The Jesus Prayer: an image from Balamand Monastery
Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, Υἱὲ Θεοῦ, ἐλέησόν με τὸν ἁμαρτωλό
There is a dictum in The Philokalia, ascribed to Evagrius the Solitary, which says: “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian” [Treatise on Prayer, 61].
To pray truly, we can learn from the traditions of others. There are rich treasures in each and every Christian tradition that we can draw on without compromising our own Christian tradition, experience and spirituality. The Orthodox insights into and traditions about prayer have influenced many Anglicans, including Archbishop Michael Ramsey and Archbishop Rowan Williams. Many in the Western world have been helped to pray through the books of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom.
To pray does not mean to think about God to the distraction of thinking about other things, or to spend time with God in competition with spending time with our family and friends. To pray means to think and live our entire life in the Presence of God. The Russian theologian, Paul Evdokimov (1900-1969), the biographer of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, remarks: “Our whole life, every act and gesture, even a smile must become a hymn or adoration, an offering, a prayer. We must become prayer – prayer incarnate.”
The practice of the Jesus Prayer is one of the rich treasurers in the Orthodox tradition than can help each of us to develop our own practice of prayer.
The Jesus Prayer
The Jesus Prayer is one of the best known traditions within Orthodoxy. Its words say simply: Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, Υἱὲ Θεοῦ, ἐλέησόν με τὸν ἁμαρτωλό (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner”). The Jesus Prayer is a short, simple prayer that has been widely used, taught and discussed throughout the history of Eastern Christianity.
In order to enter more deeply into the life of prayer and to come to grips with the Scriptural challenge to pray unceasingly, the Orthodox tradition offers the Jesus Prayer – which is sometimes called the Prayer of the Heart by some Church Fathers – as a means of concentration and as a focal point for our inner life.
The exact words of the prayer have varied from the most simple possible involving the name “Jesus,” or “Lord have mercy,” to the more common extended form: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
For the Eastern Orthodox, the Jesus Prayer one of the most profound and mystical prayers and it is often repeated continually as a part of personal ascetic practice.
Theology and practice
The practice of repeating the prayer continually dates back to at least the 5th century. The earliest known mention is in the writings of Saint Diadochos of Photiki (400-486), a work found in the first volume of The Philokalia, a collection of texts on prayer compiled between the 4th and the 15th centuries. In that collection, Saint Diadochos ties the practice of the Jesus Prayer to the purification of the soul. He also teaches that repetition of the prayer produces inner peace.
The Jesus Prayer is also described by Saint John Cassian (died 435) in his description of the repetitive use of a passage of the Psalms.
The use of the Jesus Prayer is recommended by Saint John of Sinai (523–603) in The Ladder of Divine Ascent and in the work of Saint Hesychios (?8th century), Pros Theodoulon, found in the first volume of The Philokalia.
Later, the theology of the Jesus Prayer was most clearly set out by Saint Gregory Palamas (1296–1359). Its practice became an integral part of Hesychasm, and the subject of The Philokalia. Today, Mount Athos is a centre of the practice of the Jesus Prayer.
Introduction to the West
The use of the Jesus Prayer according to the tradition of The Philokalia is the subject of the Russian classic, The Way of a Pilgrim. The Russian pilgrim in The Way of the Pilgrim discovers the Jesus Prayer and with it finds the answers to many of his questions in that key compendium of Orthodox spirituality and prayer.
In The Way of a Pilgrim, the anonymous pilgrim recounts his desperate longing “to pray without ceasing.” He wanders, with Bible in hand, in search of someone who can teach him. Eventually, the pilgrim takes a wise monk as his spiritual father or staretz (стáрец). He instructs the pilgrim in prayer, and gives him The Philokalia to read.
The pilgrim recalls the conversation: “Read this book,” he said. “It is called The Philokalia, and it contains the full and detailed science of constant interior prayer, set forth by 25 Holy Fathers. The book is marked by lofty wisdom and is so profitable to use that it is considered the foremost and best manual of the contemplative spiritual life …”
“Is it then more sublime that the Bible?” I asked.
“No, it is not that. But it contains clear explanations of what the Bible holds in secret and which cannot be easily grasped by our short-sighted understanding.”
The staretz compares the Bible to the Sun and The Philokalia to a small piece of glass that allows a person to view its rays, and he reads to the pilgrim instructions from Saint Simeon the New Theologian quoted in The Philokalia:
“Sit down alone and in silence. Lower your head, shut your eyes, breathe out gently and imagine yourself looking into your own heart. Carry your mind, that is, your thoughts, from your head to your heart. As you breathe out say, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.’ Say it moving your lips gently, or simply say it in your mind. Try to put all other thoughts aside. Be calm, be patient, and repeat the process very frequently.”
At first, the pilgrim is bored, is sleepy and is distracted by other thoughts. The staretz encourages him to persevere, gives him a prayer rope (Greek κομποσχοίνι, komboschini; Russian chotki), and tells him to use it as a counter as he repeats the Jesus Prayer. He tells him to repeat the Jesus Prayer 3,000 times a day, “quietly and without hurry … without deliberately increasing or diminishing the number. God will help you, and by this means you will reach also the unceasing activity of the heart.”
After the first few days, the pilgrim no longer finds that he has been set a hard task, but soon finds that he is praying again, both “easily and joyfully.” His spiritual father increases the number to 6,000 and then to 12,000, so that the pilgrim reaches the point where the prayer wakes him up early in the morning. Now his whole desire is fixed on saying the Jesus Prayer and he is filled with joy.
The Pilgrim, the anonymous author of The Way of the Pilgrim, reports that the Jesus Prayer has two very concrete effects upon his vision of the world:
1, Firstly, it transfigures his relationship with the material creation around him. The world becomes transparent, a sign, a means of communicating God’s presence. He writes: “When I prayed in my heart, everything around me seemed delightful and marvellous. The trees, the grass, the birds, the air, the light seemed to be telling me that they existed for man’s sake, that they witnessed to the love of God for man, that all things prayed to God and sang his praise.”
2, Secondly, the Jesus Prayer transfigures his relationship to his fellow human beings. His relationships are given form within their proper context: the forgiveness and compassion of the crucified and risen Lord. “Again I started off on my wanderings. But now I did not walk along as before, filled with care. The invocation of the Name of Jesus gladdened my way. Everybody was kind to me. If anyone harms me I have only to think, ‘How sweet is the Prayer of Jesus!’ and the injury and the anger alike pass away and I forget it all.”
The Scriptural foundations
This story in The Way of the Pilgrim became familiar to many readers in the west in the 1960s through the popularity of JD Salinger’s novel, Franney and Zooey, when the distressed young woman describes the Jesus Prayer to her boyfriend over lunch in a restaurant. But what are the Scriptural and theological foundations of the Jesus Prayer?
The Apostle Paul urges the Christians of Thessaloniki to “pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5: 1). In his letter to Rome, he instructs the Christian community there to “be constant in prayer” (Romans 12: 12). He not only demands unceasing prayer on the part of the Christians in his care, but he practices it himself. “We constantly thank God for you” (I Thessalonians 2: 13), he writes, and he comforts Timothy with the words: “Always I remember you in my prayers” (2 Timothy 1: 3).
Whenever the Apostle Paul speaks of prayer in his letters, two Greek words repeatedly appear: πάντοτε (pantote), which means always; and αδιαλεπτος (adialeptos), meaning without interruption or unceasingly.
Prayer, then, is not merely a part of life which we can conveniently lay aside if something we deem more important comes up. Prayer is all of life, must be all of life. Prayer is as essential to our life as breathing. But how can we be expected to pray all the time? How can we fit more time for prayer into our already overcrowded lives?
The Jesus Prayer, in its simplicity and clarity, is rooted in the Scriptures, and its words are based on:
● the cry of the blind man at the side of the road near Jericho, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me” (Luke 18: 38);
● the cry of the ten lepers who called to him, “Jesus, Master, take pity on us” (Luke 17: 13);
● the cry for mercy of the publican, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18: 14);
● and the sentiments of the cry of the penitent thief on the cross (Luke 23: 42).
The Cry of the Thief Crucified by Pavel Chesnokov (Track 13, Authentic Russian Sacred Music).
Three levels of praying the Jesus Prayer
The Jesus Prayer is a prayer in which the first step taken on the spiritual journey is recognising my own sinfulness, my essential estrangement from God and the people around me. The Jesus Prayer is a prayer in which I admit my desperate need of a Saviour. For “if we say that we have no sin in us, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (I John 1: 8).
In order to offer some broad, general guidelines for those interested in using the Jesus Prayer to develop their inner lives, Saint Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894), a 19th century Russian spiritual writer, distinguishes three levels in the saying of the Jesus Prayer:
1, It begins as oral prayer or prayer of the lips, a simple recitation which Theophan defines as prayers’ “verbal expression and shape.” Although it is very important, this level of prayer is still external to us and is only the first step, for “the essence or soul of prayer is within a man’s mind and heart.”
2, As we enter more deeply into prayer, we reach a level at which we begin to pray without distraction. Saint Theophan remarks that at this point, “the mind is focused upon the words” of the Jesus Prayer, “speaking them as if they were our own.”
3, He describes the third and final level as prayer of the heart. At this stage, prayer is no longer something we do but who we are. Such prayer is a gift of the Spirit, and is to return to the Father as the Prodigal Son did (Luke 15: 32). The prayer of the heart is the prayer of adoption, when “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit that cries that cries ‘Abba, Father!’” (Galatians 4: 6).
This return to the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit is the goal of all Christian spirituality. It is to be open to the presence of the Kingdom in our midst.
The practice of the Jesus Prayer
There is a very great emphasis on humility in the practice of the Jesus Prayer. There are many warnings about the disaster that will befall those who would use it in pride, arrogance or conceit. And in many texts, it is said that those who use the Jesus Prayer must only be members of the Orthodox Church in good standing.
When it is practised on a continuing basis, the Jesus Prayer becomes automatic.
In the Eastern tradition, the Jesus Prayer is said or prayed repeatedly, often with the aid of a prayer rope (Greek κομποσχοίνι, komboschini; Russian chotki). It may be accompanied by prostrations and the sign of the cross.
The American Orthodox blogger and writer, Frederica Mathewes-Green (Facing East, HarperSanFrancisco, 2006, pp 144-145), gives a vivid and realistic example of how the person who uses the Jesus Prayer constantly prays throughout the day and deals with ordinanry, every-day thoughts and distractions.
The person praying the Jesus Prayer never treats it as a string of syllables whose “surface” or overt verbal meaning is secondary or unimportant. He/she considers a bare repetition of the Jesus Prayer as a mere string of syllables, perhaps with a “mystical” inner meaning beyond the overt verbal meaning, to be worthless or even dangerous.
While s/he maintains this practice of the Jesus Prayer, which becomes automatic and continues 24 hours a day, seven days a week, s/he rejects all tempting thoughts, paying extreme attention to the consciousness of his/her inner world and to the words of the Jesus Prayer, not letting his/her mind wander in any way at all.
The practice of the Jesus Prayer is in the mind in the heart, free of images. The stage of practice known as “the guard of the mind” is a very advanced stage of ascetical and spiritual practice. But attempting to accomplish this prematurely can cause very serious spiritual and emotional harm.
To pray does not mean to think about God in contrast to thinking about other things, or to spend time with God in contrast to spending time with our family and friends. To pray means to think and live our entire life in the Presence of God. The practice of the Jesus Prayer is one of the rich treasurers in the Orthodox tradition offers to those who would pursue the task of developing their own practice of prayer. As Paul Evdokimov says: “Our whole life, every act and gesture, even a smile must become a hymn or adoration, an offering, a prayer. We must become prayer – prayer incarnate.”
In his Ages of the Spiritual Life, Paul Evdokimov wrote: “In a special manner the invocation of the name of Jesus makes the grace of his Incarnation universal, allowing each of us our personal share and disposing our hearts to receive the Lord … When the divine Name is pronounced over a country or a person, these enter into an intimate relationship with God … The ‘prayer of the heart’ frees and enlarges it and attracts Jesus to it … In this prayer … the whole Bible with its entire message is reduced to its essential simplicity … When Jesus is drawn into the heart, the liturgy becomes interiorised and the Kingdom is in the peaceful soul. The Name dwells in us as its temple and there the divine presence transmutes and Christifies us…” (pp 211-212).
Here, as with Saint Seraphim of Sarov, the prayer of the heart is much more than an arcane spiritual practice. Rather, its genius is that it summarises all that the scriptures say, the whole of life is to be “in Christ” and the Spirit.
A note on the Hesychast tradition
The practice of the Jesus Prayer is integrated into the mental ascesis undertaken by the Orthodox monk in the practice of Hesychasm. This mental ascesis is the subject of The Philokalia.
Monks often pray this prayer many hundreds of times each night as part of their private cell vigil. Under the guidance of an Elder (Greek γεροντας, gerontas; Russian starets), the monk aims to internalise the prayer, so that he is praying unceasingly, thereby accomplishing the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing.”
And so, perhaps, a brief note on the Hesychast tradition may be helpful.
Hesychasm (Greek ἡσυχασμός hesychasmos, from ἡσυχία hesychia, “stillness, rest, quiet”) is an eremitic tradition of prayer in Eastern Orthodoxy, practised (Greek: ἡσυχάζω, hesychazo, “to keep stillness”) by the Hesychast (Greek: Ἡσυχαστής, hesychastes).
The tradition dates back to both the Cappadocian Fathers and the Egyptian anchorites in the Western Desert, although the traditions strongest roots can be traced from the 6th to 8th centuries and The Ladder of Divine Ascent written by Saint John of Sinai (523–603).
The term Hesychast is particularly associated with the integration of the continual repetition of the Jesus Prayer into the practices of mental ascesis already used by hermits in Egypt. By the 14th century on Mount Athos, Hesychasm refer to the practices associated with the Jesus Prayer. The books used by the Hesychasts include The Philokalia, a collection of texts on prayer and solitary life written from the 4th to the 15th centuries; The Ladder of Divine Ascent; the collected works of Saint Symeon the New Theologian (949–1022); and the works of Saint Isaac the Syrian (7th century or 8th century).
Hesychastic practice may involve specific body postures and be accompanied by very deliberate breathing patterns. However, these bodily postures and breathing patterns are treated as secondary both by modern Athonite practitioners on Mount Athos and by the more ancient texts in The Philokalia, the emphasis being on the primary role of Grace.
Hesychasts are fully inserted into the liturgical and sacramental life of the Orthodox Church, including the daily cycle of the Divine Office and the Divine Liturgy. However, Hesychasts who are living as hermits may have a very rare attendance at the Divine Liturgy and might not recite the Divine Office except by means of the Jesus Prayer, which often happens on Mount Athos.
The Hesychast practices acquiring an inner stillness, ignoring the physical senses and rejecting tempting thoughts. In solitude and retirement he repeats the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He prays the Jesus Prayer “with the heart” – with meaning, with intent, “for real.” He never treats the Jesus Prayer as a string of syllables whose “surface” or overt verbal meaning is secondary or unimportant. He considers bare repetition of the Jesus Prayer as a mere string of syllables, perhaps with a “mystical” inner meaning beyond the overt verbal meaning, to be worthless or even dangerous.
While he maintains his practice of the Jesus Prayer, which becomes automatic and continues 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the Hesychast rejects all tempting thoughts, paying extreme attention to the consciousness of his inner world and to the words of the Jesus Prayer, not letting his mind wander in any way at all.
The practice of the Jesus Prayer is in the mind in the heart, free of images. The stage of practice known as “the guard of the mind” is a very advanced stage of ascetical and spiritual practice, and attempting to accomplish this prematurely can cause very serious spiritual and emotional harm to the would-be Hesychast. “The guard of the mind” is the condition in which the Hesychast remains as a matter of course throughout his day, every day until he dies. It is from the guard of the mind that he is raised to contemplation by the Grace of God.
The Hesychast usually experiences the contemplation of God as light, the Uncreated Light of the theology of Saint Gregory Palamas. The Hesychast, when he has by the mercy of God been granted such an experience, does not remain in that experience for a very long time, but he returns “to earth” and continues to practise the guard of the mind.
The Uncreated Light that the Hesychast experiences is identified with the Holy Spirit. Experiences of the Uncreated Light are allied to the “acquisition of the Holy Spirit.” The highest goal of the Hesychast is the experiential knowledge of God. In the 14th century, the possibility of this experiential knowledge of God was challenged by a Calabrian monk, Barlaam, who asserted that our knowledge of God can only be propositional. However, the practice of the Hesychasts was defended by Saint Gregory Palamas.
It must be said that there are many warnings that seeking after unusual “spiritual” experiences can itself cause great harm, ruining the soul and the mind of the seeker. Such a seeking after “spiritual” experiences can lead to spiritual delusion in which a person believes himself or herself to be a saint, has hallucinations in which he or she “sees” angels, Christ, etc. This state of spiritual delusion is in a superficial, egotistical way pleasurable, but can lead to madness and suicide, and, according to the Hesychast fathers, makes salvation impossible.
A note on the Athonite and monastic tradition today
Mount Athos is a centre of the practice of Hesychasm, and the most important centre of monastic life in the Orthodox world today. There has been a recent revival in the fortunes of many of the monasteries on the Holy Mountain, with new monks arriving from Cyprus, Romania, Russia and Australia.
But the mountain is loved among the Orthodox for nurturing great writers in spirituality and on the life of prayer. Three of the better known of these writers in the 20th century were Saint Silouan (1866-1938), his disciple Archimandrite Sophrony (1896-1993), and Father Joseph (died 1959).
Although some of these great writers also lived the lives of hermits, they gathered many followers, and were particularly known for their practice of the Jesus Prayer.
Additional notes of the prayer rope:
A prayer rope is a loop made up of complicated knots, usually made of wool, used by Eastern Orthodox Christians and Eastern Rite Catholics to count the number of times they have prayed the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Historically it typically had 100 knots, although prayer ropes with 50 or 33 knots can also be found in use today. There is typically a knotted cross at one end, and a few beads at certain intervals between the knots. Longer prayer ropes frequently have a tassel at the end; its purpose is to dry the tears shed because the deep sorrow for one’s sins.
It is said that the Prayer Rope has its origins from the Father of Orthodox monasticism, Saint Anthony. He started by tying a leather rope for every time he prayed his Kyrie Eleisons, or Lord have Mercies, and the Devil came and would untie it to throw his count off. He then devised a way, inspired from a vision by the Theotokos (Mother of God), of tying the knots so that the knots would constantly make the shape of the cross. That is why Prayer Ropes today are still tied by seven little crosses being tied over and over. The Devil could then not untie it because the Devil is vanquished by the sign of the Cross.
Others attribute its origin to Saint Pachomius in the 4th century as an aid for illiterate monks to accomplish a consistent number of prayers and prostrations. Monks were often expected to carry a prayer rope on their left wrist almost constantly, to remind them to pray constantly in accordance with the Apostle Paul’s injunction in I Thessalonians 5: 17: “Pray without ceasing.”
In some Russian Orthodox service books, certain liturgies can be replaced at need by praying the Jesus Prayer a specified number of times, anywhere from 300 to 1,500 times depending on the service being replaced. In this way prayers can still be said even if the service books are unavailable for some reason. The use of a prayer rope is a very practical tool in such cases, simply for keeping count of the prayers said.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes for a seminar and workshop in the Year II course, Spirituality for Ministry, on Wednesday 3 December 2008, entitled: Practical and critical examinations of selected spiritual practices: (2) The Jesus Prayer.