Τhis talk was an adaptation of The Power of the Name, by Kallistos Ware (1974) with an addition from The Payer of JESUS, by A Monk of the Eastern Church (1967).
No authentic relationship between persons can exist without mutual freedom and spontaneity, and this is true of prayer. There are no fixed rules for those who seek to pray; and there is no mechanical technique, whether physical or mental, which can compel God to manifest his presence. His grace is granted always as a free gift, and cannot be gained automatically by any method or technique.
Nevertheless, the Jesus Prayer has become for many Eastern Christians over the centuries the standard path, and not for Eastern Christians only: in the meeting between Orthodoxy and the West which has flourished again since the beginning of the 20th century, probably no element in the Orthodox heritage has aroused such intense interest as the Jesus Prayer, and no single book has exercised a wider appeal than The Way of a Pilgrim, in which a pilgrim wonders what is the meaning of the Pauline exhortation to pray without ceasing, and is led to inner knowledge of that prayer.
The prayer’s origin is most likely the EgyptianDesert; sayings by Evagrius point to this place. But where lies the distinctive appeal and effectiveness of the Jesus Prayer? Perhaps in four things above all: in its simplicity and flexibility; in its completeness; in the power of the Name; and in the discipline of repetition. Let us take these points in order.
I) 4 strengths of the Jesus Prayer
1. Simplicity and flexibility
The Invocation of the Name is a prayer of the utmost simplicity, accessible to every Christian, but it leads at the same time to the deepest mysteries of contemplation. No specialized knowledge or training is required before commencing the Jesus Prayer.
Just begin. Begin to pronounce it with adoration and love. Cling to it. Repeat it. Do not think that you are invoking the Name; think only of Jesus himself. Say his Name slowly, softly and quietly.
The outward form of the prayer is easily learnt. Basically it consists of the words ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’. There is, however, no strict uniformity. We can say ‘. . . have mercy on us’, instead of ‘on me’. The verbal formula can be shortened: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me’, or ‘Lord Jesus’, or ‘JESUS, have mercy’ or even ‘Jesus’ alone.
Alternatively, the form of words may be expanded by adding ‘a sinner’ at the end, thus underlining the penitential aspect. Theologically, the Jesus Prayer can be considered to be an extension of the lesson taught by 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, the sinner.” (Luke 18:10-14.)
Incidentally, this urges me to wonder: did Benedict know the JESUS Prayer? The genre of the Rule does not allow for clues in that area. Nevertheless, one passage sounds to me very close to the JESUS Prayer. It is precisely the passage which quotes the prayer of the Publican:
Judging himself always guilty on account of his sins, he should consider that he is already at the fearful judgment, and constantly say in his heart what the publican in the Gospel said with downcast eyes: Lord, I am a sinner, not worthy to look up to heaven. RB 7:64-65
We can also add to the formula, recalling Peter’s confession on the road to Caesarea Philippi, ‘Son of the living God’.
The one essential and unvarying element is the inclusion of the divine Name ‘Jesus’. Each is free to discover through personal experience the particular form of words which answers most closely to his or her needs. No doubt the formula employed will vary from time to time, following the movement of the Holy Spirit in you.
There is a similar flexibility as regards the outward circumstances in which the Prayer is recited. Two ways of using the Prayer can be distinguished, the ‘free’ and the ‘formal’ way.
By the ‘free’ use is meant the recitation of the Prayer as we are engaged in our usual activities throughout the day. Part of the distinctive value of the Jesus Prayer lies precisely in the fact that, because of its radical simplicity, it can be prayed in conditions of distraction when more complex forms of prayer are impossible. This ‘free’ use of the Jesus Prayer enables us to bridge the gap between our explicit ‘times of prayer’ and the normal activities of daily life.
‘Pray without ceasing’, St Paul insists (I Thess. 5:17): but how is this possible, since we have many other things to do as well? Bishop Theophan indicates the method in his maxim,
‘The hands at work, the mind and heart with God’.[i]
The Jesus Prayer, becoming by frequent repetition almost habitual and unconscious, helps us to stand in the presence of God wherever we are—not only in the chapel or in solitude, but in the kitchen, on the factory floor, in the office, or in the car. And again, the simplicity of the prayer and its few words make it very accessible at work time, especially manual work.