Contemplative Spiritual Disciplines: Praying the “Jesus Prayer”

A lone resident watches the clouds pull past on a quiet coastal evening in Arch Cape, Oregon.

Praying the “Jesus Prayer” arises from the early church seeking to pray the way St. Paul invites us to pray in the Bible. Consider the following teachings of Paul on prayer, to four different churches, including believers in Rome, Ephesus, Colossae, and Thessoloniki. I’ve put words in bold as my emphasis to highlight what Paul is telling us about prayer. I’ve also added short notes on these words.

Romans 12:12. Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. The Greek for “keep on” is προσκαρτεροῦντες (pros-karterountes) or being constant, devoted, with steadfast habit that is unshakable no matter how we are feeling.

Ephesians 6:18. Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere. In this teaching, Paul tells us to pray “at all times” or literally in Greek, “in every God-moment (kairo)”

Colossians 4:2. Devote yourselves to prayer with an alert mind and a thankful heart. The Greek emphasis in the verb “devote” προσκαρτερεῖτε (proskartereite) is to develop a continual and steadfast habit towards God in prayer no matter how we are feeling.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18. Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. The Greek word for “never stop” is ἀδιαλείπτως (a-dia-leptos), or to continue through or across without leaving any gaps or pauses in the activity.

As the writer of the Book of Hebrews proclaims, “We are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). Along with the great cloud of witnesses of writers of contemplative books of the spiritual life, writers across the centuries who have encountered God through such spiritual classics as The Cloud of Unknowing, here are a few steps you may consider as you enter into your own personal journey into the contemplative life with Christ. Quotations in italics below are from M. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O., from his book, Centering Prayer: Renewing the Ancient Christian Prayer Form (see M. Basil Pennington, Centering Prayer, New York: Doubleday, 1980, 17-18), as he reflects upon the contemplative journey discovered in The Cloud of Unknowing:

  • Find a place and time to sit and be quiet.Simply sit relaxed and quiet.” I find it helpful to have a good reading lamp, a journal and a Bible nearby to guide my times of contemplative prayer. Finding the time to sit still and be quiet may be one of the first hurdles. We tend to be busy much of the time, and many people find it hard to just sit down and wait on God. Mary, the sister of Martha, chose the best part by sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet to listen to our Lord.
  • Focus your heart on God as you breathe in and out.Center all your attention and desire on him and let this be the sole concern of your mind and heart.” One of the ancient practical ways of focusing our hearts on God is to focus our life with God by breathing. With every inhale and exhale, we use our breath to keep focused upon God’s Spirit. In the Bible, the Hebrew and Greek words used for God’s Spirit, Ruach and Pneuma, are the same words used for breath or wind.
  • Pray a short prayer with your breathing. Chose a short prayer as your prayer to the Lord. The ancient prayer of the Church, often called “the Jesus prayer” is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” drawn from the Gospel of Luke 18:13, 38. A shorter version of this prayer is “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” “Gather all your desire into one simple word that the mind can easily retain, choose a short word rather than a long one. . . . But choose one that is meaningful to you. Then fix it in your mind so that it will remain there come what may. . It is best when this word is wholly interior without a defining thought or actual sound. . . .  Let this little word represent to you God in all his fullness and nothing less than the fullness of God. Let nothing except God hold sway in your mind and heart.” I like to pray from God’s Word. I daily pray a short prayer from John 15:4, “Abide in me, and I in you,” praying this simple prayer as I breathe in and out.
  • Deal with distractions. “No sooner has a person turned toward God in love than through human frailty he finds himself distracted by the remembrance of some created thing or some daily care. But no matter. No harm done; for such a person quickly returns to deep recollection. . . . Should some thought go on annoying you, demanding to know what you are doing, answer with this one word alone.” Everyone gets distracted while praying. Learn to quietly, gently and quickly turn back to Jesus, always returning to God’s presence by that simple, short prayer, offered to God in rhythm with your breathing. 
  • Keep it simple. In Luke 10, consider Mary, Martha’s sister, who chose what is best, and the only one thing that was needed, to sit at Jesus’ feet listening to what he said. “Be careful in this work and never strain your mind or imagination, for truly you will not succeed in this way. Leave these faculties at peace. . . . It is simply a spontaneous desire springing toward God. . . . The will needs only a brief fraction of a moment to move toward the object of its desire.” Praying “the Jesus Prayer” is not complex, but rather a simple turning toward God. Take time this year to simply sit at Jesus’ feet, like Mary, basking in God’s loving presence.