Keeping stillness: The "Jesus Prayer"

Pantocrator icon, St. Catherine's monastery, 5th Century (the face may represent Christ's dual human and divine nature)My Lenten project—curating a collection of red-blooded, old-time Catholic prayers—has shied away from sharing one of the most deceptively simple and powerful ones. It is this, no more or less:

"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

As this Passion Sunday (the cooler name for "Palm Sunday") draws to a close, I'll give it a try. Variations of  this brief utterance have a stupendously rich and complex history, particularly in the Eastern Orthodox communities. Calling it a "Christian mantra" doesn't do it justice. According to the daunting Wikipedia entry for the so-called Jesus Prayer:

"It is often repeated continually as a part of personal ascetic practice, its use being an integral part of the eremitic tradition of prayer known as Hesychasm (Greek: hesychazo, "to keep stillness"). The prayer is particularly esteemed by the spiritual fathers of this tradition as a method of opening up the heart (kardia) and bringing about the Prayer of the Heart. The Prayer of The Heart is considered to be the Unceasing Prayer that the apostle Paul advocates in the New Testament.  St. Theophan the Recluse [hey, I know that guy!—ed.] regarded the Jesus Prayer stronger than all other prayers by virtue of the power of the Holy Name of Jesus.

'Monogram' of Christ in Roman catacomb (click for explanation)Whew...this is heady stuff for someone who tends to exclaim the Holy Name mostly during attacks of road rage. Especially the notion that this prayer offers a way into St. Paul's rather impractical urging to "pray without ceasing." In a talk at my church, Bishop Frank Caggiano addressed this "pray always" mystery, suggesting that constant prayer was possible (even with TV and bathroom time, presumably). He said you'd need three things, more or less in this order:

1. Wonder.

2. Openness.

3. Encounter.

I've seen directions for the Jesus Prayer that involve yoga-like breathing components, but I am terrible at breathing on cue, alternating between holding my breath and hyperventilating. Jesus and me, an atheist's viewFor the past few weeks, however, I've been trying to say the prayer when I feel stressed. (Talk about "pray without ceasing.") It felt superficial and formulaic at first, and worse yet, it seemed vaguely reminiscent of talking to an imaginary playmate as I went about my day. 

But curiously, as it has become a bit more of a habit, it has begun to feel comforting, like speaking to someone in the dark as they sleep by your side. A name attaches to a person, and a person is what I need when I'm needy—not a lovely, abstract syllable like "om" or even a good deep breath.  During sieges of neurochemical misery, this plea for mercy seems itself to yield mercy. First, openness, then, encounter.


Pull out and pan over cityscape

Night Windows, by Edward HopperCome to bed, says the spouse to the blogger. How late are you going to stay up here?

For all those seeking sleep tonight, here's another prayer by the mighty St. Augustine of Hippo. For a titan of theology, he reveals a tender heart in this nighttime prayer. Somehow, it evokes the glimpsed nighttime windows of New York City for me: those lit with golden wealth, or the fluourescent strips of hospital rooms, or the bare bulbs of poverty. When are you going to turn out that light and come to bed?

A Nightly Prayer

Watch, O Lord,
with those who wake, or watch or weep tonight,
and give your angels charge over those who sleep.
Tend your sick ones, O Lord Jesus Christ;
rest your weary ones;
bless your dying ones;
soothe your suffering ones;
pity your afflicted ones;
shield your joyous ones;
and all for your love's sake.

- St Augustine of Hippo

Posted on Wednesday, March 28, 2012 at 12:50AM by Registered CommenterBrenda from Brooklyn in , , | CommentsPost a Comment

Cheerfully and willingly? I'll try.

Happy Monday! Since yesterday's gospel was the raising of Lazarus, I'll start the week by sharing one of my favorite old-timey Catholic prayers (the kind your kids won't learn in CCD or hear on a New Age-y nun-led retreat). This one, incredibly, has helped me cope with Existential Dread.

Strindberg...and HeliumYou know, that presumably universal experience: You realize that you, personally, are going to die, oh crap!

You as in, you. Die, as in, gone, as bafflingly and totally gone as that husk-like guy in pancake makeup, lying in a glossy box surrounded by floral arrangements, at the last wake you went to. Because the husk was there, but the guy wasn't. Existential dread! Not the terror of getting there, in the ER or the doomed plane, no, the terror of not being anymore.

Patrick Stewart in 'Waiting for Godot' (Photo: Sasha Gusov)I deal with this terror by eating in the middle of the night. The mighty modernists dealt with it on nearly-bare stages where men grapple with ultimate meaninglessness. Jesus deals with it by telling us to hold on until He gets there, and He will call us out and set us free.

Surrendering to that faith must be about the hardest thing there is. (Where did the husk-guy go? Where is he now? Why did someone put a DVD of his favorite movie in the box with him?)

For some reason, this prayer from my dad's old Missal has helped me connect to my Lazarus faith. There are various prayers like this, often called "Prayers for a Happy Death." (Happy!) This one is called "an act of resignation," and it is an act: outrageous, simple and radical. It's like falling off a cliff and trusting someone invisible will be there to catch you. It is practice, and I try to practice every day...or at least in the middle of the night.

An Act of Resignation

My Lord God, even now I accept at Thy hands, cheerfully and willingly, with all its anxieties, pains and sufferings, whatever kind of death it shall please thee to be mine.

The Raising of Lazarus by James R C Martin, pastel

James R. C. Martin is a painter in Ivybridge, Devon, England. Not all his paintings are religious in theme, but the faith-based ones are unsentimental, evocative, and lovely.

In deadly earnest

Raphael, St. Michael. c.1503-1504. Oil on panel. Louvre.

The depiction of St. Michael the Archangel conquering Satan used to strike me as one of those wacky medieval bits of Catholic iconography. That was before I had a child.

Now I relish the idea of a mighty champion kicking demonic butt, because my kid is going out into that world, and sometimes it seems to resemble this terrifying dreamscape by Raphael. On this Saturday night, when the perils that may await our children are much in the news, this prayer goes out to all who face mortal dangers, whether spiritual or physical.


Prayer To St. Michael The Archangel


Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in the battle.

Be our safeguard and protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil; may God rebuke him, we humbly pray;

and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all evil spirits who wander through the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.


Posted on Saturday, March 24, 2012 at 08:08PM by Registered CommenterBrenda from Brooklyn in , , | Comments1 Comment

Iron Man's Prayer of Surrender

Soviet prison photo of Walter Ciszek SJ (courtesy Fr. James Martin)No, not Tony Stark. Meet a real Iron Man: Walter Ciszek, SJ (1904-1984), whose canonization process has just been greenlighted by the Vatican, according to fellow Jesuit Fr. James Martin (who ought to know, being the author of a book about saints).

Yes, that is a mug shot. A reformed Polish-American punk from Shenandoah, Penna., the young priest went to Europe on the eve of WWII, hoping to sneak into Russia as a missionary. He got more than he could ever have imagined: Accused as a spy, he survived years of solitary confinement and torture in a Moscow prison and was then swept into the fathomless Gulag system, where he toiled for decades in Siberian coal mines and logging camps. After his release, he was shuttled around the USSR for yet more years, finally being traded back home to the US in a Kennedy-era spy exchange.

This would be a ripping enough yarn, but all this time, Ciszek contrived to minister to those around him, even celebrating Mass secretly at great risk. In all the godforsaken places of exile, he left converts in his wake. And upon his return, he took up priestly life at Fordham and elsewhere, writing, counseling, and leading retreats.

More miraculous to me than his raw survival--against the elements, against brutality, starvation, and slave labor--is Fr. Ciszek's seemingly endless power of forgiveness and acceptance. "Let God rule; be affected by Him," he advised. I cannot manage this behind someone with 11 items in the 10-item supermarket lane, much less a prison camp. "The grace of surrender has to take effect like medicine," he also wrote. "You'll know it has when you're not thinking about it."

I hate surrendering anything, to anyone. Trivial slights reduce me to a raging toddler or, at my best, a sulking teenager. Just having read the bare bones of Fr. Ciszek's story has been awe-inspiring. Here's to the cause of Saint Iron Man, and here is a prayer based on his teachings.

Prayer Of Surrender

Lord, Jesus Christ, I ask the grace to accept the sadness in my heart, as your will for me, in this moment. I offer it up, in union with your sufferings, for those who are in deepest need of your redeeming grace. I surrender myself to your Father's will and I ask you to help me to move on to the next task that you have set for me.

Spirit of Christ, help me to enter into a deeper union with you. Lead me away from dwelling on the hurt I feel:

to thoughts of charity for those who need my love,

to thoughts of compassion for those who need my care, and

to thoughts of giving to those who need my help.

As I give myself to you, help me to provide for the salvation of those who come to me in need.

May I find my healing in this giving.

May I always accept God's will.

May I find my true self by living for others in a spirit of sacrifice and suffering.

May I die more fully to myself, and live more fully in you.

As I seek to surrender to the Father's will, may I come to trust that he will do everything for me.

Source: Father Walter Ciszek Prayer League