Case studies in prayer: 5

Imagine you are a spiritual director. You are meeting with a directee, Jinn, who is a Christian, who is seeking God, who has gone so far as to seek out a spiritual director. You ask Jinn to describe his prayer, and he responds thus:

Case 5

When I pray I sit in a comfortable posture, looking down, with my eyes open but unfocused. I gaze at my navel. I repeat the Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” once with each (slow) breath. I am aware of my heartbeat, and able to slow it down. I may repeat the prayer hundreds of times. My goal is to bring my awareness to the current moment, to calm my mind, to love God, to be still and know God. Sometimes all thinking ceases, and I am swept away, and I lose myself in God.

Pause, consider. What is this person seeking in prayer?
How is this prayer likely to form the soul?
What advice would you give?


What strikes you about the prayer? What is it that Jinn is seeking?

From what he says, Jinn seems to be seeking God, with his body and soul, with his whole heart. And yet we don’t really see his heart from what he says. We hear about his technique. We are told that he is swept away. But what does he desire? What motivates him? There is little to give us insight into the unique creation of God that is Jinn, unless it is that he isn’t being very open about himself.

How is this prayer likely to form the soul?

This repetition of the Jesus prayer, this practice of including the body along with the heart and mind in meditation, this quieting of heart and mind and soul and body so that they may love God without distractions or competing desires—these are key parts of Orthodox spirituality with tradition going back to a time not far removed from New Testament times. It too has formed many saints.

And yet for the spiritual director there is little to work with here. What motivates Jinn? Spiritual direction is not magic. We hear about cases where directors have the gift of discernment to such an extent that they can see what is going on in a soul after only a couple of words—or no words at all. They speak a life-changing “word from the Lord” that solves problems in the spiritual life and sets new directions for serving God. But such directors, if they exist, are rare. Or maybe God prefers to work through normal means if possible. Or maybe the problem is that there are plenty of words from the Lord, but we don’t hear them or receive them as such because we aren’t open to them or to God. The problem is in us rather than the director.

Spiritual direction is hard work, but the hard work is mostly on the part of the directee. Jinn has to open his conscience to his director. In order for direction to be effective, he has to describe what is going on in his will—what he desires, the things that motivate him, what he is seeking. He has to be totally open, describing the bad as well as the good. If you want to be healed, you have to show the doctor your wounds. This is not the same as confession—this is about Jinn finding out what moves him, what he desires, discerning good motivations from bad ones, uncovering how he can serve and glorify God, and, ultimately, finding what it is that God created him to be.

Once Jinn opens his conscience, it is the director’s task to help him see his desires, discern the good desires from the bad, take note of the unique good gifts and desires God has given him—ultimately, to find his true self. With this kind of clarity and openness, a word could indeed be problem-solving or life-changing.

When we share ourselves with others, and they share themselves with us in return, the communion of the saints is made incarnate, and God is present.


Jinn, what are you hoping this prayer will do for you? Is your prayer ever painful or repellant? Does it ever lead you to turn away from certain things and toward others? What things? Where would you like to be ten years down the road?

Do you ever imagine yourself serving God in a certain way, even if it seems impossible? If you were to design a character for yourself in a role-playing computer game, what superpowers would it have?

Next time, tell me about yourself—what you love, what you hate, where you are headed, where you wish you were headed.

Categories: Meditation

Harry Plantinga

Harry Plantinga is a professor of computer science at Calvin University and the director of and