Thomas Merton on the Jesus Prayer  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,


Thomas Merton (1915-1968) died 40 years ago today, which I observe as a feast-day in my own customized liturgical calendar. He entered the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani on this date in 1941, which was precisely the mid-point of his life. One scarcely knows where to look in his huge literary output (mostly written during a two-hour period in the course of his monastic day) for a suitable quote, but I was lucky to come across something in a very fine book, Merton and Hesychasm (Bernadette Dieker and Jonathan Montaldo, eds., Fons Vitae, Louisville, 2003), which is an anthology of articles by Merton and others dealing with his fruitful engagement with Eastern Christianity. This is from a transcript of a lecture given to the novices during the early '60's and illustrates his ability to combine deep comittment to traditional spirituality with a certain breezy irreverence. The quotes are found on pp 455 and 464 of the book.

But it is important to get some form of prayer that really just expresses everything. Obviously the classic example of this kind of prayer is what is called the Prayer of Jesus, which the Oriental monks use a great deal. Which is very, simply--what's the formula they repeat in the Prayer of Jesus, quite a long one?

"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner."

Kyrie Jesu Christe, Elaison...

Learn it in Russian, learn it in Greek. Say it. Pep up your spiritual life with the Jesus prayer in the various languages. It's a fine prayer. It's a bit long though. You don't have to say [one] that long. You can just say "Lord Jesus Christ have mercy." You can say "My Jesus, mercy" if you want. That is a Western form. Anything like that....

Sinai is the starting point of a tradition in contemplative prayer. Who knows the name of this tradition in contemplative prayer?

The hesychast tradition. Let's write "hesychast" on the board.

What's hesychast--who's a Greek scholar? You haven't had that much Greek yet--anybody knows what a hesychast is? He's a man who likes "hesychia"--he likes "sweetness", sweetness and rest and quiet and so forth. He loves the rest of contemplation, the sweetness and rest of contemplation. A hesychast is one who likes sweetness and rest, preferably off some place in a cave or something like that.

So the story of the Oriental mystical tradition as the hesychast tradition--it's a little more than just sweetness and rest. It's built around the Prayer of Jesus....

You can say it in Greek, you can say it in Russian, and you can say it in all sorts of things. And this is repeated over and over again in a special technique--this is very good, you ought to know this. You breathe in a certain way--you say it when you're breathing and so forth. You could do this during the morning meditation. It's the easiest possible way to spend the half hour fruitfully in church, I assure you. Don't go too far with the breathing. The idea is to concentrate on this prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner," until you follow your breath down to your heart and then BOOM, a big light comes. That's Hesychasm. You see, you get the light of Tabor and it shines and so forth. That's getting a little risque, but that's this tradition.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 10, 2008 at Wednesday, December 10, 2008 and is filed under , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

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