In the past few years I've had an on-again-off-again interest in Eastern Orthodoxy. My first real exposure to Orthodoxy came when I was writing my Master's Thesis at Trinity on the topic of the Incarnation. I stumbled across a gold mine of Orthodox writers I had never heard of before. But, as I said, my interest was never sustained for long. Among the traditions of the Orthodox is the saying of "The Jesus Prayer." When I saw that one of my favorite Orthodox writers, Frederica Methewes-Green, was writing a book on this prayer my interest was renewed. For those unfamiliar with this prayer it is quite simply “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” (There are variations which she deals with in the book.) The Jesus Prayer: the Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God is divided into two parts: Part One covers some of the history and gives a general overview of the prayer. Chapter two, of part one, is entitled "Terms, Concepts, and Context" but perhaps she should have added "Cautions." There are some in the Orthodox community who believe the Jesus Prayer should not be said by those who are not part of the Orthodox community. She says "some Orthodox elders hold that self-directed use of the Prayer is, in fact, dangerous, potentially leading to delusion, then to possible insanity or demonic possession." (28) She clarifies that the driving concern here is "mostly thinking of people who harbor prideful fantasies of being a certified mystic, able to wield supernatural powers and demonstrably superior to ordinary folks." (29) At first I was put off by this kind of thinking but then realized that here are a people who take their practices seriously and want to discourage the practice of them outside of their most fruitful contexts and purposes. The Jesus Prayer is part of a very organic context and she says that “some Orthodox find it hard to imagine how people could benefit from the Jesus Prayer if they take it out of context. You need all the elements, they would say, including participation in the Orthodox sacraments (called ‘mysteries’ in the East) and acceptance of Orthodox theology.” (27, emphasis hers) Her own thoughts are summed up with “stay humble and you will be safe” and “if you are open and humble, how could it hurt?” (29-30)
She acknowledges in the third chapter that “[y]ou can try to force your mind to keep going over and over those words, like a gerbil on a wheel, but it’s going to get pretty tedious. The hard part is to mean them.” (33, emphasis hers) The point of the prayer is to foster a relationship with God but it is also instrumental in a transformed heart and mind (an important distinction which she helps to flesh out in this chapter.)
The second part of the book is in a Q & A format which reads fairly quickly. The questions cover a wide range of topics from where do I start to how many times (and even how fast) should we say the Jesus Prayer. Frederica wisely avoids creating the impression that there is a single “correct” method of saying the prayer as she shares a wide diversity or practices she has observed by those within Orthodoxy. But she does set some parameters. For example on the question of should we “picture Christ looking at me, or anything like that? Or should I keep looking at an icon of him while I pray” she responds “No, that’s one thing on which the tradition is very firm: do not picture anything. Do not use your imagination.” (68) She notes that this may sound contradictory after she has talked about surrounding yourself with icons but here’s where we need to understand the purpose of icons. She compares icons to a collection of photos of a hero. If you had a chance to meet your hero you wouldn’t take the pictures along and stare at them. “In the Jesus Prayer, we are trying to remain in direct contact with God, and such images can lure us instead into thinking about God.” (68) She tells of her own spiritual father who “found it hard to deflect all the images that meet the eye if praying with eyes open, yet, when he closes his eyes, his mind begins supplying endless quantities of stored images. . . He found that praying with eyes almost shut helped him find a middle way, where images don’t arise.” (69)
Frederica is careful to distinguish this practice from the meditation techniques of religions like Hinduism or Buddhism. While some similarities may exist there are significant differences. One of those is that in Christianity the point of something like self renunciation is not to lose “our sense of personhood and becoming an undifferentiated part of the universe. For Christians, the ultimate reality is interpersonal relationship; personhood is healed and restored, rather than dissolved.” (124)
The further you get into the book the more Orthodox theology is incorporated in the discussion. At times there is what I might see, though she may not have intended it this way, as a “soft” apologetic for Orthodoxy. For example, when answering a question about can’t we dismiss the whole concept of the fear of God she responds, “. . . if you pick and choose from the spiritual treasury whatever seems most appealing, your highest authority is your own opinion—your personal tastes and preferences. And those are self-reinforcing; your personal inclinations will go right on confirming you to the way you already are. . . My advice is to accept the ancient spiritual disciplines as a complete, integrated healing program, rather than picking and choosing to fit. Some kind of wisdom has been worked out in them over the centuries. This net wisdom may well be smarter than you are, because your experience is limited, and also conditioned by your surrounding culture.” (89) Unless I’m misreading her here I think she is saying you either take the complete package or don’t bother with it at all.
The book ends with a bibliography for further reading and “Notes” which are never footnoted through the book so I didn’t realize they were there till I finished the book. It does give the page number and a phrase or word to which the note refers.
So, do I say the Jesus Prayer and risk going insane? On the one hand I think Frederica is encouraging its use as long as we remain humble but on the other hand it would seem that she would encourage a conversion to Orthodoxy in order to truly appreciate what the Jesus Prayer is all about. Whereas in the beginning I thought I would gain something for my spiritual growth there were enough cautions and a just a glimpse of the “full package” required to fully benefit from this practice that I’m left not knowing what to do. If you want to know more about the Jesus Prayer and why it holds such a treasured place in the heart of Orthodoxy then read this book. If you want to say the prayer—well, I won’t even venture any advice on that.
The book is a paperback with 181 pages and sells for $16.99. It is published by Paraclete Press.