The Jesus Prayer

I started going to daily mass again this week at St. Peter & Paul Catholic church, one of three churches in Blessed Sacrament Parish, the parish we live in the midst of here in McKinley Park. The neighborhood used to be largely Polish and German, but they have long since absconded to the suburbs, and all that remains of them are a few old men and women who hobble slowly to church, a collection of churches bearing inscriptions in the languages of the old country, and a mess of tiny, struggling funeral homes with names that have far too many consonants in them.

Today, McKinley Park is largely working class Latino and Chinese. St. Peter & Paul Church is a well-maintained cavernous old building that fills maybe with a score of people for English-language worship on Sundays (and, God bless them, we struggle to sing a few Polish hymns), but has standing room only for the Spanish services. I imagine the older Poles struggle to understand the priests, who all deliver their homilies in Spanish-accented English. I struggle to understand them, sometimes.

One of my visions for a church — hopefully I will get to pastor and lead worship somewhere someday — is daily worship. I like the discipline of it, and I always have. This is, of course, more honored in thought than in deed (right now, my wife and I struggle with the motivation to get out of bed in the morning). But I honor it.

I hadn’t gone for a while because, in this long and difficult wait for my book to come out, I have not been able to find work — real or otherwise — and Jennifer and I have spent more times demoralized than we’d like. So, for a bit, especially after our financial circumstances collapsed in early summer, I simply abandoned going to mass. There was no reason — I needed the devotional, arched for it5, but I simply gave up on it. I wasn’t depressed, and there was no despair, there was just … I don’t know, listlessness, a lack of bother?

Daily mass is at 6:30 in the morning. It’s a short walk, even in awful weather, down the street and around the corner, to that old Polish church. I said it’s a well preserved church, and it is. They had some work done on the ceiling sometime in the 1990s, I think, based on the architectural style (which reminds me of the inside decor of the Heritage Foundation). In the morning, there’s usually only a dozen or so people there for mass, mostly older men, which I find odd. And a little gratifying. When I would occasionally attend Latin Mass at The Institute of Christ the King, nearly all the parishioners there were women. But there are a few elderly women at St. Peter & Paul, some middle aged woman, and one young woman who is always on her kneeler, fervently praying, and never coming forward for communion. And a vibrant young couple who look like they’ve just gotten off the jumbo jet from La Paz, the husband (I’m making an assumption here) being a dead ringer for Bolivian president Evo Morales.

I love the simplicity of the daily mass. Of the fact the priest sings so badly (as do we all at 6:30 in the morning), and almost always looks like he’s just gotten out of bed. Because even in all its simplicity and shabbiness, this is the most important work in the world. Here, in this place, in the cold semi-darkness of mid-autumn, in the cavernous, nearly empty church, Christ is present. Repentance is made, the word is preached, grace and forgiveness are proclaimed.

One of my devotional practices is to say the Jesus Prayer before and after mass. I love the Jesus prayer. I discovered it seminary the summer between my first and second years, and have customized it a bit — because that is allowed, and it is done:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, and deliver me this day.

The first bit, up to “and deliver me this day,” is the classic Jesus prayer. That last portion comes from one of my favorite prayers in all of scripture, from Judges 10. Israel has fallen into idolatry yet again, worshiping the gods of its neighbors, and as a result, they are conquered and oppressed by their neighbors. So, Israel returns to God for relief:

10 And the people of Israel cried out to the Lord, saying, “We have sinned against you, because we have forsaken our God and have served the Baals.” 11 And the Lord said to the people of Israel, “Did I not save you from the Egyptians and from the Amorites, from the Ammonites and from the Philistines? 12 The Sidonians also, and the Amalekites and the Maonites oppressed you, and you cried out to me, and I saved you out of their hand. 13 Yet you have forsaken me and served other gods; therefore I will save you no more. 14 Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in the time of your distress.” 15 And the people of Israel said to the Lord, “We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you. Only please deliver us this day.” 16 So they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the Lord, and he became impatient over the misery of Israel. (Judges 10:10-16 ESV)

The thing I love most about this passage is that, for a moment, God well and truly abandons God’s people. “I will save you on more,” so go and ask the gods you now worship to save you. “I am done with you,” God says.

In response, Israel confesses its sin, and throws itself upon the utter mercy of God. We are yours. And we know we are unworthy. We have it coming. So do whatever you want with us.

Only do that later. Deliver us today.

Our deliverance, like our sustenance, is daily. We ask not to never be hungry again, or safe and secure forever more, but only to be fed today. And only to be saved today.

Put enough todays together, however, and you have a week. A month. A year. A lifetime.

And God is moved by this plea.

I try to pray this short little prayer 33 times before mass. I’ve never been able to finger prayer beads properly, either as a Muslim or a Christian (I have a round of Islamic prayer beads made in Syria and given to me long ago), my hands just cannot finger beads well. But at a masjid in Merced, California, I learned how to use my fingers to keep track of my prayers, something a group of Yemeni Muslims taught me.

Look at your hand, palm up. Each finger has two lines on it where the joints are, dividing it into three sections. The thumb only has two, but treat the thumb like it has three. I use my left hand to count, starting with the index finger to count three on the thumb, and then the thumb to count on each finger. If you count right, you’ll get 15 for a complete run-through of one hand. You then double back, and then do the thumb twice the last time around to get 33. (The Yemeni Muslims repeated “Allah Akbar” — God is greater — 33 times, and then “Subhana Allah” — Glory to God — and then “Istaghfir Allah” — God forgive — for a total of 99 little prayers, followed by a final prayer which I never learned. Supposedly, if you did this, all your sins would be forgiven. At least that’s what they told me.)

For each little section, I repeat the prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, and deliver me this day.

And then I follow with the Lord’s prayer and the surat al-fateha in Arabic (because there’s nothing in the fateha, the first chapter of the Qur’an, that directly contradicts any biblical or historic church claim, and some of it actually parallels the Lord’s Prayer). I don’t do this to get anything from God. This is not about seeking forgiveness of sins, or hoping to earn God’s favor, or anything like that. I am not putting a coin into a vending machine expecting to get something out of it. That is not how God works.

I do this to focus myself, remember who and what God is, and remember who and what I am. It’s a confession. I can even sometimes focus my mind and soul on the words, and even get lost in them. I do this as a way to live into the redemption and forgiveness God has called me up into, made me a part of.

Yes, I can this little thing anywhere. And I frequently do. But along with the mass, the daily proclamation of the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, there is something important to me about this. And something special about this little act in this place.

It doesn’t make it any easier to get out of bed every morning.

On the way out, I will frequently stand and say a small prayer before a half-life sized crucifix in the narthex. Sometimes, I will just say “thank you.” Sometimes I will look at the Jesus hanging there and say, “You called me to follow, and I left everything and followed. What choice was there?”

And sometimes, angry over what have been some of the consequences of my following, I have looked at Jesus, at the blood on his nailed hands, and the wound in his sides, and told him, “You had this coming. You had this coming. If you had just stayed dead, if you had never told me to follow, it would have been better for me.”

But mostly, I say nothing. I will look at him, and think to myself:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, and deliver me this day.