Ways to Pray: The Jesus Prayer

Sometimes in the quiet bits of a Pentecostal prayer meeting or the Breaking of Bread you might hear someone quietly praying the name of Jesus. Just that - Jesus' name repeated. And perhaps, to people from other traditions or even nowadays many within our own, it might sound a bit odd. There's no request, no praise: nothing but the name of Jesus.

Strange as it might sound (to just about everyone), though, this isn't some strange Pentecostal innovation. It's actually something deeply rooted in the history of Christian prayer. At least as far back as Diadochus of Photiki in the 5th century, we have examples of Christians praying (and encouraging others to pray) the name of Jesus. If 'no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit' (1 Corinthians 12:3), Diadochus points out, then to pray 'O Lord Jesus' is the work of the Holy Spirit within us. To pray the name of Jesus is to join with the Holy Spirit as He does His work within us of glorifying the Lord Jesus (John 16:14), and so, in the Holy Spirit to come to the Father through Jesus His Son (Ephesians 2:18).

For Diadochus and his followers, ceaselessly calling upon the name of Jesus was a way to keep ourselves in the presence of the Lord. As Bishop Barrington-Ward put it, in the constant praying of Jesus' name, 'we will be drawn steadily into the stillness and light of the presence and, above all, the love of God in Christ through the Spirit' (Simon Barington-Ward, The Jesus Prayer, p.52). To pray the name of Jesus is to call in love on the name of the one whom we love.

This calling upon the name of Jesus gradually took on a slightly expanded form in history and became known as the Jesus Prayer. It goes like this:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. 

Sometimes 'a sinner' is left off, and sometimes it's shortened even more to 'Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy', or simply to 'Lord Jesus Christ'. It's not a magic formula of words, but rather a sincere calling upon the name of Jesus. People started to pray the Jesus Prayer as a way of truly praying without ceasing (and many still pray it like that today). It was a way to be in constant prayer, and a way to fight against distractions in pray, by constantly looking to the presence of Christ. Theophan the Recluse put it like this:

Call to him with fervour: 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner.' Do this constantly in church and at home, travelling, working, at table, and in bed: in a word from the time you open your eyes till the time you shut them. This will be exactly like holding an object in the sun, because this is to hold yourself before the face of the Lord, who is the Sun of the spiritual world.

It's a way of holding Jesus in front of us and holding fast to him, by directing our attention and prayer towards Him. As my favourite book on the Jesus Prayer (a book written by a Swedish Lutheran bishop, Per-Olof Sjogren, about a prayer many people associate with Eastern Orthodoxy, where he sounds like an old-fashioned Pentecostal) puts it:

The Jesus Prayer makes life Christ-centred. It emphasizes not how far distant we are from Christ, but how near we are to him. 

The Jesus Prayer is also a way of praying according to God's will for all our needs. For what do we always need, in every situation? God's mercy. And that's exactly what we ask for in the Jesus Prayer. So, when situations are too big for our words, or when we don't know how to pray for what we need to pray for, or when things are just too overwhelming to be able to pray with our own words, the Jesus Prayer is a good way to pray, knowing we're coming to the only one who can meet our need, praying for exactly what we do need.

That doesn't mean we don't need other prayers. (Sjogren warns that we mustn't get the wrong idea and think of it as 'the kind of short-cut to God that can make all other prayers unnecessary.') But there are times when people can't manage to pray other prayers. Many people have found the Jesus Prayer a huge help in times of depression, when they haven't been able to form their own prayers.

I often pray the Jesus Prayer while I'm talking to people, in pastoral situations and in meetings, when I know that I need the Lord's wisdom and guidance, but also need to be concentrating on what I'm saying and what's being said to me. The simplicity of the Jesus Prayer means that I can be properly praying for the mercy needed and still be properly engaged in the conversation.

The Jesus Prayer is not a mantra. Used rightly it's a true calling upon the Lord Jesus, and in that way many Christians through the centuries have found it both a helpful prayer and way to enjoy communion with Christ.

I could say tons more about this prayer (and maybe some day I will). But for now I just wanted to introduce it, as perhaps it might be something that could help you pray during this lockdown. I've posted a recording of it being prayed for a few minutes below as sometimes when praying in a new and unfamiliar way it can help to have someone to pray along with.

For now though, let me just leave you with a few more quotes from Per-Olof Sjogren's fantastic book, The Jesus Prayer:

On Thanksgiving:

The gratitude of my heart can be encompassed within the framework of the Jesus Prayer, for it is also a song of praise to the King on high.

On Temptations and Trials:

By training in the Jesus Prayer I train myself to be out of reach of the attacks of evil on my soul, whether they come from within or from outside. I have Jesus in my heart, Jesus risen from the dead, and he is more powerful than anything else. To live with him is to have a fortress, a haven of refuge.

On being Christ-centred and becoming Christ-like:

The Jesus Prayer frees us from thinking about ourselves and makes us Christ-centred. Our thoughts focus not on ourselves but on Christ. When we have nothing else to do, we do not sink into the rut of thinking about either our misfortunes or our successes; instead we turn instinctively to Christ and look to him. Self-pity, bitterness, dislike of others, pride - all are displaced by wonder, love of others, gratitude to Christ, happiness at having him as a friend.

On preaching:

Preachers have been known to begin to pray the Jesus Prayer and then to preach more about Jesus than before, often without noticing it themselves, though other people notice it.