Have a Short Prayer that you Constantly Repeat
In Maxim #5 of Fr. Hopko’s 55 Maxims of the Christian Life, he exhorts us to “ when your mind is not occupied with other things.” The standard way this is practiced in Eastern Orthodoxy is through the praying of what is called “The Jesus Prayer.” This week’s article, written by Father Peter Orfanakos of St. Barbara Orthodox Church of Orange, New Jersey, is a beautiful introduction to the meaning and value of the Jesus Prayer. The time of Great Lent that we are entering next week, with its increased attention on the care of our soul, is the perfect time to begin this practice or make renewed efforts at incorporating it into our daily practice. I am happy to offer personal guidance on the practice of this most effective spiritual effort.
For centuries, individuals have been striving to develop a closer relationship with God. In our zeal to achieve such a connection, we often times find ourselves influenced by new trends, dynamic personalities or even exotic faiths and teachings. We seem to be searching for that ‘missing’ element in our life that would allow us to ‘feel’ closer to God. The Orthodox Faith has within its essence, the means by which one can achieve a more intimate relationship with God. This does not simply occur by sprinkling some type of ‘secret ingredient’ into the ‘recipe’ of our life, but rather occurs through the nurturing of many individual acts and deeds over time.
As Christians it is important to remember the teachings of Saint Paul and strive to “pray constantly” (1 Thessalonians 5.17), for it is through prayer and meditation that one becomes closer to God. Saint Paul’s seemingly simple instruction however, seems to bring about a whole new set of questions. How do we pray? When do we pray? Must we speak in special tongues? Do we have to recite long texts or prayers? When we pray – how should we pray? How does one pray constantly? All of these are very fair questions which have been addressed and answered by the Fathers and Saints of our Church.
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” So simple, this phrase, this prayer, can be committed to memory in a matter of minutes, so full of awe-inspiring wisdom, that even the most spiritually enlightened person is humbled by its greatness. From the earliest days of Christianity we are given examples of how important it is to pray with utmost simplicity. During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us that when we pray we should not “heap up empty phrases,” (Matthew 6.7) thinking that our prayers will be heard simply for the quantity of the words. Saint John Climacus, (a sixth century monk and author of the great spiritual work Ladder of Divine Ascent) instructs us to “pray in all simplicity” warning us that if we “talk excessively in prayer, our mind can be distracted by our search for words.”1 Saint Evagrios, who lived during the fourth century, teaches us that “the value of prayer lies not in mere quantity, but in its quality.”2 We must also call into account several examples offered to us in the Bible and remember that “one utterance saved the thief. Talkative prayer frequently distracts the mind and deludes it, whereas brevity makes for concentration.”3
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” When we pray, it is essential for us to be both simple in our nature and silent. This is perhaps one of the most difficult elements of prayer to achieve, and yet, one of the most important. The Desert Fathers remind us that it is very difficult to recognize our sins when we are caught up in the turbulence of the day, but when we have an opportunity to be quiet and reflective in prayer, we are able to recognize our faults and seek forgiveness through Christ.4 In order for us to communicate with our Lord in prayer, we must be attentive, alert and able to listen. One of the greatest obstacles facing society today is that we are unable to separate ourselves from the ‘world’ and listen to God’s voice.
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” It is through prayer that we are called to recognize God’s voice, to the point where we no longer question whether it is the voice of God or not. Not in the same sense of being able to distinguish our friend’s voice on the telephone, bur rather a deeper distinction, an inner devotion or prayer, a ‘prayer of the heart.’ The ‘prayer of the heart,’ according to Saint John Climacus is the “stretching out of the hands, the beating of the breast, the sincere raising of the eyes heavenward, deep sighs and constant prostrations.”5 It is unfortunate that many of us are still unaware of the presence of the “innermost sanctuary of our heart.”6 True prayer is the acceptance and feeling of this inner presence and activity. Yet, how do we learn to listen, and allow our prayer of words to develop into a prayer of silence? How do we rediscover, through prayer, Christ’s existence in us?
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” When we begin to develop our prayer life, we must begin with a positive attitude, understanding the many blessings that God continues to bestow upon us and ultimately that ‘every good and perfect gift is from above.’7 This acknowledgement will assist us in gaining the proper frame of mind to establish an open and comfortable relationship with God. Take for example, the account offered to us by Saint Evagrios, when he points out that “when Moses tried to draw near to the burning bush, he was forbidden to approach until he had loosed his sandals from his feet. If then, you wish to behold and commune with Him who is beyond sense- perception and beyond concept, you must free yourself from every impassionate thought.”8We must also free ourselves from every impassionate thought when we pray and communicate with God.
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” The question that confronts us now is, just how does one free oneself from impassionate thoughts? The answer is through humility. Saint Dorotheos of Gaza, teaches us that “pretensions to superiority (pride) cast us down, and that it is impossible to obtain mercy, except by humility.”9 We have received many examples of this in the Bible, for example the Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector, (Luke 18.13) where we are told that the “tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but would beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful on me a sinner.” We are then told by Christ that through his humility, the tax collector, left the temple, justified in the eyes of God. An early abbot of the Church named Mathios said that “the nearer a man approaches to God, the greater sinner he sees himself to be.”10 Concerning the importance of humility in our lives, one of the Fathers sincerely said, “before anything else we need humility: a being ready to listen whenever a word is spoken to us, and to say, ‘I submit,’ because through humility every device of the enemy, every kind of obstacle is destroyed.”11
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” There is an element of structural flexibility to the Jesus Prayer, which allows it to be prayed in several different ways. It can be shortened to “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” or even “Lord Jesus, have mercy.” What remains important is that after one establishes their ‘version’ of the Jesus Prayer, that it be pronounced with love, and repeated. We must be careful though, not to keep changing our minds over which form of the prayer to use, for Saint Gregory of Sinai warns us that, “trees which are repeatedly transplanted do not grow roots.”12
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” The Jesus Prayer can be incorporated in both a freestyle and formal style of worship. This free style of worship refers to the simple and flexible structure of the prayer that can assist in making our prayer life more potent and provides us with a transition from personal prayer to communal prayer in Church. The formal style of praying the Jesus Prayer requires one hundred percent of a person’s attention. It is this type of recitation that is associated with time that has specifically been set aside during the day to pray to the Lord.
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” We have by now, come to the understanding that the Jesus Prayer is never out of place or context. As Orthodox Christians, we are challenged to pray it at all times without ceasing. But how does one go about praying without ceasing? Is this even possible? According to Bishop Theophan, in order for us to pray constantly we are called to keep “the hands at work and the mind and heart with God.”13 We must also take into account that the humble heart of the God-fearing person, “knows perfectly well that nothing good, nothing straight and sure, happens in the soul without the help and the supervision of God, and therefore he does not stop praying unceasingly that God may act mercifully towards him.”14
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” If we examine the Jesus Prayer from a theological viewpoint we may recognize that the prayer contains two chief mysteries of Christianity. “It speaks first about Christ, in the Incarnation by the name Jesus, which was given to him by the angel Gabriel; and in the Trinitarian name ‘Son of God.’ This qualifies the Jesus Prayer as being both Christocentric and Trinitarian.”15 As a devotional prayer, the Jesus Prayer deals with a celestial love of God as well as a heavenly mercy or piety. In the first section of the prayer, we praise God as ‘Lord Jesus Christ,’ expressing our faith and exalting Him as our Lord and Savior. In the second section of the prayer we seek repentance when we say “on me a sinner.” The word that unites these two important aspects of prayer is that of ‘mercy,’ which combines the vision of divine glory and the consciousness of human sin.16 When we pray for God to ‘show us mercy’ we admit our own helplessness while at the same time voicing our cry of hope.
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” The Jesus Prayer consists of a theological and devotional prayer in a dynamic form that allows the prayer to become alive in the person. We need to recognize the power of the Name and the discipline of repetition, and remember to pray with reverence and awe, allowing our intellect to be conscious of our spiritual prayer. If the Jesus Prayer is going to mean anything more than just a mere utterance of words, it will be because of the use of His name. According to Jewish tradition, if you invoke a person’s name, it is as if they are present. Essentially, one makes a name alive simply by mentioning it.17Thus by mentioning the name of Jesus, He becomes even more alive in our heart. The Name of Jesus symbolizes power. We find examples of this throughout the New Testament. In Matthew 6.9 when Christ teaches us to pray The Lord’s Prayer “hallowed be thy name.” In Philippines 2.10 “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” Saint John Climacus, suggests that the Name does indeed hold a certain celestial power when he pronounces to all, “flog your enemies with the Name of Jesus, since there is no stronger weapon in heaven or on earth.”18
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” It is important for us to recognize another crucial factor of this prayer; that of repetition. When we repeat the Jesus Prayer, it must be done with an inward vigilance; mechanical repetition achieves nothing. It is only through a heart fulfilling, and concentrated repetition, that the true power of the Name can be seen. When repeating the Jesus Prayer in such a manner, we can begin to feel our prayers becoming more inward. Through our efforts in prayer, we begin to realize that we are struggling with a lack of unity with God. When we first begin praying the Jesus Prayer it is common to find our mind becoming restless and filled with aimless thoughts. The Fathers of the Church warn us that “the demon is very envious of us when we pray, and uses every kind of trick to thwart our purpose. Therefore, he is always using our memory to stir up thoughts of various things and our flesh to arouse the passions, in order to obstruct our way of ascent to God.”19
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” The invocation of the Name occurs through our repetition of the Jesus Prayer, and seems to establish a form of tranquility within the body. Bishop Theophan taught that in order “to stop the continual jostling of our thoughts, we must bind the mind with one thought, the thought of One only.” When we pray, it is difficult to stop thinking, however, we need to try to fill our minds with good thoughts. The Jesus Prayer allows us to do just that. It provides us with the opportunity to turn our thoughts away from earthly concerns and simply focus on God. Through the discipline of repetition, our focus slowly begins to shift heavenward.
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” The Jesus Prayer, begins as an audible prayer of the lips. In time, it passes beyond the lips, and develops as an inner prayer. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” With each repetition of the now silent prayer, our mind and intellect become more involved in our conversation with God. Our prayer becomes more involved, intense, and spontaneous, to the point where we are no longer reciting the prayer simply with our mouths.
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” We begin to arrive at the point where the prayer descends to the heart. Not the heart that signifies emotion and affection, but that which Boris Vysheslavtsev describes as “the center not only of consciousness but of the unconscious, not only of the soul but of the spirit, not only of the spirit but of the body, not only of the comprehensible but of the incomprehensible; in one word, it is the absolute center.”20 Therefore in order for us to find the true essence of prayer we must allow it to reach the ‘absolute center’ of our heart. In doing so we will discover that the Jesus Prayer becomes not simply a prayer of the heart but a prayer of the mind and intellect as well.
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” The prayer of the heart needs silence and peace. Everything within us and surrounding us must be still and focused. As we begin to strive for this attitude of vigilance and attentiveness, we may begin to experience an inner peace. It is in this tranquil state that the name of Jesus will begin to reside in the innermost chambers of our heart.
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
The Jesus Prayer Article Reference List Notes:
1John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, p. 275
2The Philokalia, p. 71
3The Ladder of Divine Ascent, p, 275
4Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers, p. 67
5The Ladder of Divine Ascent, p, 184
6Kallistos Ware, The Power of the Name, p. 3
7The Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom
8The Philokalia, pp. 57-5
9Eric Wheller, Dorotheos of Gaza, p, 81
10The Desert Fathers, p. 119
11The Desert Fathers, p. 94
12The Power of the Name, p. 5
13The Power of the Name, p. 6
14Dorotheos of Gaza, p. 101
15The Power of the Name, p. 8
16The Power of the Name, p. 9
17The Power of the Name, p. 10
18The Ladder of Divine Ascent, p. 200
19The Philokalia, p. 61
20The Power of the Name, pp. 17-18
Athanasius. The Life of Antony and The Letter to Marcellinus, New York: Paulist Press, 1980.
Brianchaniniov, Ignatius. On The Prayer of Jesus, London: Robert Cunnigham and Sons LTD, 1965.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Climacus, John. The Ladder of Divine Ascent, New York: Paulist Press, 1982.
French, R.M. The Way of the Pilgrim, New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1981.
Maloney, George A.. The Jesus Prayer, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1981.
Monk of the Orthodox Church. The Jesus Prayer, New York: St. Vladimir’s Press, 1987.
Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, Philip, Ware, Kallistos. The Philokalia, Volume 1, Boston: Faber and Faber, 1979.
Payne, Robert. The Holy Fire, New York: St. Vladimir’s Press, 1957.
Symeon. Symeon The New Theologian The Discorces, New York: Paulist Press, 1980.
Vogel, Anthony A. The Jesus Prayer For Today, New York: Paulist Press, 1982.
Wadell, Helen. The Desert Fathers, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1957.
Ware, Kallistos. The Power of the Name, Oxford: SLG Press, 1974.
Wheeler, Eric P.. Dorotheos of Gaza, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1977.
Winkler, Gabriele. The Jesus Prayer in Eastern Spirituality, Minnesota: Light and Life Publishing Company, 1986.
Winkler, Gabriele. Prayer Attitude in the Eastern Church, Minnesota: Light and Life Publishing Company, 1978.
Photos included in Jesus Prayer article courtesy of P. Gagianas, M.D.
By: Rev. Peter Orfanakos