We are at Camp Allen in Texas for the first time at a Community of Hope International with Mary Earle as the keynote speaker. As I look over her books I find this newly published 20th anniversary edition of An Altar in Your Heart, Meditations on the Jesus Prayer by Bishop Robert Hibbs with a Foreword by Mary Earle. The Jesus Prayer has been my mantra in the early morning and at evening as I go to sleep and during any time of anxiety or fear or temptation during the day or night especially during medical tests for me and my family. It is my feeble attempt at praying without ceasing.
I have known Bishop Hibbs for years through work with the Episcopal Recovery Community, but never knew about his work on the Jesus Prayer. As I share with Mary my connections with Bishop Hibbs, I find out he died a year ago in April, and Mary preached the homily at his service. I want to thank and honor him for the support he gave me and so many others in recovery by sharing this book with you. Also included is an audio CD of his lectures at a retreat producing the book, which the Cajuns would call a lagniappe, a little something extra. For years Bob Hibbs was the major voice for recovery in the Episcopal House of Bishops.
Saying the Jesus Prayer is like using a prayer rope or beads in our heads. Bishop Hibbs relates the story of Cardinal Mindzenty and Father Eschmann, who survived torture and solitary imprisonment by staying connected to God with the Jesus Prayer.
The first words of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” remind us of both Jesus’ divinity and his humanity which Hibbs believes is an important constant message in keeping us in relationship with Jesus. These first words of the prayer with Jesus’ name express Easter, the Alleluia part of the prayer. The last phrase about mercy expresses Good Friday. Sister Carol Perry at this same conference reminds us that in this request for mercy, we are making the choice to ask for God’s mercy in our lives rather than God’s justice for how we have lived our lives. Hibbs believes we always live in the tension between being in Easter and always connected to Good Friday.
Bishop Hibbs reminds us that this is an oral prayer to be said out loud as much as possible especially as we begin to make the Jesus Prayer a part of our being. He cautions us not to be discouraged as we become distracted while we say it. We are gently to return to the prayer without judgment on ourselves. We might consider treating distractions similar to those we encounter them in centering prayer. We might see them as barges moving down the Mississippi or any favorite river. We are to let them pass on down without interacting with them.
Eventually the prayer develops a rhythm in our lives and becomes a gift from God closely related to the beating of our heart, a constant, habitual recollection or awareness of God’s presence. Hibbs also reminds us that when we pray the Jesus prayer, we are attempting to connect to Jesus, God, the Trinity above and beyond us but also to the Christ, the God of our understanding, in our neighbor and in ourselves.
For people in 12 step recovery this is where the steps intersect with the Jesus Prayer as we “sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God.” (Step 11, Chapter 5, “How it Works,” Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, 2016, p. 85)
Sometimes I modify the prayer to be similar to what is called Agnus Dei, the fraction anthem said or sung after breaking the bread in the Eucharist. “Lord God, Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on me.”
While we meet with people in 12 step recovery, especially when we tell our story or listen to theirs, or when we talk to our sponsor or those we sponsor, we give them our utmost attention, but having the Jesus Prayer running through our mind and body is a way for us to stay connected to the Spirit speaking to the God of our understanding in both of us.