The Jesus Prayer
(Sir.35:12-14, 6-18; 2Tim.4:6-8, 16-18; Lk.18:9-14)
‘Pray constantly,’ St Paul tells the Thessalonians (1Thess.5:17).
But how can anyone pray constantly? That’s the question a young homeless man asks in the spiritual classic, The Way of a Pilgrim, written by an anonymous Russian author.
It’s the 1800s, and this young man hears St Paul’s words in an Orthodox church. He’s puzzled: how can anyone possibly pray non-stop?
He decides to go on pilgrimage to find an answer. He asks many people along the way, and eventually stops at a monastery, where an old monk agrees to help him understand what St Paul means.
He begins by teaching him the Jesus Prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’.
‘Go to your room and say it 1,000 times,’ the monk says. When he does this, the monk says, ‘Now, pray it 10,000 times.’
He teaches the pilgrim to slowly pray the first part, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God’ while breathing in, and then to say ‘have mercy on me, a sinner’ while breathing out. He instructs him to do this all day.
Later, the monk dies and the pilgrim resumes his journey, slowly chanting this prayer by inhaling and exhaling the words. Sometimes he stresses a different word, or he shortens the prayer down to ‘Lord Jesus, have mercy on me’, or simply ‘Jesus, have mercy’.
All the while he’s using this breathing technique, humbly confessing his sinfulness and expressing his longing for God. In the process, he moves from praying the words aloud to praying them silently, and gradually, his whole being becomes the prayer. The words become embedded in his heart, mind and body, and their presence becomes as natural and constant as breathing itself.
‘Now I walk and say the Jesus Prayer without ceasing,’ the pilgrim says, ‘and it’s more precious and sweet to me than anything else in the world.’ [i]
The Jesus Prayer is a prayer of the heart. It’s similar to an Eastern mantra in that it’s short and it’s prayed over and over again, sometimes using knots or beads on a prayer rope.
But the difference is that non-Christian mantras are often meaningless and aim to empty the mind.
The words of the Jesus Prayer, however, are Biblical and deeply meaningful, and aim to fill the heart, mind and soul with Jesus himself.
The strength of this prayer comes from Jesus’ holy name, which is powerful in itself (Phil.2:9; Rom.10:13). Whenever we use Jesus’ name, we invoke his presence and he brings with him peace and forgiveness, love and hope.
Indeed, you cannot separate the name and person of Jesus.
This prayer began with the 3rd Century monks of the Egyptian desert. They took the words ‘Lord have mercy on me’ from the psalms and from the story of Jesus healing the blind beggar in Jericho (Mk.10:47).
The essence of this prayer, however, can be found in today’s Gospel, in Jesus’ Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector.
Two men are praying in the Temple. The Pharisee stands where everyone can see him. Looking up to heaven, he loudly thanks God that he’s not like everyone else, and especially not like that Tax Collector, for he’s a virtuous man who fasts and is generous with his money.
That’s not genuine prayer, however. That’s self-promotion.
The Tax Collector then stands at the back of the Temple. He’s ashamed of his life and can’t lift up his eyes (Ez.9:6). He prays quietly, saying ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ He is lowly and humble, and honest about his mistakes. He knows he needs help, so he prays, seeking God’s love and forgiveness.
In the 1930s, Jesus promised St. Faustina Kowalska that he will ‘pour out a whole ocean of graces’ to those who approach the fountain of His mercy. [ii] This is what he does for the Tax Collector. He’ll do the same for us if we take this prayer to heart.
Today, the Jesus Prayer is especially popular in the Eastern Church, and increasingly so in the West. It’s said to be the most widely used prayer after the Our Father and the Hail Mary. [iii]
And it’s effective. A 1998 study found that practising the Jesus Prayer for ten minutes a day for 30 days, sitting quietly, offers many benefits. This includes increasing one’s perception of closeness to God, and decreasing levels of hostility, depression and anxiety. [iv]
The Jesus Prayer is easy to remember, and easy to pray, anywhere and anytime. It also comes with a whole ocean of God’s graces. [v]
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Now, say this 1,000 times.
[i] Helen Bacovcin (trans.), The Way of the Pilgrim. Doubleday, NY, 1992. https://www.amazon.com/Way-Pilgrim-Continues-His/dp/0385468148