One of the traditional calls of Lent is to a growth in the life of prayer. Prayer is essential to the followers of Jesus, and in the fifth chapter of St. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, the Apostle even tells his readers, “Pray without ceasing.”
Can we pray without ceasing, or is that just a hyperbolic statement that really just means “try to pray more often”? This is the topic of one of the great modern works on Christian prayer, The Way of the Pilgrim. Strangely, this anonymous 19th-century classic of Russian Orthodox spirituality was brought to the attention of many in the West through the writing of J.D. Salinger in his short story/novella mash-up Franny and Zooey.
Salinger was very much drawn to the mystical spirituality of Hinduism, Buddhism and Sufism. He even spent some time with the infamous L. Ron Hubbard, learning his theory of Dianetics/Scientology. The practice of yoga greatly influenced his life, and his daughter said it was only because of a particular yogic belief that Salinger got married and had a family.
Despite his infatuation with these non-Christian and sometimes anti-Christian practices, Salinger was also intrigued by Orthodox Christian spirituality. Thus, The Way of the Pilgrim plays a prominent role in the short story “Franny” and the novella Zooey. Because of Faulkner’s work, The Way of the Pilgrim has become immensely popular as a manual for meditation through the use of the Jesus Prayer.
For those who are not drawn to the book but want to enrich their spiritual lives by making the Jesus Prayer a part of their daily prayers, the way is quite simple. First, the prayer has a number of iterations, but only two words are essential: Jesus and mercy. Thus, the simplest form of the Jesus Prayer is “Jesus, mercy.” If the penitent desires more clarity - for her or his own sake, not for God’s - the prayer can be expanded as “Jesus, have mercy on me,” or “Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” or “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
In line with what people might be used to when involved in meditation, the words about Jesus can be spoken/thought while breathing in, and the words about mercy and me and sin can be said/thought while breathing out. This cadence can help the words to become like a gently flowing stream upon which our meditative prayer can float. This technique is authentically Catholic and has been offered by several saints - including Pope St. Paul VI and Pope St. John Paul II - as a way of praying the rosary.
When we meditate using the Jesus Prayer - with its emphasis on personal sin, repentance, and the mercy of Jesus - our focus is more easily drawn to what really matters. It keeps before our eyes the realization of our upcoming death and our need for God’s mercy if we are to live in eternal beatitude. This focus might very well be the key to understanding the words of St. Paul to “pray without ceasing.”
When we stand in line at the grocery store, do we get upset at the length of the line, do we read the inane headlines in the tabloids, do we check our phones again and again, or do we breathe in slowly and pray “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” and then breathe out slowly and pray “have mercy on me a sinner”? Our days are packed with such wasted moments, and not just during Lent.
The gurus of this world are forever telling us that if we are more “mindful,” we will be happier and lead more meaningful lives. Maybe St. Paul was the first guru of mindfulness, and maybe he meant for us to use our wasted time in a more mindful way. Maybe the practice of the Jesus Prayer can bring more meaning to our prayer lives this Lent, and maybe it will become a habitual and mindful use of our time as we make our own attempt at praying without ceasing.