This is a chapter from Frederica Matthews-Green’s book The Illumined Heart, on the Jesus Prayer. It gives a nice summary of it and the best way to begin.
Theodore keeps reading over a letter he and Anna received last year from Anna’s brother, Timothy, who joined a group of monks on Mt Sinai a few years ago. Timothy wrote that he was being taught to abide in prayer by repeating a short verse from Scripture over and over, whenever his mind would otherwise be idle- or not idle, since we all know how the restless nous seeks trouble. He says that it is hard work, ascetic labor, to discipline the mind this way, but he is already finding growing peace.
Theodore wishes he knew more about how to do this. He tries it, but soon his mind is wandering to other things. The verse he chose seemed fresh initially, but now he feels like he’s just going through the motions. Still, it sounds like Timothy is being taught to stick with the same verse nevertheless. Perhaps it gets better again after a while. It would sure help if he had someone to explain this, face to face. Sometimes Theodore wants to give up and just say, “Lord Jesus, help me,” and, at times like that, repeating that heartfelt plea seems to help.
In the eighteenth century, St Macarius of Corinth and St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain set about to make a collection of the many works Christians had written over the years about prayer of the heart. They gathered texts ranging from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries into a collection known as the Philokelia, or “Love of the Beautiful.” While the practice initially involved many different Bible verses and prayer formulas, one form eventually triumphed over all.
St Nicodemus gave this description” “Prayer of the heart…consists principally of a person placing his mind within the heart and, without speaking with his mouth, but only with inner words spoken in the heart, saying this brief and single prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”
From the beginning Christians have wondered how to implement St Paul’s command to “pray without ceasing.” It was of course impossible to speak verbal prayers without ceasing, day and night, not that some people didn’t try. The Messalians, for example, recruited other people to do the praying for them while they slept.
The Jesus Prayer arose as a way to practice unceasing prayer. It offered a short and simple form that can be repeated in an unhurried way no matter what else a person is doing. Since the prayer is silent and interior, it can be kept going in all situations. It can accompany the believer in the marketplace as well as in the church, in joy and sorrow and boredom, day after day and year after year. Initially somewhat laborious, the prayer gradually becomes more automatic, and finally runs by itself while the mind listens in peace. It drives out the aimless chatter that would otherwise occupy the nous, and as a result the passions are subdued. It becomes the last thought at night and the first in the morning and the believer senses that it flows through sleep as well.
Murmurings like a brook; the prayer becomes the background music of every other thought and deed in life. It beats in the heart through long years, accompanying the believer at every moment. As he approaches declining age and enfeeblement, it is still there; it is there even when consciousness grows dim and memories fade away. The prayer beats inside until the last moment when the weary heart is stilled, and the believer steps through the veil to see the one he has loved so long, face to face.
The words of this prayer distill the faith of the early church. It begins with the “name of Jesus,” though that does not merely mean the five letter name itself, which was common enough at the time. Early Christians did not address him by his first name alone. To call upon the name of Jesus meant to call on his whole person as revealed in glory; it meant to own him as Lord and Christ. Thus the first part of the prayer attributes titles of honor to the one on whom we call, and proclaims that we take him as Lord. It is a profession of faith.
What do we ask of him? We imitate the blind man on the road how cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Or the publican in Jesus’ parable, who “would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, saying, “God me merciful to me, a sinner!” This may sound a little craven to modern-day believers, for whom a healthy idea of repentance is still somewhat new. Yet the discomfort we feel is based partly on misunderstanding. This prayer doesn’t ask Jesus for forgiveness, it asks Him for mercy. We don’t keep pestering Jesus to forgive us; if repentance is sincere, asking only once is enough, as was shown to the thief on the cross.
But mercy is slightly different. The Hebrew word is hesed, meaning “steadfast love,” a love that perseveres to save the beloved. In Greek it’s eleos, and “Lord have mercy” is Kyrie, eleison. In that language it resonates poetically with elaion, olive oil, the medium for medicinal balm. The Good Samaritan bound the wounds of the beaten man with elaion. This healing mercy is an inherent attribute of Jesus, and it is steadfast and constant, streaming toward us ceaselessly. Some of Anna’s favorite hymns hail Jesus for “granting to the world great mercy.”
The problem is not God’s willingness to have mercy, but in our forgetting that we need it. We keep lapsing into ideas of self-sufficiency, or get impressed with our niceness, and so we lose our humility. Asking for mercy reminds us that we are still poor and needy, and fall short of the glory of God. Those who do not ask do not receive, because they don’t know their own need.
The nineteenth century Russian monk St Theophan the Recluse responded to a letter from a spiritual child with these words:
It is essential to recognize ourselves as empty, an empty vessel containing nothing; to add to this the consciousness of our own powerlessness to fill this emptiness by any effort of our own; to crown this by the certitude that the Lord alone can do it, and not only can but wants to and knows how; and then, standing with the mind in the heart, to cry out: “Bring me into good order by the means that Thou knowest, O Lord.”
As Theodore has found, getting started on this prayer can be daunting. People need plain, practical advice, and the centuries of accumulated literature blessedly abound with it. While the prayer can be said anywhere, anytime-the more, the better- the person who desires to acquire it permanently should set aside time to daily focus on it alone. This might be only fifteen minutes at first, or even less if that length is unbearably fidgety. The athlete must be humble about limitations and hope by diligence to grow stronger.
The prayer is usually said seated, with the head bowed. The body should be comfortably supported so that it does not become a distraction. The eyes are closed, but their gaze is trained on the place of the heart, and there the mind is focused. Those who are able to sense their own heart beating (this gets easier with practice) can accompany each beat with a word of the prayer. Decide whether you’re going to repeat the prayer for an amount of time, or for an amount of repetitions. The latter was f course the common method in the centuries in the centuries before wristwatches. At a comfortable pace, one hundred repetitions take about 15 minutes. A traditional way of keeping track of repetitions is to use a prayer rope, a length of black wool knotted in a symbolic way (each knot contains nine crosses), and then tied into a circle. Such prayer ropes are available at Orthodox churches. They are not necessary to the prayer, but some people find they can concentrate better when they have something to do with their hands.
Decide as well, what form of the prayer you are going to use. Some add the words “a sinner” to the end; others omit “Son of God,” or vary it in other ways. By experimenting you will find the length that works for you. Then stick to it. You are trying to habituate yourself to this prayer, and changing it repeatedly is like planting, digging up, and replanting a tree. As you do further reading, you will find that some ancient writers discuss breathing techniques to accompany the prayer. Don’t bother with these; they are not required, and without personal guidance from a spiritual teacher they can physically harmful. Most of us have plenty to do just locating the nous without also fooling around with the autonomic nervous system.
As you begin to pray, do not visualize anything. This prayer is not “meditation,” in the sense of reflecting on ideas and images. It is a straightforward plea addressed to Jesus, who is present in your spiritual heart. Say it in poverty of spirit. Say it simply. Remember who He is, His unbearable glory and his astonishing nearness. And so ask him for mercy. If you’re like me, you will say it this way two or three times, then say it a dozen or more times while thinking about a phone call you have to make later on. This is inevitable, especially at first. However, do not accept this level of inattention. This is why the prayer is called a struggle fit for a heroic athlete. You are trying to capture that runaway nous and focus it on Jesus in your heart, and on nothing else, and that will take effort.
The goal of the prayer, of course, is not to get good at saying the prayer. The goal of the prayer is to encounter Jesus, to grow in theosis, to live “in Christ.” The prayer is a means to this end, a way to discipline and quiet the mind and dispose it to receive God’s grace and presence. So do not be deceived to think that the words have magic of their own, and of you just keep saying them while your mind wanders you will still reap the benefits. That is the kind if thing Jesus meant by “vain repetition.” Repeating prayers, for example the Lord’s Prayer, is not vain in itself, but you do it in vain if you don’t mean it. In fact, you insult the Lord if you ask him for things, yet don’t even care enough to pay attention to your own request.
Take care that, even if you are remembering God while you pray, you do not do so in a casual, chummy way. St Theophan wrote, “Beware lest in ceaselessly remembering God you forget also to kindle fear, and awe, and the desire to fall as dust before the face of God…Frequent recollection of God without reverence blunts the feeling of the fear of God and thereby deprives us of its saving influence.” Keep reminding yourself that “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner” is the truth, no matter how you feel. It is, you know. Anything else is a delusion.
However, when you are plagued by distraction and run through a hundred prayers without awareness, when you keep spurning thoughts of Christ for amusing trivialities, when you feel dry and stupid and the words are sand in your mouth, pray them anyway. Do not cease praying when prayer comes hard, for fear of doing it imperfectly. If you cease praying when you can’t do it right, the devil gets a victory. So keep offering broken prayer, and remember that you are only an unworthy servant, and yet Jesus wants you.
And one day you will say, like the anonymous nineteenth-century author of The Way of the Pilgrim, “Early one morning the prayer woke me up, as it were…My whole desire was fixed on one thing only-to say the prayer of Jesus.