Sometimes when I attempt to explain the practice of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”, especially to Friends, someone will react along the lines of, “Oh, I hate this morbid preoccupation with sins! Surely we all need more self-esteem, not less?”
Now, while of course I sympathise with the bruised heart demanding comfort, not condemnation, I think this objection is an understandable misunderstanding. In the original Greek, as taught in the Philokalia onwards, the word for sinner is ἁμαρτωλόν (hamartolón) – a word which is not, in the Eastern Orthodox context, chiefly concerned with transgressing one of a list of Naughty Things, but with the sense of failing to be what one might be, of missing the mark. And this is a sense of sin to which I can all too readily relate!
Sin in the Orthodox Christian understanding is “missing the mark” (the literal meaning of the Greek word for sin, hamartia), falling short of the glorious purpose for which God created mankind. It is also understood as separation from God, since intimate communion with God is the normal state of mankind from which most people have fallen. Sin is imperfection, anything which fails to live up to the fullness of life in Christ for which man was created.
The Bible sometimes uses legal metaphors to refer to sin, likening it to crime, that is, crime against God’s law. For Orthodox Christianity, while making use of legal imagery, the more dominant imagery used for sin is also drawn from Scripture, and that is that sin is a kind of disease, an affliction for which salvation is the cure.
In Pure Land Buddhism there is a useful, rather delightful term, bombu nature. Attractive though the word may be, the concept is a relentlessly honest summing-up of the human condition. Kaspalita Thompson writes:
Recognising our bombu nature is a hard thing to do – it means really looking at what motivates our actions, and how we are compelled by greed, and hate and delusion. It means noticing when all the stuff we have pushed into our long black bag [in Jungian terms, our shadow] starts to leak out and taking responsibility for that, and it sometimes means looking into the long bag itself and seeing what is there, in the darkest places of our psyche.
Any form of contemplative prayer will bring us face to face with this imperfect, often broken, nature that is ours by dint of simply being human. Mother Mary Clare SLG discusses this at length in her book Encountering the Depths (SLG Press 1981). She says,
When we are not attentive listeners it is not only our own personal relationship with God that will be diminished, but even possibly the direct communication between God and another person. Our dissipation of mind, instability and lack of courage to face ourselves, or to be vulnerable to others, frustrates God’s intention that our prayer be a clear pathway to the discernment of the needs of each other.
The most difficult and decisive part of prayer is acquiring this ability to listen…
In prayer, as in all our lives, we are in need of God’s mercy. If we are honest, our imperfection, our incompleteness, somehow, is at the root of who we are. When we pray, “have mercy on me, a sinner”, we are not striking a pose, nor beating ourselves up for masturbation or eating chocolate. We are simply being realistic. In her TED talk The Power of Vulnerability, Brené Brown says,
This is what I have found: To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen … to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee — and that’s really hard, and I can tell you as a parent, that’s excruciatingly difficult — to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we’re wondering, “Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?” just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, “I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.” And the last, which I think is probably the most important, is to believe that we’re enough.
And strangely, this is what accepting ourselves as hamartolón, this is what accepting our bombu nature, accepting ourselves as above all in need of mercy comes down to. We are enough, because we are loved by God. We are enough because we rest in the ground of being, incomplete as we are; because we have been given the grace to know our need of mercy, and to ask for it. It is enough.