The Jesus Prayer was discovered by people desiring to enter into a constant remembrance of God.
The words of the prayer are:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
After frequent use of this prayer, many people find it changes their heart.
The Jesus prayer has its roots in the New Testament (e.g. Mark 10:46-52; Luke 17:13; 18:9-14). The prayer has since been adapted to express the Christian understanding of who Jesus Christ is. We know that the Jesus prayer has been used at St. Catherine’s Monastery, Mt. Sinai, since the 6th century. From there, in the 14th century, Gregory of Sinai took it and introduced it to Mt. Athos. It took root on the Holy Mountain and later spread from there to become popular in Russia. Many Westerners have come to appreciate it in this century since the translation in 1930 of a book entitled “The Way of a Pilgrim,” which are the narrations of a 19th century Russian peasant who used the Jesus Prayer as a form of constant mental prayer in his wanderings.
The Words of the Jesus Prayer
The prayer is centred on the name of Jesus. The name which is above every name. (Philippians 2:9-10). The name first spoken by the Angel Gabriel to Mary at the Annunciation. “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Luke 1:31). In the name we have an indication of His role. Jesus’ life and work accomplished our salvation. He gave His life for us in His work of redemption. “For there is no other name given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Indicates ‘the anointed one’, the Messiah, the King. In Matthew 16:16-18, Jesus asks His disciples “Who do you say that I am,” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus said “Blessed are you for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”
The prayer addresses Jesus as Lord. We have placed ourselves in His hands. He is our Saviour. To Him we owe our lives, our love and our obedience. To believe and proclaim this is granted by the Holy Spirit. “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3).
‘Son of God’
Jesus is the only begotten, the loving Son of the ever-loving Father, through Jesus we come to the Father, in the enabling power of the Holy Spirit.
“God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16).
‘Have mercy on me a sinner’
This relates to our need. It is a call upon God that His heart be open to man in his need, in his sinfulness. It is not a demand for something specific but an approach to the Giver of Gifts. In His mercy the Lord does restore us and gives us power to do that which we could not otherwise attempt.
How to Pray the Jesus Prayer
There are three different ways this prayer may be used.
1. The Hesychast method
Hesychia means ‘silence’. The person sits in silence with head bowed towards the heart. The prayer is repeated over and over with each aspiration, the mind becoming enclosed in the prayer. There is no space given to restless thought or to imagination. When these occur one may gently detach oneself from them and focus back on the words of the prayer. Thus our mind stays focused. Joy comes to the soul and divine light. The purpose of this is to make us servants of God.
This practice, keeping the mind from dreaming, renders it invincible against all suggestions of the devil and every day leads it more and more to love and longing for God.
(St. Nicephorus, Discourse on Sobriety)
This type of prayer requires the guidance of a spiritual Father as it is so important to approach it with humility. It is possible to get carried away with an idolatrous interest in spiritual techniques. Also, it is never right to allow oneself to become idle on the pretext that we should “pray without ceasing!”
2. As a continual mental and unceasing prayer
Whatever one is doing, while walking or travelling, in home, factory or office, while falling asleep, you can say the Jesus Prayer.
Some people find a knotted Prayer Rope an aid to the repetition of the prayer. The words may initially be spoken, later they may run through the mind internally. The purpose and result of this method of prayer is that men might be continually united with God by unceasing remembrance of His presence and perpetual invocation of His name, so that they might always serve Him and all men with the virtues of Christ and the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).
3. In moments of temptation
The third method of using the Jesus Prayer is to have it always ready for moments of temptation. In this way we can “flog our enemies, i.e., the temptations, with the name of Jesus for there is no stronger weapon in heaven or on earth” (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, step 21, St. John Climacus). When one practices the continual ‘prayer of the heart’ and when the temptations to sin enter the heart, they are met by the prayer and are defeated by grace.
Man cannot live in this world without being tempted. When temptations come there are three possible results. Either the person immediately yields and sins or he tries to ward off the temptation by the power of his will and is often defeated with great vexation. Or else he fights off the temptation by the power of Christ in his heart. This does not mean that God miraculously descends to deliver him but rather that his soul is so filled with the grace and power of God that the temptation can have no effect.
So the purpose of this third use of the Jesus Prayer is that man might not sin.
Using a Prayer Rope
In doing the Jesus Prayer some find it helpful to use a knotted rope.
The knots of the rope are carefully tied by hand, so that for every 100-knots the rope takes about 8 hours to make. The knots are complex, each one being composed of 7 crosses. The person who ties the prayer rope prays constantly while so doing, so the rope is a product of unceasing prayer.
Prayer ropes come in a great variety of forms and sizes. Most prayer ropes have a cross woven into them or attached to mark the end. They may also have some kind of marker (eg: a bead) after each 10, 33 or 50 knots. Ropes may be made of knotted wool or silk, or they may be made of wooden beads.
Learn more about the Jesus Prayer from the book, “On the Prayer of Jesus.”