Sunday, September 05, 2010

Frederica Mathewes-Green and a Shining jewel of the East

Hello lovies,

Thanks for being so patient. Here's the wonderful interview with Frederica Mathewes-Green about her fantastic book The Jesus Prayer. Enjoy! And happy Labor Day!

Like many Westerners, I discovered the Jesus Prayer in J.D. Salinger's 1961 book, Franny and Zooey. At the time I had a raging crush on J.D. I would have had his literary love child, but God was kind enough never to let me near that man. But I'm indebted to Salinger, because I read The Way of the PIlgrim in my zeal. I remember saying the Jesus Prayer, and this was when I was a teenager--and feeling that rhythm take up residence inside much, much like I experienced when I left Divine Liturgies. The haunting prayers we sang remained with me for days. Sometimes, when I'm in trouble--and that happens far more often than I wish--I go back to the Jesus Prayer, because my mind can be blown like a fuse by whatever circumstance I'm in, and the Jesus Prayer is the only thing I can deal with. So, I thank God for it. But please tell those of us who don't know or have any experience with it exactly what the Jesus Prayer is.

     The Jesus Prayer is a short prayer that asks Jesus for mercy; the usual form is "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me," but it can be a little shorter or longer, depending on what suits you best. The idea is to form the habit of saying it constantly inside, like background music for everything that happens in your life. It is a way to do as St. Paul advised and "Pray constantly." I think for many of us the exhortation to "pray constantly" is intimidating, and not very inviting; it sounds like having to say prayers all the time, which would be tedious. The simplicity of the Jesus Prayer allows it to become second nature, as natural as breathing.
How did you start praying the Jesus Prayer?
     Like you, I gave it a try after I read Franny and Zooey, probably in high school. I tried saying the Jesus Prayer then, and at a few times later on in life, but I couldn't get it to "stick." You know, I hear people say that if you repeat any short phrase or word quietly, and shut out other thoughts, it gives a feeling of peace, but I have never had that work for me. Repeating a prayer (or any word or phrase) just seems boring and tedious. But the Prayer caught on better for me after I'd been Orthodox a couple of years, I think because I was beginning to grasp the dynamic power of repentance. I recently learned that the earliest "repeated prayers" of the Desert Fathers were prayers for help (for example, "O God make speed to save me, O Lord make haste to help me"). Prayers for mercy, like "Kyrie Eleison," didn't appear till the 4th century. But with the prayer for mercy came a more profound spirituality, because it was concerned not only with God's immediate power and ability to help in any circumstance, but with an ongoing relationship that has been damaged by our sins. And so it was for me; praying the Jesus Prayer didn't make sense till I had a better idea of how sin damages our God-connection.

Some people think ancient prayers like the one we're discussing are "vain repetitions." We know this isn't true, but how would you address this criticism, especially when it's offered by a very sincere Christian?
       I was given this challenge once while leading a women's retreat for an evangelical church, and had to chuckle (privately) because we had just been singing praise choruses that consisted of nothing but short phrases repeated over and over. Obviously, if you mean it, it's not in vain. A husband repeats "I love you, I love you" to his bride, and she doesn't become irritated with the repetition. "I love you" means something more every day of your life. So it is with the Lord; words fail us, literally, but we can use simple, familiar words as a way to hold the connection with him, without having to always be thinking up different things to say. The phrase "vain repetition" appears in the King James translation, in the passage where Jesus is telling the disciples how to pray. Don't pile up empty words, like the pagans do, he says. Instead, pray like this: "Our Father..." That is a prayer most of us have repeated more than once in our lives!

In chapter two you give something like a remarkable capsule course in Orthodoxy. I was impressed at what you crammed into those pages! But I'm Western through and through, and found my soul's home in the Catholic Church. Many of my readers are Evangelical Christians. So, if the prayer's original context is found in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, how can we Western Christians benefit from it?
     It was a dilemma for me, trying to figure out how much background to give. I didn't understand the life-giving joy of repentance until I had been Orthodox for several years. It hinged on re-understanding a number of things, including major concepts like the Incarnation, the Cross, Salvation--yes, there is even a different understanding of what "Salvation" means, in Orthodoxy. The more I learned, the more I was able to get into the swing of the Jesus Prayer. It makes a kind of sense, in its original context, that isn't immediately obvious elsewhere.

But of course anyone who prays "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy" can benefit from it! There's no requirement to be Orthodox. So as I wrote the book I tried to supply enough background information to make the original context accessible, but not to overdo it. At first I *did* overdo it, and had way too much background explanation of Orthodoxy. I just couldn't figure out where to tie things off. The editor and I decided to remove most of that material and save it for a different book, which I will write this year, a basic "Introduction to Orthodoxy." 

You said--and I love this about your writing. It's so accessible--that the instructions for reciting the Jesus Prayer could fit on the back of a shampoo bottle: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me." Repeat. It looks like to me you could stick 'em in a fortune cookie! But it really isn't that simple, is it? Please tell us why.
     I think it is for the same reason that the three little words, "I love you," have endless depth. A set of words like that stand almost as a token for something that is deep beyond all words. You can hold the words like a crystal and see the light slanting through from all different angles. One of the mysterious effects of the Jesus Prayer is that it helps us understand ourselves better and better as time goes by. There is nothing as beautiful and complex as the human person. Christ came to earth to restore us to the image and likeness of God, and the process of transformation is one of deep healing--which rests on the kind of deep repentance that is willing to let go and allow that change to happen. It's a paradox, isn't it, that "a picture is worth a thousand words," yet a handful of words can plumb depths that no visual image could capture.

So how do we begin?
     The goal is to learn to maintain an inner prayer-connection with God all the time. But you can't begin to do anything all of the time; you have to start out by doing it *some* of the time. So there are two basic bits of advice. First, start saying the Prayer any time it comes to mind. A good place to start is any time you are bored and having to wait for something (waiting in line at a cash register, or waiting in traffic, that sort of thing). Take your time repeating "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me," or "...have mercy on me, a sinner," like the Publican in the Temple prayed. It makes otherwise wasted time not just bearable, but productive, in that it is turning you toward the presence of God.

The second bit of advice is to set aside some time every day to say the Prayer. Usually 10 or 15 minutes is good for a start. Orthodox Christians often use a "prayer rope," that is, a loop of woolen cord tied with 100 knots. Saying one prayer for each knot takes about 15 minutes. If you do this once a day, and do your best to block out other thoughts that come in and try to interrupt you, the habit of the Jesus Prayer will begin to take root. It is a very useful thing to have this Prayer already at hand, an integrated part of your prayer life, when life hands you situations that are challenging.

What can we expect once we dive in?
     I always face the dilemma when talking about the Prayer that I do talk more about the mechanics of the Prayer than the experience and purpose of the Prayer. The purpose is to come into union with God. The purpose is to know Jesus Christ, directly, immediately, in a communion that is like a nearly-wordless conversation, in the midst of our ordinary daily lives. I think that those who have experienced this already can get, from that description, and idea of what to expect. Those who haven't perhaps should just keep in mind that we are not seeking a spiritual experience, but communion with a person, Jesus Christ the Lord. So there will be some similarities to any of the best and most loving relationships we have with persons in this life. It would be a mistake to focus instead on having mystical experiences. That is a well-known trap of spiritual confusion and evil, to get people side-tracked onto admiring their own spiritual growth. If you focus on the Lord, you can't help but stay humble, and humility is the safeguard against every kind of danger.

Any parting words?

I hope that many of your readers and friends will be moved to take up this beautiful prayer. It has been a great blessing to me. Before, I was sometimes frustrated in wanting to draw near the Lord in prayer, but not having anything particular to "talk about," or getting tired of talking and thinking in words. The simple Jesus Prayer keeps the connection open in a natural way, without having to keep the verbal motor spinning. It has been a blessing to Eastern Christian for about 1500 years now, and will be just as great a blessing for Christians of the Western tradition.

Thanks so much for this opportunity, Claudia! May God bless you and inspire you. Love, F

No, thank you! Pick up your copy of The Jesus Prayer at your local bookstore, or at And do visit Frederica on her website at



Grams said...

I've found Frederica's book an encouragement. The Jesus Prayer has been a gentle 'companion' to me since I first read of it in a book of fiction many longs years ago. These sacred simple words settle me like no other.

ragamuffin diva said...

Me, too, Grams. There's nothing like the Jesus Prayer, and God is good to give us such a simple, effective way to reach him.