Orthopedic surgeon Dr Mary Neal returned from a near death experience of heaven unhappy to be back on earth. Desperate, she opened a Bible in the hospital where she was recovering from injuries sustained during a Kayaking accident. Her eyes fell on a verse calling for people “to pray without ceasing.”
That verse resonated with her. She had gone to another place exploding with beauty and colour and love of God, and had been overwhelmed, strangely enough, by the sensation of being home, of being where she really belonged. Now she was back in “this world, a street where a funeral is passing,” as Rumi might have said. She wanted to go back to that other place where “a wealth you cannot imagine flows through you,” (Rumi), and pray without ceasing seemed a way back.
Exactly that verse appears in the opening chapter of The Way of a Pilgrim, a treasure of Orthodox Christian spirituality, believed to have been written down in a monastery in Mount Athos.
The narrator, a pilgrim from Russia, would like to pray without ceasing, pray all the time without any interruption, be in constant contact with the life, force and power of the spirit. Yet, he cannot imagine how he can ever do such a thing. There are so many practical chores to get through every day just to survive. There are so many pressures from society.
Eventually, he finds a spiritual father who teaches him the Jesus prayer. His life is transformed. He learns to pray the Jesus prayer all the time no matter what he might be doing or whereever he might be.
You can read an excerpt here:
The full text in antiquated, obscure English is here
The Jesus prayer is not an intelletual activity, but an activity of the heart or the intuitive faculty of the spirit in the heart, and has often been compared to a mantra.
As the pilgrim learns to say the Jesus prayer without ceasing, his life is transformed. He is in heaven while walking around in Russia in absolute poverty and without even a home to call his own because he is in constant communiciction with “secret places inside this violent world where we make transaction with beauty,” (Rumi). He says the Jesus prayer and “every second a voice of love comes from every side,” (Rumi). The Jesus prayer became more valuable and sweet to him than anything in the world, he wrote. It filled him with love, light, comforted him, inspired him and helped him in every situation including encounters with the bitter Russian cold and wolves.
Someone asked Dr Mary Neal, who was not an especially religious person but who had a vivid experience of the personal love of Jesus Christ during her near death experience, what her encounter with heaven had revealed about the purpose of our life on earth and how we can carry that purpse out.
Interestingly, she answered the purpose of life was being in constant prayer, in constant communication with God. The purpose was listening and being willing to say, yes, to whatever she is supposed to be doing, which is some act of service, different for each person.
She said she found it hard to pray formally, but a part of her brain is always listening and questioning, trusting in God, trying to stay open and reamin willing to say, yes. Saying, yes to God s plan for our lives is the hardest part, she said. Often we reject a plan to help others for lots of reasons, such as not enough money, time or ability. But when we do say, yes, to God s purpose for our lives, the resources, time and ability appear. God gives them, she said.
So, if we want to enter heaven, the presence of God, the “calm in the midst of lightnings” (Rumi), there is a way.
It is called the Jesus Prayer.
On Mount Athos and other monasteries in Greece, many monks and nuns practise saying the Jesus Prayer always.
We can call on the powerful name of Jesus Christ in the knowledge that he knows all our suffering, pain and problems, including the worst kind of betrayal, isolation, humiliation, abandonment and death. But he overcame them all in the resurrection and is with us all the time, helping us on our way.
Mary Neal said coming to understand the incredible love God has for each one of us, and the reality of an after life has transformed her life.
I pray this Holy Saturday, the day after Good Friday, in the Greek Orthodox church, we, frail human beings all over the world, come to understand Your great love for us, Lord Jesus Christ, and the great comfort of remaining in constant contact with You in pray.
This evening in Greece, as people prepare to go to church to celebrate Easter Sunday, many burdened with incredible difficulties because of the bankster engineered financial crisis, I pray that Greece may be resurrected to a new flourishing life by Your spirit and power, Jesus Christ! Amen.