Fr. Maloney, a Jesuit priest (of the Russian Byzantine Rite with a doctorate in Oriental Theology from the Pontifical Oriental Institute) has traveled extensively throughout Russia and the Middle East in an effort to better his understanding of the spirituality of the East. In this article he talks about the Jesus Prayer and mantras.
The concept of the Jesus Prayer is similar to that of techniques used in Yoga. The Jesus Prayer is combined with the breath as is the Yogic mantra—a mystic sound repeated during meditation. The repetition of the prayer, eventually culminating in a constant awareness of a higher consciousness, is also similar to the use of the mantra where continual repetition induces the vibration of the mantra within.
Anyone working intimately with young Americans is usually struck by their generosity and idealism. While teaching today’s college students I have also been struck by their almost burning thirst for interiority. Weaned from earliest childhood on television, they react totally to a crazily, careening world that explodes at each moment into a greater array of sense objects to lure and enslave them. The young of today search hungrily for beauty that will not perish or diminish. They hunger for direct, immediate, full experiences now, not tomorrow.
A person-to-person experience between man and God is truly what the modern generation is so greatly thirsting for. This point can best serve to introduce us to the Jesus Prayer. Perhaps many readers are acquainted with this most biblical form of prayer through J.D. Salinger’s novel Franny and Zooey. This is a story of a modern young coed who has become completely bored with the pseudo-sophistication of her own generation. She has recourse to her “peagreen covered book” called, The Way of the Pilgrim. This Russian classic of spirituality tells the story of a simple man who upon the death of his wife and child spends the rest of his life on pilgrimage throughout Russia reciting the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” If you keep saying that prayer over and over again, you only have to do it with your lips at first—then eventually what happens is the prayer becomes self-active, something happens after a while… the words get synchronized with the person’s heartbeats and then you’re actually praying without ceasing.
Franny, perplexed by a mad world that is daily multiplying into greater and greater confusion, hungers for a more direct encounter with God. In the Jesus Prayer she finds a temporary peace and stability. But she is wrong in thinking that by such flight from reality, from God’s own world, she has found a psychedelic mechanism like LSD that would automatically allow her to retire into a stable world of peace and undisturbed joy. Only as the novel ends does she understand that the Jesus Prayer cannot be used as a means to seal one off from the fat lady who is actually Jesus Christ inhabiting our neighbor. She also learns that the Jesus Prayer is not a form of magic, but must be used only by one who has purified himself by an active charity, which leads to the experience of an encounter with Jesus Christ.
St. John Climacus was perhaps the first to associate the “memory of Jesus” with man’s breathing so as to make the presence of Jesus Christ a constant reality. In his Ladder of Perfection he exhorts Christians: “May the memory of Jesus combine with your breathing; then you will understand the use of silence.” Hesychius in his Centuries, links up the constant repetition of the name of Jesus with our breathing as the best means of keeping ourselves open to God.
A document falsely accredited to St. John Chrysostom formulated once and for all the Jesus Prayer in the form that we know today. The text reads: “I implore you, brethren, never to abandon the rule of prayer or neglect it…Eating and drinking, at home or on a journey, or whatever else he does, a monk should constantly call: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me.’ This remembering of the name of our Lord Jesus Christ should incite him to do battle with the enemy. By this remembrance a soul, forcing itself to this practice, can discover everything which is within, both good and bad…The name of our Lord Jesus Christ, descending into the depths of the heart, will subdue the serpent holding sway over the pastures of the heart and will bring the soul to life. Thus abide constantly with the name of our Lord so that the heart ‘swallows’ the Lord and the Lord the heart and the two become one. But this work is not done in one or two days; it needs many years and a long time. For great and prolonged labor is needed to cast out the foe so that Christ dwells in us.”
If we joined this prayer to a humble plea for the ability to see the all-ness of God in all things as we walk about our busy cities, drive along our fast highways, or occupy ourselves in an almost endless round of activities, will it not develop within us an atmosphere of living in God’s presence that will reveal to us God’s presence shining translucent in all his material creation? By fidelity to such a simple, heartfelt encounter with the person Jesus through the repetition of His holy name, His presence will no longer be simply an object to us. We will become more and more what God wants us to be in creating us to His own image of the divine Son. Our ego will become aware of its true self, not a subject adoring an object way out there or above in the remoteness of heaven, but a child of God, a divinized being, participating, as St. Peter says, in the divine nature, without losing its own human nature. We will not become God by nature but nonetheless truly made God-like by His presence within. God will gradually be experienced by us deep down within our true person as the core of our very being. He who lives in the depths of our being will not be a mere concept but a living person, closer to me than I am to myself, penetrating me completely.
About the Author:
Fr. George Maloney, S.J. is the founder of the John XXIII Institute for Eastern Christian Studies at Fordham University and the Director of Contemplative Ministries in California. Father Maloney is recognized worldwide for his works on prayer and Eastern Christian Spirituality.
Reprinted from Integral Yoga Magazine archives, Winter 1971 issue
Photo above: Fr. Maloney (far right), was one of the spiritual teachers at the 1970 Yoga Ecumenical Retreat led by Swami Satchidananda at Annhurst College, Connecticut.Others pictured from l-r: Br. David Steindl-Rast, Rabbi Joseph Gelberman, Swami Satchidananda, Swami Venkatesananda.