The Jesus’ Prayer, also called Prayer of the Heart in Eastern Christianity, is a short mental prayer or chant used repetitively.
The Christian life is founded on prayer because it is through prayer that we encounter Jesus Christ, the risen Lord. The Jesus Prayer can be a meditation tool, a focal point for our inward lives. The most common version of the Jesus Prayer is, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” In the Jesus Prayer, Jesus is addressed as Lord, Christ, and Son of God.
What is Jesus’ Prayer?
Since Saint Anthony’s time during the third century, hermits, monks, and places of worship have been held in the highest esteem by Christians everywhere. They also profoundly impacted the theology and practice of Eastern Christianity. The Jesus Prayer is the product of slow but steady convergence of traditions, practices, and intense focus from various monastic groups. Significant is the widespread custom of reciting brief prayers repeatedly, where Jesus’ name was held in high regard.
Some desert monks have written about the significance of Jesus’ name. There are testimonies of exorcisms conducted in Jesus’ Name. Also, several sayings of the Desert Fathers known as the Apothegmata address the power of the name of Jesus. Even more crucial to the gradual evolution of the Jesus’ Prayer was the advent of one-word or brief prayers in the desert. This early desert era saw a wide range of these short prayers. Only when the invocation of Jesus’ name was added several centuries later did the prayer become known as the Jesus Prayer.
One of the desert monks who introduced Jesus’ Prayer was Evagrius Ponticus and Pseudo-Makarios. There was a notable contrast between their respective impacts. Using a more biblical view, Pseudo-Makarios highlighted the whole person as symbolized by the heart. Evagrios, who drew on Neoplatonism, focused more on the mind.
Byzantine Hesychasm, a monastic structure that aims to attain divine quietness, decided to continue this practice as the “prayer of the heart.” Incorporating psychosomatic techniques, such as a breathing regimen, into one’s mental prayer has been common practice since at least the 13th century. The Philokalia, created in 1782, is a collection of short stories by different authors on mental prayer. It is credited with popularizing the Jesus prayer during modern times.
The Jesus Prayer takes both its physical manifestation and theological composition from the Bible. The following are ways in which the Jesus Prayer is grounded on the Bible:
- The Jesus Prayer is referred to in Matthew 6:7-8. Here, prayer is described as fulfilling Jesus’ command that prayer does not mean saying too many words and thinking that God will hear us for uttering many words.
- Philippians 2:9 describes Jesus as “the Name which is above other names.” Invoking Jesus by name is fundamental to the Jesus Prayer. Jesus’ Name carries with it in the Bible all the majesty and might that He deserves. To call upon Jesus’ Name with reverence and focus was to enter His presence in the Old Testament. Jesus, which means “God saves” in Hebrew, is the eternal Word spoken to humankind. Jesus is the last and ultimate name of God.
- The acknowledgment of our sinfulness and fundamental alienation from God and others is the initial step of our spiritual journey, and this initial step is expressed in the Jesus Prayer. It represents our recognition of our need for a Savior. As in 1 John 1:8, “if we say we have no sin in us, we are deceiving ourselves and refusing to admit the truth.”
Who Says the Jesus’ Prayer?
Different denominations say the Jesus prayer, such as the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Evangelical Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox churches. However, every person may recite the Jesus Prayer. Every person may also be its beneficiary. The Jesus Prayer is open and available to all. Every single one of us is a sinner who needs Jesus as Savior and Lord.
How is the Jesus Prayer Practiced?
The Orthodox view of the importance of the physical body in prayer is founded on a solid anthropological foundation. When the body, soul, and spirit work together, there is no duality or separation. For this reason, praying also involves the body. There are three ways to look at how the body is involved.
When praying, breathing is crucial. We will not feel difficulties synchronizing the words of the Jesus Prayer with our breath if we pray slowly at first. Breathing should be done in a natural, unforced manner. There should also be no tinkering with the tempo of the breath. When praying, we should take deep breaths and focus entirely on the words being spoken.
When we pray the Jesus Prayer, we need to be relaxed, kneeling, or standing. It depends on the position we are most comfortable with. The eyes are typically covered. When it comes to respecting, however, there is no one-size-fits-all posture.
Three Levels of Prayer
Theophan, the Recluse and Russian mystic from the 19th century identifies three stages in reciting the Prayer:
1. Prayer of the Lips
Theophan characterizes the initial stage of prayer as the “prayer of the lips,” or an oral prayer, which consists of its straightforward recitation. Even though this is a crucial first step in the prayer process, it remains external to us because prayer’s real heart and soul reside within a man’s mind and heart.
Putting one’s thoughts into words during prayer helps one see how easily they can be diverted. Even during prayer, thoughts can enter one’s mind. When praying a new or new way of praying, it helps to say the words aloud.
2. Mental Prayer
As we progress in our prayer life, we reach a point where we can pray in peace. At this juncture, “the mind is focused upon the words,” as Theophan puts it, and we “speak them as if they were our own” in the prayer.
In this second level of prayer, we are making a mental petition. Mental prayer is performed in mental silence. Some people have mastered the art of oral prayer when they reach this level. It is not a good idea to force yourself to start praying in your head.
Distraction is common when a person is not prepared for the next step. At this juncture, the mind and the heart are brought into harmony. The mind is undistracted and can focus on the prayer. Once a person’s mind is wholly occupied with prayer, they can realign their hearts with their minds.
3. Heartfelt Prayer
True heartfelt prayer is the third and final level. Here, prayer is not just something we do. It is something that defines us. A prayer like the Jesus Prayer is a gift from the Holy Spirit and, as Luke puts it in 15:32, a way to return to the Father like the prodigal son.
This last step transforms prayer from a habit into a core value. The person develops the awareness that they are more than just a physical being with mental capabilities. Instead, they have a symbolic link to God’s creative energies. The person has an epiphany and realizes that God is within them.
In the final level, we can say the prayer without thinking about it. It feels like second nature. Such a feeling may be attributed to the power of the Holy Spirit. The presence of God and visions of light beyond human creation are two things that many people claim to have experienced. At this point, we have reached spiritual maturity and can finally be at one with God.
Things to Remember when Saying the Jesus Prayer
Practice silence and stillness
When praying, it pays to be silent. At its finest, silence in prayer allows us God-awareness. We still our minds and hearts so that we may hear God’s voice. On the other hand, sensations of heightened excitement can become a habit-forming stimulus. We can only quiet our minds by replacing one thought with another.
Thus, the Jesus Prayer can silence our mind’s constant chatter about our worries. If we begin with this style of prayer, we may be able to progress to a more contemplative, wordless form of worship. Silent prayer is not a heavy, semi-sleepy haze. In contrast, God-awareness that does not involve words is vibrant and full of life.
Be in a contemplative posture
Contemplation makes the purpose of prayer clearer. The act of contemplation is akin to gaining clarity. The goal of our mental hiatus is not emptiness or sleepiness but rather a richness of spirit. The purpose of contemplation during prayer is to facilitate an encounter between God and us. The goal of silent contemplation is to let God in and be heard by God. Like contemplation, the Jesus Prayer helps us focus on the present moment with laser-like precision. We are reminded that our connection with God should be our main focus in praying.
Humility in prayer
As the Lord sees the fullness of our hearts, it is vital to say the Jesus Prayer with humility and sincerity. We come before the Lord acknowledging our depravity and accepting His saving grace.
Why Say the Jesus Prayer?
In general, prayer strengthens our intimate relationship with God. Such a relationship comes with recognizing God’s position in our lives. Saying the Jesus prayer is an acknowledgment of who Jesus is. He is the Second Person in the Trinity, the son of the Father who came down on earth fully God and fully human.
When we pray the Jesus prayer, we proclaim the name above every name (Philippians 2:9). Uttering the Jesus prayer is also recognizing the salvation we have because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We are wretched sinners who are reconciled with God only because of what Jesus did on the Cross. We can enjoy eternal life when we accept this gift of salvation. Furthermore, the Jesus prayer is a declaration of the Lordship of Jesus over our lives. It means that we follow, submit, and obey Him.
Most of us find it challenging to build regular prayer habits. Saying the Jesus prayer helps us in cultivating the practice of prayer. In verbalizing the Jesus Prayer, our minds shut out the world’s noise and focus on God and our faith.
Some Cautions in Saying the Jesus Prayer
Though the Jesus prayer is beneficial, we still need to practice it with some carefulness. As believers, our prayers must always come from a sincere and humble heart. Our relationship with God is not built up by meaningless utterances absent from faith. Saying repetitive prayers can easily fall into mere obligation from an empty heart.
Jesus, Himself, warns about repetitions in Matthew 6:7, “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.”
Some also say the Jesus prayer with other rituals that do not come from Scripture. What is pure at the onset can transform into something displeasing to God when mixed with unbiblical traditions. The caution with these rituals and traditions comes from the possible confusion about where power lies. Some individuals fall into believing that the act or the words hold the transformative power when it is God who is the ultimate source of all power.
The Jesus Prayer is a prayer that recognizes our sinfulness and Jesus as our Savior. It can help believers in their prayer life when said with a pure heart. But most of us probably associate prayer with doing nothing more than sitting in the pews for an hour on Sunday morning or perhaps reciting prayers we learned as children.
In many ways, this also describes our Christian lives and the depth with which we pray. In essence, reciting the Jesus Prayer is one way for us to get into the habit of prayer. It will help us as we focus on Jesus, the founder, and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).
By understanding the message of the Jesus prayer, we make the prayer a part of who we are. This way, we are empowered by God’s grace and guidance. We also develop a more consistent awareness of God and a willingness to feel His presence in our lives.
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