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The Jesus Prayer

By Fr. Steven Peter Tsichlis
Source: http://www.goarch.org/ourfaith/ourfaith7104

Prayer is the basis of our Chris­t­ian life, the source of our expe­ri­ence of Jesus as the Risen Lord. Yet how few Chris­tians know how to pray with any depth! For most of us, prayer means lit­tle more than stand­ing in the pews for an hour or so on Sun­day morn­ing or per­haps recit­ing, in a mechan­i­cal fash­ion, prayers once learned by rote dur­ing child­hood. Our prayer life — and thus our life as Chris­tians — remains, for the most part, at this super­fi­cial level.


But this approach to the life of prayer has noth­ing to do with the Chris­tian­i­ty of St. Paul, who urges the Chris­tians of first cen­tu­ry Thes­sa­loni­ca to “pray with­out ceas­ing” (1 Thess. 5:17). And in his let­ter to Rome, the Apos­tle instructs the Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ty there to “be con­stant in prayer” (Rom. 12:12). He not only demands unceas­ing prayer of the Chris­tians in his care, but prac­tices it him­self. “We con­stant­ly thank God for you” (1 Thess. 2:13) he writes in his let­ter to the Thes­sa­lon­ian com­mu­ni­ty; and he com­forts Tim­o­thy, his “true child in the faith” (1 Tim. 1:2) with the words: “Always I remem­ber you in my prayers” (2 Tim. 1:3). In fact, when­ev­er St. Paul speaks of prayer in his let­ters, two Greek words repeat­ed­ly appear: PANTOTE (pan­tote), which means always; and ADIALEPTOS (adi­alep­tos), mean­ing with­out inter­rup­tion or unceas­ing­ly. Prayer is then not mere­ly a part of life which we can con­ve­nient­ly lay aside if some­thing we deem more impor­tant comes up; prayer is all of life. Prayer is as essen­tial to our life as breath­ing. This rais­es some impor­tant ques­tions. How can we be expect­ed to pray all the time? We are, after all, very busy peo­ple. Our work, our spouse, our chil­dren, our school — all place heavy demands upon our time. How can we fit more time for prayer into our already over­crowd­ed lives? These ques­tions and the many oth­ers like them which could be asked set up a false dichoto­my in our lives as Chris­tians. To pray does not mean to think about God in con­trast to think­ing about oth­er things or to spend time with God in con­trast to spend­ing time with our fam­i­ly and friends. Rather, to pray means to think and live our entire life in the Pres­ence of God. As Paul Evdoki­mov has remarked: “Our whole life, every act and ges­ture, even a smile must become a hymn or ado­ra­tion, an offer­ing, a prayer. We must become prayer-prayer incar­nate.” This is what St. Paul means when he writes to the Corinthi­ans that “what­ev­er you do, do it for the glo­ry of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).


In order to enter more deeply into the life of prayer and to come to grips with St. Paul’s chal­lenge to pray unceas­ing­ly, the Ortho­dox Tra­di­tion offers the Jesus Prayer, which is some­times called the prayer of the heart. The Jesus Prayer is offered as a means of con­cen­tra­tion, as a focal point for our inner life. Though there are both longer and short­er ver­sions, the most fre­quent­ly used form of the Jesus Prayer is: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mer­cy on me, a sin­ner.” This prayer, in its sim­plic­i­ty and clar­i­ty, is root­ed in the Scrip­tures and the new life grant­ed by the Holy Spir­it. It is first and fore­most a prayer of the Spir­it because of the fact that the prayer address­es Jesus as Lord, Christ and Son of God; and as St. Paul tells us, “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spir­it” (1 Cor. 12:3).

The Scrip­tures give the Jesus Prayer both its con­crete form and its the­o­log­i­cal con­tent. It is root­ed in the Scrip­tures in four ways:

  • In its brevi­ty and sim­plic­i­ty, it is the ful­fill­ment of Jesus’ com­mand that “in pray­ing” we are “not to heap up emp­ty phras­es as the hea­then do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them … (Matt. 6:7–8).
  • The Jesus Prayer is root­ed in the Name of the Lord. In the Scrip­tures, the pow­er and glo­ry of God are present in his Name. In the Old Tes­ta­ment to delib­er­ate­ly and atten­tive­ly invoke God’s Name was to place one­self in his Pres­ence. Jesus, whose name in Hebrew means God saves, is the liv­ing Word addressed to human­i­ty. Jesus is the final Name of God. Jesus is “the Name which is above all oth­er names” and it is writ­ten that “all beings should bend the knee at the Name of Jesus” (Phil. 2:9–10). In this Name dev­ils are cast out (Luke 10:17), prayers are answered (John 14:13 14) and the lame are healed (Acts 3:6–7). The Name of Jesus is unbri­dled spir­i­tu­al power.
  • The words of the Jesus Prayer are them­selves based on Scrip­tur­al texts: the cry of the blind man sit­ting at the side of the road near Jeri­cho, “Jesus, Son of David, have mer­cy on me” (Luke 18:38); the ten lep­ers who “called to him, Jesus, Mas­ter, take pity on us’ ” (Luke 17:13); and the cry for mer­cy of the pub­li­can, “God, be mer­ci­ful to me, a sin­ner” (Luke 18:14).
  • It is a prayer in which the first step of the spir­i­tu­al jour­ney is tak­en: the recog­ni­tion of our own sin­ful­ness, our essen­tial estrange­ment from God and the peo­ple around us. The Jesus Prayer is a prayer in which we admit our des­per­ate need of a Sav­iour. For “if we say we have no sin in us, we are deceiv­ing our­selves and refus­ing to admit the truth” (1 John 1:8).


Because prayer is a liv­ing real­i­ty, a deeply per­son­al encounter with the liv­ing God, it is not to be con­fined to any giv­en clas­si­fi­ca­tion or rigid analy­sis. How­ev­er, in order to offer some broad, gen­er­al guide­lines for those inter­est­ed in using the Jesus Prayer to devel­op their inner life, Theo­phan the Recluse, a 19th cen­tu­ry Russ­ian spir­i­tu­al writer, dis­tin­guish­es three lev­els in the say­ing of the Prayer:

  • It begins as oral prayer or prayer of the lips, a sim­ple recita­tion which Theo­phan defines as prayers’ “ver­bal expres­sion and shape.” Although very impor­tant, this lev­el of prayer is still exter­nal to us and thus only the first step, for “the essence or soul of prayer is with­in a man’s mind and heart.”
  • As we enter more deeply into prayer, we reach a lev­el at which we begin to pray with­out dis­trac­tion. Theo­phan remarks that at this point, “the mind is focused upon the words” of the Prayer, “speak­ing them as if they were our own.”
  • The third and final lev­el is prayer of the heart. At this stage prayer is no longer some­thing we do but who we are. Such prayer, which is a gift of the Spir­it, is to return to the Father as did the prodi­gal son (Luke 15:32). The prayer of the heart is the prayer of adop­tion, when “God has sent the Spir­it of his Son into our hearts, the Spir­it that cries ‘Abba, Father!’ ” (Gal. 4:6).


This return to the Father through Christ in the Holy Spir­it is the goal of all Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. It is to be open to the pres­ence of the King­dom in our midst. The anony­mous author of The Way of the Pil­grim reports that the Jesus Prayer has two very con­crete effects upon his vision of the world. First, it trans­fig­ures his rela­tion ship with the mate­r­i­al cre­ation around him; the world becomes trans­par­ent, a sign, a means of com­mu­ni­cat­ing God’s pres­ence. He writes:

When I prayed in my heart, every­thing around me seemed delight­ful and mar­velous. The trees, the grass, the birds, the air, the light seemed to be telling me that they exist­ed for man’s sake, that they wit­nessed to the love of God for man, that all things prayed to God and sang his praise.”

Sec­ond, the Prayer trans­fig­ures his rela­tion­ship to his fel­low human beings. His rela­tion­ships are giv­en form with­in their prop­er con­text: the for­give­ness and com­pas­sion of the cru­ci­fied and risen Lord.

Again I start­ed off on my wan­der­ings. But now I did not walk along as before, filled with care. The invo­ca­tion of the Name of Jesus glad­dened my way. Every­body was kind to me. If any­one harms me I have only to think, ‘How sweet is the Prayer of Jesus!’ and the injury and the anger alike pass away and I for­get it all.”


Growth in prayer has no end,” Theo­phan informs us. “If this growth ceas­es, it means that life ceas­es.” The way of the heart is end­less because the God whom we seek is infi­nite in the depths of his glo­ry. The Jesus Prayer is a sign­post along the spir­i­tu­al jour­ney, a jour­ney that all of us must take.


The pur­pose of this pam­phlet is mere­ly to intro­duce the prac­tice of the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer can­not be sep­a­rat­ed from the sacra­men­tal life of the Church and asceti­cism. The fol­low­ing books are rec­om­mend­ed for fur­ther study:

  • The Art of Prayer edit­ed with an intro­duc­tion by Kallis­tos Ware (Faber and Faber: Lon­don) 1966
  • The Pow­er of the Name by Kallis­tos Ware (SLG Press: Oxford) 1974
  • The Way of a Pil­grim trans­lat­ed by R. M. French (Seabury Press: New York) 1965
  • Christ is in our Midst by Father John of New Valaamo (St. Vladimirs’ Sem­i­nary Press: New York) 1980
  • The Jesus Prayer by Per-Olof Sjo­gren (Fortress Press: Philadel­phia) 1975
  • Prayer of the Heart by George A. Mal­oney (Ave Maria Press: Notre Dame) 1980