Tuesday, May 08, 2007

all about the Jesus Prayer

As it happened, the other books that I brought with me on vacation both dealt largely with the Jesus Prayer, or perhaps more accurately, prayer of the heart (of which the Jesus Prayer is the primary instrument). I expected it of The Way of a Pilgrim (actually, the volume contained both The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way), but not so much of the book about St. Silouan. I'm not saying it was a bad thing to have everything focused on prayer (although again, it was nice to have Orientalism to break things up)--just unexpected. Indeed, if anything, my only regret is that I spent too much time reading and not enough praying while I was on vacation! I like about St. Silouan that he learned more by doing and listening and less by reading. (He found it too distracting to read, but he could pray while he listened.) I still have a long way to go through that book, so I'll reserve further comment at this point.

The Pilgrim books were simple but powerful. It's hard not to envy his simple life and devotion to prayer. He comes off sometimes as a bit obsessive, but I suppose I should experience prayer of the heart before passing judgment. And I can be obsessive enough with things that interest me! (Usually, things that are much less important.) I also have an inclination to pooh-pooh his constant desire to stop wandering so he can settle down and just pray--I've tended to fantasize about some kind of a wandering hermitage, but again, I've never experienced either one. As far as that goes, my inclination to wander is much less now than it used to be.

And this fantasy brings up another challenge for me--the principle about avoiding imagination. It seems to be a common theme running through these writings about prayer of the heart (I also looked up the Philokalia sections referenced in the Pilgrim books for beginners, and it was emphasized there too), that although all imagination is not necessarily evil, it gets you into trouble more often than not. At its worst, imagination can come from demonic influence, and the untrained spiritual warrior might not be able to tell the difference. But even at its best, imagination often leads to pride. I wouldn't have made this connection myself, but it resonates with my experience now that I think about it.

I spent a good deal of my adolescence on a riding lawnmower. We had something like 5.5 acres of land, much of which was grass, and a fairly puny lawnmower that didn't cut a very wide path and didn't move very fast. (It was also weak, so the longer the grass got, the slower you had to go.) I could get my weekly mowing done by spending pretty much every evening at it during the week, or all day Saturday (maybe a bit left for Sunday, depending on how quickly the grass dried out in the morning). The mower was too loud to get much out of listening to head phones, and I wasn't very good at steering while reading (believe me, I tried), so I was mostly just alone with my thoughts. I sometimes sang to myself, but mostly I just thought about stuff. Sometimes I would put myself into stories I'd read, or possible future scenarios in my life. I also learned to rehearse debates in my head on various topics.

In later life, the same habits have continued whenever I'm alone with my thoughts--driving in the car, riding the bus, out walking, etc. They have their limited usefulness, but I can't say I've ever really gained much. Conversations and scenarios usually don't go as I imagine them ahead of time. At most I get "out of my system" things I probably shouldn't actually say. But I do find that when I'm imagining things, I'm usually the center of the universe. I'm the hero of my own stories (however subtly), and the things I imagine myself doing are generally better than what I actually do in real life. As for my rehearsed conversations, they're practically monologues, with someone else asking questions or making comments just to provide me with a platform. Not that any of this should be surprising--it's my imagination, so why wouldn't I be the star? But of course unsurprising is hardly the same as healthy.

When it comes down to it, my mind is constantly going. If there's an important lesson in all this, I need to learn stillness. The point is not to empty one's head, but it is to focus one's attention on Christ, rather than one's own agendas. I have a long way to go in that area.

One more reflection on all this business of prayer in the heart. Almost everything I read about it starts from the assumption that the Spirit is already present through baptism. As a catechumen, am I just wasting my time in this area? Or is the most I can hope for right now just to establish a habit that will actually produce fruit at some later point, when I have a sacramental life? Needless to say, I'm not expecting to see the divine light any time soon (I should hope I wouldn't expect that in any case!), but how much can I really anticipate in this area? Would it be better to devote my efforts and attention elsewhere?


Jim N. said...

"Conversations and scenarios usually don't go as I imagine them ahead of time... ...it's my imagination, so why wouldn't I be the star? But of course unsurprising is hardly the same as healthy."

That entire paragraph is frighteningly familiar!

I've just started on Unseen Warfare, as edited by Sts. Nicodemus and Theophan. Still getting through the Introduction, but similiar themes to your own reading.

Lucian said...

Are You sure we're not related? :)

Trevor said...

Could be! What with aliases and the anonymity of the Internet, one never knows who's commenting :-)