|Published with permission of Forward Movement Publications, 412
Sycamore St. Cincinnati, Ohio
|Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.
|I have often read the Jesus Prayer in prayer books and heard it in
church, but my attention was drawn to it first some years ago in
Rumania. There in a small Monastery of Smbata, tucked away at the foot
of the Carpathians in the heart of the deep forest, its little white
church reflected in a crystal clear mountain pond, I met a monk who
practiced the "prayer of the heart." Profound peace and silence reigned
at Smbata in those days; it was a place of rest and strength --I pray
God it still is.
|I have wandered far since I last saw Smbata, and all the while the
Jesus Prayer lay as a precious gift buried in my heart. It remained
inactive until a few years ago, when I read The Way of a Pilgrim.*
Since then I have been seeking to practice it continually. At times I
lapse; nonetheless, the prayer has opened unbelievable vistas within my
heart and soul.
|The Jesus Prayer, or the Prayer of the Heart, centers on the Holy
Name itself. It may be said in its entirety: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of
God, have mercy upon me, a sinner;" it may be changed to "us sinners" or
to other persons named, or it may be shortened. The power lies in the
name of Jesus; thus "Jesus," alone, may fulfill the whole need of the
one who prays.
|The Prayer goes back to the New Testament and has had a long,
traditional use. The method of contemplation based upon the Holy Name is
attributed to St. Simeon, called the "New Theologian" (949-1022). When
he was 14 years old, St. Simeon had a vision of heavenly light in which
he seemed to be separated from his body. Amazed, and overcome with an
overpowering joy, he felt a consuming humility, and cried, borrowing the
Publican's prayer (Luke 18:13), "Lord Jesus, have mercy upon me." Long
after the vision had disappeared, the great joy returned to St. Simeon
each time he repeated the prayer; and he taught his disciples to worship
likewise. The prayer evolved into its expanded form: "Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner." In this guise it has come
down to us frown generation to generation of pious monks and laymen.
|The invocation of the Holy Name is not peculiar to the Orthodox
Church but is used by Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Protestants,
though to a lesser degree. On Mount Sinai and Athos the monks worked out
a whole system of contemplation based upon this simple prayer, practiced
in complete silence. These monks came to be known as "Quietists" (in
|St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), the last of the great Church
Fathers, became the exponent of the Hesychasts. He won, after a long
drawn out battle, an irrefutable place for the Jesus Prayer and the
Quietists within the Church. In the 18th century when tsardom hampered
monasticism in Russia, and the Turks crushed Orthodoxy in Greece, the
Neamtzu monastery in Moldavia (Rumania) became one of the great centers
for the Jesus Prayer.
|The Prayer is held to be so outstandingly spiritual because it is
focused wholly on Jesus: all thoughts, striving, hope, faith and love
are outpoured in devotion to God the Son. It fulfills two basic
injunctions of the New Testament. In one, Jesus said: "I say unto you,
Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father; in my name, he will give it you.
Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive,
that your joy may be full" (John 16:23, 24). In the other precept we
find St. Paul's injunction to pray without ceasing,
|(I. Thess. 5:17). Further, it follows Jesus' instructions upon how
to pray (which He gave at the same time He taught His followers the
Lord's Prayer ): "When thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when
thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy
Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly" (Math 6:6).
|And Jesus taught that all impetus, good and bad, originates in men's
hearts. "A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth
that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his
heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the
heart his mouth speaketh" (Luke 6:45)
|Upon these and many other precepts of the New Testament as well as
the Old, the Holy Fathers, even before St. Simeon, based their fervent
and simple prayer. They developed a method of contemplation in which
unceasing prayer became as natural as breathing, following the rhythmic
cadence of the heart beat.
|All roads that lead to God are beset with pitfalls because the enemy
( Satan ) ever lies in wait to trip us up. He naturally attacks most
assiduously when we are bent on finding our way to salvation, for that
is what he most strives to hinder. In mystical prayer the temptations we
encounter exceed all others in danger; because our thoughts are on a
higher level, the allurements are proportionally subtler. Someone said
that "mysticism started in mist and ended in schism"; this cynical
remark, spoken by an unbeliever, has a certain truth in it. Mysticism is
of real spiritual value only when it is practiced with absolute
|At one time a controversy arose concerning certain Quietists who
fell into excessive acts of piety and fasting because they lost the
sense of moderation upon which our Church lays so great a value. We need
not dwell upon misuses of the Jesus Prayer, except to realize that all
exaggerations are harmful and that we should at all times use
self-restraint. "Practice of the Jesus Prayer is the traditional
fulfillment of the injunction of the Apostle Paul to 'pray always:' it
has nothing to do with the mysticism which is the heritage of pagan
|The Orthodox Church is full of deep mystic life which she guards and
encompasses with the strength of her traditional rules; thus her mystics
seldom go astray. "The 'ascetical life' is a life in which 'acquired'
virtues, i.e., virtues resulting from a personal effort, only
accompanied by that general grace which God grants to every good will,
prevail. The 'mystical life' is a life in which the gifts of the Holy
Spirit are predominant over human efforts, and in which 'infused'
virtues are predominant over the 'acquired' ones; the soul has become
more passive than active. Let us use a classical comparison. Between the
ascetic life, that is, the life in which human action predominates, and
the mystical life, that is, the life in which God's action predominates,
there is the same difference as between rowing a boat and sailing it;
the oar is the ascetic effort, the sail is the mystical passivity which
is unfurled to catch the divine wind."* The Jesus Prayer is the core of
mystical prayer, and it can be used by anyone, at any time. There is
nothing mysterious about this (let us not confuse "mysterious" with
"mystic"). We start by following the precepts and examples frequently
given by our Lord. First, go aside into a quiet place: "Come ye
yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest awhile" (Mark 6:31);
"Study to be quiet" (I. Thess. 4:11); then pray in secret--alone and in
|The phrases "to pray in secret alone and in silence" need, I feel, a
little expanding. "Secret" should be understood as it is used in the
Bible: for instance, Jesus tells us to do our charity secretly--not
letting the left hand know what the right one does. We should not parade
our devotions, nor boast about them. "Alone" means to separate ourselves
from our immediate surroundings and disturbing influences. As a matter
of fact, never are we in so much company as when we pray " . . . seeing
we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses . . ."
(Hebrews 12:1). The witnesses are all those who pray: Angels,
Archangels, saints and sinners, the living and the dead. It is in
prayer, especially the Jesus Prayer, that we become keenly aware of
belonging to the living body of Christ. In "silence" implies that we do
not speak our prayer audibly. We do not even meditate on the words; we
use them only to reach beyond them to the essence itself.
|In our busy lives this is not easy, yet it can be done--we can each
of us find a few minutes in which to use a prayer consisting of only a
few words, or even only one. This prayer should be repeated quietly,
unhurriedly, thoughtfully. Each thought should be concentrated on Jesus,
forgetting all else, both joys and sorrows. Any stray thought, however
good or pious, can become an obstacle. When you embrace a dear one you
do not stop to meditate how and why you love--you just love
wholeheartedly. It is the same when spiritually we grasp Jesus the
Christ to our heart. If we pay heed to the depth and quality of our
love, it means that we are preoccupied with our own reactions, rather
than giving ourselves unreservedly to Jesus --holding nothing back.
Think the prayer as you breathe in and out; calm both mind and body,
using as rhythm the heartbeat. Do not search for words, but go on
repeating the Prayer, or Jesus' name alone, in love and adoration. That
is ALL! Strange--in this little there is more than all!
|It is good to have regular hours for prayer and to retire whenever
possible to the same room or place, possibly before an icon. The icon is
loaded with the objective presence of the One depicted, and thus greatly
assists our invocation. Orthodox monks and nuns find that to use a
rosary helps to keep the attention fixed. Or you may find it best
quietly to close your eyes--focusing them inward.
|The Jesus Prayer can be used for worship and petition; as
intercession, invocation, adoration, and as thanksgiving. It is a means
by which we lay all that is in our hearts, both for God and man, at the
feet of Jesus. It is a means of communion with God and with all those
who pray. The fact that we can train our hearts to go on praying even
when we sleep, keeps us uninterruptedly within the community of prayer.
This is no fanciful statement; many have experienced this life-giving
fact. We cannot, of course, attain this continuity of prayer all at
once, but it is achievable; for all that is worthwhile we must ". . .
run with patience the race that is set before us . . ." (Hebrews 12:1).
|I had a most striking proof of uninterrupted communion with all
those who pray when I lately underwent surgery. I lay long under
anesthesia. "Jesus" had been my last conscious thought, and the first
word on my lips as I awoke. It was marvelous beyond words to find that
although I knew nothing of what was happening to my body I never lost
cognizance of being prayed-for and of praying myself. After such an
experience one no longer wonders that there are great souls who devote
their lives exclusively to prayer.
|Prayer has always been of very real importance to me, and the habit
formed in early childhood of morning and evening prayer has never left
me; but in the practice of the Jesus Prayer I am but a beginner. I
would, nonetheless, like to awaken interest in this prayer because, even
if I have only touched the hem of a heavenly garment, I have touched
it--and the joy is so great I would share it with others. It is not
every man's way of prayer; you may not find in it the same joy that I
find, for your way may be quite a different one--yet equally bountiful.
|In fear and joy, in loneliness and companionship, it is ever with
me. Not only in the silence of daily devotions, but at all times and in
all places. It transforms, for me, frowns into smiles; it beautifies, as
if a film had been washed off an old picture so that the colors appear
clear and bright, like nature on a warm spring day after a shower. Even
despair has become attenuated and repentance has achieved its purpose.
|When I arise in the morning, it starts me joyfully upon a new day.
When I travel by air, land, or sea, it sings within my breast When I
stand upon a platform and face my listeners, it beats encouragement.
When I gather my children around me, it murmurs a blessing. And at the
end of a weary day, when I lay me down to rest, I give my heart over to
Jesus: "(Lord) into thy hands I commend my spirit". I sleep--but my
heart as it beats prays on: "JESUS."
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