The Rev. Frank
The Jesus Prayer
Two men go to the Temple in Jerusalem to pray. The first stands by himself and we must assume that he adopts what was at the time considered to be the typical stance for prayer, to stand with your arms raised. It was also typical in Jesus’ time to pray aloud at the Temple. And so the Pharisee stands and says to God for all to hear, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” This first prayer is all about the man praying and how he deserves God’s blessings.
The second man stands off to the side, head down beating his breast. His prayer is one from the heart and he cries out to God, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And it was this second man, in Jesus’ parable who is justified in God’s eyes, for he lays his whole life before God and asks only for mercy, while the first man wants to earn his way to heaven with his own goodness.
This prayer of the humbled tax collector forms the basis for The Jesus Prayer—a prayer central to the Orthodox understanding of Christianity. The Orthodox churches, such as Russian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox were separated by political divisions from Christianity in the west for more than 1,000 years. There is within the Orthodox understanding of Christianity vast depths of wisdom which many of us who live West of Constantinople have never experienced. I want to offer this decidedly Orthodox form of prayer—The Jesus Prayer—as a possible new avenue for you in your life of personal prayer.
I first encountered the Jesus Prayer in the book The Way of a Pilgrim, which I am always handing to someone here at King of Peace. This wise little book is an easy read. Written anonymously in the 19th century, this spiritual classic tells the story of a man learning the Jesus Prayer as a way to pray without ceasing.
The prayer itself is the utmost in simplicity. Merely seven words: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. That’s the whole prayer. This prayer takes as its pattern, the prayer of the tax collector who said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” There is a longer form of the prayer used sometimes which is “O Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” But the most common form is the shorter, seven-word version. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
The first written descriptions we have of the Jesus Prayer come from Saint Symeon, the New Theologian. Yes, that’s the way he is still referred to though his theology probably isn’t exactly cutting edge as he lived at the turn of the first millennium. When Symeon served as the abbot of Saint Mamas Monastery in Constantinople, he stressed, in sermons that survive today, that Christianity becomes meaningful only when the living Christ is encountered personally. As a means of accomplishing this encounter, Symeon wrote of what he called interior prayer. He found it difficult to put the practice of prayer into words. Symeon wrote, “Interior prayer is truly marvelous but it is difficult to explain. For those without practical experience it seems not only incomprehensible but incredible.”
For Symeon, the goal was a prayer from the heart without the need of or use of intellect. There was no need to craft well-written prayers. All one needs is a desire to open up his or her heart to God. Symeon said this, “Your mind should guard your heart in time of prayer; the mind should constantly descend into the heart and from the depths of the heart offer up prayer to God.”
For Symeon and the Orthodox tradition of prayer that followed him, the prayer of the heart was what we now call The Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”
Saint Gregory of Sinai wrote of the importance of the way one breathes while saying this prayer. He said, “Regulate your breathing also, because rhythmic breathing can disperse distracting thoughts, do not pay attention to them regardless of whether they are good or not.”
The way I do this is to breathe in while thinking Lord Jesus Christ, and then exhale while thinking have mercy on me. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Try this prayer with me. I’ll say the words. You just think them and breathe in and out with the words.
Lord Jesus Christ, have
mercy on me.
Nicephorous the Solitary wrote, “You know that breathing brings air into the heart. And so sit quietly and take your mind and lead it by the path of breathing into the very heart and hold it there; do not give it freedom to escape as it would wish to.” Nicephorous taught that the words of the simple prayer give your mind something on which to focus attention while your heart prays beyond words to God.
For the Orthodox monks who developed and passed down this practice if interior prayer, the goal was nothing more or less than leading one’s own heart into God’s presence. This was not a way to pray for something, but a way to be with God. This form of prayer was never taught to be a quick fix or an easy path. Nicephorous emphasized patience in using the Jesus Prayer. He wrote, “patiently continue with this activity for some time, and a way to the heart will be opened for you without any doubt. We have learned this by experience. If you do this with great desire and attention, the entrance into the heart will bring about a host of virtues: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, humility and others.”
If this all sounds a bit like transcendental meditation or some other iffy new age practice, remember that The Jesus Prayer has been practiced within the Christian Church for more than 1,000 years that we know of by millions of Christians. Those who taught the Jesus Prayer were always careful to note that the content of the prayer is Christ and the experience is not of ourselves, but of a pathway to God.
Callistus and Ignatius wrote of this saying, “Note carefully, however, that the essence of this achievement consists in an earnest and undistracted calling on our Lord Jesus Christ and not merely on the descent into the heart by way of breathing and sitting in a secluded and dimly lit place.”
My own experience of using The Jesus Prayer has evolved. After reading The Way of a Pilgrim, I began to try practicing the breathing and the prayer while commuting. I was in seminary and working at a church in Maryland. That gave me a 45-minute commute each way twice a week. I took the driving time to clear my mind and as much as possible have no intentions on my mind other than opening up to God. I would breathe in thinking Lord Jesus Christ and breath out thinking have mercy on me. As I drove, and prayed, I would often find that my mind had wandered and I was no longer focused on the prayer. I would just bring myself back to the prayer without getting upset and I would start again. Breathing in thinking Lord Jesus Christ and breathing out thinking have mercy on me. Over and over.
In time, it came to be easier to stay with the prayer. Then I would have this odd sensation at times as if the prayer never stopped. I might get out at a gas station and fill up the car. Of course, I would quit the intentional breathing, or should I say attention to my breathing, and the prayer. But once on the road again and starting once more with the prayer, there was the feeling that I had never fully stopped being in an attitude of prayer.
In the years since, I have come and gone with use of the prayer, but find it often drawing me back. A deceptively simple way to open myself up to God’s presence without exactly asking for anything. Over time I have come to see that “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” says the same thing to me as “Your will be done on earth as in heaven.” The Jesus Prayer is a prayer for whatever our Lord has for us. Not a prayer demanding some set solution, but a prayer open to whatever is God’s mercy.
Once I came to see that, I started to use the prayer in a way I have never seen written or discussed. Yes, I know that The Jesus Prayer is an interior prayer, a prayer for contemplation. Yet I started to use the prayer to pray for others. Sitting at the bedside of my wife’s dying grandmother, Hulda. I was grieving myself and all out of words, so I matched my breathing to hers and prayed, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on Hulda.” Her breath, my breath, one prayer. Yes, there were the words I was thinking, but it was and remains a prayer beyond words, a prayer for when words have run out of there power.
Since then, I have prayed that way at other bedsides, in courtrooms, and while driving and holding someone else before God in prayer. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on” and then I add the name of the person for whom I want to pray.
My wife, Victoria, also gave me an Orthodox prayer rope. Knotted wool with 100 knots for 100 prayers in one revolution. The Orthodox prayer rope is usually prayed through three times in a row, though sometimes I do just go around once. The feel of the knots in my hand, the feeling of my own breath and the prayer which is thought rather than said, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”
This whole movement of prayer started with Jesus parable from our Gospel reading this morning. So much practice of prayer from one short teaching. Yet, there is deep wisdom in it. A deeper understanding of God in being humble enough to stop giving God the answers we are seeking, and instead just seeking the God who answers the prayers we don’t even know how to put into words.
This form of prayer will not be for everyone here this morning. But if this seems like something God might be challenging you to try, then be sure not to forget the advice of Nicephorous the Solitary who said, “patiently continue with this activity for some time, and a way to the heart will be opened for you without any doubt. We have learned this by experience.”
Lord Jesus Christ, have
mercy on me.