The Jesus Prayer
The Jesus prayer (or the prayer of the Heart and Mind) is a short prayer used mainly in the Eastern Christian Tradition for the purpose of achieving deification and, thus, salvation. This prayer involves the constant repetition of the divine name of Jesus Christ and its most common form consists of seven words: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” The basic idea is that by continuously repeating this small phrase one is able to achieve the stage of unceasing prayer, as suggested by Saint Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. This process works miracles, according to the teachings of Hesychasm, which is a mystical tradition found within the realms of the Orthodox Church, because of invocation of the Holy Name of Jesus Christ that has the power to fight demons and to spiritually cleanse the practitioner (Mathewes-Green 2009). The practice Jesus Prayer is said to consist of five stages: Firstly it is said out loud. Secondly, after some period of time, the practitioner can repeat the prayer mentally. Thirdly, the Mind has completely absorbed the prayer and the prayer is repeated constantly by itself inside the Mind. Fourthly, through the Mind the energy of the prayer is absorbed by the Heart and repeated over and over inside the Heart in a mystical and difficult to express manner. At this stage, the Mind of the practitioner becomes purified and clean of both negative and positive thoughts. According to Hesychasm, this emptiness is full of the grace of God, because the person is now truly humble. Lastly, at the final stage, one can be in complete union with God and perceive the unutterable and apophatic cosmic reality (Johnson 2010).
The Jesus Prayer is usually recited with the help of a prayer rope. In novices, as the Orthodox Church Fathers teach, and under proper guidance, extra techniques can be used for enhancing self-concentration. These include the slight bend of the head, so that the chin touches the left part of the chest, the sitting on a low stool, the closing of the eyes, the holding of breath, the linking of the in-breath to “Lord Jesus Christ” and of the out-breath to “have mercy on me,” the darkening of the room, etc. Under no way should the practitioner try to bring in mind any image, either God or of any person, thing, etc., any shape or any sound, because, according to the apophatic/negative theology behind the Jesus Prayer, the divine nature and reality is beyond words and names and completely without description (Ware 1989).
The practice of invoking the name of Jesus in a repeated prayer is very ancient and difficult to be exactly traced upon. Some say that it was Diadochos of Photike (fifth century) that for the first time introduced this new element in the already existing and much older tradition of unceasing prayer and contemplation. A rather common report is that of St John of the Ladder (seventh century) who stresses the importance of uniting the Jesus prayer with the respiration in order to achieve inner stillness. Another important name in the relative field is that of Symeon the New Theologian (tenth–eleventh century), who is – along with John the Evangelist and St Gregory of Nazianzus (fourth century) – one of the three great Fathers to whom the Eastern Orthodox Church granted the title “Theologian.” Also, Nicephorus the Hesychast, a monk at Mount Athos, which is a mountain and peninsula in northeastern Greece widely known as an important center of Eastern Orthodox monasticism, says that unspeakable joy and delight await the one that has his/her Mind united with the Heart.
It was with Gregory of Sinai (thirteenth–fourteenth century) that the Jesus Prayer was introduced to the Slavic Christendom and with Gregory Palamas (fourteenth century) that it was defended against the teachings of Barlaam of Calabria. Since then, one can find sermons and homilies that stress the importance of Jesus Prayer and its suitability for every christian, not only monks and nuns. This is clearly stated in the works of Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (eighteenth–nineteenth century), who, along with Makarios Notaras (eighteenth–nineteenth century) compiled the writings of 25 Fathers into a book named Philokalia, a greek compound word, meaning love of beauty. A very famous book about the Jesus prayer is called The Way of the Pilgrim and it was written in the nineteenth century by an anonymous Russian author (Dawood 2004). These teachings are expressed very vividly in the works and sayings of Elder Joseph the Hesychast (twentieth century) along with his disciples in Mount Athos (elder Ephraim of Philotheou (twentieth–twenty-first century), elder Ephraim of Vatopedi (eighteenth–nineteenth century), etc.
As we have seen, the Jesus prayer is a method that includes psychosomatic techniques. It is based on the idea that the physical and spiritual aspects of man are interconnected. Surveys can prove that daily practice can help both well-being and spiritual purposes, as well (Rubinart et al. 2016). Specifically, the following changes occur within one’s body immediately after practicing the Jesus Prayer: metabolic rate decreases, blood pressure lowers, heart rate lowers, oxygen consumption declines, muscles relax, brain waves configure into a serene Alpha state. If the prayer is made a habit, it is predicted, as supported, that one will: tolerate stress better, experience less dysphoria, increase longevity, booster immunity, experience more pleasure in living, mitigate or reverse brain deterioration, and feel closer to God (Zeiders 2013). Another survey suggests that the practice of Jesus prayer may affect a person’s well-being and relationships, including that person’s perceived relationship with God (Stavros 1998). Another survey suggested that the Jesus prayer can help cope conflicts, enhance mindfulness skills and a better connection with one’s subconscious (Rubinart et al. 2016).
- Dawood, B. (2004). The official website of the Choir of: The heritage of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Retrieved September 18, 2018, from http://www.copticheritage.org/orthodoxy/tradition_of_the_jesus_prayer.
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- Stavros, G. S. (1998). An empirical study of the impact of contemplative prayer on psychological, relational, and spiritual Well-being. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences, 59(2-A), 0528.Google Scholar
- Ware, K. (1989). The power of the name: The Jesus prayer in Orthodox spirituality. Oxford: SLG Press.Google Scholar
- Zeiders, C. (2013). DrCharlesZeiders. Retrieved September 18, 2018, from https://drzeiders.com/religion-and-spirituality/the-psychophysiology-of-the-jesus-prayer/.