Can seven words – Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me – change lives?
It may seem a lot of effort over just seven words: Finding 110 Eastern Orthodox Christians, giving them a battery of tests ranging from psychology to theology to behavioural medicine, and then repeating the tests 30 days later. But the seven words – “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” (aka the Jesus Prayer) – are among the most enduring in history.
What Boston University psychologist George Stravros, Ph.D., wanted to find out was whether repeating the Jesus Prayer for ten minutes each day over the 30 days would affect these people’s relationship with God, their relationships with others, their faith maturity, and their “self-cohesion” (levels of depression, anxiety, hostility, and interpersonal sensitivity). In short, Stravros was asking whether the Jesus Prayer can play a special role in a person’s “journey to the heart”.
The answer – at least on all the scales that showed any significant effect compared to the control group – turned out to be a resounding yes. Repeating the contemplative prayer deepened the commitment of these Christians to a relationship with a transcendent reality. Not only that, it reduced depression, anxiety, hostility, and feelings of inferiority to others. So powerful were the psychological effects of the prayer that Stravros urges his colleagues to keep it in mind as a healing intervention for clients. He recommends that the prayer be used along with communal practices so that one’s relationship with God and others is “subtly and continuously tutored.” In other words, going inside to find God does not mean going in alone.