In today’s Gospel (Mark 10, 46-52), Bartimeus cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” In other parts of the Gospel, we encounter similar prayers, crying out to Jesus and asking for mercy.
The Jesus prayer, based on these Gospel prayers, is a tradition coming to us from eastern Christianity. It was popularized in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by the anonymous Russian book, The Way of the Pilgrim, but it probably goes back to the desert fathers of the fourth and fifth century and can be found in the writing of St. John Climacus (523-606). The Orthodox anthology for prayer, The Philokalia, also features the prayer.
The common formula is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” though it is sometime abbreviated to “Lord Jesus, have mercy,” or even just to the name Jesus. The form I use is “Jesus, Lord, be merciful.” Occasionally I‘ll pray it in Spanish, “Señor Jesús, ten piedad.”
The phrase is repeated – sometime with careful breathing. It is a type of Christian mantra, a way of concentrating one’s attention on the Lord.
I’ve found it to be a soothing presence, a prayer that needs no books and can be done walking or running or working. It keeps me going on desert times of my spiritual life. It’s a great way to center myself before beginning an extended period of prayer. I often pray it thirty-three times (on prayer beads I got in Jerusalem) before my morning prayer.
There is a story of John Leary, a young man who lived at Haley House, the Catholic Worker house in Boston. John was a Harvard graduate, but also an advocate of peace and nonviolence who had been arrested several times for protesting nuclear weapons and abortion. He used to run on his way to and from work at a center for Pax Christi Center on Conscience and War in Cambridge founded by Gordan Zahn, a famous Catholic sociologist and pacifist (who incidentally brought to light the story of Franz Jägerstätter, the Austrian peasant killed for refusing to fight in Hitler’s army). Gordon asked John about his running, which seemed so mundane and boring. John replied that he prayed the Jesus prayer while running. On August 31, 1982, while running home to the Catholic Worker John died, probably praying the Jesus Prayer.
I have found the prayer a source of strength and of consolation, great to pray when in difficult or dangerous situations, calling on the Lord’s presence. I have also found myself praying it, without thinking, as a sort of bass note, sustaining the polyphony of my life.
I recommend the Prayer – perhaps just repeating it ten, thirty-three, or a hundred times. It can become a habit that can sustain the spiritual life, even in dry times.