The Jesus Prayer

“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

As I mentioned last time, I’m  involved in a small faith group this summer which is exploring various ways to pray. We are using the book Creating a Life with God: The Call of Ancient Prayer Practices by Daniel Wolpert (Upper Room Books).

"Christ the Pantocrator--Jesus Creator of All" --Icon by Marian Zidaru 2002--photo by JAMThis week I finished reading the chapter that focuses on the Jesus Prayer.  This ancient way of praying reminds us of God’s presence through praying the words the blind man shouted out to Jesus as he passed by: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:47)

The exact wording of this prayer can vary. Some pray, “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” or other similar words. I once met a nun who simply prays two words in a slow, meditative fashion, sometimes in rhythm with her breath, “Jesus, mercy.”

This way of praying is not done in order to earn salvation or win God’s favor by repetitive prayer. The short prayer is used to draw one’s attention to God’s love, mercy, and presence in our lives, whether we are eating, sleeping, working, or sitting in church praying. Praying in this way draws our hearts and minds away from trivial, passing things, and into the realm of God’s presence, seeking to follow the instruction of First Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing” (5:17).

While reading Wolpert’s book, I was touched by the way he described praying the Jesus Prayer in the wee hours of the night:

One of the best times for me to pray the Jesus Prayer is at night when I cannot sleep. Rather than tossing and turning and getting upset that I am still awake, I simply begin to pray the Jesus Prayer. Remember that the pilgrim was told to pray the prayer even in his sleep! Often I do fall asleep right away. The times when sleep comes more slowly are wonderful periods of prayer. In the deep silence of the night, I can lift my heart and mind to my Creator—a soft voice ringing out into the infinite.

“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” 

I, too, on occasion have prayed this prayer in the middle of the night. I like to do the short form, in time with gentle, slow breathing: “Jesus” (while gently inhaling) and “mercy” (while gently exhaling).  It’s like inhaling the presence of God and asking for God’s love and mercy all at once…mercy for my sins, mercy for the one who has hurt me, mercy for the sick and suffering, mercy for the broken and hurting world all around us.

If you think that this prayer practice is nothing but sweetness and light, think again: it is not always so. During an interview I did one time for an article on the Jesus Prayer, an Orthodox priest told me the this prayer form “is no picnic.” He explained that if one is serious about the Jesus Prayer, practicing it in the context of truly following Christ, Christ the Pantocrator -- Jesus Creator of All -- Detail --2002 Icon by Marian Zidaru -- photo by JAMthe prayer gradually leads a person to recognize his or her own impurities of word, thought, and deed that previously went unnoticed. This awareness of our own sins and imperfections leads us into a gradually deepening conversion process.

The Jesus Prayer, this priest observed, “is an effective tool in the very difficult work of gaining control of one’s mind in order to center it on the constant remembrance of divine beauty and awakening it to the eternal realities of the Spirit.” The process makes it possible for us to become “servants of divine Compassion, students of the Lord, studying how to die to ego, so that we might be reborn as children of the Spirit.”

“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Until next time, Amen!

Jesus said, “Peace be with you.”

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews [the leaders who handed Jesus over to the Romans] , Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” (John 20:19)

After Jesus was crucified, his disciples were in hiding, afraid of what might happen next. If Jesus, their beloved rabbi and leader, the one with all those miraculous spiritual powers, had been tortured and killed, it could happen to them.  

I imagine they were confused, crushed with disappointment, and experiencing the intense emotions of grieving. How could this happen? All those miracles, their belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the Anointed one of God–all that goodness destroyed by the Romans who put him to death! And their own religious leaders, who had also condemned Jesus of blasphemy. Would they also turn on Jesus’ disciples?

Surely they had feelings of remorse and guilt. After all, they had run away when their friend needed them most. They had given in to fear, even though their Lord had told them repeatedly, “Do not be afraid.” What kind of followers were they, insisting to Jesus’ face that they would stand by him, even to the death, and then, instead, immediately fleeing when the going got tough? Peter, “first among equals” or the “prime” apostle, even lied when questioned about his association with Jesus.

When the Risen Lord appears to this disloyal group for the first time after his death, what does he say? If he were a married person, talking to his or her spouse, he might have said, “Told you so! I knew you would leave me when things got rough.”

If Jesus were a politician, he might have fired the disciples from their managerial posts. If Jesus were like certain religious leaders, he might have assigned the apostles a penance, banned them from teaching, or withheld communion. After all, most the apostles abandoned Jesus after he was arrested. (We only hear of John, Jesus’ mother, and other women followers standing by Jesus as he suffered on the cross.)

But the Lord Jesus is not like us sinners. He is not self-centered or self-righteous. In relationships, Jesus does not grab at power over others. He has no need to be a superstar, dictator, or spiritual bully.

When he reappears to them after his death, the first words Jesus says to them are “Peace be with you.” This peace is the inner peace that only God can give. It is not a peace based on owning a lot of material possessions, being wealthy, having a sexy appearance, belonging to the winning political group, or even forming the perfect liturgical translation. Christ’s peace is a gift of the Spirit, given freely with love.

The peace that Christ is offered them–and offers us–is not only peace within each soul, but also peace among people, creating spiritual networks of loving relationships. The Greek word in this passage of John’s gospel is not merely about the absence of disturbance or conflict. It is a word that probably is from the root word that means “to join.” Christ desires that we be joined together in relationships of love. The peace Christ wants is one of harmony among people, which is what he prayed for just prior to his death, that all may be one, not one in physical appearance, worship style, culture, or dogma, but one in the Spirit, one in the Lord.

When Christ wishes the disciples peace, he is offering it to them without strings  attached. The Risen Lord loves all people, sinners or so-called religious. If we would be his followers, we must do the same.

Until next time, Amen!

 

Note: Many thanks to my hubby, Terry McCarty, for the photographs in this post. He took them this past month at the Como Park Conservatory in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Copyright 2011, Terry McCarty. All rights reserved.

Holy Week: Meditating on Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion

White Crucifixion–1938 oil painting by Marc Chagall (click on picture to enlarge)   (more details at end of post) 

 

 As you probably know, this week is the celebration of Jewish Passover and Christian Holy Week. Because of this, I wanted to do something special, so I hunted online for a work of art to use for visio divina (meditating with art, see Feb. 24, 2011 post). As a Christian, I was looking for an image of Christ on the cross, and ended up being drawn to a 20th century painting called White Crucifixion by the famous Russian and Jewish artist Marc Chagall.

People have highly individualized reactions to art and I want to state up front that this post is not a historic analysis, an art critic’s review, or even a theological examination of the White Crucifixion. This post is simply my own personal feelings, thoughts, and prayer reactions after spending several days pondering the work. I respect that there are many ways to view the White Crucifixion, and I believe the artist himself would be the first to acknowledge that.

Many of Chagall’s paintings could be described as lively, romantic, humorous, imaginative, and filled with brilliant colors, but the White Crucifixion is largely drained of color. Chagall painted it in 1938 while living in Paris, in response to the horrifying events of Kristallnacht,  the “Night of Broken Glass,” when Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues throughout Germany were systematically vandalized or destroyed, and thousands of Jewish men were carted off to concentration camps.

In White Crucifixion, Chagall arranges various scenes of this Jewish suffering around the crucifix, much like an altar screen adorned with biblical scenes around the perimeter. In the upper left, Russian soldiers turn Jewish homes upside down and set them ablaze. In the upper right, Nazi soldiers throw sacred objects from a burning synagogue out into the streets.

Below, a Jewish man is fleeing with a bag of belongings on his back, while another stands ready to sprint away, the sacred Torah firmly clasped in his arms. A woman holds her child in a protective stance; an old bearded man stands with a sign around his neck, his hands open, as if to ask “Why?”; refugees on an overloaded boat look as if about to die of hunger; a sacred scroll in the lower left corner is rolling on the ground, about to disappear from our sight; and the ghosts of Jewish rabbis and ancestors float above the scene, some covering their eyes or looking away—the sight is too horrendous to behold.

In the middle of all this, a Jewish man hangs on a cross, his only clothes a simple head covering and a tallith, a Jewish prayer shawl, to hide his nakedness. The words above him identify him as “King of the Jews.” With his hands and feet nailed to the cross he cannot move to stop the chaos and suffering all around him. He, too, suffers with all those others suffering. He bows his head in silence, as if in prayer or mourning. A light shines from above, while silent candles (a menorah turned sideways?) hold vigil at the base of the cross.

If the picture makes you feel uncomfortable, as it did me, I suggest you stay with that feeling for awhile. I did. I pondered the many evil things people have done, supposedly in the name of Christianity or other religions. I thought of all the times we think of Jesus as a blue-eyed, blond-haired little baby in a manger and how wrong it is that so often Christians have stripped Jesus of his Jewish heritage—and, much worse, committed heinous crimes against his younger, modern-day nieces and nephews.

The White Crucifixion reminds me that the observance of Good Friday ought not only to be about remembering the sacrifice of Christ, but also of the suffering that is going on all around the world today. Even as you read this, someone somewhere is being tortured, unjustly imprisoned, raped, kidnapped, enslaved, or murdered. Do we pray for these unseen, silent victims?

This Good Friday, let those of us who dare to call ourselves Christians take a good hard look at how we treat people who are seemingly “different.” Let us meditate long on the words Jesus said: “. . . love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. . .” (Luke 6:27) May we respect life in all its forms, treating every human with the same dignity we would treat Christ.  After all, it was Jesus who said [in the words of the song based on Matt. 25:40], “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.”

 

 

Notes:  Image of the painting above was copied from Wikipedia under the creative commons agreement. To view a larger image, visit the Art Institute of Chicago website, http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/59426.

Other resources consulted: Marc Chagall and the Lost Jewish World by Benjamin Harshav (Rizzoli); Chagall by Jacob Baal-Teshuva (Taschen); and Marc Chagall by Jonathon Wilson (Nextbook-Schoken).

Lent, Soft Addictions, and Detachment

Router on Julie's desk--photo by Julie McCarty 2011I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but do the very thing I hate.     –St. Paul in Romans 7:15

I was awakened the other day by a little scratchy sound in the next room. Was it a mouse? No…maybe my husband was hauling out spring clothes? No, it was taking too long for that… Was he cleaning the house? . . . REALLY? At five in the morning?! 

When I dragged myself out of bed, I discovered the internet wasn’t working and Terry was trying to get the web up and running by unplugging and resetting various cords. 

After he left for work, I kept trying to fix it, without success. Eventually, I told myself it didn’t matter–I’m a writer for goodness sake: get to work!

But, try as I might, I was restless and jittery. How could I work without checking e-mail and reading the morning news online? I kept looking at the little red light on the router, flashing at me.

I was like a little baby who has had her milk bottle wrenched away, mid-sip. I want! I want! I want e-mail! I want to blog! I want to revise my website! Waaaaaahhh!

(So far I don’t have Facebook or Twitter accounts, and you can see why these options may not be good for me.)

While I was sitting at my desk, having mental internet withdrawal symptoms, I remembered a phrase from old-time spirituality books:  “inordinate attachments.” These are things in life that we cling to in a way that is excessive or beyond what is spiritually healthy.

Attachments are not necessarily bad in and of themselves, but sometimes they keep us from focusing on the really important things in life. For example, using the internet to do scholarly research is a good thing, but it might be an attachment if I simply cannot pull myself away to fix my family dinner.

While few people today speak of “inordinate attachments,” modern author Judith Wright communicates a similar idea when she speaks of “soft addictions.” As she describes in an interview with WebMD, “Soft addictions are those seemingly harmless habits like watching too much television, over-shopping, surfing the Internet, gossiping — the things we overdo but we don’t realize it. . . It seems like normal behavior, but that’s simply because everyone is doing it, too.” (To read the full article, click here.)

Lent is a good time to step back from our busyness and take stock of our lives. Are we too attached to some things? Do soft addictions keep us from having any time for prayer? Are there relationships in our lives that push us into doing things we know are bad for us? Do we find our attachments growing into bad habits that may evolve into the type of sin that hurts others or ourselves?

In spirituality, the opposite of attachment is detachment, the ability to let go of things. This letting go is done for the sake of a greater good. A person might detach from her fondness for eating in restaurants during Lent so she can use the money saved to feed starving children. A student who finds his schoolwork is not getting done “lets go” of chatty texting in order to succeed in his studies.

Practicing detachment is one way to open ourselves more fully to the action of grace and the presence of the Holy Spirit. We find the ultimate detachment in Jesus, who, while on the cross, opened his hands wide and let go of his life with the words, “Father, into Your hands I entrust my spirit.”

A Personal Focus for Lent

The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there. . . . Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.  (Exodus 24:12, 18)

 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights. . .     (Matthew 4:1-2)

Ash Wednesday is just around the corner, and I’m wondering what spiritual practice I might do for Lent. If you are like me, you have experienced various Lenten penances related to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving over the course of your life. Some of my experiences produced quality spiritual growth. Other times I failed to follow through or had results that were, um, a little “silly” (such as the time I gave up potato chips and ate so many chocolate chip cookies that I actually gained weight during Lent).

Waiting for Spring -- Photo by Julie McCarty 2011

One spiritual practice that has been meaningful for me is reflecting on a single word, phrase, or bible verse for the whole 40 days. For example, one year I focused on the virtue of patience. I read about patience and pondered what patience is and what patience is not (laziness or procrastination). I asked God in prayer to help me be patient. When life brought me annoying moments, I tried to be patient.

One possible pitfall of this theme approach is that I might forget to follow through for the entire 40 days, but I have found ways around that. I can post my theme in places I’ll see it, such as the bathroom mirror, refrigerator, computer screen saver or cell phone banner. I can find a book on the topic and spend a few minutes each day reading about it. I can make it a point to weave my theme into prayer time and the routine of daily living. On occasion, I’ve asked spiritual people what they think about the topic.

When making plans for Lent, it’s important—as always—to ask the Holy Spirit to inspire your choices. (Why do I always think of this tip last? It should be first!) The “theme approach” may not be for everyone.   Think about what will build your relationship with God, and what will deeper your love for others.      

May all we do glorify God and build bonds of love throughout the earth. Until next time, Amen!

Spiritual Aerobics for Lent

   If focusing on a theme doesn’t appeal to you, here are 13 other ideas:                 

  • Volunteer at a food pantry, homeless shelter, or other charitable organization.
  • Plan quality time with your children: eat together, use discussion starters, read together.
  • Organize recycling in your home in order to take care of God’s creation.
  • Visit a lonely or homebound person.
  • Reduce the amount of time spent with television, social networking, internet surfing, or video gaming.
  • Listen to inspiring, spiritual music while commuting to work.
  • Care for the body God gave you by increasing your sleep or exercise.
  • Read one book of the bible or other spiritual book slowly and reflectively. 
  • Sort out closets and donate clothing to those who need it. 
  • Teach your children a new prayer and pray it together when you gather for meals.
  • Be kind to someone you often ignore. Pray each day for him or her. Smile genuinely and listen respectfully to this person.
  • Fast from shopping for clothes (or books, electronic gadgets, makeup, etc.)
  • Visit a retreat center. If you cannot go away on a retreat just now, make arrangements to go on retreat later this year.

Skillful Speech–Part 2: Insights from Buddhism

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering.                –Fourth Mindfulness Training*

In “Brutally Yours, Bob Hartley,” an old episode of The Bob Newhart Show, psychologist Bob Hartley urges clients Mr. Carlin and Michelle to be more honest and open with their feelings. During the conversation, Bob hides his true feelings about his secretary leaving work early and the clients challenge him to practice what he preaches. As the show progresses, Mr. Carlin and Michelle make a game out of hurling insults at other people, while at home Bob nearly ruins a budding friendship in his overzealous quest for total honesty. In the end, it is agreed by all that some things are better left unsaid.

The episode illustrates in a humorous manner just how difficult it can be to be truthful and yet do it in a way that does not unnecessarily hurt another. In my last post, I wrote a few things that Jesus had to say about the right use of speech. This week, I’ve been reading about the idea of Right Speech in Buddhism. (I’m not a Buddhist and I don’t know much about the Buddhist path, but I think that Buddhism offers some insights on the topic of how to speak and listen with compassion.)  

In his book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh devotes an entire chapter to Right Speech. Here are some of my notes from reading his explanation of Right Speech:   

  • Being truthful is basic to Right Speech.
  • Much suffering is caused in this world by people who are simply not paying attention to what they say and how they say it. Our words have the potential to add to the suffering of others, or to alleviate their pain. (The Buddhist practitioner seeks to alleviate the suffering of others.)
  • Right Speech means “not speaking with a forked tongue.” That is, do not tell one person one thing and another person a different thing. It is fine to use different words, examples, or images in explaining something to help others understand, but it is not truthful to invent different “truths” for various people.
  • Right Speech means not speaking cruelly. “We don’t shout, slander, curse, encourage suffering, or create hatred.” This can be challenging even for people of good will, he writes, but because words are powerful, we must avoid vicious speech.
  • Right Speech also means that we should not exaggerate or embellish what we have seen or heard. “We don’t dramatize unnecessarily, making things sound better, worse, or more extreme than they actually are. If someone is a little irritated, we don’t say that he is furious.”
  • Right speech involves deep listening, something very needed today. When we listen with an open heart, calmly and without judging others, we may actually reduce their suffering. (What a great gift to give another!)
  •  Hanh writes: “Letter writing is a form of speech. A letter can sometimes be safer than speaking, because there is time for you to read what you have written before sending it. . . If any phrase can be misunderstood or upsetting [to the other person], rewrite it.”  This can be adapted in our own time for the social media by using the “save the draft” feature and reviewing what we have written at a later time, when we aren’t angry or upset, before hitting “send.”

 When it comes to integrating Right Speech into our everyday lives, Thich Nhat Hanh offers a gatha (meditation verse):

Words can travel thousands of miles.
May my words create mutual understanding and love.
May they be as beautiful as gems,
as lovely as flowers.  (page 92)
 

The author suggests writing this saying on paper and placing it by the telephone, to recite just before making a phone call. Today, we can adapt this practice by putting this verse near our computer screens as a reminder of the ways of Right Speech.  

There is much more that could be explored about Right Speech, but I will leave you to ponder these ideas for now. If you are like me, there is plenty in just these few points to challenge my own ways of communicating with others.

One final thought: May someone shower you today with compassionate words and empathetic listening, and may you find a skillful way to do the same for someone else. Until next time, Amen!  

(Skillful Speech, Part One contains insights from Christ about right speech.)

_________

*Quoted in Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (NY: Broadway Books, 1999), page 84.

Skillful Speech–Part One: What Jesus Taught

 
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. . .
     a time to keep silence and a time to speak. . .
                        –Ecclesiastes 3:1, 7b (NRSV)

 

I sometimes find it difficult to know when to speak up and when to bite my tongue. It seems that controlling what one says is one of the hardest things to master.  

These days many people are examining the problem of vitriolic speech  in our culture, talk so inflammatory that it is comparable to throwing sulfuric acid in another’s face. Some claim that caustic speech in the media is harmless because

Fighting Hippos–Photo by Melissa Schalke–Dreamstime.com

it’s only “entertainment.” Others decry the loss of a more genteel way of expressing ourselves. People on both sides value the freedom to speak openly in a democracy.

Rather than focus on legal dimensions or proper etiquette, I would like to look how we use words from a spiritual perspective.

Twisting the truth is as ancient as Adam and Eve, who both used words to shift blame away from themselves: when caught in disobedience, Adam blamed Eve, and in turn, Eve blamed the snake. Although their words may have seemed logical at the time, they were not able to hide the truth from God. 

While there is nothing new about distorting the truth or using words in an attempt to manipulate others, what is new in our time the ease with which so many of us can spread our words around the globe within seconds. The sheer vastness of communication today makes it more important than ever before to raise questions about the words we choose, the tone in which we convey messages, and the truthfulness of messages that we receive and pass on to other people.

 

What did Jesus teach?

While Jesus was not afraid to tell religious leaders when they were wrong, I find no evidence that he derived any pleasure in correcting others. Jesus was a kind, compassionate person who wanted all to be brought into communion with his heavenly Father, even those commonly thought of as “enemies.”         

In the fifteenth chapter of Matthew, we read about Pharisees and scribes criticizing Jesus and his disciples for ignoring the religious ritual of hand-washing before eating. Jesus replies by drawing attention to the ways the religious leaders were using rationalizations to break commandments even more basic. He calls them hypocrites and quotes the prophet Isaiah:   

This people honors me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
     teaching human precepts as doctrines. 
 
                                 —Matthew 15:8-9, NRSV  
 

From this, we can see that what is important to Jesus is that our words are genuine and in accord with our actions. It is not acceptable to rationalize our evil deeds or merely say we believe in God. Attitudes and intentions deep within us are what matters.

Later in the same chapter, Jesus emphasizes the importance of what we say, again focusing on the motivations of the heart:

 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.

                                    –Matthew 15:17-20, NRSV

 While the leaders were focused on religious purity laws, Jesus was more concerned about the ideas coming out of one’s mouth. He even says some words defile us because they arise from evil intent within our hearts. (Even if we succeed at fooling the people around us with clever phraseology, God still sees our hidden motivation.)

So how we use words is indeed important to Christ. If you are like me, you fall short of these high standards, and I will remind you that God understands our human weakness and will forgive anything we are truly sorry for having said or done. However, that does not take away our responsibility to at least strive, with the help of the Spirit, to improve the ways we communicate with one another.

There are times when it is the path of wisdom to remain silent. There are other times when the Spirit prompts us to speak, sometimes about something that others do not want to hear. At those times it is especially important to speak the truth in a compassionate manner.

 For the words that come out of our mouths—or spill onto the internet—have the power to heal others or hurt them, to bring people together or to push them towards war, to build up the kingdom of God with love or divide God’s family with hate.  Which path will you and I choose? 

 NEXT TIME:  Part Two: Insights from Buddhism about “Right Speech”

 

Spiritual Aerobics

Spiritual Aerobics

1. Reflect on this saying: “If you don’t have something good to say, don’t say anything at all.” When is this saying true? Is there a time when it is not appropriate?

2. What does your upbringing or spiritual tradition teach about speaking the truth? Does it have teachings about gossip, slander, telling half-truths, etc.? If you don’t know, ask your religious leader, read the sacred texts, or search the web.