Friday, September 22, 2006

The Jesus Prayer

'The more rain falls on the earth, the softer it makes it; similarly, Christ's holy name gladdens the earth of our heart the more we call upon it.'—St. Hesychois the Priest, from the Philokalia

To cry out to God with adept longing is known to most Christians as the act of prayer: to bring before Him all one's sorrows, all one's joys, all one's thankfulness and all one's needs. We come to God in Christ, with the aid of His saints, with petitions both of joy and of supplication, of abundance and of want. Prayer is a divine dialogue between humanity and its Creator, in which the Maker of All hears the voice of that which His hands have formed, and responds in loving compassion to that voice.

Such is indeed a worthy and valid form of prayer. Our Liturgy and services are filled with such supplications, prayed in reverence and surity to a God who hears. We would all do well to increase the fervour with which we offer such prayers to Christ.

Yet such is not the only form of prayer. There is another manner in which the work of creation comes before its God, by which each human person is able to behold God face to face, to draw closer unto Him in perfect union and communion. It is a prayer beyond mere adoration, beyond supplication, beyond words themselves. It is truly worldess prayer, wrought from the heart itself, wherein the whole person communes with God directly, in purity, and realizes his salvation. Such prayer is that which the Fathers call the prayer of the heart, known so often in practice as the Jesus Prayer.

It was Paul, Apostle of Christ, who had instructed the faithful at Thessaloniki and throughout the world to 'pray without ceasing' (1 Thessalonians 5.17). Over a millennium later, a poor pilgrim on the Russian steppe wandered into a Sunday Liturgy and heard these words proclaimed. The command pierced him to the core. How does one pray without ceasing? If prayer is solely conversation or dialogue, as he had long understood it to be, how could it be possible to engage in such an activity at all times, through all the events of daily life and social interaction?

Engaging in inner prayer is a task to which every Christian is called. Paul's command to pray without ceasing applies to each Christian today, as much as it did to those in the Church at Thessaloniki. We are called to intimate communion with the Creator of Life, such that there be no moment when our souls and bodies are not enlightened by Him. It was St Evagrius of Pontus who wrote that 'prayer is the communion of the intellect with God', and it becomes our task to transform our prayer from mere words, mere petitions, to the direct communion of the depths of our hearts and beings with God Himself.

One of the greatest tools by which the Church has encouraged this transformation in the individual prayers of its faithful has been through use of the Jesus Prayer. Its formula is simple: 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner', yet this short phrase is not meant to be an end in itself, but rather a tool for a changed life of prayer. Its repetition, frequent and regular, causes the mind and heart to become accustomed to the continual outcry to God, until, in God's good time, one's whole being begins to realize its intimate proximity to God at every moment.

[Excerpted from "The Jesus Prayer: The Prayer of the Heart"]


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