Some priests say that reciting the Jesus Prayer too much or too often or without any spiritual guidance is highly discouraged. And while I don’t think there is anything dangerous about inviting Christ into your depths (why would there be?), I understand their caveat. The prayer is powerful enough to initiate and catalyze a deep transformation, and in the end – whether we want to admit it or not – sometimes we just aren’t ready for a profound Transformation. Besides the normal “psychological” processes that can take place – the surfacing of unconscious emotions, repressed memories coming back, a sudden unwelcome awareness of previously denied mental content – the prayer also takes on a profound spiritual effect. In fact, while most Christians claim to have had at least one personal experience of God’s presence, I would also venture to guess that most Christians have some level of tacit doubt in God’s day-to-day power. It’s only natural in a society that relies primarily on “evidence-based research” to doubt all things supernatural. A generalized acceptance of God’s existence and the teachings of the church may reside one’s conscious thoughts, but we usually don’t walk around day-to-day expecting the miraculous. So when it does happen, it can be quite a shock. Even startling.
In a previous post, I outlined the Jesus prayer and suggested doing it in day-to-day life in small pieces, but here I will look deeper into the experience. I write this not from a fondness for theological study, but from my own experience. When I first began saying this prayer as a daily practice, I did not expect it to be quite as powerful as it is. In fact, the skeptical part of me is constantly amazed that this prayer actually works.
Mind In The Heart. St. Theophan encourages us to keep our “mind in the heart” all the time. By “heart,” I mean everything that we commonly think of it to mean. Our chest area, the physical organ pumping blood through arteries, our emotional center, and the seat of our core identity. Indeed, some Sufis identify the place where the soul meets body right behind the heart against the spine. Yet while the physical organ may be analogous to the spiritual heart, St. Theophan is speaking more of the latter. Putting a “mind in the heart” is placing the intellect in the soul. The intellect, rather than residing in a cerebral space of thoughts and analyses, can drop into the depths of one’s Being through religious devotion and a practice of disciplined prayer. Rather than thinking from a space of cognitive associations, one learns to think from a place of faith and reverent love. And this most often flows from the chest cavity, like a fountain of love and sacred desire. It is God that works through us, allowing the racing thoughts to reach a place of inner stillness and drop deep down into the heart. In fact, the tradition of hesychasm, in the Orthodox church, comes from the word hesychia, which means “inner stillness.” The holy name of God gives us this stillness.
The Name Is Medicine. In the West, both Protestants and Catholics sometimes speak of sin and redemption from a punitive perspective, like sin is a crime for which we must be punished, and, luckily, Jesus paid the price for us. The Eastern church, though, discusses these things more from a medical and healing perspective. One interpretation of sin is “missing the mark,” and it can be viewed as a spiritual sickness for which we need medicine. Christ is that medicine, and the presence of Christ resides in His Name. Praying the Holy Name, (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner”) medicates the one who prays. Mercy, too, is something we often underestimate. The word mercy derives partly from the Greek word eleison, which means oil, or olive oil. Olive oil was traditionally used in the Near East as an ointment to heal wounds. So, in saying the prayer, Christ tends to one’s spiritual wounds like a healing ointment. This happens automatically; we do not need to will it into happening for it to happen. Jesus even told his own Apostles to use HIs namemore in the Gospel of John: “Hitherto you have asked nothing in my Name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (16:24).
With Love, Not Technique. How often should you say the Jesus Prayer? Until you want to say it. Until it is your heart’s desire, and it becomes an act of pure joy to say. It’s called the Prayer of the Heart not only because the prayer is said from the heart; the intention to pray the prayer ideally arises from the heart. This is praying for love alone. Zen Buddhists have a similar saying about their sitting meditation. A student once asked a Zen Master, why do we sit? The Master replied, “Just to sit.” Another way to say that is “we sit in meditation because we like to sit in meditation.” The same is true for the Jesus Prayer. Saying it simply because you want to say it, deep in your heart, is the purest way to pray. And your love meeting God’s love in prayer combines to make the best medicine.