He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Joy-Creating Sorrow of the Komboskini

I've written previously about my experience praying with the rosary (which has a very long history), and now seems like the time to move on to an even older form of ascetic prayer with mystical power.  The prayer rope is called a komboskini in Greek and a chotki in Russian, and it is generally used by Eastern Orthodox Christians to recite the Jesus prayer repeatedly.

It is also used by Oriental Orthodox (non-Chalcedonian) Christians in a very similar way, though the prayer used is the shorter "Lord have mercy," which in Greek is kyrie eleison.  The Oriental Orthodox also tend to have different configurations for the prayer rope.  Instead of ropes made of 33, 50, or 100 beads or knots, the Oriental Orthodox might have 41, 64, or 100 beads or knots.

I'm sure that to many people in the West, the prayers of the ascetic hesychasts, who recite very intentionally, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." over and over, seems like a really unhealthy way to go on a guilt-trip so extravagant that even our most worried mothers would not send us on that trip voluntarily.

And I can honestly testify from experience that intense sorrow for my sins, my frequent failures to participate in the radical self-giving of divine love, is one product of praying the Jesus prayer over and over with the help of the prayer rope.  That's why the tassel is at the end of the rope: to dry the tears that are shed for our many sins as we are made keenly aware of them.

I've personally shed tears while praying this way, so I know all too well how effective this form of prayer is for increasing our awareness of our sinfulness.  It reminds me a lot of the Holy Rosary, in which we ask over and over that Mary pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.  Such repeated sincere admissions that we have sinned cannot help but increase our awareness of those times when we have not been as loving as we should be.

But these ancient forms of prayer practiced by the mystics and ascetics are not just elaborate guilt-trips to keep us obedient; the sorrow of recognizing how often we fail to be fully loving to others leads to immense joy.  This joy comes with the knowledge that we have a merciful God who will grant us the grace to become more loving if we but ask it of Him.

And this great mercy is also called to mind every time we recite the Jesus prayer, the prayer that simultaneously reminds of our sins and of the mercy of the one who died on the cross because He loved us so much that He gave all of Himself for us.  How can we not have joy at the realization of such a great love, Love Himself pouring out everything that He is for our sake?

Our joy also arises because we find that through prayer and discipline our lives become gradually more full of love as we more clearly reflect the light of divine love to all people, who are also made in the image and likeness of the divine one who is Love.  Our sorrow burns away all that fills us which is not of love, making room in our hearts for divine love.

As the Scripture says, "Your sorrow will turn to joy."  We do not have to wait for Christ to return on the Day of Resurrection for our sorrow to turn to joy.  He is here with us in the Eucharist, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, as fully present to us as He was to the Apostles in His life and in His death, which were both given because Love Himself had mercy on us.

What greater joy is there than this, to sorrow for such a sacrifice of Love and rejoice that Love Himself has risen to embrace us for all eternity?

Note: The above image is a picture of my 50-knot wool prayer rope that I use to recite the Jesus Prayer.

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