Abba Hyperichius said: “Keep praising God with hymnody, and meditate continually, and so lift the burden of temptations that come upon you. A traveller carrying a heavy burden stops from time to time to take deep breaths, and so makes the journey easier and the burden lighter.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 7.20

Deep breaths. Stop and take deep breaths. This is something for which I can use continual reminders. Thankfully, I have a baby.

Every night, usually around 7:30 or 8:00, Brendan gets sleepy. If he does not go to sleep while Kelly is nursing him, I usually end up putting him to bed. Since I don’t have the natural advantage that she does (nursing), my preferred method is to pace and sway with him while chanting hymns and psalms (he’s a very pious baby).

I am grateful that a few years ago I attempted to memorize the psalms. I got about 12 down, but I only remember about 5 or so word-for-word today. Still, that’s better than nothing. I am also thankful for liturgy that repeats the same beautiful hymns over and over again. Those psalms and hymns have a way of sinking deep within me. So when Brendan is tired and fussy, I act like I’m St. Romanos or someone like that and chant my heart out until he is quiet and asleep.

Putting Brendan to bed can be tiring. He is a big baby. And he doesn’t really do much to support his own weight when he’s tired. And sometimes I put him down just for him to wake up immediately, requiring me to keep going. It is tiring for the body but rest for the soul. What temptations can come when I am holding my little son and “praising God with hymnody”?

The second part of Abba Hyperichius’s advice is to “meditate continually.” In addition to the deep breaths necessary in singing, this is perhaps another place where the metaphor comes from. Hesychasm (from the Greek for “stillness”) is the Eastern Christian tradition of meditation. In particular, it centers around repeating the “Jesus prayer” (“Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) to the rhythm of one’s heartbeat and slowing down one’s breathing through deep breaths. Breathe in: “Lord Jesus Christ…”; breathe out: “have mercy on me….” Whether or not this is precisely what Abba Hyperichius has in mind I am not sure, but the tradition started in the desert, so he likely means something similar by “meditation.”

The tradition has it that by taking time to practice the Jesus prayer in solitude, one can teach his/her heart to pray it continually. I cannot claim to have perfectly achieved this, but I can say that, at least, keeping the practice handy and trying to meditate in this way at all times has been fruitful… when I’ve been successful at doing so.

In any case, I can say that in my experience Abba Hyperichius’s advice is spot on: singing hymns and meditation are truly breaths of fresh air on an often difficult road. Brendan helps by giving me opportunity to practice the former. It is up to me to take time for the latter. Combined, stopping every now and then to take “deep breaths” truly “makes the journey easier and the burden lighter.” It ought not to be surprising that meditation on the name of Jesus has such an effect. After all, Christ himself has said,

Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

Easy and light—so long as we actually take time to stop, take a deep breath, and come to Jesus.