The Jesus Prayer
John Twistletonlooks at the spirituality and use of this Orthodox prayer
‘Be so kind, Reverend Father, as to show me -what prayer without ceasing means, and how it is learnt?' ‘The continuous interior Prayer of Jesus is a constant uninterrupted calling upon the divine Name of Jesus with the lips, in the spirit, in the heart; -while forming a mental picture of his constant presence, and imploring his grace, during every occupation, at all places, even during sleep. The appeal is couched in these terms, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, [Son of God] have mercy on me [a sinner]'. One who accustoms himself to this appeal experiences as a result so deep a consolation and so great a need to offer the prayer always, that he can no longer live without it, and it will continue to voice itself within him of its own accord. Now do you understand -what prayer without ceasing is?' ‘Yes, indeed, Father, and in God's name teach me how to gain the habit of it, I cried, filled with joy'. ‘Read this book', he said.
These words, from the Russian classic Way of a Pilgrim, chime with the call to spiritual fruitfulness in the Gospel. ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.'
The Chapter headings of my own book Using the Jesus Prayer: Steps to a Simpler Christian Life (Bible Reading Fellowship, 2014) pick up the simplifying power of the Jesus Prayer, which is to me a simple discovery, a simple choice, and a simple prayer that leads to a simpler mentality, worship, devotion, and life.
These are great claims and I wouldn't make them unless fuelled by a ‘eureka' moment. Mine was when the Jesus Prayer – which I'd known about for 30 years – became a simple focus for a life of overbearing complexity.
In 2007 I had many things on the boil, with plenty of spiritual interests as a diocesan mission and renewal adviser; but I needed a gift of God to get me back to basics in my Christian discipleship. A sabbatical in Guyana did this for me. I came back with the gift of continuous prayer spoken of by St Paul in 1 Thessalonians: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Buy why did I write a book about 12 words? Because too many spiritual seekers are looking to the meditation techniques of eastern religion, and have not heard of the Jesus Prayer; because of Christians I know burdened by anxiety and sorely in need of finding what's most important, which is hour by hour centering upon the Lord; and because I have discovered riches worth sharing from the Eastern Orthodox tradition. The Jesus Prayer is a simplification to life, and I know it because it's simplified my life.
Repetition of the ancient Jesus Prayer fulfils Paul's invitation to pray without ceasing and can serve as entry into a simpler and more spacious approach to living, including freedom from anxiety.
The prayer expresses the good news of Christianity. It affirms both the coming of the Saviour and our need for his salvation. Based on incidents in the life of Our Lord it combines St Peter's act of faith in Jesus – "You are the Son of God" (cf Matt 16.16) – with the cry of the Publican – "have mercy upon me, a sinner" (Luke 18.13b).
It also exalts "the name which is above every name" (Phil 2.10b), because you can't repeat the name of Jesus with a good intention without touching his person, God's person. In my experience it comes into its own as an extension of sacramental communion. Fr Sergei Bulgakov writes:
The Name of Jesus, present in the human heart, communicates to it the power of deification. . . Shining through the heart, the light of the Name of Jesus illuminates all the universe.
The Jesus Prayer is thoroughly evangelical and uncompromisingly catholic. To pray it continually is to centre upon the good news of Jesus Christ with the faith and prayer of the church through the ages. This gospel encounter is in recollected repetition of the Holy Name of Jesus, which is found eventually to convey his close presence. The Jesus Prayer of Eastern Orthodoxy is said to help those with overactive minds because it fills the mind with the thought of Jesus. That is certainly my experience. It could be yours if you try it and persevere.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. ND
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