The Way of the Pilgrim

Learning prayer in the mindful life

by Scott Morris

When I was a student at Yale Divinity School, professor and author Henri Nouwen was always talking about the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The idea is that you repeat it over and over to clear your mind of other thoughts. On a couple of occasions with Henri leading a group, I tried it, but I wasn’t patient enough. I wanted to connect to God, and everyone said you couldn’t do it without prayer, but I just didn’t see how it worked.

This struggle with prayer had been going on for a long time before—and after—I met Henri Nouwen and first learned the Jesus Prayer in the 1970s.

Over the years, I had tried to pray every way possible. As a kid, I couldn’t see the point of intercessory prayer, where you tell God what you want God to do. If God knows all, surely God is aware of what I want God to do. Why would God need my direction? If someone was sick, surely God was already on the case. If I wanted something to happen, isn’t the point that God knows what is best for me? After I became a preacher, I tried to be good at public prayers on Sunday mornings for other people’s sakes, but I still found it unsatisfying for my sake.

Sticking with Team Jesus

When I was in college, it was soon after the Beatles had gone to India and met with the Maharishi. I wasn’t a Beatles fan, but after that the entire country was ablaze with transcendental meditation, TM. The Hari Krishnas were everywhere in their orange flowing gowns and dancing drums. I wasn’t going that far, but as a first-year student at the University of Virginia, I saw signs for a class in transcendental meditation and signed up. I was curious. Of course, I had to pay my money first. There was a lecture on mindfulness, which seemed to me just a way to keep your mind calm. There were pictures of the Maharishi all around the room. I tried to keep an open mind.

It was explained that TM was a way to go deeper into consciousness, and it was important to calm the restlessness of the mind. Thoughts of other things were merely distractions and when they arose, one should just “let them go” and return to the mantra and the meditation process.

That was all well and good, but what was a mantra and when were we going to get down to it? After the second lecture, I was given a time to meet privately and receive my unique mantra and learn how to meditate on my own. On a Thursday night at 8:00, I showed up. A young woman wearing a sari greeted me with “Namaste.” She spoke barely above a whisper. All kinds of incense were being burned. What was I about to do? Was I converting to something other than Christianity? I was not willing to do that. I swallowed hard and tried to look calm.

She called me over to something that looked like a makeshift altar and motioned for me to kneel in front of it. Uh oh. Jesus, I am still on your team.
She knelt beside me for what seemed like an eternity. Then she started reciting the sound om. She motioned to me and nodded her head. It took a moment, but I caught on. I was to start chanting om. So I did. She then got up and took me by the hand and led me to a chair. She told me, “Recite it just in your mind. Let it take you deep into your consciousness. If other thoughts enter just push them aside and return to the mantra.” I tried to follow directions.

She left the room. Now what? I tried to do what she had instructed me to do. I sat upright with my feet on the floor and I kept saying om over and over in my mind. She told me om was unique to me. I’d never heard it before, so I claimed it as mine. She told me never to tell anyone my mantra. For years I never did, until I realized the whole world used it. I sat with my eyes closed and my hands on my lap for 10 minutes. I did feel a sense of calm. Did I drop off to sleep? Perhaps. She came back in and told me I was to meditate twice a day. She again bowed and said, “Namaste.” And it was over. I was now practicing TM.

I was embarrassed to tell anyone. I worried people would think the next step was shaving my hair and becoming a Hari Krishna. But I kept at it—at least for a while. Even though I liked how it calmed my mind, I didn’t feel grounded in anything that was about God.

Mindful Openness

When I first tried the Jesus Prayer with Henri Nouwen, it immediately seemed like TM. I just replaced om with the short prayer. At the time, I was much more intent on being a theologian than a person known for praying. I didn’t realize you really cannot be one without the other.

Years later I was in an unhappy season in my personal life and had to make a difficult decision. I didn’t know what to do. For some reason, I picked up a little book—it was only about three inches long—titled The Way of the Pilgrim. I’m not sure why I started to read it, except that I felt desperate. It was about a Russian peasant looking to find God. He encountered a priest who taught him the Jesus Prayer, which I’d forgotten about, and told him to use it to pray ceaselessly. He started by praying a few times a day. Then he prayed a few times an hour. Eventually he prayed nonstop, and the prayer became his life. If other thoughts entered his mind, he would let the recitation of the prayer push them aside. By living the prayer, he found what he was looking for. I needed to try something, so I said to myself, “Start praying.”

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” And I began saying this prayer as often as I could. At first, I would forget about it for a few hours or a few days. Then I would remember and start again. When I had time, I intentionally thought about how it could let me sit and see how God might connect to me. I would just be open.

It didn’t make my stressful circumstances go away, but I do think it helped me weather the storm.

For a while I needed to consciously focus my mind on doing it. If I didn’t, I would slip off into whatever else the world was calling me to do. But after about a year, I was able to just keep it there. Ever present. Now I have been praying the Jesus Prayer for years. From time to time I will go for a week or two without the prayer and say to myself, “How did that happen?” and then start back up.

My wife sometimes sees me in what looks like a blank stare and will ask, “What are you thinking about?” I will say, “Nothing” because that is the truth. I am fully occupied in the prayer. It doesn’t mean God is speaking to me every time; certainly not. But I do feel calm and believe that if God were trying to say something, I might be in a frame of mind to hear it. It has certainly become the way I best understand what I believe prayer to be—a path to listening to God.

I’m far from the only person who experiences the Jesus Prayer as a way to open myself to God. These days we hear less about the Hari Krishnas and TM, but mindfulness and meditation are widespread and have proven health and spiritual benefits. Many people of faith use mindfulness practices for the same reasons I’ve used the Jesus Prayer all these years—to let go of everything that clutters our minds and be fully present in this moment, to be present in prayer, to experience it more clearly, and perhaps to find God waiting there.

Simple Centering Prayers

What makes listening a holy act is recognizing divine presence at the heart of everything—whether in hearing our inner world more clearly, or in listening openly to another, or in turning our attention directly to the Holy One. Listening to God in the midst of daily challenge and gift is the crux of prayer.

Sometimes we need to stop what we’re doing long enough to breathe deeply and center attention at the core of our being. The Holy Spirit resides at the center of who we are—an image of our inmost heart. We know intuitively how to still our busyness and “center down.” Paying attention to our breath puts us in touch with what gives life. God is Spirit. The Hebrew word for spirit and breath is the same. God sustains us with holy breath in each moment. We can simply absorb this gift, feeling the presence and energy of divine life in our own breath. The life force revealed in breath can also bring us a sense of sustaining love. Imagine filling your heart and lungs with God’s love! This practice takes very little time, yet can bring deep refreshment, calm, and joy.

Another way to practice “Breath Prayer” is to form a very short prayer phrase in two parts that moves rhythmically with in-breath and out-breath: “Holy Spirit, fill me.” “Gracious God, heal my heart.” “Lord Jesus, have mercy.” “Oh Lord, give me patience.” Take a little time to find a phrase that fits your life. Then spend a few minutes breathing this prayer before you rise from bed, breathe it as you shower or gaze out a window, call it to mind in times of stress, offer it up before drifting off to sleep.

Excerpted from Courage for Caregivers: Sustenance for the Journey in Company with Henri J. M. Nouwen by Marjorie J. Thompson, published by Church Health and the Henri Nouwen Legacy Trust, 2017.

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