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The Jesus Prayer

The most nor­mal form of unceas­ing prayer in the Ortho­dox tra­di­tion is the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer is the form of invo­ca­tion used by those prac­tic­ing men­tal prayer, also called the “prayer of the heart.” The words of the prayer most usu­al­ly said are “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mer­cy on me a sin­ner.” The choice of this par­tic­u­lar verse has a the­o­log­i­cal and spir­i­tu­al meaning.

First of all, it is cen­tered on the name of Jesus because this is the name of Him whom “God has high­ly exalt­ed,” the name giv­en to the Lord by God Him­self (Luke 1:31), the “name which is above every name.” (Philip­pi­ans 2:9–10, cf Eph­esians 1:21)

…for there is no oth­er name giv­en among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)

All prayer for Chris­tians must be per­formed in the name of Jesus: “if you ask any­thing in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:13–14)

The fact that the prayer is addressed to Jesus as Lord and Christ and Son of God is because this is the cen­ter of the entire faith revealed by God in the Spirit.

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Liv­ing God.”

And Jesus answered, “Blessed are you…for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven…and on this rock I will build my Church…” (Matthew 16:16–18)

That Jesus is the Christ, and that the Christ is Lord is the essence of the Chris­t­ian faith and the foun­da­tion of the Chris­t­ian church. To believe and pro­claim this is grant­ed by the Holy Spirit.

…no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spir­it. (I Corinthi­ans 12:3)

… every tongue should con­fess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glo­ry of God the Father. (Philip­pi­ans 2:11)

In call­ing Jesus the Son of God is to acknowl­edge God as His Father. To do this is, at the same time, to have God as one’s own Father, and this too is grant­ed by the indwelling Spirit.

And when the time had ful­ly come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adop­tion as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spir­it of His Son into our hearts, cry­ing “Abba! Father!” (Gala­tians 4:4–6)

When we cry “Abba! Father!” it is the Spir­it Him­self bear­ing wit­ness with our spir­it that we are chil­dren of God… (Romans 8:15–16)

Thus, to pray “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” is already to be a child of God, and already to be cer­tain that the Holy Spir­it is in you. In this way, the Jesus Prayer brings the Spir­it of God into the heart of man.

Have mer­cy on me a sin­ner” is the publican’s prayer. When uttered with hum­ble con­vic­tion it brings divine jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. (cf. Luke 18:9–14) Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, divine mer­cy is what man needs most of all. It is for this rea­son that the num­ber­less rep­e­ti­tion of the request for the Lord’s mer­cy is found every­where in the prayers of, the Church.

And final­ly, all men are sin­ners. To know this is a fact, and to con­fess it with faith is to be jus­ti­fied and for­giv­en by God. (cf. Romans 3:10–12, Psalm 14:1–3)

The Jesus Prayer basi­cal­ly is used in three dif­fer­ent ways. First as the verse used for the “prayer of the heart” in silence in the hesy­chast method of prayer. Sec­ond as the con­tin­u­al men­tal and unceas­ing prayer of the faith­ful out­side the hesy­chast tra­di­tion. And third as the brief ejac­u­la­to­ry prayer used to ward off temp­ta­tions. Of course, in the actu­al life of a per­son these three uses of the prayer are often inter­re­lat­ed and combined.

In the hesy­chast method of prayer the per­son sits alone in a bod­i­ly posi­tion with his head bowed and his eyes direct­ed toward his chest or his stom­ach. He con­tin­u­al­ly repeats the prayer with each aspi­ra­tion and breath, plac­ing his “mind in his heart” by con­cen­trat­ed atten­tion. He emp­ties his mind of all ratio­nal thoughts and dis­cur­sive rea­son­ing, and also voids his mind of every pic­ture and image. Then, with­out thought or imag­i­na­tion, but with all prop­er atten­tion and con­cen­tra­tion he rhyth­mi­cal­ly repeats the Jesus Prayer in silence — hesy­chia means silence — and through this method of con­tem­pla­tive prayer is unit­ed to God by the indwelling of Christ in the Spir­it. Accord­ing to the fathers, such a prayer, when faith­ful­ly prac­ticed with­in the total life of the Church, brings the expe­ri­ence of the uncre­at­ed divine light of God and unspeak­able joy to the soul. Its pur­pose is to make man a ser­vant of God.

…the mind when it unites with the heart is filled with unspeak­able joy and delight. Then a man sees that the King­dom of heav­en is tru­ly with­in us.

When you enter the place of the heart…give thanks to God, and prais­ing His mer­cy, keep always to this activ­i­ty, and it will teach you things which you will learn in no oth­er way.

…when your mind becomes estab­lished in the heart, it must not remain idle, but it should con­stant­ly repeat the prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mer­cy on me!” and nev­er cease.

For this prac­tice, keep­ing the mind from dream­ing, ren­ders it invin­ci­ble against all sug­ges­tions of the dev­il and every day leads it more and more to love and long­ing for God. (St. Nicepho­rus, 14th c., Dis­course on Sobriety)

To prac­tice the hesy­chast method of prayer requires always and with­out excep­tion the guid­ance of a spir­i­tu­al guide, one must not use this method unless one is a per­son of gen­uine humil­i­ty and san­i­ty, filled with all wis­dom and peace. To use this method with­out guid­ance or hum­ble wis­dom, is to court spir­i­tu­al dis­as­ter, for the temp­ta­tions that come with it are many. Indeed, the abus­es of the method became so great in recent cen­turies that its use was great­ly cur­tailed. Bish­op Theo­phan tells that the bod­i­ly pos­tures and breath­ing tech­niques were vir­tu­al­ly for­bid­den in his time since, instead of gain­ing the Spir­it of God, peo­ple suc­ceed­ed only “in ruin­ing their lungs.” (cf. The Art of Prayer, lgu­men Chari­ton, ed.)

Such abu­sive and abortive used of the method — itself some­thing gen­uine and rich­ly reward­ing were already known in four­teenth cen­tu­ry Byzan­tium when St. Gre­go­ry Pala­mas defend­ed the tra­di­tion. And evi­dence exists from as ear­ly as the fourth cen­tu­ry to show that even then peo­ple were using the prayer fool­ish­ly and to no avail by reduc­ing it to a “thing in itself” and being cap­ti­vat­ed by its form with­out inter­est in its pur­pose. Indeed, the idol­a­trous inter­est in spir­i­tu­al tech­nique and in the plea­sur­able ben­e­fits of “spir­i­tu­al­i­ty” and “mys­ti­cism” are the con­stant temp­ta­tions of the spir­i­tu­al life — and the devil’s most potent weapon. Bish­op Theo­phan called such inter­est “spir­i­tu­al hedo­nism”; John of the Cross (16th c. Spain) called it “spir­i­tu­al glut­tony” and “spir­i­tu­al lux­u­ry.” Thus, by way of exam­ple from var­i­ous times and places, come the fol­low­ing admonitions.

Those who refuse to work with their hands under the pre­text that one should pray with­out ceas­ing, in real­i­ty do not pray either. Through idleness…they entan­gle the soul in a labyrinth of thoughts…and make it inca­pable of prayer. (St. Nilus of Sinai, 5th c., Texts on Prayer)

As long as you pay atten­tion only to bod­i­ly pos­ture for prayer and your mind cares only for the exter­nal beau­ty of the taber­na­cle (i.e. prop­er forms), know that you have not yet found the place of prayer and its blessed way is still far from you.

Know that in the midst of all spir­i­tu­al joy and con­so­la­tion, that it is still more nec­es­sary to serve God with devo­tion and fear. (St. Nilus of Sinai, Texts on Prayer)

It is nat­ur­al for the mind to reject what is at hand and dream of some­thing else to come… to build fan­tasies and imag­in­ings about achieve­ments before he has attained them. Such a man is in con­sid­er­able dan­ger of los­ing what he has and fail­ing into self-delu­sion and being deprived of good sense. He becomes only a dream­er and not a man of con­tin­u­al prayer (i.e. a hesy­chast). (St. Gre­go­ry of Sinai, 14th c., Texts on Com­mand­ments and Dogmas)

If you are tru­ly prac­tic­ing the con­tin­u­al prayer of silence, hop­ing to be with God and you see some­thing sen­so­ry or spir­i­tu­al, with­in or with­out, be it even the image of Christ, or an angel, or some saint, or if an image of light per­vades your mind in no way accept it…always be dis­pleased with such images, and keep your mind clear, with­out image or form…and you will suf­fer no harm. It has often hap­pened that such things, even when sent by God as a test before vic­to­ry, have turned into harm for many…who have then done harm to oth­ers equal­ly unwise…leading to pride and self-conceit.

For the fathers say that those who live right­ly and are fault­less in their behav­ior with oth­er men…who seek God with obe­di­ence, ques­tion­ing and wise humility…will always be pro­tect­ed from harm by the grace of Christ. (St. Gre­go­ry of Sinai, Instruc­tions to Hesychasts)

The use of the Jesus Prayer out­side the hesy­chast method for unceas­ing prayer is to repeat the prayer con­stant­ly and con­tin­u­al­ly, what­ev­er one is doing, with­out the employ­ment of any par­tic­u­lar bod­i­ly pos­tures or breath­ing tech­niques. This is the way taught by St. Gre­go­ry Pala­mas in his short dis­course about how unceas­ing men­tal prayer is the duty of all Chris­tians. (see p. 130) Any­one can do this, what­ev­er his occu­pa­tion or posi­tion in life. This also is shown in The Way of the Pil­grim.

The pur­pose and results of this method of prayer are those gen­er­al­ly of all prayer: that men might be con­tin­u­al­ly unit­ed with God by unceas­ing remem­brance of His pres­ence and per­pet­u­al invo­ca­tion of His name, so that one might always serve Him and all men with the virtues of Christ and the fruits of the Spirit.

The third method of using the Jesus Prayer is to have it always ready for moments of temp­ta­tion. In this way, as St. John Cli­ma­cus has said, you can “flog your ene­mies, i.e. the temp­ta­tions, with the name of Jesus for there is no stronger weapon in heav­en or on earth.” (The Lad­der of Divine Ascent, Step 21) This method works best when one prac­tices the prayer with­out ceas­ing, join­ing “to every breath a sober invo­ca­tion of Jesus’ name.” (Eva­grius of Pon­tus) When one prac­tices the con­tin­u­al “prayer of the heart,” and when the temp­ta­tions to sin enter the heart, they are met by the prayer and are defeat­ed by grace.

Man can­not live in this world with­out being tempt­ed. When temp­ta­tion comes to a per­son, there are only three pos­si­ble results. Either the per­son imme­di­ate­ly yields to the temp­ta­tion and sins, or he tries to ward off the temp­ta­tion by the pow­er of his will, and is ulti­mate­ly defeat­ed after great vex­a­tion and strife. Or else he fights off the temp­ta­tion by the pow­er of Christ in his heart which is present only by prayer. This does not mean that he “prays the temp­ta­tion away.” Or that God mirac­u­lous­ly and mag­i­cal­ly descends to deliv­er him. It means rather that his soul is so filled with the grace and the pow­er of God that the temp­ta­tion can have no effect. It is in this sense that the Apos­tle John has writ­ten: “no one who abides in Christ sins.” (1 John 3:6)

He who sins is of the devil…The rea­son the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the dev­il. No one born of God com­mits sins; for God’s nature abides in him, and he can­not sin for he is born of God. By this may be seen who are chil­dren of God, and who are chil­dren of the dev­il. (I John 3:8–10)

One becomes a child of God, born of God in the Church through bap­tism. One con­tin­ues as a child of God and does not sin only by con­tin­u­al prayer: the remem­brance of God, the abid­ing in Him, the call­ing upon His name with­out ceas­ing in the soul. The third use of the Jesus Prayer, like the first two, is to accom­plish this end: that man might not sin.