The Suburban Ascetic
Further Notes on the Jesus Prayer
Here is some wisdom from Bishop Kallistos Ware: Being so very short and simple, the Jesus Payer can be recited at any time and in any place. It can be said in bus queues, when working in the garden or kitchen, when dressing or walking, when suffering from insomnia, at moments of distress or mental strain when other forms of prayer are impossible: from this point of view, it is a prayer particularly well adapted to the tensions of the modern world. It is a prayer specially recommended to the monk, who is given a rosary as part of the habit at his profession; but it is equally a prayer for lay people, whatever their occupation in the world. It is a prayer for the hermit and recluse, but at the same time a prayer for those engaged in active social work, nursing, teaching, visiting in prisons. It is a prayer that fits every stage in the spiritual life, from the most elementary to the most advanced. (From the introduction to The Art of Prayer, An Orthodox Anthology)
The best use of the prayer for the beginner is just what Bishop Kallistos has illustrated above. It is the perfect prayer to bring yourself back to what is truly important in the midst of the daily crisis. What does the prayer tell you? First, that Jesus is Lord. This seems trite, but unpacking that statement is the work of a lifetime. To acknowledge that there is a Lord is to say against the sentimental nihilism that is the spirit of our age that life has meaning and purpose, that the solipsist is a fool, and that the world is not governed by our desires. To say that this Lord is Jesus, and that he is the Son of God, is to proclaim that the meaning and purpose behind the world is love, and that this love is stronger than death. To call out for mercy is to proclaim that death and futility are not the final answers in your own life. It is to acknowledge that grace exists, and that it comes to the humble, that is, to sinners like yourself. Quite a lot to handle while passing time on hold, or waiting for your turn at the register.
Many Orthodox find that a set time to pray the Jesus Prayer is useful and make it part of their daily devotions. It is customary to use a prayer rope (the "rosary" referred to by Bishop Kallistos) to aid in keeping focused on the prayer and to return you to it when the inevitable distractions arise. The quiet repetition of the prayer has its own fruits, but is only the first step towards that deeper prayer that the Fathers call "prayer of the heart." That takes us beyond my own experience and I can do no more than point you to the writings of those who have been there.
(Coming soon; fasting, and a basic bibliography on prayer)