Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer
Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023 at 4 p.m. on KPBS 2 (Not available in the PBS App)
In 2003, Emmy Award winning filmmaker, author and theologian, Dr. Norris J. Chumley and historian and author Professor John A. McGuckin embarked on a journey of a lifetime. Their goal was to trace and document the origins of early Christian monastic life and to meet the keepers of thirteen holy sites in the regions where Christianity and the church began.
Over the course of eight years, they gradually gained the trust of the most eminent patriarchs, archbishops, abbots, abbesses, monks and nuns who allowed them unprecedented access to the inner sancta of these sacred sites—never before seen by the outside world. Their travels took them to the cave of St. Antony in Egypt; St. Catherine’s monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai; across the Mediterranean to the Greek peninsula of Mt. Athos, to the forests of Transylvania in Eastern Europe, Ukraine, and finally to Russia.
Along the way, they repeatedly discover the use of a simple and elegant ancient prayer. Known by generations of Eastern Christians as the Jesus Prayer, it is one of the earliest and most widely practiced prayer rituals of the ancient Church. The prayer has been chanted in remote caves and active monasteries for centuries but is largely unknown to the Western World, until now. Many say that with this prayer, it is possible to communicate directly with God.
We meet a broad spectrum of male and female monastics, including a former atheist and professor of political science (specializing in Marxism) from New Zealand and now the spiritual master of St. Antony’s Monastery in the Red Sea Mountains of Egypt (the first monastery ever erected at the burial site of a canonized ascetic).
On the island of Serifos, Greece, a solitary monk maintains the buildings and exquisite grounds of an otherwise empty monastery. Abbess Josephina at Varatec Monastery in Transylvania brings us into her private cottage and demonstrates the ancient Jesus Prayer on camera.
We meet a young Ukrainian priest who, raised under the Soviet regime, came to his calling during the “Second Spring” in the early 1990s. Eminent Romanian scholar and priest, Father Teofil, blind since birth and author of volumes of influential theology, teaches us that we need to make a bridge between mind and heart.
In stark contrast to the remote cave and nearly empty ancient church of St. Antony, the film concludes with the newly appointed Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, performing his exquisite ritual duties to thousands of parishioners at Sergiyev Posad Monastery near Moscow.
Like the illuminated icons among the spiritual treasures on this journey of discovery, the very presence of “Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer” exerts more than material influence. By a combination of academic and historical seriousness, a patient camera and an enveloping calm, this film and book seem illuminated from within. Without exaggeration, a patient viewing of the film or reading of the book has the effect of contemplative prayer, bringing at minimum a sensation of profound peace.
“This is a documentary film and text, but not in the traditional sense,” says Chumley “…it utilizes an apophatic mode: that of negation, or a process of elimination…it’s a study in essences and in absences: what is not spoken is as important or more important than what is.”
With this unique weave of intellectual authority and respectful sense of wonder "Mysteries Of The Jesus Prayer" is accessible to any audience regardless of one’s religious conviction, and will work as a catalyst for understanding the core spiritual nature of Christian religious life and its earliest roots of devotional prayer and practice.
By Norris J. Chumley, Ph.D. and John A. McGuckin, Ph.D. is a production of Magnetic Arts, LLC, New York. Fiscal sponsor: the Hartley Film Foundation. The stand-alone book is written by Norris J. Chumley, Ph.D. and published by HarperOne. Distributed by American Public Television.