After a few weeks of practices involving the shifting seas of my thoughts and thoughts-about-thoughts, I returned this week to the firm and fertile ground of ancient Christian spirituality. Specifically, I turned to the quintessential prayer of the Christian East, known as the Jesus Prayer, which combines elements we associate with prayer (petition and language) with elements we more commonly associate with meditation (repetition, attention to the breath, and stillness).
While there is an ongoing and unanswerable debate about the extent to which Eastern religions influenced the teachings and thought surrounding the Jesus Prayer — also known as “prayer of the body,” “psychosomatic prayer,” “unceasing prayer,” and “prayer of the heart” — I think it can be safely said that the Jesus Prayer itself has its origins in the apostle Paul’s call for Christians to “pray without ceasing” and “take every thought captive in obedience to Christ.” These exhortations could be read as hyperbole, but within early monastic Christianity they were seen as challenges, as something to be lived in to. The monks saw prayer as the necessary starting place for every Christian act, whether that was working on a theological treatise, feeding the hungry, or tending to their bees. Some tried to pray the Psalms continually, but this was cumbersome. Others tried simply repeating the name “Jesus,” but this seemed too superstitious. Eventually, the tradition settled on the repetition of a short prayer combining the name of Jesus, the common petition “Lord have mercy,” and the simplest of confessions – the acknowledgement of one’s own sin: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” At some point, and this is perhaps where we might see the influence of Eastern religious traditions, the monks added regulated breathing to the practice, inhaling on the invocation, and exhaling on the petition.
As the tradition developed, the Jesus Prayer became closely associated with mysticism. It was said to be the greatest tool in the quest for union with God and experienced practitioners claimed to enjoy visions of the pure uncreated Light. But, for most practitioners, it will have more modest – though still hugely important – effects: improved focus, clarity of thought, peacefulness in the midst of chaos, and most importantly a sense of intimacy with Jesus.
What is it?
The simplest instructions to pray the Jesus Prayer are simply to pray it: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Once you get comfortable with the words, it is customary to join the prayer to your breath, inhaling on the invocation “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” and exhaling on the petition “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” It can be prayed meditatively for a certain period of time (put 8-10 minutes on your timer and go), or more often, without a timer, it can be prayed with a knotted or beaded prayer rope in order to pray a certain number of prayers (often a symbolic number, such as forty). It can also be used with or without repetition as a kind of ‘bullet prayer’ throughout the day.
This week I aimed to pray the Jesus Prayer meditatively on my prayer rope twice each day, and to use it as a bullet prayer throughout the day in times of frustration, sadness, or boredom. In the meditative times, I found the practice easy to sink into. As I’ll discuss a bit in my reflection below, I found that the prayer facilitated an internal and external unity; my breath, my mind, my words, and my fingers quickly fell into the same rhythm and shared the same goal. It had been a while since I had prayed the Jesus Prayer in this way, and so it was a really nice reminder of this sense of easy harmony.
Ironically, while my moods were pretty positive during the weeks when my sacred practices were about managing difficult thoughts and narratives, this week I actually struggled quite a bit with low moods, feeling overtired, lonely, and just generally frustrated with life. The Jesus Prayer definitely helped in those moments. It didn’t do anything to address the feelings, but it provided a spaciousness in my mental space, a helpful reminder of the world outside my mind and heart. It is always recommended in those moments to stop and take an intentional breath, and so it definitely helped in that way, but the added perspective provided by the words of the prayer was also really beautiful in those moments. While I still asked myself “what is the story I am telling myself?” and focused on feeling the feeling and dropping the story, the spaciousness provided by the Jesus Prayer helped me with those exercises by taking me out of myself. It was almost like having a heavy conversation walking along the shoreline as compared to having it in a stuffy office.
As I mentioned in the introduction, one of the most unique features of this practice is how it intentionally blends some of the elements of prayer with elements of meditation. While most of its aims and outcomes are reminiscent of those of meditation, its focus on the cultivating communion with God, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, sets it apart. As Fr. Alexander Men noted about the Jesus Prayer:
The Christocentrism of this foundational Christian prayer radically distinguishes it from all other meditations and mantras, because through it an encounter takes place: not mere concentration of thought or submersion in an ocean or spiritual abyss, but a personal encounter with the face of Jesus Christ, who stands both in and on the earth.
And so the thing about the Jesus prayer is that, while activating many of the natural benefits of meditation, I also find it to be a profound act of bringing my Christian faith into any and every moment. By invoking the name of Jesus, we make him present with us and remind ourselves of our discipleship. By asking for mercy, we remind ourselves of our need. And, by recognizing our sin, we are acknowledging the reality that we are far from perfect. I find this very helpful when I’m frustrated. When I’m in the habit of praying the Jesus Prayer, I find that it comes to mind in any stray moment, much like an ear worm. And so for example, if someone at work is annoying me, praying the Jesus Prayer reminds me of my need for mercy in the situation, since I am only responsible for my own actions and reactions. Admitting I am ‘a sinner,’ I confess my lack of love for neighbor, my impatience, and my intolerance in that situation.
While I’m on the subject of that final word of the prayer, whenever I have discussed the Jesus Prayer with people, I have found that they almost universally balk at calling themselves a sinner. I have written about our language and misconceptions surrounding sin previously, but I think it’s worth talking about this a bit here. The specific objection people seem to have with the prayer is not so much the idea of “sin” itself as it is the identification of oneself as “a sinner.” We’re in a cultural moment where we’re putting a lot of attention on labels. There are those who are very sensitive to labels and feel that labels act as definitions. According to this argument, to label oneself “a sinner” is to define oneself entirely in terms of that label. While I don’t buy into this idea — I think that labels, like diagnoses, can sometimes be beneficial if they help us identify the treatment we need — I do think it’s an important correction and that we need to be very careful with the words we use to describe and define ourselves and others. Christians have, historically speaking, probably been too prone to use all-consuming labels, particularly surrounding sin. While we all do sin and therefore we all are sinners, it is equally true that we are loved and there are all beloveds. It probably would be more theologically balanced if the prayer were to read “… have mercy on me a beloved sinner.”
Yet even recognizing this and the valid hesitancy surrounding labels, I think there’s something to be said for not running away from some of the challenging, counter-cultural language we often encounter in older writings. As discussed previously, I’m a big believer in the idea that it’s important to move forward by including what we can from our past — especially those elements that we might be most tempted to leave behind. When it comes to this present discussion, I would be concerned if the future of Christianity is one where we have an allergy to talking about sin. If it makes us (me) uncomfortable, then maybe that’s a discomfort we (I) need to feel. And so I like the challenge the starkness of the self-diagnosis as “a sinner” represents. It isn’t the whole story of who I am before God and the world, but it is part of it and I would be a fool to shy away from that.
Going back to the practice itself, another thing I appreciate about it is its unity in focus. When I pray the Jesus Prayer meditatively, my thoughts, words, intention, heart, breath, and the movement of my fingers on the beads of my prayer rope are all working together in unity of purpose, rhythm, and goal. I find this to be very helpful and it makes this practice an even more helpful practice for me in terms of focusing my intention and attention than straight mindfulness meditation. (This is also in contrast to my experience of the Rosary, in which I was frustrated by the feeling that my mind, words, and fingers were all doing different things.)
To summarize, despite its formulaic words, I find that the Jesus prayer is less a formula than it is a laboratory for discovering who I am, and finding room for God’s presence within that. The fact that it is an intentionally second-person practice (encountering God as an other) undercuts the narcissism that so often accompanies spirituality; I am not the focus. And I am humbly reminded me of my shortcomings, of who I am and and who I am not. In the words of Ken Wilber about such second-person encounters with God:
In the face of the God who is All Love, I can have only one response: to find God in this moment, I must love until it hurts, love to infinity, love until there is no me left anywhere, only this radiant living Thou who bestows all glory, all good, all knowledge, all grace, and forgives me deeply for my own manifestation, which inherently brings suffering to others, but which the loving God … can and does release, forgive, heal, and make whole, but only if I can surrender in the core of my being, surrender the self-contraction through love and devotion. (Integral Spirituality, 159.)
That really says it all. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on my, a sinner. Amen.