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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.