.

Really, anyone can baptize. You can we a wicked SOB or a saint. You can be an atheist who’s just fulfilling the wishes of the parents or you can be the Pope. A jackass or a whiskey priest or a five-year-old girl can do it. The kid isn’t more baptized by the Pope than he would be by the atheist.

Maybe this is why Jesus made it so easy. Jesus apparently knows his people well enough to know that making it complicated is a formula for disaster. Make it easy. If you make it easy, we get more people, and that’s the whole idea. More, more, more. Jesus is profligate when you are not inclined to be profligate. More. How many people is enough for Jesus? All of them. If we get all of them, that’s enough.

So, when you baptize someone, that’s where you start. All the ceremonial– and it is magnificent ceremonial, and If you can read the blessing of the water without tears you are more of a man than I am– is just intended to heighten the awareness of this bald fact. God wants more children. He’s crazy about it. The Octomom is a lightweight compared to God. He wants you and everybody.

So, anyway, the parents are two people I’ve loved for a long time. I was filled with anxiety back in 2008 when we awaited the news that mom had applied to transfer to Colgate, and I rejoiced when she got in. I rejoiced when she and the dad got married. I rejoiced when they cooked chicken paprikash and when we had the interfaith barbecue one summer and when they graduated and, well, there’s a lot to celebrate with them, as they are wonderful.

And then she was pregnant and then the baby was born and he was impossibly beautiful and I said, “Hey, you know, I’ll be a deacon soon, and if you don’t have plans for a baptism but want him baptized, I’m game.” Thanks be to God, they took me up on it.

I practiced a number of times with one of my daughter’s dolls. I did OK. There’s a certain nonchalance when you’re practicing most things, but I will admit that when one of my students held the doll over the font and I poured water on the doll’s head, I cried. For that moment, it was about the grace that my ordination had given.

But I’ll tell you what– when you’re doing the baptism, it’s completely different, and whatever it is about it is NOT about you or your emotions. It’s about the fact that you, child of God, are able to stand and bear witness to what God is doing with your hands and with the water you poured into the font. Jesus takes over, and you’re his stunt double. If you do a half-assed job, if you missed the miracle of adoption into God’s family, well, that’s your problem. But if you just pay attention, God’s got a show for you. God’s love, your hands.

Baptizing Lala instantly transformed everything I thought I knew about the sacraments. I suddenly saw priests in a different light. Your surrender is all that’s required for the grace to be given. Well, no– even your surrender isn’t required. Your surrender is only required if you want to see it, if you want to see with your own eyes what God has given you to do.

Binge-Watching Maron

I am a huge fan of stand-up comedy, and I spend almost all my “TV” time watching comedians on Netflix or YouTube.

Recently I found myself watching the entire second season of Maron, the comedy series based on and starring comedian Marc Maron. Maron’s probably most famous for his “WTF” podcast, wherein he conducts long, generous interviews with an incredible array of comedians, actors, musicians, and other public figures. Maron’s great weapon as an interviewer and as a comedian is his absolute candor and commitment to truth. The fact that both his candor and his truth are filtered through a sometimes impossibly thick narcissism is the central tension of his work: He wants to be truthful, he even wants to be good, but there’s a ferociously selfish, wounded, self-protecting aspect to his personality that keeps it from being all good. I am reminded of David Foster Wallace’s quip, “The truth will set you free, but not until it’s finished with you.” The truth is not finished with Marc Maron.
I almost want to do an episode-by-episode review of this sometimes-astonishing series, but my first impression is that the whole season’s theme involves the movement from self-protectiveness toward responsibility to others. Maron’s got a growing awareness of his connectedness to others. He rails against the hypocrisy and narcissism in other characters, but almost inevitably his indignation turns toward a recognition of his own selfishness and need to change. He has a keen eye for b.s. and a rapidly evolving conscience. He’s responding more and more to the need for relationships, real friendships, family cohesion, and connection to a community. And, to my surprise, there’s even a growing sense of gratitude. I don’t know if this is Maron’s intention, but there’s almost a sense in which he’s climbing out of the hell he’s created for himself.

That said, it’s still pretty raunchy and broken, alternating between heartbreaking sadness and great comedy. Like Louie, it’s a show I wish I could recommend to parishioners, but in a world where EWTN is what people think of as “Catholic television,” this would seem jarring and vulgar. But I can’t help but think that the paschal mystery undergirds the whole message of the show. God, lead Marc Maron to whatever Sunday you have in store for him and for all of us.

On Returning to Spiritual Direction

For the last many months, I’ve been afraid that, if I called my spiritual director, Fr. Joe, he’d be angry that I hadn’t been in touch. Boy, was I wrong.

I felt so relieved when he greeted me like a long lost friend, with nothing but a sense of joy and pleasure at my arrival. You don’t get that too often in life, but when you get it it’s the best feeling in the world.

We talked for a long time. He told me a few things about how he’s doing. I told him about my life– the Camino and what it’s meant to me, the state of my spiritual life, the things that happened at Colgate this semester. There was a lot to talk about.

He gave me some good advice and told some great stories.

“You need time to get back to yourself, to a sort of baseline where you can even look at what’s going on. You need quiet. Know what I do? I go over to Onondaga Lake and stare at the water for a while. That gets rid of the noise. Then I come back and pray before the sacrament and ask Jesus what is going on in my life.”

“How long do you stare at the lake?”

“Eh, last time it was about six hours. Then I came back and prayed for four hours or so.” He said this without any hint of recognition about how unusual his behavior is.

He told me that it’s too early to know what the 19th annotation retreat I did last year (the 30 week work on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius) did for me, but that he was absolutely certain that God used it and that I’m different. “Go and sit at the lake. It’ll become clear.”

We talked about the Camino. I told him that I miss it and that I think about it every day and want to go back. “What do you miss?” he asked. I told him many things, but mostly the simplicity and the physicality and the quiet. I told him of my drive to rid myself of my possessions, and he smiled and said this was probably one of the things God was working on with me, giving me the grace to embrace that sort of freedom.

His advice:

1. Review Ignatius’ Rules for the Discernment of Spirits, from both weeks 1 and 2 of the Exercises.
2. When I don’t perceive God’s presence in my life, I should talk to God about it directly. “Tell God, ‘I don’t feel you present with me. Am I doing something wrong or are you doing something with me?”
3. Go back to the “Two Standards” in the Exercises and spend time with that.
4. Because of how hard I am on myself, spend time meditating on the question, “Is Jesus my friend?”
On the way to spiritual direction I listened to the On Being interview with Nadia Bolz-Weber, the Lutheran minister of many tattoos. It was interesting enough, but I did not find her to be as awesome as I’d heard she was.  Maybe you had to be there, or maybe I know a lot of her tricks from my Lutheran seminary days.  But she’s obviously connecting with some folks, so may God prosper the work of her hands. On the way back, I listened to another interview from the same podcast, this one with Paulo Coehlo. It was better.

The most important thing I heard from Coehlo is that he realized after hiking the Camino that the spiritual pilgrimage began after his arrival at Santiago. I am finding that to be true. He spoke of the character of his life changing. The elements of the pilgrimage restored him to himself and awakened a desire to have a life characterized by traveling lightly, simplicity (which he termed elegance, a linguistic turn I loved), conversations with strangers, openness to new places, long stretches of solitude, deep connections, the sheer physicality of the walk, etc. I get this, and it’s where my heart or God or whatever is pulling me.