Jesus Prayer


I am taking a little vacation from blogging, but it was suggested that I post the daily New Testament Challenge. During the Feast of the Theophany, we are reading St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians. I hope that my readers will respond to the reading and to the reflection questions and begin a dialogue about what St. Paul is conveying to the Philippians and to us. We begin here somewhat “in medias res” but it is probably the most important passage in the whole epistle!

Philippians 2:-18

The Humbled and Exalted Christ

5 Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, 7 but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.

 9 Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Light Bearers

 12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.
14 Do all things without complaining and disputing, 15 that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast the word of life, so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain.
17 Yes, and if I am being poured out as a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18 For the same reason you also be glad and rejoice with me.

 Reflections:

 1)      Verses 5-11 is an incredible hymn to the meaning of the Incarnation. The love that God has for us cost him everything, the total pouring out of himself to death itself. Our Lord did not cease being God when he took on our human nature; rather he showed us what is means to be divine—the life of total sacrificial love. How much does our love for God cost us? Do we, in turn, empty ourselves to the point of death (perhaps not physical death, but death to ourselves, to our greed and lusts and hunger for power), or is there an upper limit to the love we are willing to spend?

2)      What do you think Paul means by the image of the cosmic worship of Jesus Christ? Are we willing to join our own voice to that chorus which is celebrating the victory of Christ, or do we add our voices to the anti-chorus which still tries to oppose his universal kingship? What would our world look like if in fact every creature would confess this universal kingship? What would our politics and governments look like? Even though we may not be able to influence the world at that level, we can always influence the part of the world that is in our control. Do we do that, or do we go along with the easier way?

3)      This passage lays a heavy stress on the importance of the “name” of Jesus; the name itself has power and calls for worship. We can join in the cosmic chorus of worship through praying the Jesus Prayer—Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. The prayerful repetition of the name of Jesus will become rooted in our spiritual center and begin to fill our entire life. Let us resolve to pray the Jesus Prayer at least when we get up in the morning and when we go to sleep at night—33 repetitions takes only a few minutes. Gradually the prayer will spread throughout the day.

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Elder Porphyrios

From the great Elder Porphyrios On Prayer (Wounded by Love: the Life and Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios, p. 126-127):

Let us love Christ. Then the name of Christ will burst forth from within us with impellent desire, with fervor, with divine eros. We will shout His name secretly, without speaking words. let us stand before God in adoration, humbly, and in the footsteps of Christ–that Christ may free us from every trace of our fallen nature. Let us ask for tears to be given to us before prayer. but be careful! Do not let your right hand know what the left is doing (Matthew 6:3). Pray with contrition: “Am I worthy for You to give such grace, O Christ?” And then these tears become tears of gratitude. I am deeply moved; I have not done the will of God, but I ask for His mercy.

Pray to God with love and yearning, in tranquility, with meekness, gently and without forcing yourself. And when you repeat the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” say it slowly, humbly, gently and with divine love. Pronounce the name of Christ with sweetness. Say the words one at a time: “Lord…Jesus…Christ…have mercy on me”, smoothly, tenderly, affectionately, silently, secretly mystically, but with exaltation, with longing, with passion, without tension, force or unbecoming emphasis, without compulsion and pressure. In the way a mother speaks to the child she loves: “my little boy…my darling girl…my little Johnny…my wee Mary!” With longing. Yes, longing.  That’s the whole secret. Here the heart is speaking: “My little child, my joy!” My Lord, my Jesus, my Jesus, my Jesus!” What you have in your heart and in your mind, that is what you express with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind (Luke 10:27).

No need to add anything to this!

Yesterday was Black Friday. It gets its name from the fact that the amount of shopping that goes on today usually puts businesses in the black. However, to me the description “black” always has a different connotation. It is the festival of consumerism, the feast of the god of this world. Not that shopping or buying gifts is bad; but the greed encouraged by society and manifested today throughs a black pall over any sense of generosity or love.

In our New Testament Challenge passage for today (Mark 6:30-52) we hear our Lord tell the disciples:

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going and they had no leisure even to eat (6:31).

The press of the crowds even disturbed our Lord. He saw that the constant coming and going of people, the constant stream of people in distress, illness, sins all in need of healing was wearing down the disciples. So they planned to get away from the crowd for some “spiritual battery recharging.”

To their surprise, the crowds figured out where they were going and beat them to the place. But, instead of chasing them away, our Lord had pity on them.

…and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. (6:34)

The desert place turned out to be as busy as every other place. But our Lord doesn’t chase them away. He doesn’t complain about the crowd. His first reaction is love and compassion. And he begins to heal their souls through his teaching.

But what about the desert place and the promised quiet. Our Lord shows us that the desert place is not necessarily some physical location (although it can be; we see him going up into the mountain alone to pray in 6:46); rather the desert place can even exist in the midst of the crowds. We need to retreat to the desert place in our heart, the place where the healing words of Christ give us rest and refreshment. Even if we go out into the crowds on Black Friday, we do not need to let our spiritual concentration become distracted. Our hearts can still be at peace. While we walk through malls or stand in the endless checkout lines, the Jesus Prayer can fill our hearts and minds and pour a refreshing balm over our souls. There will be a lot of jostling, a lot of rude people shoving ahead of us. But keeping our hearts and minds centered on our Lord through the Jesus Prayer will help us retain our patience and calm.

Multiplication of the loaves and fish

Not only does our Lord refresh the hearts of the crowd with his words, he also feeds them. There in the desert place, where there is no food, the disciples bring him five loaves and two fish. The poverty of the desert is suddenly transformed into paradise, the place where food is produced on its own. This food from heaven is also ours in the desert of our souls. Our Lord can transform our souls into a paradise; he can take our small offering of a few loaves of bread and transform them into the nourishment we need to maintain our spiritual strength.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

This ancient prayer was made for today! The prayer that helped transform the timeless lives of the desert monks is the perfect prayer for our time-constrained, 24/7 society. The prayer does not require special equipment, a specific amount of time, a particular posture, a certain icon, special knowledge. There are no restraints; it is a prayer for all times and places.

The desert monks understood this prayer as the fulfillment of St. Paul’s command to pray continuously. Once we start the prayer, whether in the middle of the night before the light of one vigil light, in the 5 minutes of peace between the time we wake up and the time we have to get out of bed, in those moments of mental disengagement when we are stopped at a stop light or standing in line at the grocery store, when we are cut off on the highway or stuck behind a slow driver, in those last moments before sleep brings the day to an end, it begins to infiltrate our thoughts. Suddenly we find the Prayer popping up in our mind unbidden; the habit of saying the prayer becomes ingrained and part of our lfe.

The Jesus Prayer also becomes a moment of judgment. As the Prayer becomes part of the fabric of our life, that other part of the fabric, sin, begins to stand out glaringly as something that does not belong. If we are true to the Prayer, our attachments to sinful habits begin to seem out of place; we cannot continue to say the Prayer and to sin. The Prayer gradually pushes us to repentance and an avoidance of sin.

Although you do not need any special equipment to say the Jesus Prayer, and, if you need to count the prayers, you can always use your own God-given counting machine–your fingers, it is traditional to use a Prayer Rope in order to keep the mind concentrated and to keep track of the number of repetitions.

Like all of the physical aspects of our faith, the Prayer Rope is not only a practical thing; it also manifests the reality of the spiritual life and its struggles. The knots which make up the Prayer Rope are not randomly made, but follow a specific traditonal rule for knotting the rope. The process is complex and difficult like the struggles of the spiritual life. Some knots come very easily, some knots present difficulties; some days in our spiritual struggle make us think that we have made swift progress towards theosis, but some days are more like wandering through the heat of the desert. And some knots simply go wrong; these knots have to be painstakingly undone and then begun again. This is an image of the repentance that is always available when we fail on the spiritual path. When the Prayer Rope is made by someone adept at the art, all the knots look uniform. However, on closer inspection we find that each knot is unique; some are perfectly made, others are a little irregular, others may have a bit of wool sticking out of the knot. But all the knots are part of the Prayer and all of them contribute to our spiritual progress. In the same way, we are all members of the Body of Christ, even if we are at different places in our spiritual journey. We are all journeying together, encouraging one another to go on farther.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.