The Jesus Prayer, or the Prayer of Jesus (also called “the prayer of the Name of Jesus,” “unceasing prayer,” “prayer of the heart” or “prayer of silence”) is an ancient form of prayer, of being attentive to God, that was practised in the early Church and has been carried on to the present day by an unbroken tradition. Until recently, it has been mainly used by the Eastern [Orthodox] Church, but now is becoming known to increasing numbers of Christians in the West.
The practice of the Jesus Prayer began in the early centuries of Christianity as a prayer of monks and nuns, Fathers and Mothers of the Desert, but it was soon taught to everyone who was drawn to it. It is now practised by countless lay and religious men and women all over the world.
Its form is very simple. It consists of the constant repetition of just a few words:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me
Lord Jesus, have mercy
or even the single word,
The exact formula does not matter, but once we find the exact wording that speaks to us most, we should stay with it.
Our practice of the prayer is easier and takes root in us sooner if we do not keep experimenting with it. We practise it by sitting still with our eyes closed and repeating the words slowly, gently, attentively and silently, over and over, not so much with our lips as with our minds.
Some teachers of the prayer recommend that the words be synchronized with the rhythm of our breathing (e.g., “Lord Jesus Christ” as we breathe in, and “have mercy on me” as we breathe out). Doing this helps to still the mind and allows the words of the Prayer to flow in and out in a very natural way. But it is better not to worry too much about it. If we practice saying the prayer regularly, this synchronization tends to happen on its own. It is important not to concentrate on the method, the technique of the prayer, but rather to say the words as simply and attentively as we can.
This advice applies equally to the position we adopt while saying the prayer. Many people find it best to sit up straight, as it is easier to be alert that way. The Fathers usually stood while praying; others sat, knelt or prostrated themselves. St. Francis of Assisi often prayed lying on his back. We should choose the position that is best for us, that makes it easiest for us to stay attentive. As we continue praying the Jesus Prayer and it begins to establish itself in us, as we begin to realize more and more to whom we are being attentive, we shall discover for ourselves the best position for praying.
The presence of Jesus with us is a fact – proclaimed to us by our faith. Christ is with us; we do not need to do anything to make this happen except try and be open to it. If we keep saying the words of the prayer to him, to his real, full presence, we will become aware that our hearts are burning within us, just as those of the disciples on the road to Emmaus did. Although some may occasionally feel this as an almost physical sensation, it is always a spiritual experience: an inner opening of the spirit when it finds itself in the presence of God. It is not a sign of our “advanced” spiritual status, but a sign of love – of our love for God, yes, but above all of God’s love for us. In this way God makes his love and presence known to us. God is present to us and loves us all the time, but we are often not quiet and alert enough to be aware of it. The Jesus Prayer can be the way of learning to be aware of God.
At first, saying the prayer will require some effort and discipline. Especially at the beginning, we need to set aside some time for it (perhaps 20 or 30 minutes) every day. We should not be too concerned if our attention wanders, if we forget what we are saying, if we are distracted or even bored. If this happens, we just return to saying the prayer, and keep saying it through the whole period we set aside for it. We must not force ourselves beyond our limits, or make of it an obligation, a burden we cannot carry. Pushing ourselves a little is all right, and at times even necessary, but we should be gentle with ourselves. To pray the Jesus Prayer is a privilege, and will soon become a joy.
We must not confuse this joy with pleasant experiences or feelings. It is, in fact, very important not to expect to experience anything, to feel anything, to have any “insights” as the result of our prayer. The Fathers tell us that any thoughts that come to our minds while we are praying, and there will be many – good and bad, profound and silly – are a distraction, products of our own minds. The work of the Jesus Prayer is to silence our minds. As soon as we realize that we are thinking about something, we should let go of our thoughts and gently return to saying our prayer.
The same discipline is necessary regarding our feelings and imagination. We should not try to imagine that we see Jesus, to feel his presence; we should not try to picture him at all. We should not try to do anything except simply repeat the words of the prayer and believe that he is always present as he promised.
This is not easy. The discipline of the Jesus Prayer, if taken up seriously, soon loses the excitement of all new beginnings. At times it may seem monotonous, frustrating, even boring. Our bodies do not like sitting still; our minds do not like having to fast from thinking; our emotions do not like being disregarded. We crave a change – something new and more exciting to distract us.
It is at such moments that we must hold onto our faith and perseverance. Perhaps we might remind ourselves that, at times, anything worth doing seems monotonous and pointless, a grind,
but we can experience the joy of its fruits only if we persevere in it. Sometimes, of course, we need to take a break, draw a deep breath, go for a walk, read a book, do whatever we do to relax. We shall probably find that while we are walking, reading or just breathing, the prayer still goes on in our hearts. We can’t get away from it!
We must never worry whether we are saying the prayer well or not so well, attentively or distractedly, with energy or half asleep. After what we might consider a completely “unsuccessful” period of prayer, we often find ourselves most at peace and closest to God. The Prayer of Jesus is always God’s work in us; it is Christ’s work, not ours. We just say the prayer and stay as quiet and open as we can.
Apart from the special times we set for it, we may say the words of the prayer at any other moment we find ourselves remembering it. In fact, this is how many people first start on the path of the Jesus Prayer – by simply saying it when they remember to say it. If we do that, we will be surprised how often these moments occur: in bed before we go to sleep, waiting for the bus, washing the dishes, having a shower, gardening, driving to work, standing in line, walking. We may soon find that the words of the Prayer will penetrate our minds and hearts and will continue sounding silently within us, as if of their own volition.
Eventually we, too, may find ourselves saying the words of the Prayer first thing in the morning and last thing at night. They will become one with the rhythm of our breathing and the beating of our heart. They will become part of us. We will then discover the great secret of unceasing prayer that St. Paul described (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
[From Irma Zaleski, Living the Jesus Prayer, ©2003, Novalis]