Short-Attention-Span PrayerBlog / Produced by The High Calling
Some years ago, Alan King conducted a series of interviews meant to be an oral history of comedians, especially stand-ups. In conversation with Jerry Seinfeld, King, a rather splendid comedian himself, said to his guest, “Unlike other comics today, you work clean.” By that he meant that Seinfeld didn't use the F-word or its correlatives in his routines. But later in the same interview, both used the J-word (Jesus) in a casual, expletival sort of way.
At the massive insistence of censorious Christians, traditional television networks have been bleeping the F-word right along. Oddly, they're no longer bleeping the J-word as an expletive, and the Christian audience isn't uttering a peep of protest.
As a lifelong member of the publishing community, I'm a libertarian when it comes to the use of words. Hence, I wouldn't restrict the use of the F-word or the J-word in whatever context, holy or unholy. But a personal problem arises. My whole spiritual life has been based on the word Jesus.
In Catholic elementary school, I was taught to do a head bow, albeit a modest one, every time I read or heard the name Jesus; in sixty years I haven't missed once.
I spent eight happy years as a Jesuit (member of the Society of Jesus). The religious order did nothing to exaggerate devotion to the holy name, but the name of Jesus was always surrounded with great warmth and affection.
In the New Testament, there was Philippians 2:10: “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend.” These words are now thought to come from a very early Christian hymn that was gaining popularity in Philippi.
In the fifth or sixth century, there was the Jesus prayer. As a prayer, it seems to have its source in Matthew 20, where the blind cry out twice, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us” (30-31). As a repetitive prayer, it gets encouragement from Jesus at the end of John, where he says to the apostles, “Up to this point, my dear friends, you haven't used my name when asking the Father for something. Use it; it works; it really works” (16:23-24).
In the fifteenth or sixteenth century, the litany of the holy name appeared; in it Jesus is invoked as, among other things, father of the poor, treasure of the faithful, good shepherd, true light, eternal wisdom, infinite goodness, our way and our life.
When all is said and done, “the name of Jesus is at the heart of Christian prayer” (Catholic Catechism, 1997). Indeed we could do worse than spend the rest of our frenzied prayer lives exploring the wonders of this holy name, but it wouldn't be easy.
In a microwave, toaster-oven sort of world, as Joan Rivers has pointed out, we stand in front of our electronic cookers, urging them to frialate faster.
In a downsizing, right-sizing sort of world, corporations make themselves leaner and their workers meaner; they have to do not only their own but the work of those who've just been laid off.
In a Jiffy Lube, SpeeDee Oil Change sort of world, we meet ourselves coming and going, but could the saints do any better?
Could John of the Cross contemplate the dark night of the soul and go through a revolving door at the same time? Could Teresa of Avila step onto an escalator in her interior castle without messing up her meditation? Could Francis of Assisi, so prone to trance, pray ecstatically and ransom captives at the same time?
Dumb questions all, but for those of us who are working stiffs in a Times Square, Tianamen Square sort of world, these examples show how difficult it is to work and pray. After all, it's a Right Guard, Ban-Roll-On sort of world we sweat in. A Bird's Eye, Burger King sort of world we eat in. A Google, Wikipedia sort of world we do our research in. A Nytol, No-Doz sort of world we try to sleep in.
However uttered, in whatever form, the sweet name of Jesus may be the last, best, short-attention-span prayer the contemporary Christian can utter from Monday through Saturday.
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
Every blasphemy bothers me, unsettles me to the point of wanting to deck the blasphemer; alas, that would be breaking one commandment to defend another. But to maintain some sort of spiritual balance, I've had to come up with a mischievous if mystical thought. Suppose that, when the J-word is tossed around with reckless abandon during the course of a come-dressed-as-you-are bunkhouse brawl, Jesus isn't offended. Not only that, suppose he comes, as he comes to all those who utter his name in moments of need or praise. Is that so far-fetched? If the New Testament is any indication, Jesus has done some of his best work with unpromising people in questionable surroundings.