This year we are encouraging all the faithful to pray the Jesus Prayer for the duration of the forty day fast leading up to the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Jesus Prayer is an ancient tradition in the Orthodox Church which has its roots in the New Testament but is the prayer that is most suitable for our modern times.
The Jesus prayer is recognised in the Church as a very important form of prayer to help us progress in our spiritual maturity by coming closer to a unity with God.
Some say it is the only prayer we need to learn. The prayer is very simple. It is said like this: ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me’ (some add the words ‘a sinner’ on the end). This prayer can be said by anyone at any time both informally and formally.
Informal prayer is when we say the Jesus Prayer throughout the day. In the beginning we pray it verbally. Whispering it just loud enough for us to hear it, repeating it over and over again. ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me’, ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy one me’. By saying the prayer aloud, so that we can just hear the words, helps our mind concentrate on each of the words. The aim is to say the prayer throughout the whole day at work, university, at home etc. With time a sweet and peaceful state can emerge inside you. Even the mouth can taste a sweetness, as if there were a sweet lolly going around in your mouth, ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me’. If interrupted or distracted from saying the prayer we should immediately endeavour to begin saying it again.
The Jesus Prayer should also be prayed after our morning and/or evening prayer. Immediately after our formal prayer we take the prayer rope in our left hand and standing before our icons, or in a quiet place, begin with the words, ‘Through the prayers of our holy fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ, our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.’
Then begin whispering the Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me’. Repeat the prayer slowly over and over for at least 15 minutes working up to 30 minutes (or for a period suitable to your circumstances).
Concentrate on the words of the prayer with vigour. When you find your mind wanders immediately bring your attention back to the words of the prayer. For each ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me’ we make the sign of the cross with reverence and move forward one knot on our prayer rope. The prayer rope helps us concentrate. When you reach the end of the prayer immediately begin to say it again. Make it a continuous chain. This limits the thoughts from causing distraction between the prayers.
Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov says, ‘at first, the words should be pronounced with extreme unhurriedness so that the mind may have time to enter the words as forms… One must train oneself to it as if one were reading syllables.’
St. John of the Ladder counsels that the mind should be locked into the words of the prayer and should be forced back each time it departs from it.
Do not be disturbed if the words do not role smoothly and are interrupted by thoughts, images, and feelings in the beginning. It takes some effort to tame the mind that is controlled by the brain. Eventually, the words will drop effortlessly into your heart. You need to focus intently and concentrate on the prayer. Avoid images at all times. Do not simultaneously reflect on your day, problems, or past sins.
By continually reciting the prayer it permeates our hearts and focuses our mind. Its impact on us is incredibly powerful. It can transform us from a life as a habitual sinner and bring us closer to being a person who lives united with God’s energies capable of redirecting our will to act in congruence with God’s will.
I pray that your efforts to pray the Jesus Prayer during this Christmas fast are blessed by the Lord abundantly. Let us all remember that, ‘salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved…’ than the name of Jesus (Acts 4:12).