I adore the rich diversity of devotions in the Christian life; the many special prayers, holidays, songs and sacramentals are to me the life blood of the faith. They root themselves deeply into our culture and life, and like beacons of light, guide our hearts and minds towards the Lord in ways as myriad and full of symbolic beauty as the most beautiful natural scene, or the face of a beloved child. They make us smile, make us cry, make us ponder, and in the long run, bring us home.
Few devotions have the power and antiquity, that deep connection to our roots and to the continuity of the Christian life as the Jesus Prayer. Born in the mouths of desert monks, and spoken with the golden mouth of St. John Chrysostrom himself, this prayer has been recited by the Christian people from its earliest traditions, most especially in the eastern Church. Its words are simple, short and profound.
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
For many, this prayer is the very breath of the Christian life, spoken quietly throughout the day in unceasing prayer, focusing the heart in every day moments to the divine, truly unifying heaven and earth.
Yet I have often been surprised to find that in the Western Church, this prayer and its devotion is often unknown. I am not sure why this is the case, perhaps it is culture, perhaps it is personal identity, perhaps it is just there are so many devotions that one has to choose, and this one falls by the wayside. For me, it is a central part of my personal walk with the Lord, and the day rarely goes by that I do not spend some time with it.
There are many books, writings, and exhortations of Saints on this prayer, so I hesitate to add anything to their already marvelous words. Instead, let me direct you to them, and if I am not to presumptuous, share with you the way I personally incorporate this prayer into my daily life.
This prayer is said with the breath, usually just under the breath as a constant whisper. Sometimes it is even silent, and only the tongue moves. As you breath in, you pray the first part, “Lord Jesus, Son of God,” and on exhaling you complete it, “have mercy on me a sinner.” It is really simple, but it can be done in nearly all places and in all situations.
In the mornings, I will spend about a half an hour in meditation using this prayer as a background for my thoughts, immediately after praying my office. This quiet time before the sun rises with the slow rhythm of this prayer centers my day, and like a jingle that wont get out of your head, I find when I do this that it spontaneously comes to my mouth even when I didn’t intend it, like a heartbeat that continues on even when you don’t notice it. I use something called a “prayer rope to count the prayers, pictured at the top of this page.
During my day too, I will often take a small bracelet version of a prayer rope off my wrist to do the same, maybe just for a few minutes, maybe longer. The small, thin bracelet a constant reminder to pray without ceasing.
And last, when insomnia drives me a little crazy at night, it beats the heck out of counting sheep.
Some books on the Jesus Prayer I’ve found helpful:
Or get yourself a prayer rope, or “chotki” and get right to praying. (Though fingers work just as well if you like!)