The Jesus Prayer

By the grace of God I am a Christian man, by my actions a great sinner, and by my calling a homeless wanderer of the humblest birth who roams from place to place. My worldly goods are a knapsack with some dried bread in it on my back and in my breast pocket a Bible. And that is all (The Way of the Pilgrim).

So begins a 19th century classical of Eastern Orthodox Christian spirituality, The Way of the Pilgrim. The text is a fictionalized, first-person narrative of one man’s attempt to fulfill the command of the Apostle Paul “to pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). The means by which he comes to fulfill the apostolic call is through the recitation of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The Protestant Evangelical Christian author Richard Foster (Streams of Living Water: Essential Practices from the Six Great Traditions of the Christian Faith, 288) say of the Jesus Prayer or as it is sometimes called the “‘prayer of the heart”” that it “may well be one of the finest gifts Eastern Orthodoxy has to offer to all Christians. It is certainly the most borrow-able.”

Foster situate the Jesus Prayer within a spiritual tradition that emphasizes “a meditative approach to prayer . . . developed beginning in the fourth century, with Evagrios of Pontus (c. 344-399) as the key figure.” The tradition and practice of hesychastic (the word “hesychasm. . . literally means ‘quietness,’ ‘stillness,’ ‘peace.’) prayer “experienced considerable subsequent development in the fourteenth century, with two writers having extensive influence–Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) and Gregory of Sinai (?-1346).” It is to the second Gregory, Gregory of Sinai, that we owe the addition of the phrase “a sinner” which is today the typical formulation of the Jesus Prayer (Foster, 288-289).

In my experience, I have found the Jesus Prayer to be a powerful aid for both my spiritual life and the spiritual lives of those who have sought out my guidance as a priest. At its core, when undertaken properly and, this necessarily means under the watchful eye of a spiritual director who is skilled in a life of prayer, the Jesus Prayer becomes a “prayer of the entire person.”

Again, Foster summarizes this well:

Though we may begin by praying with the lips, in time we “descend with the mind into the heart,” allowing the intellect and the heart to be united. We “find the place of the heart,” and our spirit acquires the power to “dwelling in the heart,” so that our prayer becomes a “prayer of the heart.” All this signifies a complete state of reintegration in which, as we pray, we are totally united with the prayer itself and with our divine Companion to whom we pray. We are not so much saying a prayer as we are being turned into prayer (Foster, 289, emphasis added).

Within Holy Tradition is a personal life of prayer—liturgical as well as private—is essential not only soteriologically (that is, for our salvation), but also psychologically and socially. St Ephraim the Syrian describes the goal of our spiritual life in this way:

Make me whole, O Lord, and I will become whole! On only wise and merciful Physician, I beseech Thy benevolence: heal the wounds of my soul and enlighten the eyes of my mind that I may understand my place in Thine eternal design! And inasmuch as my heart and mind have been disfigured, may Thy grace repair them, for it is as true salt.

What shall I say to Thee, O Knower of the heart who searchest the heart and inner workings of men? Indeed, Thou knowest that, like a waterless land, my soul thirsts after Thee and my heart longs for Thee. And Thy grace has always sated those that love Thee.

Thus, as Thou has always heard me, so now do not scorn my prayer. For Thou seest that my mind, like a prisoner, seeks Thee, the Only true Savior.

Send Thy grace, that it may satisfy my hunger and quench my thirst. For insatiably do I desire Thee, O my Master! And who can have enough of Thee if he truly loves Thee and thirsts for Thy truth?

O Giver of light! Fulfill my supplications and grant me Thy gifts according to my prayer; impart to my heart just one drop of Thy grace, that the flame of Thy love may begin to burn in my heart; and, like a fire, may it consume evil thoughts like thorns and thistles!

Give me all this in abundance; grant it to me as God unto man, as the King to His subjects, and increase it as a kind Father (Psalm 3 in A Spiritual Psalter or Reflections on God, 17).

The absence of this integration, our lack of wholeness of being, or if you will a “catholic” (from the Greek kata by + holos whole) personality, is the sign of our fallen state.

Moving from the personal to the social, this means that my relationships with my neighbor are broken because I am broken. It is the lack of my wholeness that undermines my ability to love. Maybe even more tragically, that lack on integration also makes me inclined to refuse to accept love from God and from my neighbor.

But building on the grace of the sacraments—especially Holy Communion and Confession—through the practice of the Jesus Prayer God can restore us first to a wholeness of being and heal our relationships with Him and with our neighbor.

Next: “I’ve Got a Thinking Problem.”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory