Ever wake up in the middle of the night and wonder why? At one time I was taught that maybe you woke up because someone needed your prayers at that very moment in time; but who or what or where? So you began to pray, though you were not sure what to say. Well as I learned throughout my journey, Orthodoxy had that covered — the Jesus Prayer! A simple, short, concise, and powerful prayer, rooted in Scripture.
The Jesus Prayer, also called the Prayer of the Heart, the Prayer of a Single Thought, or simply The Prayer, is a short, simple prayer that has been widely used, taught and discussed throughout the history of Eastern Christianity. The exact words of the prayer have varied, from a simple form such as “Lord, have mercy” to an extended form:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”
In our Orthodox tradition, this prayer is said repeatedly, at any time, day or night. It is a prayer that reaches into your heart and touches the very depths of Christ. It is said as a way of finding contrition and as a means of bringing about humility in an individual; the words “the sinner” are sometimes added as if no other sinner existed but the person praying. Some use “a sinner” rather than “the sinner”. For me, the article, ‘the’ or ‘a’ is of no importance, as I am the sinner I am referring to when I pray this prayer. 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. To pray “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” keeps you a child of God, and re-affirms the Holy Spirit is in you. In this way, the Jesus Prayer brings the Spirit of God into my heart.
In On Practicing the Jesus Prayer,Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov states: “St. John of the Ladder counsels that the mind should be locked into the words of the prayer and should be forced back each time it departs from it (Step XXVIII, ch. 17). Such a mechanism of prayer is remarkably helpful and suitable. When the mind, in its own manner, acquires attentiveness, then the heart will join it with its own offering—compunction. The heart will empathize with the mind by means of compunction, and the prayer will be said by the mind and heart together…” he continues, “St. John of the Ladder consoles and instructs the coenobitic brethren who busy themselves about monastic obediences and encourages them thus to persevere in prayerful asceticism: “From those monks who are engaged in performing obediences,” he writes, “God does not expect a pure and undistracted prayer. Despair not should inattention come over you! Be of cheerful spirit and constantly compel your mind to return to itself! For the angels alone are not subject to any distraction” (Step IV, ch. 93). “Being enslaved by passions, let us persevere in praying to the Lord: for all those who have reached the state of passionlessness did so with the help of such indomitable prayer. If, therefore, you tirelessly train your mind never to stray from the words of the prayer, it will be there even at mealtime. A great champion of perfect prayer has said: ‘I had rather speak five words with my understanding … than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue’ (I Cor. 14:19). Such prayer,” that is, the grace-given prayer of the mind in the heart, which shuns imaginings, “is not characteristic of children; wherefore we who are like children, being concerned with the perfection of our prayer,” that is, the attentiveness which is acquired by locking the mind into the words of the prayer, “must pray a great deal. Quantity is the cause of quality. The Lord gives pure prayer to him who, eschewing laziness, prays much and regularly in his own manner, even if it is marred by inattention” (The Ladder, Step XXVI11, ch. 21).”
The Jesus Prayer is from the lesson taught in the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee; in which the Pharisee shows us an improper way to pray by exclaiming, “Thank you Lord that I am not like the Publican.” While the Publican in humility and eyes to the ground, prays correctly “Lord have mercy on me, the sinner” (Luke 18:10-14). St. Peter also cried out to Jesus as he sank into the sea, “Lord, save me.”
Yes it is great to have regular hours for prayer and to go to your private ‘prayer closet’ whenever possible, before an icon. Icons greatly assist our invocation, our individual prayer life (though they are a topic of a future article). Or you may find it best quietly to close your eyes – focusing them inward and praying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” wherever you find yourself in need of prayer!
So,when I arise in the morning, these words joyfully open a new day for me. When I travel, this Prayer is always with me, signing joy into my heart. And at the end of a burden heavy day or any day, I finish the day with my evening prayers, I give my heart over again to Jesus: “Lord into thy hands I commend my spirit”; I lay down to sleep – but my heart continues to pray on: “Jesus…”