O Me of Little Faith

O Me of Little Faith

Review: Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer

I expend a lot of ink in O Me of Little Faith discussing my problems with prayer. Some of my hang-ups are theological, some practical, some deeply personal. In particular, the theatricality of public prayer — my own and others — rubs me the wrong way. “The reason I keep my eyes closed when other people pray,” I wrote in chapter 5, “is so no one sees me rolling them.” Oh, snap. Kind of a dumb line, but it’s pretty true.

In the book, I write that my prayer life was saved by transitioning from the rambling prayers of my Southern Baptist tradition to the scripted prayers of more liturgical traditions. One prayer I find myself returning to over and over again is the ancient Jesus Prayer:


Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

It’s a prayer that comes from the Eastern Orthodox tradition, adapted from the plea of the humble tax collector in a parable Jesus told in Luke 18. For me, it’s a way for me to pray more, to pray honestly, to pray without getting ensnared by my stupid hang-ups.

The Jesus Prayer is also the subject of a new documentary and book called Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer: Experiencing the Presence of God and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of an Ancient Spirituality. Written and directed by Norris J. Chumley, a fellow Beliefnet contributor and director of media for Columbia’s Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life, the film follows Chumley and priest-theologian Rev. Dr. John A. McGuckin as they tour isolated Orthodox monasteries in Greece, Egypt, Romania, Ukraine, and Russia interviewing monks and nuns about their prayer lives — specifically about the centrality of the “Jesus Prayer” in their religious practice.


I haven’t seen the documentary, though it’s airing on PBS this week in many markets. The publisher, HarperOne, sent me a free review copy of the book.

Part of Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer is a personal travelogue, chronicling Chumley and McGuckin’s trips to film these monasteries and their inhabitants. Chumley details the religious history of these places — like the monasteries of Mt. Athos, or St. Catherine’s Monsatery on Mt. Sinai — as well as describing the holy sites once the film crew gains entrance (an often difficult process). The rest of the book tells of the men and women who reside there, much of it by way of their thoughts and teachings about the Jesus Prayer.

I’m interested in the subject, from the prayer itself to the Orthodox branch of Christianity to the holy sites themselves. Some of these places I had already been introduced to in my study of the saints for Pocket Guide to Sainthood. Which is to say: I’m pretty much the ideal reader for this kind of book. I wanted to love it and get caught up in it, but that just wasn’t the case. It reads like, well, a book written as a tie-in to a documentary. A book written by a professional filmmaker. An afterthought.


With such a fascinating subject, a diverse travel itinerary, and visits to some of the weirdest and most inaccessible places on earth, you’d think a ridiculously compelling book would result. But that’s not the case. It’s reverent and devout, yes, but it’s also dry and dull and spiritual/mystical without a lot of questioning or examination.

A sample passage:

The point of the Jesus Prayer is to bring soul and body, mind and heart together, in constant remembrance of God in us. In the words of Father Teofil of Romania, its purpose is “to make a link between prayer and mind, between mind and heart, between the power that thinks and the power that loves. So the mind that descends its awareness into the heart is not an activity of the human being, it is a work of God. What we are doing is that we pray to God for the unity of our own being, the whole being.”


I don’t know…maybe it’s better as a documentary. Maybe the wise words of the monks and bishops are more inspiring on camera rather than in print. I hope so. While reading the book, I found myself intrigued by the subject matter but wishing it had been written by someone else, like Paul Theroux. That would have been a spiritual travelogue worth reading.


Comments read comments(9)
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Charlie Chang

posted April 20, 2011 at 11:28 am

Curse you Boyett. Now everytime I hear someone pray, I count how many times they say “just.”

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posted April 20, 2011 at 4:09 pm

I can very much relate to your reason for keeping your eyes closed during prayer. Now if there was just a way to quit breathing until a prayer was over so I wouldn’t inadvertently sigh …

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posted April 20, 2011 at 10:41 pm

Certainly some things work better as film than as books, and as someone who reads a lot, I think the converse is true as well.

Sorry this book didn’t work for you, but your honest review is appreciated!

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posted April 21, 2011 at 8:18 am

This reminds me of Salinger’s book ‘Franny and Zooey’ which has very Zen Buddhist connotations. But I’m sure you know this already.. :)


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Jason Boyett

posted April 21, 2011 at 9:04 am

Like many people in the West, I first learned of the Jesus Prayer via “Franny and Zooey.” Thanks, J.D. Salinger!

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Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours

posted April 22, 2011 at 11:23 pm

“For me, it’s a way for me to pray more, to pray honestly, to pray without getting ensnared by my stupid hang-ups.” I know what you mean. Sometimes turning to simplicity can help me get past all my own issues as well.

Thanks so much for your review.

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posted April 26, 2011 at 12:31 pm

I am comforted to know that according to some of the Gospel writers/editors, Jesus had problems with public prayers, too. Consider his aside to God at the time he raised Lazarus. I bet even Jesus has a “Just/Really” drinking game with his heavenly buddies, counting every “Just” and “really” that is uttered in American public prayers. (Beer for “just”, wine for “really”, cheese for a “just really”, and a slice of fruit for “really just”)

I also get amused by the concept of “noetic science”. Prayer’s having mass? So for the RCC is that redundant or a conflict of interests?

But there are those prayers, spontaneous and sincere, that can reawaken napping spirituality and rekindle barely smoldering faith. Sometimes it is in the rote and recited prayers that unite a congregation. Other times they are the fervent prayers os people in crisis, expressing profound and deep belief, when others are sated by superficial and feeble aphorisms learned in the first years of Sunday School.

Prayer is a mystery. Sometimes a mystery does not cry out to be solved, but yearns to be appreciated for its own sake. It is an expression, an inhalation, and an aspiration. Often, that is enough. hen you do it or hear ti done well you know it. Otherwise it is just really a way to massage and ego in public. Really.

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posted April 29, 2011 at 8:54 am


See the movie!!! It is unbelievable.

It may be playing for free on a PBS station near you:

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