Lent is an important season in the liturgical year because it invites Christians to observe and commemorate the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It draws us away from our busy schedules and urges us to pause and reflect on our relationship with our Lord and Saviour in whom alone we find the meaning and purpose of our lives.
Lent is therefore a time of contemplation and prayer.
One of the most enduring forms of prayer that is deeply rooted in the Christian spiritual tradition is the Jesus Prayer, which is used widely in the Orthodox Church. Although this form of prayer is becoming more common among the Protestant Christians, many have still not heard of it.
According to scholars, the origins of the Jesus Prayer can be traced to the Christian monasteries in Egypt in the fifth century, although some have argued that it is much older.
The Prayer itself is remarkably simple and brief: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’, and is said over and over again. It consists of just ten words in English, and only seven in Greek or Russian. Yet the Prayer is complete and profound.
The Orthodox theologian, Bishop Kallistos Ware has helpfully identified four strands or constituent elements of the Prayer:1
- The cry for mercy;
- The discipline of repetition;
- The quest for stillness (Greek: hesychia)
- The veneration of the Holy Name
In imploring for mercy, the believer who prays this prayer recognises that he or she is a sinner in need of God’s grace. This attitude of repentance is patterned after the prayer of the publican recorded in Luke:18:10-14, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
The cry for mercy not only signals sorrow for sin, but also the confidence that divine forgiveness will be granted to the truly repentant soul. As Ware puts it, “It affirms that God’s loving kindness and compassion are greater than my brokenness and guilt.”2
Because the Jesus Prayer is repeated many times (often with the aid of a prayer rope), some Protestant Christians may have reservations about using it. Didn’t Jesus tell his disciples not to use vain repetitions when they pray (Matthew 6:7)?
The spiritual writers of the Christian East from John Climacus in the sixth century to Dumitru Staniloae in the twentieth have addressed this objection. They maintain that the Jesus Prayer is not vain repetition if it is prayed in the fear of God, and with faith and love.
The third element of the Prayer is the quest for hesychia or stillness.
In the Christian spiritual tradition, stillness or silence is not merely an absence of noise and activity. Silence is an attentiveness that ushers us into the very presence of God. It brings awareness of the only One who is able to still the storms of our lives.
By constantly invoking the name of our Lord, the Jesus Prayer enables the pray-er to push away the clamour and the confusion, and to experience the refreshing Shalom of God.
And finally, but most importantly, the Jesus Prayer has to do with the veneration of the name of the Saviour. “The name of the Son of God”, writes Hermas, the second century author of The Shepherd, “is great and incomprehensible, and sustaineth the whole world.”3
The Prayer is therefore profoundly Christocentric. In this Prayer, the believer addresses Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity. And in doing so, his or her attention is immediately directed to the Triune God whom the Son has come to reveal.
The Jesus Prayer can be easily incorporated into our daily devotions by simply allocating just a few minutes to it. It can also be prayed throughout the day, as a form of ‘arrow prayer’ (Augustine) as we go about our daily routines and attend to our various responsibilities.
Although the Prayer can be initially recited aloud, it should gradually be repeated silently—in our minds and in our hearts. The Jesus Prayer is the prayer of the heart par excellence.
But it must be stressed that the Jesus Prayer is not a form of Christian meditation, but a prayer.
As Bishop Ware explains, “It is simply not a rhythmic mantra, designed to enhance concentration, but a personal invocation addressed specifically to the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ … what matters is not how we pray but to whom.”4
As we observe Great Lent, may the Jesus Prayer direct our hearts and minds to the One whose name is above every name (Philippians 2:9)—Jesus Christ, our Saviour and our Lord!
1 Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Jesus Prayer (Catholic Truth Society, 2017), Kindle Location 43.
2 Ibid., Kindle Location 50.
3 The Shepherd of Hermas, translated by J.B. Lightfoot, 135. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/shepherd-lightfoot.html (accessed 4 December 2021).
4 Ibid., Kindle Location 338.
Roland Chia is the Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine of Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg)