I have struggled with the Jesus prayer. I've tried. I've relegated it to the position of something that would be nice to do, if I had the time. When I've had the time, it's been a drag to say the prayer even 20 times. In periods of zealous intensity, I've kept it up perhaps for a few weeks- in truth, probably devoted to the idea of myself praying it more than actually praying it. In Lenten seasons, I've taken up the rope again- only to put it back onto its nail with the icons where it's been incrementally fastened down by delicate cobwebs and layers of dust.
And then two things happened recently: I visited a monastery and I read a couple books. Nothing extraordinary. Neither of these things are new for me- I love monasteries and though they're scarce in Australia, I manage to get to one maybe once a year. And books, as Dostoyevsky says, are my food! How many books on prayer have I read? Many as a Pentecostal Christian and many more as Orthodox. Why was it different now?
I visited St Anna's Monastery in Goulburn, newly acquired by the Antiochian Orthodox Church, on a very low-key retreat with my 9 year old son Matari and a few fellow parishioners. Walks, card games, talks, reading Lord of the Rings to Matari, evening Vespers- very low key. One night, Sister Virginia, the only nun (for now) at the monastery came into the guest kitchen, as she often did, bearing small gifts. She unslung from off her arm, like black bows, several long prayer ropes and passed them around. Matari's enthusiasm to have one too had her going back for an extra one for me. Very unassumingly, she explained how to thumb the rope and say the words: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. She explained a few different variations. Like a medal or a mantle, Matari solemnly placed his around his neck.
Later, as we headed off to bed to the floor of bedrooms above the chapel, Matari reminded me to say a prayer before bed. "Yes, of course we will", I replied, "we can pray in the bedroom." "No, let's pray in the church, in front of the icons," he told me, "it's better there." I was silent as I let the simple logic sink in. Of course it's better there. "Sure." And as we stood, praying the Jesus prayer, the large icons illumined softly by a single candle, something stayed with me that hasn't left- it still hasn't left, as I sit here writing nearly two months later: a curious remembrance of God, pressing on my chest like a warm hand.
It has stayed with me. I didn't ask for it, I wasn't seeking it. But it's here. It's flickered, but it's stayed. Now that it's present, I feel different. Any small scattered doubts my heart had dubiously entertained have been blown away. I feel a strange comfort, like, in TS Eliot's words: "All is well and all manner of things shall be well"-even though on paper things are most certainly not all well in my life! I can suddenly see with more clarity than I've ever mustered before, what my time is often spent thinking about- dwelling on the past, replaying conversations, worry about the future, lustful fantasies, vain perceptions of myself, biting regret, blackest despair, endless distraction, every hedonistic pleasure, imagining satisfyingly angry outbursts- all this and more on repeat, day in, day out! With these thoughts I've lacerated my mind, clouded my heart and distracted my prayers! I see this more clearly. And with this remembrance is an increasing desire to pray the Jesus prayer.
I am helped by reading The Art of Prayer and The Way of a Pilgrim- ubiquitous classics of the Orthodox world. I'd never read them before but now they seem to be calling. The words are alive in an odd way for me, giving me a rare joy: I know a little of what they're talking about! "Remembrance of God is something that God Himself grafts upon the soil", writes 19th century Russian bishop St Theophan the Recluse. How true for me- so unworthy to be granted to remember God more! Even without the Jesus prayer, the remembrance has stuck with me. St Theophan confirms, "It is possible to replace the thought of God by the Jesus Prayer, but where is the necessity for this when they are one and the same?" Something of the essence of prayer has been communicated- the collection of the mind in the heart: "The principal thing is to stand with the mind in the heart before God, and to go on standing before Him unceasingly day and night, until the end of life." I can see how my true calling or vocation in life truly is to try to keep this action, this posture, unceasingly, no matter what else I do.
As I read I realise how I'm at the beginning of beginnings, and how my feeble efforts can be dashed away in an instant by my undying self-glory and pride. I have a long way to go, but glory to God- I feel all things transformed by a simple, new desire: I want to pray, together with a simple, new awareness: I remember God.
To complete this short piece, here is a poem, offering some different images:
A filter has been dropped
Into the filth, clearing the waters;
The humming needle has been
Sensitised to the magnet a little more.
For no great reason, the Holy One has
Sent His seraphic grace
Touching my lips,
Unworthy, unseeking a spark.
An ache has been planted,
And it illumines my path- showing me the dark
Mountains, thorns, utterly lonely places
-like a flare.
But now, a Great Comfort beats with my heart:
The birthpains of unceasing prayer.
It is Christ,
And this constant remembrance remembers me more than I it.
I see myself anew- filthy from the clothes I've slept in too long,
Still hurt and hurtful and in many ways wrong-
But carrying a small tealight in a jar over the rocks,
That I can't say I've held before,
Breathing the Most-Pure name
To fan it to full flame,
To fan myself to flame.
+Glory to You, O Lord!+
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