by Gjergji Evangjeli
Ever since the Second Vatican Council, the prospect of reunification between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches has seemed closer than ever. The Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Orthodox Church and The Roman Catholic Church has been fast at work since 1980 trying to solve issues which divide the two churches. Though the work of these and other bodies discussing is very important, I would not be saying anything new if I were to say that prayer is an integral part of reunification. Regardless of how many conferences and documents may be issued, the Body of Christ cannot be healed of this scar with intellectual statements, but in an organic manner, through the unceasing prayer of both the Catholic and Orthodox faithful.
Though the recitation of prayers and Psalms is an integral part of the religious life of both churches, the Jesus prayer and other forms of contemplative prayer, such as the Rosary, are designed to fill a unique need in the religious life of the believer. St. Gregory of Nyssa tells us that God’s request to Moses to take off his shoes is symbolic of requesting all of us to give up purely materialistic pursuits. Shoes, made of the skin of dead animals, represent the death of worldly pursuits. The Jesus Prayer, in this sense, is a spiritual means of taking off our spiritual shoes.
The invocation of the Holy name, the prayer itself, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” serves a twofold purpose. On the one hand, it is a penitential prayer. On the other hand, it serves as something for the brain to keep busy with, while the mind is free to be completely still. Soren Kierkegaard, the celebrated Danish philosopher, ascribes silence as the chief cure to our wounded culture. The Jesus prayer seeks to make the one who prays silent both in the external sense and the internal sense. Complete silence, inner stillness, is the highest form of prayer because it brings the one praying to the face of God. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI explains that the root of the word ‘adoration’ is ad ora, or face-to-face. Peacefully looking at the face of God is the deepest form of contemplation.
How does all this relate to Ecumenism? There are two relations. First, in bringing us closer to God, the Jesus Prayer brings us closer to each other, as St. Dorotheos of Gaza instructs us. If Christian reconciliation is to be organic, this is a most important component. Second, as Metropolitan Kallistos. Ware, an Oxford professor and a noted Eastern Orthodox theologian, has noted, the Jesus prayer can easily be used as a prayer for the community by substituting “me” with “us.” Even without such change, the Jesus prayer is innately a prayer for the community because being better as a person uplifts the whole community. St. Paul was clearly conscious of this idea when he was writing 1 Corinthians, because we, as cells of the Body of Christ, of necessity lift the whole Body with every good act and lower the whole Body with every evil act. In fact, the penitential aspect of the prayer is very important because it offers redemption not only for our own sins, but for the sins of the whole Church. Father Zosima’s teachings in The Brothers Karamazov are emblematic of this very mystical but very true principle. The monastics of the Eastern tradition are not only charged with the redemption of their soul, but also that of the whole world’s. In emanating their struggle to redeem the whole world, we can bring the whole Church together.
St. Seraphim of Sarov tells us, “acquire inner peace and thousands around you will find their salvation.” Ecumenism, and anything else, can only come as a result of sanctification for ourselves and for those around us, and the Jesus prayer offers a very important and time-tested road toward inner peace. In a world so riddled by constant noise and distraction, and plagued by the pitfalls of instant gratification, this powerful dose of contemplative silence can go a long way in bringing us closer to God and, in so doing, helping us see each other face-to-face more clearly.