The Jesus Prayer

LORD JESUS CHRIST,

SON OF GOD,

HAVE MERCY ON ME,

A SINNER

When I was a theological student in London I read for the first time that little Russian classic called “The Way of a Pilgrim” which had been translated into English by an Anglican priest, R.M. French. “The Pilgrim Continues His Way” is it’s sequel. I was fascinated by it. It is the story of a Russian peasant who discovered the Jesus Prayer which is “LORD JESUS CHRIST, SON OF GOD, HAVE MERCY ON ME, A SINNER’. The prayer became his life and his life became the prayer. It was a vocation.

I read the book in the early fifties, but it was not until 1962 that the Jesus Prayer became my prayer, almost suddenly, and has remained so ever since. When I have tried other ways of prayer in my personal devotion I have been drawn back to The Jesus Prayer. It seems to have become my vocation also,

The use of the Jesus Prayer is not the one and only way of prayer, but it does have a long history. It’s roots live in the Gospels. The blind Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus, “Son of David have mercy on me” (Mk 10: 46-52) and in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, the latter prays “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Lk 18: 9-14). The early Christian Fathers, particularly of the Eastern part of the church, developed and taught this prayer so thoroughly that it has become part of the Living Tradition conveyed from one generation to the next. People of the Orthodox churches are taught it from an early age; and for the monks of Mount Athos the saying of the Jesus Prayer is as important as their liturgical prayer.

In the West, devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus has not been unknown – St Anselm and the Cistercians, St Francis and the Franciscans, the English mystics Walter Hilton and Richard Rolle are among those who have encouraged prayer addressed to the Name of Jesus.

With migration of people from countries where the Orthodox tradition has been strong to other parts of the world the Jesus Prayer, as practised by the Orthodox, has with Icons become Universal. Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Roman Catholics and others have (as it were) taken the Jesus Prayer into their systems.

The Jesus Prayer is one which is slowly repeated. It is not a mantra, but a definite invocation to the Son of God. Being explicitly addressed to the Second Person of the Trinity, the First Person is implicitly included. Moreover, St Paul writes that no-one can call Jesus ‘Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor: 1-23). Thus the Jesus Prayer is Trinitarian.

The two emphatic words are Jesus and Mercy. The name ‘Jesus’ meaning Saviour is the name of grace and power. It is a sacramental word. By praying the Holy Name of Jesus, one is filled with this grace and power. Through Him one is united with the Father in the Holy Spirit. The word ‘mercy’ is used frequently in both Scripture and Liturgy. By asking for mercy one is praying for cleansing, healing and strengthening, for reconciliation and renewal.

The full form of the prayer, as given above, may be lengthened or shortened according to one’s inclination. One might lengthen it by praying ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, by the prayers of your Blessed Mother Mary, have mercy on me’. Or one might shorten it to ‘Lord Jesus, have mercy’ or ‘Jesus Christ’ or ‘Jesus, mercy’. It could then be used as a mantra. The words may be combined with one’s breathing. The first few words ‘Lord Jesus Christ, son of God’ are said as one breathes in, and the second part, ‘have mercy on me a sinner’ as one breathes out. However, this combining of the Prayer with breathing is not essential. Some find it helpful. And unlike the man in “The Way of a Pilgrim”there is no need to count the number of times one says the Prayer.

The words of the Prayer are windows into God – they are means of grace prayed first with the lips and then with the mind while the mind is brought into the heart. Fundamentally the Jesus Prayer is the prayer of the heart. It is not a discursive prayer of the intellect or the imagination. It is a prayer which centres one’s attention on the Son of God; it aligns the will with the Will of God. Although the words are repeated calmly and slowly with meaning, but not with forced emotion, they are not vain repetition. They are not mumbo jumbo.

There may be moments when one is moved not to use any words but to remain still and quiet in the Presence of God, returning to the words when that is necessary. For the Jesus Prayer is one of adoration, petition and oblation. It expresses human weakness in the presence of the all-holiness of God.

Occasionally one may vary the repetition of the Prayer by putting in the ‘Hail Mary’ or the ‘Trisagion’ (Holy God, holy and strong, holy and immortal have mercy on us). Some think it is a selfish prayer ‘have mercy on me’. No genuine prayer is selfish if prayed with humility – it is prayed in and with the Mystical Body of Christ and related to the whole cosmos. But if one is uncomfortable with the singular form one can pray ‘have mercy on us’.

When the Jesus Prayer is prayed persistently and regularly it has the effect of unifying thoughts, emotions and desires which often shoot off in conflicting directions, resulting for some in nervousness and stress. The Prayer harmonises mind, heart and will and is expressed through the body. Through the prayer, the Holy Spirit is at work enabling the person praying to acquire the gifts of the Spirit and to show forth the fruits of the Spirit in daily life. Inner calmness is one of the consequences of the frequent use of the Jesus Prayer. St Seraphim of Sarov said “acquire inner stillness and thousands around you will find salvation”.

The Jesus Prayer may be prayed formally or informally. Yet to pray it informally one needs to pray it formally. To do this, time needs to be given to the Prayer. This may vary according to circumstances and the stage one is in on the journey of faith. It may be fifteen minutes, half-an-hour, or more. It is best to close the eyes and pray silently. A prayer rope or rosary may help concentration and the avoidance of fidgeting but is not essential.

All sorts of thoughts may come rushing into mind while one is attempting to pray. Thinking cannot be prevented any more than breathing can. Yet these are not to be harboured. Attention must be turned back to the words of the Prayer and through the words to the Person of the Prayer – Our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus the Jesus Prayer enables those who use it to be centred on God.

As a result of regular formal prayer one is able to use the Jesus Prayer informally in all sorts of surroundings and situations – while walking, while travelling, while waiting, ata meeting or appointment, while going off to sleep and when awakening. No time is wasted when using the Jesus Prayer. For it is our intercessory prayer not only for oneself but also for the world, the church and all whom one sees, meets and contacts.

When one is concentrating on other things, especially in doing one’s work, the Prayer is still going on in the sub-conscious and the unconscious. From time to time it may come welling up involuntarily from within. When that happens one is known to be living the Jesus Prayer. The person who prays becomes the prayer. The Prayer and the Christ, the heavenly Intercessor, are one in the Holy Spirit. Just as the Father and Christ are one so “in Christ” those who pray are united with the Father too.

Praying the Jesus Prayer is not a substitute for the reflective reading of Holy Scripture and other writings. Nor is it a substitute for the offering of the Holy Eucharist with the sacrament of communion. They enrich each other; they look to the coming of the Kingdom.

Br Brian ssf.

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