Christian Life Skills: The Jesus prayer
Pray without ceasing
New Testament Challenge and theJesus Prayer Challenge
Recently, on various blogs I fail miserably in keeping up with, the “ New Testament Challenge” has been proposed. This is a suggestion to read the entire NT during the Nativity Fast. This is a good idea, and it works for some – as a pastor, I am in favor of almost anything that will get the dust off the bible in the home.
This got me to thinking, and I thought of another challenge – the “Jesus Prayer Challenge”. I am not trying to be gimmicky, because I hate that stuff, but as they say, I am “serious as a heart attack”. This is a longstanding COMMAND (read, not an optional “challenge”), and the church knows it is possible:
“Rejoice evermore. (17) Pray without ceasing. (18) In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” (1Th 5:16-18)
How do we attain this? It is very simple: become holy (simple does not mean easy). We are called to holiness, so this MUST be our goal:
“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Mat 5:48)
The holy are always praying, or even something above this, which our Savior does not call prayer, because they have no passions which send their mind away from God, and are always with Him.
We will not be able to do this by next week, so we must become practical, and do what we are able to do now, so that we will become able to do what we are cannot do.
Perhaps a slight rewording of the Apostle’s command will help us to make a practical application to his words:
“Pray whenever you are able to pray; search for opportunities to pray.”
The church has always understood the “Jesus prayer” to be uniquely suited to this endeavor. Anybody can pray this pray, as often as they want, if they put their mind to it, and plan to do it.
When we are waiting for a bus, or early to an appointment, or driving our car, or folding laundry, we CAN say: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” We can also teach ourselves to pray this prayer when we are getting ready to speak to someone about a difficult thing, or feeling anger rise up within us because of this or that thing.
We may not be able to pray each prayer with attention, but we can try; how can we learn to be attentive without long periods of struggling against inattention?
What is stopping us? There are external things – the TV being on (a brick will fix that), listening to the radio in the car, the busyness of life, lack of planning. There are internal things – our passions and the noise in our head, laziness, desire for entertainment, mindlessness. We cannot fix the latter without doing something about the former.
We need to plan in order to pray. Focus on one time during the day when you are not so occupied that you cannot pray – for instance, when you are driving, or doing the dishes, or folding laundry. It must be some task that does not take a lot of mental effort; you will have difficulty saying the prayer when you are doing your math homework or balancing the checkbook!
Say the prayer, silently, or aloud, slowly, and with as much attention as you can muster. You may pray for yourself, or others. If you pray for yourself, say
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
When we pray for someone else, we should leave the last part and say:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on (name).”
It is really useful to have a prayer rope (chotki, komouskini) to count prayers. It does not matter how many we say, but it is very helpful to hold the rope and advance one bead with each prayer, to have a set amount per person, or even just to keep a sense of rhythm.
I have a prayer rope and use it in the car (it should be small, and held in such a way that you can drop it immediately if you need to steer out of a road hazard). This is a perfect time to pray for my family and parish. I find the simplicity of the prayer comforting and it is easier to pray with attention. I never have been one to try to remember what everybody needs and mention everything. God knows, and asking for mercy, that is His help in all things, really covers everything!
Some people need to mention things – sickness, or protection during travel, etc. That’s ok, but a little bit dangerous, because we are simultaneously attempting to pray and judge at the same time. Perhaps we feel a person needs something, and our judgment is wrong? Or perhaps we are so busy thinking of the next thing to say instead of just praying with attention? I remember those long lapses in the “In Jesus Name” prayers that are so common in the Protestant tradition so many years ago. They were very jarring. Do everything you can to pray without making a huge mental effort in thinking (prayer is not done with the brain, it is an expression of the soul), or you will tire. Everyone’s limitations in this regard are different. My simple mind needs quiet, and simplicity, otherwise, there is too much distraction in my head. You need to find what suits you.
Praying in the car is a wonderful way to “redeem the time” , and also to train ourselves in the discipline of prayer. What else do we really need to do when we drive? We certainly do not need the radio on – most of the information is useless, vapid and stupid, and it steals from us the opportunity to pray.
I have not always been equal to the task. After a long day at work, my passions want time to “veg” out on my drive home. We are tired, and maybe a little cranky after a long day, and starting to pray instead of giving into laziness actually sucks more energy out of us, but after prayer, this energy returns with a bonus.
Try praying in the car instead of listening to the radio, or “vegging out”. If you have a long drive, try a set period of time that includes part of the drive, if the whole time seems too daunting to you. It is better to accomplish a little thing, rather than not do a big thing! You cannot get better at something without starting to do it.
You might want to have a list of family and others (including your pastor) whom you care about, and in whose lives you may have some influence. You could have a list of the sick, those in prison, or undergoing some trial. God knows all the particulars. You could pray some set number of prayers for each person, say 10 (many prayer ropes are divided by a large bead into tens) or 25 or some other number that is easy to count on your prayer rope.
Unlike the “New Testament Challenge” there is no end point in the command to pray without ceasing, accept, of course, our death. After that, if we have not cultivated the virtues and the desire AND action of prayer, where will we learn it?
This command is possible, but only if we apply effort, planning, and prayer to it. May God help us.
One more thing. This is important. The “Jesus prayer” is the most simple and complex prayer. Christians have reached exalted states practicing this prayer, and also fallen headlong into hell by attempting to find mystical experiences in it before they changed enough morally. The “prayer of the heart” has been accomplished by those practicing the “Jesus prayer”, but except for exceptions as rare as hen’s teeth, these people were under strict obedience to an elder. There are very few “checks and balances” for a lay person who tries to copy what he sees in the Philokalia or other places, and achieve the “prayer of the heart”.
Don’t look for mystical experiences. Worry about praying in the way described above in every possible moment; this will take you a long time. The fruits of prayer, if accomplished with the following of the commandments and true humility, will lead to holiness, and your prayer will lead you towards the prayer of the heart. But first things first! Pray a lot, don’t waste time, and see where that takes you.
Priest Seraphim Holland 2009. St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, Texas
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 “See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, (16) Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” (Eph 5:15-16 KJV)
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