With the hurricanes, the quake in Mexico City, and now the massive shooting in Las Vegas for no perceptible reason, my heart, like that of so many, feels exceedingly sad. I sit before the Blessed Sacrament and don’t know what to say. Silence speaks for me. Yes, I plead for those suffering so grievously, but really, all that I find in my spirit is the groaning. I pray that the Holy Spirit speaks for me in His unspeakable groaning.
When prayer is so difficult, when the land of our heart is arid and dry and often confused, how can we pray? I’ll tell you what I have done. I’ve gone back to the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.” In 2013 I was so deeply attracted to this prayer which is truly the backbone of the Eastern Orthodox contemplative life, that I researched it and spent much time reading about it and practicing it. So much so that I lived and breathed it, even praying it in my sleep. [I remember waking up with the prayer in my heart and on my lips.]
At that time I wrote a talk on the prayer and shared it with several women in my parish church. Several of them took it much to heart and grew in prayer as they prayed it. One elderly black woman told me, “The Holy Spirit comes in between the words.” This is precisely how it works on the heart—”the use of a sacred phrase as a “prayer word” for focusing one’s attention while learning to pray through the splendor of the silence that exists “between the words” of our thinking minds “ [according to St. John Cassian (360-435 ad)].
When your heart seems dead or sad, struggling, and your mind is distracted and unfocused, this prayer word will help you reach interior silence. It will center you in the presence of God through its utter simplicity and humility. Don’t be deceived by its simplicity, however; this prayer will draw you to a profound place in prayer. It’s an ideal way to prepare for contemplation.
I helped my ladies make “Jesus beads”: a simple crucifix with 100 beads on a circular cord (like the rosary), resembling the prayer ropes of wool made by the Eastern Orthodox monks and nuns. But you can use your rosary just as well. I pray that you find, like my dear friend, “The Holy Spirit comes in between the words.”
Here you will find the talk that I gave four years ago providing historical and liturgical background, some of the deeper considerations to keep in mind as you enter the practice of the Jesus Prayer:
SOUL FOOD Talk 2: THE JESUS PRAYER – Part 1
[1.] THE JESUS PRAYER — The classical form of the Jesus Prayer is, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The actual words of our short prayers can vary. We might say the classic version of the Jesus Prayer, or we might say, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” We may say, “Lord Jesus, have mercy.” A favorite ejaculation or scripture would be excellent–try to incorporate the name of Jesus. You can make the prayer intercessory by adding: [have mercy] “on the whole world.” MAKE THE PRAYER YOURS; MAKE IT FIT YOU. Try to use the same form/s continuously so that it will enter deeply into your subconscious and into your heart.
[2.] BIBLICAL ORIGIN: Theologically, the Jesus Prayer is considered to be the response of the Holy Tradition to the lesson taught by the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, in which the Pharisee demonstrates the improper way to pray by exclaiming: “Thank you, Lord, that I am not like the Publican,” whereas the Publican prays correctly in humility, saying, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (Luke 18: 10-14)
[3.] THE HISTORY OF THE JESUS PRAYER goes back, as far as we know, to the early sixth century, with Diadochos, who taught that repetition of the prayer leads to inner stillness. Even earlier, St. John Cassian (360-435 ad) who spent quite a few years in the Egyptian desert, did bequeath one absolutely essential gift to western contemplation: the use of a sacred phrase as a “prayer word” for focusing one’s attention while learning to pray through the splendor of the silence that exists “between the words” of our thinking minds.
[4.] PRAY CEASELESSLY –We are all called to pray without ceasing, says St. Paul in Thess. 5:17. The real question is, how. The Jesus Prayer provides one good way to pray constantly. In fact, the Jesus Prayer is the widespread and most specifically Orthodox spiritual prayer. Our task is to draw nearer to God. St. Isaac of Syria says that it is impossible to draw near to God by any means other than increasing prayer.
[5.] THE POWER IN THE NAME –Biblically, knowing a person’s name gave power over that person. Name was linked with being. To speak God’s name, YAHWEH, was to invoke the power, presence, and being of God Himself, so the Hebrews would not say it, but out of respect used ADONAI (Lord) instead. In the New Testament, Jesus explicitly gives us God’s name, FATHER, and tells us to use the name in prayer. Jesus gives us access to the Godhead through the name. Jesus told His Apostles that they hadn’t really used His Name in prayer enough. “Hitherto you have asked nothing in My Name; ask and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:23).
[6.] WHEN TO PRAY The Jesus Prayer is recommended in a block of 10-30 minutes once a day, at your preferred prayer time. (Begin with 10, and increase as you mature in prayer). This is the “formal” use of the prayer. The second form of the Jesus Prayer is the “free” use of the prayer. This means at any and all other times of the day, or night. This is especially true for the semi-automatic tasks such as driving, doing dishes, walking, being unable to sleep, etc. The Jesus Prayer is notably useful in time of extreme concern, upset, or temptation.
When alone, we might find it helpful to pray the Jesus Prayer, out loud. This can help lower the distraction level. In the beginning, you can also use a beautiful chanted or sung version to help you get started.
7.] SOME PRACTICAL SUGGESTIONS: Don’t feel hurried or pressed to “finish” the beads. Lovingly “work” each bead with all the longing and adoration and humility of your heart. Don’t feel compelled even to “finish” the words of the prayer form you have chosen. Sometimes it is enough to taste the name of the Lord and let it linger on the tongue and the heart. Don’t hesitate to change your prayer in the middle of the beads if a different prayer enters your heart, but gently return to the rhythm of the prayer when it is next feasible for you. To close, even if you are in the middle of the beads, say a spontaneous prayer to the Lord or to Mary, make the sign of the Cross, and kiss your crucifix.
[8.] PRAYER OF THE HEART – The Jesus Prayer is also called the Prayer of the Heart. In Orthodoxy, the mind and heart are to be used as one. St Theophan tells us to keep our “mind in the heart “at all times. Heart means the innermost core of the person, the spirit. Heart means our innermost chamber, our secret dwelling place where God lives. There is within us a space, a field of the heart, in which we find a Divine Reality, and from which we are called to live. The mind, then, is to descend into that inner sanctuary, by means of the Jesus Prayer or wordless contemplation, and to stay there throughout our active day, and evening. We descend with our mind into our heart, and we live there. The heart is Christ’s palace. There, Christ the King comes to take His rest. I like to think of the Jesus Prayer as my “door” to enter my inner sanctuary any time I can.
[9.] SILENCE is a choice. Silence, at its best, is God-awareness. We quiet down our outer and inner lives, and listen to God speak. Someone said that when God speaks, His words are like the sound of a flutter of a bird’s wings. We need to be attentive if we are to hear anything. Inner silence can usually be achieved only by substituting one thought for another. Hence, the Jesus Prayer overrides our usual compulsive stream of consciousness about our own anxieties. Beginning with this form of prayer, then we might be led to deeper inner stillness, prayer without words (CONTEMPLATION). The caution here is that prayer without words is not heaviness, semi-sleep dullness. Rather, wordless prayer is alive, vigorous God-awareness.
[10.] CONTEMPLATION is a gift of God, a direct meeting with a personal God, on God’s terms. This special kind of inner silence, inner stillness, is experienced by wordless sitting, imageless contemplation. When consciousness strays, a phrase like “Lord Jesus” can be used to bring the mind back, and then the person sits quietly in the presence of the Lord. The desire of wordless sitting awareness is to open oneself to God, to listen to God. Both the Jesus Prayer and contemplation make us single-centered, concentrating upon the here and now, focused, one-pointed. The point is God.
[11.] PRAYER ROPES/BEADS- Orthodox prayer ropes are usually soft and made of wool. The purpose is to help us concentrate, not necessarily to count. In the famous book, The Way of the Pilgrim, the pilgrim said the prayer 2,000, then 6,000, then 12,000 times. Is 12,000 Jesus Prayers better than 2,000? Absolutely not. Quantity has nothing to do with love, and a living relationship with Jesus. The pilgrim did 12,000, no more and no less, as an act of obedience to his spiritual father, not because he was “making progress.” He also prayed much because that was his “heart’s desire.” Every prayer is an act of love, made to the Author of Love, Who is waiting expectantly for our desire, and our acceptance of His Love.
[12.] THE JESUS PRAYER AS HEALING – As medicine, the Jesus Prayer is destructive of the passions and altering of conduct. Just as a doctor places a dressing on a patient’s wound, and the dressing works without the patient’s knowing how, calling on the Name of God “removes the passions” without our knowing how and why, according to Sts. Barsanupius and John of the Egyptian desert.
The Holy Name, when repeated quietly, penetrates the soul rather like a drop of oil, spreading out and impregnating a cloth. Our modern translation of “mercy” is limited and insufficient. “Mercy” comes from the Greek eleison. Eleison has the same root as elaion which means olive and olive oil. In the Middle East, olive oil provides physical healing for many sicknesses, particularly respiratory. “Have mercy” means to pour “healing oil” on my soul.
The Fathers tell us that praying the Sacred Name changes our personality, from overstrain to joy. “Hitherto you have asked nothing in my Name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (Jn 16:24). The Jesus Prayer functions as therapy, much like healing oil, transforming our personality from overstrain to joy, and by our continuing to pray, these changes become permanent.
[Primary source, Part 1: SAYING THE JESUS PRAYER]
THE JESUS PRAYER – PART 2, FURTHER CONSIDERATIONS
[13.] In the free use of the prayer the mission is to find Jesus everywhere. In the fixed or formal use of the prayer the mission is to create silence. It’s often hard enough to achieve exterior silence, to find a quiet time and place to pray. Even harder is to find interior silence; because of the way we are made, we hold a constant conversation with ourselves, our imaginations and minds constantly moving from trivial fleeting thoughts to those of greater consequence. As you settle down to prayer in a comfortable chair, after you have begun to quiet your spirit, you may want to read briefly from a favorite book or scriptures, or even to pray the rosary or other prayers meaningful to you. Then, as you begin the Jesus prayer, pray with your eyes closed.
[14.] The repetition of the simple formula, while being a heartfelt prayer, occupies our mind and imagination so that our hearts can enter into a deep silence, as we become conscious of the presence of the Lord. Fingering the Jesus beads occupies our bodies so that they too become participants, entering their own quiet– we do not fidget.
[15.] Focus on the words of the prayer to reduce distractions, even praying it aloud in the beginning. Central to the prayer is the name of Jesus: Lord Jesus Christ. All power is in that name above every other name. Son of God: beloved of the Father. In John 14, Philip tells Christ, “Show us the Father and it will be enough for us.” Jesus replies, “Philip, whoever sees me sees the Father.” Jesus is the outpouring of the Father’s heart. “Have mercy on me/us.” Remember the origin of “eleison” – from the root word for “olive”–the mercy of God is an anointing, a healing oil that soothes as it is absorbed. “On me, a sinner: These words name the depth of our poverty, our frailty, our misery before the all-majestic and pure God. As soon as we empty ourselves of our pride and know our poverty, we can be truly filled. Remember that God is one, His mercy is one with His peace, His love, His light, His purity, His anointing Spirit that makes us one with Him. What we are really asking for is for our greatest and deepest need, whatever it is. Inevitably, it is the Holy Spirit itself. The more we pray the prayer, the deeper the teaching we will receive from the Holy Spirit.
[16.] As we pray, embrace your Lord in three ways:
Embrace his feet in repentence, as you weep with Mary for His mercy. We ever have a need to embrace His feet in repentence. St. Philip Neri used to tell Jesus, “Keep your eye on Philip, Lord; he is likely to betray you.” Embracing the feet of Jesus is one of the hallmarks of the purgative way.
[17.] Embrace the Sacred Wound in His side as you pray to embrace the Father’s will along with Christ, more perfectly, entering into His passion. When we embrace His Sacred Wound in His side, His sacred heart, we recline on the breast of Christ like St. John at the last supper. There is no better place to learn our theology.
[18.] Embrace His sacred face as you pray, “Let Him kiss me with the kisses of His mouth” (Song of Songs, 1,1)--as His mercy flows into you in the anointing of the Holy Spirit, making you one with Him as bride and beloved. St. Bernard of Clairvaux explains that Christ is the mouth of God (His incarnate Son). St. Bernard says: “Christ kisses us with the kisses of his mouth by giving us the Holy Spirit who makes possible this most intimate union between us individually and Christ.” Receiving the kisses of His mouth is one of the hallmarks of the unitive way.
[ 19]. As we are more and more greatly purified and illumined, we prepare ourselves like eager brides for the kisses of His mouth, the greater and deeper abiding in the Holy Spirit, in the Holy Trinity.
[20.] In short, embrace Jesus, embrace the Father’s Will, embrace the Holy Spirit in repentence, in poverty, in reverent humility, in the fullness of your longing and desire to be one with the Blessed Trinity.
[21.] As time passes, you will find yourself embracing Christ in all three ways, depending on where you are in your spiritual journey. There are three definite stages in our spiritual journey acknowledged by the saints and by theologians: the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive. [ See Soul Food Talk 1, Expressions of Prayer] We generally find traces of all three in ourselves at different times. God has his rhythm and way with each one of us in our uniqueness. Yet one thing is sure, He calls every one of us to holiness; and holiness is perfect union with the Trinity.
From a Catholic Theologian, Dr. Peter Kreeft: “Jesus”: The Shortest, Simplest, and Most Powerful Prayer in the World