The Jesus Prayer

“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

As I mentioned last time, I’m  involved in a small faith group this summer which is exploring various ways to pray. We are using the book Creating a Life with God: The Call of Ancient Prayer Practices by Daniel Wolpert (Upper Room Books).

"Christ the Pantocrator--Jesus Creator of All" --Icon by Marian Zidaru 2002--photo by JAMThis week I finished reading the chapter that focuses on the Jesus Prayer.  This ancient way of praying reminds us of God’s presence through praying the words the blind man shouted out to Jesus as he passed by: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:47)

The exact wording of this prayer can vary. Some pray, “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” or other similar words. I once met a nun who simply prays two words in a slow, meditative fashion, sometimes in rhythm with her breath, “Jesus, mercy.”

This way of praying is not done in order to earn salvation or win God’s favor by repetitive prayer. The short prayer is used to draw one’s attention to God’s love, mercy, and presence in our lives, whether we are eating, sleeping, working, or sitting in church praying. Praying in this way draws our hearts and minds away from trivial, passing things, and into the realm of God’s presence, seeking to follow the instruction of First Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing” (5:17).

While reading Wolpert’s book, I was touched by the way he described praying the Jesus Prayer in the wee hours of the night:

One of the best times for me to pray the Jesus Prayer is at night when I cannot sleep. Rather than tossing and turning and getting upset that I am still awake, I simply begin to pray the Jesus Prayer. Remember that the pilgrim was told to pray the prayer even in his sleep! Often I do fall asleep right away. The times when sleep comes more slowly are wonderful periods of prayer. In the deep silence of the night, I can lift my heart and mind to my Creator—a soft voice ringing out into the infinite.

“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” 

I, too, on occasion have prayed this prayer in the middle of the night. I like to do the short form, in time with gentle, slow breathing: “Jesus” (while gently inhaling) and “mercy” (while gently exhaling).  It’s like inhaling the presence of God and asking for God’s love and mercy all at once…mercy for my sins, mercy for the one who has hurt me, mercy for the sick and suffering, mercy for the broken and hurting world all around us.

If you think that this prayer practice is nothing but sweetness and light, think again: it is not always so. During an interview I did one time for an article on the Jesus Prayer, an Orthodox priest told me the this prayer form “is no picnic.” He explained that if one is serious about the Jesus Prayer, practicing it in the context of truly following Christ, Christ the Pantocrator -- Jesus Creator of All -- Detail --2002 Icon by Marian Zidaru -- photo by JAMthe prayer gradually leads a person to recognize his or her own impurities of word, thought, and deed that previously went unnoticed. This awareness of our own sins and imperfections leads us into a gradually deepening conversion process.

The Jesus Prayer, this priest observed, “is an effective tool in the very difficult work of gaining control of one’s mind in order to center it on the constant remembrance of divine beauty and awakening it to the eternal realities of the Spirit.” The process makes it possible for us to become “servants of divine Compassion, students of the Lord, studying how to die to ego, so that we might be reborn as children of the Spirit.”

“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Until next time, Amen!

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