Originally posted 4/2/2013
By Kevin Allen
I became Eastern Orthodox because of ‘The Jesus Prayer’. Let me explain.
When I was sixteen and seventeen, I spent summers at a Hindu ashram on the majestic border of Canada and New York in what is called the Thousand Islands area. The ashram was and is dedicated to the famous Hindu saint Swami Vivekananda who introduced Vedic Indian spirituality to the West in the late 19th century, long before the famous gurus Maharishi Mahesh and Swami Bhaktivedanta of the Hare Krishnas. I spent two summers in the ‘60s serving my guru, reading, soaking in the natural beauty, and meditating. In the afternoons we met as a community for “Puja” where we worshipped the deity of this Hindu sect. Hinduism saved me from a meaningless life of materialism, and nihilism and opened the door to a life of the spirit.
In the “puja room” –in keeping with the monistic view of this sect that all religions lead to a transcendent ultimate reality – there were various pictures on the walls of the world’s religious figures: Ramakrishna, Krishna and Radha, Hanuman, the monkey god, Kali, the fierce, dark goddess, Buddha meditating under the Bodhi tree, and a picture of Christ on the Cross, with his mother, the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and St John at his feet.
For some inexplicable reason I was drawn to the Renaissance-style picture of Christ, and what ineffably lay behind it pulled me out of Hinduism in a way that to this day I cannot explain rationally. I had no desire to become a “Christian”. I knew nothing about them and had barely opened the bible. Although it took me many years to formally accept Christianity as my definitive spiritual path, all I can say with assurance is that I experienced the Person of Christ, who became real to me in a way that changed everything.
Some years later, after college, and still on my journey, I discovered a book in an old metaphysical bookstore in New York City, called The Philokalia. It is an Eastern Christian spiritual classic. It taught an inner prayer that Eastern Christians have prayed since the ancient days when the desert monks fled civilization to pursue Christ in solitude. The simple prayer, called ‘The Jesus Prayer’, or ‘The Prayer of the Heart’, goes like this: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” I began to pray the prayer that day and my heart slowly began to open.
Praying The Jesus Prayer, like following bread crumbs in the forest, eventually brought me back as Yeats said, “to where all the ladders start, in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart” (William Butler Yeats; ‘The Circus Animal’s Desertion’).
I knew nothing of Eastern Orthodoxy then. Over the years, I tried to become a Catholic, following the path of Thomas Merton, but something was missing. I became an Evangelical Christian, but eventually found my faith locked up inside my brain raging to find the spiritual center of my heart. But throughout, I continued to pray ‘The Prayer’ and eventually discovered the inner, contemplative tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
“Into Orthodoxy” features stories of conversion from diverse guest authors. Read more about the series here.