The Jesus Prayer
The Jesus Prayer
|"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." [Back to top]|
Fr. Steven Peter Tsichlis
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.
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" (1 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" (1 Thess. 2:13) he writes in his letter
to the Thessalonian community; and he comforts Timothy, his "true child
in the faith" (1 Tim. 1:2) with the words: "Always I remember you in my
prayers" (2 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?
are, after all, very busy people. Our work, our spouse, our children,
our 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" (1 Cor. 10:31).
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" (1 Cor. 12:3).
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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
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).
- 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
- 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
- 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" (1 John 1:8).
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The Three Levels of Prayer
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 19th century Russian spiritual writer,
distinguishes three levels in the saying of the Prayer: |
- 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."
- 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."
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).
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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: |
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
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.
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."
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.
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