Book Review: Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
This is the Jesus Prayer, known and prayed most commonly in the Orthodox Church (though as one monk in the book points out, Jesus doesn’t pray this prayer — we pray this prayer to Jesus.)
It’s very like the prayer of the tax collector in Luke 18, who stood at a distance in the temple and despaired of himself so that he could not even look up as he cried, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
In fact, many believe the tax collector’s prayer is the very first version of the Jesus Prayer.
Norris and Father John McGuckin, a priest of the Orthodox Church, wrote “Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer: Experiencing the Presence of God and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of an Ancient Spirituality” as a travelogue and companion to the film documentary they shot on a spiritual pilgrimage to monasteries and convents in the Middle East, eastern Europe, and Asia. Their goal was to learn what they could about the origins and practice of this prayer and bring what they learned back to the West.
I have always been Protestant, and mostly a non-denominational Protestant, so I am unfamiliar with monasticism, icons, and ancient prayers.
I’ve also long been frustrated at my own restless impatience with prayer. I have this inability to be quiet and meditate on a verse or a truth, and an almost maddening urge to run away when other people’s prayers go long. When I am the one praying, often my prayers sound stale, worn, mechanical, and focused on self and petty little things that won’t matter in a day or a week.
This is a stark contrast to the prayers I read. When I read the Psalms and prayers in the New Testament, the creeds of the early church fathers, and the meditations of the Puritans, I find deliberate, intentional, God-focused, self-forgetful words and thoughts. I find no petitioning for the petty and the fleeting things in life – the things that typically inhabit my own prayers.
I approached this book both curious and hesitant, unsure of what I would find. Not five pages in, I grabbed a highlighter because so many passages demanded my return later. Many of the passages I marked contained advice and recommendations for learning contemplative, or quiet listening prayer. It was comforting to learn how common it is to struggle to hold one’s minds to prayer and to keep distracted thoughts at bay. One of those passages I highlighted came from the book “Instructions to the Hesychasts” [hesychasm is the practice of silence]:
“Appeal to the Lord quietly and without agitation, so that the voice does not disturb the attention of the mind and does not thus break off the prayer, until the mind is accustomed to this… and, receiving the force from the Spirit, firmly prays within on its own. Then there will be no need to say the prayer with the lips. …When you notice thoughts arising and accosting you, do not look at them, even if they are not bad; but keeping the mind firmly in the heart, call to Lord Jesus and you will soon sweep away the thoughts and drive out their instigators – the demons.”
The other passages that stood out to me discussed the purpose of prayer, any prayer and the Jesus Prayer specifically, and the fruit or result of prayer in a Christian’s life. It was striking to me how much the discoveries Norris and Father John share in this book match what I have discovered: prayer is not about getting my way, it’s about growing more like Christ and more closely reflecting His image in ourselves.
Father Jacob, a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church put it well when he said the Jesus Prayer is the “foundation… the main bedrock of life. It is the new day, and the new appreciation of every moment of our being before the face of God.” Prayer, he said, is central to being a Christian because “it offers both a method of direct communication with God and an unfolding of spiritual life.”
My perspective on prayer, its practice, and its value has been enriched by reading this book. I recommend it to anyone interested in delving into the history of prayer and how that history can inform our faith today.
I am privileged to a be a TLC book tour host for “Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer” this month. I received an advance copy of this book at no cost; however my opinions are my own and cannot be bought with free books.
If you are interested in additional reviews of the book from other faith persepctives, I recommend visiting the other blogs on the tour:
4/13: Oh Mandie; 4/14: Naptime diaries; 4/18: Elizabeth Esther; 4/19: Mom’s Mustard Seeds; 4/20: O me of little faith; 4/21: The Pilot’s Wife ~ 4/22: Diary of a Stay at Home Mom ~ 4/25: Walking in His Grace ~ 4/26: In the Heart of My Home ~ 4/27: In a Mirror Dimly ~ 4/28: My Heart’s Desire ~ 4/29: A Minute Captured
If you have any questions about the book, please leave your questions in the comments. You never know — Norris may stop by to answer some of them!
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