The Jesus Prayer and the Way of This Pilgrim
As an Eastern Catholic, I find tremendous solidarity with Orthodox Christians. One of these areas of commonality is our love for the Jesus Prayer.
I discovered the Jesus Prayer in an unlikely place and from an unlikely source.
In 2010, during my first year of the Jesuit Novitiate, I borrowed JD Salinger’s Franny and Zooey from the community library. I loved reading The Catcher in the Rye in high school and shortly after college, so I was intrigued to read another Salinger novel.
But I didn’t expect this Salinger novel to have a spiritual impact on me.
Zooey introduced me to the Jesus Prayer. When she explained this prayer to her boyfriend Lane, she enlightened me, and I am sure many others, about the encounter with Christ and the experience of His Peace by praying this simple, ancient prayer.
However, it wasn’t until two and a half years later that I finally read The Way of a Pilgrim. At that point, I had left the Jesuits and was re-entering the workforce. I needed to stay spiritually grounded in a time of transition, mourning, and passing over into a new way of life, and was attracted to the Jesus Prayer to help me experience God amid this transition.
What most struck me about The Way of a Pilgrim is the narrator’s ability to simply yet profoundly communicate the gift of the Jesus Prayer. I truly believe the Jesus Prayer allowed the narrator to experience deification. The light of Christ emanated from the words on the page, and I imagined the narrator speaking to me about this experience of prayer with a divine glow.
While during religious life I had the benefit of daily time allotted for prayer, as a layperson re-entering the secular world, I felt like I was trying to walk across a busy highway trying to maintain a spiritual life. The Jesus Prayer was there, but processing certain aspects of pain and difficulty from my experience of religious life often caused me to keep the Lord at a distance.
But thanks be to God, the Lord did not keep me at a distance.
Three and a half years later, in 2016, I am married and no longer living in a studio apartment in Venice Beach but in a home in a family-friendly city. I was seeking to meet new people in town and I noticed the local Greek Orthodox Church hosted an annual Greek Festival. Neighborhood social media sites attested this was a popular event. I went to eat delicious Greek food and hopefully meet some new people. But it wasn’t the food or the music that ended up most appealing to me.
In the parish hall, there were icons on display and available for purchase. Looking upon the icons moved me, and I was reminded of the peace I had experienced praying the Jesus Prayer.
On the other side of the hall, I noticed what appeared to be the pastor of this Orthodox parish. He was conversing with members of his congregation, and I had wanted to ask Father what his parish offered for spiritual resources, such as classes on the Jesus Prayer or a contemplative prayer group. However, I could not muster the courage to approach him.
Days later, the desire to reconnect with the Jesus Prayer and contemplative spirituality would not cease. I went on the Orthodox parish website and emailed the pastor asking the questions I was too timid to ask in person.
I did not receive a response, but the following weekend I decided to attend Matins at the Orthodox church. I sat in the back and immersed myself in the morning prayer, even if its language and form was unknown to me.
At the conclusion of Matins, I was about to leave the church when the pastor approached me. Father introduced himself and welcomed me to the parish. I mentioned my desire to grow in the Jesus Prayer and he recognized my email and apologized for not responding sooner. Father invited me to his office and gave me two large books on hesychastic prayer, which I still have.
Father then shared with me that he is not an expert in the Jesus Prayer, but wanted to impart with me with a practice that helped him pray.
He mentioned a holy woman taught him the importance of sitting and breathing during prayer. Father modeled this breathing technique for me. He then invited me to attend his parish and contact him if I had any other questions.
We are all pilgrims in the spiritual journey. Through a fictional character I became introduced to the Jesus Prayer, followed by the book that inspired this from the unnamed pilgrim, to meeting someone in person sharing with me his experience of this prayer of the heart. This in-person encounter with the Jesus Prayer had the most lasting impact on me.
While I have not always been faithful to the Jesus Prayer, I turned to this when I lost my job, became a father, endured a difficult new job, and discerned the need to be free of alcohol. The Jesus Prayer taught me that apart from the Trinity, I can do nothing (cf. John 15:5), but with the Trinity, I not only can do anything, but I am invited to enter into the divine life (cf. 2 Peter 1:4)
More recently, the Jesus Prayer enabled me to seek God and remain in equanimity amid the Coronavirus Pandemic and in becoming a father to our second child.
The Jesus Prayer is a prayer for those who need Jesus. Brokenness is not an obstacle to God but an invitation. When I recite the Jesus Prayer, I experience the Trinity pouring forth divine love in the broken crevices within me, pronouncing what is broken to be blessed. The Jesus Prayer teaches me that God’s power is perfected in our weakness (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:9).
While I am not Franny, nor the unnamed pilgrim, nor the Orthodox parish priest, I pray that my words may instill a desire to experience the invitation to experience God’s uncreated energies in the gift of the Jesus Prayer.
Matt Kappadakunnel is a finance professional who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two young children. He is from the Syro-Malabar Eastern Catholic Rite and has ancestral ties to the Malankara Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church. Previously, Matt spent a few years studying to be a Catholic priest, culminating in graduate studies at Fordham University. He is a graduate of Creighton University and is a CFA Charter holder.