The Jesus Prayer is one of the most famous and simplest prayers. Lord, Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. It has been prayed for over 1600 years. The hesychast movement in the 14th century popularized it and solidified its theology. The prayer stems from the mystical tradition. It is prayed in the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christian circles. The prayer is prayed in union with the doctrine of deification or theosis. This is the idea that we can have direct communication with God and be transformed by this communication. The icon of the transfiguration is an icon dedicated to the Jesus Prayer.
The prayer is also a rosary prayer. This means it is a repetitive prayer. Like the rosary where the “Our Father” and the “Hail Mary” are repeated while meditating on the life of Christ, His passion, and resurrection using the rosary beads. When praying the Jesus Prayer, one uses a beaded cord (in the Orthodox tradition). Others repeat the prayer over and over while in a restful state or going about daily routine. The idea is unceasing prayer where the prayer becomes in rhythm with your heartbeat.
Let us break down each portion of the prayer to understand the prayer’s importance in the Christian life.
Jesus is Lord. He is the second person of the Trinity. He is fully man and fully God. He is the Lord of the Christian’s life. What does this mean? There is an old English word used for Lord which literally means “maker of the bread” or “lord of the bread.” Why is this an appropriate metaphor? John Michael Talbot uses an excellent metaphor: Bread is made from ground up wheat. The wheat is transformed from the whole seed into flour and then into doe and finally into bread. It is a process of transformation. The Christian life is that of transformation. To follow Christ, he asks us to give our whole self to him that we may become more like Him. We are a stalk of wheat that is cut down. We give ourselves to God and he does the work of making us more like him—transforming the seed into a loaf of bread that nourishes. When we give God our whole self and all of our cares, he becomes our Lord. The Lord who freely directs our path toward goodness—Himself.
The name above all names. Its meaning: savior. St. Bonaventure said we have fallen into a pit of our own sin that we cannot get ourselves out of with our own power. Jesus is the savior who can and does pull us out of the pit of our sin. In Jesus’ incarnation—God becoming man—assumed all humanity that man may become god or like god. This is the teaching of theosis: that we can become more like Christ. The Jesus Prayer is transformative. Jesus Christ makes this transformation attainable. Moment by moment, we are transformed to be more like Christ in prayer, sacrament, and humility. By following Jesus, we become more like Him by His grace.
Christ means anointed one. Messiah is another name. These two terms point toward Jesus being the anointed King, bringing perfect love, mercy, and perfect justice. But what does this have to do with the Jesus Prayer? We too are anointed by the Holy Spirit. St. Seraphim of Sarov was the “St. Francis of Russia.” He was a hesychast and mystic. The phenomenon the hesychasts experienced is called Taboric Light. This is uncreated light or divine light. It is the light that was seen when Jesus was transfigured on Mount Tabor. St. Seraphim and others have experienced this phenomenon as well: “ ‘My friend, both of us, at this moment are in the Holy Spirit, you and I. Why won’t you look at me?’ ‘I can’t look at you, Father, because the light flashing from your eyes and face is brighter than the sun and I’m dazzled!’ ‘Don’t be afraid, friend of God, you yourself are shining just like I am; you too are now in fullness of grace of the Holy Spirit, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to see me as you do.’”
The point of a phenomenon like this isn’t for self-aggrandizement or strangeness, but part of the process of becoming more like Christ. The whole point of prayer, worship, reading Scripture is to be transformed by Christ. He makes us more like himself with our faith in Him, but also our response and obedience to Him and His church. The point of the Christian life is to forget our old self and be resurrected in Christ. This is the transformation, and the Jesus Prayer is one part of this process of transformation.
4. Son of God:
This phrase invokes the truth of the Trinity and the incarnation. One God in three persons. The Son who took on flesh and redeemed what was fallen. The Word is not on tablets only, but in the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, Son of God. Jesus is not a son of God, but the only begotten Son of God. Jesus is fully human and fully God.
5. Have Mercy:
We are incomplete. We are broken. We are sinful. This is why we ask for mercy from God. We ask that Christ be in us. We put on Christ by asking the Holy Spirit to live within us daily that we may be transformed from the old self to the new resurrected man. When we say, Lord have mercy, we are asking for help to die to self and to live in Christ, the only one who can change us—transform us. We ask Christ to make us whole and dwell within us, transforming us.
6. On Me:
One me is a very personal, intimate phrase. In the Jesus Prayer, we are praying for a personal salvation. Christ dying for me. Of course, Christ died for us, for the world, for the communion. But He also died for each. The Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving, reminds us each Sunday that Christ died for us, for me. We love Him because He first loved us. When we receive the body and blood, it is a call that we may live in love again as John Michael Talbot says. Out of love, Christ died for us. “Have mercy on me,” we say. We are asking for any barrier between us and God to get out of the way. The Jesus Prayer is a personal prayer. We ask for transformation as we are drawn into communion with our savior.
6. A Sinner:
We are all sinners. That is the bottom line. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” as the book of Romans says. We are all wretched as Paul says. (Some add “wretched sinner” to the Jesus Prayer). We are created in God’s image to love God and seek truth, goodness, and beauty, which really points toward God. For He is the creator of all these things. But our image has been shattered in the Fall. Yet, the hope is that in Christ and in pursuing God, we are made whole again. We do not fix ourselves, we never could. But our facing toward God, our moving toward Him puts us in His light. Like a flower seeking the light of the sun.
The Jesus Prayer is a prayer that the Christian can pray. It is not the only prayer a Christian must pray. But this prayer is a good discipline and habit to get into. The idea of this prayer in its brevity is to pray without ceasing throughout the day, making it a rhythm of a person’s life. That is the beauty of this prayer. Pray this prayer and pray all the other prayers: written prayers or extemporaneous prayers. The point of prayer is to draw close to God and to be transformed. The Jesus Prayer has been prayed almost as long as the “Our Father”. Lord, Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.