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“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
This is known as the Jesus prayer, practiced in the Orthodox Church. It comes from the passage of scripture where Jesus, in a parable, describes the prayer of penitent sinner before God. “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner (Luke 18:13).” The Jesus prayer in its current form, combines that prayer with the confession “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God.” The prayer has many variations and can sometimes be said as “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me.” The one praying typically has a prayer rope with X number of knots on it. Each knot represents one of those prayers. The way I do it is that after a few certain ones, I say the Our Father.
Now, when I first heard about the Jesus prayer I was not too keen on it. I found it weird, of little sense and possibly unbiblical. However I’ve now come to find the Jesus prayer a very important part of my life. Yes, I’m still wrestling with hangs up I have from my Protestant days. But like many things in Orthodoxy, I’ve come to see that while I may not have theological objections, I still need to get used to the life the Church. Which for me has involved prayer, a step of faith and practice. I’m by no means an expert on this subject. But there are three ways of thinking about this that has helped me to understand why it’s done. Or at least, why I do it.
In fact, prayer is not really about giving God information at all. God isn’t ignorant of anything. He even knows what you’re going to say before you get up to pray about it. “Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether (Psalm 139:4).” Prayer is about communion. The uniting of my soul with God. Partaking of His grace. In Orthodoxy, this partaking of grace is not just in the soul. But the divine light of God that illumines the soul, is the same light which visibly shone on Moses face. This is because God made man to be spiritual and physical whole. Where both aspects of their nature work together. What happens to one affects the other. This is why humanity is the pinnacle of creation, because we sum up both the spiritual and material reality in ourselves. We are the ‘microcosm’ of all creation. And God always intended that his divine life and energy fill the material creation, as it will in the end. There is not then this strict division of what belongs to the realm of the spirit and what belongs to the realm of the physical. That’s why Orthodoxy has a sacramental worldview. So when we pray, we are doing what we were mean to do, communion with God. Which not only glorifies/deifies the soul by having it partake of God’s divine life, the communion of the Trinity. But it deifies, the flesh too. The material world. It brings God’s presence not just to us, but to our surroundings and those around us. But since it is spiritual, our eyes are not always open to seeing the fullness of this divine glory. Just as the disciples only got to glimpse it once. Like Adam and Eve, when they lost communion with God, it affected their entire nature. So too when we regain communion with God, it affects it all too. And will be fully manifest at the final resurrection, this power at work in us. The same power that raised Christ from the dead (Ephesians 1:19-20). That constant staying in God’s presence as one says the Jesus prayer, continually basking their soul in God’s light, is a blessing that is far more than merely communicating information.
2. The Jesus Prayer is not vain repetition.
The first thing that comes to mind for many is Jesus’s own warnings about what he calls vain repetition or babbling. “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling (vain repetition) like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words (Matthew 6:7). But note, it is “vain” repetition that is the problem. Not repetition in and of itself. The problem is the intent. We do not repeat because we think it makes our prayer holier, and more likely for God to hear us. As if it were better than a simple word or sentence. It is not for God’s sake that the prayer is repeated. It is for our sake! God does not need our prayers at all. But wants them because he created us for communion with Himself. Whilst I, if I’m honest, often don’t feel like or want to pray, but actually need it. It’s not that I don’t care about God, but like anyone I can get lazy and complacent. Nevertheless communion with God is something I desire. Yet it is also absolutely essential for my wellbeing. Not only am I basking in God’s presence. But we humans often need things repeated before it sinks in! Faith comes by hearing after all. At times, it has only been after saying it enough times that certain truths during prayer start to sink in. I think too we can cut our time with God short. Spending more time alert to His presence, can often be when the Holy Spirit illumes the heart and mind. How often in the scriptures, God tries to get His people to remember Him and what He has done. And how often they “forget the Lord their God” and He has to call them back to remember.
God himself is not against repetition. The Psalms themselves can get quite repetitive. Repetition is all over the scriptures, not just in the songs, but in the way God has dealt with his people ordered his worship on earth and heaven. Just read Revelation which is basically a divine liturgy. Elijah in prayer had to go send his servant seven times to check if there was rain. Each time he didn’t hear the news he needed, Elijah continued to pray. Didn’t God hear the first time? Not long before, after one single prayer he called down fire from heaven, even though the servants of Baal spent all day in song and prayers for noting. God even has someone bath in the river seven times before their skin disease was healed.
Consider too the Seraphim that are before God’s throne. How they repeat the same line. “And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory (Isaiah 6:3).” Or consider the others who do nothing day or night, without rest but sing the same song. “Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stop saying: “‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty,’ who was, and is, and is to come (Revelation 4:8).” Each are communing with God and worshipping Him together. Prayer towards God is an act of worship. Acknowledging Him as the source of both your Life and Joy. We ask for His mercy not out of fear, but in recognising our need for it at every moment. With every breath. And through that we are benefiting. You can imagine the glory and bliss that these divine worshippers are enjoying. Is their repetition in vain? In understanding the Christian life, and many passages and principles in scripture, one thing that is important is distinguishing between a thing that isn’t wrong in and of itself, but which may be good or bad depending on both context and the disposition of the people involved.
3. Prayer is about focusing on God not the problem.
In the past prayer has often turned into an exercise of thinking of things to say to God. Sometimes I’ve gotten so caught up in trying to think of praying, that I may have lost the quality of actually praying. Now, I’m not saying that those prayers didn’t count. Or that if one is thinking of things, to say that’s bad. Everything has its place. But I’ve often gotten so bogged down about the content, that I’ve missed the object of my prayer. A person. Prayer is not just saying “things”, it’s talking “to” someone.
Not only can my mental energy when praying be too focused on content, it can be too focused on the bad kind of content! Prayers can become selfish. They can become so focused on the fear or issue one is praying about. Things like praise and gratitude can get missed out. Prayer which get one to lift their eyes to where the help comes from (Psalm 121:1-2) can become so centred on the why one needs help.
This is where set prayers have helped. They force me to go not by my agenda, but a God glorifying one. Formal prayers shape the way our prayers should be, when they are informal. The Lord’s prayer is not just a good one to repeat, but a good one to learn from. I’ve often had a problem with which I decided to go to God with by saying the prayers in my prayer book. I would find myself frustrated because I wanted to get to the part of the prayers that dealt with my issue at hand. But often times when I have gotten to that that place, it would either:
More often than not, the bulk of the prayers would be directed at praising God and giving attention to how great He is. While I stand there thinking “When can I get done praising God and get to the solution.” How terrible of me. How human of me to miss the forest, for the trees. The prayer book had it right. Bringing my attention to where it needed to be. God already knows my problem. Going to His presence is more than enough. It also protects from the *real* vain repetition. Feeling like if I don’t mention my problem enough or focus on it enough that somehow God won’t deal with it? It takes maturity to mention the issue once to God in prayer and then spend the rest of time praising Him for His goodness. That’s a real test of faith.
This is also why the icons can be such a big help. To take the focus off of myself or the problem. Closing my eyes in prayer is fine. But it can sometimes make the whole ordeal too inward and me focused. The whole thing becomes more like a mental exercise. I’m not only thinking of things to say, I’m more often than not picturing something in my mind. If I’m praying to Jesus, “some” representation often comes to mind. Even when we read the Gospels and it describes a scene, we picture the events. It’s only natural. Some who generally are against images of Christ, have even gone so far as to say that we should not have *any* mental images either. Because they are misrepresentation. Well for one, Christ has incarnated and become visible. Not only that, but as a man, the divine Person became depictable according to his human nature. We do not need to know the exact appearance of a human in order to have mental or even pictorial representation. And whatever shortcomings they may have, picturing *nothing* is a gross misrepresentation in itself, as the incarnate Christ is not nothing or no longer without a permanent form (Deuteronomy 4:15-17).
Often times when closing my eyes, praying to Christ, the energy of thought, my focus, is flowing through a mental representation or connotation. But in combining the icon of Christ and the Jesus prayer, it better simulates what it means for a physical being to relate to another physical being. I’m not praying to a plank of wood and paint. Rather the icon serves much in the same way as the mental connotation did to be a point where the energy of thought is flowing. However it takes much less energy to simply look, as it does to imagine. At that moment you are talking much in the same way that you would when someone is standing in front of you. It forces me to treat Christ as a person. A real being, outside of myself, that I’m going to. As opposed to a figment of mind that I have to put an effort into remembering, lest my mind drift off and I “leave” their presence as it were. Not only that, but given the sacramental nature of the Orthodox faith, Christ is truly present and working through the icon in a similar way to the Eucharist. And in doing so my body becomes more engaged in prayer. As opposed to just making a comfortable position for my hands to keep my head up so that my thoughts can do all the work. But this isn’t the only way I’d say this prayer. It has slowly started to ingrain itself on me. Becoming a default that comes out at different times like second nature.
This God centeredness and outward looking disposition combined with the repetition of the Jesus prayer all work together to still, rather than agitate the soul. To bring one at peace. Psychologically and spiritually. Which is what should be the outcome, in fact we are commanded to “Be still, and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10).” This stillness and quiet confidence of the soul in God, as opposed to the restlessness is what the Psalmist seeks (Psalm 43:5), Christ promises (Matthew 11:28) and God loves (1 Peter 3:4). For me the Jesus prayer has been a good and simple way of moving in the right direction. Not always easy, but always worth it. It is far more than asking God for mercy, in the sense of stopping hurt or pain. The word translated mercy, is related to the Hebrew that is often translated as “steadfast love” “lovingkindness” or “covenant love.” It is asking God to renew, re-affirm and act on this love that He has for us in Christ. A love that comes across as so fresh and is so infinite, that it were as if his mercies were “new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23).” A love so powerful that nothing can separate us from it, no matter what happens in life. As Paul, after giving an extensive list says “nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39).”
It is in light of all this, that in light of all my failures, all my needs, all my worries, I lift my eyes to the heavens, and with faith meet the Saviour’s loving gaze saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me, a sinner.”