The Jesus Prayer

The Jesus Prayer, also called the Prayer of the Heart by some Church Fathers, is a short, simple prayer that has been widely used, taught and discussed throughout the history of Eastern Christianity. The exact words of the prayer have varied, from a simple form such as “Lord, have mercy” to the more common extended form: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is, for the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern-Rite Catholics, one of the most profound and mystical prayers and is often repeated as part of a personal ascetic practice.

The practice may involve specific body postures, and be accompanied by very deliberate breathing patterns. The practitioner is instructed not to treat it as a string of syllables for which the “surface” meaning is secondary. Likewise, hollow repetition is considered to be without benefit in the Orthodox tradition.

In the Eastern tradition the prayer is said or prayed repeatedly, often with the aid of a chotki (or prayer rope), somewhat resembling a rosary. It may be accompanied by prostrations and the sign of the cross. As such, it is used as a means of finding contrition and as a means of bringing about humility in the individual. Monastics often have long sessions praying this prayer many hundreds of times each night as part of their discipline. Through the guidance of an elder, the practitioner’s ultimate goal is to “internalize” the prayer, thereby accomplishing Saint Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing.”