Some time back I spent part of Sunday afternoon at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. One of the advantages of living close to London in Horsted Keynes is that just as my parishioners commute to work I as parish priest can commute from my village to recreation. It fascinates me on occasion to join in debates that stretch my brain cells. Atheists, Christians, Muslims, Marxists all engage in Hyde Park as part of the freedom of expression that is distinctive of our democratic culture. Issues in debate that week included the army’s removal of the Egyptian president and the perceived incapacity of Islamic leaders to form broad coalitions of interest.
As I left the strident debate one of the more engaging characters I’d met took me to one side and confided he was a Coptic Christian from Egypt and had appreciated my contribution. Suddenly the intellectual discussion took back stage to a personal encounter with a believer under persecution. I walked on through Hyde Park to attend a church service with him on my heart. As I walked, the Jesus Prayer was, as ever, my companion, settling my mind, centring me on God and his love for the Sunday crowds picnicking around me, preparing me for the sung evening prayer I was due to attend at a Church in Knightsbridge.
My experience in Hyde Park demonstrates the way my mind burns with ideas to be debated internally and externally, a debating that needs again and again to give way to something more profound. Just as meeting that Egyptian Christian had an impact on me over and above the intellectual debate about his country’s politics, so my personal encounter with God is brought about by the Jesus Prayer as it takes me deeper than purely mental reflection. Such reflection can be highly distracting so that an over active mind has been compared variously to a cloud of mosquitoes buzzing round or to a colony of monkeys leaping from tree to tree. The discipline of reciting the Jesus Prayer provides what I am calling a simpler mentality, in other words one that sees the periodic clearing of the mind with useless thoughts put to one side and a centring on what actually matters here and now.
On my Sunday afternoon walk I moved from thinking and debating to interceding and worshipping through the unfolding of events. Those events had included an important personal encounter, which got me praying for someone at the sharp end of things. The encounter was a trigger for intercession in which my default recitation of the Jesus Prayer came to the surface, replacing and so silencing my thoughts, so that my heart could rest more on God and neighbour. When I arrived before the altar of the Knightsbridge Church, I had people on my heart to bring before God for blessing.
In the Orthodox anthology of spiritual writers St John of Karpathos gives this advice: ‘Long labour in prayer and considerable time are needed for a man with a mind which never cools to acquire a new heaven of the heart where Christ dwells, as the Apostle says: “Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you..?” (2 Corinthians 13:5) I particularly appreciated this advice when I read it, being ‘a man with a mind which never cools’ seeking ‘to acquire that heaven of the heart’ which has Christ’s indwelling. In the Jesus Prayer I have found a check to useless cerebral activity that helps circumstances of the present moment to break into my psyche, warm my heart and help it move, however untidily, towards the heart of God.
The repeating of the prayer is not the ‘vain repetition’ condemned by Jesus in Matthew 6:7. Rather it is a warding off of vain mental preoccupation, once the Jesus Prayer is given permission by the will to surface from its default interior cogitation. ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’: the phrase takes hold of us and does away with negativity. Containing the Saviour’s name, it’s something redeeming as there is a close association of name and person in biblical understanding.
For the Jews of the Old Testament knowing someone’s name brought you close to all they are about and the name of Jesus, for Christians, stands for entry into the heart of God himself. Invoking the name of Jesus places me in God’s presence and opens my heart to his energy as I voice inside of myself an ongoing desire to surrender myself to God’s mercy. This is a very powerful dynamic so that recalling the holy name of Jesus seems very often to bring God’s power into play within my situation.
The release of the mind into the heart is key to holy living as it helps our thoughts and indeed our wills to submit to the work that God has for us and, through us, for a needy world. Repeating the Jesus Prayer is a means to this end, although it’s a costly exercise because it involves continual use of the mind to repeat it, which generates some natural resistance and sometimes a literal pain in the head! The internal flow of our thoughts is impossible to control fully but there are ways of disengaging ourselves and rising above that flow of which the Jesus Prayer is a great servant.
I know a business man who was sent on a course of Buddhist meditation to improve his performance in the workplace. The commercial world tends to focus on Buddhism as expert in healthy spiritual practice as far as its teaching on mindfulness is concerned. A fellow priest worked out that there were more people enrolled annually on Buddhist meditation courses in Brighton than attended parish churches.
In my view it is quite extraordinary how people are giving authority for spiritual expertise to eastern religions over against Christianity (which is arguably itself an eastern religion) and this was one of my prompts to write about the Jesus Prayer which is one among many gifts we can offer from the treasury of Christian devotion to engage with those seeking to build their interior life in the materialistic culture we inhabit. Like other forms of eastern devotion it involves a repeated prayer phrase which has the effect of focussing and simplifying the mind’s operation.
In his book on the Jesus Prayer Bishop Simon Barrington-Ward writes: ‘The phrases of the Jesus Prayer give the top of our mind something to be occupied with, so that the rest of the mind can be open to the deeper feeling that lies underneath. This is what those who have used the prayer have called putting the mind in the heart. The words occupy our surface being at the same time as they communicate with the depths in us’.
This is an excellent description of the simpler mentality we are introduced to whereby the mind is given holy distraction so as to allow prayer from the depth of our being.
In this eucharist such prayer is nurtured by the gift of word and sacrament presented to us. These gifts are enhanced by corporate silence in which we own the gifts and the Lord who is the Giver. Let us attend to him now, reaching down from the superficial attention of our minds into that place inside of us we call the heart where God dwells and would dwell more fully.