By invoking the sacred name repeatedly we invite the grace of God to take possession of our hearts and minds, protecting us from harmful effects. As elder Sophrony put it, the Name of Jesus Christ for the believer is like a high fortress-wall that gives the soul the strength to resist harmful influences from outside…
It is easier at the early stage of the practice to recite the [Jesus] Prayer when you do some task that does not require concentration, such as washing dishes. But your inexperience should not discourage you. This is a challenge that you can overcome with time. Keep in mind that at the early stages of spiritual practice you must not be concerned with the quality of the Prayer, whether your mind is focused on the words or not. Whatever you do at that stage, your mind will be wandering. There is no way to avoid that.
But the prayer has its own power and energy. As your repeat it in your mind or aloud it will have a gradual impact within your psycho-spiritual world. Believe me, it will work like a bulldozer which opens up the road, gradually demolishing rocks and pushing the dirt away. That is how the prayer works. It opens the road for grace to visit the heart. And when that happens, then the heart works by itself independently of whatever else you do. It enters into an ongoing relationship with God.
Kyriacos C. Markides, The Mountain of Silence
Reflection – So I am back from my week of family ministry at the Nazareth camp in St Gabriel de Brandon, Quebec. I’ve done dozens of such weeks, either at Nazareth or our own Cana over the past 20 years, but each week has its own character and flow. This week was mostly made up of young families with very young children—lots of toddlers and pre-schoolers and hardly any teens at all. The liturgies were noisy and the evenings ended early with this crowd.
At Nazareth, the priest tends to hang out on the beach in the afternoon, the unscheduled time of the day, off to the side with an empty chair beside him. The chair doesn’t stay empty all that much as people come and go for confession or talk, to be prayed with, and so forth.
But there are lags, and so I bring a book, my own personal ‘beach reading’ for the year. This year it was The Mountain of Silence, a lovely contemporary book about the Orthodox monks of Cyprus and the author’s conversations with one of them, Fr. Maximos, about the Orthodox spiritual way.
It was quite something to go back and forth between these rather esoteric and elevated conversations, and then listening to a harried young mother talk about her struggles with patience and the endless mountain of housework and diapers and dishes to deal with, or a couple their struggle with communication, or a husband his uncertainty about his family’s future. And then back up the mountain of silence for a few more pages…
It was good, though, and this little snippet leapt out at me in this context in particular, confirming what I have always believed to be true about the Jesus Prayer and its immeasurable value in our life. For those who do not know, the Jesus Prayer is the ongoing repetition, aloud or in silence, of the phrase, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” As Fr. Maximos explains here, it is easiest to begin this repetitive prayer while doing tasks like washing dishes, preparing a meal, driving somewhere perhaps—things that don’t necessarily take the full energy of our minds. But in time it is meant to be a ceaseless prayer of faith and humility, a cry for mercy, an encounter with Christ in the depths of the human heart.
I do not believe that this is only meant for monks living on some silent mountain, nor (as the book makes clear) does Fr. Maximos. It is indeed for the harried young mother, the anxious young father, the struggling couple, and everyone else besides. It is a prayer of faith—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God”—and a prayer of humility—“have mercy on me a sinner.” A prayer of great poverty and abandonment, and a prayer of great trust and confidence. A prayer of obedience (‘Lord’) and of tenderness (‘mercy’), of joy (God is alive!) and of compunction (we are sinners).
So much of what prayer is, the whole of it, really, is bound up tightly in this one short sentence of prayer, which is at the very heart of the Eastern Christian spiritual tradition. If the Church is meant to breathe with its two lungs of East and West, I can think of no better and simpler way than for Christians of the Latin West to take up the practice of the Jesus Prayer and make it our own.And so I wanted to offer you my ‘beach reading’, and recommend the book itself if you ever chance upon it. There is much wisdom in it, and good humor, and beauty. And that’s all I’ve got for today—back tomorrow with another thrilling installment of the Monday Psalter, and then we’ll see where we go from there.