One of the realities of living in Astoria is that we share this wonderful part of the city of New York with a large representation of the Greek Orthodox world. We take the foods, the language, and the very presence of the Greek world as part of the fiber of our community. While, at one time, Astoria was the home of upwards of 250,000 Greek Americans making it one of the largest Greek cities in the world, even today the concentration of Greek Americans makes Astoria an important part of that national consciousness. Where else but in Astoria can you get so many Greek restaurants! You would probably have to go to Athens!
Part of the richness of being in such close proximity with this Greek World is being close to the Greek Orthodox Faith that is so inspiring and beautiful. It is so close to our Catholic faith and yet so different and so attractive to me. From the beautiful Churches to the majestic icons, we have a window that looks into a world that can give us so much spiritually.
My initiation into this spiritual richness was through what is commonly called the “Jesus Prayer”, also referred to (rather blandly) as “Centering Prayer”. The Desert Fathers and Mothers developed this form of prayer when confronted with St. Paul’s admonition to “pray ceaselessly”. In trying to grapple with this command, they began to continually say, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”. By saying this constantly, at work, in chapel, even as they went to sleep, they began to connect this prayer the thing we do ceaselessly (or we drop dead!) and that is breathing. With the breathing in they prayed, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God”; and when they breathed out they prayed, “Have mercy on me.” This pairing of prayer and breath became so intertwined that praying became almost automatic. But not quite, since the Eastern Fathers are at pains to point out that the lifting of the heart in prayerfulness must accompany the words, otherwise it becomes empty repetition.
Mount Athos is a mountainous peninsula in Greece that is considered holy ground in Orthodoxy. There are twenty monasteries on that land, housing some 2000 monks. This ceaseless prayer is especially practiced there leading up to the great Liturgical Events and continuing their effects in the daily work of living. So typical and ingrained is this spirituality in the Orthodox world that it affects the daily life of even lay believers.
After my retreat in August, I decided to make it part of my own spirituality. I can attest to the positive effects on me of this spiritual pathway. It is so easy and flexible. You need nothing but your mind and heart! You just turn your attention to the Lord and say the simple prayer. You don’t have to think about what to say since it is already on your lips and in your heart. It directs you to God no matter where you are or whom you are with. I have prayed it driving, on the subway, working in the rectory, etc. I pray it before I see people and sometimes when they ask for prayers, it is already on my lips. I pray it when I wake up and when I go to bed. If I pass part of the day without using this prayer, I feel that lack and want to reconnect to the Lord. It makes me mindful of my surroundings and the people with whom I am involved.
In addition, it is a little compendium of theology in one short sentence. The prayer begins with the word ‘Lord’. For St. Paul, no one can say Jesus is Lord except in the Holy Spirit. So the Holy Spirit is at work moving us to Jesus. This is followed by the Name of ‘Jesus’, which the Scriptures proclaim has enormous power. Even the demons respect the Name and fear its very pronunciation. The Lordship of Jesus then leads directly into the work of salvation inferred in the third word of the prayer: ‘Christ’. Christ is the Greek word for the Hebrew word ‘Messiah’. In that single word is the drama of Calvary and the redemption from our sins.
The importance of this is underlined by the following three words: ‘Son of God’. For Jesus is not simply a savior like David was a savior of his people. He is the Word of God, the Son of the Father. He is not only human; He is divine! So we see the deep Trinitarian character of the prayer: The Holy Spirit brings us to Jesus who, as Savior and Redeemer, brings us into a right relationship with the Father!
But the prayer does not stop there. With the last phrase, the individual is brought into contact with the Divine. This, of course, produces a sense of unworthiness and a need for purification. This is a common experience when we are in contact with God. We become aware of our sinfulness and our need for God’s mercy. The words ‘have mercy on me’ are a cry of the heart, which pierces the heavens with its need.
The gift of this spiritual path is another reason for praising God for the diversity of Christianity and its presence in Astoria! Re