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Praying the Great
I let the silence drop like a pebble into the middle of my day and send its ripples out over its surface in ever-widening circles.
My earliest recollection of formal prayer is this: My grandmother, rosary in hand, resting on her bed after our noonday meal, would let the beads glide through her fingers, silently moving her lips.
When I remember how large her bed loomed from my perspective, I realize I must have still been small. Yet when I asked her to teach me this mysterious game, she did. The stories behind the fifteen mysteries as my grandmother told them to me stayed in my mind and grew in my heart. Like seedlings taking root in good soil, they kept growing and sending out runners. To this day, like an old strawberry patch, they keep bearing fruit.
Some thirty years later, on a different continent, my grandmother was again resting on her bed and I was kneeling next to her; this time, she was dyng. My mother also knelt by her mother’s deathbed, and together the two of us were reciting from the English breviary the prayers for the dying. Grandmother was in a coma, but she seemed restless. She would raise her left hand a little and let it fall back on the bed, again and again. We could hear the tinkling of the silver rosary wrapped around her wrist. Finally we caught on. We stopped the psalms and started the Sorrowful Rosary. At its familiar phrases, grandmother relaxed, and when we came to the mystery of Christ’s death on the cross, she peacefully gave her life-breath back to God.
Another childhood memory of mine is connected with the Angelus prayer. All over my native Austria, the chorus of Angelus bells rises from every church steeple at dawn, at high noon, and again before dark in the evening. At school one day when I was in first grade, I stood by an open window on the top floor looking down on what you might call “the campus,” for ours was a big, beautiful school built by the Christian Brothers. It was noon. Classes had just finished, and children and teachers streamed out onto the courts and walkways. From so high up, the sight reminded me of an anthill on a hot summer day. Just then, the Angelus bell rang out from the church, and at once, all those busy feet down there stood still. “The angel of the Lord brought the message to Mary….” We had been taught to recite this prayer in silence. Then, the ringing slowed down; one last stroke of a bell and the anthill began swarming again.
Now, so many years later, I still keep that moment of silence at noon. Bells or no bells, I pray the Angelus. I let the silence drop like a pebble into the middle of my day and send its ripples out over its surface in ever-widening circles. That is the Angelus for me: the now of eternity rippling through time.
Most of the time it expresses my gratefulness: As I face a given situation and take it all in, I see this given reality as one facet of God’s ultimate gift.
I’d like to recount one more memory here, the memory of my first encounter with the Jesus Prayer, the Prayer of the Heart, as it is also called. By then, I was older but still a child; twelve maybe. I was sitting with my mother in our doctor’s waiting room, resting my right hand first on one knee, then on the other, then on the armrest of my chair, then on the sill of a window from which I could see only a high hedge and some spiderwebs. My hand was heavily bandaged, and I had come to have the doctor change those bandages. After I had examined for some time a jar full of live leeches, which country doctors at that time still kept for bloodletting, there wasn’t anything else in the bare room to keep me entertained, and I was growing fidgety.
Then my mother said something that surprised me: “Russian people know the secret of never getting bored.” The Olympic Games were my only association with Russians, but if there was a secret method for overcoming boredom, I needed to learn it as soon as possible. Only years later, when I came across The Way of a Pilgrim, did I understand my mother’s mysterious reference, for that book was a translation from the Russian. It did tell me at length about that secret of never getting bored, but my mother had managed to summarize it so simply that it made sense to a boy of twelve: “You need only repeat the name of Jesus over and over with every breath. That’s all. The name of Jesus will remind you of so many good stories that you will never find the time long.” I tried it and it works.
Boredom, as it turned out, would never be a problem in my life anyway, rather the contrary. Later, in fact, when the Jesus Prayer became my steady form of praying, I came to think of it more as an anchor that keeps me grounded when life is anything but boring. To borrow a phrase from the Roman Missal, the Jesus Prayer keeps my heart “anchored in lasting joy.”
After I read The Way of a Pilgrim, I made myself a ring of wooden beads that I move, one bead at a time, as I repeat the Jesus Prayer. This movement of my fingers has become so linked with that prayer that I can keep it going with the help of my prayer-ring, even while I am reading or talking with someone. It goes on like background music, not in the foreground of my awareness and yet heard at all times.
The wording I’ve come to find most helpful is “Lord Jesus, mercy!” The Russian pilgrim used a longer form, and I have experimented with various versions, but this one suits me best.
Most of the time it expresses my gratefulness: As I face a given situation and take it all in, I see this given reality as one facet of God’s ultimate gift, which is summed up in the name of Jesus. Then, breathing out, I say the second half of the prayer, and the sense is: “Oh, with what mercy you are showering me, moment by moment!” Sometimes, of course, “Mercy!” can also be my cry for help, say, when I am dead tired and have to go on to meet a deadline, or when I am reading about the destruction of rainforests of the tens of thousands of children who starve to death every twenty-four hours on this planet of plenty. “Mercy!” I sigh, “Mercy!”
The Jesus Prayer has become so connected with my breathing in and breathing out that it flows spontaneously much of the time. Sometimes, while I am falling asleep, the prayer goes on until it melds into the deep breathing of sleep.
The Rosary, the Angelus, the Jesus Prayer – these are some of the formal prayers I find most nourishing. They are by no means the only ones, merely the ones most easily described. How could I ever begin to tell you what the monastic Hours of Prayer mean to me? My small book about them, The Music of Silence, tries to show how not only monks but anyone in any walk of life can enter into those times of day at which time itself prays. I find the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed inexhaustible, too; I’d have to write a whole book about each of them.Yet, here we are still in the realm of formal prayer, and formal prayer is like a little bucket from which a toddler scoops up and pours out, scoops up and pours out, time and again, water from the ocean of prayer.