Last Sunday after church we had a lovely conversation about Esther DeWaal’s book Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict. Our discussion of Christian monasticism was wide-ranging across the topic of Christian monasticism in general, and I enjoyed it very much. In the course of the conversation, I tangentially remarked (as I am wont to do) about the importance of the Eastern monastic prayer practice known as the Jesus Prayer. This prayer developed out of the Desert Monastic tradition that I wrote about last week, and it is another bit of vital monastic wisdom, that is fitting and easily adaptable for our own contemporary non-monastic lives. So, I thought I would write a bit more about the Jesus Prayer and commend it to you for exploration in your own spiritual journey.
The Jesus Prayer is simple and short: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Sometimes even the “a sinner” part is left off. The prayer is biblical. It is based on several passages from the Gospels. Luke 18:38, for example, when a person seeking God’s healing power cries out as Jesus passes by: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” That story provides the context and the essence of this simple and profound prayer. The Jesus Prayer is the simple, memorable, and frankly, powerful cry of a soul to its Creator and Savior and Lord. The cry results in Jesus hearing the supplicant, stopping, having compassion, and healing this person in need.
The practice of the Jesus Prayer answers the impulse to follow St. Paul’s admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to “pray without ceasing.” Monastics often pray the Jesus Prayer continuously, over and over again throughout the day. The experience of this has been that over time—with consistent and patience practice—the Jesus Prayer becomes a prayer that prays itself, meaning that is constantly “running” in the background of your mind and heart.
As I said, the Jesus Prayer developed out of the Desert Monastic tradition. One Desert Father recommended to his disciples the notion of using “arrow” prayers, short, powerful prayers that are useful for avoiding temptation. The idea is that they are “arrows” used as a counterattack against the demonic forces that desire to see the spiritual downfall of all humans. The Jesus Prayer is such a prayer because not only is it short and easy to remember at any time, it also invokes the name of Jesus. Scripture straight-forwardly teaches that there is power in the very name of Jesus Christ. In John 16, Jesus tells his disciples to pray in his Name and their prayers will be answered. In Luke, the disciples are amazed when they are able to cast out demons using the name of Jesus Christ. In the letter to the Philippians, Paul writes: “Therefore God also highly exalted [Jesus] and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11). There is transformative power in confessing the name of Jesus, this power is operative in the Jesus Prayer.
The Jesus Prayer is often used with the aid of a prayer rope (commonly called after their Russian name “chotkis”). The prayer rope helps to count the prayers, but it also gives your hands something to do while your mind is praying. Prayer ought to be multi-sensory and connect the body, mind, and heart. Traditionally, this is a circular rope made with black wool and tied with special knots. I like the legend that surrounds their creation. The story goes like this: one day a desert monastic was praying the Jesus Prayer and each time the prayer was prayed they tied a knot in a rope. A demon observed this and secretly began untying the knots as soon as the monastic would tie them. In order to confound the demon, the monastic developed a special complex knot made of dozens of crosses and tied with special prayers to prevent the demon from being able to untie it. Prayer ropes today are often made and sold by monasteries and each one is tied with this complex and prayerful knot. Prayer ropes come in a variety of sizes. I like the ones that have 33 knots (one for each of the years Jesus lived on the earth before the crucifixion) and can be worn on the wrist. If you want to find a prayer rope for yourself, you can find a number of monasteries that sell them on the internet. It is a worthy thing to support monasteries through their online gift shops. My favorites come from this monastery in Arizona.