Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Arena: St. Ignatius Brianchaninov's Councils on Prayer: Part 4 Why the Jesus Prayer?

I figured it was high time that I wrap up the series we've been working on based off of St. Ignatius Brianchaninov's The Arena. I'm still planning a few more posts and an addendum based off of some recommendations from St. Theophan the Recluse, but my books are still packed away in boxes, so I'm going to have to really dig to find the materials I need. Today, however, I want to touch on St. Ignatius' introduction to the Jesus Prayer itself.

In this basic introduction to the Jesus Prayer St. Ignatius does not give us basic instructions for praying the Jesus Prayer, so much as demonstrates for us what the Jesus Prayer is and why it is important. Based off of the writings of the Patristic Fathers, he identifies for us two types of prayer: singing or hymnody, by which he means specifically the singing or prayerful reading of the Psalter, and prayer, by which he specifically means the Jesus Prayer. He makes the claim that any time the ancient Fathers speak of prayer the mean specifically the Jesus Prayer. I don't have the resources to verify that his claim here is true, but we will operate under the presumption that it is - who better to interpret the words of the saints than a saint, after all.

The Jesus Prayer itself, says St. Ignatius, is divided into two forms: the vocal and the mental. It is necessary that we start with a vocal recitation of the prayer and from there move on to the mental. Mental recitation is achieved when vocal prayer becomes concentrated, focused and attentive. To quote St. Theophan, mental or attentive prayer is achieved when the mind descends into the heart and is held there. Attentive prayer means that we enclose our minds in the words of the prayer, and conform our hearts to the words. In other words, we prayer slowly, with attention, and with compunction of heart. Our hearts must be attuned to what we are saying. This, for some, takes time and great effort. For others it is obtained easily and with little effort. The Spirit blows where it wills, I suppose. I've seen people who have prayed and struggled for years and still do not possess prayer of the heart despite their best efforts. I have also seen people who were, seemingly, beginners in the spiritual life, but who were given prayer of the heart almost immediately. Whether we are given such prayer right away or it takes years for us to receive the gift is not important. What is important is that we persevere in prayer with patience, always expecting and hoping for this great gift of God. Our Father has promised to give us all things so long as we ask in Jesus name, but He didn't promise to give us those thing immediately upon request. We have to be patient and allow our Father to prepare our hearts for the reception of the power and fire of the Holy Spirit.

St. Ignatius points out, however, that the above mentioned conditions - attentiveness, compunction, unhurriedness, etc. - are conditions for all prayer, not just for the Jesus Prayer. But, he says, these conditions are more easily obtained and observed in the Jesus Prayer. In the Psalms we have reflected a vast array of human emotion, theological thought and insight, and a wide array of other thoughts. I remember my spiritual father once telling me that in the Psalms we can find reflected every single human emotion. There is a Psalm for every feeling that we might feel. The Psalms, in many ways, are very human and are themselves some of the most beautiful prayers ever composed. Because of this great diversity, however, it can often be difficult to focus one's attention and one's heart while praying the Psalms. We move from great rejoicing, to lamentation, to repentance, to praise at a rapid pace and it is often difficult to keep up.

The Jesus Prayer, on the other hand, has but one thought: "The thought of the sinner's forgiveness by Jesus." This specific emphasis and focus, the saint warns us, is very dry. It is dry. Anyone who's ever persevered in the Jesus Prayer for any length of time knows that after awhile it can "get old," as we say nowadays. The words are simply repeated as though we are on autopilot. Our mind and heart aren't in the words because the words, for us, have become stale, old, dry. But we must persevere, we must hold our mind in attentiveness. We must bring the movements of our hearts into harmony with the words of the Jesus Prayer. The power to do this comes from the name of Jesus.

This is where I believe the great wisdom of our Mother, the Church, comes into play. The Jesus Prayer is great work, but it is work that must be done if we wish to progress in the spiritual life. But we need a break from labor every now and then. I remember reading one of the Eastern saints (I forget who) who mentions how if a bow is always strung up and ready to fire it will eventually snap. So too with the spiritual combatant who never "relaxes" so to speak. Soldiers on the battle front have to be removed every now and then, otherwise they reach the breaking point and their minds simply snap; they lose their grip on reality. So too in the spiritual life and particularly in the work of the Jesus Prayer.

My own personal opinion, for what it's worth, is that this is why we must balance our practice of the Jesus Prayer with Psalmody, or more specifically with our participation in the Liturgy of the Hours. The Hours can be a breath of fresh air that rejuvenates our practice of the Jesus Prayer. It is here that our Mother nourishes us and strengthens us so that we can go back into the arena of our hearts and fight once again with the name of Jesus as our weapon. Through the liturgical life of the Church, particularly the Eucharistic celebration and the Hours, we are brought out of ourselves and we celebrate the mysteries of Salvation History with our brethren. We are strengthened by our Mother and our brethren because we see that we are not in this fight alone. We are nourished by the very Body and Blood of Christ, and finally we are sent back into the world to continue our combat. This is why Sunday is such an important day, and why rest - not necessarily the rest of the body, but especially the rest of the soul - is so important on that day.

One final thought from St. Ignatius before I close out today's reflections. He closes off this chapter by asking, "What is it that will be given to a person who prays in the name of the Lord Jesus that can fill him to overflowing with joy?" The reply: We will be given the Holy Spirit! It is very interesting to reflect on the Jesus Prayer and its connection to the giving of the Holy Spirit. I remember hearing a priest once give a talk on the phrase "Lord, have mercy" that is repeated over and over in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. He said that the Greek word for "mercy" is actually derived from the same word as the Greek word for "anointing." When we ask for God's mercy, therefore, we are not simply asking for the forgiveness of our sins (although that is certainly an element). Above all, however, we are asking for God's anointing. And what is the anointing with which God anoints? God anoints us with His Holy Spirit! When we pray the Jesus Prayer we are not just asking for the forgiveness of our sins, we are also asking for the anointing of the Holy Spirit. We are asking for.... wait for it.... Baptism in the Holy Spirit! That's right, I said it. I used those words that many have come to associate with the Charismatic Renewal but which, in reality, stretch all the way back to the Early Church. I hope to be able to write on this more later on, but for now suffice it to say that Baptism of the Holy Spirit simply means a release of the graces and power of the Holy Spirit that were given to us in the Sacraments, particularly in Baptism, Chrismation/Confirmation, and the Eucharist. To use the language of St. Theophan the Recluse, Baptism of the Holy Spirit means the (re)kindling of the divine spark that was implanted in us at our initiation into the Church and that has been dormant within us through our own negligence and forgetfulness.

So in praying the Jesus Prayer, we are really praying for so much more than the forgiveness of our sins.  We pray for the anointing of the Holy Spirit, that the reign of Christ's Kingdom come in our hearts and spread from us throughout the world, that God's steadfast love bear fruit in us and through us in all of mankind. In short, when we pray the Jesus Prayer we pray that Christ's mission, His Gospel, His Good News of the coming of the Kingdom, be fulfilled in us and through us in all Mankind. May heaven consume us! CHRIST IS RISEN!!!

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