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
(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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: