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The Jesus Prayer - introduction
The Jesus prayer is an ancient form of prayer. It is described in the book “The Way of a Pilgrim” which is a Russian book by an unknown writer. This manuscript was discovered by a monk of Mount Athos. Mount Athos is a peninsula in northern Greece and its entire peninsula is home to a vast monastery which at one time was home to thousands of monks. After the manuscript was found, it was transcribed and published in Kazaan in 1884. The references to historical occurrences in the book show that the pilgrim was on his journey 25 years before this. The book was translated into English in 1930 and is now available from various publishers with slightly different translations. In addition to the instruction on the Jesus prayer, the book is a wonderful story in it’s own right, and worth reading.The story in the book is simple. The author undergoes many trials and misfortunes in his life that leave him with a withered arm, widowed, and alone. The book opens with the following:
“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. My possessions consist of a knapsack with dry crusts of bread on my back and in my bosom the Holy Bible. This is all.On the twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost I came to church to attend the Liturgy and entered just as the epistle was being read. The reading was from Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians, which says in part, "Pray constantly." These words made a deep impression on me and I started thinking of how it could be possible for a man to pray without ceasing when the practical necessities of life demand so much attention. I checked my Bible and saw with my own eyes exactly what I had heard, that it is necessary to pray continuously (1 Thess 5:17); to pray in the Spirit on every possible occasion (Eph. 6:18); in every place to lift your hands reverently in prayer (1 Tim. 2:8). 1 thought and thought about these words, but no understanding came to me.
And so the pilgrim embarks upon a journey of learning ceaseless prayer. After a year he finally meets up with a monk elder who presents him with a book called the Philokalia and starts instructing him on ceaseless interior prayer. The Philokalia consisted of a collection of writings, originally in Greek, by the fathers of the church from the fourth to the sixth century and includes writings by many eastern orthodox writers including St. John Climacus (sixth century), Hesychius of Jerusalem (fourth century), and St. John Chrysostom (fourth century).
The Way of the Pilgrim continues as he learns and practices this prayer on his journey. He is blessed with many interesting fellow travelers and hospitable hosts along the way and observes God working in his life and in those around him. He spreads the word of the Jesus prayer to those he meets and engages in spiritual discussions, all of which benefit the reader. Eventually he embarks upon a journey to the Holy Land, but he never makes it for a variety of reasons. Perhaps he ended up in Mount Athos.
The Jesus prayer is simple. The concept is to pick a meaningful phrase and repeat it until it becomes part of your being. Some match it to the rhythm of their breathing, some match it to the sound of a machine they are around at work, or the rhythm of their footsteps. Try a phrase and see how it fits with you.
Here are some suggestions:
Any prayerful phrase will do. Pick one from the scripture. I believe that having the name Jesus in your prayer is important, for there is power in the name of Jesus. The word mercy does not just mean the pardon of one's sins, but is a term for God's graciousness and loving kindness. Note that “have mercy on me, a sinner” is partially taken from the gospel of Luke 18:9-14:
In the Book, “The way of the Pilgrim” the pilgrim slowly increases his repetition of the phrase “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” to 12,000 times in a day! This was to “learn” the prayer. Because of this, the prayer would come to this thoughts even when he wasn’t consciously praying. The goal for this pilgrim was to say it enough so that the prayer would incorporate itself into the heart, when his heart beat the prayer, would flow with it. The prayer takes on a life of its own, inside you. This seems very strange to most of us, but the prayer works, even without saying it that often. Make the effort over one month to recite the prayer. Then you will have it with you always. You may notice many subtle things. Your overall prayer life may improve. Your relationship with Jesus may rise to a new level. You may notice yourself being less upset by life’s tribulations.
Repeating single words
In the Cloud of the Unknowing, which is written by an unknown English mystic in the late fourteenth century, the author suggests repeating a word repeatedly as a kind of prayer and as a way to come closer to God.
One can’t help but notice the similarity between the Jesus prayer and the Rosary. Both have repetition and through it stop the ego and ego thoughts of the self, allowing you to come closer to God. One difference, besides the length of the prayer, is the use of beads. Somehow this seems to help and quiet the body. In the story of the Way of the pilgrim, he used “Jesus beads” which were like a rosary but with 100 beads and a cross. The rosary and how it has evolved is a powerful prayer form.
The prayer of the Name
This is a prayer form from the Hindu religion. It was practiced by Mahatma Ghandi. It consists of repeating the name of God. In Hindu this is the word Rama.
The Active Prayer
Fr. Thomas Keating, a spiritual leader of centering prayer, recommends that an Active Prayer "an aspiration drawn from scripture for use in daily life" 5 to 9 syllables long be repeated and synchronized with one's heartbeat. (Page 133 - Open Mind, Open Heart). He proposes that it helps establish a new "tape" or way of reacting to a situation or experience that can displace some of the old programming of the ego. Reading his description of "The Active Prayer" seems to be identical to "The Jesus Prayer"
During the Lenten season 1998, I was looking for something positive I could do for the season. I can’t remember where I heard about the Jesus prayer but I was intrigued by it and wanted to learn what it was. Eventually I found a chapter on it. After reading the chapter, I became enthused and began. I tried various phrases but somehow “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me” stuck and seemed to fall in with my rhythm. I would concentrate and repeat it to myself throughout the day as I went about my work. I would recite it while driving and during breaks. The more I did it the easier it became. I tried to synch it with my breathing, but that didn’t seem to work well for me with this particular phrase. It did blend in very well with my step while walking in the halls at work however. It made for a wonderful advent experience. I can’t remember feeling so close to Christ before.The Jesus prayer continues with me. Although I may not consciously be praying it, it will float up like the lyrics to a song and come to my awareness. It reminds me that Jesus is all around me, and helps me to look for the Christ in everyone I meet. It seems to be there during times of need, such as when I seem to get caught up in the material world and need reminding of the true nature of life here on earth. While walking now, the prayer will often start up spontaneously. It comes into my conscious while driving. It is with me as I type this! Months later I ran into “The Way of the Pilgrim” in a catholic bookstore and read it. It is a great story, and it confirmed the spiritual nature of the prayer.The prayer is a gift. I encourage you to try it and see how it works in your life. Let me know…I’d be happy to hear and share your experience if you’d like. Feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Catechism of the Catholic church mentions the Jesus Prayer:
Jesus hears our prayer
2616 Prayer to Jesus is answered by him already during his ministry, through signs that anticipate the power of his death and Resurrection: Jesus hears the prayer of faith, expressed in words (the leper, Jairus, the Canaanite woman, the good thief or in silence (the bearers of the paralytic, the woman with a hemorrhage who touches his clothes, the tears and ointment of the sinful woman. The urgent request of the blind men, "Have mercy on us, Son of David" or "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" has been renewed in the traditional prayer to Jesus known as the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!" Healing infirmities or forgiving sins, Jesus always responds to a prayer offered in faith: "Your faith has made you well; go in peace."
St. Augustine wonderfully summarizes the three dimensions of Jesus' prayer: "He prays for us as our priest, prays in us as our Head, and is prayed to by us as our God. Therefore let us acknowledge our voice in him and his in us."(Catechism of the Catholic Church, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger - Interdicasterial Commission for the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994, Liguori publications)
The following are some resources for discovering more about the Jesus prayer: Clicking on the book title will take you to Amazon.com from where you can place your order if you would like.
The Way of a Pilgrim: And the Pilgrim Continues His Way , Helen Bacovcin (Translator) Foreword by Walter J. Ciszek, S. J., 1992, Image Books (doubleday)
The Way of a Pilgrim - Complete Text and Reader's Guide, Dennis J. Billy C.Ss.R., 2000, Liguori Publications
The Way of a Pilgrim : And the Pilgrim Continues His Way, Reginald M. French (Translator) Forward by Huston Smith, 1991, Harper Collins
The Jesus Prayer, A monk of the Eastern Church, Archimondrile Lew Gillet, 1997, St. Vladimir's Seminary
Writings from the Philokalia on the Prayer of the Heart, Translated by E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer, 1992, Farber and Farber ltd.