Featured Reviews, VOLUME 2

Featured: The Jesus Prayer by Frederica Mathewes-Green [Vol. 2, #49]

“A Dearly Loved Melody”

A Review of
The Jesus Prayer:
The Ancient Desert Prayer
That Tunes the Heart to God.

By Frederica Mathewes-Green.

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

The Jesus Prayer:
The Ancient Desert Prayer
That Tunes the Heart to God.

Frederica Mathewes-Green.

Paperback: Paraclete Press, 2009.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”  — The Jesus Prayer.

The Jesus Prayer - F. Mathewes-GreenI have long been captivated by the writings of Frederica Matthewes-Green, one of today’s most widely-read writers of the Eastern Orthodox Tradition.  Her works, infused with a rich flavor of Church history, always serve as poignant reminders that we as God’s people are a part of a long tradition of faithfulness.  Thus, my interest was piqued when I heard of her newest book The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer That Tunes the Heart to God.  Having just seen the title, I was a little wary – as I often am of books with titles like this one – of this book just offering another religious technique (in the specific Jacques Ellul sense of that word, i.e., as a mechanical means that ensures an end). But in the opening pages of the book, Mathewes-Green allays my concerns, describing the praying of the Jesus prayer as a practice that helps you “hone your ability to discern God’s presence” (x).  Recognizing the challenge of “praying without ceasing,” Mathewes-Green proposes the praying of the Jesus prayer as a means to draw us more fully into a life of prayer.

In the first part of the book, Mathewes-Green explores the history and significance of the Jesus prayer and offers guidance on how it can be prayed as a part of a vibrant life in the way of Jesus.  We find that the practice of the Jesus prayer has its origins in the desert fathers and mothers who sought ways to be in constant prayer, and simple prayers like the Jesus prayers served well to “discipline the wandering mind and focus it on something spiritually healthful” (4).  She also emphasizes that the key concept of the Jesus prayer is that of mercy, writing:

God doesn’t need us to remind him to be merciful; he is merciful all the time, even when we don’t ask.  But unless we make a habit of asking for mercy, we forget that we need it.  Ego builds a cardboard fortress that humility must, every day, tear down. “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17).  We are pitiable, and God pities us (9).

Mathewes-Green also highlights the vital role that the praying of the Jesus prayer has had within the Eastern Orthodox tradition.  She also probes the nature of our hearts and minds, especially our need for them to be transformed, molded into deeper conformity with the heart and mind of God.  Noting that the Eastern Church is “not particularly concerned with morality or good behavior,” she reminds us that the most fundamental transformation that God longs for is that of our hearts and minds.  In our age of rampant consumerism, where our desires are constantly being manipulated by the maelstrom of advertising that assaults us every day, her message resounds with truth and is a needed counterbalance to the temptation of activism which pushes us in our world of injustice to “just do something.”  Mathewes-Green herself, in one of the book’s finest passages, writes that a practice of constant prayer that draws us into the presence of God, paradoxically also guides us into action that is rooted in true compassion:

[From the broader culture,] we absorb the idea that prayer is pointless and self-centered, and only social action is worthwhile.  There is not much sense any more that the two might go together, and that helping the poor could be an expression of the flow of prayer within you.  The Jesus Prayer can help put it back together again, so that your service to the world is linked once again to real, individual human beings.  … [It] opens you to perceive the real sorrows in the lives of other human beings, and enhances your compassion (162).

The latter part of the book, comprising over two-thirds of the text, takes a more conversational tone as Mathewes-Green answers questions that might frequently arise as one reflects upon and begins to practice the Jesus Prayer.  Most of the questions posed here are of a practical nature.  For instance:

  • How should I prepare to start practicing the Jesus Prayer?
  • How many times should I say the prayer during one practice period? or
  • What form of the prayer should I use?

However, some of the questions here do delve more deeply into the theology of this practice:

  • I’m still not very comfortable with all this begging for mercy.
  • What good is repentance?  What’s the point?

Overall, this is wonderful and helpful little book.  At times Mathewes-Green’s apologia for the Eastern Orthodox Church can be a bit much, but for those of us in Western traditions, this Eastern tone can serve as a sort of concise introduction to the practices (or at least a practice) Eastern Christianity.  I hope and pray with the author that it leads us – in Western churches or Eastern – towards transformation of our hearts and minds:

The practice of Prayer will initially take some serious self-discipline, but it gradually grows sweet, and then irresistible.  The hope of protection from your own vicious or self-hating thoughts is alone a strong impetus to persevere.  Day by day the healing advances, and continual immersion in Christ’s presence becomes your goal.  One day you will find that the Prayer is starting up within you on its own, like a dearly loved melody.  And then you will know the blessing that St. Paul gave the Philippians, “the peace of God, which overflows all the nous, will keep your kardia [hearts] and noema [thoughts] in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7) (45).

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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