The Suburban Ascetic
Notes on the Jesus Prayer
Anyone who studies the Orthodox spiritual tradition will eventually run across that wonderfully odd little book, The Way of a Pilgrim. Whatever you call it, memoir or spiritual novel, parable or spiritual instruction, the heart of the book is the practice of unceasing prayer by repeating "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." The humble figure of the Pilgrim has inspired Orthodox Christians for the past century. The Pilgrim and his Way may seem alien to us westerners, although perhaps he (and it) should not. The heart of the prayer should be familiar to anyone who has attended an evangelical rally or service complete with altar call. The following was taken from the Billy Graham organization web site:
Dear Lord Jesus,
I know that I am a sinner and need Your forgiveness. I believe that You died for my sins. I want to turn from my sins. I now invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as Lord and Savior.
In Jesus' name. Amen.
As you can see, the "sinner's prayer" of American Evangelicalism is, at heart, the same prayer as the Pilgrim's. The difference comes in the function of the prayer. In classic Evangelicalism, the ideal is to pray the "sinner's prayer" as a once-in-a-lifetime event. This one experience should give you the grace, energy and momentum to go forward through life as a Christian, strong in the Lord. It is not unlike being shot out of a cannon. The problem comes when the momentum runs out and the convert hits ground. Typically there are a number of different responses. Reload the cannon (I'm rededicating my life to the Lord!). Get a bigger cannon (You need to get baptized in the Holy Ghost and speak in tongues!). Study cannon design (For the intellectually inclined). The most common response may be to simply ignore the impact and pretend (at least on Sunday) that you are still sailing through the air. This is obviously a caricature, and not fair to the many mature and faithful Evangelicals out there. The point is that repentance is not a one time only affair.
The Orthodox ideal is not to say the Jesus prayer once, but to say it with every breath and every heartbeat. The goal is to live in a place of repentance, continually conscious of God's grace and your need for it. The Jesus prayer is news that always stays news. You cannot, by definition, out grow it. Is He still Lord? Are you still a sinner? If so, then the prayer outlines the place where you live. This is what distinguishes the Jesus Prayer from the "mantra" of Eastern religions. In a mantra, the sound and the repetition are key to its effects. Content is less important. In the Jesus prayer, the content always stays with you. It is a prayer, addressed from a person to a particular person we recognize as Lord.
The Pilgrim was given special instructions by his elder on reciting the prayer repeatedly and combining it with his breathing. The tradition states that while these techniques can be useful, they should be used only under the supervision of an experienced elder. Saint Gregory of Sinai says in the Philokalia, "Thus, if you hear about or are taught this discipline, and want to practice it, but are not under spiritual direction, you will experience one of two things: you will either force yourself to persist, in which case you fall into delusion and will fail to attain healing; or you will grow negligent, in which case you will never make any progress during your whole life." (Gregory of Sinai: On Stillness, The Philokalia Volume Four, page 269) In short; kids, don't try this at home.
(Coming soon, some thoughts on appropriate use of the prayer by layfolk not blessed with a local elder.)