The Jesus Prayer

Jon H has just written a great post on the Jesus Prayer. I’ve recently advised someone who was trying to revive their prayer life to experiment with it (I’ve found it tremendously useful at times when my own prayer life grinds to a halt) and I’m eagerly awaiting to hear how he got on.

Here’s Jon’s thoughts on the prayer itself:

A move away from politics now, with a couple of posts on one of my favourite prayers: the Jesus Prayer, described by the Swedish Lutheran pastor Per-Olof Sjögren (in his book The Jesus Prayer) as:

…one of the simplest in form but richest in content of all the prayers in the long history of Christian worship.

It comes in a number of variants. In Sjögren’s book, he uses the form, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me”, but my own preferred version (mainly because of a personal attachment to the description of God as the “living and true God”) is the following:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.

Traditionally this prayer is used as a “breath prayer”: breathing in on “Lord Jesus Christ”, out on “Son of the living God”, in on “have mercy upon me”, out again on “a sinner”. Indeed, some in the Orthodox Church have spoken of the prayer becoming a “self-acting” prayer of the heart, continuing even when one is unconscious of it, in fulfilment (as they would see it) of St Paul’s injunction to “pray ceaselessly”.

I can’t claim to have even come close to this “prayer of the heart”, and in some ways the idea makes me a little uneasy (perhaps due to a western, Protestant over-privileging of the conscious mind). On the other hand, I’ve become very fond of the Jesus Prayer over the past decade, and there’ve probably been few days in that period when it hasn’t flitted across my mind at some point during the day.

I hope to post a little more about this prayer over the next couple of days. In the meantime, do check out Sjögren’s book if you come across a copy of it. Sjögren writes from a very clearly Lutheran perspective, placing the prayer firmly in the context of the church’s ministry of word and sacrament, and in particular the new birth we experience in baptism and our weekly partaking of the Lord’s body and blood in holy communion. But he also writes with great sensitivity and insight concerning the Orthodox origins of the prayer: this is no “smash and grab raid” on another tradition.

and here’s his thoughts on the theology of the prayer:

It is striking how the Jesus Prayer (see previous post) is able to pack so much content into so short a form:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.

Per-Olof Sjögren describes the prayer as “a summary of the whole gospel”, of “the whole content of the Bible”:

Besides being a direct prayer to Jesus it contains also teaching about him, about his work of redemption, his dignity as king, his deity, and his loving mercy. (The Jesus Prayer, p.17)

Bp Kallistos Ware reaches a similar conclusion in his book The Orthodox Way, where he devotes a couple of pages (pp.68f.) to looking at what the prayer “has to tell us about the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, and about our healing by and in him”. Ware describes the two “poles” or “extreme points” of the prayer as follows:

“Lord … Son of God”: the Prayer speaks first about God’s glory, acclaiming Jesus as the Lord of all creation and the eternal Son.

Then at its conclusion the Prayer turns to our condition as sinners – sinful by virtue of the fall, sinful through our own personal acts of wrongdoing: “… on me a sinner”

Thus “the Prayer beings with adoration and ends with penitence”. These “two extremes of divine glory and human sinfulness” are reconciled by three words describing Jesus and the good news he brings for sinners:

  • Jesus: as Ware puts it, “this has the sense of Saviour; as the angel said to Christ’s foster-father St Joseph: ‘You shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins’.”

  • Christ: this means the Anointed One, anointed by the Holy Spirit, the one whom the Jewish people awaited as “the coming deliverer, the future king, who in the power of the Spirit would set them free from their enemies”.

  • Mercy: this word “signifies love in action”, writes Ware, who continues by observing that:

    …to have mercy is to acquit the other of the guilt which by his own efforts he cannot wipe away, to release him from the debts he himself cannot pay, to make him whole from the sickness for which he cannot unaided find any cure. The term “mercy” means furthermore that all this is conferred as a free gift: the one who asks for mercy has no claims upon the other, no rights to which he can appeal.

Thus, within the space of 68 characters or fewer – short enough to be Twittered, with room to spare – the Jesus Prayer is able to summarise “both man’s problem and God’s solution”, namely the Jesus who is “the Saviour, the anointed king, the one who has mercy”.

Crackingly good stuff. Well done Jon.

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