Praying to a Jesus you don’t understand

I just finished Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger. This is the third time I’ve read it, and it gets better every time. I love and can relate to confused Franny, reaching for meaning but not wanting to go too far to find it; and I absolutely adore Zooey, her outspoken, frustrating, know-it-all brother, who actually knows that he doesn’t know it all, and that frustrates him. The story is gorgeously constructed, the words sing, and the characters breathe. I wish I could write like Salinger does. But that’s not why I appreciate it more with each reading.
I’ve written about this before, but the thing I love most about Franny and Zooey is the rant that Zooey goes on near the end of the book. Franny has come home from college and is having a breakdown, due in large part to her desire to embrace the Jesus prayer– a technique that promises the ability to pray without ceasing and thus to see God. The problem is, she can’t figure out why she wants to do this prayer thing and if she’s being just as egocentric and phony as all of the people that bug her and set her on this path in the first place. Hence the breakdown.
Zooey has plenty to say on the subject (having also gone through a phase of wanting to try the Jesus prayer), and most of it just aggravates the situation, but it’s his speech at toward the end of the book that I love and that kicks me in the head every time I read it. Here it is, in slightly amended form.

“…Worse than that, though, I can’t see- I swear to God I can’t- how you can pray to a Jesus you don’t even understand. And what’s really inexcusable, considering that you’ve been funnel-fed on just about the same amount of religious philosophy that I have- what’s really inexcusable is that you don’t try to understand him. … If you’re going to say the Jesus Prayer, at least say it to Jesus, and not to St. Francis and Seymour and Heidi’s grandfather all wrapped up in one. Keep him in mind if you say it, and him only, and him as he was and not as you’d like him to have been. …

The part that stumps me, really stumps me, is that I can’t see why anybody.. would even want to say the prayer to a Jesus who was the least bit different from the way he looks and sounds in the New Testament. My God! He’s only the most intelligent man in the Bible, that’s all! Who isn’t he head and shoulders over? Who? Both testaments are full of pundits, prophets, disciples, favorite sons, Solomons, Isaiahs, Davids, Pauls- but my God, who besides Jesus really knew which end was up? Nobody. Not Moses. Don’t tell me Moses. He was a nice man, and he kept in beautiful touch with his God and all that- but that’s exactly the point. He had to keep in touch. Jesus realized that there is no separation from God.

When you don’t see Jesus for exactly what he was, you miss the whole point of the Jesus Prayer. If you don’t understand Jesus, you can’t understand his prayer- you don’t get the prayer at all, you just get some kind of organized cant. Jesus was a supreme adept, by God, on a terribly important mission. This was no St. Francis, with enough time to knock out a few canticles, or to preach to the birds, or do any of the other endearing things so close to Franny Glass’s heart. I’m being serious now. How can you miss seeing that? If God had wanted somebody with St. Francis’s consistently winning personality for the job in the New Testament, he’d’ve picked him, you can be sure. As it was, he picked the best, the smartest, the most loving, the least sentimental, the most unimitative master he could possibly have picked. And when you miss seeing that, I swear to you, you’re missing the whole point of the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer has one aim, and one aim only. To endow the person who says it with Christ- Consciousness. Not to set up some little cozy, holier-than-thou trysting place with some sticky, adorable divine personage who’ll take you in his arms and relieve you of all your duties and make all your nasty Weitschmerzen and Progessor Tuppers go away and never come back.”

I love this because I think we all do this to a degree, with or without the formality of the Jesus Prayer. We try to emulate the people we admire without really finding out about them. We assume we know what virtue and goodness and perfection is, but in that assuming, we miss the opportunity to really see it. So this is my goal for the coming year- to learn more about who Christ really was. To put my comfortable assumptions aside in the pursuit of seeing true perfection, in the hopes that I will one day be able to come closer to it.

One thought on “Praying to a Jesus you don’t understand

  1. Congratulations on reaching 100 books! I saw Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones on your list. I wonder how you liked it… that book is what made me an avid journal-writer.

    Do you like Flannery O’Connor? You might be interested in her novel Wise Blood. And her short stories are always a fabulous read.

    P.S. That sounds like a great New Year’s resolution. 🙂

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