BOOK REVIEW: "Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer" by Norris Chumley

Norris Chumley, Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer: Experiencing the Presence of God and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of an Ancient Spirituality (HarperOne 2011), 196 pages.

The entirety of 1 Thessalonians 5:17 consists of a three word exhortation from the apostle Paul to “pray without ceasing.” Advocates of the “Jesus Prayer” — most popular in Eastern Orthodox branches of Christianity — insist that this ancient spiritual practice is perhaps the most effective vehicle for making Paul’s vision of ceaseless prayer a reality (ix).

The author, Norris Chumley, is an Emmy award-winning documentarian, who also holds a Ph.D. in Theology and the Arts from the progressive and renown Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Appropriately, given the author’s status as a documentary filmmaker, there is a full-length DVD available to supplement the book: “For the first time on film, desert hermits, monks and nuns reveal the simple prayer, bringing us into their private cells, caves and sanctuaries in the Middle East, Mediterranean, Eastern Europe and Russia.” A small group study guide is also available for purchase separately. If your small group enjoys this book and the Jesus Prayer practice, a challenging follow-up for next Lent would be a study of John Climacus’ spiritual classic The Ladder of Divine Ascent (c. 600 CE), written by a spiritual giant as the capstone to a life spent praying the Jesus Prayer. The annual tradition in all Orthodox monasteries is that Climacus’ text is read aloud daily throughout Lent while the monks are eating (51-53).

I am perhaps not Chumley’s target audience since he writes on the opening page that he assumes that readers of this book are in all likelihood unfamiliar with the Jesus Prayer; however, his words are a reassurance that this volume is a much-needed introduction to this relatively-unknown spiritual practice. Specifically, this volume is a more accessible introduction to the Jesus Prayer than the excellent (but nonetheless formidable) traditional books on Orthodox spirituality such as the Philokalia, which literally mean the “love of the beautiful.” For those who enjoy Chumley’s work, the next step — before tackling the Philokalia — would be perhaps the nineteenth-century spiritual classic The Way of a Pilgrim, which records the story of an individual who succeeds in using the Jesus Prayer to achieve Paul’s vision of prayer without ceasing. As a first step toward this goal of ceaseless prayer, many begin by saying the prayer only a few times or up to twenty or thirty minutes a day (23).

Like Paul’s simple, three-word exhortation to “pray without ceasing,” the Jesus Prayer itself is mere twelve words: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” These words are a mantra of sorts, and saying them repeatedly is a way of cultivating inner silence, and eventually the possibility of a firsthand experience with God (1).

Chumley dates the origins of the Jesus Prayer to at least the “second century” as developed in the rich prayer lives of earliest desert mothers and fathers — Christians who fled to the desert to escape distractions and to cultivate the solitude they felt necessary to achieve the highest levels of spiritual experience (14).

Despite the immense influence of the Jesus Prayer on Orthodox spirituality over the course of many centuries, this spiritual practice is perhaps unexpectedly a “private prayer…not part of the liturgical life of the Orthodox Church; it is not even prayed aloud in a group as Catholic often pray the rosary, or as Protestant recite together the prayer of the day [or the Lord's Prayer]. It is profoundly personal…” (51).

Besides reviewing the history of the Jesus Prayer tradition, a large part of Chumley’s book includes reflections on his pilgrimage around the world to some of the historic centers of Eastern Orthodox monastic life: Mount Athos in Greece, the Painted Churches in Romania, and the Caves of Kiev in Russia. His reflections on meeting with the monks and nuns there are beautifully accompanied by many black and white pictures as well as a color-photo insert in the center of the book. This book is obviously a labor of love, and the unique profundity it contains is indicated in the surprising revelation Chumley discovered en route:

we were told everywhere we went that no producer or camera crew had ever asked the monks and nuns about their souls, let alone what it meant to pray unceasingly, or what it meant to practice the prayer of the heart, the Jesus prayer. Surprisingly, once I got to know the monks and nuns, I discovered that they were genuinely happy that we have come to inquire about what is most important to them: connection with God…. [P]rayer is connection with God. (173)

In closing, if this review has stirred the beginnings of a potential call within you to explore the Jesus Prayer further, I invite you to read the book and/or watch the DVD; however, the deeper invitation — and ultimate goal of Chumley’s work — is to encourage a wider audience to experiment with praying the Jesus Prayer themselves, to experience firsthand with what it feels like to try and “pray without ceasing.” As the final sentence of the book says, “First in words, then in silence: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’” (180).

About Carl Gregg

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