The second phase in cultivating the prayer of simplicity and recollection is gently fanning the flame. Gently fanning the flame.
So first we need to do our best to quiet ourselves and just be in the moment. Second…though this is how I’m ordering it, the ordering isn’t important to remember – let go and detach ourselves from the multiplicity of our thoughts because, as St. Teresa says, the thoughts are always active like wild horses. The brain is active. The brain always wants to be thinking something. And there’s always a flow of consciousness. There’s always a stream of thinking and monologue going on. In order to let go and detach ourselves of that, we attach ourselves to the one thing necessary, which is the name of all names: Yeshua. Recall the name of God to streamline your thoughts to focus on Jesus Christ.
The Jesus Prayer is the sacred tradition of the Church in this area. The Jesus Prayer comes from the bedrock of Christianity, which is Eastern monasticism. When I say “Eastern monasticism,” I am speaking of the sacred Christian ancient tradition flowing from Jerusalem, spreading throughout Palestine, going into Egypt in the Coptic tradition of the first monks in Egypt with St. Anthony the Great, spreading up to Syria. This is the bedrock of Christian monasticism in ancient Christianity. Eventually, it made its way to Alexandria and Greece, where it took on an intellectual form of mystical spirituality and then of course [on] to Rome.
The Jesus Prayer was taken from the Gospel when people came to encounter Christ and cried out “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Monastics took all the different encounters with Christ, and in them they recognized two essential elements: one, acknowledging that Jesus is Lord; and two, acknowledging that I am not–that I am a sinner in need of God’s mercy. And that’s the essence of reality for us as human beings.
Yes, we’re made in the divine image and likeness. But we’re in need of God’s mercy restoring that image and likeness within us because we’re built with certain inclinations that don’t lead to our true self and true purpose. We need to be saved, as it were, from ourselves in order to truly discover our true selves.
So that simple prayer, composed by taking different encounters from the Gospels and synthesizing them into–“Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner”– takes on different forms. It can be simplified, as it is often done in Eastern Christian monasticism, as “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me. Lord Jesus, have mercy on me.”
This prayer can begin to help to simplify our thoughts. Simplify the thoughts. You’re not battling against the thoughts. You’re not forcing your thoughts. But you’re streamlining your thought process. You’re focusing it. And whenever distractions arise, you just bring it back to the Lord. You bring it back to the Cross, or whatever image of the sacred humanity of Christ helps you. You’re not getting upset. You’re not becoming frustrated. You’re just acknowledging it, and then turning it over to the Lord, turning back to this heart of contact, this colloquy, this communion and exchange.
Another part of gently fanning the flame is to avoid all reading except select sections of sacred Scripture. Preference is given to those passages that speak to God’s love for us in a personal life-changing, life-giving way.
In the context of a personal spiritual retreat, avoid the distractions that come from seeking unnecessary knowledge in books. There’s a time to be seeking knowledge in different capacities that is pleasing to God. Our whole person is to be developed in every aspect of who we are as a human being, including our need for leisure, our need for healthy entertainment. But in your spiritual retreats, get down to essentials: the one thing necessary.
Avoid distractions and try to focus just on select passages of Scripture and on the retreat notes that spoke to you, that touched your heart, that God used to speak to you personally. That can be something that you experienced in nature, God speaking to you in creation. It can be something God spoke directly to your heart that didn’t even come from me. But by simply being in this context [of Holy Week] God can speak something particular and special for you. It could be something that happens at Mass or something in a song. There can be all different types of ways that God speaks to you.
It can even be in the shower. As the water is being poured down, that almost takes a quasi-sacramental role and God can speak to us in the shower. As we’re cleaning our minds and just trying to focus and get ready for the day, God is speaking to our hearts and pouring Himself out. (to be continued)
SOURCE: Auburn Retreat, 2016. Transcribed by Sue Ellen Browder
Copyright 2017, Father Robert Barcelos, OCD.