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Article – Jesus: The Prayer (The Episcopal New Yorker, Spring 2016)

What’s in a Name?

What’s in a name? Do names have power? Well, the U.S. Supreme Court certainly believes so—ruling in 2002, and again in 2010, that people’s “Miranda” Rights do not include the right to withhold their names. There’s much information in a name, and the justices recognized that it is the key to its owner’s legal history: Our names can tell a lot about us—not only who we are, but also where we’re from, and even what we’ve done. Names do indeed have power.

The Prayer’s History

For centuries in the Church, especially in Orthodox Christianity, there has been a great emphasis on the name of Jesus—an emphasis which we Episcopalians echo and share in hymn 434 in our 1982 Hymnal, “At the Name of Jesus,”—itself drawn from St. Paul’s words in Philippians 2:9–11: “Therefore God also highly exalted [Jesus] and gave him the name that is above every name so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

This Orthodox recognition of the power in the name of Jesus is most apparent in the historic “Jesus Prayer,” of which “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of (the living) God, have mercy on me (a sinner)” is the (much varied upon) basic form.

It began nearly two millennia ago in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, as a tradition of short, repetitive prayer, when monks and nuns would ask their spiritual fathers and mothers for a “word”—a small bit of wisdom or a biblical verse to take away. This soon developed into a full-blown tradition of prayer centered on the name of Jesus—a tradition that also has biblical roots. Most scholars believe the prayer’s current form to be a collision of two biblical texts: the healing of the blind beggar (Luke 18:38), “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” and the parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector (Luke 18:13), in which the tax collector prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” To employ the prayer is, therefore, simply a matter of reciting conflated Bible verses.

The Prayer’s Theology

The Jesus Prayer may be precise, but in its brevity it encapsulates the entirety of the gospel. It is, indeed, fully, if subtly, Trinitarian: It acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, and thereby implicitly recognizes the Father; and it begins with the profession of Jesus as Lord, which 1 Corinthians 12:3 tells us, “no one can say… except by the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit is, therefore, the enabling power behind the prayer’s practice, and all three persons of the Trinity are plainly invoked.

What is more, the prayer also comprehends the inner workings of the gospel: that salvation comes not by works, but by grace! It understands that the hope we are given in our baptisms is a free gift from God, through the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit. It does this in two ways: First, it acknowledges the Creator-creature distinction, since the person praying identifies as a “sinner”; second, by asking for mercy, the person praying recognizes that mercy (Greek: eleison) is a gift to be received, and received by grace.

Praying the Prayer

While some curious practices have crept into the Jesus Prayer tradition over time, they are all later additions. What is essential is the prayer’s repetitive nature. It is recommended to be said over and over for long stretches of time—even whole days. While some monastics do, in fact, say the prayer from morning until evening, thousands of times a day (and some even claim to say it while they sleep), other practitioners say it at set times, or on specific days of the week, or prior to the Morning Office and following the Evening Office. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware calls these forms of practice the “fixed use”—the “free use,” meanwhile, being the practice of the Prayer at any time, anywhere and for any reason. A monastery in Essex, England, has developed a service in which a leader repeats the Jesus Prayer while others contemplate in silence what they are hearing. Elsewhere, a “round-robin” style has been adopted, passing off the recitation to someone else every few minutes.

A prayer rope or prayer beads are also customarily used—not merely to count the number of repetitions, but to help maintain a rhythm, and to assist in remaining still and focused. Using a prayer rope ensures that we engage both dimensions of our humanity, our soul and our body, when saying the Jesus Prayer.

Invoking the Name: My Personal Practice

I use the Jesus Prayer in all the different ways mentioned above, depending on my current needs and my weekly schedule. Every Wednesday evening, I attend a corporate prayer event where a priest recites the prayer for 30 minutes while we all quietly contemplate what we are hearing. If the priest is absent, we shift to the round-robin application. I also add in another, private 30-minute session on Friday evenings. Most Tuesday mornings I meet with a group to meditate for 10–15 minutes. During this time I employ the Prayer.

On nights when I go to bed with much on my mind, as I put my head on the pillow and close my eyes, I recite the Jesus Prayer over and over. Sometimes this puts me straight to sleep; other times it simply clears my mind so that gradually I can attain sleep.

Lastly, I find myself saying the Jesus Prayer as I go about my day: walking the streets of Manhattan, waiting for a train on a subway platform, or during the rare occasions I am again gripped with anxiety.

It truly is a versatile prayer!

All names are powerful. But only the name of Jesus—his name, the name of the man from Nazareth, who died and rose from the grave—if faithfully uttered, has the power to help us sense the forgiveness we have obtained in the water of the font, which is the access point to eternal life. When we say the Jesus Prayer we are ultimately reminding ourselves with each and every utterance what the name Jesus essentially means: YHWH saves!

Matthew Paul Buccheri has an STM from General Theological Seminary in NYC and is the founder of EmmausViaCanterbury.com. You can find the original article along with many others in the Spring 2016 edition of the Episcopal New Yorker