A Beginner’s Journey into the Jesus Prayer
“Mom,” cried the panicked voice of my twenty-year old daughter on the other end of the cell-phone, “there’s been a terrible accident!”
Her words froze my mind to the moment as I struggled to remain calm. Between her sobs and sentence fragments, I discovered that she had sustained minor injuries in a horrific highway collision and that the other driver had been taken by ambulance to hospital. There was little time for more details before a paramedic hijacked our conversation with words of reassurance and a request to come quickly. The address he provided put her on the opposite side of the city from where I had been enjoying a leisurely lunch with a friend. He warned me to avoid the quickest route, as traffic was backed-up for miles because of the accident. It was going to take at least thirty minutes to reach her, I thought. My heart began a slow descent. Inaudibly, I began pleading to Jesus for mercy—for my terrified daughter, for the others involved, and for the unknown that this moment would forever define.
Through my experience with the Jesus Prayer . . . I have been nudged to look anew at the beauty of Christ.
A cloudy summer sky threatened rain as I steadily made my way through the city. I contacted my husband at work, and though he left immediately, I knew that he was at least a forty-minute drive away. Nevertheless, we agreed to bridge the distance by cell phone at regular intervals. Sometime later, however, it was not his reassuring voice that greeted me in the smothering silence, but the voice of the constable who was detaining our daughter for further questioning at the scene. His tone was even and professional as he cautioned me to avoid the site of the accident. “Park nearby,” he advised, “and I’ll call you when we’re finished.”
“Lord have mercy,” I whispered, as a feeling of immense dread threatened to dissolve what was left of my ability to navigate the quickest route.
By some miracle, my husband called soon after to say that he had arrived at the scene and had our daughter in his sights.
“Thank-you Jesus,” I breathed, relieved that his presence would provide her with much needed comfort.
I was within close range now, however, as I neared the final turnoff, a police barricade detoured my hopes of an imminent reunion. When I identified myself to the officer, he refused to defy his orders, despite my protests. And so I waited in the awful silence of a nearby street on the edge of the city. Summer sounds of crickets and birds collided with the noise of a hovering helicopter and the sight of news crews gathering in the distance. The gravity of the moment collected around me like the dampness of early winter. From this place of helpless vigil, the Jesus Prayer that I had uttered repeatedly over the past few weeks reverberated in my consciousness like a fortress against the rising tide of anxiety: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God have mercy on me—have mercy on us all.
As an evangelical Christian in the Anabaptist tradition of Mennonite Brethren, I had heard little about the Jesus Prayer in my circles. In retrospect, it was a desire to practice one new spiritual discipline as the summer began that led me to choose it from among the many other ancient prayer pathways. I was impressed with the simplicity of its practice—one that had been used for centuries to draw men and women into greater intimacy with the living God.
Quite innocently, I began to make room for this prayer in my morning devotions, saying it thoughtfully and reverently for short periods of time. However, it took on new intensity and meaning after the accident. In those uncertain days, when the memory of the crash ravaged our daughter’s emotional well-being, and its reality suspended an eighteen-year-old boy between life and death, I prayed if often and I prayed it with tears. Its remembrance became a gift to me, offering strength and reassurance through the sturdiness of its well-worn words.
What’s more, it also became an avenue of intercession for an unknown family connected to us only by the tragedy of a moment. When concern for this boy’s condition and the thought of his parents’ pain became overwhelming to me, I could breath, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on each one. Leaving them with Jesus in this way brought a significant measure of relief. One writer puts it this way: “By praying the Holy Name over them, by embracing them in our thoughts and hearts, we surrender each one of these to God’s mercy and love and trust that he will do what is best for them.” 1
It was the experience of the Jesus Prayer at this crucial juncture in my life that prompted me to delve further into its history. What I have discovered has added depth and dimension to its words and has strengthened my resolve to practice it regularly. By offering a brief survey of the significance of this prayer in the life of the Christian Church over two millennia, I hope to invite you, the reader, into its wonder. Perhaps you, too, will begin to journey the prayer, and practice the presence of God in this time-tested way.
A STUDY OF ITS ORIGINS
The cry for mercy is a common theme throughout Scripture. The Old Testament, particularly the Psalms, finds the people of God earnestly pleading for Yahweh’s relentless loving-kindness to meet them in their time of need. However, the Jesus Prayer is deeply rooted in the gospel narratives of the New Testament. It was the cry of blind Bartimaeus in Mark 10:47, shouting, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me” (NRSV). It was a Canaanite mother’s plea on behalf her demon possessed daughter in Matthew 15:22: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” And it was also on the lips of the tax collector in Luke 18:13 as he beat his breast in the corner of the temple saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” The fuller form of the prayer, as it has evolved throughout Church history, is a composite of all of these. It is simply: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
This prayer has been at the very center of Eastern Christian spirituality from the earliest centuries of the Church, as a way to practice the apostle Paul’s injunction to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17 NKJV). According to one of its scholars, “Teaching on the prayer of Jesus appears in Church writers of the fourth century such as John Chrysostom and Isaiah the Solitary.” 2 It has been prayed by the Fathers and Mothers of the Egyptian Desert, by nuns and monks in ancient monasteries, and by ordinary men and women of the Orthodox Church since that time. But it was never intended to be the property of mystics and contemplatives in the Christian East. Knowledge of the prayer spread to the West through the publication of a little book called, The Way of the Pilgrim. In this well-known minor classic of Christian spirituality, its anonymous author traces the journey of a nineteenth-century peasant as he wanders across Russia recording his practice and experience of the Jesus Prayer.
The primary aim of the prayer is most compelling. In short, it is to awaken the heart to the presence of Christ and to be enlivened by his love. It is often referred to as the “prayer of the heart,” for the invocation journeys from the lips to the intellect, eventually making its home in the heart. At this level, according to Bishop Kallistos Ware, “it becomes prayer of the whole person—no longer something that we think or say, but something that we are: for the ultimate purpose of the spiritual Way is not just a person who says prayers from time to time, but a person who is prayer all the time.” 3
Ultimately, the thoughtful repetition of these few simple words ushers the heart into the very stillness of God, wherein it is possible to wait and listen and be embraced by his love, despite the bustle of external activity. But such stillness rivals our inborn restlessness and must be diligently cultivated, say its sage practitioners. As Irma Zaleski aptly points out, “God is present to us and loves us all the time, but we are often not quiet and alert enough to be aware of it.” 4 In this way, the Jesus Prayer provides a proven pathway to grow our attentiveness—to turn our gaze from our flighty selves to the person of Christ, and there to encounter his steadfast, loving gaze.
A SURVEY OF ITS CONTENT
Although its words are few, the potency of the prayer, referred to as the “summary of the whole Gospel” by the Ancients, should not be underestimated, as a survey of its content reveals.
First, it is the name of the Lord Jesus Christ that is the powerful centerpiece of the prayer. Protestants in general, and evangelicals in particular, shy away from the language of “veneration” when speaking about matters of faith. For Orthodox believers, however, the name of Jesus elicits the kind of deep respect and reverence that this word intends. Theologians within the Orthodox tradition point to key texts in the New Testament to underline the greatness of the name. It is the name above all names (Phil. 2:9–10), it is the name that saves (Acts 4:12), and it is the name that Jesus, himself, invites his followers to use when making their requests to the Father (John 16:23–24). In Orthodox understanding, “this name has in it God’s power and presence,” 5 not unlike the ancient Hebrew understanding of the name Yahweh. Consequently, uttering the name of the Savior ushers in his deliverance—for healing from that which ultimately ails us. “For the sake of the name of Jesus used by one who prays,” says Bishop Ignatius, “help comes down to him from God, and he is granted the forgiveness of sins.” 6
Second, the prayer is a request for mercy. The Greek word for mercy, eleos, is often translated “compassion,” and as divine or human compassion it expresses itself in action. In Hebrew, the word for “mercy” is hesed, referring to the inexhaustible loving-kindness that flows from God to his people. Old Testament theologian, Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, amplifies its definition: “It refers to care or concern for another with whom one is in relationship, but care that specifically takes shape in action to rescue the other from a situation of desperate need, and under circumstances in which the rescuer is uniquely qualified to do what is needed.” 7 Surrounded by the comforts of twenty-first century living, however, we Westerners are often unaware of our neediness—of our daily dependence on God’s mercy. The problem, according to Frederica Mathewes-Green, is that “we keep lapsing into ideas of self-sufficiency, or get impressed with our niceness, and so we lose our humility. Asking for mercy reminds us that we are still poor and needy, and fall short of the glory of God.” 8
Third, the Jesus Prayer “is a prayer of sinners, not the virtuous.” 9 Amidst a culture obsessed with “self-esteem-ism,” such an admission is unpopular, even among Christians. But as Irma Zaleski observes, “To admit that we are sinners is not a question of neurotic feelings of guilt, a way of assigning blame, but a question of being real.” 10 Why? Because to admit that we are sinners is to admit what is true of us, or more specifically, what is true of our condition. In short, it is to acknowledge that our affections wander—that they are misdirected most of the time because our love and attention is persistently focused on ourselves rather than God.
Subsequently, the Jesus Prayer is a prayer of repentance—of turning away from the sin of self-preoccupation to the person of Christ. Viewed in this way, repentance does not “look backward with regret but forward with hope—not downwards at our own shortcomings but upwards at God’s love. It is to see, not what we have failed to be, but what by divine grace we can now become.” 11 It is an act that marks the beginning of the spiritual journey and a lifelong action that results in our transformation every step of the spiritual Way. Although the practice of repentance has been at the very heart of historic Christianity, it is a practice that is sadly lacking in our own time. The Jesus Prayer invites our re-engagement with this holy habit, starting with the admission that we are fundamentally broken and in need of healing from the inside-out.
In the end, proponents of the Jesus Prayer remind us that it is not a talisman or magic formula, and caution against the mindless repetition of the words. They recognize that it is one prayer among many others, and as such is not the prayer or even the best prayer but one that is initiated in us by the Holy Spirit. In my case, it was a prayer that I “stumbled” upon on the eve of a life-defining moment. It became a gift to me in that desolate season.
Reflecting on that time, I recognize how God’s mercy found us and formed us in ways too wonderful for words. Our daughter discovered the divine strength to move through her traumatic circumstances without experiencing the emotional injury feared at the outset. And the young man involved in the accident experienced full recovery to his body and brain. For this I’m extremely grateful. Suffice it to say that there is much mystery in the ways in which we experience God’s mercy in times of trial and distress.
At the conclusion of this story/study, however, it is perhaps most fitting to recognize the contribution that the Jesus Prayer has made to the Christian faith. It is a contemplative pathway that has been preserved by Orthodox believers throughout the centuries as a way of deepening intimacy with God throughout the day. Like other Christian spiritual practices, it transcends the boundaries that separate our traditions and splice our denominations. If we are willing to look over the fences that too often fracture our unity, we will indeed discover ancient treasures that recover the deeper memory of Christian thought and spiritual transformation. Renowned theologian, Rowan Williams, offers a timely reminder and apt image. In his reflections on the desert spirituality of the early centuries, he counsels that our unity as a global Christian community “exists in the shared gaze toward Christ, and through Christ to the Father.” 12 From this perspective, says the Archbishop of Canterbury, we look “together into the mystery and occasionally nudg[e] one another . . . saying, Look at that!” 13
For me, this picture has particular significance. Through my experience with the Jesus Prayer and with the aid of my Orthodox tutors along the way, I have been nudged to look anew at the beauty of Christ. It is the hope of this beginner that you may be nudged to journey into the Prayer, and along the way, that you may be captured by the wonder of the divine gaze that has always been upon your life.
- Irma Zaleski, Living the Jesus Prayer: The Soul’s Road Home, (New York: Continuum, 2003), 43.
- Ignatius Brianchaninov, On the Prayer of Jesus, (Boston: New Seeds, 2006), 7.
- Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, rev. ed. (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1979), 123.
- Zaleski, 13.
- Lev Gillet, The Jesus Prayer (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987), 84.
- Brianchaninov, 13.
- Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, Ruth, Interpretation (Louisville, KY: John Knox, 1999), 11.
- Frederica Mathewes-Green, The Illumined Heart: The Ancient Christian Path of Transformation (Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2001), 73.
- Zaleski, 30.
- Ibid., 32.
- Ware, 113, 114.
- Rowan Williams, Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another (Boston: New Seeds, 2005), 112.