I noticed a young man fingering his prayer rope. No surprise since we were attending a seminar on Orthodox spirituality. My heart immediately connected with his heart praying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Such is the power of the Jesus Prayer.
The Jesus Prayer is central to Orthodox spirituality. Monks on Mount Athos repeat the prayer throughout the day. I agree with Orthodox church fathers who say that practice of the prayer is essential to our spiritual growth. Not just for the novice learning the contemplative way, it also serves to sustain masters on the lifelong contemplative journey. It is a time-tested source of inner sustenance and stillness of mind, body, and soul.
I have experienced times when my contemplation ran dry. The first time this happened, my spiritual director suggested I practice the Jesus Prayer in place of contemplation. My director proved wise. Within a few weeks, my heart was clear and able to resume rich and deep contemplation. Sometimes I practice the Jesus Prayer as a prelude or entry way into a time of deep contemplation.
ABOUT THE PRAYER
Some people have personal or theological issues regarding the last phrase of the prayer, “a sinner.” They may feel uncomfortable because of one type of spiritual wound or another. The clause makes some feel outcast or unacceptable because they were treated in a judgmental manner based on beliefs, behaviors, or lifestyle.
My struggle is theological. I simply do not see myself as a “sinner.” Yes, I sin and fall short of God’s glory within me. But I am not a sinner by nature or who I am at the core of my being. I am God’s creation. God knows what was created is good. In Christ, I am a new creation.
Be assured that it is okay to leave off the expression, “a sinner.” In fact, the earliest recorded form of the prayer was simply, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me.” That wording is found in the Discourse on Abba Philimon who lived around 600 CE. Instruction on the prayer appears in writers of the fourth century such as John Chrysostom and Isaiah the Solitary. So, feel free to use a form of the prayer that best fits your situation in life. Either way, you stand on solid ground.
LEVELS OF THE PRAYER
As a spiritual director, I encourage people who want to enrich their prayer life to approach what I consider to be the first three levels of the Jesus Prayer, prayer of the lips, prayer of the mind, and prayer of the heart. Even those experienced in this prayer can benefit by following the discipline of practicing these levels in sequence and proficiency.
This sequence functions to internalize the prayer and shift one’s spiritual center from the head to the heart. This is no small task. It takes diligent practice more than effort. The journey from the head to the heart is long. Proficiency at each level of the prayer is a matter of time, patience, and love. God’s grace through the Holy Spirit yields its fruit.
Now, let us approach the prayer with reverence for the name of Jesus.
PRAYER OF THE LIPS
We begin our journey to the heart by repeating the prayer aloud, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” or as you prefer to say it. To get started, the prayer is traditionally repeated in sequences of 10, 25, and 50 times at each practice sitting. In the tradition of John of the Ladder, one hundred repetitions of the prayer would be practiced in one sitting. That is the tradition I follow, but it is not where I started.
A prayer rope is helpful for counting repetitions without having to think about numbers. An Orthodox prayer rope is traditionally made of wool, black, and has 33 knots representing the age of Jesus when he was crucified. It is used to count repetitions of prayers and prostrations. They may also have different numbers of knots or beads for counting the Jesus Prayer. I made my prayer rope with beads purchased at a craft store.
A slow progression of 10, 25, to 50 repetitions is a beneficial practice when starting out. It is useful for practicing a consistent and unhurried tempo. Remember that practice takes patience and leans toward perfection. I encourage daily practice increasing the number of repetitions over several weeks.
You can advance from times of practice to the discipline of praying the prayer throughout your day. Say it with your lips when in earshot of others. Pray it aloud when you are driving, in the shower, or in your prayer closet. All times and places are sacred when it comes to prayer.
PRAYER OF THE MIND
Once you establish a consistent habit in prayer of the lips, a time comes to silence the lips. Prayer of the lips prepares your brain to say an inaudible prayer spoken by your mind. This transition may be very natural after practicing prayer of the lips. It is a powerful form of mental prayer once mastered.
Prayer of the mind is best practiced in a sitting position, repeated fifty to 100 times daily. The prayer should be repeated mentally with extreme unhurriedness so that the words become imprinted in the brain. A slow and deliberate rhythm is practiced until each phrase of the prayer flow fluidly along the pathways and streams of your brain.
Proper breathing is a critical element of this practice. The mind is supported in prayer by a slow rhythm of inhaling and exhaling. This manner of breathing slows the mind and increases your focus on the words.
Prayer of the mind is perfected when it is repeated with no distractions or wondering thoughts. Then you are ready to cultivate a discipline of saying the prayer day and night. In time, it becomes a source of unceasing prayer hidden in the deep recesses of your brain. What a wonderful thought.
PRAYER OF THE HEART
Nilus of Sora, writing in the fifteenth century, said, “Prayer of the heart is the source of all blessings. It waters the soul like gardens.” Moving your prayers from your mind to your heart may be difficult. It can be a lengthy journey. Nevertheless, it is attainable for any pilgrim who desires this magnificent grace.
Prayer of the mind, honed with practice and discipline, is your starting point. In a sitting position, practice your mental prayer with a hand over your heart. Remember to slow your breathing to a rhythm that requires minimal effort. Notice your heart’s unique location in your body. The Son abides with the Father there. Look and see their presence.
Allow the prayer stream in your mind to stray beyond the boundaries of your head. Watch patiently as it carves a meandering path toward your heart like a headwater sending its precious collection of living water along its primitive way. Holding a hand over your heart reminds your body where this stream wants to flow.
I have no way to teach you this prayer of the heart. I have only these words to guide you. It must be practiced. God’s grace will allow it to be so. Your role is to show up and know that God is able. God’s grace alone can open your heart so that the stream of your prayer will enter in.
You will know when your mind is quiet, and your prayer is spoken by your heart. Your prayers will never be the same as the blessing becomes apparent. But remember, a master never stops practicing.
Copyright, Calvin Wulf, 2022