“In answer to the appeal of his disciples, “Teach us to pray”, Christ gave them the Lord’s Prayer; and this is indeed the model for all our praying. Yet, next to the Lord’s Prayer used by Christians everywhere, there is a further way of praying that is particularly commended within the Orthodox Church to all who seek living, inner prayer; and that is the Jesus Prayer.” (The Jesus Prayer, Bishop Kallistos Ware)
WHAT IS THE JESUS PRAYER?
A very simple repetitive prayer, which helps us to focus and centre the mind on Jesus Christ.
There is nothing magic about the words or prayer. At its heart it is simply a calling on Jesus to have mercy on us.
Just in the same way that we might call on another person to help us, so in the Jesus prayer we are calling on Jesus to help us.
Question for reflection: When you use another person’s name, what are you doing? Can you think of a time when you have been in trouble and called out to someone to help you?
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me/us
THE JESUS PRAYER IN THE BIBLE
The gospels tell us of four occasions when people call out to Jesus to have mercy on them. And Jesus tells the story of the tax collector who calls out on God to have mercy on him.
The healing of blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52. Also recorded in Luke 18.35-43)
They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” 52 Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
Why does Bartimaeus think that Jesus can help him?
How does Bartimaeus cope with the hostility of the crowd? Why does he react in this way?
Bartimaeus is blind. How do you think that he imagines Jesus? How do you imagine Jesus when you pray to him?
The Canaanite Woman’s Faith (Matthew 15:21-28)
21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Why does this Gentile woman think that Jesus can help her?
How does she react to the silence of Jesus and the opposition of the disciples?
How does she react to what would certainly today be taken to be a racist slur from Jesus? Why do you think that she reacts in this way?
For whom is she asking Jesus to have mercy? For herself or for her daughter? What might her example tell us about our prayer for others?
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14)
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
To whom does the Pharisee pray?
Why does the Pharisee think that he has received God’s blessing?
Why does God hear the prayer of the Tax Collector?
SOME OF THE WAYS WE CAN PRAY THE JESUS PRAYER
PLEASE NOTE. It does not depend on how we pray the prayer, just as it does not depend on the way that we call out to someone when we are in serious need.
Some people use a technique (prayer beads, breathing), and they can be helpful. But in the end the prayer is about the abandonment of technique and self as we throw ourselves on the mercy of Jesus.
If we say that God had mercy on me because I prayed the prayer in the ‘right’ way, or the ‘right’ number of times, or because I understand it ‘correctly’, then we are trusting in how we prayed the prayer and not in Jesus to whom we are calling out.
St Isaac the Syrian (C7th) said of people who counted how many times they prayed the prayer, ‘I do not want to count milestones, but to enter the bridal chamber’.
a) In our everyday activity
We pray the prayer as we walk, at night in bed when we can’t sleep, when we do exercises, boil the kettle etc!
In the classic book, The Way of a Pilgrim, an anonymous pilgrim describes how he discovers the prayer and uses it as a way to learn how to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thessalonians 5.17)
b) More formal use
Putting aside a set time to pray the prayer – to focus on the words, and on the One who we are calling. It can be prayed sitting upright (to be alert) or standing. The prayer is often said more quickly in the Greek tradition, and slower in the Russian tradition. Let the words flow ‘like a small murmuring stream’ (Starets Partheny of Kiev, 1790-1855)
Caution: Do not practice this sort of formal use of the prayer for more than 15 minutes a day, especially if you connect it with your breathing, unless you have a spiritual director, father, mother etc.
c) With other people
It is used in many Orthodox monastic settings. For instance, it is prayed by the community at morning and evening prayer at the Orthodox Monastery of St John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex.
At St Andrew’s, we occasionally have a group when we reflect on a passage, share our needs, and then we pray the Jesus prayer, sometimes one person praying it, or sometimes 4 or 5 people each repeating the prayer 12 -15 times.
d) We use it to pray for a specific thing that is weighing us down
What were the people in the bible stories mentioned above seeking?
e) We use it as a meditation
We reflect on each word of the prayer. And when our minds wander, we bring them back to the prayer.
We think through each word of the Jesus Prayer and what it means. We see how the Jesus prayer combines our creed and our prayer.
Lord – this is a prayer of confidence, of salvation and assurance (this is the prayer of a believer, 1 Corinthians 12:3); and it is also a prayer of surrender
Jesus – the name of Jesus. The name given for him by God to his parents. It means Saviour
Jesus teaches them to pray in his name (Jn 16.23-24). Peter speaks of the name of Jesus (Acts 4.10,12). Paul says that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow (Philippians 2.10)
We are calling not on a blind force in the universe, not on an inner strength within us, but on the person, Jesus, who lived in Palestine 2000 years ago, who died and rose from the dead, who is exalted in heaven, and who is the second person in the Trinity.
When I find it hard to focus on this word, I imagine that I am blind Bartimaeus calling out to Jesus. I cannot see him.
Christ – means Messiah. The Christ is the one of whom the Old Testament speaks, the promised one, the anointed one, the ruler of God’s world. He came to save us and deliver us, and he comes to rule.
Son of God – Jesus is inseparable from the Trinity; he shows us divinity. He shows us to whom we are calling and what we are called to become. He calls God his Father.
Have mercy on me – Of course that can be for anything: for help in trouble, for someone in need, for a Godly sorrow, for true repentance, for a deeper love. It is a cry which affirms that God’s loving kindness and compassion are greater than my brokenness and guilt.
A sinner – the tax collector was praying this prayer because he knew he was separated from God by his sins; he is asking for mercy, for forgiveness and a new life with God.
We may be aware of sin and cry out with him for God’s mercy and forgiveness, but the very fact that we are calling Jesus, ‘Lord’ means that we have been forgiven. When I say that I am ‘a sinner’, I am recognizing that I am a broken, inadequate, weak, mortal sinner. I am unable to love. I am coming to God as I am; I need make no pretense before him.]]
f) As the prayer on which we build other prayers
When we pray this prayer we can go no deeper
This is the prayer that rests on Jesus. There is no other ground on which we can rest. There is no place for self-justification: I have confessed that I am a sinner. This is a prayer which can be the beginning of all prayer, and which is the foundation of all our prayer.
g) As a way of going deeper into God
The Jesus Prayer can become a way of life, so that it – the calling on Jesus – becomes closer to me than my breathing. We can only call on Jesus as Lord through the Spirit, so the very calling on Jesus means that he is already with us.
When we pray the Jesus prayer, we begin with focusing on the words but end up encountering God beyond words.
The Cure d’Ars tells of an old man who spent hours in church. When he questioned him about what he was asking God about, the man replied, ‘I’m not asking God for anything; I just sit and look at Him, and He looks at me.’
Kallistos Ware writes, ‘Silence in the religious sense signifies God-awareness. What matters in silence is not our external situation but our inner disposition. It is a matter, not of keeping our mouth shut, but of opening our heart to God.’
Rowan Williams speaks that the silence of prayer is the silence of expectation. It is like the silence before the rising dawn. It is not the silence of isolation or absence but of presence.
IS THE JESUS PRAYER SELF-CENTRED?
There is a real danger that this kind of prayer can appear self-centered and life denying.
But the person who has come to Jesus, asking for mercy, has come to the only person who is able to set them free from sin and free to love. They will learn to weep when others weep and rejoice when others rejoice. Your burden becomes their burden.
We see the Canaanite woman who prays for her daughter, ‘Have mercy on me, my daughter is sick’
When we pray the Jesus prayer, we forget self and we concentrate on him, the one in whom is all creation.
St Seraphim of Sarov wrote, ‘Acquire inner peace, and thousands around you will find salvation’