Thursday, 29 September 2005

The Jesus Prayer 2

Last time, we talked about the Jesus Prayer without saying what it was. So let’s do that now. In its most basic form, the Jesus Prayer is the following prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’ There are variations, but nowadays this is the standard form of the Prayer. Now what makes this prayer so special? Monks recite this prayer twenty-four hours a day! Now that’s pretty odd. Don’t monks sleep? They recite the prayer in their sleep! We can see that something very odd is involved here. If monks can recite prayers in their sleep…

Let’s look at the content of the prayer before getting into this mystery of monks reciting prayers in their sleep.

The first word of the Jesus Prayer is ‘Lord’. The person praying the Jesus Prayer is addressing Jesus Christ as Lord. The person praying the Jesus Prayer has the relationship to Jesus Christ of a servant to his Lord. Next, Jesus Christ is addressed as ‘Son of God’. When he is praying the Jesus Prayer, the person praying the Jesus Prayer confesses that Jesus Christ is the Word of God made flesh. He confesses the divinity of Jesus Christ. (We Orthodox believe that Jesus Christ also had a full human nature.) Next, the person praying the Jesus Prayer asks Jesus Christ to have mercy on him. In this petition is summed up all the person’s needs, both spiritual and material. Next, the person praying the Jesus Prayer confesses to Jesus Christ that he is a sinner. We Orthodox do not believe that while he is on earth a person is ever ‘saved’ in such a way that he can ever forget that he is a sinner. Until our last breath we have the relationship to Jesus Christ of a sinner asking mercy from his Lord. We could say much more about the content of the Jesus Prayer, but let’s now look at how it’s prayed.

In its full exercise by an advanced monk, the Jesus Prayer is repeated mentally (silently) in the heart twenty-four hours a day. This might seem a very hard thing to do. It is. It requires Grace, the Grace of the Holy Spirit. We Orthodox believe we receive the Holy Spirit in Baptism and that our Baptism is the basis of any spiritual progress that we might make after that. However, not everyone in the Orthodox Church who has been baptized prays the Jesus Prayer twenty-four hours a day. A special grace is required. St Silouan the Athonite, who died on Mount Athos in 1938, writes that he received the grace of the unceasing Jesus Prayer in the heart while he was in prayer before an icon of the Virgin Mary. The Jesus Prayer continues automatically in the heart, even in sleep, and the monk ‘follows it’ with his mind—with his attention and with his intention. By that we mean that the monk pays attention to the prayer and that he ‘means it’. This is very important, and it is one of the basic differences between the Jesus Prayer and a mantra. The Jesus Prayer is a petition to Jesus Christ, the Lord, the Son of God; and the monk prays the Jesus Prayer seriously, as someone who honestly asks mercy of the Only-Begotten Son of God. Remember the Tax-Collector in the Parable of the Tax-Collector and the Pharisee. That is how the monk prays the Jesus Prayer.

Now, this is how an advanced monk prays the Jesus Prayer. Tomorrow, we will discuss how we begin the Jesus Prayer, what things to look out for and so on.

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