The Ancient Desert Prayer
Frederica Mathewes-Green “The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God” [Paraclete Press, 2009]
“In the earliest centuries of faith, Christians in the deserts of Palestine and Africa sought a short prayer that could be easily repeated, in order to acquire the habit of “prayer without ceasing.” The result was The Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”
This jewel of Eastern Christianity aims at enabling a person to be in God’s presence, rather than to focus on feelings or thoughts about God.
The first section of “The Jesus Prayer” offers a concise overview of the history, theology, and spirituality of Orthodoxy, so that the Prayer can be understood in its native context. Following, is a conversational question-and-answer format that takes the reader through practical steps for adopting this profound practice in everyday life.”
“About fifteen years ago I started to use the Jesus Prayer during these mid-night hours; “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” This very simple prayer was developed in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine during the early centuries of Christian faith, and has been practiced in the Eastern Orthodox Church ever since. It is a prayer inspired by St. Paul’s exhortation to “pray constantly”, and its purpose is to tune one’s inner attention to the presence of the Lord.
. . . How fast should I say the prayer? As you pray, you must turn away from focusing on other thoughts, and that may influence how rapidly you say it. Most times a “walking pace,” andante, is about right. Sometimes, though, you might need to say it very quickly, trying to end one prayer to the beginning of the next, in order to keep a crack from opening up where other thoughts could push their way in. When I’m agitated or worried, I have to think the words of the silent prayer firmly and “mind the gap” (as the announcement goes in the London subway) so that unwanted thoughts don’t sneak through.
On the other hand, sometimes you may feel so absorbed in the Prayer that you are savoring every word and want to pray it very slowly. You may repeat it a single time, and then coast for awhile — like the blissful feeling in childhood of cranking up a bicycle to a good speed, then standing on the pedals and flying. And I sometimes feel as though I can’t repeat the Prayer at all — his glory is so momentous and powerful. I just keep looking at the Prayer in my mind, with wonder. The Prayer is a medium of communication, very likely two-way communication, so the texture of it can vary as earthly converstions do.
I’m talking about the dedicated prayer time, when I’m doing nothing else but praying. The rest of the time, I get the Prayer going whenever I think of it. But if the test is repeating the Jesus Prayer all the time, I am nowhere near that. Over and over, every day, I notice that I’m not praying.
So I was encouraged to read this passage, taken from a letter that St. Theophan the Recluse (AD 1815-1894) wrote to one of his spiritual children: “You regret that the Jesus Prayer is not unceasing, that you do not recite it constantly. But constant repetition is not required. What is required is a constant aliveness to God — an aliveness present when you talk, read, watch, or examine something.” Constant repetition of the Prayer can lead you to remaining in God’s presence, but if you do that without repeating the Prayer, it is all right.
The main thing is to cultivate profound gratitude to God, which comes naturally the more you see your own sin. Without a fresh, strong, authentic yearning for God, St. Theophan says, “the Prayer is dry food.””
For suggestions for further reading and links to articles on the Jesus Prayer, see: http://www.orthodoxprayer.org/Jesus%20Prayer-Articles%20and%20Books.html