Home Essays Articles by Michael Whelan SM, PhD An Introduction to the Jesus Prayer

An Introduction to the Jesus Prayer

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. (1Thessalonians 5:16-19)

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”[1]

This is an ancient prayer with its roots in the Christian Scriptures. Very early in the tradition there developed the practice of repeating a word or brief phrase, often taken from the Psalms. For example, John Cassian,[2] in his well-known Tenth Conference, recommends the repetition of “O God come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help me” (Psalm 70:1). Such a practice was intended to keep alive one’s awareness of God and availability to God, and to seek protection from the Evil One. Thus Macarius of Sketis (d c 390), said:

There is no need to lose oneself in speaking. It is enough to hold out one’s hands and say: ‘Lord, as you know and will: Have mercy!’ If the combat presses hard, say: ‘To the rescue!’ God knows what is needful for you and will have pity on you.[3]

In the form above, the Jesus Prayer dates from about the middle of the 5th century. It is a cry from the heart that is at once an acclamation of faith in the victory of God in Jesus Christ, a cry for mercy, a defence against any evil force and a profound expression of hope.

The words are important therefore. The content is the content of the Good News. However, far more important is the disposition of the one who utters those words in her or his heart. Mary’s response to the Angel is a good model:

The angel said to her ” …. nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”[4]

The Jesus Prayer is pre-eminently a prayer of the heart. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me is an expression of one’s inmost being. The speaking is both an expression and a facilitator of the radical disposition of surrender to God and the expectation of the mercy that will make us whole:

The Abbot Evagrius said:Tormented by the thoughts and passions of the body, I went to find the Abbot Macarius. I said to him: ‘My father, give me a word that I may live by it’. Then Macarius said to me: ‘Attach the rope of the anchor to the rock and, by God’s grace, the ship will cross the diabolic waves of the deceptive sea and the tempest of the darkness of this vain world’. I said to him: ‘What is the ship, what is the rope, what is the rock?’ The Abbot Macarius said to me: “The boat is your heart: guard it. The rope is your spirit: attach it to our Lord Jesus Christ who is the rock that has power over all the diabolic waves and surges that the saints are contending with; for is it not easy to say with each breath: Our Lord Jesus, the Christ, have mercy on me; I bless You, my Lord Jesus, help me?[5]

In Psalm 6:2 (NKJV) we hear the psalmist cry out: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am weak.” In Luke’s Gospel we hear the blind man cry out: “Son of David, have mercy on me!” (see Luke 18:36-43); in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians we read: “God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name … at the name of Jesus every knee should bend” (see 2:5-11); St Paul urges us to pray without ceasing (see 1Thessalonians 5:16-19).

The Orthodox tradition kept this practice of the Jesus Prayer alive. In the 19th century a book was published in Russia describing a Russian peasant’s use of the Jesus Prayer. That book was translated into English in 1931 as The Way of a Pilgrim. J D Salinger’s short story, “Franny”, in his best-selling book, Franny and Zoey, drew attention in the West to The Way of a Pilgrim and with it the Jesus Prayer. In the first chapter of that book we read the following instruction concerning the Jesus Prayer, given by an old monk to the young man who wishes to learn “unceasing prayer” (see 1 Thessalonians 5:17):

Then the old man crossed himself and spoke. ‘Thank God, my dear brother, for having revealed to you this unappeasable desire for unceasing interior prayer. Recognize in it the call of God, and calm yourself. Rest assured that what has hitherto been accomplished in you is the testing of the harmony of your own will with the voice of God. It has been granted to you to understand that the heavenly light of unceasing interior prayer is attained neither by the wisdom of this world, nor by the mere outward desire for knowledge, but that on the contrary it is found in poverty of spirit and in active experience in simplicity of heart. That is why it is not surprising that you have been unable to hear anything about the essential work of prayer, and to acquire the knowledge by which ceaseless activity in it is attained.

Doubtless a great deal has been preached about prayer, and there is much about it in the teaching of various writers. But since for the most part all their reasonings are based upon speculation and the working of natural wisdom, and not upon active experience, they sermonize about the qualities of prayer, rather than about the nature of the thing itself. One argues beautifully about the necessity of prayer, another about its power and the blessings which attend it, a third again about the things which lead to perfection in prayer, i.e., about the absolute necessity of zeal, an attentive mind, warmth of heart, purity of thought, reconciliation with one’s enemies, humility, contrition, and so on. But what is prayer? And how does one learn to pray? Upon these questions, primary and essential as they are, one very rarely gets any precise enlightenment from present-day preachers. For these questions are more difficult to understand than all their arguments that I have just spoken of, and require mystical knowledge, not simply the learning of the schools. And the most deplorable thing of all is that the vain wisdom of the world compels them to apply the human standard to the divine.

Many people reason quite the wrong way round about prayer, thinking that good actions and all sorts of preliminary measures render us capable of prayer. But quite the reverse is the case, it is prayer which bears fruit in good works and all the virtues. Those who reason so, take, incorrectly, the fruits and the results of prayer for the means of attaining it, and this is to depreciate the power of prayer. And it is quite contrary to Holy Scripture, for the Apostle Paul says, “I exhort therefore that first of all supplications be made” (1 Timothy ii. 1). The first thing laid down in the Apostle’s words about prayer is that the work of prayer comes before everything else: “I exhort therefore that first of all …” The Christian is bound to perform many good works, but before all else what he ought to do is to pray, for without prayer no other good work whatever can be accomplished. Without prayer he cannot find the way to the Lord, he cannot understand the truth, he cannot crucify the flesh with its passions and lusts, his heart cannot be enlightened with the light of Christ, he cannot be savingly united to God. None of those things can be effected unless they are preceded by constant prayer. I say “constant,” for the perfection of prayer does not lie within our power; as the Apostle Paul says, “For we know not what we should pray for as we ought” (Romans viii. 26). Consequently it is just to pray often, to pray always, which falls within our power as the means of attaining purity of prayer, which is the mother of all spiritual blessings. “Capture the Mother, and she will bring you the children,” said St Isaac the Syrian. Learn first to acquire the power of prayer and you will easily practise all the other virtues. But those who know little of this from practical experience and the profoundest teaching of the holy Fathers, have no clear knowledge of it and speak of it but little.’

During this talk, we had almost reached the monastery. And so as not to lose touch with this wise old man, and to get what I wanted more quickly, I hastened to say, ‘Be so kind, Reverend Father, as to show me what prayer without ceasing means and how it is learnt. I see you know all about these things.’ He took my request kindly and asked me into his cell. ‘Come in,’ said he; ‘I will give you a volume of the holy Fathers from which with God’s help you can learn about prayer clearly and in detail.’ We went into his cell and he began to speak as follows. ‘The continuous interior Prayer of Jesus is a constant uninterrupted calling upon the divine Name of Jesus with the lips, in the spirit, in the heart; while forming a mental picture of His constant presence, and imploring His grace, during every occupation, at all times, in all places, even during sleep. The appeal is couched in these terms, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” One who accustoms himself to this appeal experiences as a result so deep a consolation and so great a need to offer the prayer always, that he can no longer live without it, and it will continue to voice itself within him of its own accord.

Now do you understand what prayer without ceasing is?’ ‘Yes indeed, Father, and in God’s name teach me how to gain the habit of it,’ I cried, filled with joy. ‘Read this book,’ he said. ‘It is called The Philokalia, and it contains the full and detailed science of constant interior prayer, set forth by twenty-five holy Fathers. The book is marked by a lofty wisdom and is so profitable to use that it is considered the foremost and best manual of the contemplative spiritual life. As the revered Nicephorus said, “It leads one to salvation without labour and sweat.”‘ ‘Is it then more sublime and holy than the Bible?’ I asked. ‘No, it is not that. But it contains clear explanations of what the Bible holds in secret and which cannot be easily grasped by our short-sighted understanding. I will give you an illustration. The sun is the greatest, the most resplendent and the most wonderful of heavenly luminaries, but you cannot contemplate and examine it simply with unprotected eyes. You have to use a piece of artificial glass which is many millions of times smaller and darker than the sun. But through this little piece of glass you can examine the magnificent monarch of stars, delight in it, and endure its fiery rays. Holy Scripture also is a dazzling sun, and this book, The Philokalia, is the piece of glass which we use to enable us to contemplate the sun in its imperial splendour.

Listen now, I am going to read you the sort of instruction it gives on unceasing interior prayer.’ He opened the book, found the instruction by St Simeon the New Theologian, and read: ‘Sit down alone and in silence. Lower your head, shut your eyes, breathe out gently and imagine yourself looking into your own heart. Carry your mind, i.e., your thoughts, from your head to your heart. As you breathe out, say “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Say it moving your lips gently, or simply say it in your mind. Try to put all other thoughts aside. Be calm, be patient, and repeat the process very frequently.’[6]

The words of the Jesus Prayer vary. Sometimes you will find it as above – “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” – sometimes as “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”, sometimes as “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” and sometimes simply “Jesus mercy”. There is no one set of words.

The one word that is crucial is the name, “Jesus”. The one intention that is crucial is the cry for mercy. We all need God’s healing mercy and Jesus is the embodiment of Eternal Mercy. Three great 20th century prophetic voices remind us of our radical need for God’s healing mercy – Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Thomas Merton and Jean Vanier:

It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either ‑‑ but right through every human heart…. Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: they struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety but it is possible to constrict it within each person. And since that time I have come to understand the falsehood of all revolutions in history: they destroy only those carriers of evil contemporary with them (and also fail, out of haste, to discriminate the carriers of good as well). And they then take to themselves as their heritage the actual evil itself, magnified still more[7].

Do you want to know God? Then learn to understand the weaknesses and imperfections of other men. But how can you understand the weaknesses of others unless you understand your own? And how can you see the meaning of your own limitations until you have received mercy from God by which you know yourself and Him?[8]

I discovered something which I had never confronted before, that there were immense forces of darkness and hatred within my own heart. At particular moments of fatigue or stress, I saw forces of hate rising up inside me, and the capacity to hurt someone who was weak and was provoking me! That, I think, was what caused me the most pain: to discover who I really am, and to realize that maybe I did not want to know who I really was! I did not want to admit all the garbage inside me. And then I had to decide whether I would just continue to pretend that I was okay and throw myself into hyperactivity, projects where I could forget all the garbage and prove to others how good I was. Elitism is the sickness of us all. We all want to be on the winning team. That is the heart of apartheid and every form of racism. The important thing is to become conscious of those forces in us and to work at being liberated from them and to discover that the worst enemy is inside our own hearts not outside![9]

To utter the name of Jesus in faith is to recognise God in the world, active among us, loving us into freedom. It is also to say “Yes!” t that and make oneself available to be an instrument of that. It is at once an expression and nurturing of the desire to submit to the ways of God embodied in Jesus Christ, to seek the healing touch of Love for ourselves and the world, to be the place where God becomes real at this time.

Those who make a practice of speaking the Jesus Prayer in this way will be slowly transformed into the Christ – “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:19) – a unique embodiment of God in the world.

Breathing and the Jesus Prayer

Mostly we take breathing for granted. However, if we become still and listen and pay attention to our breathing – its strong, gentle, quiet and persistent rhythm – it can open us to a world of peace and depth, silence and joy. Awareness of breathing can connect us to the very Ground of our being.

In our Catholic tradition we speak of sacramentality. The notion of sacramentality says that everything points beyond itself, all that exists carries within itself the “more than” – in the temporal is the eternal, in the material is the spiritual, in the human is the divine, in human words is the Divine Word. Gerard Manley Hopkins captures that sense of sacramentality beautifully in his poem, “The Grandeur of God”: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God …. Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”

Breathing is sacramental. Your breathing, my breathing, everyone’s breathing, everything’s breathing.

In the Book of Genesis God “breathes” humanity into existence (see Genesis 2:7 below). Breath and breathing are signs of life and it all points back to the Creator. Listen to the following texts:

Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground[10], and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)

‘Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’ So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. (Ezekiel 37:5-10)

“Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150:6)

“When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your spirit (breath), they are created; and you renew the face of the earth.” (Psalm 104:29:30)

Their heart is ashes, their hope is cheaper than dirt, and their lives are of less worth than clay, because they failed to know the one who formed them and inspired them with active souls and breathed a living spirit into them. (Wisdom 15:10-11)

For (Wisdom) is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.(Wisdom 7:25-26)

…. and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. (Ecclesiastes 12:7)

But truly it is the spirit in a mortal, the breath of the Almighty, that makes for understanding. (Job 32:8)

Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’. (John 20:21-22)

Not much was made of this in the Christian tradition, with the exception of the so-called Hesychasts in the Orthodox tradition of the 13th and 14th centuries.

The word Hesychasm comes from the Greek word hesychia (ἡσυχία), meaning stillness, rest, quiet, silence. The word has had various applications over the centuries in the Orthodox tradition. From the 4th century it has been used to simply mean a solitary life, such as a hermit might live. The spiritual guides, Evagrius Ponticus (345-399), Maximus the Confessor (580-662) and Symeon the New Theologian, all used it to speak of a way of praying beyond words, images and concepts. Diadochus of Photiki (mid-5th century) used it to describe the use of the Jesus prayer. [11]

Irénée Hausherr citest the 7th century monk, John Climacus:

When you unite the memory of Jesus with your breathing, then you will know the benefit of hesychia.[12]

Hausherr goes on to say that

the expression ‘let the name of Jesus be united to your breath’ has a history that is older than Climacus …. and it continued long after (him). The meaning seems plain enough, especially when seen in its full context. The great sin for a hesychast was to interrupt his prayer, his memory of God, his awareness of God’s presence, his adoration. The ‘name of Jesus’ here has the same broad meaning as in Diadochus and similar writers. It would be a misunderstanding to think that it means repeating the two or three syllables (depending on the language) of the word ‘Jesus’. A good paraphrase would be: ‘With every breath remember Jesus’ or ‘Renew the memory of Jesus as often as you breathe’.[13]

A later author – simply known as Hesychius – borrowed the phrase from Climacus, “let the name of Jesus be yoked to your breath”, and gave it particular emphasis, though still, in the opinion of Hausherr, spoke only metaphorically about such a connection. Hausherr writes:

Hesychius wrote: ‘Attention and incessant hesychia of the heart …. and God himself.’ He spoke of the Jesus prayer clinging to the breath, and of the soul clinging to the Jesus Prayer, breathing the power and wisdom of God the Father who is Jesus Christ. Then he put it even more strongly: ‘To the breath of your nostrils unite attention (nepsis) and the name of Jesus, as well as meditation on death and complete humility. All these things will be of great profit.’ ‘Truly happy is the man in whom the Jesus Prayer clings to the power of thought and who calls on him continually in his heart, in the way that our body is united to the atmosphere or a flame to the candle wick’.[14]

Beginning in the 13th century reference to breathing was taken up more literally. The term hesychasm was used to describe a way of praying the Jesus Prayer in conjunction with breathing techniques. St Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) was a strong defender of this way of praying. St Gregory writes:

You see, brother, that not only spiritual, but general human reasoning shows the need to recognise it as imperative that those who wish to belong to themselves, and to be truly monks in their inner man, should lead the mind inside the body and hold it there. It is not out of place to teach even beginners to keep attention in themselves and to accustom themselves to introduce the mind within through breathing. (Emphasis added.) For no one who thinks rightly would dissuade those who have not yet attained contemplation, from using certain methods to lead the mind into itself. In those who have not long undertaken this work the mind, when collected within, often jumps out, so that, just as often, they have at once to bring it back; but in those who are not practised in this work, the mind again slips away, since it is extremely mobile and hard to hold by attention to singleness of contemplation. Hence some advise them to refrain from breathing fast, but to restrain their breath somewhat, so that, together with their breath, they may also hold the mind inside, until, with God’s help, through training, they accustom the mind not to go out into its surroundings and mingle with them, and make it strong enough to concentrate upon one thing. However, this (restraining of the breath) naturally follows attention of mind (or accompanies it) as anyone can see; for if one meditates deeply on something, the breath goes in and out slowly, especially in those who are silent in body and spirit. For these, keeping spiritual Sabbath and resting from all their activities, as far as is fitting, suspend the diversified movements of the powers of the soul, especially in relation to collecting information, to all sensory receptivity and, in general, to all movements of the body, which are in our control.

All this is natural to those who are advanced in silence; for when the soul enters completely into itself, this all comes naturally of necessity, without effort or special care. But to beginners nothing of this is possible without strenuous work.[15]

An Exercise

1. Be still and become aware of your breathing – do not try to breath, just let it happen. Be in that awareness for a minute or two. Enjoy the sense of relaxation and peace it brings with it. It might help to say gently with each inward breath, “Breathing in” or simply “in” and with each outward breath, “Breathing out” or simply “out”. Let your breathing absorb your entire attention.

2. When you are at rest and settled within yourself, there is a momentary stillness at the end of the outward breath. We may regard that as a natural contemplative moment. It is as if our breathing keeps taking us back to the Source of all breath and then pauses, so we can remember who and what we are. There are no words necessary – or even possible – in this natural contemplative moment.

3. Remaining physically still, gently repeat the Jesus Prayer letting your breathing carry the words – and you – into that contemplative moment at the end of each outward breath:

a. On the first outward breath say, “Lord Jesus Christ”

b. On the second outward breath say, “Son of God”

c. On the third outward breath say, “Have mercy on me”

4. Stay gently with this process, letting your exhaled breaths carry the words in that way for say 10-20 minutes – or longer when you become practiced at it. You might find it useful to intersperse the breathing and the words, with the breathing on its own.

This particular exercise,[16] using the Jesus Prayer, is obviously meant for a specific time and place. More generally, as we read in The Way of a Pilgrim, the Jesus Prayer is meant to become part of our very beings so that it is there, all the time in every situation. It becomes a constant prayer of the heart. We may also deliberately say it in times of stress or confusion or where special protection from the forces of evil is needed or wisdom or courage is required.

Saint Nikiphorous and the Jesus Prayer

“Some of the saints have called attentiveness the guarding of the intellect; others have called it custody of the heart, or watchfulness, or noetic stillness, and others something else. All these expressions indicate one and the same thing, just as ‘bread’ and ‘a round’ or ‘a slice’ do; and you should read them in this sense. As to what attentiveness itself is and what its characteristics are, this you can now learn in more detail.

“Attentiveness is the sign of true repentance. It is the soul’s restoration …. And return to God. It is rejection of sin and recovery of virtue. It is the unreserved assurance that our sins are forgiven. It is the beginning of contemplation or, rather, its presupposition, for through it …. God reveals Himsef to the intellect. It is serenity of intellect or, rather, the repose of the soul bestowed by God’s mercy. It is the subjection of our thoughts, the palace of the mindfulness f God, the stronghold that enables us patient to accept all that befalls. It is the ground of faith, hope and love. ….

“You know that what we breathe is air. When we exhale it, it is for the heart’s sake, for the heart is the source of life and warmth for the body. The heart draws towards itself the air inhaled when breathing, s that by discharging some of its heat when the air is exhaled it may maintain an even temperature. The cause of this process or, rather its agent, are the lungs. The Creator has made these capable of expanding and contracting, like bellows, so that they can easily draw in and expel their contents. Thus, by taking in coolness and expelling heat through breathing, the heart performs unobstructed the function for which t was created, that of maintaining life.

“Seat yourself, then, concentrate your intellect, and lead it into the respiratory passage through which your breath passes into your heart. Put pressure on your intellect and compel it to descend with your inhaled breath into your heart.[17] Once it has entered there, what follows will be neither dismal nor glum. Just as a man, after being far away from home, on his return is overjoyed at being with his wife and children again, so the intellect, once it is united with the soul, is filled with indescribable delight.

“Therefore …. Train your intellect not to leave your heart quickly, for at first it is strongly disinclined to remain constrained and circumscribed in this way. But once it becomes accustomed to remaining there, it can no longer bear to be outside the heart. For the kingdom of heaven is within us (c Luke 17:21); …. If, then, after your first attempts you enter through your intellect into the abode o the heart in the way I have explained, give thanks and glory to God, and exul in Him. Continually persevere in this practice and it will teach you what you do not know.

“Moreover, when your intellect is firmly established in your heart, it must not remain there silent and idle; it should constantly repeat and meditate on the prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’, and should never stop doing this. For this prayer protects the intellect from distraction, renders it impregnable to diabolic attacks, and every day increases its love and desire for God.

“If, however, in spite of all your efforts you are not able to enter the realms of the heart in the way I have enjoined, do what I now tell you and with God’s help you will find what you seek. You know that everyone’s discursive faculty is centred in his breast; for when our lips are silent we speak and deliberate and formulate prayers, psalms and other things in our breast. Banish then, all thoughts from this faculty – and you can do this if you want to – and in their place put the prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’, and compel it to repeat this prayer ceaselessly. If you continue to do this for some time, it will assuredly open for you the entrance to your heart in the way we have explained, and as we ourselves know from experience.

“Then, along with the attentiveness you have so wished for, the whole choir of the virtues – love, joy, peace and the others (cf Gal 5:22) – will come to you. Through the virtues all your petitions will be answered in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whim with the Father and the Holy Spirit be glory, power, honour and worship now and always and throughout the ages. Amen”[18]

St. Gregory Palamas and the Jesus Prayer[19]

How all Christians in general must pray without ceasing

Let no one think, my brother and sister-Christians, that it is the duty only of priests and monks to pray without ceasing, and not of lay people. No, no; it is the duty of all of us Christians to remain always in prayer. For look what the most holy Patriarch of Constantinople, Philotheus, writes in his life of St. Gregory of Thessalonica. This saint had a beloved friend by the name of Job, a very simple but most virtuous man. Once, while conversing with him, His Eminence said of prayer that every Christian in general should strive to pray always, and to pray without ceasing, as Apostle Paul commands all Christians, ‘Pray without ceasing’ (1Thessalonians 5:17), and as the prophet David says of himself, although he was a king and had to concern himself with his whole kingdom: ‘I foresaw the Lord always before my face’ (Psalm 15:8), that is, in my prayer I always mentally see the Lord before me. Gregory the Theologian also teaches all Christians to say God’s name in prayer more often than to breathe . . . .

So, my Christian brethren, I too implore you, together also with St. Chrysostom, for the sake of saving your souls, do not neglect the practice of this prayer. Imitate those I have mentioned and follow in their footsteps as far as you can. At first it may appear very difficult to you, but be assured, as it were from Almighty God, that this very name of our Lord Jesus Christ, constantly invoked by you, will help you to overcome all difficulties, and in the course of time you will become used to this practice, and willtaste how sweet is the name of the Lord. Then you will learn by experience that this practice is not impossible and not difficult, but both possible and easy. This is why St. Paul, who knew better than we the great good which such prayer could bring, commanded us to pray without ceasing. He would not have imposed this obligation upon us if it were extremely difficult and impossible, for he knew beforehand that in such case, having no possibility of fulfilling it, we would inevitably prove to be disobedient and would transgress his commandment, thus incurring blame and condemnation. The Apostle could have had no such intention.

Moreover, bear in mind the method of prayer – how it is possible to pray without ceasing, namely by praying in the mind. And this we can always do if we so wish. For when we sit down to work with our hands, when we walk, when we eat, when we drink we can always pray mentally and practise this mental prayer – the true prayer pleasing to God. Let us work with the body and pray with the soul. Let our outer man perform his bodily tasks, and let the inner man be entirely dedicated to the service of God, never abandoning this spiritual practice of mental prayer, as Jesus, God and Man, commanded us, saying: ‘But you, when you pray, enter into your room, and when you have shut thy door, pray to thy Father who is in secret’ (Matthew 6:6). The room of the soul is the body; our doors are the five bodily senses. The soul enters its room when the mind does not wander hither and thither, roaming among things and affairs of the world, but stays within, in our heart. Our senses become closed and remain closed when we do not let them be attached to external sensory things, and in this way our mind remains free from every worldly attachment, and by secret mental prayer unites with God its Father.

‘And thy Father who sees in secret will reward you openly,’ adds the Lord. God who knows all secret things sees mental prayer and rewards it openly with great gifts. For that prayer is true and perfect which fills the soul with Divine grace and spiritual gifts. As chrism perfumes the jar the more strongly the tighter it is closed, so prayer, the more fast it is in1prisoned in the heart, abounds the more in Divine grace.

Blessed are those who acquire the habit of this heavenly practice, for by it they overcome every temptation of the evil demons, as David overcame the proud Goliath. It extinguishes the unruly lusts of the flesh, as the three men extinguished the flames of the furnace. This practice of inner prayer tames passions as Daniel tamed the wild beasts. By it the dew of the Holy Spirit is brought down upon the heart, as Elijah brought down rain on Mount Carmel.

…. Angels have no physical voice, but mentally never cease to sing glory to God. This is their sole occupation and all their life is dedicated to this. So, brothers and sisters, when you enter your room and close your door, that is, when your mind is not darting hither and thither but enters within your heart, and your senses are confined and barred against things of this world, and when you pray thus always, you too are then like the holy angels, and your Father, Who sees your prayer in secret, which you bring Him in the hidden depths of your heart, will reward you openly by great spiritual gifts. But what other and greater rewards can you wish from this when, as I said, you are mentally always before the face of God and are constantly conversing with Him – conversing with God, without Whom no man can ever be blessed either here or in another life?

Finally, my brothers and sisters, whoever you may be, when you take up this book and, having read it, wish to test in practice the profit which mental prayer brings to the soul, I beg you, when you begin to pray thus, pray God with one invocation, ‘Lord have mercy,’ for the soul of him who has worked on compiling this book and of him who helped to give it to the public. For they have great need of your prayer to receive God’s mercy for their soul, as you for yours. May it be so! May it be so! (From Early Fathers from the Philokalia, translated by E Kadloubovsky and G E H Palmer, Faber and Faber, 1954/1976, 412-415.)

You are strongly urged to study the booklet: Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Power of the Name: The Jesus Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality. This booklet is available from the Aquinas Academy for $10 + $2 postage. Buy more than 5 copies and receive a 20% discount.

You might also find The Way of a Pilgrim (translated by R M French), a fruitful book to read.

Thomas Merton and the Jesus Prayer

Thomas Merton had a high regard for the Jesus Prayer. In his journal he records on January 31 1950 – his 35th birthday – that Hesychasm has been his latest discovery. Merton has a brief reflection on the Jesus Prayer and its value in the Introduction to his Contemplative Prayer In an essay entitled “Mount Athos” he writes: “In practice, the hesychast ‘way of contemplation’ is simply a method of recollection which relies on slow, rhythmical breathing and silent repetition of an aspiratory prayer like ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner’.” (Thomas Merton, Disputed Questions, A Harvest/HBJ Book, 1953/1985, 78.) See also “Russian Mystics” in Thomas Merton, Mystics and Zen Masters, The Noonday Press, 1961/1989, 178-187. In this last article he refers to The Way of a Pilgrim as “surely one of the great classics of the literature of prayer”. That said, Merton did warn against “overdoing the Jesus Prayer” – see his letter to Fr Thomas Fidelis of June 29, 1963 in The School of Charity: Letters on Religious Renewal and Spiritual Direction, edited by Br Patrick Hart, A Harvest/HBJ Book, 1990, 176-77.


[1] There are variations on the words to the Jesus Prayer which we will discuss later.

[2] John Cassian (360-435) As a young adult he and an older friend, Germanus, traveled to Palestine, where they entered a hermitage near Bethlehem. After remaining in that community for about three years, they went to the desert of Scete in Egypt, where they visited a number of monastic foundations. They lived with the Desert Fathers until about 399. Around 415 he established a place for monks along the lines of the Desert Fathers in Marseilles. His foundation, the Abbey of St Victor, was a complex of monasteries for both men and women, one of the first such institutes in the West, and served as a model for later monastic development. Cassian’s achievements and writings influenced St Benedict, who incorporated many of the principles into his monastic rule, and recommended to his own monks that they read the works of Cassian.

[3] Cited by Louis Bouyer, The Spirituality of the New Testament, Crossroad Book, 1963, 376.

[4] Luke 1:37-38.

[5] Evagrius of Pontus (Ponticus), cited by Louis Bouyer, A History of Christian Spirituality, Volume 1, The Seabury Press, 1963, 377). Evagrius (345-399 AD) was a Christian monk and ascetic. One of the rising stars in the late fourth-century church, he was well known as a keen thinker, a polished speaker, and a gifted writer. He left a promising ecclesiastical career in Constantinople, traveled to Jerusalem, and there in 383 became a monk at the monastery of Rufinus and Melania the Elder. He then went to Egypt and spent the remaining years of his life in Nitria and Kellia, marked by years of asceticism and writing. He was a disciple of several influential contemporary church leaders, including Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Macarius of Egypt. He was teacher of others, including John Cassian

[6] [R.M French, (2012-01-20). The Way of a Pilgrim: and the Pilgrim Continues his Way (Kindle Locations 234-254). SPCK. Kindle Edition.]

[7]Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, III‑IV, pp.615‑6­16.

[8] Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island, Shambhala, 2005, 227.

[9] Jean Vanier, From Brokenness to Community, Paulist Press, 1992, 19.

[10]Or “formed a man (Hebrew adam) of dust from the ground” (Hebrew adamah).

[11] For a good discussion of the meaning of the term, see Kallistos Ware, “Silence in Prayer: The Meaning of Hesychia” in Merton & Hesychasm: The Prayer of the Heart, edited by Bernadette Dieker and Jonathan Montado, Fons Vitae, 2003, 17-40.

[12] Cited in Irénée Hausherr, The Name of Jesus, Cistercian Publications, 1978, 281.

[13] Op cit, 282.

[14] Op cit, 289-290.

[15] St Gregory Palamas in E Kadloubovsky and G E H Palmer, translators, Early Fathers from the Philokalia, Christian Classics,1954/1976, 405.

[16] Obviously there is more than one way to unite your breathing with the Jesus Prayer. For example, a contemporary monk, Fr Lazarus of St Anthony’s monastery in Egypt, says: “So if you are breathing, ‘Lord Jesus Christ,’ you taken in, you breathe in with your breath the name of the Lord; you hold it and take God into yourself. When you confess your sins, when you confess as Peter confessed, ‘You are the Lord,’ then you confess your sins, ‘have mercy on me’; you breathe them out. This is a marriage of body and soul. This is a purification of your body by prayer. It is already an accelerated way of silence because you arrive at a point where your mind is still because it is surrendered to Jesus.” (Norris J Chumley, Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer, Harper One, 2011, 59 & 61.)

[17] When used as a metaphor, “heart” for these authors means “the spiritual centre of the human person viewed as a unified whole; the heart is …. Where all the powers of the soul reside”. (See Introductory Note, The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Volume IV, translated from the Greek and edited by G E H Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware, Faber & Faber, 1995, 65.

[18] Saint Nikiphorous in The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Volume IV, translated from the Greek and edited by G E H Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware, Faber & Faber, 1995, 204-206.

[19] This text, considerably abridged here, terminates both the Greek and Russian versions. A section of it draws on Philotheus’ Life of Palamas; the renlainder appears to have been written by one of the compilers of the Greek Philokalia. (Translators’ note.)