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The God Prayer

Mar 18, 2007

I recently read the two-book volume The Way of the Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way, translated from the Russian by R. M. French and published by HarperSanFrancisco. The book was written by an anonymous pilgrim in Russia in the mid-1800’s. He wandered around Russia, reciting the “Jesus Prayer” and reading a copy of the Philokalia, a collection of writings by early Christian monks from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries.

I was intrigued and moved by the pilgrim’s account, and his usage of the Jesus Prayer as a way to remain centered on God, even in the midst of a busy day of work. I subsequently purchased a copy of an abridged version of the five volume Philokalia called Philokalia: The Eastern Christian Spiritual Texts. It’s annotated and explained by Allyne Smith and published by SkyLight Illuminations and is very readable.

“Philokalia” is Greek for “love of the beautiful, holy and exalted”. The book is filled with profoundly inspiring commentaries on the spiritual life. Having been an Episcopalian as a child, I had little exposure to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, or the writings of the “Desert Fathers”, as the early monks were called. I found both books very refreshing and was especially taken with a section of The Pilgrim Continues His Way, in which a “Skhimnik” (a Russian monk or nun of the highest grade) reads to the pilgrim and his friends from a manuscript titled “The Secret of Salvation, Revealed by Unceasing Prayer”.

The manuscript’s author writes of the struggles a person may have in following his or her  conscience and life of faith. The author writes:

“He ... finds out by trial that his damaged and enfeebled nature will have the upper hand of the convictions of his mind, that his free will is bound, that his propensities are perverted, that his spiritual strength is but weakness.”

The author continues his description of a person’s struggle to find salvation and to overcome his weakness in a practical way. He compares the type of prayer that is “external”, consisting of going to church, crossing oneself, bowing, kneeling and reading psalms, with the view of prayer explained by the Philokalia, which is “prayer of the heart”. The author writes:

“He sees that truly to pray means to direct the thought and the memory, without relaxing, to the recollection of God, to walk in His divine presence, to awaken oneself to His love by thinking about Him, and to link the name of God with one’s breathing and the beating of one’s heart. He is guided in all this ... by saying the Jesus prayer at all times in all places and during every occupation, unceasingly.”

He goes on to say:

“... it is prayer which is incessant which is the only effective means for perfecting interior prayer and for the saving of the soul.”

The Jesus Prayer is a simple sentence that the monks repeated over and over, with every breath, thousands of times a day, until it entered their mind as a refrain that mirrored the beating of their hearts. The sentence is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”

The author states that prayer is the necessary ingredient to make unity with God, but that our fallibility makes it difficult to pray with adequate depth and purity. He states:

“... God has assigned to the will and strength of man only the quantity of prayer. He has commanded unceasing prayer, always to pray, at all times and in every place.”

Through this method of unceasing prayer, one can make prayer a habit and cleanse the heart. The monks recommended the Jesus prayer as a way of controlling one’s thoughts, by replacing evil thoughts with the prayer itself, which draws one closer to God. It is the act of uniting one’s mind and heart with God, through unceasing prayer, that effectively banishes selfish desires or temptations that try to draw us away from God. Rather than fight the temptation directly, we focus our minds and hearts on God, and are rescued from temptation by the power of His love for us and our love for Him.

As I reflected about the Jesus prayer, I was reminded of the Sufi poet Hafiz, who wrote, in the poem Like a Life-Giving Sun, the phrases:

You could become a victorious horseman
And carry your heart through this world
Like a life-giving sun
Though only if you and God become sweet Lovers!

(Translated by Daniel Ladinsky, excerpted from The Gift.)

Becoming a “sweet lover” of God seems to me to be the ultimate goal of faith and religious practice. When one is intensely in love with God, living a life of unselfish love toward others becomes a natural result of one’s desire to make God happy. This does require, of course, that one’s concept of God includes the view that God wants us to serve and love others unselfishly.

Eastern Orthodox Christians continue to recommend the Jesus prayer today, as a viable practice of faith. I believe that the method of the Jesus Prayer can be used by a person of any faith, even non-Christians. I honor the Eastern Orthodox usage of the phrase “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” It fits their faith, it is humble, and it makes sense. However, in my own search to be close to God, and to live the life that I believe God wants me to live, I have used my own words, which I call the “God Prayer”:

“My Dear Beloved God, I embrace You and love You,
and embrace Your children with Your love.”

I felt that the direction of the prayer (for me) needed to be focused on loving God and then giving God’s love to His children (that is, all people, of any faith, or of no faith). I agree with the Jesus prayer that God’s mercy is necessary for us all. Yet, I want to move beyond a prayer for mercy, and pray to passionately love God, and then to love His children.

The pilgrim mentioned above often sat in a hut, and recited the Jesus Prayer all day long, in solitude. In our modern world, that’s difficult to do, so I have recorded the God Prayer on an MP3 player, and listen to it over and over again. I hang the MP3 player around my neck on a ribbon, and put the player in endless loop mode, and listen to the God Prayer as I work in my home office throughout the day. I use an earbud, in only one ear, with the volume turned down, so that I can even listen as I talk on the telephone. It has already produced a substantial effect. I find myself savoring the prayer and the awareness of God’s loving presence that comes with it, and often repeat it silently, even when my MP3 player has been turned off.

I believe that the God Prayer is a practical method that will draw us closer to God, and effectively control and banish the selfish thoughts and feelings that plague human beings every day. I hope I can meet that Russian pilgrim one day. I’d like to thank him for introducing me to a wonderful way to multiply our love for God and His children.

Peter Falkenberg Brown is passionate about writing, publishing, public speaking and film. He hopes that someday he can live up to one of his favorite mottos: “Expressing God’s kind and compassionate love in all directions, every second of every day, creates an infinitely expanding sphere of heart.”

~ Deus est auctor amoris et decoris. ~

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Peter Falkenberg Brown
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