The Road to Salvation: The Jesus Prayer

October 29, 2014

Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

Words and phrases have been acknowledged to have power throughout the ages. The name of a folk hero can bring pride and joy to the heart of many, while the name of a villain can bring sadness and anger. Words and names have power that is linked in both the physical and the supernatural realm.

The most powerful name in existence is that of Jesus Christ, for as Scripture tells us in Romans 10:13, “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” The power of the name of Jesus Christ is not limited to personal feelings or theology found in thick books, it is the living and breathing power of the Almighty God. For centuries Christians have called upon the name of Christ and found miracles, both known and unknown to the Church, and it is with this power that we today should call upon his name and wield the sword of Faith against both our sinful desires and our spiritual foes.

The name of Christ has the power to drive away demons, to heal those wounded by physical or spiritual infirmities, and can even save our souls– and that is the foundation of perhaps the most important prayer that an Orthodox Christian can learn, the Jesus Prayer.

The Jesus Prayer is both simple and short, but it packs an amazing amount depth within it. The most common form of the prayer is just twelve words long, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Crafted first by monastics in the early days of the Church, the Jesus Prayer has come to Orthodox monastics, clergy, and lay people alike as a tool towards working out salvation through building the interior ascetic life.

The Jesus Prayer is not meant to be said once and forgotten. It is to be said in ever increasing amounts as the Orthodox believer grows in Faith, humility, and is given the grace to truly begin to pray in the interior of his or her heart. Many Saints report beginning to say the prayer at first a few dozen times a day, then a few hundred, then several thousand, and finally saying the prayer unceasingly, even in their dreams. To say the prayer in repetition is to train the body, mind, and soul in the constant realignment of the self away from ourselves and towards Christ and His commandments to live our a righteous life of love and charity.

Many Church Fathers say to begin praying the prayer out loud with your mouth and lips, to train them in praying but also to make it easier to repeat the prayer without falling to distraction of the interior mind. As you grow deeper in Faith and in the ability to pray, a process that for many of even the holiest Saints takes many years, you begin saying the prayer in your mind, and then finally in your heart. Just as an athlete slowly builds his muscles while working out, we must build our spiritual muscles and not grow discouraged by slow progress.

Every battle for a man or woman’s soul begins deep inside themselves. It is not an angry God who demands punishment for us that sends us to Hell, it is our own sinful desires and actions that lead us to Perdition. Our God is a jealous God, who does not wish to share our affection or attention with the false idols that we have constructed in our lives in His place.

Just as a husband or wife would not desire to share the attention and affection of their spouse that they love with another, how could we imagine Almighty God who both created us and saved humanity through His sacrifice on the cross would want to share us any more? God’s love is all consuming and ever present, this is why our salvation rests upon orienting ourselves away from worldly pleasures and cares, and instead turning towards Him, running towards our Father who has His arms open just as happened to the Prodigal son. The Jesus Prayer is one way for Christians to begin to reorient themselves spiritually towards God and begin the process of learning how to “pray continuously” as commanded by Saint Paul.

Thus to begin the process of salvation we must first realize our own weakness and sinfulness. We cannot come to God either as a mercenary, demanding praise and payment for “being a good person” and likewise we should not come to God like a whipped dog who is terrified of his Master. We must come to God as his children who are deeply sorrowful and repentant for offending their Father who we love above all things. With this in mind we undertake what St. Ignatius Brianchaninov called the “hidden martyrdom” of learning to pray unceasingly in our hearts.

We show our love of God through keeping His commandments as is said in 1 John 5:3 “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.” Just as you show your parents that you love and honor them by following their rules that they have crafted for your discipline, protection, and growth, so we follow the commandments of God from Scripture and from His Church. This devotion to the commandments includes giving to the poor, tithing to the Church, evangelizing the Gospel, participating in Church services and the Mysteries of the Church, and caring for our brothers and sisters as we care for ourselves.

The crucifixion of our passions is through the spiritual healing of Christ who gives us grace and strength to overcome our fallen state. Our passions drive us to lust, to lie, to steal, to hate our brother and sisters, to gossip, to be slothful, and many other dreadful sins. Prayer is like a hammer that Christ givues us that we can pummel our passions into the ground with.

Destroying the passions is not a passive affair, it is a war for our very souls, one that is won or lost in many ways upon our prayers. Saint Anatoly of Optina said to believers “Are you fighting against your passions? Fight, fight, and be good soldiers of Christ! Do not give in to evil and do not be carried away by the weakness of the flesh. During the time of temptation, flee to the Physician, crying out with the Holy Church, our mother: ‘O God, number me with the thief, the harlot, and the publican (i.e., with the repentant), and save me!'” We must engage in spiritual warfare, and the recitation of the Jesus Prayer is a powerful weapon in the war against our passions and sinful desires.

To further show our devotion beyond the simple outward signs of the Faith as to avoid ending up being “like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” we must also turn inward and begin the battle against our sinful nature and our passions, this is where the Jesus Prayer comes into such significance, as a valuable weapon in the Inner Crusade that all Christians must wage. This Inner Crusade is a daily battle of Christians to overcome our sinful passions and to become like Christ through the continuing process of theosis. Saint John Chrysostom was an ardent believer in the importance of the Jesus Prayer and said that believers should “constantly call: ‘Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me!’ in order that this remembrance of the Name of our Lord Jesus should incite you to battle with the enemy… This remembrance can reveal the sin living in us, and this remembrance can destroy it. This remembrance can arouse all the enemy hosts in the heart, and little by little this remembrance can conquer and uproot them.

In The Way of the Pilgrim it is said that “the entire Bible is found within the Jesus Prayer” because it contains both a profession of Faith in Christ as Lord and Savior, and it has a call of our repentance in the same way that the Publican cried out unto the Lord for mercy while in the Temple. By reaffirming the Truth of the Gospel and of the words of Christ we align ourselves with the Truth found in the entire Bible. Through reaffirming our knowledge of our own sinfulness by telling God to have “mercy on me a sinner” we admit that we need the Savior that we profess belief in, and are truly sorry for our failings before Him.

Luke 18 tells a story that all Christians must remind themselves of daily, it is a story of two men who entered the Temple. One of these men was a Pharisee who looked down on the lowly publican next to him and bragged to the Lord, saying, “‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” Instead of seeing his own spiritual failings and need of repentance, the Pharisee viewed himself as a holy and righteous man, something that is impossible for Scripture tells us in Romans 3:10 “There is no one righteous, not even one.”

It is very easy to fall into spiritual pride and to believe that even while admitting to being sinful, telling ourselves that at least we “aren’t as bad” as that drug addict, single mother, homosexual, or atheist somehow makes us think that God grades us on the same type of curve as a college Professor would grade a test. This belief is not grounded in reality, no man or woman can come close to the purity of Jesus Christ, we all fall short. To have spiritual pride is to truly internalize the American view of the self, that the individual can do anything and that we do not need help or assistance from others.

How powerfully egotistical it is that so many of us, myself included, often fall into the trap of acting like we can save ourselves through our own believed upright behavior, when compared to Christ our “righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” The message we say during the Divine Liturgy that Christ “came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” must be at the forefront of our minds when dealing with both our friends and our enemies and through the frequent recitation of the Jesus Prayer we can remind ourselves that we must beg Christ to “have mercy on me, a sinner.”

“Repentance raises the fallen, mourning knocks at the gate of Heaven, and holy humility opens it.” -St. John Climacus

“Repentance raises the fallen, mourning knocks at the gate of Heaven, and holy humility opens it.” -St. John Climacus

If we internalize the words of the Jesus Prayer and the message of Scripture we find no place for spiritual pride or belief in our own holiness, we are all sinners in need of the loving mercy of our Master. One moving example of Church history is that of the Venerable Sisoes the Great “When St Sisoes lay upon his deathbed, the disciples surrounding the Elder saw that his face shone like the sun. They asked the dying man what he saw. Abba Sisoes replied that he saw St Anthony, the prophets, and the apostles. His face increased in brightness, and he spoke with someone. The monks asked,With whom are you speaking, Father?’ He said that angels had come for his soul, and he was entreating them to give him a little more time for repentance. The monks said, ‘You have no need for repentance, Father’ St. Sisoes said with great humility, “I do not think that I have even begun to repent.” The holiness of the Saints is found not in their belief in their own spiritual power, it is in their humility and their increasing knowledge of the overpowering mercy of God and their own spiritual failings. It is this spirit that we must seek, one of growing increasingly towards true repentance and a pure love of God that is neither terrified or mercenary, but a spirit of entirely and all consuming love.

I encourage all of my brothers and sisters to speak to their spiritual Father about beginning to pray the Jesus Prayer. While I am very new in this path, I must admit that I already feel a growing spiritual stillness when I pray this beautiful prayer. To shut out the noise of everyday life and to turn inwardly towards the heart and towards God I continue to be amazed by the things that God reveals, mostly in seeing spiritual failures or shortcoming that I have been too egotistical or prideful to address.

When finding these wrongs however brothers and sisters I must say that I am not saddened, in-fact I am overjoyed! God is revealing to a dreadful sinner such as myself how I can better follow after Him and to die to myself and to the lies of this world. I have a long road to go in working our my salvation with “fear and trembling” but I must say that the wisdom found in The Way of the Pilgrim and The Philokalia on the Jesus Prayer and the actual saying of the Jesus Prayer have had a profound impact not just on my spiritual life, but on every aspect of my life.

While it may seem difficult at first, I beg every one of my brothers and sisters to cling to this prayer as one would cling to a piece of floating driftwood after a shipwreck. This prayer has true power and is a sword against the demons that are attempting to devour our souls, use it as the Church Fathers tell us to lead a life of true repentance, you will not be disappointed in the results. All we must do is begin walking towards God and He shall come running towards us with His arms open with love, forgiveness, and acceptance as not a mere servant or slave, but as His child. As St. John of Kronstadt said, “Our wickedness shall not overpower the unspeakable goodness and mercy of God; our dullness shall not overpower God’s wisdom, nor our infirmity God’s omnipotence.”

To truly be a rebel in this modern age it is not found in goofy haircuts, tattoos, piercings, drugs, political ideologies, or any trinket that this world can provide, true rebellion is found in declaring “Death to the World” and picking up our cross and following our savior with love and repentance. This process all starts not on the battlefield of flesh and blood, but on the interior spiritual battlefield of the Inner Crusade. With this battle we must take up the sword of the Jesus Prayer to wage unceasing war against our own passions and the demons that assail us. Brothers and sisters, it is time to start fighting the Inner Crusade, will you join me?


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