The Jesus Prayer
Fr. Thomas Hopko
The most normal form of unceasing prayer in the Orthodox tradition is the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer is the form of invocation used by those practicing mental prayer, also called the “prayer of the heart.” The words of the prayer most usually said are “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” The choice of this particular verse has a theological and spiritual meaning.
First of all, it is centered on the name of Jesus because this is the name of Him whom “God has highly exalted,” the name given to the Lord by God Himself (Luke 1:31), the “name which is above every name.” (Philippians 2:9-10, cf Ephesians 1:21)
…for there is no other name given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)
All prayer for Christians must be performed in the name of Jesus: “if you ask anything in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:13-14)
The fact that the prayer is addressed to Jesus as Lord and Christ and Son of God is because this is the center of the entire faith revealed by God in the Spirit.
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus answered, “Blessed are you…for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven…and on this rock I will build my Church…” (Matthew 16:16-18)
That Jesus is the Christ, and that the Christ is Lord is the essence of the Christian faith and the foundation of the Christian church. To believe and proclaim this is granted by the Holy Spirit.
…no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. (I Corinthians 12:3)
… every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:11)
In calling Jesus the Son of God is to acknowledge God as His Father. To do this is, at the same time, to have God as one’s own Father, and this too is granted by the indwelling Spirit.
And when the time had fully come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:4-6)
When we cry “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit Himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God … (Romans 8:15-16)
Thus, to pray “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” is already to be a child of God, and already to be certain that the Holy Spirit is in you. In this way, the Jesus Prayer brings the Spirit of God into the heart of man.
“Have mercy on me a sinner” is the publican’s prayer. When uttered with humble conviction it brings divine justification. (cf. Luke 18:9-14) Generally speaking, divine mercy is what man needs most of all. It is for this reason that the numberless repetition of the request for the Lord’s mercy is found everywhere in the prayers of, the Church.
And finally, all men are sinners. To know this is a fact, and to confess it with faith is to be justified and forgiven by God. (cf. Romans 3:10-12, Psalm 14:1-3)
The Jesus Prayer basically is used in three different ways. First as the verse used for the “prayer of the heart” in silence in the hesychast method of prayer. Second as the continual mental and unceasing prayer of the faithful outside the hesychast tradition. And third as the brief ejaculatory prayer used to ward off temptations. Of course, in the actual life of a person these three uses of the prayer are often interrelated and combined.
In the hesychast method of prayer the person sits alone in a bodily position with his head bowed and his eyes directed toward his chest or his stomach. He continually repeats the prayer with each aspiration and breath, placing his “mind in his heart” by concentrated attention. He empties his mind of all rational thoughts and discursive reasoning, and also voids his mind of every picture and image. Then, without thought or imagination, but with all proper attention and concentration he rhythmically repeats the Jesus Prayer in silence – hesychia means silence – and through this method of contemplative prayer is united to God by the indwelling of Christ in the Spirit. According to the fathers, such a prayer, when faithfully practiced within the total life of the Church, brings the experience of the uncreated divine light of God and unspeakable joy to the soul. Its purpose is to make man a servant of God.
…the mind when it unites with the heart is filled with unspeakable joy and delight. Then a man sees that the Kingdom of heaven is truly within us.
When you enter the place of the heart…give thanks to God, and praising His mercy, keep always to this activity, and it will teach you things which you will learn in no other way.
…when your mind becomes established in the heart, it must not remain idle, but it should constantly repeat the prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!” and never cease.
For this practice, keeping the mind from dreaming, renders it invincible against all suggestions of the devil and every day leads it more and more to love and longing for God. (St. Nicephorus, 14th c., Discourse on Sobriety)
To practice the hesychast method of prayer requires always and without exception the guidance of a spiritual guide, one must not use this method unless one is a person of genuine humility and sanity, filled with all wisdom and peace. To use this method without guidance or humble wisdom, is to court spiritual disaster, for the temptations that come with it are many. Indeed, the abuses of the method became so great in recent centuries that its use was greatly curtailed. Bishop Theophan tells that the bodily postures and breathing techniques were virtually forbidden in his time since, instead of gaining the Spirit of God, people succeeded only “in ruining their lungs.” (cf. The Art of Prayer, lgumen Chariton, ed.)
Such abusive and abortive used of the method – itself something genuine and richly rewarding were already known in fourteenth century Byzantium when St. Gregory Palamas defended the tradition. And evidence exists from as early as the fourth century to show that even then people were using the prayer foolishly and to no avail by reducing it to a “thing in itself” and being captivated by its form without interest in its purpose. Indeed, the idolatrous interest in spiritual technique and in the pleasurable benefits of “spirituality” and “mysticism” are the constant temptations of the spiritual life – and the devil’s most potent weapon. Bishop Theophan called such interest “spiritual hedonism”; John of the Cross (16th c. Spain) called it “spiritual gluttony” and “spiritual luxury.” Thus, by way of example from various times and places, come the following admonitions.
Those who refuse to work with their hands under the pretext that one should pray without ceasing, in reality do not pray either. Through idleness…they entangle the soul in a labyrinth of thoughts…and make it incapable of prayer. (St. Nilus of Sinai, 5th c., Texts on Prayer)
As long as you pay attention only to bodily posture for prayer and your mind cares only for the external beauty of the tabernacle (i.e. proper forms), know that you have not yet found the place of prayer and its blessed way is still far from you.
Know that in the midst of all spiritual joy and consolation, that it is still more necessary to serve God with devotion and fear. (St. Nilus of Sinai, Texts on Prayer)
It is natural for the mind to reject what is at hand and dream of something else to come … to build fantasies and imaginings about achievements before he has attained them. Such a man is in considerable danger of losing what he has and failing into self-delusion and being deprived of good sense. He becomes only a dreamer and not a man of continual prayer (i.e. a hesychast). (St. Gregory of Sinai, 14th c., Texts on Commandments and Dogmas)
If you are truly practicing the continual prayer of silence, hoping to be with God and you see something sensory or spiritual, within or without, be it even the image of Christ, or an angel, or some saint, or if an image of light pervades your mind in no way accept it…always be displeased with such images, and keep your mind clear, without image or form…and you will suffer no harm. It has often happened that such things, even when sent by God as a test before victory, have turned into harm for many…who have then done harm to others equally unwise…leading to pride and self-conceit.
For the fathers say that those who live rightly and are faultless in their behavior with other men…who seek God with obedience, questioning and wise humility…will always be protected from harm by the grace of Christ. (St. Gregory of Sinai, Instructions to Hesychasts)
The use of the Jesus Prayer outside the hesychast method for unceasing prayer is to repeat the prayer constantly and continually, whatever one is doing, without the employment of any particular bodily postures or breathing techniques. This is the way taught by St. Gregory Palamas in his short discourse about how unceasing mental prayer is the duty of all Christians. (see p. 130) Anyone can do this, whatever his occupation or position in life. This also is shown in The Way of the Pilgrim.
The purpose and results of this method of prayer are those generally of all prayer: that men might be continually united with God by unceasing remembrance of His presence and perpetual invocation of His name, so that one might always serve Him and all men with the virtues of Christ and the fruits of the Spirit.
The third method of using the Jesus Prayer is to have it always ready for moments of temptation. In this way, as St. John Climacus has said, you can “flog your enemies, i.e. the temptations, with the name of Jesus for there is no stronger weapon in heaven or on earth.” (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 21) This method works best when one practices the prayer without ceasing, joining “to every breath a sober invocation of Jesus’ name.” (Evagrius of Pontus) When one practices the continual “prayer of the heart,” and when the temptations to sin enter the heart, they are met by the prayer and are defeated by grace.
Man cannot live in this world without being tempted. When temptation comes to a person, there are only three possible results. Either the person immediately yields to the temptation and sins, or he tries to ward off the temptation by the power of his will, and is ultimately defeated after great vexation and strife. Or else he fights off the temptation by the power of Christ in his heart which is present only by prayer. This does not mean that he “prays the temptation away.” Or that God miraculously and magically descends to deliver him. It means rather that his soul is so filled with the grace and the power of God that the temptation can have no effect. It is in this sense that the Apostle John has written: “no one who abides in Christ sins.” (1 John 3:6)
He who sins is of the devil…The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God commits sins; for God’s nature abides in him, and he cannot sin for he is born of God. By this may be seen who are children of God, and who are children of the devil. (I John 3:8-10)
One becomes a child of God, born of God in the Church through baptism. One continues as a child of God and does not sin only by continual prayer: the remembrance of God, the abiding in Him, the calling upon His name without ceasing in the soul. The third use of the Jesus Prayer, like the first two, is to accomplish this end: that man might not sin.
The Jesus Prayer
by Fr. Steven Peter Tsichlis
Prayer is the basis of our Christian life, the source of our experience of Jesus as the Risen Lord. Yet how few Christians know how to pray with any depth! For most of us, prayer means little more than standing in the pews for an hour or so on Sunday morning or perhaps reciting, in a mechanical fashion, prayers once learned by rote during childhood. Our prayer life-and thus our life as Christians-remains, for the most part, at this superficial level.
THE CHALLENGE OF ST. PAUL
But this approach to the life of prayer has nothing to do with the Christianity of St. Paul, who urges the Christians of first century Thessalonica to “pray without ceasing” (I Thess. 5:1~). And in his letter to Rome, the Apostle instructs the Christian community there to “be constant in prayer” (Rom. 12:12). He not only demands unceasing prayer of the Christians in his care, but practices it himself. “We constantly thank God for you” (I Thess. 2:13) he writes in his letter to the Thessalonian community; and he comforts Timothy, his “true child in the faith” (I Tim. 1:2) with the words: “Always I remember you in my prayers” (II Tim. 1:3). In fact, whenever St. Paul speaks of prayer in his letters, two Greek words repeatedly appear: PANTOTE (pantote), which means always; and ADIALEPTOS (adialeptos), meaning without interruption or unceasingly. Prayer is then not merely a part of life which we can conveniently lay aside if something we deem more important comes up; prayer is all of life. Prayer is as essential to our life as breathing. This raises some important questions. How can we be expected to pray all the time? We are, after all, very busy people. Our work, our spouse, our children, school-all place heavy demands upon our time. How can we fit more time for prayer into our already overcrowded lives? These questions and the many others like them which could be asked set up a false dichotomy in our lives as Christians. To pray does not mean to think about God in contrast to thinking about other things or to spend time with God in contrast to spending time with our family and friends. Rather, to pray means to think and live our entire life in the Presence of God. As Paul Evdokimov has remarked: “Our whole life, every act and gesture, even a smile must become a hymn or adoration, an offering, a prayer. We must become prayer-prayer incarnate.” This is what St. Paul means when he writes to the Corinthians that “whatever you do, do it for the glory of God” (I Cor. 10:31).
THE JESUS PRAYER
In order to enter more deeply into the life of prayer and to come to grips with St. Paul’s challenge to pray unceasingly, the Orthodox Tradition offers the Jesus Prayer, which is sometimes called the prayer of the heart. The Jesus Prayer is offered as a means of concentration, as a focal point for our inner life. Though there are both longer and shorter versions, the most frequently used form of the Jesus Prayer is: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This prayer, in its simplicity and clarity, is rooted in the Scriptures and the new life granted by the Holy Spirit. It is first and foremost a prayer of the Spirit because of the fact that the prayer addresses Jesus as Lord, Christ and Son of God; and as St. Paul tells us, “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (I Cor. 12:3).
THE SCRIPTURAL ROOTS OF THE JESUS PRAYER
The Scriptures give the Jesus Prayer both its concrete form and its theological content. It is rooted in the Scriptures in four ways:
1) In its brevity and simplicity, it is the fulfillment of Jesus’ command that “in praying” we are “not to heap up empty phrases as the heathen do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them . . . (Matt. 6:7-8).
2) The Jesus Prayer is rooted in the Name of the Lord. In the Scriptures, the power and glory of God are present in his Name. In the Old Testament to deliberately and attentively invoke God’s Name was to place oneself in his Presence. Jesus, whose name in Hebrew means God saves, is the living Word addressed to humanity. Jesus is the final Name of God. Jesus is “the Name which is above all other names” and it is written that “all beings should bend the knee at the Name of Jesus” (Phil. 2:9-10). In this Name devils are cast out (Luke 10:17), prayers are answered (John 14:13,14) and the lame are healed (Acts 3:6-7). The Name of Jesus is unbridled spiritual power.
3) The words of the Jesus Prayer are themselves based on Scriptural texts: the cry of the blind man sitting at the side of the road near Jericho, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me” (Luke 18:38); the ten lepers who “called to him, ‘Jesus, Master, take pity on us’ ” (Luke 17:13); and the cry for mercy of the publican, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:14).
4) It is a prayer in which the first step of the spiritual journey is taken: the recognition of our own sinfulness, our essential estrangement from God and the people around us. The Jesus Prayer is a prayer in which we admit our desperate need of a Saviour. For “if we say we have no sin in us, we are deceiving ourselves and refusing to admit the truth” (I John 1:8).
THE THREE LEVELS OF PRAYER
Because prayer is a living reality, a deeply personal encounter with the living God, it is not to be confined to any given classification or rigid analysis. However, in order to offer some broad, general guidelines for those interested in using the Jesus Prayer to develop their inner life, Theophan the Recluse, a 1 9th century Russian spiritual writer, distinguishes three levels in the saying of the Prayer:
1) It begins as oral prayer or prayer of the lips, a simple recitation which Theophan defines as prayers ‘verbal expression and shape.” Although very important, this level of prayer is still external to us and thus only the first step, for “the essence or soul of prayer is within a man’s mind and heart.”
2) As we enter more deeply into prayer, we reach a level at which we begin to pray without distraction. Theophan remarks that at this point, “the mind is focused upon the words” of the Prayer,”speaking them as if they were our own.”
3) The third and final level is prayer of the heart. At this stage prayer is no longer something we do but who we are. Such prayer, which is a gift of the Spirit, is to return to the Father as did the prodigal son (Luke 15~ 32). The prayer of the heart is the prayer of adoption, when “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit that cries ‘Abba, Father!’ ” (Gal. 4:6).
THE FRUITS OF THE JESUS PRAYER
This return to the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit is the goal of all Christian spirituality. It is to be open to the presence of the Kingdom in our midst. The anonymous author of The Way of the Pilgrim reports that the Jesus Prayer has two very concrete effects upon his vision of the world. First, it transfigures his relation ship with the material creation around him; the world becomes transparent, a sign, a means of communicating God’s presence. He writes: “When I prayed in my heart, everything around me seemed delightful and marvelous. The trees, the grass, the birds, the air, the light seemed to be telling me that they existed for man’s sake, that they witnessed to the love of God for man, that all things prayed to God and sang his praise.” Second, the Prayer transfigures his relationship to his fellow human beings. His relationships are given form within their proper context: the forgiveness and compassion of the crucified and risen Lord. “Again I started off on my wanderings. But now I did not walk along as before, filled with care. The invocation of the Name of Jesus gladdened my way. Everybody was kind to me. If anyone harms me I have only to think, ‘How sweet is the Prayer of Jesus!’ and the injury and the anger alike pass away and I forget it all.”
“Growth in prayer has no end,” Theophan informs us. “If this growth ceases, it means that life ceases.” The way of the heart is endless because the God whom we seek is infinite in the depths of his glory. The Jesus Prayer is a signpost along the spiritual journey, a journey that all of us must take.
The purpose of this pamphlet is merely to introduce the practice of the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer cannot be separated from the sacramental life of the Church and asceticism. The following books are recommended for further study:
The Art of Prayer edited with an introduction by Kallistos Ware (Faber and Faber: London) 1966
The Power of the Name by Kallistos Ware (SLG Press: Oxford) 1974
The Way of a Pilgrim translated by R. M. French (Seabury Press: New York) 1965
Christ is in our Midst by Father John of New Valaamo (St. Vladimirs’ Seminary Press: New York) 1980
The Jesus Prayer by Per-Olof Sjogren (Fortress Press: Philadelphia) 1975
Prayer of the Heart by George A. Maloney (Ave Maria Press: Notre Dame) 1980
The Jesus Prayer
by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom
THOSE WHO HAVE read The way of a Pilgrim are familiar with the expression ‘The Jesus Prayer’. It refers to a short prayer the words of which are: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,’ constantly repeated. The Way of a Pilgrim is the story of a man who wanted to learn to pray constantly (1Thes 5:I7). As the man whose experience is being related is a pilgrim, a great many of his psychological characteristics, and the way in which he learned and applied the prayer, were conditioned by the fact that he lived in a certain way, which makes the book less universally applicable than it could be; and yet it is the best possible introduction to this prayer, which is one of the greatest treasures of the Orthodox Church.
The prayer is profoundly rooted in the spirit of the gospel, and it is not in vain that the great teachers of Orthodoxy have always insisted on the fact that the Jesus Prayer sums up the whole of the gospel. This is why the Jesus Prayer can only be used in its fullest sense if the person who uses it belongs to the gospel, is a member of the Church of Christ.
All the messages of the gospel, and more than the messages, the reality of the gospel, is contained in the name, in the Person of Jesus. If you take the first half of the prayer you will see how it expresses our faith in the Lord: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God.’ At the heart we find the name of Jesus; it is the name before whom every knee shall bow (Is 45:3), and when we pronounce it we affirm the historical event of the incarnation. We affirm that God, the Word of God, co-eternal with the father, became man, and that the fullness of the Godhead dwelt in our midst (Col 2:9) bodily in his Person.
To see in the man of Galilee, in the prophet of Israel, the incarnate Word of God, God become man, we must be guided by the spirit, because it is the spirit of God who reveals to us both the incarnation and the lordship of Christ. We call him Christ, and we affirm thereby that in him were fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament. To affirm that Jesus is the Christ implies that the whole history of the Old Testament is ours, that we accept it as the truth of God. We call him Son of God, because we know that the Messiah expected by the Jews, the man who was called ‘Son of David’ by Bartimaeus, is the incarnate Son of God. These words sum up all we know, all we believe about Jesus Christ, from the Old Testament to the New, and from the experience of the Church through the ages. In these few words we make a complete and perfect profession of faith.
But it is not enough to make this profession of faith; it is not enough to believe. The devils also believe and tremble (James 2:I9). Faith is not sufficient to work salvation, it must lead to the right relationship with God; and so, having professed, in its integrity, sharply and clearly, our faith in the Lordship and in the Person, in the historicity and in the divinity of Christ, we put ourselves face to face with Him, in the right state of mind: ‘Have mercy on me, a sinner’.
These words ‘have mercy’ are used in all the Christian Churches and, in Orthodoxy, they are the response of the people to all the petitions suggested by the priest. Our modern translation ‘have mercy’ is a limited and insufficient one. The Greek word which we find in the gospel and in the early liturgies is eleison. Eleison is of the same root as elaion, which means olive tree and the oil from it. If we look up the Old and New Testament in search of the passages connected with this basic idea, we will find it described in a variety of parables and events which allow us to form a complete idea of the meaning of the word. We find the image of the olive tree in Genesis. After the flood Noah sends birds, one after the other, to find out whether there is any dry land or not, and one of them, a dove – and it is significant that it is a dove – brings back a small twig of olive. This twig conveys to Noah and to all with him in the ark the news that the wrath of God has ceased, that God is now offering man a fresh opportunity. All those who are in the ark will be able to settle again on firm ground and make an attempt to live, and never more perhaps, if they can help it, undergo the wrath of God.
In the New Testament, in the parable of the good Samaritan, olive oil is poured to soothe and to heal. In the anointing of kings and priests in the Old Testament, it is again oil that is poured on the head as an image of the grace of God that comes down and flows on them (Ps I33:2) giving them new power to fulfil what is beyond human capabilities. The king is to stand on the threshold, between the will of men and the will of God, and he is called to lead his people to the fulfilment of God’s will; the priest also stands on that threshold, to proclaim the will of God and to do even more: to act for God, to pronounce God’s decrees and to apply God’s decision.
The oil speaks first of all of the end of the wrath of God, of the peace which God offers to the people who have offended against him; further it speaks of God healing us in order that we should be able to live and become what we are called to be; and as he knows that we are not capable with our own strength of fulfilling either his will or the laws of our own created nature, he pours his grace abundantly on us (Rom 5:20). He gives us power to do what we could not otherwise do.
The words milost and pomiluy in Slavonic have the same root as those which express tenderness, endearing, and when we use the words eleison, ‘have mercy on us’, pomiluy, we are not just asking God to save us from His wrath – we are asking for love.
If we turn back to the words of the Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’, we see that the first words express with exactness and integrity the gospel faith in Christ, the historical incarnation of the Word of God; and the end of the prayer expresses all the complex rich relationships of love that exist between God and his creatures.
The Jesus Prayer is known to innumerable Orthodox, either as a rule of prayer or in addition to it, as a form of devotion, a short focal point that can be used at any moment, whatever the situation.
Numerous writers have mentioned the physical aspects of the prayer, the breathing exercises, the attention which is paid to the beating of the heart and a number of other minor features. The Philokalia is full of detailed instructions about the prayer of the heart, even with references to the Sufi technique. Ancient and modern Fathers have dealt with the subject, always coming to the same conclusion: never to attempt the physical exercises without strict guidance by a spiritual father.
What is of general use, and God given, is the actual praying, the repetition of the words, without any physical endeavour – not even movements of the tongue – and which can be used systematically to achieve an inner transformation. More than any other prayer, the Jesus Prayer aims at bringing us to stand in God’s presence with no other thought but the miracle of our standing there and God with us, because in the use of the Jesus Prayer there is nothing and no one except God and us.
The use of the prayer is dual, it is an act of worship as is every prayer, and on the ascetical level, it is a focus that allows us to keep our attention still in the presence of God.
It is a very companionable prayer, a friendly one, always at hand and very individual in spite of its monotonous repetitions. Whether in joy or in sorrow, it is, when it has become habitual, a quickening of the soul, a response to any call of God. The words of St Symeon, the New Theologian, apply to all its possible effects on us: ‘Do not worry about what will come next, you will discover it when it comes’.
The Jesus Prayer — Sanctifying the Present Moment
Father Kevin Hunt, OCSO
from Living Prayer, Templegate Publishers Springfield, IL, 1966, p. 84 – 88
The Jesus prayer is a very short phrase: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It springs from the word of Jesus that we have in the Gospel of Saint John, where Jesus in his last discourse to his disciples says, “You have never asked anything in my name. Now, anything you ask in my name will be given to you.” The idea of asking in the name of someone is something we’re not too accustomed to these days. We think instead of back door politics: Knock, knock, knock. “Who’s there?” “George sent me.” The door opens and out comes the little money bag and off we go.
In the Near East of Biblical times, “name” meant the presence or reality of the one whose name was called. That’s part of the reason why the name of the God of Israel became unspeakable: the name was never adequate to the reality. So asking in Jesus’ name is making present the full reality of what Jesus is, which is being present immediately to God.
This presence is not a confrontational one. It’s not the presence of speaking with someone on the phone. It is an immediate and absolute union, like the presence of two people in love: not something you intellectualize, not even necessarily emotional. It’s just there.
One of the best examples: two people who’ve been married a long time and have been through the good times and the bad together. One can be in the kitchen and the other in the living room, but they’re completely aware. Or one is doing a crossword puzzle and the other writing a letter, but they’re absolutely present to each other.
The Jesus prayer is a vehicle to achieving that presence with God. Using words makes it easier for us, just as between two people who love each other a glance or kiss makes it happen.
The Christian monastic tradition as a formal way of living goes back to the late third and early fourth centuries. The early monks, like the first Zen monks, were basically an uneducated people. They were the peasants of Egypt and Syria: hard-headed, ignorant, dumb people, at least according to the intellectuals of Alexandria and Jerusalem. At that time the name of Jesus was used as a prayer, in conjunction with various techniques. One of them was even watching your breath, which is so common in Zen meditation.
The monks would go into their cells and sit on small benches, four to five inches high. In Egypt they were made of papyrus; in Syria and Israel, probably clay or wood. Sitting on the bench, they would repeat this short prayer over and over again.
In repeating the Jesus prayer you are vocally making concrete who and what you are exactly at this moment. In Catholic tradition, we use the phrase “sacrament of the present moment,” indicating the reality of God right here. God is present because we’re sitting here, not because we would like to be walking outside. While fully conscious that I am sitting right here, I use this short prayer.
Tradition tells us that the prayer is a complete compendium of the Christian revelation. “Lord”: a term reserved for God, a translation of the word “adonai,” used in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament. “Jesus Christ”: Jesus the ultimate and full revelation, God’s self-giving to us. “Son of God”: expressing the Christian realization that God in this person has given himself completely.
“Have mercy on me, a sinner”: this phrase is the hang-up for many of us. “Sinner” seems to represent all of our faults, all our failures to live up to some standard. I shave my head, my colleague doesn’t: sinner, sinner!
But the term “sinner” has a different significance in this prayer: we accept our condition as limited human beings, with all of the aches and pains that involves. We don’t set ourselves up as being holier-than-thou. We don’t make moral judgments on ourselves or others. In fact, in the Christian tradition, if anybody is sin, it’s Jesus Christ. The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us, “he became sin for us.” In the same way, he becomes sin for the totality of humanity. Christians believe that in Jesus, God himself became man: there’s nothing outside of the human condition that is foreign to, him. He became a human being exactly the way that you and I are human beings. All of my emotions, all of the things that transpire within me are brought into the loving compassion and mercy of God when I repeat the prayer.
The vocal repetition of this prayer creates a rhythm which becomes part of us as we go through life, especially when we go into meditation-and there’s no place like meditation for experiencing the limitations of what it means to be a human being. All of our pains and frustrations come back to us. The greatest problem in meditation is that we start chasing after all of these things, like a dog chasing its tail: around and around she goes, where she stops, nobody knows. “Why did I do this?” “Why didn’t they realize what I meant?” “But of course they should have known.”
To take all of that as it flows in and bring it to this prayer is to bring forgiveness. God’s forgiveness means we forgive ourselves, and in so doing accept ourselves for who we are.
Because I am who I am concretely, right here, right now, I am the, totality of the pain of humanity. I am the pain of what’s occurring in Iraq right now. I am the pain of all those whom I hurt. The mercy of God is poured forth in me and through me upon the whole of creation.
One of the great aids to this prayer over the ages has been beads, such as the rosary. It’s amazing how just making a bead pass through your fingers as you say a short prayer can be helpful to you. It makes you do something simple and physical. The traditional Eastern Orthodox set of beads has one hundred.
A lot of people find it helpful to set a certain number of repetitions a day. In “The Way of the Pilgrim,” the seeker asks how to pray and is told, “Pray continually; this is the way.” How do I do that? “I’ll say this Jesus prayer a thousand times a day. Twenty-eight beads: if I go around this many times a day, I’ll do a thousand.” You reach a thousand. “Then I’ll do two thousand.” You reach two thousand. “I’ll do three thousand.”
And you do it no matter what happens. If someone starts banging an ashcan and you think, “They know I’m in here meditating. Look what they’re doing!,” you’ll never get it done. But if you say, “I’ve got to go around this string twice in the next five minutes,” you’ll do it.
Gradually the prayer travels away from your lips. It’s a good thing to start off saying it aloud. There are even times when you have to go back to doing that. I’ve been in a monastery over thirty-five years. There are still days that I have to go back, moments when I’m as mad as can be with the people I live with. I go into church or go off by myself to meditate, and find that I’m strangling So-and-so. If they were there, aaarrrgghh!
John Climacus wrote a book called The Divine Ladder in the sixth century. He says, “Here I am, walking around the monastery. I go by the cells of hermits and I hear these raging arguments going on. I go in and I knock on the door, figuring that someone is being killed, and a solitary hermit comes and answers the door.” John was one of the great teachers of this prayer.
Or I find myself starving for affection. I go off by myself in the woods and shout “LORD JESUS CHRIST, SON OF GOD, HAVE MERCY ON ME, A SINNER!”
Gradually, it goes from the mouth to the ear. You find yourself running out of breath, running out of voice, just forming the words with your lips. Then the lips stop, and it goes in deeper, to the inner ear. The words are still there. It goes from the inner ear to the breath, by itself, as you inhale, exhale: inhale, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” exhale, “have mercy on me, a sinner.”
We are accepting the totality of our humanity and transforming it. Not making it into an angelic nature, because we’re not angels-we’re human beings. Transforming it into what it is: that is the work of the prayer. Not looking for experiences, visions, special states, the twentyfive levels of consciousness, to walk on water, but to know that this, right now, is Jesus Christ, present to the whole world, in me, through me, because of me.
And so the Jesus prayer becomes a refrain. Driving your car, the Jesus prayer can be in your car. Taking a shower, the Jesus prayer is there. Going to sleep, the Jesus prayer is there. But as you do it, don’t get attached to the Jesus prayer. In the quiet, be quiet. ‘Me name of Jesus after a while becomes, as St. Bernard of Clairvaux says, “honey on the lips, music in the ear, and a melody in your heart.”