The quiet cadence of prayer and fasting as Lent began was shattered with the invasion of Ukraine. Forgiveness Vespers was ridden with sorrow and disbelief. There was no escaping the sadness and helplessness as we prayed. As I quietly mouthed the words to “Open to Me the Gates of Repentance,” the full meaning of the words dawned on me. Until that moment, it had not occurred to me that we were averse to repenting, that we needed to pray that Christ may soften our hearts so we may return to him. I think of the words of my beloved spiritual father: “Where is Christ?” he would ask. In other words, he was asking, where was He in our lives, did we manifest His presence through our actions?
In Boston and New York, prayers were being offered for Ukraine at special services, but the news bore images that were daringly sacrilegious. The cold-blooded murder of sons and daughters and of children. As a mother of a son, I could not imagine what every Ukrainian and Russian mother was enduring. Everything I was feeling went against the beautiful prayer of St. Ephrem to which we prostrated every morning and evening at Holy Cross Chapel, Brookline. I had no right to be prostrating myself; I was so angry, so beside myself as I watched the script play out yet again. The countries of the Balkans, Palestine, Syria, Balochistan, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Burma, and countless peoples around the world whose right to freedom and land were being seized from them brutally.
Murder continues to be justified for political ends. In the midst of these atrocities, the icon of Christ crucified, His head bowed, His silence louder than words, His torment as brother murdered brother.
The image of God was truly preserved in you, O mother, For you took up the Cross and followed Christ. By so doing, you taught us to disregard the flesh, for it passes away; But to care instead for the soul, since it is immortal. Therefore your spirit, O holy Mother Mary, rejoices with the Angels.
Troparion, Tone 8.
As the Sunday of Mary of Egypt approaches and her feast-day on April 1, we encounter a poignant charge to repentance in our lives, this one embedded in our Liturgy centuries ago, here in the vortex of Great Lent. So, alongside the Scripture readings is a monk’s tale, a parable taught not by Jesus specifically, but coming to us from the treasury of Orthodoxy itself. It is the story of a monk and a pilgrim in the desert. As the seventh-century Patriarch of Jerusalem Sophronius, who wrote it down, says, he is writing what he heard about: “the holy story which has reached us…In the monasteries of Palestine, there lived a man renowned for his way of life and his gift of words. From the days of his infancy, he was reared in monastic trials and good deeds…seeking always to subjugate the flesh to the soul.
“Frequently, he was deemed worthy of divine visions, illuminated from on high…However, he began to be tormented, for it seemed that he had attained perfection and needed no teaching from anyone. And so, he began to reason: Is there a monk on earth capable of passing on to me any new kind of spiritual achievement in which I have not already succeeded?” This monk, then, while fasting in Lent and following the tradition of his monastery to wander out into the desert, this monk gifted with words and visions, encounters what his soul is lacking. After twenty days fasting in the wilderness, he sees an extraordinary pilgrim: “black as if scorched by the fierce heat of the sun, the hair on the head white as wool.” And this “fugitive” speaks, calling Abba Zosimas by name.
An important facet of the prayer—one that I often overlook or speed past—is acknowledging in humility and truth before God that I am a sinner.
We are often afraid to acknowledge our fallen areas and our need for growth. When we are not mindful of the portion of the Jesus Prayer that precedes the word sinner—mercy—our guilt from past wrongs can lead us to shame. We believe that not only did we commit bad actions, but that we are our bad actions and therefore are bad.
The Holy Spirit, however, has a very different trajectory when it comes to sin.
The Spirit reminded me of two occasions in elementary school when I was harmful to a fellow schoolmate. I experienced tremendous regret for those actions, but the Spirit prevented me from going down the path of discouragement. Instead, I began spontaneously to shed tears for these past wrongs, tears that did not promote sadness but healing, renewal, and gratitude.
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.