Article of the week: The Jesus Prayer
17 October 2020
Major Martin Hill continues the series in which people reflect on a favourite prayer
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
A GOOD prayer is like a good friend. It’s your companion when life scowls as well as when it smiles. It’s more than carefully chosen words you speak aloud or silently. That would make it a mere object, something to be heard or observed. At its best it’s a relationship: you allow it to enter your life and become part of you as you become part of it, mutually absorbed.
The Jesus Prayer has been a friend and companion to many people over the centuries. Its roots go back to the desert fathers and desert mothers in Egypt in the 5th century. Its tradition has been nurtured in Eastern Orthodox churches through subsequent centuries, although it has become familiar to other traditions.
I first encountered the prayer about 20 years ago through reading the book The Way Of A Pilgrim, the story of a 19th-century Russian peasant’s quest for the secret of prayer. His discovery of the Jesus Prayer helps him fulfil St Paul’s encouragement to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thessalonians 5:17 King James Version) through its frequent repetition.
I adopted the prayer as my own for several months in an attempt to dig deep for spiritual treasure to offset my poverty. I recited it on my evening run; sometimes the whole prayer, but more usually taking a phrase or just a word, repeating it to explore and encounter its meaning. The rhythm of the run matched the rhythm of the prayer.
Then, for several years, the prayer and I drifted apart. But we have recently renewed our acquaintance. Now I want to recommit myself to it.
Encountering the Jesus Prayer I recognise four ways it can relate to me:
MY ACT OF FAITH
To say this prayer I need to know whom I am addressing and my relationship with him. It requires me to believe in Jesus, that he is the Christ and Son of God.
My relationship with him is not only doctrinal but confessional: he is my Lord. Without recognising his lordship the prayer loses its meaning. By praying it I am expressing an act of faith. It also defines who I am: a sinner, human, imperfect and incomplete.
MY SPIRITUAL TEACHER AND MENTOR
The prayer shapes what I think, feel and believe. The more time spent in its company, repeating it slowly and continually, the more influence it has upon me.
Its words pass from my lips – whether spoken aloud or silently recited – to my heart. I allow the prayer to be my teacher and mentor, shaping my feelings and intentions. The words return from the heart to the lips invested with personal meaning. Each word of the prayer can be recited, explored and pondered for significance, adding its own nuance.
Every prayer tells a story. This has at least two. ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy’ is the story of Jesus Christ, his divinity, humanity and eternity. ‘Have mercy on me, a sinner’, if truly embraced, taps into my personal story, past and present.
The Lord and I are two characters in a drama, each with a backstory. Our stories interact, each informing and relevant to the other. Our lives do not exist independently of one another.
This is a prayer of healing. ‘Have mercy on me, a sinner’ reminds us of the story of the tax collector in the Temple, aware of his imperfections and unworthiness (see Luke 18:13). The mercy he prayed for was legalistic. He was asking for grace instead of receiving his deserved punishment from an accusing God. This interpretation suits the Western Christian mindset.
However, the words ‘a sinner’ were not included in the original prayer but added later. The Gospels provide examples of others pleading with Jesus to have mercy. They include desperate men begging for their sight (see Matthew 9:27 and 20:30) and distraught parents pleading on behalf of their demon-possessed children (see Matthew 15:22 and 17:15).
Their anguished pleas for mercy represent their final hope. The mercy requested is healing from a restoring God, a plea for health and wholeness not absolution from sins. Applied to the Jesus Prayer, this interpretation matches the understanding of the Eastern Orthodox traditions and our desire for spiritual and physical health.
I commend the Jesus Prayer to you. It can be your good friend and honest companion and is available to guide 21st-century pilgrims on their way. Why not walk a few steps in its company?
MAJOR HILL IS DIVISIONAL COMMANDER, CENTRAL EAST