Spiritual Practices and Attitudes 3 – The Jesus Prayer
Notes by Michael Whelan SM
In Psalm 6:2 we hear the psalmist cry out: “Have mercy on me, O LORD, for I am weak.” In Luke’s Gospel we hear the blind man cry out: “Son of David, have mercy on me!” (see Luke 18:36-43); in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians we read: “God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name ... at the name of Jesus every knee should bend” (see 2:5-11); St Paul urges us to pray without ceasing (see 1Thessalonians 5:16-19).
These words from Sacred Scripture prompted the early Christian communities to develop a brief and practical approach to prayer. Perhaps the best known of these prayer forms is the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”.
The Jesus Prayer dates from about the middle of the 5th century. It is a cry from the heart that is at once an acclamation of faith in the victory of God in Jesus Christ, a cry for mercy, a defence against any evil force and a profound expression of hope.
The words are important therefore. The content is the content of the Good News. However, far more important than the words is the disposition of the one who utters those words in her or his heart. Mary’s response to the Angel is a good model: “The angel said to her ‘ .... nothing will be impossible with God’. Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’”. (Luke 1:38)
The Jesus Prayer is pre-eminently a prayer of the heart. Saying the words is both an expression and a facilitator of the radical disposition of surrender to God and the expectation of the mercy that will make us whole.
The Orthodox tradition kept this practice of the Jesus Prayer alive. In the 19th century a book was published in Russia describing a Russian peasant’s use of the Jesus Prayer. That book was translated into English in 1931 as The Way of a Pilgrim. J D Salinger’s short story, “Franny”, in his best-selling book, Franny and Zoey, drew attention in the West to The Way of a Pilgrim and with it the Jesus Prayer.
The words of the Jesus Prayer can vary. Sometimes you will find it as “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” or “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me” or “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” and sometimes simply “Jesus mercy”. There is no one set of words.
The one word that is crucial is the name, Jesus. The one intention that is crucial is the cry for mercy. We all need God’s healing mercy and Jesus is the embodiment of Eternal Mercy.
To speak the name of Jesus in faith is to say “Yes!” to God in the world, active among us, loving us into freedom. It is also to make oneself available to be a doorway through which God enters the world.
The Jesus Prayer is at once a shield against evil, an expression and nurturing of the desire to submit to the ways of God, a yearning for the healing touch of Love for ourselves and the world, to be the place where God becomes real at this time for you and for those you meet. Those who make a practice of speaking the Jesus Prayer in this way will be slowly transformed into Christ – “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:19) – a unique embodiment of God in the world.
Whatever words you choose, repeat them, gently and constantly, as you go about your business. When you walk, prepare a meal, iron a shirt, clean a toilet, face distress in yourself or others, carry out your duties of state, say the words in faith. Over time those words take on a life of their own and repeat themselves: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”