The Jesus Prayer

Sometimes when I attempt to explain the practice of the Jesus Prayer, the repeated, frequently silent, prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”, to Quakers, or indeed to many liberal Christians, someone will react along the lines of, “Oh, I hate this morbid preoccupation with sins! Surely we all need more self-esteem, not less?”

Now, while of course I sympathise with the bruised heart demanding comfort, not condemnation, I think this objection is an understandable misunderstanding. In the original Greek, as taught in the Philokalia onwards, the word for sinner is ἁμαρτωλόν (hamartolón) – a word which is not, in the Eastern Orthodox context, chiefly concerned with transgressing one of a list of Naughty Things, but with the sense of failing to be what one might be, of missing the mark. And this is a sense of sin to which I can all too readily relate!

Sin in the Orthodox Christian understanding is “missing the mark” (the literal meaning of the Greek word for sin, hamartia), falling short of the glorious purpose for which God created mankind. It is also understood as separation from God, since intimate communion with God is the normal state of mankind from which most people have fallen. Sin is imperfection, anything which fails to live up to the fullness of life in Christ for which man was created.

The Bible sometimes uses legal metaphors to refer to sin, likening it to crime, that is, crime against God’s law. For Orthodox Christianity, while making use of legal imagery, the more dominant imagery used for sin is also drawn from Scripture, and that is that sin is a kind of disease, an affliction for which salvation is the cure.

The Orthodox Wiki

In Pure Land Buddhism there is a useful, rather delightful term, bombu nature. Attractive though the word may be, the concept is a relentlessly honest summing-up of the human condition. Kaspalita Thompson writes:

Recognising our bombu nature is a hard thing to do – it means really looking at what motivates our actions, and how we are compelled by greed, and hate and delusion. It means noticing when all the stuff we have pushed into our long black bag [in Jungian terms, our shadow] starts to leak out and taking responsibility for that, and it sometimes means looking into the long bag itself and seeing what is there, in the darkest places of our psyche.

Any form of contemplative prayer will bring us face to face with this imperfect, often broken, nature that is ours by dint of simply being human. Mother Mary Clare SLG discusses this at length in her book Encountering the Depths (SLG Press 1981). She says,

When we are not attentive listeners it is not only our own personal relationship with God that will be diminished, but even possibly the direct communication between God and another person. Our dissipation of mind, instability and lack of courage to face ourselves, or to be vulnerable to others, frustrates God’s intention that our prayer be a clear pathway to the discernment of the needs of each other.

The most difficult and decisive part of prayer is acquiring this ability to listen…

In prayer, as in all our lives, we are in need of God’s mercy. If we are honest, our imperfection, our incompleteness, somehow, is at the root of who we are. When we pray, “have mercy on me, a sinner”, we are not striking a pose, nor beating ourselves up for masturbating, or eating chocolate. We are simply being realistic. In her TED talk The Power of Vulnerability, Brené Brown says,

This is what I have found: To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen … to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee — and that’s really hard, and I can tell you as a parent, that’s excruciatingly difficult — to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we’re wondering, “Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?” just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, “I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.” And the last, which I think is probably the most important, is to believe that we’re enough.

And strangely, this is what accepting ourselves as hamartolón, this is what accepting our bombu nature, accepting ourselves as above all in need of mercy comes down to. We are enough, because we are loved by God. We are enough because we rest in the ground of being, incomplete as we are; because we have been given the grace to know our need of mercy, and to ask for it. It is enough.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

We know that in all things God works for good for those who love [him], who are called according to his purpose.

(Romans 8.26-28 NRSV (alt. rdg. v.28))

Sometimes religion appears to be presented as offering easy cures for pain: have faith and God will mend your hurts; reach out to God and your woundedness will be healed. The Beatitude ‘Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted’ can be interpreted this way too, but the Latin root of the word ‘comfort’ means ‘with strength’ rather than ‘at ease’. The Beatitude is not promising to take away our pain; indeed the inference is that the pain will remain with us. It does promise that God will cherish us and our wound, and help us draw a blessing from our distressed state.

S Jocelyn Burnell, 1989 – Quaker faith & practice 21.66

For some, this may seem an odd or even offensive way of looking at things, to speak of finding a blessing within suffering, or of being blessed through suffering, especially at a time when the news is bad enough already without the media’s perfectly understandable commercial interest in keeping our hearts in our mouths. But just suppose, for a moment, that the apostle Paul and the astrophysicist Jocelyn Burnell both have a point. Suppose that I am not kidding myself when I recall that even, or even especially, at the times when I have been most bereft of human comfort, most at risk of harm and loss, I have felt God closest to me, and I have been most conscious of his blessed and indefatigable love. What would make the difference between a brokenness that surrenders itself to fear and pain, and one that surrenders itself to God? Let me suggest that it might be, at least for me, trust.

The Catholic philosopher and theologian, Peter Kreeft, writes:

God’s remedy for our mistrust is his infinite and all-powerful mercy, which is stronger than all our sins. God’s mercy makes holiness easy because it makes our basic task not hard penances but joyful trust. Our joy (in the form of trust) brings down God’s joy (in the form of mercy). Saint Faustina writes: “the graces of [God’s] mercy are drawn by means of one vessel only, and that is – trust. The more a soul trusts, the more it will receive.”

Hope’s intellectual component is belief that God will fulfil all his promises. Its volitional component is the choice to believe that and the choice to hold despair at bay. Its emotional component is joy, which naturally results from the belief that God will give us all good.

Trust and surrender seem almost to be the same thing. To abandon myself to divine providence is to be freed from the need to preserve myself and my means of livelihood, or, conversely, as Micah Bales wrote, “I don’t need to stress out about winning the struggles of this life – whether my personal worries or the grand concerns of planetary survival. Instead, I am invited to receive ‘that peace which the world cannot give.’ Offering my whole life to God, I am freed from the need to change the world…”

This trust, this surrender, of course doesn’t come just by deciding to do it. In fact, it doesn’t come by deciding to do it at all. It comes by prayer. Peter Kreeft again, writing this time of the Jesus Prayer:

In saying it brings God closer, I do not mean to say that it changes God. It changes us. But it does not just make a change within us, a psychological change; it makes a change between us and God, a real, objective change. It changes the real relationship; it increases the intimacy. It is as real as changing your relationship to the sun by going outdoors. When we go outdoors into the sun, we do not move the sun closer to us, we move ourselves closer to the sun. But the difference it makes is real: we can get warmed only when we stand in the sunlight…

When this happens, it is not merely something we do but something God does in us. It is grace, it is his action; our action is to enter into his action, as a tiny stream flows into a great river.

His coming is, of course, his gift, his grace. The vehicle by which he comes is also his grace: it is Jesus himself. And the gift he gives us in giving us his blessed name to invoke is also his grace. So, therefore, his coming to us in power on this vehicle, this name, is also pure grace. Even our remembering to use this vehicle, this name, is his grace. As Saint Therese said, “Everything is a grace.”

Prayer, trust, grace, mercy, surrender – these have to be written down as though they were separate things, contingent one upon another. But they’re not, really. They are one movement, one verb that is God – for we humans, the whole discipline consists in nothing more than getting ourselves out of the way…

We are creatures of the word, we humans. We know ourselves by our names first of all, and our least thought comes ready dressed in words. And yet it is in silence that we draw close to God, becoming open in the stillness to the presence that is always with us, nearer than our own breathing.

The apostle John wrote,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

John 1.1-4 NRSV

In contemplative prayer, we drop below the threshold of thought, and yet words remain, perhaps reflections of the words we have spoken since we learned to speak. The stream of consciousness passes, glittering with words, fragments of thoughts, commentary, witterings. How hard it is not to look, not to be caught by the glittering surfaces that flicker past. This is why, in Centering Prayer, in Christian Meditation, above all in the Jesus Prayer, it is words (or a word) themselves that are used to still the twinkling stream.

But why would that work?

It seems to me that there are two kinds of language, at least as they are at work here: the language of thoughts, and the language of the heart. There is a phrase often used in the literature around the Jesus Prayer, “Keep the mind in the heart before God.” This does not mean “get out of your mind and into your emotions” – anything but. As Cynthia Bourgeault writes,

According to the great wisdom traditions of the West (Christian, Jewish, Islamic), the heart is first and foremost an organ of spiritual perception. Its primary function is to look beyond the obvious, the boundaried surface of things, and see into a deeper reality, emerging from some unknown profundity, which plays lightly upon the surface of this life without being caught there: a world where meaning, insight, and clarity come together in a whole different way. Saint Paul talked about this other kind of perceptivity with the term “faith” (“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” [Hebrews 11.1 KJV]), but the word “faith” is itself often misunderstood by the linear mind. What it really designates is not a leaping into the dark (as so often misconstrued) but a subtle seeing in the dark, a kind of spiritual night vision that allows one to see with inner certainty that the elusive golden thread glimpsed from within actually does lead somewhere.

So, in placing the attention into the field of these words, whether the Jesus Prayer, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, or intent that underlies the chosen “sacred word” of centering prayer, the words themselves, as the means of attention in fact, descend quite naturally and peacefully into the heart.

This, of course, explains why those who practice the Jesus Prayer so often continue to use the terminal words a sinner (they are omitted in some versions), for it is, at least in my experience, only in repentance that the heart is purified sufficiently so to be blessed.

The great spiritual directors of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions have explained in figurative language how the structure of the human soul enables the mind to be drawn upwards (the will consenting) to its own apex, at which point it comes into contact and communion with God’s descending Spirit. This “apex”, which can equally well be described as the “centre”, is that “place of the heart” wherein we dwell in the state of prayer. To enter that state it is necessary for the heart to be purified by repentance (represented in the baptism of Jesus by John), so that it may reflect, as in a clear mirror, the Holy Light that pours on it from above. Then, by God’s mercy, the soul will, in the course of time, in this life or in some other dimension as yet unknown, become so perfectly commingled with that Light that, as Julian says, there will seem to be no difference – although there must still remain a clear distinction – between the reflection and its heavenly Source.

Lois Lang-Sims, The Mind in the Heart – Thoughts on Prayer

All this sounds perhaps either dry and academic, or mystical to the point of dottiness, depending on the point of view of the reader! But it is a simple thing really. The Jesus Prayer, like the nembutsu, is a prayer for simple people.

Mystical experience, the direct, unmediated encounter with God central to Quaker worship, and to all contemplative prayer, is not a strange or technical exercise, reserved for professional clergy or vowed monastics, but an ordinary, straightforward thing common to our identity as human beings. There is, after all, that of God in each of us: all that is necessary is to become aware of it, and somehow to live within that awareness, which is all that the phrase “the mind in the heart” is trying to say, really.

So when we think of mercy, we should be thinking first and foremost of a bond, an infallible link of love that holds the created and uncreated realms together. The mercy of God does not come and go, granted to some and refused to others. Why? Because it is unconditional–always there, underlying everything. It is literally the force that holds everything in existence, the gravitational field in which we live and move and have our being. Just like that little fish swimming desperately in search of water, we too–in the words of Psalm 103–‘swim in mercy as in an endless sea.’ Mercy is God’s innermost being turned outward to sustain the visible and created world in unbreakable love.

Cynthia Bourgeault, Mystical Hope

I sometimes think of the baptism of Jesus as being in some way related our own call to prayer. Jesus didn’t need to be baptised himself, as John the Baptist was quick to point out (Matthew 3.13-17) – “In his birth the Son enters into our vulnerability and contingent existence. Now in his baptism he joins himself to our hurt and mixed-up spiritual condition. This process of God meeting us in our vulnerability and suffering will culminate on the Cross…” (from the Franciscan blog Praise and Bless, January 12 2008)

In our prayer, if we are praying contemplatively rather than “for” something, we are praying as representative of the whole human race; coming into the very presence of God with, in a sense, all of humanity hard-coded into the very cells of our being. Our prayer then is for Christ’s mercy on all of humanity, all of creation really (Romans 8.19-27); we are literally interceding, standing between God and all that he has made, out there in the wind of the Spirit. This is why the Jesus Prayer has so long a history as a prayer of intercession as much as of contemplation, and why to think of it as a narrowly personal prayer of individual penitence is to misunderstand its intention.

Paul touches on this in his letter to the Christians at Colossae, also. He writes, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1.15-17 NIV)

Christ is our mercy – it’s in him that things remain in being, and are loved. We are little, temporary things, wave-crests lifted for a moment on unquiet waters, and then subsumed. We are eternal, loved and kept and one with the isness of God. Both these things are true, and our love holds all to whom we have made ourselves open in prayer – how could it be otherwise? – in the light of the mercy that is shown to us; and that is enough, all we are called to do, all in the end we can do anyhow. Kyrie eleison.