Years ago, when I was still an Anglican theological student I remember reading The Way of the Pilgrim which is a Russian Orthodox book about the hesychast–the Jesus Prayer–or the way of praying without ceasing. I had come across it first in J.D.Salinger’s story Franny and Zooey and then the charming story in the Way of the Pilgrim encouraged me to start using the Jesus Prayer.
It was my first introduction to repetitious prayer, and it’s been with me every since. The idea is simple, that we repeat the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God have mercy on me a sinner” over and over again. Eventually we link it with our breathing. Breathe in real long and deep and recite, “Lord Jesus Son of God.” Breathe out real long and deep and recite, “Have mercy on me a sinner.” Other people suggest other simple phrases like “O God Come to My Assistance–O Lord Make Haste to Help me”
The monks of Mt Athos had used the prayer linked with physical behaviors as a sort of mantra to help them enter into a spirit and mindset of transcendent prayer. OK. The problem is that we can induce an altered state of consciousness through lots of different techniques or by taking certain chemicals. The altered state of consciousness–a feeling of peace, calm and unity with the cosmos–does not necessarily mean that we are in touch with God or that we are really experiencing Christ’s holy spirit. All it means is that we have achieved (sometimes through simple physiological techniques) a mellow sort of mood.
The Jesus Prayer can be a wonderful way of moving more deeply into communion with the Lord, but only if it is accompanied by a daily obedience to the teachings of the Church, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, a love of Sacred Scripture, service to the poor and a life lived in dynamic communion with the saints and in the fullness of Christ’s sacramental economy. These are the objective criteria which validate and enhance and amplify the Jesus Prayer and any other personal and subjective spiritualities.
In my growing experience this is what the church needs most desperately at this time. We need humble Catholics who will simply live day by day in the great torrent of grace which is flowing in and through Christ’s Church, her teaching, her saints and her sacraments.
I find this difficult to articulate fully, except to say that it is a unity and a whole experience which draws together the Sacred Scriptures, the sacraments, the church and the lives of the saints in an experience which is at once full and magnificent and awesome, and yet at the same time as humble and simple and down to earth and seemingly insignificant as saying your Divine Office, going to Mass, biting your tongue when you want to say something bitter, being aware and in touch with a favorite saint, reading the Bible or being kind to an enemy.
All this can be infused with the daily presence of God, and special prayer techniques can be a great complement and aid to this process, but they cannot replace it.