Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Arena: St. Ignatius Brianchaninov's Councils on Prayer: Part 5 The Jesus Prayer in Context

In chapter 24 of The Arena St. Ignatius gives three guidelines for how to go about one's rule with the Jesus Prayer. The first two guidelines don't really apply to those of us living outside of a monastery (for the most part). They involve how one should begin one's practice of the Jesus Prayer in monasteries where the evening rule is performed with or without bows. But the third guideline is written for those who live in monasteries that have no evening rule whatsoever. Here, I believe, is something that can be applied to the average lay person - at least to such persons that do not attend evening Vespers or Compline at their local parish or monastery.

"If you belong to a monastery where there is no common evening rule but it is left to each one individually to perform it in his cell, first perform the rule with bows, then engage in prayer or psalmody, and finally the Jesus Prayer."

We've spoken in previous posts about bows and prostrations and their role in the practice of the Jesus Prayer. While St. Ignatius does put strong emphasis on bows and prostrations, other spiritual fathers of our own times do not emphasize them quite so much. Again they are something that can be performed according to one's own strength. For some bows and prostrations are more spiritually profitable than for others. I personally don't find them very helpful...

One thing to notice here, however, is that after bows and prostrations St. Ignatius mentions "prayer or psalmody" as the next act before the Jesus Prayer. I personally love to pray the Liturgy of the Hours before I begin to pray the Jesus Prayer. While this is certainly possible in the Roman Catholic, Maronite, Coptic, and Syrian traditions, this is not so easy in the Byzantine tradition. For nearly all the other traditions in the Church, the Liturgy of the Hours is designed to be prayed either in groups or in private; and while it is certainly ideal that the Hours should always be prayed as a group, given that it is the prayer of the Church, the Church in Her wisdom recognizes that this is not always humanly possible. In the Byzantine tradition, however, the Hours can really only be prayed publicly as a group, given that the Byzantine East has maintained the importance of gathering together for the prayer of the Church. What has evolved in the Byzantine tradition, therefore, is a standard set of morning and evening prayers that can be prayed by the Faithful when participation in the public celebration of the Hours is not possible. These prayers can be found in almost every Byzantine prayer book (Catholic or Orthodox).

The point of practicing such a prayer rule, or psalmody, prior to the Jesus Prayer is to focus one's attention and heart on the coming prayer itself. The celebration of the Hours prepares us for our own private prayer life by showing us how to sanctify each moment; to practice the remembrance of God's presence. Ultimately the Jesus Prayer is the sanctification of the moments of our lives spent outside of an ecclesial setting. It is the remembrance of God's presence in the humdrum of daily life. With the Jesus Prayer we take the encounter with the living God that we experience in church, and we live that encounter in the world.

After we have performed our prostrations and our psalmody or prayer rule, then, Ignatius tells us, we are to go about the work of the Jesus Prayer. He says that we ought to begin with 100 repetitions of the Prayer. When prayed with attention and without hurry this practice should take us about half and hour. It is interesting to note that St. Theophan the Recluse stated that a beginner ought to start out by praying the Jesus Prayer for about 20 minutes each day as his or her strength allows. That would most likely give the same result as simply praying 100 Jesus Prayers as St. Ignatius recommends.

Each repetition of the Jesus Prayer ought to be followed by a brief period of silence (although in the Greek tradition, unlike the Slavic tradition, such a period of silence was not recommended because it was believed that one would lose focus on the prayer if one allowed for this silence). While praying the Prayer one also ought to be attentive to one's breathing. Breathing ought to be gentle and slow; "this precaution prevents distraction." The Fathers are almost universal in stating that breathing is key to focusing one's mind and attention. If one breathes deeply and slowly the mind is more able to relax and focus on just one thing. Actually, I remember in a psychology class I was taking some years ago our professor mentioned how he has helped people overcome anxiety and depression simply by teaching them to breathe properly. I find that taking a few minutes to breathe deeply through the diaphragm not only relaxes my body, but calms my mind from the troubles and worries of the day. To use the words of the Cherubic Hymn in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, taking a few moments to breathe before prayer enables me to "lay aside all earthly cares that I may welcome the King of All."

Finally St. Ignatius encourages his readers to pray the Jesus Prayer any time we have a down moment. Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia has mentioned in the past how such an instruction can be applied to those us who live in the world. The Jesus Prayer can be prayed while we're standing in line, waiting for a bus, driving in a car or stuck in a traffic jam, while on daily walks, or watching the kids play in the park, etc., etc., etc. The possibilities are endless. Since it is such a short prayer it is suitable for all occasions. And as I have shown in other posts it can be adapted into even shorter phrases if the occasion doesn't permit one to pray the full form of the Prayer. The goal of all of this, as St. Ignatius points out to us, is "to train yourself to the Jesus Prayer to such an extent that it becomes your unceasing prayer." May Heaven consume us!