“I spent the whole day in a state of the greatest contentment…I lived as though in another world.”
Sounds appealing, doesn’t it?
That’s a quote from “The Way of a Pilgrim,” the 19th century tale of a widower who reached a state of spiritual bliss by praying without ceasing, as St. Paul advised in Thessalonians. The anonymous and perhaps fictional widower journeyed across Russian and Siberia, on foot, carrying only a Bible and dried bread and repeating – thousands of time a day – the Jesus Prayer.
The centuries-old prayer is intended to help those praying it reach inner stillness and move closer to God. Its classical form is: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” There are shorter versions too: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Or simply, “Lord Jesus, have mercy.”
I mention this today because “The Way of a Pilgrim” was featured Wednesday in “Give Us the Day,” the terrific Catholic daily prayer periodical from Liturgical Press. It reminded me of “The Way’s” tremendous popularity. J.D. Salinger fans may remember how Zooey, the sister in Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey,” became transfixed with “The Way” and the Jesus prayer itself. It reminded me too about the great spiritual benefits many claim for these silent, repeated prayer mantras.
The Trappist monk Thomas Keating repopularized an ancient meditative Catholic technique that he modified and rechristened “Centering Prayer.”
In “Open Mind, Open Heart,” he writes about “active prayers.” Like The Jesus Prayer, these are short phrases to be repeated, silently, over and over, as often as one can remember them and whenever full attention is not needed for study, work, etc. He advises picking one phrase that resonates and repeating it until it eventually becomes a “tape” in your head.
Keating believes the prayer doesn’t just get you closer to God, but also overrides some of the old, emotionally upsetting and anxiety-producing “tapes” that run in your head whether you want them to or not. You know: replaying, incessantly, the fight with your spouse or the run-in with your boss or nasty neighbor. Listing, obsessively, everything that’s wrong with you or somebody else. It may take the active prayer up to a year to work its way into your subconscious, Keating says. But once it’s there, it can not only push away your nattering negative thoughts but also provide a neutral zone in which the spirit can emerge.
Keating offers many different active prayer suggestions in “Open Mind, Open Heart.” Among them:
Oh Lord, come to my assistance.
O God, make haste to help me.
Abide in my love.
Open my heart to your love.
Lord, increase my faith.
Thy kingdom come, they will be done.
Through him, with Him, in Him.
Lord, do with me what you will.
Jesus, my light and my love.
I belong to you, oh Lord.