By Archbishop Henry D’Souza
With energies diminishing and engagements becoming less frequent, elderly persons can find time lying heavy on their hands. Several will look for distraction in TV shows where the advertisements become boring and repetitive. Others may want to read but then the eyesight is no longer as sharp as before and hence reading could be tiring.
Sharing these thoughts with Sr. Nirmala, the Superior General of the Missionaries of Charity, she gave me a book “The Way of the Pilgrim”. I had read this book many years ago and was acquainted with the Jesus prayer, but a re-reading of the book has been a great source of joy and encouragement. I thought that a sharing of some of the ideas might assist the seniors who belong to Life Ascending and others too.
The “Way of the Pilgrim” is about a pilgrim, a Russian pilgrim, who was quite puzzled as to how he could pray constantly. He had read the passage of St. Paul in 1Thes.5-17, “Pray without ceasing” and in Ephes.6-18, “Pray on every occasion as the Spirit leads”. These recommendations made him extremely desirous to find a way of praying constantly.
He found many books on prayer. They told him about the fruits of prayer, the advantage of prayer, the types of prayer, the methods of prayer and so on. But he could not find any real guidance on how to pray unceasingly as the Bible advised.
He then became a pilgrim. He carried with him a knapsack with the Bible and bread. He wandered from place to place stopping at monasteries when he found them and other places where he could get hospitality. His constant enquiry was on how to pray unceasingly. Finally he met an elder (Staretz) who advised him to say daily, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”. The Staretz told him to start saying this prayer 3000 times a day. The pilgrim did not find it easy. At first it was quite boring and he was often distracted, but as he sat alone in a quiet place praying the words, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”, he slowly discovered that he was praying not only with his lips, but also with his mind and heart. The pilgrim wrote, “I became so accustomed to praying that if for a short while I stopped reciting it, I felt as if I was missing something as though I had lost something. When I would begin reciting the prayer again, I would immediately feel great joy and delight. If I happen to meet someone, then I did not feel like talking. My only desire was to be alone and to recite the prayer. I had become so accustomed to it in a week. “
And so the pilgrim went on from 3000 times a day, to 6000 times, to 12000 times. He began to feel a deep peace. It became a part of his heartbeat. As he breathed in, he said: “Lord Jesus Christ, ” and as he breathed out, “have mercy on me”. The pilgrim noticed a change in his life. Worries, temptations and distractions began to be less. He felt he had begun a new existence.
When he explained his condition to the Staretz, he was told that this was a normal outcome of the prayer. The name of Jesus is very powerful. Before that name every knee has to bend whether in heaven or on earth. Constant repetition of the name of Jesus makes the devil tremble and temptations disappear. The devil finds it impossible to get near the person.
The Staretz explained that the prayer is both a confession and an appeal. The person acknowledges Jesus as Lord and Christ. At the same time he makes a prayerful appeal for mercy on himself. This attitude of humility brings further grace. It invites God to display his loving kindness and to make available his great mercy on the person saying the prayer.
The Staretz concluded with the words, “The ceaseless Jesus prayer is a continuous, uninterrupted call on the holy name of Jesus Christ with the lips, mind and heart; and in the awareness of his abiding presence; it is a plea for his blessing in all undertakings, in all places and at all times, even in sleep.”
After reading the book, I thought that it would be very helpful to elderly people if they tried the advice given by the Staretz to the pilgrim. The elderly often have long periods of waiting and a lack of occupation. A good amount of this time could be profitably used in prayer. St. Paul tells us (Rom.8/26) “The Spirit also comes to help us, weak as we are. For we do not know how we ought to pray; the Spirit himself pleads with God for us in groans that words cannot express.” The “Jesus prayer” offers a beautiful possibility to pray unceasingly, to sanctify the hours of the day and to calm down the heart from worries and anxieties. It makes the Spirit to take over our efforts and to plead with God for us.