The Jesus Prayer is an ancient prayer of the Church. It is a simple prayer containing just two lines, meant to focus the mind and body for meditation upon God and prepare a receptive heart for him to speak to. The Jesus Prayer is a breath prayer, it is usually prayed silently. While taking a breath one prays, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God.” While exhaling one prays, “Have mercy on me a sinner.” That’s it! Those two simple lines are the Jesus Prayer. So why has the Church found this prayer so helpful throughout the centuries and continues to teach it today? I am glad you asked the rest of this post will be an answer to that question and some more information about practicing the Jesus Prayer.
The prayer started with the Desert Fathers and Mothers, as an answer to Paul’s admonishment to “pray constantly” (1 Thess. 5:17). The Jesus Prayer has been described as a prayer, which leads to prayer. It is meant to be used as a type of bridge to contemplative prayer. You can start praying the Jesus Prayer to align you heart and mind to a place where you can then move into contemplative prayer or a place where you can better practice listening prayer or a prayer of waiting or just resting with God. The Jesus Prayer is meant to be repeated over and over again (many Orthodox Christians pray it using a prayer rope of 50 to 100 knots, praying it on each knot). This does not go against Jesus’ command in Matthew 6:7 to not babble when praying or use many words (to save space and not rabbit trail here, I think I will make this the subject for the next Bible Study Wednesday, so keep an eye out for it). But just briefly it does not because this is not using many words but few words repeated and because let’s face it we all sin constantly and we can ask for mercy all the time. People continued to pray this prayer because it worked; they found God at work in the prayer. The prayer has been written about and described in several spiritual classics, such as The Way of the Pilgrim and The Wisdom of the Desert. Historical texts and ideas can only take us so far, so it is important to suggest some practices of the Jesus Prayer.
I have found there are several beneficial ways to practice the Jesus Prayer.
- One is to sit alone in a room, with a prayer rope or prayer beads (just to give your hands something to do or focus any nervous energy on), with eyes closed, and to silently pray the prayer, breathing in and out until I reach the end of my prayer beads. In this time I try to focus on the Jesus Prayer and listen to its words but also relax and rest in God’s presence.
- I have also said this prayer to myself when I am driving, stuck in traffic, making copies, walking the dog, or walking with the family. At this time I pray it as a calming prayer and so that I can try to pray without ceasing. At these times I will also pray for others, using the Jesus Prayer as a model, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God; have mercy on ______ a sinner.” This is also a good way to remind yourself that God is always with you. I have also found that confessing myself to be a sinner and asking for mercy is a good way for me to remember to be merciful to others.
- Probably the most beneficial way I have found to pray the Jesus Prayer is to use it as a way into contemplative prayer. I sit in a room by myself, in a relaxed position and start to pray the Jesus Prayer. But then after a while I let the Jesus Prayer slip away and journey into the Cloud of Unknowning where I just sit with God. At this point the Jesus prayer has acted as a bridge for me, it started out by allowing me to focus my breathing, and it put me into the mindset of prayer and focusing on God. Then when I no longer needed it to do those things I let it go. But if I lose my focus and need to come back I can take up the prayer again.
I hope these methods will be helpful for you and I encourage you to practice this in your own way and see what works best for you. This is an ancient prayer and the Holy Spirit does move through it.
Question: Have you used the Jesus Prayer before? What was your experience? Do you have a favorite way to practice it; do you mind to share that way?