This post is adapted from my afternoon talk at the Bethany Presbyterian Church Women’s Retreat in April.
Contemplative attention is simply the practice of paying attention, of being attentive in the moment, to the moment. It doesn’t require mountaintop monasteries or the silence of early morning before the birds start singing.
It simply requires mindful attention to what is at hand.
Let’s look at four passages from Scripture. Note the common thread in these verses.
Rejoice in hope; be patient in tribulation; continue constantly in prayer. (Romans 12:12)
Pray in the Spirit at all times with all prayer and supplication. (Ephesians 6:18)
Devote yourselves to constant prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving. (Colossians 4:2)
Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
What idea was repeated in all those passages? Yep. Constant prayer.
Paul wrote these injunctions to pray without ceasing to four early church communities. He must have thought it was important. More, he must have thought it was possible.
But I’ve never come even remotely close to praying without ceasing. How are we supposed to do this?
1800 years ago, Christians had the same question. Some of them decided to experiment, to see if they could live a life of unceasing prayer. These headed out of the cities and countryside of the Roman Empire and into the desert. The appeal of the desert was that most of the distractions of life were eliminated. Life was stripped down to essentials: food, water, prayer.
In the desert, these men and women—we call them the Desert Fathers and Mothers—experimented with different forms of constant prayer. They recognized that the task before them was to discipline the wandering nous (the Greek word for which we have no real translation; perhaps the closest would be heart-mind) and to focus it on something spiritually healthful.
So they memorized Scripture. A lot of Scripture. It was not uncommon for desert ammas and abbas to have the entire Psalter and all four Gospels memorized. They meditated on the verses they had memorized while they worked, while they ate, while they went to the wadi for water.
One desert story is about a certain Abba Pambo, who couldn’t read. He asked one of his fellow monks to read him a verse from the Psalter. So the brother read the first half of Psalm 39:1, “I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue.”
“Thank you,” said Abba Pambo. And he left and went to his cell. He meditated on the first half of that one verse for 19 years.
Finally someone asked him, “Don’t you at least want to hear the rest of the verse?”
Abba Pambo replied, “Why? I have not yet learned to practice the first half.”
We laugh, but I think he was onto something. We live in a consumer culture that constantly tells us that more is better, and I think this too often spills over into our prayer life. We seem to believe that the wordier our prayers, the closer we are to God.
Abba Pambo knew better. He knew that it would take him a lifetime to draw near to God, to fully live even one verse.
He might have been one of the earliest Christian practitioners of a breath prayer. A breath prayer is a short, easily remembered prayer, usually rooted in Scripture, that you pray in rhythm with your breathing.
Abba Pambo was in the minority with his one-verse-every-19-years theory. Folks like my old friend Evagrius Ponticus—I met him 12 years ago in grad school—recommended certain Scriptures to fight certain temptations.
Are you (like I am) struggling with house-envy? Try meditating on Psalm 83:11:
“I would rather be a castoff in the house of the Lord than live in the mansions of sinners.”
Evagrius, God bless him, actually came up with 487 different verses to combat specific temptations. But he was extreme, just like Abba Pambo, only in the opposite direction.
Over the years, less extreme people proposed different verses as the best all-purpose Scripture for those seeking to live in continual prayer. In time, one prayer emerged as the favorite, adopted all over the Christian world, though it’s most well-known in the Eastern parts of the Church.
It’s come to be known as the Jesus Prayer.
I first came across a reference to the Jesus Prayer when I was in college, in a book by Madeleine L’Engle. I was intrigued.
In those days before Google and Wikipedia, it took me six months of searching my college library’s stacks before I was confident I had learned the words to this ancient Christian breath prayer. (It didn’t occur to me to ask a reference librarian to help me, maybe because I was too embarrassed or shy or both.)
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”
It’s deceptively simple, only 10 words long in its longest form. Some who pray the Jesus Prayer shorten it to simply, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy.”
I have been praying this prayer for over 15 years now. It has worked itself deep into my brain synapses and deeper still into my inmost being, my heart, my soul. Over the years, this prayer has become such a part of me that I often find I am praying it before I become consciously aware that I’m praying.
Neuroscience explains at least part of the reason for this subconscious praying: the prayer has worn deep neural pathways in my brain, which means something as simple as, well, breathing can trigger the prayer. (It’s not called a breath prayer for nothing!)
But it’s more than just a neurological response. It’s also the Holy Spirit, praying in me and calling me to pray for others and to attend to the presence of God in the moment at hand.
There are many reasons I love the Jesus Prayer. For the sake of time and simplicity, I’m just going to share two.
First, it’s an ancient prayer, with deep roots in Scripture and Christian tradition. Amalgamated from several Gospel passages, it is simple and Scriptural.
“Have mercy” is the cry of almost every person who comes to Jesus for healing.
- Think of the Canaanite woman who wanted Jesus to heal her daughter: “have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David!” (Matthew 15.22)
- The ten lepers: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” (Luke 17:11-19)
- Bartimaeus, the blind beggar: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10.47)
- The father who asked Jesus to heal his epileptic son: “Lord, have mercy on my son.” (Matthew 17:15)
As you see just from these few passages, in many instances, this cry for mercy—which is really a cry for healing and compassion—is coupled with the words, “Lord, Son of David” or “Jesus, Son of David.”
The early church took all these cries for mercy and compiled them into this deceptively simple prayer. Christians have been praying these words for 1800 years.
To pray these words is to join in prayer with Christians all over the world throughout all of Christian history.
I love knowing that this prayer has stood the test of centuries. If you were to write an advertisement for it, you might say it’s time-tested and God-approved!
Second, it’s easy to remember and easy to pray anytime, anywhere.
It’s also short, so I can usually pray the whole thing even if my attention is diverted in the next moment by, say, a toddler wielding a knife. (You think I jest. Alas that it were so.)
True confession, part of the reason I pray the Jesus Prayer is that it saves me the energy of trying to “make up” my own prayer—believe me, if I had to make up a new prayer every time I wanted to pray, I’d give up. I don’t have the mental or emotional energy for that in the current context of my life.
The Jesus Prayer allows—even encourages—me to pray, regardless of how tired, overwhelmed, or exhausted I am. It sits in my nous, waiting for the nudge of the Spirit, or for me to let it rise to consciousness, and lo and behold, I’m praying.
Of course, I’m nowhere near to praying without ceasing, but I’m a whole lot closer than I used to be! The Jesus Prayer is one of the mainstays of my prayer life, one of the biggest reasons I pray far more than I used to.
An invitation for you:
Begin to pray without ceasing.
1. Memorize the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
2. Create a prayer trigger (getting on a bus, or hanging up the phone, or washing your hands).
3. Pray the Jesus Prayer every time you see/do your trigger. At first, you’ll forget more often than not. Don’t panic. Just say it when you do remember. With persistence and practice, you’ll remember each time.
4. Note with joy how, with practice, the prayer begins to pray itself in you!
5. Create another prayer trigger.
6. Repeat steps 3, 4, and 5 ad infinitum…or until you are praying without ceasing.