+ This past week in our Deacons’ class, our prospective deacons got an intellectual workout. After starting out nice and easy for a few weeks, I sort of cracked the knuckles on them. They got the start of boot camp last Tuesday night. We went through a very hectic, very intense hands-on liturgical class. We went through all the vestments and the meaning of the vestments, we went through the Mass and what the Deacon’s responsibilities were and then we had an instructed Mass that was, for me anyway, lots of fun.
But, poor Jessica and John! You should be praying for them! On Tuesday night they got to see a side of me few people see. Yes, I know.
You see before you, on Sunday morning, this nice, mild-mannered vegan teetotaler pacifist priest and poet. But underneath this calm, Zen-like exterior, lurks a true drill sergeant. And they got to see it.
I had warned them about it. So had Deacon Charlotte Robbins from the Cathedral who spoke to the class a few weeks ago (I helped train her deacon’s class many years ago when I was at the Cathedral. I ended up having a bit of a reputation for my drill sergeant ways then when I told the clergy there that they had to start wearing black shoes every time they vested. Now before you think I was being a jerk: it was not uncommon before that for vested clergy to be wearing sandals, sneakers or even bare feet. I wasn’t too popular after that little bit of cracking the whip. But they looked professional after that). But I don’t think any of them thought I could be, of all things, a drill sergeant.
Oh, how wrong they were. At one point, poor Jessica, in a moment of exhaustion, exclaimed, “Oh, fer sure!” They ended up getting a semester’s worth of intense, solidly Anglo-Catholic liturgical theology and training in a few hours. That class left them, let’s say, a bit bleary-eyed in the end. They kind of wearily limped out of the church on Tuesday night after class.
Which is good. We all need that kind of situation and discipline on occasion. One of the important things we discussed when talking liturgy and the worship of the Church was how essential prayer life is for any of us who are ministers in the Church. Without a solid foundation of personal prayer, all that we do in church on Sundays is without a solid base.
You heard me say, last week, that those of who are ordained are not the only ministers of the Church. All of us who have been baptized are ministers of the Church. And for our ministry to be effective, we need to have a strong and very solid prayer life to support that ministry.
I, of course, highly encouraged our diaconal students—as I do you on occasion—to begin praying the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer every day as the first foundation. From the offices and from the Mass, our prayer life as followers of Jesus flourish. Now for many of us, the Daily Offices are not something we can fit into our busy lives.
But, no matter how busy our lives are, we must always have a strong foundation of prayer. And that prayer life can be very simple. Simple little prayers throughout the day are sometimes, by far, the most effective prayers.
I have been reading a wonderful book on prayer by a member of Anglican religious order (yes, there are religious orders in the Anglican Church) the Society of St. Francis, by the name of Br. Ramon. This book of his was lovely. It was called Praying the Jesus Prayer Together.
The Jesus Prayer, for those of you who might not know, is a prayer very popular in the Eastern Orthodox Church. In fact, it is kind of the “Gem” of the Eastern Church. We’ll talk about the actual Jesus prayer in just a moment. First, let’s take a look at where the Jesus Prayer came from.
This morning, in our Gospel, we find the kernel from which the Jesus Prayer arises. And I really enjoy our Gospel reading this morning. It is a story that at first seems to be leading us in one direction, then something else happens. We find Jesus at Jericho, which reminds us, of course, of the story from Joshua and the crumbling walls. We then find this strangely detailed story of Barthemaeus. It’s detailed in the sense that we not only have his name, but also the fact that he was the son of Timaeus. That’s an interesting little tidbit. And we also find of course that he is blind.
Now, it’s not a big mystery what’s going to happen. We know where this story is going. We know Bartemaeus is going to be healed. We know he is going to see. But the real gem of this story doesn’t have to do with Jericho, or the fact that we will never again hear about Bartimeus son of Timaeus. The real gem of this story is that little prayer Bartimaeus prays. There it is, huddled down within the Gospel like a wonderful little treasure.
“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”
It’s beautiful! It’s perfect! This prayer is essentially the basis for the popular Jesus Prayer of the Orthodox Church and Br. Ramon’s wonderful book.
At first, it doesn’t seem like much. It’s so deceptively simple. But, obviously, according to our Gospel for today, the prayer is important. Jesus does what he is asked. He has mercy on this man and heals him.
So why is this prayer so important? Well, for one thing, we get a glimpse of how to pray in this wonderfully simple little prayer. Jesus occasionally gives us advice in the gospels on how we should pray. The first one that probably comes to mind probably is the Lord’s prayer, the Our Father. But today we find a prayer very different than the Lord’s prayer.
The Lord’s prayer is very structured. It covers all the bases. We acknowledge and adore God, we acknowledge and ask forgiveness not only for our sins, but for the sins committed against us by others. And so on. You know the prayer.
The prayer we hear this morning cuts right to the very heart not only of the Lord’s prayer but to every prayer we pray. It is a prayer that rises from within—from our very core. From our heart of hearts. It is truly the Prayer of the Heart. The words of this prayer are the words of all those nameless, formless prayers we pray all the time—those prayers that we find ourselves longing to pray. Here it is, summed up for us.
More often than not, our prayers are simple, one word prayers. And the one word prayer we probably pray more than anything—I do it anyway—is:
“Please!” I pray so often. Or sometimes it’s: “please, please, please!”
Poor God! Having to listen to that prayer all the time. The one word prayer I should be praying more than anything is:
But the Jesus prayer definitely comes from that kind of heart-felt prayer. Here are the words we long to use in those prayers without words.
“Jesus, have mercy on me!”
Or, in the more Anglo-Catholic tradition, you will find written on gravestones stones and elsewhere,
Now the actual Jesus Prayer is only slightly more expanded. The Jesus Prayer is:
“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God [or Son of the living God], have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Or slight variations of those words.
The prayer we heard this morning is essentially the same. In the Eastern Church, the “Jesus Prayer” it is also called “the prayer of the heart.” That’s a perfect description of the prayer we heard in today’s Gospel. It is, as I said before, a prayer of the heart. If our lips could no longer pray, our heart would go on and this prayer would be the words of our heart. The fact that it is so simple is what makes the Jesus prayer so popular. Anyone can memorize it and anyone pray it with true meaning. It is a prayer we can repeat to ourselves over and over again. In fact, it is a prayer that demands to be repeated. It’s almost impossible not to repeat it. And it’s not as though we are mindlessly babbling on for sake of “saying our prayers.”
What I find so interesting about that statement is that, limitless as this prayer might be, infinite in its use as it might be, it comes from and addresses our very own limitations. It is essentially the ceaseless prayer that should be going within us all the time. It is the prayer of absolute humility.
“Have mercy on me.”
Or, going back to our discussion about one word prayers, the one word from this prayer we would be praying is “mercy.”
“Have mercy on me.”
We are humans, with all the limitations and shortcomings that entails. But rather than groaning about it and bewailing our misfortune, in this prayer we are able to acknowledge it and to simply offer it up. Like Bartimeaus, we can simply bring it before God, release it, and then walk away healed.
There is no room for haughtiness when praying this prayer. The person we are when we pray it is who we really are. When all our masks and all our defenses are gone, that is when this prayer comes in and takes over for us.
This is the prayer we pray when, echoing Thomas Merton, we “present ourselves naked before our God.” That’s what makes the prayer of the heart—the Jesus prayer—such a popular prayer for so many. And this prayer does not even have to be about us. We can use this prayer when praying for others. How easy it is to simply pray:
Jesus, have mercy on her, or him, or them.
It’s wonderful isn’t it? how those simple words can pack such a wallop. We don’t have to be profound or eloquent in the words we address to God. We don’t need to go on and on beseeching and petitioning God. We simply need to open our hearts to God and the words will come. No doubt those words will be very similar to the words of the Jesus prayer.
“Lord Jesus, have mercy on me.”
So, like Bartemeaus, let us pray what is in our heart. Let us open ourselves completely and humbly to God. And when we do we will find the blindness’s of our own lives healed. We will find taken from us that spiritual blindness that causes us to grope about aimlessly, to ignore those in need around us, to not see the beauty of this world that God shows us all the time. Like Bartemaeus, we too will be healed of whatever blinds us to the Light of God breaking through into our lives. And when that blindness is taken from us, with a clear spiritual vision granted to us, we too will focus our eyes, square our shoulders and follow Jesus on the way.