READ: John 4:1-26
In the midst of the account of Jesus meeting the woman at the well, we find these words. “When the Samaritan woman came to draw water from the well, Jesus asked her for a drink of water…. Jesus then said, ‘My dear Woman, if you only knew who it was who asked you for a drink of water, you would have asked Him for some water, and He would have given you living water.’ She answered, “Sir, you have no bucket and the well is very deep. How can you possibly get this living water?’ … Jesus then replied, ‘Whoever drinks water from this well be become thirsty once more, but those who drink from this living water that I draw forth will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become as a spring of water within you, welling up for eternal life.’ … The woman then said, “Sir, please give me such water so that I may never again be thirsty.” – John 4:7, 10-11, 13-15
Within the Cloister of Greyfriars’ Abbey is an old stone well, for all purposes, now abandoned. In the early days, the monks would draw water from that well. Yet, this stone well still serves a certain holy purpose. Early on in my novitiate, my spiritual director walked me out to that well. He removed the iron cover from the opening of the well. He asked to toss a pebble in the well with the admonition to listen carefully, which I did. The pebble took a good while in its descent… until finally I heard the faint splash in the waters hidden deep below. “Brother Anthony, ’tis a rather deep well, wouldn’t you say,” my spiritual director asked. “Yes, Brother Elias, it most certainly is.” Then he instructed me to grow as quiet as quiet might be, so that I might listen for the sounds within the well. I listened. And I listened. And I listened. Then in a whisper, Brother Elias said, “Brother Anthony. Can you hear the river that flows deep down below? For deep within this well, a river does flow, a hidden river, an underground river.” I kept listening … and then there came a point where I thought I actually did hear that river … in the faintest, faraway sense, I thought I heard the trickling of waters. Maybe, I wanted to hear it, but hear it, I eventually did. Then my spiritual director Brother Elias said to me, “Let us see if we can help you find the river that flows deep within you!”
With that objective in mind, I began what is known at Greyfriars’ Abbey as the Long Pilgrimage into Prayer. It is a rather rigorous training in its way, much more difficult that I first imagined. On the first day, I had to sit still and quiet for one half-hour, whispering only the ancient prayer known as the Jesus Prayer. It comes in a number of variations, the one I used was, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” For one half-hour, with eyes closed, with each slow breath taken in I would whisper, “Lord Jesus Christ …”, then pause for a moment with held breath, then with each breathing out, whisper the words, “…have mercy on me.” Then pause for a moment and then repeat this breathing prayer over and over again. …For thirty minutes. It felt like forever. The next day, I would do the same exercise for an hour! Then the next day, for an hour and a half. The next day, two. The next day, two and a half. Until by the end of the week, four hours of sitting still and quiet whispering with each breath, “Lord Jesus Christ … have mercy on me.” That last day was torture!
When we met again that next week, Brother Elias asked me about this arduous exercise in prayer. I told him it was difficult maintaining concentration for all that time. “My mind kept wanting to drift off. And I confess, I felt rather guilty in spending all that time simply just sitting and breathing … and I suppose, just praying.” Brother Elias reassured me that my struggle was typical and quite understandable. He said, “That most folks nowadays are busy, chatty souls, not used to listening.” Then he said … “Now, Brother Anthony. This week do the same for four hours each day until we meet again.” I sighed as secretly as I could. And so I did. And as the days went on, those four hours slowly turned from anguish into delight.
Then, at the end of that week, Brother Elias asked me, “Did you find your River, that River that flows deep within you?” The question left me puzzled. Then he instructed me, “Brother Anthony, close your eyes. Now begin thinking the words of the Jesus Prayer … think them over and over … now stop and listen … listen deep within … what do you hear?” After a few moments, I said with whispered astonishment laced with joyful surprise, “I do believe I can hear the waters.” And then he answered, “I know.”