|Many of us are familiar with J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, but I wonder how many of us have read his Franny and Zooey? Noticing it on a shelf at my local library recently, I picked it up and decided to take it home and read it. It is, to say the least, a strange little book.
It's mostly a conversation between the two title characters, twenty-something sister and brother, Franny and Zooey (Zachary), about the meaning of life. Franny is recovering from a breakdown, and their mother urges Zooey to talk with her. The conversation begins, and Franny reveals that she's been reading The Way of the Pilgrim, a nineteenth-century book by an anonymous Russian peasant about the Jesus prayer.
The Jesus Prayer -- which probably originated with the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the fourth century -- is simply repeating the words, "Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner," over and over and over, until the words begin to repeat themselves in your heart and mind without ceasing. Franny had been captured by the idea of the prayer, and had been practicing it. As she and Zooey talk, Franny admits to being disillusioned by the pursuit of knowledge that seems to be the only purpose in the minds of her peers -- and the faculty -- at the college she is attending.
Franny laments: "I got the idea in my head -- and I could not get it out -- that college was just one more dopey inane place in the world dedicated to piling up treasure on earth ... treasure is treasure for heaven's sake. What's the difference whether the treasure is money, or property, or even culture, or even just plain knowledge? ... You never even hear any hints dropped on campus that wisdom is supposed to be the goal of knowledge."1
Zooey challenges her, asking her if she isn't trying to accumulate "another kind of treasure" with her practice of the Jesus prayer.
And that is a good question. It's one I ask myself at times, with my own personal practice -- and the encouragement in others of the practice -- of contemplative prayer. While I'm committed to believing that God is not a "scorekeeper," that there is no report card for each of us on how much prayer we do, or what we think about when we are supposed to be praying, I'll admit to being a child of my culture and time, and to occasionally wondering if I shouldn't be better at this practice by now!
One of my favorite authors on contemplative prayer, and therefore a beloved mentor, Basil Pennington, comes to my rescue when he says, "When we pray as purely as we can, we do get all the benefits, and more besides." However, to be faithful to what he writes, one must read his words in context:
There are many physical and psychological benefits from the regular practice of Centering Prayer. However, if we go to Centering Prayer seeking any of these benefits, we will not get them. For we will not really be in the prayer; we will still in some way be seeking self, instead of seeking God. It is in some way dying to self, leaving self behind to reach out totally to God. It is the first great commandment lived: Love the Lord your God with your whole mind, heart, soul and strength. This obviously calls for purity of heart, something not come by in a day, ordinarily. But God remains the prodigal Father. If we humbly do what we can and start the journey, he will quickly reach out to our weakness and bring it to completion. When we pray as purely as we can, we do get all the benefits, and more besides ... If we do go to the Prayer still clinging to self, more concerned about the benefits of God than the God of benefits, we will not lose all. Some of the natural benefits will still flow through ... 2
Pennington assures us "God remains the prodigal Father" -- using the word "prodigal" as the dictionary defines it: recklessly extravangant, bountiful, lavish. We do what we can (which is pitifully little), and our prodigal Father fills our cup till "it runneth over"!
Another gentle soul, the author Henri Nouwen, in his The Way of the Heart, tells us that the very act of praying begins transformation, because it reveals the truth -- that we are sinners, and that God is the ever-merciful one who embraces sinners:
The prayer of the heart is the prayer of truth.... By its very nature such prayer transforms our whole being into Christ precisely because it opens the eyes of our soul to the truth of ourselves as well as to the truth of God. In our heart we come to see ourselves as sinners embraced by the mercy of God. It is this vision that makes us cry out, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner." The prayer of the heart challenges us to hide absolutely nothing from God and to surrender ourselves unconditionally to his mercy.3
Nouwens prayer of the heart is informed by his immersion in the writings of the Desert Fathers. He says, "The most profound insight of the Desert Fathers is that entering into the heart is entering into the kingdom of God. In other words, the way to God is through the heart. Isaac the Syrian writes: 'Try to enter the treasure chamber ... that is within you and then you will discover the treasure chamber of heaven. For they are one and the same'."4
By entering in faith into the place of prayer in our hearts, we lay up the kind of treasure about which Jesus instructed us: that which cannot be stolen by thieves, or touched by moth or rust. And we, in our greedy and complex culture, find such generosity and simplicity hard to comprehend. Can living a life of faith really be that simple?
Knowing how very limited is our ability to fulfill the first (or even the second) commandment, when we set out to seek God through prayer, our Lord sees our intention and reaches out to us in our weakness. Even though our prayer may begin by being self-seeking, rather than God-seeking, God nevertheless has mercy on us, transforming our prayer into "treasure" of lasting value, as he embraces us and welcomes us into his loving presence.
1. J. D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1955, 1957, 1961, renewed 1989), p. 145, 146.
2 M. Basil Pennington, Centered Living: the Way of Centering Prayer (New York: Doubleday, 1988), p. 43.
3 Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart (New York: Ballantine Books, 1981), p. 61.
4. Ibid., p. 60.