As I look out over the Salish Sea towards the Olympic Mountains of Washington State, I see fewer cargo ships than usual. The Port Workers Union here is on strike. We hear talk that organizations of all kinds everywhere need to be reorganized quickly and wisely to better the lives of us all if we are to reverse the ravages of climate change. We know that change is one of Love’s identifying characteristics and that Love is one of God’s best names.
How will we find the spiritual strength to absorb what is going on and to move into a new phase of our evolution? We ask ourselves, what do we have in our spiritual traditions which can prepare us to participate in what Love needs us to do. To love our neighbours as ourselves is a way to think about it.
In the midst of news of war, famine, drought, violence of all kinds, deadly street drugs and the breakdown of institutions, I remember a story Frederick Beuchner told a gathered group at Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center at Bangor, Pennsylvania in 1991.
Frederick Beuchner was a renowned English teacher at Lawrence Academy, a boarding School in Groton, Massachusetts, before he became a Presbyterian minister and then a writer beloved by Christians all over the world. I clearly remember his telling this small story at that retreat.
He said in his resonant baritone voice, “You know the story of the man who met Hitler and afterwards was asked what Hitler was like, what Hitler looked like? The man replied, ‘Why he looked like Christ, of course.” Frederick Beuchner then looked with his blue eyes over the heads of us all and let us absorb the story. What do we do with this story when we hear people near us saying that they can pray for the starving children in Sudan but cannot stand seeing the faces of Russian leaders or soldiers on television?
I respond to this sort of thing in my own heart with another story, the true story of an Orthodox Russian monk who travelled all the way across Russia with nothing in his knapsack but his Bible and some dry bread. A spiritual guide in one of the monasteries he passed through taught him what is called “The Jesus Prayer.” The Jesus Prayer comes down to us as a tale called, ‘The Way of the Pilgrim.’ The author is anonymous and this little book was probably written before the abolition of Russian serfdom and after the Crimean War, sometime between 1855 and 1861.
‘The Way of a Pilgrim’ was translated into several European languages and read by many. The version many people in our times know is called The Jesus Prayer, a revised translation with expanded notes.
The Jesus prayer which was taught by the original pilgrim is used to this day throughout the world by persons from many different denominations. It is a prayer accompanied by the person at prayer looking into the faces of people he or she meets while walking. It is a prayer of breath and heartbeat and looking. I know many people who incorporate this as a walking meditation. It is so widely used that you probably know some people who practice it, perhaps in times when they especially need this prayer. Perhaps they have used it in times of fear, in hope, in sadness or in joy. I’ve heard people say that they’ve used it in times of childbirth or while they accompanied a loved one towards death. I once practiced it while coming in from being too far out in the ocean during an outgoing tide.
The prayer is simple. It takes repetition to anchor it into one’s heartbeat and breathing so that one no longer has to concentrate on the words. It becomes a part of the heartbeat and the breath.
You can learn it. Here it is.
Breathe in and say to yourself and later just think it, “Lord Jesus Christ.”
Breathe out and say or think, “Son of God.”
Breathe in again and say or think,“Have mercy on me.”
Breathe out again and say or think, “A sinner.”
Repeat. Let go of any attempts to understand it more than you already do.
Both these books are available on Amazon and probably in your
- The Faces of Jesus by Frederick. Buechner. The text is wonderful and the photos by Lee Bolton fit very well.
- The Jesus Prayer: A Monk of the Eastern Church. The Revised Translation with expanded notes. Reprinted 2018
St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press
Peace and joy.