The Anonymous Pilgrim

This week, as I mentioned yesterday, I have decided to take a look at the phrase, “Son of David, have mercy on me,” as the premier example of how we should approach the Son of God.  While the translation isn’t perfect (Luke 18:10-14 is better), the way in which Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus is reminiscent of an ancient eastern church practice called the Jesus Prayer.

Early in my seminary experience, I took a course from Brother Geoffrey Tristram, SSJE, called “Teaching Others to Pray.”  In that class, I fell in love with the Jesus Prayer for its simplicity and its ability to center me when I fell myself coming unglued.  It is great for use in traffic jams, poorly run meetings, or anytime, really.

In preparing for the paper I will quote in a minute, I ran across Tony Jones’ 2003 handbook, Soul Shaper, in which Jones set out to “explore spirituality and contemplative practices” in the context of youth ministry.  The book was reprinted a few years later, as Tony’s ministry began to expand into the wider conversation of “emerging Christianity,” and The Sacred Way is still available on Amazon.  I’ve used Soul Shaper to teach spiritual practices several times over the years, and I suggest you buy one version or another and use it with regularity for yourself and your community of faith.

Chapter 5 of Soul Shaper deals with the Jesus Prayer, and so as not to violate copyright laws, I’ll suggest you go read that full story in that book.  What follows, instead is the section from my Teaching Others to Pray paper, entitled “Spirituality in Youth Ministry” that deals with the Jesus Prayer.  Please remember that I wrote this paper very early on, and so it lacks the refinement that I’m certain you’ve all come to expect from this blog over the years.

The Jesus Prayer has long been a favorite of our brothers and sisters in the East or Orthodox of Christianity. However it has reemerged in the West through a book by an unknown author called The Way of a Pilgrim. In it is the story of a young pilgrim who is in search of the answer to Paul’s command to “Pray without ceasing.”1 Eventually the young man happens upon a monk who explains that “true ceaseless prayer comes in quieting the mind and making the mind one with the heart.”2 The prayer to which the pilgrim is introduced is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” As the young man grows in his practice he moves from reciting the Jesus Prayer 3,000 times a day eventually to 12,000 times a day. It literally becomes a part of him; as he wakes, as he works, and as he sleeps.

Eastern theology is based in the fact that “body, mind, and spirit [are] so intertwined that the soul [can] only truly commune with God if removed from all other distractions”3 As such; a great way to introduce the Jesus Prayer to a youth ministry is in a place where most of life’s distractions have been removed, retreat. As part of the event, students can make their own prayer rope to help keep track of the recitations. While mimicking the 12,000 recitation routine of the young pilgrim would require upwards of 14 hours a day, students can be encouraged to go for 100 to 200. On a retreat this will seem easy and successes there can lead to success at home when the distractions of life are all reintroduced. The steps for praying the Jesus Prayer are as follows:4

  1. Find a quiet place that is somewhat dimly lit (this is essential for the novice but is less of a requirement for those deeply entrenched in the Jesus Prayer)
  2. Prepare the mind by allowing it “to descend into the heart with the breath” (it has been suggested that one bows one’s head and fixes the eyes on the heart)
  3. Further settle yourself through breathing exercises
  4. Breathe in “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God”
  5. Breathe out “have mercy on me, a sinner”
  6. Focus on the meaning of the words, prayer comes from the heart

When used in combination with a prayer rope and a set amount of repetitions, the Jesus Prayer can be extremely effective with youth. While this prayer requires a certain level of discipline the efforts are not without reward. If students are allowed to see success with the Jesus Prayer they are much more likely to bring the practice home for everyday use. As with any kind of Christian spiritual discipline, one must be cognizant of denominational differences and personal dynamics. These models are not one size fits all, but when used to respond to God for He has called us first, they can be infinitely valuable in the life of teenager and their youth ministers.

With the practical stuff out of the way, tomorrow we’ll look at the theology of approaching the Lord in the spirit of Bartimaeus.

1 1 Thes 5.17 (NRSV)

2 Tony Jones., Soul Shaper: Exploring Spirituality and Contemplative Practices in Youth Ministry (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan 2003), p. 60.

3 Ibid. p. 63.

4 The steps which follow are based on reading Tony Jones., Soul Shaper: Exploring Spirituality and Contemplative Practices in Youth Ministry (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan 2003) and class lecture by Brother Geoffrey R. Tristram, SSJE, 21 January 2005.


2 thoughts on “The Anonymous Pilgrim

  1. Thanks, Steve, I have led this activity several times, with both youth and adults. One good way to do it is to first have the kids make Anglican Prayer Beads, then teach them how to use them. This has been very popular with all ages when I have done it in various settings. I love the Jesus Prayer.

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