The Method of Jesus Prayer
© Wojciech Nowak SJ
The method of the Jesus Prayer consists of three elements:
- adopting the right body posture
- focusing on the breath (following it)
- uttering the word – the name of Jesus or a prayer formula to the rhythm of the breath
In the introduction, to better understand the prayer, we will take it down to ‘pieces’ and then will put it back again. We will discuss each of the three elements, look at them carefully and experience each one individually.
THE FIRST ELEMENT of the Jesus Prayer is the right posture.
We must remember that the entire man prays. And man means body and soul. We are not pure spirits and we will never be. Well, we believe in the resurrection of the body. Then, when we will cross the border of eternity, at the other side of life, we shall have a body. Of course it will be transformed and able to reside with God ‘face to face’. It will be similar to the body of resurrected Christ. Resurrected Christ had a body and He let people touch it. He dined with his disciples and passed through closed doors. He would suddenly appear and then vanish.
Our spirit cannot exist and cannot reveal itself without the body and without the mind. If we, for example, physically damage our brain, or we suffer from senile dementia, our spirit, although without physical form remains intact and always young, will not be able to express itself outside. Our body is the bearer for the spirit to express itself. When we die, we leave our body on earth. Our spirit, our being with the record of our entire life, travels to the other side, either with blame or with merits, depending on our deeds. There, our spirit will have a new body. Well, indeed here on earth we change our bodies many times, whereas our spirit, the deepest being, remains intact.
Well, then man is always both: the body and the spirit, the spirit incarnated. A Christian cannot treat himself as someone from ‘the neck up’. Let’s note that the liturgy is not only words, but also ‘the language of the body’ – postures, gestures, bows or kneeling.
St. Paul reminds us that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, our bodies are for the Lord and we need to praise the Lord in our bodies. It is always the entire man that prays. In a prayer, the body plays two roles. Firstly, it is to express our attitude towards God (our respect but also humbleness), and secondly, it makes our prayer easier and helps us concentrate.
I recommend you three postures for the prayer. The first one is sitting on the floor. We kneel and then sit on a small stool or a special meditation cushion. Knees should be in line with your shoulders. We find the point of support for our backbone and try to keep it straight. Of course our backbone is never as straight as a stick but we speak of a ‘straight back’ or ‘hunched back’. We push the lumbar spine forward and support it with lumbar muscles. The straight back is supported with lumbar muscles, just like a rocket has its engines at the bottom.
We slightly push the chest forward, then our shoulders relax. As a result, our arms are completely relaxed. What do we do with our hands? We can put them on our laps or fold them with thumbs touching one another. The head – well, it is obvious that it is the extension of our backbone, but we should not lean it forward or backward. We keep it slightly up, as if ‘lifted’. It has to find its natural place on cervical vertebrae, just like a horseman when he finds his right place in a saddle. The most important element of the right posture is the straight back – of course, if it is possible taking into account our health and general condition.
Why such a posture? First of all, the straight and unsupported spine facilitates concentration. This is human experience. When we want to read something or draw, such a posture makes the tasks easier. Secondly, there is also evangelical justification: the straight posture expresses wakefulness and readiness for the coming of the Lord. Prayer is being on the watch, it is waiting to meet and embrace the coming Lord. A soldier on guard, for example in front of the Buckingham Palace, does not sit comfortable in an armchair.
The posture sitting on the floor is a ‘low’ posture. We touch the ground and we have a close contact with it. It is quite symbolic. We are the ‘Earth people’. The name ‘Adam’, ‘Adamah’ in Hebrew, means ‘taken from the ground’. Our life now takes place here, on earth. The first stage of our life is always here and it is not the time of the God’s absence. Our journey to God takes place here, on earth, and it is here that God comes to us to meet us. He does not want to remove us from here, into the sky, but He wants to share Himself and accompany us in our earthly journey. Christ became a man, so He stepped from ‘the sky’ on earth. He experienced everything that is human, earthly. He met people here, on earth. He transformed the life on earth. The prayer is not a drug and it is not the escape from life, from the earth.
Now is the right moment to speak about eyes. What about eyes? I don’t want to say that we are not allowed to pray with our eyes closed. I close them sometimes myself when I pray. But I would like to say that it’s worth learning to pray with the eyes half-closed. We almost close our eyelids but not completely. Just like a curtain in a theatre or opera – it falls down but stops about 30 centimetres above the floor. Through this tiny crack we keep contact with the surrounding reality. It does not mean that we have to stare at something. We just allow the light of the day enter our body. I personally see the difference when I pray with half-closed eyes, even when it is dark in the room. There is a different awareness and a different sense of self. The prayer should not make us ‘unreal’ but it should help us meet God ‘here and now’ in the context of our life. Additionally, half-closed eyes stop our imagination and protect us against falling asleep. Let’s repeat: the prayer is being on the watch, it is waiting, not sleeping.
So the first posture is the ‘low’ posture, kneeling or sitting on the floor, either on a stool or on a cushion.
The second posture is sitting on a chair, also with straight back. We sit on the edge of a chair. Put our feet on the ground (we can put some blanket or a cushion underneath when we are short). We keep knees in line with shoulders and we form two right angles – one between our hips and one between our knees.
A doctor, specialist in rehabilitation and a participant in a meditation retreat that I conducted told me to cross my legs. Indeed, it seems more comfortable. The knees fall down a bit and the legs are relieved. You don’t feel their weight.
The third kind of posture is the posture dictated by our age, condition and health. We choose the posture and try to remain in it still for a longer period of time. So, there is nothing wrong in leaning against the back of a chair. However, it is worth leaning the straight spine and not the rounded back. We pray as we can, not as we cannot. I like praying/meditating on a train, on a bus or at an airport or a railway station.
So, choose a posture that suits you, as long as it shows respect for God and facilitates concentration. I have shown you the way – now you have to try it out yourself.
THE SECOND ELEMENT of the Jesus Prayer is the concentration on the breath.
We don’t control our breath, we don’t influence it, we just follow it and observe it. We let it be as it is and we let it find its natural rhythm. The essence of this prayer is not acting with force but opening oneself to God’s acting.
It is as if we were walking along the sea shore. Can we influence the waves? No. And can we influence the force of the sea? Can we make it calm or rough? No.
So what can we do when we walk along a beach? We can only look at the waves and listen to them, observe them. We can do the same with our breath. Our breathing cycles has three stages (there are actually four of them).
The first is breathing in, which lasts for a certain moment. The breathing in is a process – it lasts and lasts. Then there is a culmination moment and breathing in changes into breathing out, which is also a process that lasts for several moments. Then, breathing out dies and then there is an absence of breathing, also lasting for several moments. We don’t do anything then, we just wait for the next breath.
We need to try to follow consciously our breath, to notice each stage and the moments when we move from breathing in into breathing out. Let’s not worry – when we stop controlling our breath, it will not vanish. God created our organism so wisely that our nervous vegetative system controls the basic living functions even when we sleep.
Now let’s move from theory to practice. Let’s observe your breath for 5 minutes. Do not control it, do not influence it, just notice it and follow it with your consciousness. Notice each stage and the moments of change.
We just observe, nothing else, as if we were walking along the beach listening to the waves. We need to become aware of our breath and become mindful.
Assume the right posture. Let’s start.
Is this a prayer?
Many people practising meditation do not believe in God. They meditate to have a better contact with the self and the reality. They meditate to become calm, integrated and mindful.
So what makes a meditation a prayer?
The act of faith. I believe that behind the mystery of my existence and the existence of the universe there is God – the Person. The prayer is establishing a (personal) relation between a human ‘me’ and a divine ‘You’. I open myself to God, to the second Person, I look for God, I desire Him, I wait for Him although I don’t see Him. I believe that He is, that He is the active God, that He loves me and that He comes to us. The prayer thus is opening and setting our internal compass to receive God.
The breath is very symbolic. Our life on earth, outside our mother’s womb, starts with a breath and finishes with a breath.
We might say that breath is similar to a spiritual reality, which we do not see, but which is real and penetrating. Oxygen is indispensable for life. Statistically, a man can survive without breathing for 4 to 5 minutes. Breathing, taking oxygen, symbolises spiritual reality which we do not see but which is real. The creation of man is described in the Book of Genesis in the following way:
NIB Genesis 2:7 The LORD God formed the man [The Hebrew for man (adam) sounds like and may be related to the Hebrew for ground (adamah); it is also the name Adam (see Gen. 2:20)] from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
NJB Genesis 2:7 Yahweh God shaped man from the soil of the ground and blew the breath of life into his nostrils, and man became a living being.
The breath of life decides that we become ‘a living being’. The breath comes from God. ‘The breath of life’ is not oxygen we breathe in but a spiritual reality, non-material, fundamental, decisive in our life.
Nevertheless, breathing, especially breathing in, may symbolize ‘the breath of life’. We take oxygen and ‘the breath of life’ simultaneously. They are both indispensable for us.
Breathing in symbolizes the gift of the Holy Spirit. God wants to give us His Spirit. In the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, God says:
NIB Ezekiel 36:26-27 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees…
Similarly, when Christ appeared for the first time after His resurrection ‘he breathed on them and said: Receive the Holy Spirit’ (Jn 20, 22).
The Holy Spirit is constantly being sent to the world and to human hearts, renewing them and giving life to them. Psalm 104 describes it in the following way:
NIB Psalm 104:1 Praise the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendour and majesty.24 How many are your works, O LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.27 These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. 28 When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. 29 When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. 30 When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.
NJB Psalm 104:27-30 27 They all depend upon you, to feed them when they need it. 28 You provide the food they gather, your open hand gives them their fill. 29 Turn away your face and they panic; take back their breath and they die and revert to dust. 30 Send out your breath and life begins; you renew the face of the earth.
We do not see the Holy Spirit inside us, but we can feel His presence and acting. Similarly, we do not see life itself, the essence of life is invisible, but we see its manifestations. We can distinguish the living from the dead.
The breathing stages are also very symbolic.
Breathing in means opening and acceptance
What do we accept with the breath? Of course, we accept oxygen to our lungs. But also, in every moment, apart from oxygen, we accept ‘the breath of life’ and many other God’s gifts. We accept the Holy Spirit, who heals and transforms us, we accept God’s love, God’s power, God’s acceptance, God’s wisdom and God’s mercifulness.
Breathing out means surrendering and entrustment
What do we give away with breathing out? We give out oxygen mixed with carbon dioxide, but also we give ourselves to God, we give Him our past, our presence and our future. We give Him our sins, wounds, fears but also our hopes. We also entrust to God our close ones and persons with whom we are in relationships and whom we keep in our heart. We ask God to take care of them.
Apnea/Stillness means resting in God
(irrefutable, unwavering, irremovable point – STILL POINT).
Resting in God means finding myself in Him, in His eternal love, in His hands, diving into the source of peace and life.
THE THIRD ELEMENT of the Jesus Prayer – the Word.
To be continued