The Rev. Dr. Irina Dubinski

One of my kids’ most frequently used expressions is, “it’s not a race!” Usually, it means that they are procrastinating over an unpleasant task that their siblings have not only accomplished, but also announced as such (“DOOONE!”) According to St Paul, “to keep the faith” was, in fact, a race. But where is the finish line, what is the prize, and what’s more important: participation or victory?

As a triathlete, I have finished more races than I can count, but I have only won once. To win, many factors must align with an element of luck; but ultimately, your victory depends on the caliber of other athletes and the level of competition. To finish, however, you need only two things: training and nutrition. After an hour or so of exercise, the body runs out of sugar in the blood, and to carry on is physiologically impossible regardless of fitness. Paul, in writing to a young early church leader called Timothy, recognized devotion to Jesus as the nutritional component that sustains faith, hope and love. In contrast to this, the Pharisee in our gospel was like an athlete who forgot his sport gels: a good person, he excelled at the three legs of his race – morality, temperance, and charity – but did not have the fourth one, the fuel of closeness to God. Whereas the tax collector was, by the standards of his time, a mediocre athlete in the sport of morality, but had advantage over the Pharisee in his reliance on God’s mercy as the ultimate nourishment for the race of life.

What fuels your faith? Last week, I talked to you about the three Spanish monastics who found their spiritual food in contemplative prayer, yet taught us that the life of pure devotion to God is neither self-centered, nor divorced from the scripture. I didn’t really explain to you their techniques of prayer, for this would take quite a bit more time. Today, however, I thought we would look to the East and actually learn a very simple method of prayer that can make anyone more aware of God’s presence in little time. Are you ready? It comes from our very gospel reading of today. The words of the tax collector in Luke 18:13 plus the earliest Christian “creed” Paul quotes in Phil 2:11 give us the phrase “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me.” Its long form is known as the Jesus Prayer, which essentially defines Eastern Orthodox spirituality; but in its short form, Kyrie Eleison, it also has extensive liturgical use in the West. The earliest written example of the Jesus Prayer was found on the ruins of a monastic cell in the Egyptian desert, into which the followers of the eremitic movement of the 5th century retreated once Christianity became “too mainstream”. Since those desert days, the Orthodox monks have been continually saying this phrase both in prayer and daily living; thereby, blurring the lines between life and prayer after 1 Thes 5:17 ”pray without ceasing”. By the medieval era, lay people also began to use it in personal prayer. In the Anglican world, the Jesus Prayer is suggested for use with our rosary (a much more recent and streamlined practice, compared to the Catholic one!). Indeed, the Jesus Prayer is similar to other formulaic prayers such as Our Father. But it means more than that in the East, where it is both the invocation of God’s name and statement of a central fact.

Likewise, I hesitate to refer to it as a “mantra”, though it may be used as one (cf. J.D. Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey”), since the Orthodox treasure its meaning rather than sound (it is used in many languages). Other features distinguish it from the types of meditation in use around the world. First, the aim of Orthodox contemplation is neither to become dissolved or absorbed into nothingness (or even into God); and it is neither to empty the mind as in Asian traditions, or to reach an ecstatic state of mind as in Western mysticism. For the Orthodox, prayer does not earn grace, but flows out of it; repentance leads to healing, not justification; salvation ecompasses renewal in God’s Image and participation in “God’s energies” (love, wisdom, etc.), rather than only forgiveness and heaven. Controlling the breath, fasting, stillness, silence, and using the prayer beads or rope are used to bolster attention and tranquility, avoid distractions, and engage the body in prayer, but not as end goals. As such, Orthodox asceticism does mean mastering the passions of both soul and body – as in the words of Jesus’ 1st commandment, to love God with one’s whole self – but it does not mean escaping reality, doing penance, or separating from community. Finally, at the height of an Orthodox spiritual encounter one does not see any vision, but simply the Light, believed to be as factual as that seen on Mt Tabor.

How might we tap into the ancient wisdom of using the Jesus Prayer as fuel for our race of faith? I suggest starting by saying it once every hour to 30 mins. Do not reserve it for times of anxiety, insomnia, or pain, though it does work very well then (especially for those conditioned to saying it regularly). I’ll leave you with a 19th century book “The Way of the Pilgrim.” It is a story about a person who is so profoundly struck by Paul’s words to the Thessalonians that he begins to visit churches and monasteries all over southern and central Ukraine, Russia, and Siberia, looking for someone to explain how such ceaseless prayer may be possible to achieve. His travels lead him to a starets who teaches him to say the Jesus Prayer - not hourly, but up to 3000 times per day! - in which he eventually succeeds. Maybe, the whole book is a metaphor for a journey towards communion with God, or it might be a literal account, or both. What does come across strongly is that the ultimate result of the Jesus Prayer is, in fact, not to alleviate anxiety or become pious, or etc., but to connect the application of Jesus’ first commandment to the second. That is, to cultivate a loving relationship with God through prayer, and thereby, begin to love others as you feel loved by God (and thus, self).

The bottom line is, whether we desire a glimpse of the light of Transfiguration like the Byzantine monks or of God’s golden spear like Santa Teresa; whether we prefer to meditate or read the scriptures; whether you find God’s beauty in human faces, nature, or church, may we take these experiences simply as fuel – the fuel to run the race as wisely as God meant for us, in faith, hope, and above all, love. Thanks be to God.