As an Eastern Catholic, I find tremendous solidarity with Orthodox Christians. One of these areas of commonality is our love for the Jesus Prayer.
I discovered the Jesus Prayer in an unlikely place and from an unlikely source.
In 2010, during my first year of the Jesuit Novitiate, I borrowed JD Salinger’s Franny and Zooey from the community library. I loved reading The Catcher in the Rye in high school and shortly after college, so I was intrigued to read another Salinger novel.
But I didn’t expect this Salinger novel to have a spiritual impact on me.
Zooey introduced me to the Jesus Prayer. When she explained this prayer to her boyfriend Lane, she enlightened me, and I am sure many others, about the encounter with Christ and the experience of His Peace by praying this simple, ancient prayer.
By now, it would almost be commonplace to observe that the COVID pandemic has created (or perhaps, rather, it has apocalyptically exposed) a cultural rift within the contemporary Orthodox Christian community. As a pastor, I have experienced this division firsthand, and I know of other clergy who have lost parishioners as a result of it.
On the one side stand those who have wholeheartedly embraced government-sanctioned restrictions and measures to reduce the spread of COVID. They accept the closure of churches as a matter of course, and once gatherings are permitted, they welcome mitigation strategies such as multiple spoons for receiving communion. On the extreme end, these folks tend to get anxious when they observe any failure to comply with the letter of the health regulations.
On the other side of the rift are those who resist attempts to restrict or shut down access to in-person Church services. They view attendance at the services as an unavoidable risk, inherent to Christian faith. The most extreme of these folks accuse other Christians of moral capitulation or worse, while yearning for the days of the early Church when Christians supposedly took all manner of risks to gather for the Eucharistic liturgy.
Internet trolling has, unfortunately, become commonplace even in Christian circles. While at times these trolls are known individuals who get a rise out of provoking anger and controversy, the present trend includes anonymous social media accounts using profile photos of holy images, while spewing responses that are anything but holy.
Without going on a tangent into the specific nature of this Internet trolling event, trolling not only predates social media, but can be found intertwined with Christian history. Even the temptation of Jesus in the desert was a form of trolling (cf. Matthew 4:1-11).
Most recently, I encountered a saint who also dealt with a troll. Following my article on Night Vigil, I became inspired to spend time with the writings of Saint Gregory Palamas, namely Holy Hesychia: The Stillness that Knows God. Therein I learned of the saint’s encounter with a troll (17).
The stress of 2020 through the present has caused many, including myself, to lose sleep. I cannot count the number of nights I have laid awake for more than an hour, and I often don’t fall back asleep until minutes before my alarm is set to go off. One sleepless night, I remembered a spiritual practice that had offered profound efficacy to me in the past.
Night Vigil is a spiritual exercise from Early Christian Mysticism, whereby one enters into contemplative prayer in the middle of the night. The Holy Spirit might either awaken us to pray, or our concerns become the cause for interrupted sleep and therefore a reason to pray. Because our defenses and distractions are minimal in the middle of the night, we can devote ourselves more fully to the voice of God.