The Jesus Prayer is the traditional practice of ceaseless prayer (cf. 1 Thess. 5:17) in the Orthodox Christian Tradition. The standard formula of the Jesus Prayer reads: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me” or, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, the sinner.” In practice, a variety of forms can be used. The shortest forms are simply “Lord, have mercy” or even more simply “Jesus.”
The Jesus prayer has a biblical foundation. It is based on the combination of two prayers in the Gospel: that of the blind man in Jericho, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Luke 18:38), and that of the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” (Luke 18:13).
The Jesus Prayer is meant to be cultivated ceaselessly, not just during our specified prayer times. We can focus on this prayer while we are doing our ordinary daily tasks of walking, driving, cleaning, cooking, managing children, or anytime, night or day. When this prayer is practiced over time, it can enter into the heart and become what is called “the prayer of the heart.” The immersion into the Holy Name of Jesus, which is a continuation of our baptismal immersion, brings our attention to Christ and Christ, in turn, dwells in us. The prayer warms the heart and becomes an experience of God’s Presence.
Many people have become familiar with the Jesus Prayer through the classic book, “The Way of a Pilgrim”, the story of an anonymous Russian pilgrim who lived in the middle of the nineteenth century. We are told that the pilgrim began by saying the Jesus Prayer a certain number of times every day, increasing from several hundred to several thousand times a day with continuous effort. Then to his surprise, as he tells us, “Early one morning the prayer woke me up as it were.” Ever since then he found the prayer repeating itself constantly in keeping with the rhythm of each heartbeat. It was as though he were carrying a small “murmuring stream” flowing unceasingly in his heart. Prayer in such a person is no longer a series of activities but a permanent state. Bishop Kallistos Ware, however, warns the readers of the Pilgrim against gaining the wrong impression that this journey from strenuous prayer to self-acting prayer is easily attained. The rapid achievement of the pilgrim is something altogether exceptional. More usually, prayer of the heart comes only after a lifetime of ascetic practice.
One of the obstacles in attaining ceaseless prayer is that the human mind is always active. St Theophan the Recluse says that thoughts keep moving restlessly and aimlessly in our mind like the buzzing of flies. It is of little use to say to ourselves “stop thinking” we might as well say “stop breathing.” The rational mind cannot remain completely idle. But while it lies beyond our power to make the continual chattering of the thoughts disappear, what we can do is to detach ourselves from it, gently but persistently. In order to let go the multiplicity of thoughts we must, as Diadochus of Photike recommends, give the mind “some task which will satisfy its need for activity,” that is, something which will keep it sufficiently occupied, without allowing it to be too active. For the same purpose, St Theophan teaches that “to stop the continual jostling of your thoughts you must bind the mind with one thought, or the thought of One [i.e. God] only.” In our case, this one single thought or “the thought of One only” is the holy name of Jesus. The Jesus Prayer is thus a way of keeping guard over the mind and the heart.
Although it uses words, the invocation of the name of Jesus, because of its brevity and simplicity, is capable of leading us beyond the words into the eternal silence of God. The Jesus Prayer is not just a technique devised for leading people into quiet and stillness. According to the biblical tradition, a name stands for the person. The name “Jesus” was announced by an angel to indicate his saving mission (“Jesus” means “he who saves”).
During his ministry on earth saving power constantly came forth from his person to heal the sick and deliver the possessed from the dominion of evil spirits. The invocation of the holy name of Jesus has a sacramental effect that renders the Saviour present to us, enabling us to experience his power over the evil spirits.The idea of “presence” is essential to the Jesus Prayer. However, it deals with a non-iconic or imageless presence of the Lord. St Gregory of Sinai gives this instruction to those who practice the Jesus Prayer: “Keep your intellect free from colours, images and forms.” Our awareness of the presence of Jesus must not be accompanied by any visual concept but must be confined to a simple conviction or feeling. Through the invocation of the name we are united with Jesus in a direct, unmediated encounter, that is, without any intermediary concept or image. We feel his nearness with our “spiritual senses”, much as we feel the warmth with our bodily senses on entering a heated room.
As long as the prayer remains in the mind, or in the head, it is incomplete. It is necessary to descend from the head to the heart, to “find the place of the heart.” To be more exact, we must descend with the mind to the heart: to “bring down the mind into the heart.” Our aim is “prayer of the mind in the heart.” It is the special power of the Jesus Prayer to accomplish the union of the mind and the heart.
In order to bring the mind into the heart, our heart must first be awakened. As Christians we have received the Holy Spirit at our Baptism and Chrismation. As the Holy Spirit dwells in the sanctuary of our heart and is unceasingly praying in us, we ourselves carry within us a constant prayer. But most of us are unconscious of his presence and the prayer which continuously goes on in us. Our heart lies asleep and needs to be awakened to this inner reality. The Jesus Prayer is a powerful means for awakening our heart, enabling us to become aware of the secret indwelling of the Spirit in a conscious way.
It is important to realise that the essential point of the prayer is not the act of repetition in itself, but the One to whom we speak. The prayer is not simply a rhythmic incantation or ‘mantra’ but an invocation addressed to another person and thus implies a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The Jesus Prayer exists within a certain context which is, first of all, one of faith and repentance. Removed from this context the prayer loses its meaning. The invocation presupposes our faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour. Without this confession of faith there is no Jesus Prayer. Also, repentance implies that we are attempting to live a life “in Christ” and so, aspiring always to be Christ-like.
The aim of the Jesus Prayer, therefore, is not simply the laying aside of all thoughts, but an encounter with Someone. It is not so much prayer emptied of thoughts but prayer filled with the Beloved – our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Rev. Chris Dimolianis
Parish Priest of St Eustathios – South Melbourne (VIC)