Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer

What’s so mysterious about the Jesus Prayer? It’s one of the shortest and simplest prayers you can find: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” It’s one of the most ancient prayers, too; think of how often in the Gospels people ask Jesus for mercy. A prayer for mercy would likely have been one of the variations when the Desert Mothers and Fathers (AD 2nd-5th c), who sought to pray constantly, were trying out different short, repeated verses of Scripture to discipline the wandering mind. (St. Augustine reports that they “have very frequent prayers, but these are very brief.”) Those ancient monasteries and hermitages are the spiritual nursery in which the Jesus Prayer had its birth.

The Illusionist

[National Review Online; Feb 10, 2011] The Illusionist has been nominated for Best Animated Feature (I mean the new animated film, of course, not the 2006 live-action movie by the same title), and no one who has seen it was surprised. It is simply a beautiful motion picture. Our protagonist, slipping past middle age, watches mountains and rivers flow past his train window; rain is drizzling, summer is fading into fall, and on the soundtrack someone is wandering around the piano keys in a Gallic sort of way. Sigh. What could be more delicately poignant, or more lovely?

Good Nous

I was once asked to give a talk at Washington’s National Cathedral on prayer in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. I brought with me a large icon, one familiar to many people, showing the Holy Trinity as the three visitors who came to Abraham (Gen. 19:1-8); it was painted by St. Andrei Rublev in 1410. I set up the icon on an easel, but after saying a few words about it, focused on the Jesus Prayer. This simple, repetitive prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”— was developed by the Desert Fathers, as a help toward learning to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). But when we re-gathered for a workshop later on, I found that the participants wanted to know more about the role of the icon. What is its function in prayer? What are the prayers used when looking at an icon?

Life As We Know It

How bad can a blind date be? When Eric Messer (“Call me Messer”) shows up an hour late at Holly Berenson’s apartment, invites her to climb onto his motorcycle in a sheath dress and high heels, then answers his phone and makes a date for later (“11:00”—a glance at Holly—“no, 10:30”), it could hardly be worse. Who thought these two would mesh? Pete Novack, Messer’s best friend from high school, and Alison, Holly’s best friend from college. After the disastrous date, we see a montage of home-movie clips of Pete and Alison’s life—wedding, dinners, parties, and baby Sophie’s first birthday—with Messer and Holly eternally sparring in the background.

American Grace

When people with strong religious convictions live alongside people who hold different but equally strong views, the results can be explosive. That’s not only a matter of historical record, but a global tragedy as fresh and raw as today’s headlines. The United States, however, somehow defies both human history and faith-based brutality all too common in the contemporary world. What is America’s secret to maintaining social peace, relatively high levels of religious engagement, and increasing diversity? To answer that question, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, just published by Simon & Schuster, draws on the most comprehensive surveys yet on American religion and public life, taken under the auspices of the Templeton-funded Faith Matters project.

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I write and speak on a wide range of topics. In recent years I’ve concentrated on ancient Christian spirituality and the Eastern Orthodox faith, but the hundreds of Essays on this site include movie reviews, humor, marriage and family, cultural issues, and more. Essays can be browsed by date or…

Expecting Mary

Fans of Bella and Juno will be glad to welcome Expecting Mary, another film showing how an unexpected pregnancy can lead to a happy ending. This time around the mom-to-be is Mary, a 16-year-old runaway; she is headed for California and her dad who, she thinks, will be more understanding and “cool” than her uptight mom. “I’m only having it because they [her mom and stepdad] don’t want me to,” she tells another character. Is that because of financial pressures, and too many mouths to feed? No, Mary replies, her parents are rich, and “could afford to feed twenty more mouths.” Mary has spent her life in fancy boarding schools while her parents traveled the world. The pregnancy is unacceptable to them because it is an embarrassment, considering their social circle. “They said, ‘Come home, have an abortion, we’ll say it was appendicitis.’” Instead, she ran away.

The Holy Gaze

Among the illustrations in this volume there is an AP news photo from the Russian district of Bogorodsk, dated 1950, of a crowd of people carrying icons out of a church. This isn’t a religious procession; instead, they are handing the paintings up to a man standing in a farm cart. Though it is cold—you can tell from the bundling garments and fleece-lined caps—the crowd looks energetic and happy, and a pretty young woman at the center of the photo looks particularly joyous. In the foreground a boy is holding a small icon, perhaps of Christ. The cart is already overflowing with these paintings of saints and biblical figures on wooden plaques. The load is going to be hauled out of town and burned.

Flipped

[Christianity Today Movies; August 24, 2010] Stars: 2 Rated: PG Cast: Madeline Carroll (Juli Baker), Callan McAuliffe (Bryce Loski), Rebecca De Mornay (Patsy Loski), Anthony Edwards (Steven Loski), John Mahoney (Chet Duncan) Can it be love at first sight if you’re seven years old? “Flipped” proposes that, yes, it can,…

Bounty

[Frederica Here and Now; April 22, 2009] When my daughter-in-law brought in the harvest from her very diligent vegetable gardening, she sent me a photo of the bounty. I felt immediate wonder and gratitude—that with the sweat of her brow (and the much smaller brows of her 6 little ones)…