The Jesus Prayer: An Ecumenical Gift to all Christians

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In our post-modern world the term spirituality is often evasive. It has an almost ethereal quality, especially with the increasing use of the term “spiritual but not religious.” Christian spiritual practice is often a cafeteria where people can pick from a list of practices in order to lift their spirit. Ultimately, the spiritual life is a life devoted to “…reaching God, experiencing and feeling His presence,” for without the seeking of God a spiritual practice becomes a means to its own end and feeds the ego rather than bringing one closer to God. If God is not the ultimate concern of the spiritual life then spiritual practices become a wasted effort. The Jesus Prayer is a type of spiritual practice, but it is one rooted in antiquity and is a devotional practice rooted in an ecumenical spirit. It has its genesis within the Orthodox tradition, but has transcended the Orthodox and can also be found as a spiritual practice by both Protestants and Catholics. The purpose of this paper is to show the universal appeal of the Jesus Prayer by answering three questions; what is the prayer, where did the prayer originate, and what is the theology behind the prayer. It is through the answering of these three questions that the ecumenical nature of the prayer will be realized, and I will devote most of my attention to the final question by discussing the theology behind the Jesus Prayer.

The first question, what is the Jesus Prayer, is the simplest of the three questions to answer. Simply put the Jesus Prayer is a short invocation to Jesus Christ, and this invocation can take several possible forms. The most widely accepted form is “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” and this is the version that I frequently use; however, shorter versions also constitute the Jesus Prayer such as “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Something as simple as “Jesus, have mercy” could be construed as being the Jesus Prayer as could simply the repetition of the name Jesus. This short prayer is easy to memorize and its simplicity is what makes it conducive to constant repetition and amicable to the Pauline injunction to “pray without ceasing.” The recitation of the Jesus Prayer reinforces a Christ centered prayerful reflection that is articulated well by Nicolae Corneau who wrote, “This Christocentric character of Orthodox spirituality is enshrined in the brilliant light of the Jesus Prayer, the simplest prayer ever uttered.”

Is the Jesus Prayer a Christianized mantra similar to the mantras within Hinduism? John Breck writes on this subject with, “Such prayer, however, must never be treated as a technique, a Christianized mantra, whose use enables one to attain a particular spiritual end.” However, Judson Trapnell in an essay on Catholic priest and monk Bede Griffiths writes,

In these lectures, Griffiths explored the relationship between the use of a mantra (sacred word or name) in yogic meditation and in Christian forms, including the Jesus prayer, suggesting not only interreligious implications but also how the mantra functions as a symbol.

It would seem that some are inclined to consider the Jesus Prayer a Christian mantra; whereas others, mainly Orthodox Christian authors, are either reluctant to do so or are adamantly against referring to the Jesus Prayer as a mantra. Gavin Flood defines mantra with,

Mantra has been notoriously difficult to define, but very broadly refers to sentences, phrases, or words, mostly though not exclusively in Sanskrit, in verse and in prose, which are recited or chanted for ritual and soteriological purposes. In the orthodox Vedic tradition they have been used to evoke deities, for protection, and to magically affect the world, and in tantric traditions they are themselves regarded as deities, or as embodying the power or energy (sakti) of a deity.

It would seems safe to assume that Christian authors would be against the idea of the Jesus Prayer being associated with magical evocation and associations with tantric mysticism; however, that the Jesus Prayer and Hindu mantras do have something in common when seen as a ritualized spiritual practice and as an aid to salvation – this is there common usage that Bede Griffiths and other open minded Christians have sought to explore. In my own reflection on the Jesus Prayer I too see it as a ritualized form of prayer that works remarkably well with such tangible aids as a prayer rope or rosary and while I am not as concerned with the prayer being associated with mantras I am concerned that it be respected as a viable spiritual practice and not dismissed by Protestants as the Rosary (i.e., praying of Hail Mary).

The simple formula of the Jesus Prayer should not discount the effectiveness of the prayer in the life of the Christian who seeks out its usage as a spiritual discipline. Historically, the prayer has been in existence for a very long time. John Breck states that, “In one form or another the Prayer was practiced by anchorites of Syria, Palestine and Egypt during the 4th and 5th centuries,” and goes on further to state, “The Jesus Prayer is often said to have originated in the context of the hesychast movement associated with St Gregory Palamas and Athonite monks of the 13th to 14th centuries.”

Lev Gillet mentions that recitation of divine names is a practice used within many religious traditions and he specifically mentions the significance of divine names within the rabbinic tradition of the Tetragrammaton, or divine name of God, and the Cabbalistic tradition of the medieval period. Likewise, as mentioned above with the use of mantras the recitation of divine names has a long and venerable tradition within Hinduism going back prior to Christianity and since the advent of Christianity there has emerged the Islamic tradition whose mystics have often recited the 99 names of God in their spiritual practices. I mention this to illustrate the almost universal appeal of reciting divine names and the seen efficacy within several religious traditions of uttering these divine names; that by uttering these names a spiritual benefit will result if accompanied by faith – that is the key element to keep the Jesus Prayer from being a magical evocation. Faith is a necessary element to the efficacy of the prayer as a spiritual practice. The Jesus Prayer is no different in practical usage to other religious traditions who call upon the name of God in prayer, assuming of course they have a similar faith accompanying their prayer.

Kallistos Ware writes the following about the effectiveness of the Jesus Prayer,

Perhaps in four things above all: first, in its simplicity and flexibility; secondly, in its completeness; thirdly, in the power of the Name as such; and fourthly, in the spiritual discipline of persistent repetition.

It is the third and fourth point by Ware that I will be focusing on as I answer the question, “what is the theology behind the Jesus Prayer.” Since the prayer itself is simple it is easy to start with the simple theology behind the prayer and that is articulated best by Hilarion Alfeyev when he wrote, “The Jesus Prayer has particular power because the holy name of Jesus is contained within it.” Regarding the actual name of Jesus Robert Dodd writes, “There is no inherent magic in the name of Jesus. But his name does represent to us a spiritual reality and a historic personality.” Furthermore, the anonymous text The Tale of a Pilgrim, a theological treatise written as a story, has the following to say about the use of the name Jesus in prayer in general terms and specifically on the Jesus Prayer with, “The Gospel and the Jesus prayer are one and the same thing… For the divine name of Jesus Christ contains in itself all Gospel truths. The holy fathers say that the Jesus prayer is an abridgment of the entire Gospel.”

Above I mentioned that the Jesus Prayer is often said to have originated within the context of the hesychast movement and Breck defines hesychia with, “The term hesychia signifies inner calm, stillness, silence. It describes not so much a method as an attitude, a disposition of mind and heart, that facilitates remembrance of God and concentration upon Him to whom prayer is directed.” The hesychast movement is a monastic movement that gained momentum in the medieval period and was especially promoted by the likes of such individuals as Gregory Palamas. Gregory Palamas was a 13th century defender of the hesychast tradition who wrote a defense of the position in a text he titled The Triads. The struggle of the hesychasts in the time of Palamas was a struggle between their form of calm mysticism and more rationalistic and intellectual approaches to spirituality. Gregory Palamas wrote The Triads as a polemic against Barlaam the Calabrian. Barlaam was also a monk and he opposed the idea of theosis, or divinization, of the hesychasts. Theosis is union with God through experiencing visions of the Divine through Uncreated Light, which Timothy Ware explains as, “The Hesychasts believed that this light which they experienced was identical with the Uncreated Light which the three disciples saw surrounding Jesus at His Transfiguration on Mount Thabor.” The prayer techniques of the hesychasts facilitated theosis, and it was this process that came under attack by Barlaam. The Triads of Palamas was a defense of the hesychasts and a polemic against Barlaam. The hesychast notion of theosis is linked to their use of the Jesus Prayer, and while the monasticism of hesychia might not be as prolific as it was in the time of Palamas it still exists today.

The Jesus Prayer is referred to as the Prayer of the Heart because the prayer is seen as a conversation between the heart and God, and use of the prayer has its foundation within our emotional center. John Breck writes a compelling summary of the theology of the Jesus Prayer with,

True prayer occurs when the Spirit addresses the Father, “Abba,” in the temple of the human heart. It is essentially a divine activity. Yet like every aspect of the spiritual life, it demands synergeia or cooperation on our part. To attain theoria, the contemplative vision of God, one must proceed by way of praxis, active struggle toward purification and acquisition of virtue through obedience to the divine commandments.

While the Jesus Prayer is simple in its formula the theology behind the prayer is somewhat complex. John Hopko writes the following warning about the use of the Jesus Prayer, “… the Jesus Prayer may be employed only by faithful Christians who are solidly rooted in the total life of the church. The prayer is not a thing-in-itself to be tried out from curiosity to see what happens.”

The Jesus Prayer has long been the spiritual practice of Orthodox Christian monks and its practice has been used to seek salvation and union with God. Georgios I. Mantzaridis writes about this with,

The hesychast monks of Mount Athos, in receiving the radiance of uncreated light, were experiencing direct communion with God, together with all the regenerative and deifying consequences of this. Uncreated light, according to the teaching of Palamas and of the hesychasts in general, is the divinizing gift of the Holy Spirit, “this glory of the divine nature, whereby God has communion with the saints.” This light is not only visible to man but is participable by him, and participating in it he is deified.

While it does not seem possible that someone dabbling in the Jesus Prayer hoping to “see what happens” will experience the uncreated light mentioned by the hesychasts, therefore, Hopko’s caution that the Jesus Prayer is not for dabblers seems as a way to protect the prayer from people who are not devoted to Christianity in the manner that he, and people like him are devoted. It also seems that Hopko is arguing that the prayer should not be simply a means to an end, but that it is more like a covenant with God and being a partner with God by being open to the “divinizing gift of the Holy Spirit.”

In conclusion, it is a safe assumption that I am an advocate for the Jesus Prayer and as I have already written it is a simple prayer with a complex theology. The point of prayer seems to be a union with God, through communicating devotion and affection for God. God reads our hearts and we do not need to lament about “things” because God knows our pain and suffering. By honoring God through prayer you place God first and seek a union with God because through this union with God comes bliss and tranquility. Total union with God, that the Orthodox call theosis is the same as Christian Perfection articulated by John Wesley and according to the hesychasts this union can be had, in part, through constant prayer and communication -communion with God. I have prayed the Jesus Prayer throughout most of my adult life and while I have experienced glimpses of “perfection” the only thing I can acknowledge is that I am a sinner and hope in the Divine mercy of God. I will continue to pray the Prayer of the Heart, and trust that God will continue to seek me out as I continue to search for Him. The ecumenical nature of the Jesus Prayer should be evident since Paul’s injunction to “pray without ceasing” is there for all Christians and the Jesus Prayer lends itself, with centuries of usage, to help Christians do just that.

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