I knew that Rowan Williams, once the Archbishop of Canterbury, knew a lot about Eastern Christian practice, but I did not know that he begins his day with the Jesus Prayer. More:

Readers of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey will recall the somewhat unexpected appearance there of an account of the traditional Greek and Russian discipline of meditative repetition of the “Jesus Prayer” (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner”). Practically every Eastern Orthodox writer on prayer will describe this, and many in the tradition also describe some of the physical disciplines that may be used to support it – being aware of your breathing, sitting in a certain way, focusing attention on your chest: “bringing the mind into the heart”, as the books characterise it.

The interest in uniting words with posture and breath is, of course, typical of non-Christian practices also; and over the years increasing exposure to and engagement with the Buddhist world in particular has made me aware of practices not unlike the “Jesus Prayer” and introduced me to disciplines that further enforce the stillness and physical focus that the prayer entails. Walking meditation, pacing very slowly and co-ordinating each step with an out-breath, is something I have found increasingly important as a preparation for a longer time of silence.

So: the regular ritual to begin the day when I’m in the house is a matter of an early rise and a brief walking meditation or sometimes a few slow prostrations, before squatting for 30 or 40 minutes (a low stool to support the thighs and reduce the weight on the lower legs) with the “Jesus Prayer”: repeating (usually silently) the words as I breathe out, leaving a moment between repetitions to notice the beating of the heart, which will slow down steadily over the period.

The prayer isn’t any kind of magical invo­cation or auto-suggestion – simply a vehicle to detach you slowly from distracted, wandering images and thoughts. These will happen, but you simply go on repeating the words and gently bringing attention back to them. If it is proceeding as it should, there is something like an indistinct picture or sensation of the inside of the body as a sort of hollow, a cave, in which breath comes and goes, with an underlying pulse. If you want to speak theologically about it, it’s a time when you are aware of your body as simply a place where life happens and where, therefore, God “happens”: a life lived in you.

I think you’ll want to read the whole thing. The archbishop’s comments are part of a collection of short essays in which modern British writers talk about what fills the space in modern life that used to be governed by Christian ritual. Clearly, Rowan Williams has not abandoned Christian ritual, but has adapted one alien to his own Christian tradition.

So have I, and I began it before I was formally received into the Orthodox Church. The Jesus Prayer is so simple, but for someone like me, whose mind is always racing in a thousand different directions, it is surprisingly difficult. But therefore necessary! I cannot stand being alone with my thoughts. I always, always have to be reading something. The Jesus Prayer cannot be “read”; it must be prayed. And there’s only one real way to pray it: the way +Rowan describes. That’s not strictly true; plenty of Orthodox people pray it throughout the day. I sometimes pray it when I’m driving, and one obviously cannot disconnect as profoundly as that.

But when you are doing it optimally, you will do it as described above (though the squatting technique is new to me). Late last summer, when my priest prescribed me a demanding prayer rule using the Jesus Prayer, I was fairly sick from mono, and spent a good portion of the day in bed. I didn’t want to pray the Jesus Prayer. I wanted to sleep, and when I was awake, I wanted to write and to read. I had no choice, however; my priest had assigned me that rule. So, onward.

I can’t pretend it was easy to get started, but it gets easier as you gain control over your impulsive thoughts (or rather, as the control your impulsive thoughts have over you lessens). After you’ve been doing it for a while, you become so much more aware of the presence of God around you. At least I have. It is a demanding ritual, though, at least if you are someone like me, who is scattered and undisciplined. Some days I forget to pray it, and I can really tell the difference in my spiritual state.

For me, the most difficult thing about the Jesus Prayer is something that I never had a problem with praying the rosary as a Catholic: it’s requirement that you empty your mind as you pray it. When you pray the rosary, you are supposed to focus on set “mysteries” — events from the lives of Jesus and Mary. Though you may use a rosary-like prayer rope to pray the Jesus Prayer (I do), you emphatically do not bring images to mind during the prayer. You are supposed to reject images. This is really hard to do.

The practice of the Jesus Prayer is contemplative and meditative, but it’s well-grounded within ancient, unbroken Christian practice going back to the Desert Fathers of the early church. Here is a short primer on it, from a seminary professor, who repeats common warnings about avoiding certain breathing techniques if you are a novice. And here is the recommendation by the Archimandrite Sophrony, for how to get started with the Jesus Prayer. Notice this warning:

The way of the fathers requires firm faith and long patience”, whereas our contemporaries want to seize every spiritual gift, including even direct contemplation of the Absolute God, by force and speedily, and will often draw a parallel between prayer in the Name of Jesus and yoga or transcendental meditation and the like. I must stress the danger of such errors-the danger of looking upon prayer as one of the simplest and easiest ‘technical’ means leading to immediate unity with God. It is imperative to draw a very definite line between the Jesus Prayer and every other ascetic theory. He is deluded who endeavors to divest himself mentally of all that is transitory and relative in order to cross some invisible threshold, to realize his eternal origin, his identity with the Source of all that exists; in order to return and merge with Him, the Nameless transpersonal Absolute. Such exercises have enabled many to rise to supra-rational contemplation of being; to experience a certain mystical trepidation; to know the state of silence of the mind, when mind goes beyond the boundaries of time and space. In such-like states man may feel the peacefulness of being withdrawn from the continually changing phenomena of the visible world; may even have a certain experience of eternity. But the God of Truth, the Living God, is not in all this. It is man’s own beauty, created in the image of God, that is contemplated and seen as Divinity, whereas he himself still continues within the confines of his creatureliness. This is a vastly important concern. The tragedy of the matter lies in the fact that man sees a mirage which, in his longing for eternal life, he mistakes for a genuine oasis.

We think meditation and contemplation can only be good for us, but in fact they can be quite dangerous. Last month, the Atlantic ran a fascinating piece about a program that helps people who have burned out on meditation. Here’s how it begins:

Set back on quiet College Hill in Providence, Rhode Island, sits a dignified, four story, 19th-century house that belongs to Dr. Willoughby Britton. Inside, it is warm, spacious, and organized. The shelves are stocked with organic foods. A solid wood dining room table seats up to 12. Plants are ubiquitous. Comfortable pillows are never far from reach. The basement—with its own bed, living space, and private bathroom—often hosts a rotating cast of yogis and meditation teachers. Britton’s own living space and office are on the second floor. The real sanctuary, however, is on the third floor, where people come from all over to rent rooms, work with Britton, and rest. But they’re not there to restore themselves with meditation—they’re recovering from it.

“I started having thoughts like, ‘Let me take over you,’ combined with confusion and tons of terror,” says David, a polite, articulate 27-year-old who arrived at Britton’s Cheetah House in 2013. “I had a vision of death with a scythe and a hood, and the thought ‘Kill yourself’ over and over again.”

Michael, 25, was a certified yoga teacher when he made his way to Cheetah House. He explains that during the course of his meditation practice his “body stopped digesting food. I had no idea what was happening.” For three years he believed he was “permanently ruined” by meditation.

“Recovery,” “permanently ruined”—these are not words one typically encounters when discussing a contemplative practice.

What was going on here? With what forces or entities did these men come in contact?

Readers, do you have any experiences, good or bad, with meditation? With the Jesus Prayer?

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