There is no doubt that those who find themselves crippled by anxiety need to draw on a wide variety of therapies and psychological and medical intervention as appropriate. But we must not deny that there is always a spiritual component to our life as human persons, and every aspect of our life both affects our interior spiritual life, and is affected by it. To become authentically and truly human we have been created uniquely to live in the closest possible union with God. This does not mean that if we face any problems at all they are due to a lack of a living and transforming relationship with God. We are complex persons and we find ourselves in whatever circumstances we experience because of a variety of particular events and our own particular mental, physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual nature and upbringing.
The more severe the anxiety we struggle with, the more reasonable and even necessary it is to seek a variety of therapies. But in all cases the spiritual aspect must not be neglected. Nor should the spiritual aspect of our lives, as Orthodox Christians suffering from a variety of intensities of stress and anxiety, be understood as a religious practice which might make a distant God look more kindly on us. We do not turn to God as if we hope he will fix things for us. We do not turn to God trying to believe he has a plan for us. We do not turn to God as if our difficult experiences are a punishment sent upon us. Rather we turn to God because to experience his immediate presence is life and healing, warmth and light for the spirit, and it is not possible for us to live the authentic human life he desires for is apart from union with him. Direct and personal and experienced union with God.
We should not approach God in such circumstances as if we were guilty and liable for condemnation. Such thoughts keep us away from God, and are a temptation to believe that we are unworthy to approach God, are not loved by him, and even that we deserve all of the difficulties which we experience. There is certainly a time for taking responsibility, but when we approach God in these circumstances of anxiety and stress it is necessary for us to turn to God in our need, and not to agonise over how our need came about. The drowning man does not keep silent because he set out to sea and found himself unprepared, but he cries out with all of his strength and voice, Help me! Save me!
In the same way, our Heavenly Father waits to support and sustain us when we cry out to him in our need. The Lord Jesus himself says to us, Come to me, all of you who are weary and bearing a heavy burden, and I will give you rest. He does not command us to perform religious activities, so that we please him and then he will stop punishing us. He does not ask us to feel guilty that we are not perfect and have everything sorted out. He speaks to us all, as those who are welcome, as those who are struggling, and he promises to give us rest, if we come to him. Of course we should not imagine that this divine rest comes all at once, or that being at rest in the immediate presence of God is the same as having no problems. But to be in the divine presence does mean that we gain access to a strength that is not our own, and we find that in the burdens of life we have a constant companion.
I have already spoken about the Jesus Prayer, as an important means for us to enter the presence of this welcoming God who promises rest. We will struggle in practicing this prayer, because we struggle in all things, especially when we feel overwhelmed by circumstances. But if we understand that the practice of this prayer is not a religious duty to please God, but is a spiritual therapy itself that will bring about what we desire, an entering into the presence of the God who loves us and says to us, Come to me, then we will begin to consider it as a medicine, and not just another burden. God does not wait to punish us if we do not pray this prayer and all the others that it sometimes seems are demanded of us. Rather when we pray these words, with as much attention and warmth as possible, then we enter into the presence of God who says, Come to me.
Do we doubt that prayer can have such an effect? That it can bring us into the personal presence of God in an immediate and direct experience of his presence? Do we doubt that prayer has a necessary part to play in our healing, together with other therapies, so that we can cope with what life brings to us? Dr. George Stavros, conducted a study on the effects of the Jesus Prayer, as an investigation into the possible benefits of such prayer. He asked participants to pray the Jesus Prayer for 10 minutes each day for 30 days and analysed the reported results. He says that…
Those who practiced the Jesus Prayer experienced a positive change in their relationship with God. Taken a step further, the findings suggest that those who practiced the Jesus Prayer were the recipients of sustaining emotional and spiritual resources within the practice of the prayer. In other words, participants in the prayer group experienced and received the mercy which the prayer seeks. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”.
What does this mean except that Dr. Stavros found evidence that those who used the Jesus Prayer actually experienced the positive effects which are expected when we pray to a personal God, saying, have mercy on me. He adds…
The Jesus Prayer is a way of eliciting the relaxation response, of short-circuiting the non-productive thinking which drives the fight-or-flight response… The Jesus Prayer enables a person to step back from states of physiological and psychological hyper-vigilance, to allow the systems of the body, mind, and spirit to recuperate and heal. It is a way of negotiating the “burden of mortality” which the human species uniquely bears, the awareness that we are creatures with a limited lifespan, that we are mortal. The Jesus Prayer, with its meditative technique for relaxation and its relational focus, may tap into the hardwired ability of humans to use their beliefs so as not to be “incapacitated by the acknowledgement and dread of death”.
This is not a religious outcome, or a super-spiritual response which has nothing to do with real life. Rather it is saying that by praying the Jesus Prayer not simply saying it, we actually grow into a personal and direct relationship of union with God that is healing. Dr. Stavros sums up his findings by saying…
Practicing the Jesus Prayer ten minutes per day for thirty days provided the prayer group with a specific technique by which they could replace dysfunctional, primitive thinking with the words and thoughts of the prayer. Primitive thinking is characterized by harsh, global, moralistic, and irreversible ideas about the self and the self’s place in the world. Some of the most prevalent and well-documented cognitive experiences of depression include hopelessness, worthlessness, and meaninglessness in life. In this way the Jesus Prayer could serve as a means of thought stoppage by offering a simple, repetitive, cognitive focus with a positive meaning in place of more primitive and destructive cognitions. The Jesus Prayer could also contribute to psychological symptom reduction by challenging and stopping depressive cognitions, including negative views of self, world, and the future and anxiety-provoking cognitions, including fears of physical and psychological danger, catastrophic misinterpretations of bodily and mental experiences, and obsessions and doubts. The Jesus Prayer, as a therapeutic intervention, may have also contributed to stopping primitive thinking and impulses which characterize a cognitive movement toward an anger response. Finally, practicing the Jesus Prayer appears to have contributed to stopping and replacing some of the negative assumptions and expectations and harsh character diagnosis associated with interpersonal sensitivity.
His paper contains tables of statistical data supporting his conclusions. But there is nothing here which should not be expected according to our Christian faith. We believe and teach that prayer is a coming into the presence of God, and that it is healing and therapeutic. Why should we doubt that it has the effects we claim? Of course these results come about in a complex physical, mental, emotional and spiritual manner, but they do come about. Dr. Stavros discovered that there was a reduction in feelings of depression, anxiety, hostility, and interpersonal sensitivity in those Christians who practiced the Jesus Prayer. There was also an increase in or intensifying of the prayer group participants’ affective relation to God.
This does not mean that every problem disappears, or that prayer is all that is required. This is not the case at all. Far from it. Our problems may be life long. But we should believe and expect that seeking to enter into a direct and immediate personal union with God through prayer will have positive and healing effects through a variety of means.
Pray the Jesus Prayer. Begin with 10 minutes a day for 30 days and pray with effort, attention and warmth, and see what outcome takes place. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. What do we have to lose? What do we have to gain? We are not seeking to please a distant God. We are not guilty that we are not perfect. But in our need we cry out to God who meets us in our need and says, Come to me, with all your burdens, and I will give you rest.