By Todd French

A response to a public screening of the documentary film Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer on October 20, 2011.

“Without prayer it is not a monk, but a man in a black dress,” says a monk in a black cassock. And so the story begins to unfold of the ancient monologistos prayer, the Jesus Prayer, that has survived since at least the third century. Norris Chumley’s documentary film, Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer, navigates an interesting space between the ancient and contemporary world, giving us a glimpse into the prayer life of the Christian ascetic.

In the ancient world, one only had to walk down the road to an abandoned church or look up to the caves in the side of the hill to glimpse at the holy ascetic in action. In early Christianity, the movement was seemingly unstoppable. The ascetic Jerome (4th C.E) wrote that fifty thousand monks lived in Pachomian communities in Egypt. While the number was likely far smaller, it nevertheless reminds us that Christian ascetic practice was far more common in the past than it is today, now found most profoundly in the rarefied communities we see in Chumley’s film.

The ancient ascetic was present in society, yet seemingly out of touch. The most remarkable among were capable of extreme action that defied the rawest sensibilities. Often they exemplified holiness through their stench, sleepless prayer practices or their confounding of social norms. Holy fools like Symeon (7th C.E.), known for inappropriate behavior like feasting on cake during fast days and entering women’s bathhouses, was intent on showing that his holiness superseded worldly guidelines and transcended the boundaries of hunger and sexual desire. The famous stylites—monks who lived atop columns, some sixty feet in the air, on the outskirts of town—achieved a disconnection with society that could only mean one thing to the ancient passerby: connection with God.

In the past, people sought these holy persons with great zeal. In “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,”  Peter Brown says these figures acted as rural patrons as much as liaisons to the divine. Has this changed over the course of two thousand years? Chumley’s film suggests there is a real continuity, as seen in the practice of reciting the Jesus Prayer. We watch school children kissing nuns’ hands and witness a haunting interview with one ascetic who would not even look up at the camera for fear of stepping into the sin of pride. Hidden in the desert or deep in the woods, these communities still attract tourists and those fascinated by the visage of holiness living in—but not always a part of—our world.

And yet, the film leaves us with a troubling thought that while the holy figure is still present, his presence is increasingly absent from contemporary, particularly American, society. Holiness is itself a troubling and complicated topic. I say troubling because interfacing with the holy has a profound impact on everyday life. Holiness is found in those things that are set apart, that inspire awe and convey wonder. To connect or interface with that which is intentionally removed from the everyday marks the moment as something other. If the modern passerby can no longer glimpse at holiness in an abandoned church or atop a column, where can he find it?

Consider a group of thousands chanting against financial greed in a park in Lower Manhattan and the subsequent transformation of this protest into a worldwide movement. Does coming face to face with someone who has chosen to live in a park, un-housed, for his beliefs approximate a brush with holiness? Is it, like Chumley’s film, a brief moment of interface caused by the unforgettable visage of an ascetic? This is where the film is brilliant. It allows us to experience that troubling glimpse of something so removed from our everyday and yet startle us into recognizing the ‘holy’ figure among us.

Todd French is a doctoral candidate in religion at Columbia University.