The Jesus Prayer – Book Review

The Jesus  Prayer – The Ancient Prayer that tunes the heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.
Published by Paraclete Press,
ISBN 978-1-55725-659-1

This is not a book primarily intended for Orthodox, although there’s a lot we can learn about the prayer and its history and our faith by reading it. It’s aimed at non-Orthodox who have heard about the prayer and want to know more about it and how to say it.

The book is in two parts. Part one is history, scripture, terms, concepts and general Orthodox theology. Without actually coming out and saying so, Frederica makes the point that you can’t say the prayer without understanding something about the Orthodox faith so the first part of the book contains a lot of basic Orthodox theology that is more than helpful, especially to non- and new Orthodox. She explains terms and concepts clearly and simply, using metaphors that are vivid, easily understandable and relevant. A lot of what Frederica says puts things clearly that I understood but didn’t have words to express, or that I knew on a subconscious level, that she brings into focus and full understanding.

She leads simply and easily from her opening discussion of the Biblical injunction to “pray without ceasing” to the radical (to non Orthodox) concept of theosis, and how the prayer is designed to lead one into theosis. Along the way, we learn about the Philokalia, the Way of a Pilgrim, and how the prayer progresses from a string of words repeated in your mind, to the true “prayer of the heart” in which it is an “effortless and spontaneous self-repetition . . . emanating from the core of your being . . .” This leads her into an explanation of the Orthodox faith and some of the differences between Eastern and Western Christianity. She’s remarkably balanced about it, outlining differences without either overly praising the Orthodox, or at all denigrating Western thought.

She ends the section by explaining that it is only through recognizing God’s immeasurable love for us, and responding to it by repenting and begging for mercy that we can begin the long road to submersing our will in God’s. From there, she concludes with the radical (to anyone!) concept that “[t]his Eastern Christian path is not particularly concerned with morality or good behavior, surprisingly enough; it is concerned with a relationship.” The Jesus prayer is about “continual immersion in God’s presence” so that we too can experience “the peace of God, which overflows all the nous” to keep our hearts and minds in Christ.

The second part, in a question and answer format, is about the practicalities of saying the prayer. Preparation consists of “getting your house in order”, which is good advice for anyone and on having a spiritual mother or father to rely on. If this book were aimed at Orthodox, here is where I might disagree with her – it has been my belief that, other than the parish priest, most Orthodox laity do not need a spiritual elder – we aren’t monastics, and our lives are not to be lived in imitation of monastics, whose igumens are their spiritual elders. But for non-Orthodox honestly desiring to draw closer to God, without being immersed in Orthodox thinking and culture, I think it’s a good piece of advice.

There is advice and commentary on when and how often to say the prayer, how many repetitions to use, how to keep track of how many you’ve said, whether to have a set place to say the prayer (don’t forget, an icon corner is a specifically Orthodox practice), what form of the prayer to use and the problem of “have mercy”.

This came as a surprise to me, that anyone might have problems with “have mercy on me”. But, as Frederica explains, Westerners don’t have the same understanding of “mercy” as the Eastern Church does – to us it’s the prodigal son pleading to come home and be forgiven and loved, or the good Samaritan, helping the robbery victim by the roadside. For me, it has a flavour of when I was little and I felt bad or may have done wrong, but Dad’s lap and arms were always there to cuddle me and make it better. For a Westerner, it carries a very legalistic overtone, to be lenient when handing out the punishment.

Frederica also goes into some of the deeper issues around the prayer –  its surface similarity to other Eastern meditation techniques, a deeper discussion of the prayer rooted in the heart, the problems of pride and delusion and being seduced by having “spiritual experiences” and the distractions that occur as one practices the prayer. While some of this will be familiar to anyone who has done any study on the Jesus Prayer, or tried (or is trying) to say it, it’s still refreshing to hear the Fathers’ repeated and reworded in ways that are accessible and meant for lay, not monastics.

Even though the book is meant for Western Christians interested in the Jesus prayer, and will be an excellent introduction for them to both the prayer and Eastern Christianity, I would recommend it for any Orthodox who haven’t encountered this discipline and want to see what it’s all about. Frederica is one of the best writers around at taking difficult concepts and theological principles and making them understandable to non-academics, without sacrificing either clarity or depth and she does it beautifully in this book.