Jesus Prayer

by Fr James Coles
Series of entries on the Blog Scholé

What is the Jesus Prayer?
Is there anything as difficult as prayer? What does Saint Paul mean by, and is it even possible to, “Pray without ceasing?” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). According to St Ignatius Brianchaninov, trying to pray without ceasing is a “hidden martyrdom.” Archimandrite SOPHRONY said, “Lions may not eat us for the sake of the Gospel. Rather, our call to martyrdom takes the form of being attentive to the present moment, relying upon God’s power always, and doing His will. Our call to martyrdom may not be any easier than death by violence.” The quest to pray without ceasing, has led to some interesting monastic experiments including, as only one example, monks praying in shifts.  But from very early on we have a prayer tool that the Eastern Orthodox Church refers to as The Jesus Prayer or Prayer of the Heart.

The words are not uniform but are most often prayed, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” This short prayer is prayed repeatedly. Scripturally it references the parable Jesus told of the Publican and the Pharisee. The Pharisee stands and prays to himself, “Thank you Lord that I am not like other men.” The Publican stands on the back praying in humility, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:10-14).

The Jesus Prayer enjoys a long history in the Eastern Orthodox Church beginning in the deserts of Egypt in the 4th century. The Philokalia, the five volume collection of varied saints teachings on prayer spans from the 4th to the 14th century, is mostly concerned with the Jesus Prayer. The Ladder of Divine Ascent written in the 6th century by Saint John Climacus recommends the use of the Jesus Prayer. To this day the Jesus Prayer continues to hold a special place in Orthodoxy. It should also be noted that Mount Athos and her monks are especially important to the use of The Prayer. Today, there is scarcely an Orthodox who has not prayed and reflected on the use of The Jesus Prayer.
The focus of Scholé is the virtuous use of time for prayer, worship and study, etc. The Jesus Prayer is the prime example of redeeming time from distraction and sloth by giving the mind and the heart a simple tool to call on the Name of the Lord. It can be prayed during a “formal” prayer time or “freely” while employed in other activities. The Jesus Prayer, as an example, is easy to pray while running, hiking or driving.

In this and the entries that follow I claim no special expertise or even original thought. I am attempting to avoid plagiarism but have been collecting and lecturing this material for a while and fear that not everything is properly footnoted. I will publish both an annotated bibliography and links to online articles and reference as an entry in this series. But let’s start out by saying that I rely heavily on Bishop KALLISTOS Ware’s lectures and books on the subject and Dr. Al Rossi’s excellent paper “Saying the Jesus Prayer.” One word of caution before we begin: while the Jesus Prayer is simple it is powerful and the Church has advised users against special techniques or visualization of any kind. One should not attempt extended use of the Jesus Prayer without a father confessor. Taking the warning into account, give The Jesus Prayer some effort today and let me know your experience; past and present.

The Jesus Prayer: St. Theophan the Recluse on the Prayer of the Heart
St. THEOPHAN the Recluse, 1815–1894 a well-known monk and saint in the Orthodox Church, said, “The principal thing is to stand before God with the mind in the heart and to go on standing before him unceasingly day and night until the end of life.” To pray is to stand before God. It is not necessary to always be asking for things or to always be using words. Deep prayer is contemplative. Deep prayer is to wait on God. Deep prayer is to listen to God. Prayer may be a request at times but at its deepest it is a relationship. “To pray is to stand before God with the mind in the heart.”

In Orthodoxy, the mind and heart are to be used as one. St Theophan tells us to keep our “mind in the heart” at all times. The heart is the physical muscle pumping blood, and our emotions/feelings, and the innermost core of the person, the spirit. Heart is associated with the physical muscle, but not identical with it. Heart means our innermost chamber, our secret dwelling place where God abides in us.

St. Macarius says, “The heart is but a small vessel; and yet dragons and lions are there, and there poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There likewise is God, there are the angels, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace; all things are there.”
There is within us a space, a field of the heart, in which we find a Divine Reality, and from which we are called to live. The mind then is to descend into that inner sanctuary, by means of the Jesus Prayer, and to stay there throughout our active day and evening. We descend with our mind into our heart, and we live there. The heart is Christ’s palace. There, Christ the King comes to take His rest.

Then Bishop Theophan said a third thing, “to go on standing before him unceasingly day and night until the end of life.” Here St. Theophan is thinking of the words of St. Paul in 1 Thess 5:17, “Pray without ceasing.” He does not just say pray morning and evening or 7 times a day but pray without ceasing. This text from Paul has played a very important part in the spirituality of the Christian East. From the fourth century onwards, the idea has been firmly established in the monastic tradition of the East that prayer is not merely an activity restricted to certain moments of the day, but something that should continue uninterrupted for the life of the monk or nun. The point is briefly expressed in one of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers: “A monk who prays only when he stands up for prayer is not really praying at all.” (Anonymous) With the same idea in mind a Palestinian monk of the seventh century, Antiochus of the Monastery of St. Sabbas, alludes to the words of Ecclesiastes 3:1-7: “To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under Heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die… a time to weep, and a time to laugh.. a time to keep silence and a time to speak.” And Antiochus comments, “There is a proper time for everything except prayer: as for prayer, its proper time is always.”

There were a group of monks called the Messalians, (in Greek, Euchite – meaning “praying ones”) a movement widespread in the Syria during the 4th and 5th centuries, who interpreted St. Paul’s injunction with uncompromising literalness. They did nothing but pray. They thought that to pray was to say prayers so they did not cook, garden, wash up, clean their room or answer letters.

It is pretty impossible to do nothing but say prayers all the time. There was a monastery in Constantinople called the “Sleepless Ones” who prayed in shifts. But these examples are departures from the normal flow of Orthodoxy and did not last long. Clearly there was a need for balance and diversity in the program of a monk’s daily life. Abba Anthony fell into discouragement and a great darkening of thoughts, he said to God, “Lord, I want to be saved but these thoughts do not leave me alone what shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?” A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, Anthony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, “Do this and you will be saved.” At these words, Anthony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he was saved.”

The pilgrim in the Way of the Pilgrim begins his search to discover what this means to pray without ceasing and finds no acceptable answer until he is taught the Jesus Prayer. St. Gregory the Theologian (Nazianzus) said, “remember God more often then you breathe.” Prayer is to be as natural to us as breathing, or thinking, or speaking. Sometimes people talk about having a prayer life but Bishop KALLISTOS Ware says that nobody talks of having a breathing life distinct from the rest of what we do. Prayer is to be not merely one activity among others but THE activity of our life – present in everything we do. And not merely something we do but something we are. St. Issac the Syrian of the 7th century says that the saints even when asleep have not stopped praying. Because even when asleep the Spirit is praying within them.
This is our aim. It is not enough to be a person who says prayers from time to time but to be a person who is prayer all the time. St. Theophan sets before us a high aim – but how is this possible? How can we enter into the mystery of prayer as Bishop THEOPHAN describes it?

The Jesus Prayer and Silence
Mother Teresa was once asked by a reporter, “When you pray to God what do you say?” to which she responded, “I don’t say anything, I listen.” The reporter lost no time turning the question around and asked; “When you pray to God what does He say?” Mother Teresa matter-of-factly answered, “He doesn’t say anything, He listens.”[1] Mother Teresa’s experience of listening to God and Him listening back has a sure foundation in scripture. Two of the most prominent scriptural passages vividly portraying listening to God are the stories of Samuel who, as a young boy, heard the voice of God and Elijah in the cave on Mount Horeb. First, the story about Samuel;

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision. At that time Eli, who’s eyesight had begun to grow dim, so that he could not see, was laying down in his own place; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was laying down within the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. And the Lord called again, “Samuel!” And Samuel arose and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. And the Lord called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for thy servant hears.” So Samuel went and lay down in his place. And the Lord came and stood forth, calling as at other times, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for they servant hears.” Then the Lord said to Samuel, “Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel, at which the two ears of every one that hears it will tingle.[2]

There are many important considerations from the story of Samuel’s listening. Samuel was removed from outward distractions, ready to receive whatever message God might send. Although the text says that Samuel did not yet know the Lord, nevertheless, the Scriptures also conclude that Samuel was listening to the voice of God.
The story of Elijah, found in 1 Kings, teaches that listening to the voice of the Lord is how one is ushered into the presence of the Lord.

And he said, “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?[3]

The New Revised Standard Translation renders, “a still small voice” as “the sound of sheer silence.” The Hebrew could also be translated as, “a sound of gentle stillness.”[4] It was not in the noise and power that the divine Presence was made real but rather in the silence of a “still small voice.” That quiet voice required the great prophet to listen and be quiet himself and only then did the divine question come, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Silence is a choice. We choose the things we want to do. These things, then, order and measure our lives. Someone said that Christians “order and measure” their lives from communion to communion. We might also say the Christians “order and measure” their lives from silence to silence.

Silence, at its best, is God-awareness. We quiet down our outer and inner lives, and listen to God speak. Someone said that when God speaks, His words are like the sound of a flutter of a bird’s wings. We need to be attentive if we are to hear anything. Outer silence is a choice. Outer silence calms the senses. By contrast, sensory overload and excitement can be addictive.

Inner silence can usually be achieved only by substituting one thought for another. Hence, the Jesus Prayer overrides our usual compulsive stream of consciousness about our own anxieties. Beginning with this form of prayer, then we might be led to deeper inner stillness, prayer without words. The caution here is that prayer without words is not heaviness, semi-sleep dullness. Rather, wordless prayer is alive, vigorous God-awareness.

Abba Pastor tells us that any trial that comes to us can by conquered by silence.
At the beginning of the Byzantine Liturgy, when the preliminary preparations are completed and all is now ready for the start of the Eucharist itself, the deacon turns to the priest and says, “it is time for the Lord to act.” Such exactly is the attitude of the worshipper in the Orthodox liturgy but also in the time of prayer.

[1] Reference unknown
[2] I Samuel 3:1-12
[3] I Kings 19:11-13
[4] George Arthur Buttrick, Editor, The Interpreters Bible. Abingdon Press: New York, New York. 1954. Volume 3, Page 163.

Jesus Prayer: The Who and The When
Clearly, the Jesus Prayer is not only for monks. We are told that the prayer is for cab drivers, social workers, engineers, teachers, social media experts, psychiatrists, etc. We use the Jesus Prayer to do God’s will, not our own bidding. Anyone, everyone can say the Jesus Prayer. The only prerequisites are to keep the Commandments, be a living member of the Church, and to have a guide.
Bishop Kallistos Ware has sound advice for those who simply can’t find a suitable guide. “But those who have no personal contact with a starets may still practice The Prayer without any fear, so long as they do so only for limited periods – initially, for no more than ten or fifteen minutes at a time – and so long as they make no attempt to interfere with the body’s natural rhythms.”

When to Pray
The Jesus Prayer is recommended in the morning, following our prayer rule, for some period of time, perhaps 10 or 15 minutes. This might be called “formal” use of the prayer. To sit in silence. Psalm 46:10 “Be still and know that I am God.” Silence as God awareness – listening to God. Saint Seraphim of Sarov, “acquire inner peace and thousands around you will find salvation.” Spend a few minutes everyday praying Thre Jesus Prayer we will be more involved in the lives of those around us.
The second form of the Jesus Prayer is the “free” use of the prayer. This means at any and all other times of the day, or night. This is especially true for the semi-automatic tasks such as driving, doing dishes, walking, being unable to sleep, etc. The Jesus Prayer is notably useful in time of extreme concern or upset. It is short, does not require special preparation we can pray it when we are distracted. This can be called the “free” use of the Jesus Prayer. We are seeking to make all parts of our lives sanctified. The desert fathers in Egypt spoke of arrow prayers, such as the Jesus Prayer or, “Oh God make speed to save, O Lord make haste to help us.”
When alone, we might find it helpful to pray the Jesus Prayer, out loud. This can help lower the distraction level.

The Jesus Prayer Rope
Orthodox prayer ropes are usually soft and made of wool. Although we might be tempted to think of them as an Eastern version of the rosary they are not. The purpose is to help us concentrate, not to imagine an event and not necessarily to count. The prayer rope is used to aid us in concentrating on the prayer. The person praying says the Jesus Prayer for each knot on the rope. Usually the rope is 33 knots long but they come in all different colors and lengths. In the famous book, The Way of the Pilgrim, the pilgrim said the prayer 2,000, then 6,000, then 12,000 times. Is 12,000 Jesus Prayers better than 2,000? Quantity has nothing to do with love, and a living relationship with Jesus. The pilgrim did 12,000, no more and no less, as an act of obedience to his spiritual father, not because he was “making progress.” He also prayed much because that was his “heart’s desire.” Every prayer is an act of love, made to the Author of Love, Who is waiting expectantly for our desire, and our acceptance of His Love.

My mission church, Saint Ignatius of Antioch, in Mesa, AZ has a small book corner. We have prayers ropes for sale at $20. If you would like to buy one let me know, operators are standing by.

The Jesus Prayer: Hesychaism for the rest of us
Hesychia is the Greek word often translated into English to mean the spiritual stillness necessary for prayer. Archimandrite Vlachos, in his book Orthodox Psychotherapy, defines a hesychast as, “A person who is struggling in an atmosphere of stillness.”[1] The Philokalia defines hesychia as, “a state of inner tranquility or mental quietude and concentration which arises in conjunction with, and is deepened by, the practice of pure prayer and the guarding of the heart and intellect. Not simply silence, but an attitude of listening to God and of openness towards Him.”[2] This kind of listening prayer is hesychastic because it requires a silencing of the mind. Bishop KALLISTOS says again, “True inner prayer is to stop talking and to listen to the wordless voice of God within our heart; it is to cease doing things on our own and to enter into the action of God.”[3] He further develops the importance of listening in silence as prayer when he says,
To achieve silence: This is of all things the hardest and the most decisive in the art of prayer. Silence is not merely negative – a pause between words, a temporary cessation of speech – but, properly understood, it is highly positive: an attitude of attentive alertness of vigilance, and above all listening. The hesychast, the person who has attained hesychia, inner stillness or silence, is par excellence, the one who listens. He listens to the voice of prayer in his own heart, and he understands that this voice is not his own but that of Another speaking within him.[4]

Some teachers suggest that if we are able, we spend a half hour of wordless sitting, begun by asking God to teach us to pray, or a Bible quote. Usually this is best done in the morning, upon rising or before noon. If the person is able, a block of the some quiet time is also recommended for the evening. Hopefully, all this is worked out with the direction of a spiritual guide.

It is well attested in the Philokalia, and other more modern works on the Jesus Prayer, that there is an automatic component to the prayer where the repeating continues on a sub-conscious level.[5] The Jesus Prayer is the prayer of silent listening where there can be an awareness of God’s presence. This silent attention required to pray the Jesus Prayer can be at times gentle and at other times more akin to a wrestling match.
The Jesus Prayer does not harbor any secrets in itself, nor does its practice reveal any esoteric truths.[20] Instead, as a hesychastic practice, it demands setting the mind apart from rational activities and ignoring the physical senses for the experiential knowledge of God. It stands along with the regular expected actions of the believer (prayer, almsgiving, repentance, fasting etc.) as the response of the Orthodox Tradition to St. Paul’s challenge to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17).[6][9] It is also linked to the Song of Solomon’s passage from the Old Testament: “I sleep, but my heart is awake” (Song of Solomon 5:2) [5]. 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.

[1] Archimandrite Hierotheos Vlachos, Orthodox Psychotherapy: Science of the Fathers. Birth of the Theotokos Monastery: Levadia, Greece. 1994. Page 326.
[2] St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain, The Philokalia: Volume Four. Faber and Faber Limited, London. 1995. Page 435.
[3] KALLISTOS, Page 2.
[4] Bishop KALLISTOS, The Power of the Name: The Jesus Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality. SLG Press, Convent of the Incarnation: Fairacres, Oxford. Page 1. Also found in his Inner Kingdom. St. Vladimir’s Press: Crestwood, NY.2000. Page 97.

The Jesus Prayer: Breathing and Posture
Bishop Kallistos Ware says that by spending only a few moments praying The Jesus Prayer each day, we actually transform all the other remaining moments of the day. In the beginning, there may be no new insights and no pleasant feelings. Was it a waste of time? Not necessarily. By faith, the Christian believes that spending time wanting to pray, and actually praying, does touch a Merciful God. God hears. But we can expect invisible, subtle snares, sent from Satan, precisely because we have been praying with more effort. In a sense, we rouse the enemy to action. St. John Chrysostom says that when we begin to pray we stir the snake to action, and that prayer can lay the snake low.

There is no ascetic effort more difficult, more painful, than the effort to draw close to God, Sophrony tells us. When we begin to pray, we expend desire and effort. The results are up to God. Real prayer is a gift from God, not the payment for our perspiration. Prayer works in the Unseen Warfare as a power/gift from Jesus, given as a function of our ability to receive it. We increase our ability to receive by asking for the increase, and God grants it as He sees fit, in His tender, all sweet and merciful manner.

Breathing and Posture
The Orthodox understanding of the role of the body in prayer rests upon a sound anthropology. The body, soul and spirit act as a single unit, not divided or split up. Therefore, the body has a role in prayer.
Bishop Kallistos Ware says that if we pray the Jesus Prayer for short periods, ten or fifteen minutes at the beginning, then there is no problem matching the words of the prayer to our breath. We are to breath naturally, without playing with the rhythm of the breath. On the inhale, we can say, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God.” On the exhale, we can say, “have mercy on me, a sinner.” We are to breath and pray slowly and reverently and attentively.

The usual position, as recommended is a comfortable sitting position in a chair. Sometimes standing is recommended. Usually the eyes are kept closed. Posture can take many forms, as long as the postures are reverent. Bishop Ware, St. Igantius Brianchaninov and Sophrony all agree, “the fullness of the Jesus Prayer can by practiced without any physical methods at all.”
In summary, it can be said that physical methods are optional and not at all necessary. Physical techniques are more suitable for beginners, says St Gregory Palamas. St. Theophan suggests, “Make a habit of having the intellect stand in the heart, but not in a physical way.”

The Jesus Prayer: Annotated Bibliography and Internet Resources

•Bacovcin, Helen (translator). The Way of the Pilgrim and the Pilgrim Continues His Way, (New York: Image Books, 1992). The story of a pilgrim who after suffering great loss spends his life wandering in the forests visiting monasteries and searching for someone who could teach him to pray without ceasing.
•Bloom, Metropolitan ANTHONY. Living Prayer, (Springfield, IL: Templegate Publishers, 1966). Chapter 6 is devoted to the Jesus Prayer and Metropolitan ANTHONY makes the argument that the Jesus Prayer is a prayer of silence, see especially page 103.
•Brianchaninov, Ignatius. On the Jesus Prayer, (Longmead, Shaftesbury, Dorset: Element Books Limited, 1952). A thorough treatment of the Jesus Prayer with many scriptural and Philokalia references.
•Chariton, Igumen of Valamo. The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, (London: Faber and Faber, 1977). 271 pages of teaching about prayer. Consider especially chapter three.
•Colliander, Tito. Way of the Ascetics, (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988). Chapter 25 in this excellent book is a short meditation on the Jesus Prayer as the way of the cross.
•Gillet, Lev. On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus, (Springfield, IL: Templegate Publishers, 1985). Detailed, practical and contains good historical information.
•Kadloubovsky, E. and G.E.H. Palmer. Writings from the Philokalia On The Prayer of the Heart, (London, Boston: Faber and Faber, 1979). The Philokalia is a collection of writing from the Fathers who reached the highest levels of prayer. The Philokalia along with Scripture is what the Pilgrim in the Way of the Pilgrim carried with him.
•Theophan the Recluse, Editor. Unseen Warfare, (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1990). This is the classic text on prayer in the Orthodox tradition.
•Ware, Bishop Kallistos. The Power of the Name, (Convent of the Incarnation, Fairacres, Oxford: SLG Press, 1986). It is short, excellent and possibly the best book to read for group discussion and training.
•Zaleski, Irma. Living the Jesus Prayer, (Toronto, Canada: Novalis, 1997). This book’s intention is to teach the Jesus Prayer as a healing expression of a relationship with God.

Internet Resources on the Jesus Prayer including the heavily relied on “Saying the Jesus Prayer” by Dr. Albert Rossi
•The Jesus Prayer by Fr. Steven Peter Tsichlis (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America)
•Saying the Jesus Prayer by Albert S Rossi (St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary)
•The Jesus Prayer by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom
•On Practicing the Jesus Prayer by St. Ignatius Brianchaninov
•Introduction to the Jesus Prayer by Mother Alexandra
•Prayer of Jesus or Prayer of the Heart by Archimandrite Fr. Jonah Mourtos
•The Power of the Name by Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia
•An Orthodox Christian Study on Unceasing Prayer by John K. Kotsonis, Ph.D.
•Becoming the Jesus Prayer by Fr. Michael Plekon
•The Jesus Prayer by Ken E. Norian, TSSF
•Hieromonk Ilie Cleopa preaching on the levels of the Prayer of the Heart (video)
•The Psychological Basis of Mental Prayer in the Heart (online book) by Fr. Theophanes (Constantine)
•The Jesus Prayer A site for gazing (English and Greek)
•Russian tradition in worship of God’s Name and the Jesus Prayer (Russian)
•On the Jesus Prayer Greek site in English with practical advice
•“Death to the World” an Orthodox Ascetic Website