LORD JESUS CHRIST, SON OF THE LIVING GOD, HAVE MERCY ON ME A SINNER. Last week we reflected briefly on the names of God, their meaning and significance, and in particular the Name of Jesus. We touched lightly on the fact that the names assigned to God and to the Lord Jesus in the Bible, inform us of some quality of their person and, in some instances, of their function. God is known as the Father, for he is the source of all creation, for instance; the name "Jesus", which means "Savior", we are informed, was given to Joseph by an angel in a dream, "because he will save his people from their sins (Matthew 1: 21)." This Name of Jesus was to become an important element in the belief and life of Christians, and, as we shall see, eventually occupied a central place in their life of prayer.
The subject of prayer in general became an issue early on for the followers of Christ. The apostles had observed Jesus in prayer and recognized that he had a special talent for it. They had noted that other teachers in Israel had instructed their disciples in this practice, and asked him to do the same for them. He readily agreed to do so. Interestingly, he taught them only concerning vocal prayer on that occasion when he handed over to them the words of what we know as "The Our Father." We know too that regularly he prayed in the synagogue with the people gathered there. That he also joined with his chosen disciples in private in singing the psalms we are told in the account of the Last Supper, and there is every reason to believe that this practice had become ha bitual to him and his circle. The Lord spoke of prayer on other occasions as well. He was particu larly concerned that such converse with God came from the heart, was made with reverence, at tention and faith; he stressed the need for pure prayer, that is prayer made with awareness of the honor due to God. Carelessness, superficiality, routine, concern for appearances- must be avoided if prayer is to find favor in God's sight. Mere repetition of formulas of prayer means little or noth ing to God, and gains no hearing from him; indeed, it can even arouse his disfavor.
St. Paul in his turn repeatedly spoke of prayer. His epistles contain any number of lessons con cerning the way Christians are to conduct themselves at prayer. One of his primary concerns is that prayer be made with understanding. Like Jesus, Paul insisted that prayer made by the faithful should come from the interior, and so it must express the attitudes and dispositions inspired by faith. Thus the quality of prayer is determined by the measure of spiritual understanding and awareness associated with it, not by the sounds and words uttered by the lips. "For if I speak with the tongue, my spirit speaks but my mind is without fruit. What then does this imply? I will pray in the spirit, I shall also pray with the mind; I shall sing psalms with the spirit but I shall also sing psalms with the mind (1 Cor 14: 14, 15)." When St. Paul speaks of pure prayer he associates it with the action of the Holy Spirit and notes that it is characterized by movement of the heart and soul rather than by the verbal forms it assumes. In fact, the purest prayer, he maintains, is so deeply rooted in the spirit that it does not admit of verbal expression.
Likewise the Spirit assists our weaknesses. What is fitting that we pray for we do not know, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with ineffable groanings. He who searches hearts knows what is the thought of the spirit, that he intercedes according to God for the saints (Romans 8:27, 28).
For Paul, prayer inspired by the Holy Spirit was intimately associated with the name of Jesus. "The law of the Spirit of life that is in Christ Jesus has freed me from the law of sin and of death (Romans 8: 2), he exclaimed. On another occasion Paul was most emphatic concerning this point of doctrine: "I make it known to you that no one speaking in the Spirit of God says Jesus is anath ema' and no one can say Jesus is Lord' except in the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12: 3)."
Already in his life time, Jesus' name was used in prayer by those in need. We find an instance of this usage that was to have a broad and enduring influence on Christian prayer later on in the case of the blind man, Bartimaos, near Jericho. When he was told who was passing by on the road, he cried out "O Son of David, Jesus, have mercy on me (Mark 10: 47)." His prayer proved effica cious as the Lord bestowed on him his sight, and accordingly was taken as a model by those later believers who sought God's favor.
This form of prayer, short, addressed directly to Jesus, and employing his personal name, Jesus, while asking for his mercy, proved later on to be well suited to the needs and possibilities of many of the faithful. While many variations on this manner of raising the heart to God in direct, short prayer appeared early in the history of monasticism, the use of the name Jesus was not common until after the Council of Ephesus in 431. It was necessary that the divinity of Jesus and its relation to his humanity be more firmly established before Orthodox theologians and the ranks of believers were ready for a special devotion in which prayer was directed to the Lord Jesus as to God. However, since the brevity and unadorned nature of such a simple and direct style as marked this prayer avoided all pretense and favored spontaneous outpourings of the spirit, such characteristics came to mark the private prayer of some of the most exemplary of the desert fathers of Egypt. There are any number of examples of such brief, spontaneous outpourings preserved in the Say ings of the Fathers. (cf. Le Dictionaire de Spiritualité, tom 8: 1129ff for this and the following survey). Arsenius, the highly cultivated minister from the Imperial court in Byzantium, employed the simplest of prayers: " Lord lead me in such a way that I shall be saved." Apollo's favorite was : "Lord, I have sinned like a man, have mercy on me like God." Macarius adopted a similar style: "Lord as you wish and as you know, have pity on me."
After the basic teaching on the relation of Jesus' human nature to his divinity was clarified, Church leaders gave attention to the place of the human Christ in prayer, but they saw to it that the forms of expression remained quite simple. One of the earliest to understand that the name of Jesus rightfully had an important place in prayer was the abbot, St. Nilus of Ancyra, who lived in the fifth century at the time when the theological basis for giving Mary the title, Mother of God, was established as being the divine personality of her son. He taught that prayer that called upon the name of Jesus had a particular efficacy and should be used tirelessly. A short time after, Diadoch of Photice, surely one of the most profound of spiritual writers, stressed the value of interiorizing such prayer by meditating on the holy name of Jesus in the depths of the heart, and striving after the constant memory of his presence. He recommended such practice as a way of unifying the soul, freeing it from the imagination and so rendering it capable of beholding the spiritual light that is latent in the spirit, waiting to be liberated.
The intellect absolutely demands of us when we close off all its outlets by the memory of God a work that satisfies fully its active tendency. We must then give it the "Lord Jesus" as the sole occupation that responds fully to its aim. All those who meditate in the depth of their heart without cease this holy and glorious name can also see in the end the light of their own intellect (Cent Chapitres Gnostiques, LIX, Sources Chrétiennes 5 bis, Paris 1953 p. 119).
This transpires because "our God is a devouring fire"(Dt. 4:24) and this name, Jesus, used with the strictest attention of the mind, serves as a purifying fire. The Lord, through this practice goes on to instill in us an ardent love of God's glory, and so this prayer becomes an instrument of transfor mation and recovery of the likeness to God.
This interiorization was understood as a means of attaining to a state of constant prayer, in keeping with St. Paul's injunction to the Thessalonians to "pray without leaving off" (5: 17), as Nilus men tions in the above text. This ideal of a life of continual prayer was deeply rooted in the early tradi tion. St Paul had urged it more than once to the early Christians. The Fathers took this recom mendation most seriously. Already in the third century Origen studied the best way to achieve this goal and lectured on it. He taught that prayer must be linked to action and that by this expedient "it is the whole life of the saint that can be called prayer." He was convinced that the chief prepa ration for all forms of true prayer was the action of the Holy Spirit.
In fact our intellect cannot pray if the Spirit does not pray before it does, if it is not subor dinated to his inspiration, just as one cannot sing psalms, nor chant to the Father in the Christ according to the rhythm, the melody, the measure and harmony if the Spirit , who scrutinizes all things, even the depths of God, does not praise and chant the One whose depths he has explored and whom he has understood, as he has the power to do (On Pray er, 2.4, cited in Le Dictionarie de Spiritualité XII.2, 2254-5).
Gregory of Nazianzane, writing in the next century, insisted that "We are to focus on the memory of God more frequently than we breathe (Oratio 27.4)." While Origen, writing before the Council of Nicea had affirmed the equality of Christ with the Father, maintained that all prayer should be directed to God the Father, not to Christ, Gregory provides a good number of prayers directed to Christ, the Lord. The name he commonly employs is Christ, not Jesus; he uses on occasion the familiar expression "my Christ" in direct address; he also speaks to him as "God the Word", but he never uses the name of Jesus in such direct address.
However, neither these authors, nor Saint Nilus nor Diadoch who introduced the name of Jesus into Christian prayer, speak of a specific formulation to be used, but leave that to the individual. It was only in the next century that the wording of prayer directed to the Lord Jesus seems to have assumed a relatively fixed form and even then it was varied with other titles. St. Dosithius in his final illness often prayed with the short formula : "Lord Jesus, have pity on me". But he would also use the short prayer, "Son of God, come to my help." St. John Climachus (about 650 A.D.) had a high regard for prayer that regularly employed the name of Jesus. He popularized this usage for monks especially when he wrote: "Let the memory of Jesus become one with your breath and then you will know the utility of contemplative solitude (The Ladder, Step # 27)." This fea ture of his teaching was given more prominence in the writings of Hesychius of Sinai who speaks of the subject more frequently than had Climachus. He recommended the use of the Name of Jesus constantly, as the preferred instrument of watchfulness over the heart. Use of this personal name, he taught, made it easier to cultivate the attention necessary for a life of continual prayer. It does appear, at the same time, that even when some other name was substituted for "Jesus", such as "Son of God", "Christ", "Lord", the early Fathers still were aware that they were raising their hearts to the person of the one who is at once God and man, their Savior. In this way, even though later on there arose a form of prayer that eventually was accepted as the classic expression for the prayer of Jesus, there was accepted from the beginning a certain flexibility in the wording. This prayer was more widely cultivated especially by monks first at Mt. Sinai then at Mt. Athos as a particularly helpful way to arrive at constant prayer. Although, there arose a tendency to employ a fixed formula and to eliminate other more spontaneous expressions, yet there was never agree ment on any single form of expression. The formula that was used by the Byzantine monk, Isaiah, who around the year 1300 taught that this prayer made continually led to the divinisation of the monk was this: "Lord Jesus Christ, have pity on me; Son of God, help me." Thus it expressed not only sorrow for sin but the desire and need for the assistance of our Savior. Later, in the work of Gregory of Sinai and his followers at Mt. Athos, the focus was strictly on the need for mercy, expressed in the prescribed wording: "Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me." The brevity was considered a help to concentration on what one was saying.
In the further developments associated with the Prayer of Jesus, there arose the practice of adop ting a prescribed posture and of associating the repetition of the formula with breathing, and to slow down the breath as a way of aiding deeper concentration. The intent of this psychosomatic exercise was to unite the spirit with the heart.
Having such a fixed form made it easier to teach the contemplative life, but at the same time ran the danger of formalism, that is,using this prayer as if its simple recital makes one a contemplative. Whereas the truly contemplative prayer is primarily the work of the Holy Spirit, takes places in the depths of the heart. It always depends on His initiative and upon the humble faith of the believer who is sensitive to the specific movements of the Spirit within his own heart. Freedom is charac teristic of the Spirit, and so a rather rigid an approach to prayer can readily become an obstacle rather than a help. In the Greek world there eventually evolved a method of meditation that at tached the saying of the fixed formula of this prayer to the slow, regular breathing of the subject as a means of favoring concentration. Thus, this formation to the deeper life of prayer took on psy chosomatic aspects that some found helpful but which certainly complicated the use of this way of prayer.
The more constant and essential elements of this prayer- the brevity, the use of Jesus' name, the seeking of mercy- remained in use even when changes were introduced as its use spread and it was taken up and experimented with in 19th century Russia. Flexibility in the manner of applying these elements made particularly efficacious the use of this manner of training for contemplation as taught by the most cultivated of the Russian mystics, Theophane the Recluse. He demonstrated by his own holy life which was marked by mystical experience, that the fruitfulness of this method did not depend on the words used or on breathing techniques but rather proved to consist in con ciseness of the form, concentration of attention on the interior presence of the Son of God, and the saying of the prayer in such a way as to make the mind with its thoughts as expressed in what ever formula was used "descend into the heart." This is a somewhat quaint way of referring to the process of integrating mind and spiritual sensation so that one arrives at a profound sense of pres ence in a deep peace. The fullness of this prayer was considered to be achieved when the prayer began to be experienced as spontaneously repeating itself, so that the presence of the Lord Jesus was perceived as constantly active in the heart of the believer. When this prayer is employed con stantly, as the experience of many has shown, it leads to an experience of the condition described by St. Paul, "I live, no longer I, but Christ in me (Galatians 2: 20)."
Each of us has to cultivate his own way of prayer eventually if it is to prove efficacious in the great undertaking of recovering the likeness to Christ Jesus, the Son of the living God. That means we have to explore by experience the inner realms of the heart and spirit in the presence of the Lord and with his assistance and that of his Spirit. We must work with what we discover within our heart and mind.Certainly, it is very helpful to be acquainted with the thought and experience of those holy men and women who have gone before us in this way of transformation. We have much to learn through making use of the means of prayer and of purification which they themselves had devised and elaborated and taught. Their example as well as their teaching is an encouragement and a stimulus for us. May we strive steadily and generously to profit from their teaching and ask their intercession in our prayer so that we may attain to the goal of our striving as they have done, eternal life with God in his Son our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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