One of the most effective tools for helping the work of ceaseless prayer to take place in one’s heart is the prayer which we know as the Jesus Prayer or the prayer of the invocation of the Holy Name. It is a prayer tool which has been venerated in the practice of Orthodox Christians for centuries, but equally has more recently become a part of western prayer practice.
The prayer, in its most familiar form, combines two short, complementary phrases, and is repeated, rhythmically and gently, as a means of entering into prayer:
Essentially, the prayer mirrors the simple, heart-felt prayer of the tax collector in the parable in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 18:9-14), a cry for mercy, but also a frank admission of my own need for this mercy.
The prayer is centred upon the power of the Holy Name. The Orthodox Fathers again and again draw our attention to the name of Jesus as a name which saves, delivers and heals. Philotheos of Gaza reminds us: Through the remembrance of Jesus Christ gather together your scattered mind. The theologian Fr Serge Bulgakov writes: The Name of Jesus, present in the human heart, confers upon it the power of deification (in other words, we are drawn in, by use of the Name, to experience the life of God) …. Shining through the heart, the light of the Name of Jesus illuminates all the universe. And that great lover of the Holy Name, Hesychius of Sinai, writes: Through persistence in the Jesus Prayer the intellect attains a state of sweetness and peace …. The more the rain falls on the earth, the softer it makes it; similarly, the more we call of Christ’s Holy Name, the greater the rejoicing and exultation it brings to the earth of our heart. The sun rising over the earth creates the daylight; and the venerable and Holy Name of the Lord Jesus, shining continually in the mind, gives birth to countless thoughts radiant as the sun.
While the prayer is focused clearly on the name and person of Jesus, we can say that it is also trinitarian. Since we address Jesus as ‘Son of God’, we clearly acknowledge the Father in the relationship which he himself, at the Jordan and Transfiguration, reveals. In addressing Jesus also as Christ we venerate the fullness of his humanity (‘Jesus’) and divinity (‘Christ’). And St Paul reminds us (I Corinthians 12:3) that it is only through the Holy Spirit that we are able to call Jesus ‘Lord’. Thus, the prayer, in its simplicity, also embraces the fullness of our faith as we stand in God’s presence – turning towards Jesus in the reverent use of his name we consciously direct our attention to God who is fully present to us always, and praying within us.
The Invocation of the Holy Name should be made with a sense that, addressing Jesus and acknowledging him by a profession of faith, we come before him seeking his mercy and forgiveness. It is a prayer, therefore, which invites compunction on our part, a deep realisation that our sins, as a reality in our lives, bringing with them a distancing from God and from one another and from our very selves, have been taken by Christ onto his very self and crucified with him. The realisation of the greatness of this utterly selfless act on Jesus’ part pierces our hearts – we are conscious of our sinfulness and yet equally conscious of the redeeming mercy of our Saviour. In this sense, we should use the prayer in the context of a life which is seeking graced living through the sacraments. The prayer comes with a desire to move away from sin and move towards God.
The prayer is frequently used as a tool for moving aside, gently and persistently, those afflictive thoughts which rise in our hearts and seek to overcome us. The repetition of the prayer, slowly and in rhythm with our breathing, replaces the thought which batters our heart. It is properly, then, prayer of the heart – it seeks to unite the thinking mind with the praying heart in which God seeks to make his dwelling. It requires practice and frequent return so that it can begin to resonate within us, praying itself, as it were. Lev Gillet advises:
Simply begin. In order to walk one must take a first step; in order to swim one must throw oneself into the water. It is the same with the Invocation of the Name. Begin to pronounce it with adoration and love. Cling to it. Repeat it. Do not think that you are invoking the Name; think only of Jesus himself. Say his name slowly, softly, and quietly.
In an age in which the Holy Name is so much abused – in common speech, on radio, television and throughout media, as a means of expressing a host of feelings which are ever more contrary to the Name itself and the person of Jesus – perhaps it would be a bold step for us to begin to place the Name at the centre of our prayer, to have it prayerfully on our lips, and to begin to challenge those who seek to strip it of its true nature.
-Part of our ‘Monastic Practices’ series-