Didactic Narration Undermines Spiritual Awe in Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer

Striving for a Werner Herzog–ian aura of spiritual and historical awe, Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer journeys to the far reaches of Egypt, Greece, Romania, the Ukraine, and Russia and into the sanctums of monasteries where the titular prayer, often performed in isolation, affords monks and nuns an inner peace that brings them closer to God. Accompanied by Reverend John A. McGuckin, director Norris J. Chumley ventures to these remote desert and forest locales—as well as famed caves, the site of the burning bush, and the spot where Moses struck the rock—as a pilgrimage to the birthplaces of early Christianity. His solemn consideration of these mystical milieus and the holy men and women who inhabit them not only affords a fascinating glimpse at rituals, relics, and icons but also captures a sense of the continued sacred vitality of aged beliefs and customs. Cinematically, however, Jesus Prayer tackles the ancient and the unknown with such repetitive and increasingly unenlightening means that the documentary soon morphs into an overlong travelogue. Moreover, in its didactic narration and constant on-screen introductions, the film loses a good deal of the very silence and mystery it venerates.

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