“By the grace of God I am a Christian, by my deeds a great sinner, and by my calling a homeless wanderer of humblest origin, roaming from place to place.” With this sentence an anonymous 19th century author begins the remarkable story of a Russian peasant’s spiritual quest through the forests and villages of Siberia. With nothing more than a sack of dried bread and a Bible, the devoted lover of God seeks an answer to the question that burns within his soul; how is it possible to “Pray without ceasing” as St. Paul says he must? (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
In The Way of the Pilgrim, the determined sojourner describes his eventual discovery of the Jesus Prayer, “the continuous, uninterrupted call on the holy name of Jesus Christ with the lips, mind, and heart.” The version that the Pilgrim learns, from a spiritual father, is “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” This is the form found in the Philokalia and other ancient writings of the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic traditions. Today a longer version is in common use by Catholics East and West: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Catechism 435; 2667-2668).
The prayer is deceptively simple, yet powerful. Its anchor is the holy name of Jesus. When we invoke Jesus’ name out of sincere need and desire, he will respond; “If you ask anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:13). In fact, St. Diadochus, of the mid-fifth century, believed that we need do no more than continually utter "Lord Jesus" if we wish to experience the unceasing awareness of divine presence. A monk of the Eastern Church wrote that “The oldest form, the simplest, and in our view the easiest, is the word ‘Jesus’ used by itself.” The Catechism confirms that “the invocation of the holy name of Jesus is the simplest way of praying always” (2668).
The primary advantage of the longer version lies in its succinct characterization of our relationship with Jesus. He is son of God, the second person of the Trinity, while we are wretched sinners, continually in need of his mercy. The wandering pilgrim comes to regard the prayer as a one-sentence summary of the entire Gospel. Thomas Merton agrees; “It is a prayer that really just expresses everything.”
The Jesus Prayer can be prayed by anyone, anywhere, at any time. There are essentially two methods of adapting the prayer, described as “free” and “formal.” Free refers to the recitation of the prayer as we engage in routine activities throughout the day; walking, driving, doing chores, or just sitting to rest for a moment. It can be said once or many times, verbally or mentally, depending on our need and the circumstances. The prayer is especially helpful when we are experiencing tension, anxiety, or worry.
In the formal use of the prayer, a specific time and place is set aside to concentrate solely on praying without distraction. For example, we might decide to pray for a half hour each morning, or perhaps recite the prayer one hundred times, regardless of how long it takes. A prayer rope is sometimes employed, typically with a hundred knots. The purpose of the rope is not as much to count prayers as it is to help focus attention and establish a rhythm. A breathing technique is also sometimes recommended, in which “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God” is recited on the inhale, the remainder on the exhale. Undistracted concentration, coordinated with a prayer rope and a breathing technique, will help take the seeker to the deepest level of the Jesus Prayer; from the lips, to the mind, and eventually to the heart.
It should be stressed that the Jesus Prayer is best employed in a manner that suits the needs of the individual. One may use both the formal and free approaches together, or only one. The use of a pray rope and breathing technique are optional. That being said, those seekers who wish to take the Jesus Prayer to the level of the heart will need to set aside time to be alone in regular, concentrated, formal prayer.
In his book On the Prayer of Jesus, Russian Orthodox Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov describes the negotiation of the three levels, during which we are gradually taken inward:
Level 1. The Prayer of the Lips. The invocation of the Holy Name begins as oral or vocal prayer. The focus is on attending to the meaning of the words. The prayer must never be regarded as a magical incantation. Instead, the individual, who prays with “extreme unhurriedness,” stays in touch with the meaning of each phrase each time it is uttered, remaining at all times conscious of who is being addressed.
Level 2. The Prayer of the Mind. At this level the seeker struggles to eliminate distracting thoughts from his or her mind. St. Ignatius recommends that we be gentle with ourselves. Each time the mind wanders we are to bring it back firmly and confidently to Jesus.
Level 3. The Prayer of the Heart. The third degree of prayer is attained when the mind can recite the prayer with complete, undistracted attentiveness. St. Ignatius reminds us that “complete” does not imply perfection. “A total absence of distractions,” he writes, “is the privilege of angels.” At this level the undistracted mind has descended into the heart and united with it. Here there is a constant awareness of the presence of God, and the prayer becomes, not something that we do, but something that we are.
This is necessarily an over-simplification of a process that has been treated at considerable length by St. Ignatius, as well as ancient writers down through the ages. St. Ignatius has a sobering comment for those who strive to attain the level of Heart Prayer. “Very few,” writes the Saint, “receive the union of the mind with the heart soon after starting the work of the prayer. Usually many years pass before that takes place.”
St. Ignatius’ statement, and indeed his entire book, can be intimidating for those who are curious about the Jesus Prayer. Talk of levels and goals might lead one to conclude that the Jesus Prayer is only for a select few who chose to live the life of an ascetic. That this is not the case is overwhelmingly attested to by those who have experience with the prayer. Anyone who desires to be in the divine presence of Jesus can utilize the prayer at any time, without elaborate preparation, special knowledge, or concern about a pre-determined goal. All that is needed is a sincere desire to move closer to Jesus. “To those who feel called by God to the Way of the Name,” writes Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware, “we may say: simply begin.”
Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov (2013). On the Prayer of Jesus. New Seeds. Bishop Kallistos’
quote is from the Foreward.
The Way of the Pilgrim (1992). Translated by Helen Bacovcin. Image Books.
Bernadette Dieker and Jonathan Montaldo (2003). Merton and Hesychasm. Fons Vitae.
A Monk of the Eastern Church. The quote is from a journal article entitled On the Use of
the Jesus Prayer, found in PRAYER, January, 1954.