“Κύριε Ιησού Χριστέ, Υιέ του Θεού, ελέησόν με τον αμαρτωλόν.”
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”
The “Jesus Prayer”, quoted above, is a central part of the Eastern Orthodox contemplative prayer tradition known as hesychasm (Greek: silence or quietude). This contemplative prayer tradition has an uninterrupted history dating back to the 4th-century Desert Fathers and Mothers. A key part of that tradition, the “Jesus Prayer”, in its various forms, is used as a continuously repeated prayer, to quiet and still the soul while invoking the name of the living God.
When I was first introduced the Orthodox “Jesus Prayer”, I was a bit put-off and skeptical. My problem was in saying over and over again, “me, the sinner” … “me, the sinner” … “me, the sinner”. Regardless of how true it might be, I thought, “Oh great, another “church” prayer designed to plunge me into an endless cycle of guilt and self-condemnation, putting me in bondage”.
Not long after my first introduction to the “Jesus Prayer”, I read then-Bishop Kallistos Ware’s book, The Orthodox Way. Bishop Kallistos described the “Jesus Prayer” as consisting of two poles. The first pole is the glory of God as expressed in the words “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God”. The second pole is our post-Fall condition summarized in the words “me, a sinner”. Bishop Kallistos explained that it is the revelation of God in the incarnate Christ who reconciles these poles and announces the “mercy” of God for “me, the sinner”. In other words, I only address myself as “the sinner” in the context of the Son of God already having shown his “mercy” and grace to me. So being “the sinner” is not a problem I have to solve, but something I look back on after the problem has already been solved for me by Jesus.
Calling myself (repeatedly) “the sinner” then, is not so much guilt-ridden, self-flagellation over my sinful state as it is a proclamation of my deliverance and salvation. It is no coincidence that this is the same point that Jesus made in the story of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14), the parable on which the “Jesus Prayer” is based. The Publican called out for mercy in his recognized condition of sin, a problem that had already been solved through the free gift of grace, and he “went home justified before God”. So, the “Jesus Prayer” is really the Gospel message condensed into one short line. The Lord of the universe, Jesus of Nazareth, Christ (Messiah), Anointed (Christos) with the Holy Spirit, Son of the living God, has already provided us mercy (“love in action”) and salvation from our problems (sin and diseased nature) before we ask him. All we have to do is cry out, like the Publican, and receive the unmerited grace already provided for us. That is the heart of the Gospel. That is the life in Christ.
I don’t have a problem praying the “Jesus Prayer” anymore.