The Jesus Prayer

He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  I tell you this man went to his home justified rather than the other; for those who exult themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  Luke 18:10-13

proper 25C

“Pray without ceasing” (1Thessalonians 5:17). Devout people wondered what Paul meant. And when I fell in love with God, I, too, wanted to pray continually.

Fortunately, my first teacher of prayer was a Roman Catholic nun adept at Jesus Prayer. She taught me to breathe in the words Lord Jesus Christ, son of God. And breathe out have mercy on me, a sinner.  Long breaths might take on an expanded variation: Lord Jesus Christ Son of the Living God on the in-breath and have mercy on me a miserable sinner on the out-breath. Breathe in the divine and breathe out that which is not yet divine.  She taught me to pace my footsteps with the Jesus prayer: right foot – Jesus, left foot – Mercy. And so I walked, Jesus, Mercy, Jesus, Mercy, Jesus, Mercy.

The prayer deepens, she told me, so that the very heart beats JesusMercyJesusMercy. Eventually the prayer continues while you sleep. And thus you pray continually, she said.

detail, Unknown Illustrator of Petrus Comestor's Bible Historiale, 1372

The Jesus prayer involves a complicated theology, rules, dangers, levels of experience. No prayer practice replaces the Christian life of service to others, liturgy, community, fasting, charity, almsgiving, repentance, confession, thanksgiving, growing in love. But the Jesus Prayer as an ancient practice creates an atmosphere of humility and longing for God. The prayer draws upon the invocation of the name of Jesus (as old as the church – and reminiscent of God’s Presence dwelling in the Name of the Holy One as practiced in our Hebrew roots.) The practice of Jesus Prayer accepts the theology of deification, of becoming God in the way Ireneaus, Athanasius and other early theologians describe: God became man in order that man might become God. The prayer draws from the theology of kenosis, of self-emptying, just as Jesus emptied himself (Philippians 2:6-11).

You hear echoes of two steady companions as you pray. Blind Bartimaeus begging from the roadside shouts again and again, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus calls him, and throwing off his cloak the beggar makes his way to Jesus and is healed. The other voice is our dear publican who entered the temple to pray, head bowed in misery, beating his breast and murmuring, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

You don’t have to be a great sinner to be a great repenter. Repentance simply means change. I’m willing to change, throw off my cloak, humble myself to see through the chimera my ego makes of my core being. I’m happy for the Gospel text this week, bringing me back to this old way of prayer. 

I practiced the Jesus Prayer for two years in my early twenties. When I’m frightened or in pain the prayer comes back. I’m on my way to San Antonio tomorrow to do three programs and to visit dear friends. No doubt the Jesus prayer will comfort me in airplane turbulence and white knuckle landings.

One Response to “The Jesus Prayer”

  1. la mama Says:

    I love your blog (and I love that word, blog. blog blog bloggety blog!).
    It always calms me down, amuses me, intrigues me, bucks me up, makes me think, and — most importantly — reminds me that God is God and I am not. And the LOVE! the love that fills every entry washes over me. How do you DO that?
    I need that “Jesus… mercy… ” prayer. Now if I could just remember to pray it! I love the nun’s hint about breathing in on one phrase, out on the other.
    Thanks, sister.

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