Praying the Jesus Prayer: A beginner’s guide

First posted on my blog Company of Voices in April 2015:

First of all a disclaimer. Although I have called this a ‘beginner’s guide’ I have not just begun praying the Jesus Prayer. I first read the Way of the Pilgrim when I was 17 and have been using the Jesus Prayer to some extent ever since – so 33 years of being a beginner. I am a beginner in the sense that, as anyone who knows me will attest, I have made very little progress, I am still selfish and self-obsessed. I have spent a lot of my life praying, I like saying prayers and, generally, like going to church, I like reading books about prayer and have probably read thousands. However, as I like to say, think how much worse I would be if I didn’t pray.

Two additional thoughts:

I am Head Master of an inner city London comprehensive school, this is extremely stressful. I am often asked how I cope with the stress, many colleagues have not been able to, marriages fail, children suffer. I always say, quite honestly, that I could not do it without prayer, yes too much red wine and too many gin and tonics are involved but actually they just add to the stress, prayer alone helps. I really do not know how people do the job without it.

All the writings on the Jesus Prayer and on the spiritual life generally assume a basic Christian life lived in a church community. I think that is important. This is not a ‘self-help’ technique. Going to Church, receiving communion, reading the Bible have to be in place.

Finally, before some practicalities, the Jesus Prayer is not a magic formula. It needs faith in Jesus as saviour of the world and as the second person of the Trinity. But that’s not as difficult as it sounds. Faith is not about a book full of doctrinal formulas, it is simply trusting in Jesus. Even if you can’t feel faith, even if you have all sorts of mental reservations and questions, simply wanting to have faith is enough, just say “Jesus, I believe, help my unbelief.”

So, here are some simple practical ways that I have used and use the Jesus Prayer.

I use the form of words:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,

take pity on me a sinner.

Sometimes, if I am bored, for a bit of a change I use the shorter Greek form:

Kyrie iesu christe

eleison me.

(Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me).

Both formulas I have shown on two lines because often I use the words silently with my breathing, the first line on the in breath and the second line on the out breath, not changing the natural rhythm of the breathing but just attaching the words to it.

Start off by using the words aloud, in a private place, as slowly as you can bear it, and repeat them over and over again. I would recommend a minimum of ten and a maximum of 20 minutes when you start. If you can find three times a day to do that great, if not even once a day will make a difference.

What you will find after some time is that you catch yourself repeating the words at other times in the day too. Perfect. I find that walking to work or even around the school are great times to practice the prayer. It helps slow me down and I walk less quickly and with less haste.

If you have a quiet park nearby, or live in the country, walking up and down slowly while you repeat the prayer may be helpful.

That basically is it, just keep on using it aloud or in your head whenever you can. It will become second nature. It is very helpful when nerves kick in, before a difficult meeting or before preaching or giving a talk or lecture; I always find some time for the Jesus Prayer – and still get nervous but it helps.

Two other techniques:

Sometimes I use the Jesus Prayer as a form of intercession. I have a little book where I write the names of people who I have been asked to pray for, I try and mention them out loud in my prayers at least once a day and certainly before I say Mass each day. But sometimes it feels like even more is needed so I pray the Jesus Prayer but add the name of the person in need:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, take pity on ANDREW. (Or whoever).

I find this really helpful when the need is acute and when distress is great. I have even used this aloud with someone, who was in great anguish and distress and it brought calm and a glimpse of peace.

The second technique I try and use at least once a week is to pray aloud a commentary on each part of the prayer, I think it is a helpful reminder that this is about a relationship with Jesus and roots the prayer in the Christian faith. I often do this on a long dog walk in the country. I do this in a completely extempore way but here is something I might say, not for anyone to copy the words but just as an indicator:

LORD

You are the creator of everything that exists, the stars, the sun, the galaxies, the moon, this planet, this air I am breathing, this island I am on, yes you even chose to make me, you made my parents and their parents and all my ancestors, you make the food that I eat and that keeps me alive. You are my Master, you are Lord, you are in control, whatever happens is your will. I needn’t fear anything because you are in charge.

JESUS

You have a name like me, you lived like me, you had a body like me, you got hungry and thirsty and tired and irritable, like me. You were given your name by your parents who loved you like mine do me; your name means ‘the one who saves’ and you were sent to save me. Whenever things go wrong in my life you will save me, you do save me. I don’t have to save myself, I don’t have to be saved by anything or anyone else. Your name is powerful, evil hates it; when evil seems to be strong if I use your name I know that you are with me, I know that evil will not win the final victory.

CHRIST

You are the anointed one. Like an athlete ready for the games you are fit for the conflict. You are strong and powerful enough for every battle. You are well trained.

You are anointed as a king and priest is anointed, you are the only true priest, the only religion, nothing works, there is no magic other than loving you, trusting you.

SON

Like me you are a son, you have a father who says “You are my beloved.” Whatever you have and are comes from the Father. You don’t exist alone, you know that the nausea of meaningless is when we separate ourselves. But like me you have felt abandoned and alone.

OF GOD

What is it like to be God? How is your human-ness not destroyed by it? Is being God the deepest darkness? The mystery, the nada, the nothing? What is beyond the cloud of our unknowing?

Only questions here for you Jesus. About God-ness our words fail.

TAKE PITY

Jesus I always think of those beautiful images of your Mother and her tenderness. That pity, that love, that compassion is yours, what you feel for me, for everyone.  I know that my sins and my mistakes will have consequences; they damage others and they damage me. But in your pity you lessen those effects. You are never far from us, your pity makes you as close to us a our breathing; when I breathe the words of this prayer let me know that you are deep within me. Liberate me from my head, bring my mind to the deepest place, to the heart place, bring my heart to beat to the rhythm of your heart.

ON ME

I am a collection of atoms, of experiences, of accidents, yet you wanted me to exist; you willed my existence, so like every human life my life is never meaningless; my life is never just for me. Why did you want me? Why did you make me? Who do you want me to be? What do you want me to do? Help my ‘me’ today be the me that gives you glory, that makes others realise that you exist, that helps others see that life in never meaningless, helps others never to fall too deep into despair.

A SINNER

Help me to remember that nothing human is alien to me. Let me never think of myself as better than anyone else, what they have done I could do, who they are I could be. Help me always to notice my own sins, my own self-obsession, in particular I confess ….

I have a prayer rope (‘chotki’), a band of knots that I carry with me everywhere, actually I tend to use it only when I am particularly agitated and need something physical to tie me to the prayer. Apart from that it just acts as a reminder.

If you do get hold of a prayer rope it will normally have a couple of beads inserted at intervals between the knots, it is a good idea to pray the Glory be to the Father … at these points and the Lord’s Prayer at the small cross where the rope begins.

A final practice which I have not made much use of, but when I have has been very powerful, is to combine the prayer with prostrations. This is very traditional in the Christian East. Pray the prayer standing and at each use of the prayer make the sign of the cross and then touch the ground with the right hand. After every 25 or 50 prayers fall to the knees and touch your forehead to the ground before standing again.

The Jesus Prayer is a wonderful gift. I recommend it to anyone.

For more on the Jesus Prayer there is plenty available on the web and here’s a sermon I once preached about it:

 

Sermon

The Good Shepherd, Lee
23rd November 2014
Dedication Festival
“The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games.”
T S Eliot may have had a high opinion of the naming of cats, but when in 1881 a chapel of ease in the parish of St Margaret, Lee was created I wonder how difficult it was for them to decide on the name of The Good Shepherd? Perhaps it was the benefactor, Lord Northbrook, – also benefactor of our school – who at that time still lived in the Manor House in what is now Manor House Gardens who suggested the name?
Whatever the reasons for choosing the name I suppose nobody would have been thinking that one day nearly a century and a half later a vicar would be appointed [Mother Bridget Shepherd] who would by her own name be the good shepherd here in Lee. Lots of opportunities for puns over the coming years. Neither could I have guessed when I agreed to preach here on your Dedication Festival that it would be the very last Sunday of your [very short] interregnum and we would be looking forward to the induction of your good shepherd tomorrow. I did wonder, as I planned my sermon, about all the things I could usefully say to you about preparing for a new vicar: embracing change, giving her the time and space to get to know you and this neighbourhood, allowing her boundaries so that her family and home life can flourish. All important things, all things I am sure that you will do as you cherish and love Bridget and her family and as you challenge one another to be the disciples of Christ here in Lee. But as I thought about the name of this church I was constantly sent back to Jesus. The founders of this parish chose not a saint, not a mystery of faith, but Jesus himself as the name, Jesus who is the Good Shepherd and who calls himself that in the Gospel we have just heard.
But it’s not even that Gospel I want you to think about this morning, but the first reading from the First Book of the Kings. It is a magnificent reading. The events it describes took place nearly three thousand years ago in the tenth century before Christ.
The people of Israel had left Egypt three centuries earlier, the Judges had ruled the people for the first two centuries after Moses before the people implored God for a king and were given Saul and then David. But all through this time there was no temple in Jerusalem; the ark of the covenant  was still portable. Only Solomon, wise Solomon, David’s son was allowed to build a temple; and in today’s reading we hear the first part of his prayer of dedication at the opening of that temple. We have heard just the first 8 verses the whole prayer is much longer and well worth reading, when you get home do have a look at 1 Kings 8 verses 22 – 53 to see the whole text.
But even the 8 verses we have just heard contain a great deal for us to think about as we give thanks for the dedication of this church and as we prepare for the induction of our new vicar.
First of all, Solomon does not pray alone, he prays “in front of the whole assembly”. No Christian ever prays alone, we always do so in the presence of the angels and saints. But Bridget as our vicar, our shepherd, especially never prays alone. Every time she come into this church or prays in her study at home or at the dining table with her family she does so on behalf of all of us; she carries all of us, our school, our families, our hopes and fears to God. We need to give her the time and space to be a person of prayer. We need to make sure that despite the huge task there is to do she is never so busy that she has no time to pray. And when she visits us at home, or at school, or when we have meetings with her we need to be eager when she suggests a prayer; and we need to be equally eager to ask her prayers when things go wrong or are difficult; just a card or a note or an email, and a card or a note of thanks for her prayers afterwards.
Bridget will stand “in front of the whole assembly’ in this building and at our school, we hope, very often in the coming years. We are fortunate indeed to be given the gift of a priest, a leader, our own Solomon.
Then Solomon praises God, God does not need to be told that there is no god like Him; that he is faithful to the covenant, and that he keeps his promises; God already knows this. But praise is essential to prayer. In our time when we have so many doubts about the existence of God when we are so knowledgable about the universe and existence and matter; praising God might seem hard; but it’s worth doing, begin your prayers with praise, thank God for being alive; for the people we love; for the opportunities to serve him. And counter intuitive as it might seem the worse things are the more powerful praise is.
Finally, in our passage we get to some really interesting thoughts from Solomon. “Will God really dwell on earth?” Solomon says, little did he know that God would send one who would ‘make his dwelling among us’, as Saint John says, who would pitch his tent here, who would sit on the throne of David for ever. This section of the dedication brings us, like the name of this church, straight to Jesus. Solomon’s prayer has been answered by God who has given us Jesus. Yes, we can say, God really will dwell on earth.
And then a really interesting phrase, Solomon quotes God as having said “My Name shall be there”.
For the Hebrew people, and for many ancient peoples, names are hugely significant. Adam’s first act after the creation is to name all living things. The name of God is powerful and unpronounceable. Even now Jews when they worship do not pronounce the name of God which is spelled in prayerbooks with the four syllables yod-hey-vav-hey but instead replace it with the Greek word Adonai, Lord.
But we do have a name. We have the name that was given by the angel to Mary. We have the name Jesus. Jesus who is God really dwelling on earth. The answer to Solomon’s question.
Of all the things that we can do to support our new vicar; to enable her work; the most important is that each one of us seeks to be holy; that each one of us seeks to be a person of prayer. There are lots of ways to pray and the key thing about prayer is that you find the way that works for you. That enables your relationship with Jesus to grow.
The way of prayer that has stuck with me best over all my adult life is a prayer of the holy name of Jesus. Often just called the Jesus Prayer. It is a form of prayer that has its origins among eastern orthodox Christians. In its simplest form it involves simply repeating two phrases:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God; have mercy on me.
Repeat it over and over again. Sometimes do it out loud, for a few minutes for no more than 20 minutes is best. But also learn to repeat it in your head; attach one phrase to your in-breath and the other to the out-breath.
Breathing in:         Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God.
Breathing out:       Have mercy on me.
If you do this for long enough, often enough. the prayer will sink deep into your heart. You will find that it becomes a part of you; a part of your breathing. You will find yourself breathing this prayer as you go to sleep and as you wake up. It will be in your footsteps on the way to work or as you do the hoovering or cut the grass. This prayer has sustained me as I have sat with people as they die; in moments of the greatest stress in my life; when I have felt most alone and in darkest despair.
“How sweet the name of Jesus sounds, in a believer’s ear” the old hymn says.
We are the temples of the spirit; we are the places of which God says “My name shall be there”. “Will God really dwell on earth?” Will God really dwell here in Lee, here in Lewisham? Yes if we carry Jesus with us in our hearts and minds; if we become holy, living temples dedicated to the presence of God.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
At the end of his poem about the naming of cats T S Eliot writes:
“When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable Effanineffable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.”
May this church be one where God says “My name shall be there.” May we be people of the holy Name of Jesus.
May we always be engaged in rapt contemplation of the name of Jesus, of that ineffable, effable, effanineffable, deep and inscrutable singular Name.
Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s