Prayer is something we talk about a lot but seldom practice. Few of us have set times of daily prayers and even fewer keep to them. Our most intense period of prayers is when we or our loved ones are in grave needs. After that period is over and the crisis resolved, many of us find it difficult to lead a consistent prayer life. For many of us, the concept of persistent prayer blows our mind. The reason is that many of us find it difficult to pray for long periods without running out of words or repeating ourselves. What do we pray about when we have gone through our “prayer lists”? Many of our prayer lists are actually “want lists” or “shopping lists” to be presented to God. Yet the apostle Paul unapologically asks us to pray “unceasingly” or “continually”(NIV) (1 Thess. 5:17).
One of the prayers which I find most helpful in helping me to pray unceasingly is the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer was a common prayer of the early church. This prayer is still a favourite prayer of the Orthodox Catholic Church or commonly known as the Eastern Orthodox Church. The apostolic church was a single church until 1024 when it was split into the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Catholic Church by an event appropriately named the East-West Schism. The Protestant movement, of which the Presbyterians are one of the inheritors, came out of the Roman Catholic Church. In many ways, the practices of the Orthodox Catholic Church reflect the practices of the early church.
The Jesus Prayer in its commonest form is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This prayer has two essential components. The first is the acknowledgement of the supremacy of Jesus Christ as described in the great Christological hymn of Philippians 2:6-11. The second component is the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, in which the Pharisee demonstrates the improper way to pray by exclaiming: “Thank you Lord that I am not like the Publican”, whereas the Publican prays correctly in humility, saying “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:10-14). The Jesus Prayer is a prayer addressed to God asking for mercy.
The Jesus Prayer is also known as the prayer of the heart. The Song of Solomon’s passage from the Old Testament “I sleep, but my heart is awake” (Song of Solomon 5:2) declares that for persons in love, their beloved is never far from their hearts. The analogy being that as a lover is always conscious to his or her beloved, people can also achieve a state of “constant prayer” where they are always conscious of God’s presence in their lives.
The prayer is repeated slowly and prayerfully. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Repeatedly proclaiming the divinity of Christ and asking for mercy is not vain repetition. It is different from chanting a mantra or a self help technique. It is “continuous” worship in invoking the name of Christ and acknowledging our dependence upon Him. Mercy here is not just for salvation only but also for our spiritual well being. Unlike mantras, the Jesus Prayer may be translated into any language.
Initially you may need to find a quiet place to pray the Jesus Prayer. To pray the Jesus prayer is to repeat “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner” as many times as your time period allows. Gradually, as you become more used to it, you find you will be able to pray it while you are doing other things. The Jesus Prayer may be prayed anywhere. There are no special postures associated with it.
In this multi-tasking form, you can pray unceasingly while you do other things. People who have been praying the Jesus Prayer for many years will tell you that they are able to work, play, love and rest while part of their minds are praying the Jesus Prayer. There is also a story told that when a certain devout Orthodox Church lady was coming out of anesthesia after an operation, the surgical nurses heard her praying the Jesus Prayer before she herself became fully conscious!
The spiritual teachers of the Orthodox Church claim that initially you pray the Jesus Prayer but soon the Jesus Prayer prays you. The continuous invoking the Name of God and petitioning for mercy has a power effect on our spiritual formation. It makes us sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit and empowers the “renovation of our hearts.” The Jesus Prayer is one prayer I pray constantly and I sincerely invite you to pray it too.