On the Jesus Prayer
Updated: Sep 30, 2020
"Pray without ceasing" | Making the impossible, possible.
Saint Paul’s injunction to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:16-18) has preoccupied Christians throughout the centuries. Many thought this was impossible, except maybe for monks, but this is to misunderstand prayer. St Gregory Palamas clearly said: “Let no one think…it is the duty only of priests and monks to pray without ceasing... no – it is the duty of all of us Christians to remain always in prayer.” So how can we - with jobs, families and other 'worldly' commitments - ever hope to be always at prayer?
A helpful definition of prayer is this one by a wise Russian bishop of the 19th century, Theophan the Recluse: "Holy prayer means to consciously stand in the presence of God... and remain there..." Prayer, then, is a state of being as much as it is an act. Specifically, it is an awareness of God's presence that we can carry with us regardless of what we are physically ding or where we are.
To be in this state of awareness takes practice. It is done through the practice of hesychasm.
Hesychasm comes from the Greek word meaning ‘stillness, rest, silence’. It is based on Christ’s commandment: ‘when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray.’ (Matt 6:6). Christians understood this as an ‘internal’ shutting of the door to external thoughts and cares in order to enter into conversation with God without distraction. There are various ways that such ‘stillness’ can be achieved; one suitable method for Christians living in the world would be:
Put aside time – find time every day to practice silence. This is separate time from that used for daily prayers, though it can come immediately after (or before). When starting out, it doesn’t need to be long – perhaps 10 minutes; this can be extended with practice.
Put aside space – the silence of hesychasm should not be understood only literally, but when practicing stillness a suitably quiet place is still invaluable. Even Jesus retreated into the wilderness to pray on a regular basis. Our own ‘wilderness’ could be a spot in the country, the garden, tool-shed or spare room. The most important thing is that there are few distractions and that our wilderness can be returned to again and again.
Put aside distractions – the space we use should be as free of distractions as possible. Nighttime or early morning often have less audible & visual distractions. A darkened room with just a candle in front of an icon or completely closing the eyes can help too.
Put aside thoughts – with external silence and stillness achieved, see now how noisy our minds are! Thoughts, worries and memories will rise up quickly. Ignoring them is what brings true hesychasm. This seems impossible unless we have something to replace them.
The Jesus Prayer
The Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” (or similar) is the one ‘thought’ we can use to drive away all others.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
This is a prayer much recommended to novices on Mount Athos, the spiritual home of St Silouan and his disciple elder Sophrony, and has been recommended to non-monastics for centuries. Elder Sophrony brought the practice of saying the Jesus Prayer from Mt Athos to Western Europe and highly recommended it to people.
Repeating the Jesus Prayer, verbally or silently, calls upon our Saviour to help us in our own feeble efforts. To pay attention our posture can help: standing, kneeling, sitting up straight (not slouching or with feet up). Elder Sophrony was advised to say the Jesus Prayer whilst sitting, with the head inclined downwards into the chest. The prayer would then be said silently with the breathing regulated to the rhythm of the prayer: (inhaling) Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God ... ... (exhaling) have mercy on me, a sinner ... ...
Elder Sophrony advised that these physical, mechanical, actions to accompany the prayer reap rather quick results: we will start to feel calmer and more relaxed. However, he also cautioned that we must also concentrate on the words we are repeating and remember it is a prayer to God. The mechanical methods given above would produce similar calming results whatever words we used. Therefore, if we are not mindful of what we are saying, then the words of the Jesus Prayer simply becomes a mantra and we commit blasphemy by taking Jesus' name in vain (Elder Sophrony's words). In addition, although we might feel some temporary comfort by repeating a mantra while sitting and regulating our breathing, the effects will only be short-lived and we might end up like the seed that fell on thin soil, flowered quickly, then withered away at the first sign of trouble (c.a. Parable of the Sower). Repeated properly with attention, the Jesus Prayer will not only comfort us temporarily, but will begin to make us conscious of the presence of God more often; ultimately the (achievable) goal is to have the prayer become "self-propelling", so that we are truly praying at all times.
So, as Elder Sophrony emphasizes, we must pay attention to the content of this prayer, which is theologically complete despite its short length. As in all good prayers, the Jesus Prayer 1) glorifies God (Lord ... Christ, i.e. Messiah); 2) calls upon the name of Jesus (c.a. John 16:24; Jesus means "God saves"); 3) has a theological content (Jesus is called Son of God the second person of the Trinity); 4) asks for something (...have mercy on me...); 5) is a prayer of repentance (we confess that we are a sinner). The last part - the Jesus Prayer as a prayer of repentance - Elder Sophrony emphasized most strongly. By combining the prayer with a feeling of sorrow over sin, humility and repentance, it truly does have a lasting effect on the person praying.
Another way of preventing the prayer from becoming just a mantra is to say the prayer for a set number of minutes (use an alarm) rather than a set number of times. St Theophan recommends this method so that we can say the prayer unhurriedly without being distracted by counting how many prayers we've done; it also takes into account slight variations in how quickly we say the prayer resulting from variables in our tiredness or physical condition. Whether saying the prayer a set number of times or for a set length of time, a chaplet or prayer rope helps to keep concentration. A prayer rope is usually dyed-black wool woven together into a series of knots with wooden beads at particular intervals; the idea is to move along each knot as we say one prayer, and when we feel a wooden bead we know we've said a particular number of prayers. Many prayer ropes have 100 knots but ropes with less or more are also found; ropes with 33 knots, representing the 33 years Jesus Christ spent on earth are also common.
Initially the Jesus Prayer will be a mental exercise. But if we combine our prayer with our breathing, and use the other methods recommended above, then it starts to become a habit as natural as our breathing – a prayer of the heart. Progress may be swift or slow, but is usually uneven. Some progress will happen quickly, but to make the Jesus Prayer a prayer of the heart may take a lifetime. The key is not to be discouraged; Elder Sophrony wrote: "Practicing this prayer in a strange fashion leads man's spirit to encounter the 'forces' hidden in the Cosmos. It, this prayer, the Jesus Prayer, arouses conflict with the cosmic powers, 'against the rulers of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Eph 6:12)" The Jesus Prayer, then, opens us up to the entire spiritual warfare. This will be overwhelming and it is in having our weakness suddenly exposed that we are driven to God in true repentance, which in turn leads us to say the Jesus Prayer in an even more heartfelt manner. The repentance needed to make the Jesus Prayer properly heartfelt is given by the prayer itself!
And so, with patience and Jesus' help, we will be able to take the Jesus Prayer with us and internally pray in all places, in all our activities and at all times. “And thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” (Matt 6:6)
"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."