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Keeping stillness: The "Jesus Prayer"

Pantocrator icon, St. Catherine's monastery, 5th Century (the face may represent Christ's dual human and divine nature)My Lenten project—curating a collection of red-blooded, old-time Catholic prayers—has shied away from sharing one of the most deceptively simple and powerful ones. It is this, no more or less:

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

As this Passion Sunday (the cooler name for "Palm Sunday") draws to a close, I'll give it a try. Variations of  this brief utterance have a stupendously rich and complex history, particularly in the Eastern Orthodox communities. Calling it a "Christian mantra" doesn't do it justice. According to the daunting Wikipedia entry for the so-called Jesus Prayer:

"It is often repeated continually as a part of personal ascetic practice, its use being an integral part of the eremitic tradition of prayer known as Hesychasm (Greek: hesychazo, "to keep stillness"). The prayer is particularly esteemed by the spiritual fathers of this tradition as a method of opening up the heart (kardia) and bringing about the Prayer of the Heart. The Prayer of The Heart is considered to be the Unceasing Prayer that the apostle Paul advocates in the New Testament.  St. Theophan the Recluse [hey, I know that guy!—ed.] regarded the Jesus Prayer stronger than all other prayers by virtue of the power of the Holy Name of Jesus.

'Monogram' of Christ in Roman catacomb (click for explanation)Whew...this is heady stuff for someone who tends to exclaim the Holy Name mostly during attacks of road rage. Especially the notion that this prayer offers a way into St. Paul's rather impractical urging to "pray without ceasing." In a talk at my church, Bishop Frank Caggiano addressed this "pray always" mystery, suggesting that constant prayer was possible (even with TV and bathroom time, presumably). He said you'd need three things, more or less in this order:

1. Wonder.

2. Openness.

3. Encounter.

I've seen directions for the Jesus Prayer that involve yoga-like breathing components, but I am terrible at breathing on cue, alternating between holding my breath and hyperventilating. Jesus and me, an atheist's viewFor the past few weeks, however, I've been trying to say the prayer when I feel stressed. (Talk about "pray without ceasing.") It felt superficial and formulaic at first, and worse yet, it seemed vaguely reminiscent of talking to an imaginary playmate as I went about my day. 

But curiously, as it has become a bit more of a habit, it has begun to feel comforting, like speaking to someone in the dark as they sleep by your side. A name attaches to a person, and a person is what I need when I'm needy—not a lovely, abstract syllable like "om" or even a good deep breath.  During sieges of neurochemical misery, this plea for mercy seems itself to yield mercy. First, openness, then, encounter.


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Reader Comments (1)

I love the Jesus Prayer. I read St John's account of the Last Supper last night, and Jesus refers to the power of His name. Chapter 17, the "prayer of Jesus," has this: "Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are."
April 6, 2012 at 09:58AM | Unregistered CommenterAeddings

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