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Justice and the Jesus Prayer

There are many definitions of justice (and, for that matter, of social justice). Justinian’s Institutes defines justice as “an unswerving and perpetual determination to acknowledge all men’s rights.” Another classical definition, found, for example, in the Catechism of Peter Mogila, states: “Holy justice is to render to each man what is his, in accord with equality, without distinction of persons, not only in regard to possessions, but also in regard to honor; but, Christian justice is not only to return good for good, but also never allows us to wish evil for evil….” There are, of course, many more definitions with various strengths and weaknesses.

Part of the reason for these many definitions is that justice can be conceived as a virtue of the soul or an external condition of society. Perhaps just as bad as having a wrong definition of justice is to have a myopic view, e.g. that justice is only internal or only social. Equally problematic would be to divide the two.

As for me, I agree with Plato that justice ultimately is about order, and justice in the rightly ordered soul is connected to justice in society. Certainly Edmund Burke would agree, and the idea is not limited to him or Plato either.

There is a connection between inner justice and justice in society. Yet discussions of the subject often overlook important ascetic contributions to the former that, in turn, connect in important ways to the latter. This essay focuses on the role of meditation, the Jesus Prayer in particular, in cultivating justice in the soul and how that might also affect our communities and societies. I do not pretend that this is a comprehensive recipe for justice, but it is an invaluable and overlooked ingredient.

First: What is the Jesus Prayer? According to the Orthodox Saint Theophan the Recluse,

In order to teach the mind to rest on one thing, the Holy Fathers used short prayers and acquired the habit of reciting them unceasingly. This unceasing repetition of a short prayer kept the mind on the thought of God and dispersed all irrelevant thoughts. They adopted various short prayers, but it is the Jesus Prayer which has become particularly established amongst us and is most generally employed: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner!”

So this is what the Jesus Prayer is. It is one among various short prayers, oral like all others. Its purpose is to keep the mind on the single thought of God.

The Jesus Prayer, then, is a method of Christian meditation meant to help us focus “on the single thought of God.”

Second: How does one practice the Jesus Prayer? St. Theophan continues,

The practice of prayer is called an “art,” and it is a very simple one. Standing with consciousness and attention in the heart, cry out unceasingly: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me,” without having in your mind any visual concept or image, believing that the Lord sees you and listens to you.

It is important to keep your consciousness in the heart, and as you do so to control your breathing a little so as to keep time with the words of the prayer. But the most important thing is to believe that God is near and hears. Say the prayer for God’s ear alone.

At the beginning this prayer remains for a long time only an activity like any other, but in time it passes into the mind and finally takes root in the heart.

So the Jesus Prayer is the repetition of some variant of “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy.” (St. Gregory of Sinai mentions a few different constructions.) In order to achieve the focus mentioned above, one must endeavor to free the mind from images, concentrate on the heart, pattern one’s breathing along with the words of the prayer, and “believe that God is near and hears.” Over time, the prayer becomes a habit, a second nature even, and takes on an automatic quality. In this way the fathers claim one can “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

Third: What are the effects of practicing the Jesus Prayer? Again, St. Theophan:

Whoever has formed the habit of this Prayer and uses it properly, really does remember God incessantly.

Since the remembrance of God in a sincerely believing heart is naturally accompanied by a sense of piety, hope, thanksgiving, devotion to God’s will, and by other spiritual feelings, the Jesus Prayer, which produces and preserves this remembrance of God, is called spiritual prayer.

According to St. Theophan, the effects of the Jesus Prayer, rightly practiced, are “a sense of piety, hope, thanksgiving, devotion to God’s will, and … other spiritual feelings.”

We can see that some of these, at least, have been confirmed as a result of meditation more broadly. For example, a recent Big Questions Online article features the following from Michael Baime, an M.D. who teaches meditation at the University of Pennsylvania:

In my research on meditation, I have given more than 1,000 participants in my mindfulness-based stress management program a survey that was developed to evaluate non-religious spirituality. The survey quantifies spiritual experience in three dimensions: peace, meaning, and faith. The participants in this completely secular meditation program consistently report significant increases in all three of these areas.

He goes on,

Many people are surprised to see that measure of faith was increased. I teach meditation in a completely secular context, with no mention of religion or spirituality. Yet graduates of the program are more likely to agree with the survey’s statement, “I feel connected to a higher power (or God).”

While this AA-esque articulation of feeling “connected to a higher power (or God)” may not be quite the same as “a sense of piety, hope, thanksgiving, [and] devotion to God’s will,” certainly one would expect a Christian to explain this common phenomenon in a similar way. It would seem that St. Theophan’s claims may be more than anecdotal.

Fourth: What does this have to do with justice? If we take justice to mean “to render to each what is due,” we may have some understanding of how this relates. Practice of the Jesus Prayer increases focus and builds a habit that helps to drive out wandering thoughts and pacify our emotions.

Internally, then, it helps us render to each part of ourselves what is due. Rather than being tossed around by vagrant thoughts and emotions and appetites, we are able to stay in the present and, more importantly, coram Deo.

Furthermore, beginning by rendering to God what is due, we do not end there. Indeed, love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbor (see Matthew 22:36-40).

Writing on the subject of resisting temptation, Roy Baumeister, head of Florida State’s social psychology program, notes the benefit of good habits:

The human psyche is well designed to acquire habits (both good and bad). Doing something new and different takes effort and attention, and sometimes plenty of thought and emotion. In contrast, doing something by habit requires none of those, or at most a very small amount. To conserve the limited mental and physical energy that people have, nature has designed us to convert novel exertions into easy habits.

The Jesus Prayer is one such habit. Not only does Baumeister’s research confirm that such a habit of constant prayer can be cultivated, he notes that acquiring good habits helps us conserve energy and self-control for when we need it most. Constant prayer is one such habit, and the habit-forming skills needed to cultivate it are transferable to others.

In particular, however, in yet another Big Questions article, Christian Miller, associate professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University, notes four beliefs that correlate with virtuous behavior: beliefs about others’ virtue, beliefs about one’s own virtue, moral standards, and certain religious beliefs. The Jesus Prayer would seem to affect all of these. It requires belief in the closeness of God; it makes one more sensitive to God’s will (moral standards); while admitting we are sinners, it gives us reason to hope that we can improve and even that we currently may be improving; and lastly, as the Jesus Prayer transforms us into calmer, more self-controlled, and more virtuous people, we serve as examples to others.

This last point is where constant prayer “for God’s ear alone” actually serves the common good as well, beyond our own behavior. Miller writes,

For instance, the University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt has done research on what he calls the emotion of “elevation.” This is what we feel when we see another person do something particularly virtuous or morally admirable. Just think back to a time when you were feeling uplifted and inspired by someone’s bravery or loyalty or charity — perhaps your heart was moved, inspiring you to similar acts in your own life.

Research by Haidt and others has found a strong relationship between feelings of elevation and increased virtuous behavior. For instance, one study found that elevation neutralized anti-black racism and increased helping, while another found that, when compared to controls, elevation led to participants doubling the amount of time they spent on a helpful task.

It would appear that having more such examples in our lives would, then, increase our tendency “to acknowledge all men’s rights.” Virtue, including justice, has a contagious quality through good examples, be they parents, elders, friends, or even the lives of the saints. Inspired by others, we are more likely to think, “Maybe I can do that too.” This can be seen as empirical support for the saying of St. Seraphim of Sarov: “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved.”

At the end of the day, we will all always be somewhere between vice and virtue this side of the eschaton, and therefore we need just laws and social structures as well. However, personal justice is essentially connected to justice in society, in more ways than one. The more people moving from vice to virtue, the fewer laws and structures we need. And, rightly practiced, the Jesus Prayer is one effective way to move in the right direction.


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