Last week I started a series on Hesychastic Prayer. This form of contemplative prayer originated in the Greek Orthodox monastic tradition but is also widely practiced in the Russian Orthodox as well as in other Christian traditions.
Those who are not Christians, and those who are atheists, please bear with me. There is no reason at least some aspects of this powerful contemplative practice cannot be adapted to your cultural idioms. Also, knowing about the practices of traditions other than your own is a core effort of Interfaith study.
Indeed it is interesting, for example, to see how close the parallels are between the Greek Orthodox and the atheist Buddhist Jhana practices. As different as these cultures are, both Hesychastic and Buddhist Jhana practice lead to very deep experiences of wordless peace and liberation. There are also close parallels between Hesychastic prayer and the other God centered practices of Hindu, Catholic, and Sufi cultures. Learning more about these parallels will help people discern how they may adapt some of the core practices of Hesychastic prayer to their chosen tradition. It will also lead to a greater sense of respect and appreciation for another ancient tradition of world culture. Certainly greater knowledge, respect, and appreciation for other traditions is one of the things most needed to offset the deeply destructive aspects of religious fanaticism that are among the most destructive features of 21st century world culture.
There is also the very real possibility that some aspects of the Greek Orthodox tradition may be more attractive to you than some aspects of the contemplative tradition you are involved with now. Learning and borrowing from other traditions to help supplant some of the dysfunctional or unskillful elements of your core tradition is another benefit of the Interfaith movement.
The most traditional form of Hesychastic practice is the Jesus Prayer.
This is the constant repetition of the phrase during meditation, “Jesus Son of God have mercy on me.” Another variation is “Jesus Son of God have mercy on me a sinner.”
But as Bishop Kallistos Ware, a prominent contemporary exponent of Orthodox culture, has pointed out there is no rigid formula to this prayer. You are free to use the traditional wording or to develop your own phrase. In the Orthodox tradition one would be exhorted to include the name of Jesus in the phrase. But those engaged in non-Christian or progressive Christian practice could just as well develop a phrase focused on God the father, or the Holy Spirit, or some other more general name for God.
In this manner the Jesus prayer is not that different from any other Mantra such as those from Hindu or Tibetan Buddhist practice even if Bishop Kallistos Ware would (and did) take exception to this comparison. The goal, as with any mantra is to give the scattered mind a positive focus to center on as a means to unify and thereby calm the “monkey chatter” of the mind.
But the Jesus Prayer is also more than a mantra. The essential features are not some mechanical repetition of a certain phrase as though it was some magical formula guaranteed to induce mystical experience. To begin with one calls to mind God’s grace, mercy, love, and light. This sense of divine life should not be confused with any religious images or doctrines you may find troubling or bewildering. The goal is to gain an intuition of the nature of the transforming power of grace and the great beauty and tenderness of perfect love and being. In short, an image of divine life free from any of the corruptions of organized or dis-organized religion. Endeavor through imagination and/or intuition to gain a sense of universal being so beautiful and kind that one’s natural and free response is to praise and adore. Opening the mind and heart to the presence of this perfect love and grace is the first step. Second is to make the conscious choice to offer a free gift of love and adoration from the most tender centers of your hear to this living presence of God. All of this is a highly evocative and creative process.
All of this will help you make the journey to the deepest center of your heart. In this deepest center you will find the living presence of divine life and can dwell in holy communion with the God of heaven and earth. Buddhists and others may call this living presence something else such as “the deathless”, or the “unconditioned”, or “Buddha Nature.” Who cares what words are used? In the deepest experiences all words and analysis are dispersed any way.
The mantra and related practices of cultivating virtue are all supports to the awakening of this intimate and profoundly beautiful encounter and embrace with perfect and eternal love.
If you are angry at God or hate religion in general that is fine too. You will never hear comments from me designed to invalidate your most serious doubts or pain or questions. But just as your doubts and pain and questions are important it is equally important to know there really is another side to this whole “spiritual thing.” For me I have found a way to honor and cultivate both and would be glad to talk with you about how I balance and sometimes clumsily juggle both.
More Next week.
Please let me know your thoughts and experiences. All constructive comments will be responded to and posted if you feel comfortable having them posted.
Will Raymond Author of “The Simple Path of Holiness” host of Meditationpractice.com
will at meditation practice dot com (spelled out to limit spam)