What is the Jesus Prayer?
Is there anything as difficult as prayer? What does Saint Paul mean by, and is it even possible to, “Pray without ceasing?” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). According to St Ignatius Brianchaninov, trying to pray without ceasing is a “hidden martyrdom.” Archimandrite SOPHRONY said, “Lions may not eat us for the sake of the Gospel. Rather, our call to martyrdom takes the form of being attentive to the present moment, relying upon God’s power always, and doing His will. Our call to martyrdom may not be any easier than death by violence.” The quest to pray without ceasing, has led to some interesting monastic experiments including, as only one example, monks praying in shifts. But from very early on we have a prayer tool that the Eastern Orthodox Church refers to as The Jesus Prayer or Prayer of the Heart.
The words are not uniform but are most often prayed, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” This short prayer is prayed repeatedly. Scripturally it references the parable Jesus told of the Publican and the Pharisee. The Pharisee stands and prays to himself, “Thank you Lord that I am not like other men.” The Publican stands on the back praying in humility, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:10-14).
The Jesus Prayer enjoys a long history in the Eastern Orthodox Church beginning in the deserts of Egypt in the 4th century. The Philokalia, the five volume collection of varied saints teachings on prayer spans from the 4th to the 14th century, is mostly concerned with the Jesus Prayer. The Ladder of Divine Ascent written in the 6th century by Saint John Climacus recommends the use of the Jesus Prayer. To this day the Jesus Prayer continues to hold a special place in Orthodoxy. It should also be noted that Mount Athos and her monks are especially important to the use of The Prayer. Today, there is scarcely an Orthodox who has not prayed and reflected on the use of The Jesus Prayer.
The focus of Scholé is the virtuous use of time for prayer, worship and study, etc. The Jesus Prayer is the prime example of redeeming time from distraction and sloth by giving the mind and the heart a simple tool to call on the Name of the Lord. It can be prayed during a “formal” prayer time or “freely” while employed in other activities. The Jesus Prayer, as an example, is easy to pray while running, hiking or driving.
In this and the entries that follow I claim no special expertise or even original thought. I am attempting to avoid plagiarism but have been collecting and lecturing this material for a while and fear that not everything is properly footnoted. I will publish both an annotated bibliography and links to online articles and reference as an entry in this series. But let’s start out by saying that I rely heavily on Bishop KALLISTOS Ware’s lectures and books on the subject and Dr. Al Rossi’s excellent paper “Saying the Jesus Prayer.” One word of caution before we begin: while the Jesus Prayer is simple it is powerful and the Church has advised users against special techniques or visualization of any kind. One should not attempt extended use of the Jesus Prayer without a father confessor. Taking the warning into account, give The Jesus Prayer some effort today and let me know your experience; past and present.
COMING UP: St. Theophan the Recluse on The Jesus Prayer.