04 December 2007

The Publican's Prayer

I know of at least two musical arrangements of the “Jesus Prayer” in English that I like: one is from the City on a Hill CD "The Gathering" arranged by Phil Madiera (an Anglican) and one by the St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox kid’s choir. The goal of prayer without ceasing, however, was best achieved for me when I set the Latin translation of the prayer to Sarum chant.

When I became Eastern Orthodox thirteen years ago I heard about the "Jesus Prayer". I read "Way of the Pilgrim" and the Philokalia. I bought a prayer rope. The prayer is simple "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Its origin is the prayer of the publican from the parable of Jesus. But I never saw the "Uncreated Light" that Gregory Palamas talked about.

The "Jesus Prayer" or "Prayer of the Heart" is a mantra used by Eastern Orthodox Christians along with special breathing techniques and bodily posture, in order to reach the place of the heart where God's uncreated light dwells. The practice is part of the Hesychast teachings found in the Philokalia and is, for the most part, the only mystical tradition in the Orthodox church.

The Western Catholic Church has never fully accepted Hesychasm because it makes a distinction between the energies or operations of God and the essence of God. In western Catholic theology as it has developed since the Scholastic period, there can be no distinction between the energies or operations and the essence of God (see, e.g., the Summa Theologiae of St Thomas Aquinas). So really, it's an issue between Greek Platonist philosophy and Latin rationalist Aristoteleanism.

Controversy aside, the prayer itself is a simple and potent devotion.

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