Years back, I spent a lot of time reading church history, works by Christian and secular scholars alike. I still have 1970s reprints of 19th century books by Sir William Ramsay (like The Church in the Roman Empire), the two-volume History of Christianity by Yale historian Kenneth Scott Latourette, New Testament History by F.F. Bruce, Alfred Edersheim’s Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, and Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo. I also read a lot of the original writings of the early church fathers, like Origen and Tertullian.
It was while reading Latourette’s History that I discovered eastern Christianity in more than a cursory way. The history of Christianity in Western Europe and North and South America is largely the story of Latin, or western, Christianity and its Protestant offshoot. Eastern Christianity has a full and rich history as well – the eastern Roman Empire, the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, the desert fathers (and mothers) and the story of the growing struggle against the spread of Islam. (For all the talk about the Western imperialistic Crusades in the Mideast, people forget that before the Crusades there were the Islamic jihads that conquered large parts of what had been the eastern (and Christian) Roman Empire.
I learned that the history of eastern Christianity was as fascinating as the history of its western counterpart. I also learned about the significant differences between the two.
More than 20 years later, while visiting our younger son at the University of Missouri, I picked up a book in the campus bookstore – Short Trip to the Edge by Scott Cairns. A professor and poet, Cairns is also a practicing Orthodox Christian believer (just consider that combination for a moment – a professor at a public university, a poet and an Orthodox believer). The book was an account of the author’s various pilgrimages to the monasteries of Mount Athos in Greece.
Suddenly, Cairns had me in the weeds of Orthodox belief and practice. My reading from years before helped my understanding. But I had to read the book slowly. Because much of what it contains was alien to my western Christian mind. I thoroughly enjoyed the book – even if I wasn’t quite prepared to venerate an icon with a kiss.
One spiritual practice associated with Orthodox Christianity is “the Jesus Prayer,” and it is the subject of Frederica Mathewes-Green’s The Jesus Prayer. It is a deceptively simply prayer and practice – the repetition of “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” An acceptable variant adds “a sinner” after “me.”
Mathewes-Green, the author of several books on Orthodox Christianity, explores the history of the prayer (arising among the desert fathers) and then provides an extensive step-by-step explanation of what it is, how it works and the training and practice that’s needed to pray the prayer. Much of this explanation is in the form of an extended question-and-answer section that becomes a kind of mediation itself. (And whether the Questions are her own writing device or real questions that people have asked, I found that she used several questions that I had about the prayer and practice.)
Along the way, Mathewes-Green explains the prayer’s place in “remedial awe,” or learning how immense and majestic God truly is; how transformative the prayer can be (I loved her insight that “everyone wants to be transformed but nobody wants to change”); how you will gradually silence the “inner chatter” that crowds prayer out; and how charity needs to be considered in the contest of personal relationships.
For those of us of the Protestant persuasion, the idea of a repetitive prayer – praying the same words over and over – sounds rather Roman Catholic with its “Our Fathers” and “Hail Marys.” Yet as Mathewes-Green explains it, this short prayer is a significant spiritual practice, one requiring guidance and discipline.