A regular reader of this blog recently named Peter wrote to me:
Carl, I’ve been reading about the Jesus Prayer. On the Orthodox sites they stress that if you haven’t had any experience with this prayer that you should get guidance and that it’s dangerous to try it on your own. When reading about the Jesus Prayer on other Christian sites like the Catholic ones then this advice is not mentioned. Can you please share with me your take on it?
Peter, your question reminds me of post I made on Twitter a few years ago, following a conversation I had with my Encountering Silence co-host, Kevin Johnson:
“Is contemplative prayer dangerous?
Yes! It’s dangerous the way Jesus is dangerous.”
Kevin Johnson @johnsoxo
— Carl McColman (@CarlMcColman) April 28, 2017
So yes, the Jesus Prayer, as a contemplative method for responding to God, is dangerous — the way Jesus is dangerous.
I think this is an important distinction, because it can be easy to interpret “dangerous” as “stay away.” But when we say “Jesus is dangerous,” we are simply acknowledging that following Jesus requires stepping away from the idolatry of self-protection.
Yes, Jesus is dangerous — but staying away from Jesus is even more dangerous.
But back to your question. While I can’t pull up any specific websites off the top of my head, I would agree with your assessment that Orthodox sites typically are much more cautious in how they present the Jesus Prayer (also known as the Prayer of the Heart). Like you said, they at the very least will strongly caution anyone interested in praying this way to seek an experienced mentor or guide, what we in the west would call a spiritual director. And yes, many Orthodox Christians will tell you that the Jesus Prayer is dangerous (but keep in mind, it’s dangerous like Jesus is dangerous).
Western Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, are more likely to view the Jesus Prayer as simply another option among the many spiritual practices available to the sincere Christian, and therefore more or less equivalent to practices like Centering Prayer, or the Rosary, or Lectio Divina, or the Examen, or the Liturgy of the Hours. In my experience, most serious Orthodox Christians would bristle at this idea that the Prayer of the Heart is just one more “option” among many. To Orthodox Christians, it seems to me, the Jesus Prayer/Prayer of the Heart is an essential and central spiritual practice, not an “option.” So right away I think we find a fundamental difference in perspective.
Again, my knowledge is limited, but it’s my understanding that, traditionally/historically, the practice of the Jesus Prayer would have been passed down orally, from mentor to disciple, obviously with some resources available (like the Philokalia or The Way of a Pilgrim). So in the past, a beginner was not likely to even be exposed to the method of praying this way without being introduced to it by an elder, whether inside a monastery or in a more secular setting. Nowadays, however, all you have to do is pick up the right book (or visit the right website), and you can learn the ropes. The Jesus Prayer, after all, is like most contemplative practices, quite simple in terms of its methodology. It’s easy to learn, and easy to do.
Why the words of caution?
So, then, why are we counseled to be careful?
Here’s my guess. Anyone who really gets serious about contemplative practice will be opening themselves us to some fairly deep psychological processes, to say nothing of the spiritual opening-up that sustained prayer entails. On a purely naturalistic level, this is something that can happen even with secular or eastern forms of meditation. A while back I read a book called The Buddha Pill by a couple of British psychologists, in which they offered their assessment of the current interest in meditation from the perspective of mental health and psychological wellness. Among other things, the book considers how, for some people, excessive and un-guided meditation practices could actually be psychologically harmful, or at the very least could lead to experiences of discomfort or distress.
Likewise, in the Centering Prayer community there is this recognition that sustained silent prayer can lead to what is called “the unloading of the unconscious,” which for most people is a deeply healing experience, but for anyone can include feelings of discomfort, disorientation or even fear. Compare it to cleaning out your parents’ or grandparents’ attic after they die. It’s work, and it can stir up some pretty powerful feelings, which may not all be pleasant. It’s a good thing to do (cleaning out the attic, that is), but it’s important to recognize the challenges involved.
I know a Trappist monk who, back in the 1960s, began working with the Jesus Prayer. He got to the point where he was reciting it several thousand times a day, and eventually he noticed he was being rather compulsive about it — i.e., if anything interrupted his practice, it upset him. Realizing that wasn’t what he wanted from his practice of prayer, he wrote a letter to Thomas Merton, asking his advice. Merton replied — and suggested that he let the practice go. Merton felt that the regular, ongoing recitation of a prayer like the Jesus Prayer could be helpful for someone engaged in hard manual labor (like a Russian farmer), but for a twentieth century monk who had other spiritual resources at his (or her) fingertips, it wasn’t an essential practice — and if it seemed to be leading to obsessive/compulsive behaviors, as in the case of this monk, it was probably best set aside. For the monk (now in his 90s), these days it’s a story mainly about getting a letter from Thomas Merton! But he also agrees that it was wise advice that Merton gave him.
As for me — when I first began to study the practice of Christian meditation back in the 1980s, I was instructed not to do it more than 40 minutes a day unless I was receiving spiritual direction. I think that was good advice, but I would up the ante even further: I think anyone who wants a daily contemplative practice — whether Centering Prayer, or some other form of meditation, or yes, the Jesus Prayer — should prayerfully seek a wise and caring spiritual director or soul friend to guide or at least accompany them.
And I say this not because I’m overly worried about how “dangerous” these practices are, although I think The Buddha Pill and the story of my monk friend are evidence enough that these practices should be treated with respect, just like you would handle a chainsaw or a drill with respect. Power tools are great resources when used properly and carefully, but they are dangerous. So I think it’s wise to consider practices like Centering Prayer or the Jesus Prayer as spiritual “power tools.” But I think working with a spiritual director or companion is important not just to protect us from danger, but even more so to support us as we seek the good blessings of spiritual practice. Why do we pray? Why do we contemplate or meditate? Because we want God, of course! We want union with Love, Love-with-a-capital-L. And a spiritual director can help us not only avoid the dangerous pitfalls, but also can guide us in terms of how to make the most of our practice and truly grow in our faith.
So is the Jesus Prayer dangerous? Yes, the way Jesus himself is dangerous. But don’t let that danger scare you away! Jesus is dangerous because he will change our lives, radically and comprehensively, but always for the better. Contemplative practices, like the Jesus Prayer or Centering Prayer, promise to do the same.