God is calling each of us in special way into the desert. In this desert He wishes to reveal Himself in a powerful way beyond words and images, in the immediacy of a lover to His beloved."1
Where is the desert to which the Holy One is calling us? Is it a physical place? Do we get there by airplane or bus? Can we walk there and find the Holy One sitting on a rock ready to teach us?
Not really. We find the desert in our own heart. The Holy One will take up residence there and teach us. "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner," the prayer reads. These words can begin a new relationship with the Holy One -- deep and personal with Jesus Himself.
The primary text for the prayer is The Way of the Pilgrim. Set in pre-Revolutionary Russia, it is an autobiographical story of a Russian pilgrim who set out to discover what Saint Paul's admonition to "Pray without ceasing" meant.1 The Pilgrim had a tough life. He lost everything dear to him.
As a child he lost the use of an arm by the hand of his brother. As an adult the same brother set fire to his home. The Pilgrim and his wife lived in great poverty. Not long after his wife died. Life seemed like it came to an end. He became a homeless wanderer -- a pilgrim -- taking only the Scriptures for comfort and consolation on his journeys.
The Pilgrim first heard the words, "Pray without ceasing" during the Divine Liturgy as he wandered. "A burning desire and thirst for knowledge" awoke within him he would write later.3 He set out to find someone to teach him more and encountered a monk who introduced him to the Jesus Prayer.
Prayer is a journey of its own, a pathway to God. But there is more than one way to pray. Theophan the Recluse proposed that three degrees of prayer exist:
Oral or bodily prayer
Prayer of the mind
Prayer of the heart (or: "of the mind and heart"): spiritual prayer
St. Theophan explained the threefold distinction this way:
You must pray not only with words but with the mind, and not only with the mind but with the heart, so that the mind understands and sees clearly what is said in words, and the heart feels what the mind is thinking. All these combined together constitute real prayer, and if any of them is absent your prayer is either not perfect, or it is not prayer at all.4
The first of these types of prayer, oral or bodily, is the prayer that Orthodox should be the most familiar with, the prayer of the lips and tongue. It that consists in reading or reciting certain words. If prayer is to effective and more than reciting sentences however, it is essential to concentrate inwardly on the meaning of the words. As prayer grows more interior - more inward, the outward oral recitation becomes less important.
The Jesus Prayer is usually said in this way: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me." The words "a sinner" may be added at the end, or the prayer may be said in the plural, "have mercy upon us." Other variations also exist. Some people use a prayer rope to help them pray. This prayer rope differs from the one used in the west. Normally it is a knotted cord of wool or other material. Unlike a string of beads, the prayer rope is silent.
Each part of the rope has a symbolic meaning. Black is the color of mourning and sorrow and this reminds us to be sober and serious in our lives. It is made of knotted wool that recalls the Christ the Good Shepherd, and Christ the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. The cross hanging on the end of the rope speaks of Christ's death and resurrection. Some prayer ropes have tassels on the end of the cross.
The tassel is used to wipe the tears of repentance away from our eyes, or if you have no tears, to remind you to weep because you can not weep.
The story is told of a monk who decided to make knots in a rope which he could use in caring out his daily rule of prayer. But the devil would untie the knots he made in the rope, frustrating the poor monks efforts. Then an angel appeared and taught the monk a special kind of knot that consists of a series of inter locked crosses, and this knot the devil was not to unravel.
This Jesus Prayer is just one of the many different paths to interior prayer. In order to persevere in this form of prayer, we must first be grounded in general prayer. Unceasing prayer is a difficult path to follow and one of the most challenging ways of praying The Jesus Prayer must be rooted in the simplicity of a life grounded in the Gospels.
The Jesus Prayer focuses on repentance and the healing of the soul. The Russian monk Macarius of Optino remarked: "In order that men may recognize their spiritual sores, they require...bitter sorrows; all of which purifies the heart and restores health to the stricken soul."5 In another place Macarius spoke about the self-sufficient and self-righteous sinner: "Mark this too: it is not very hard for the simple sinner to come to hate his foul life and, leaving it, to fling himself on the mercy of God; but it is very hard for the subtler sinner -- the self-sufficient one -- to let the ray of Divine Love pierce the leather jacket of self-righteousness."6 In its initial stage of use then, the Jesus Prayer is essentially a penitential prayer. The Jesus Prayer is the prayer of one who is on his way home - just like the prodigal son.
The second part of the prayer consists in the simple invocation of the Divine Name: "Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God...." The tradition teaches that this invocation of the Name will slowly permeate our entire being, leading us to inner silence. The Jesus Prayer teaches reveals that inner silence as is our fundamental and original state of being. It makes the holiness of God bearable for man.
According to Theophan the Recluse: "When beginning to pray, start always as if you never prayed properly before"7 and "The essential and indispensable part of prayer is attention -- without attention there is no prayer."8 "Let there be no studied elegance in the words of your prayer," John Climacus taught: "…do not launch out into long discourses that fitter away your mind in efforts for eloquence. One word alone spoken by the Publican touched God's mercy; a single word full of faith saved the Good Thief. Many words in prayer often fill the mind with images and distract it, while often one single word draws it into recollection."9
In The Way if the Pilgrim, the pilgrim is told to say the Jesus Prayer slowly, gently, and quietly. Each word is to be said without haste. While praying the Jesus Prayer, we may become aware that there is a deeper way of speaking to God than we ordinarily assumed. Prayer moves from exterior recitation to an inward expression.
Persons accomplished in the Jesus Prayer report that as their prayers move ever inward, the awareness grows that the body is indeed the "temple of the Holy Spirit" as St. Paul taught. The Holy Spirit does indeed dwell within us. This "prayer of the heart" corresponds to the biblical understanding that the heart is the seat of understanding. "Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it springs the issues of life" (Proverbs 4:23).
Spiritual masters of many religions refer to the heart as the seat of wisdom.
Theophan observed: "If the heart is the center of the human person, then it is by the heart that man enters into relation with all that exists." Later on he added: "There is a particular way that leads to harmony among men that is the heart."11 Moving to prayer St. Theophan insisted: "You must descend from your head into your heart. At present your thoughts of God are in your head. And God Himself is, as it were, outside you, and so your prayer and other spiritual exercises remain exterior. While you are still in your head, thoughts will...always be whirling about like snow in winter or clouds of mosquitoes in the summer."12
This prayer has been practiced by Orthodox Christians for generations and should be part of our everyday spirituality. Begin in desert, and meet the Holy One there. Ask Him to teach you His prayer and then begin slowly to pray.
"Once we have moved from multiplicity to oneness, and once we have been plunged into the center of Love, suffering thus the Divine Light, then our entire attention will be drawn to the Holy One."13
Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
1. Prayer of Jesus, Prayer of the Heart. (Greenwood, IN: Inner Life Publications, 1996)
2. The Way of the Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way, trans from the Russian by R.M. French (New York: The Seabury Press, 1965)
3. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 NRSV
4. The Way of the Pilgrim
5. The Art of Prayer, an Orthodox Anthology, trans. E.M. Palmer (London, Faber & Faber, 1966)
6. Marcarius, Staretz of Optino, Russian Letters of Direction 1834 - 1860, selection, translation, and forward by I. de Beausobre (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1975)
8. An Orthodox Anthology of Prayer
10. J. Meyendorff, St. Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality, trans. A. Fiske (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974)
11.1 Corinthian 6:19
12.Winkler, Gabriel. The Jesus Prayer in Eastern Spirituality (Light & Life Publishing, Minneapolis, 1986)