Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Roman Catholic's Journey to Eastern Catholicism: Part 3 The Jesus Prayer

While in Ann Arbor, two other circumstances - or perhaps encounters is a better word - fostered my journey into Eastern Catholicism. Actually the two are almost inseparably related. Mr. Richard Marquis, twin brother of Byzantine priest Fr. Joseph Marquis, gave me a talk on CD about the Jesus Prayer. The talk was presented at Sacred Heart Ruthenian Catholic Church by Bishop Nicholas Samra (now Eparch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Eparchy of Newton). Thus was fostered my introduction both to the spirituality of the Jesus prayer, as well as to the Melkites.

Bishop Nicholas' talk had a deep impact on me. I had heard of the Jesus Prayer before, but had only been given a vague description. With all this talk about breathing techniques and whatever else that are often associated with the Jesus Prayer, I simply presumed that it was some sort of modern pseudo-New Age style of prayer being adapted for Catholic use (like "centering" prayer). Little did I realize that the Jesus Prayer was such an ancient and traditional way of prayer. Bishop Nicholas' talk served to clear up all my misconceptions about the prayer. There were still a few problems that I had, but mostly in terminology. Sayedna (an affectionate name used among the Melkites to refer to their bishops) spoke about God's "energies" and allowing those energies to penetrate us. The only other place I'd heard any talk about "energy" was from my wife, who was studying massage therapy at the time. I immediately began to associate that with some sort of New Age drivel. But, I thought, perhaps Sayedna was speaking of "energies" within a certain context. I decided it would be best if I looked more deeply into the Eastern/Byzantine understanding of this word.

Since listening to that talk, the Jesus Prayer has become my constant companion. I grew up in an environment that fostered a strong devotion to the Holy Name. As a young boy my brother read a booklet on devotion to the Holy Name, then promptly wrote the name of "Jesus" on little scraps of paper and taped it to the doors of every room in our house. Every morning when I'd wake up and leave my bedroom I would see the name of Jesus and be reminded to breathe out my first prayer of the day. Studying the life of St. Francis of Assisi also instilled in me a great devotion to the name of Jesus. He had such a strong devotion to Jesus' name that he would lick his lips any time he would say it, because the sweetness of Jesus' name tasted like honey on his lips. There were also stories about how Jesus' name had been worn out of the Bible that St. Francis used because he would kiss the name anywhere he would see it printed. I was also taught to bow or make the Sign of the Cross any time I would hear or say the name of Jesus. I was also taught to whisper a prayer any time someone would take that precious name in vain.

During my time in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, one thing that always really stuck out to me was the strong devotion to Jesus' name, and the strong sense of its power. I remember standing at prayer meetings during intervals in the music when everyone would just simply whisper words of praise, thanksgiving, adoration, and worship to God. The most common praise given was the lovingly whispered name of Jesus. Friends of mine would seem to be drawn almost into an ecstasy simply from lovingly and attentively repeating Jesus' name. For me, repeating the name at prayer meetings always seemed to refocus my prayer on the person of Jesus himself rather than on what I was experiencing during those times of intense and very emotional prayer.

So this introduction to the Jesus Prayer was, for me, the continuation of a long process that had begun early in my life. I was shocked to learn that certain breathing methods and other physical methods associated with the Jesus Prayer had absolutely no connections to the New Age movements, but were actually very ancient methods of prayer used by some of the greatest mystics of the Christian East.

Shortly after listening to the talk I decided to order my first "chotki," or "prayer rope." It was made by the monks if St. Isaac Skete, who are more well-known for producing mounted reproductions of various icons, as well as painting their own icons. When the rope arrived I was surprised by the simplicity of the design. It was simple wool with a couple of plastic beads. That's it! I thought to myself, "I wonder if I could make one of these." I had grown up making traditional style rosaries using beads and wire, as well as the plastic "missionary" rosaries made from plastic beads and knotted strings. A quick YouTube search produced one video on tying the traditional knot used for making prayer ropes - the knot is known as the "Angelic Knot" because it was supposedly taught to St. Pachomius by the Archangel Gabriel. I spent hours and hours sitting in front of that video, watching it closely, examining every move, then going over to a website to read instructions and again examine every move. I made every mistake I possibly could've, so that by the time I had my first knot tied I had the entire process memorized. It took me at least two hours to tie my first knot. From there I kept practicing, tying knot after knot until I had finally made my first prayer rope. I still have that little rope. It's a 33 knot rope and isn't bad for a first attempt. I keep it tucked away in a drawer along with a few other prayer ropes as a reminder of how God has blessed me with this gift of being able to make prayer ropes. Every now and then I like to pull it out and prayerfully finger it, letting the knots pass through my fingers and quietly whispering the name of Jesus, thanking him for this gift.

It was also from the talk given by Bishop Nicholas that I first heard of the Melkites. Previously I had only known about the Ruthenian Greek Catholics, who are more commonly known in the U.S. simply as the "Byzantine Catholic Church." I had thought that they were the only Eastern Catholics, other than the Maronites, and was surprised to learn, therefore, that there was also this group called the "Melkites." At one point in the talk Bishop Samra simply chanted "Lord, have mercy" in a traditional Byzantine tone (the same way the Greek Orthodox would chant it). That chant had an almost haunting effect on me. I wanted to hear more. I decided I needed to check out these "Melkites" at some point. I would be afforded that opportunity when my wife and I moved to the Washington, D.C. area (shortly after we discovered that she was pregnant with our first child!).


  1. I am so glad to have found your blog and I look forward to reading through the archives. Your transfer from West to East sounds a lot like my own. In fact it was while I was living in Detroit (in the rectory of a parish run by the Capuchin Franciscans no less) that I started attending Byzantine liturgies at St. Nicholas Church which was then in Harper Woods. A few years later I spent a week in retreat at the Holy Transifuration Skete in the UP and read The Way of the Pilgrim and realized that my calling was to a life of prayer whether or not I became a monk. I have not been great at following that calling especially since getting married and starting a business which keep me busy, but I pray for the grace of God and the aid of the Theotokos in this. This spring after a retreat at a Trappist monastery where I reread the Way of the Pilgrim I actually tried to start a blog about the Jesus Prayer but didn't solidify the habit of posting before our busy season drew me away. So I'm very glad to find you doing a good job of it. I also make choktis sometimes, so it's a lot of fun seeing what you've made and reading the more craft oriented posts. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

  2. This post resonated with me some. I had spent months with a Buddhist group. Although premises are different, the practice was nearly identical. We used prayer beads (I could've almost kept it as pseudo chotki/komboskini, but that's neither here, nor there). And we did repetitious prayer. And chanted. I've yet to garner if it was truly providential, but that's neither here, nor there, as well.

    It was reading about the Jesus Prayer, which made me think back to this experience; and how I wasn't to totally devalue it.