As I wrote about a while back, I’ve recently spent some time in Byzantine Catholic churches. It is not always possible for me to make it to Divine Liturgy (as I’m often back and forth between home and my university), and so there are weeks where I attend the Mass. Wherever I end up, however, one Eastern devotion has stuck with me; it’s a way of praying ceaselessly, of cutting to the heart of the Christian devotion to praying for all people, even our enemies and those who hate us.
This relatively simple, and quite ancient, practice is the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Father, have mercy on me, a sinner.” In intent, it is meant to push us toward the Pauline injunction to “rejoice always. Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-17). One is supposed to repeat it over and over until the words dissipate, becoming a sort of pure reflection on our own sinfulness and need for mercy, transforming every moment into a moment for prayerfulness and stillness before our omnipresent God. In this sense, it calls to mind the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14), in which Jesus says:
Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.” But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 18:10-14)
The Jesus Prayer’s brevity and emphasis on mercy are fitting; we ask for God’s mercy, but in doing so we ask for our own hearts to be opened up. We humbly request humility; we pray that in our lowliness, we might be made even lower for Christ. And what could be more powerful during the Jubilee Year of Mercy (and an election year, when we all know open-hearts and charity will be harder and more necessary) than such a prayer, one that can be repeated all day with rhythmic ease and transformative power.
Personally, even when at a Mass, I try to say the prayer during the entirety of the liturgy (except when singing or responding). In a strange way, saying the prayer actually increases my concentration on what is happening within the structure of the Mass. Its ability to center my spiritual experience, and frame the entire sacrifice in terms of God’s love and pouring-out-of-self have been wonderful: homilies have become more powerful, the moment of consecration has often overwhelmed me, and I always go away feeling as if there is a new peace in my heart.
While not all will find the practice meaningful I do tend to think it’s the perfect sort of prayer for our age. People feel busy, torn apart by family life, work, and other social obligations, decentered as our families and communities become less central to the ways we live our lives. This reality means “less time” for prayer; it means a sense of being separated from our true end, God. Such a short (and traditional) prayer offers, at minimum, a way to pray throughout the day; yet I think it can also mean much more, implemented correctly, it can be an entirely new lens through which to experience spiritual life.