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Prayer and Meditation III - The Jesus Prayer
In part II in this series on prayer and meditation I mentioned the practice of combining slow awareness of breath with the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”. It has become a regular and very rewarding practice for me in fostering communion with God, and also therapeutic, in strengthening my attention on God throughout the day. Having done this for 10-20 minutes multiple days a week for just a little while, I find it much more natural throughout the day to pause when anxious or upset, take a deep breath, and as I breathe in pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” and as I breathe out pray, “have mercy on me” (sometimes adding the words “a sinner” from Luke 18:13, but not traditionally a part of the Jesus Prayer). While certainly a long way from this, I feel like I am just a little closer to experiencing what Gregory of Nazianzus said:
“Remembering God is more important than breathing,” and, “We should think upon God more often than we breathe” (Philokalia, Vol. 5, p. 44).
Why don’t you give this a try for one week? Orthodox monastics would spend up to an hour at a time praying the Jesus Prayer, but you definitely don’t need to (and probably shouldn’t!) start there. I recommend starting with just 3 minutes. Find a quite place where you will not be disturbed. If you have a family or roommates, you may need to get creative, e.g., this can easily be done in a closet, in your car, etc. Sit upright but comfortably. Take a few long, deep breaths to get started, focusing on the sensation of breathing, whether the air moving in through your nose and out your mouth, or the feeling of your diaphragm expanding and contracting.
There are many ways of syncing up the Jesus Prayer to your breath. Perhaps the simplest is what I mentioned above, silently repeating the first half (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God) as you inhale, and the second half (have mercy on me [a sinner]) as you exhale. Or you can use even shorter phrases: “Lord Jesus Christ” as you inhale; “Son of God” exhale; “have mercy on me” inhale; “a sinner” exhale. The breaths should be of moderate length, maybe 5 seconds inhaling, and 5 seconds exhaling, with slight pauses in the space between breathing in and out.
Doing this for three minutes, you can expect your attention to wander. That is ok! Simply bring your attention back to your breath and then your prayer. Awareness of the breath helps in fixing attention on Jesus, as testified by the Philokalia. This method was devised “to assist in some way in the concentration of the mind, returning it back to itself, and recalling it from its habitual wandering back to a state of attentiveness... and by these means constant, pure, and unwandering prayer is engendered in the intellect” (Vol. 5, p. 48-49).
Do this every day for one week, and then try increasing each prayer session to 5, 7 or 10 minutes. As you do, keep in mind these words of wisdom:
“More importantly, and indeed what is most important of all, is that this accomplishment of the intellect is achieved by the assistance of divine grace, through the heartfelt, pure, and unwandering invocation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is done with faith, and not simply by the simple natural method of breathing through the nose or by sitting in a quiet, dark place” (Philokalia, Vol. 5, p. 45).
Remember, as many contemporary writes have testified, mindfulness is a thoroughly Christian and biblical concept, when understood within a Christian worldview. What mindful prayer ultimately seeks, and by God’s grace finds, is not simple awareness, but “mindfulness of God”. As Gregory of Sinai said,
“The essence of the commandments is always to give precedence to the one that embraces them all: mindfulness of God, as stipulated in the phrase, ‘Always be mindful of the Lord your God’ (cf. Deut. 8:18)” (Philokalia, Vol. 4, p. 215).