This Lent, our Director Angus Ritchie is writing a weekly blog on silent prayer. His first blog describes one way of putting this into practice, while the second blog looks at some of its fruits in our life. This third blog explains how silent prayer differs from “mindfulness,” and why its value lies in more than its effects.
On Tuesday of Holy Week, an anonymous woman anoints Jesus feet with costly ointment, and Judas complains that the money could have been given to the poor (Mark 14.1-9). When she is criticised, Jesus defends her, just as he defends Mary of Bethany when Martha criticises her for sitting at his feet when there is work to be done (Luke 10.38-42).
Adoring Jesus, sitting at his feet – these things can seem in worldly terms to be useless and pointless. Yet Jesus says they are the most important things of all. It’s not that practical things don’t matter to Jesus. Indeed, the day before he is anointed he has gone into the Temple and overturned the tables of the moneychangers (Mark 11.15-19). But unless our actions flow from an encounter with Jesus – unless they are the fruit of Jesus, by his Spirit dwelling in our hearts – they will not bear the fruit for which we long.
It’s significant that the anonymous woman, the woman with a heart for adoration, is the first person we see grasping what Jesus is going to do. For all Jesus’ teaching, the male disciples still resist the message of the Cross. On Maundy Thursday, the men are still arguing as to who is the greatest (Luke 22.24-30). It is only after they have experienced and understood the “wisdom of the Cross” which is “foolishness to the world” (cf 1 Corinthians 1) that their ministry bears fruit.
On the eve of this death, Jesus gives us the Eucharist (Luke 22.1-23). Different churches have different understandings of the nature of this Sacrament. But we can all agree on a few things, so let me start there. We can agree that God has become flesh because we have bodies, and our salvation is embodied. And it is because we have bodies that we need sacraments: outward and visible signs of God’s grace.
The bread of the Eucharist is an outward and visible sign of Jesus’ presence among us – a sign that his power is made known in what looks to the world like weakness. Jesus is both the lion on the throne and the Lamb who was slain before the foundation of the earth (Revelation 5.1-14).
That is why many Christians are drawn to pray silently in the presence of the Sacrament. Like the anonymous woman, we are drawn into an act of love and adoration. When we pray the Jesus prayer before the Sacrament, we are not asking Jesus for something or saying we will do something. As Pope Francis puts it, in the world’s eyes we are “wasting time with Jesus.” When we do this we discover in the depths of our hearts and our experience that this is the most important thing of all, this movement of adoration and love provides us with the wellspring for the rest of our Christian life.
For our silent prayer is different from secular forms of “mindfulness.” We are not aiming to “centre ourselves” or “empty our minds”. We are placing ourselves in loving adoration before the one whose broken body and whose blood poured out brings salvation to the world. The first word of our prayer (“Jesus”) means “God saves”. Jesus Christ is the answer to the words of the tax-collector in Luke 18.13 (“God, have mercy on me a sinner”).
In the Jesus prayer, we give voice to both the cry of humanity for salvation and we name the one who has saved us. It is a prayer of both need and of rejoicing. We can pray and must pray it on our own at home (cf. Matthew 6.6). But there is also a particular power to praying it in the presence of Jesus’ broken body, of which the Bread of the Eucharist is a sacramental sign. In its fragility and humility, the bread of the Eucharist reveals the power of the Cross; reveals his broken Body through which God has answered our cry for salvation.
So we come, like the anonymous woman, to pour out the oil of adoration; we come like Mary of Bethany, to sit at his feet, as we say the simple words: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”