Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
The Jesus Prayer is for the Eastern Orthodox one of the most profound and mystical prayers and it is often repeated continually as a part of personal ascetic practice. Its practice is an integral part of the eremitic tradition of prayer known as Hesychasm (hesychazo, "to keep stillness"), the subject of the Philokalia (φιλοκαλείν, "love of beauty"), a collection of 4th to 15th century texts on prayer, compiled in the late 18th century by St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite and St. Makarios of Corinth. The monastic state of Mount Athos is a centre of the practice of the Jesus Prayer.
While its tradition, on historical grounds, also belongs to the Eastern Catholics, and there have been a number of Roman Catholic texts on the Jesus Prayer, its practice has never achieved the same popularity in the Western Church as in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Moreover, the Eastern Orthodox theology of the Jesus Prayer enunciated in the 14th century by St. Gregory Palamas has never been fully accepted by the Roman Catholic Church.
The practice of repeating the prayer continually dates back to at least the fifth century. The earliest known mention is in On Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination of St. Diadochos of Photiki (400-ca.486), a work found in the first volume of the Philokalia. The Jesus Prayer is described in Diadochos's work in terms very similar to St. John Cassian's (ca.360-435) description in the Conferences 9 and 10 of the repetitive use of a passage of the Psalms. St. Diadochos ties the practice of the Jesus Prayer to the purification of the soul and teaches that repetition of the prayer produces inner peace.
The use of the Jesus Prayer is recommended in the Ladder of Divine Ascent of St. John Climacus (ca.523–606) and in the work of St. Hesychios the Priest (ca. 8th century), Pros Theodoulon, found in the first volume of the Philokalia. The use of the Jesus Prayer according to the tradition of the Philokalia is the subject of the 19th century anonymous Russian spiritual classic The Way of a Pilgrim.
Though the Jesus Prayer has been practiced through the centuries as part of the Eastern tradition, in the 20th century it also began to be used in some Western churches, including some Roman Catholic and Anglican churches.
The Jesus Prayer is composed of two statements. The first one is a statement of faith, acknowledging the divine nature of Christ. The second one is the acknowledgment of ones own sinfulness. Out of them the petition itself emerges: "have mercy."
The hesychastic practice of the Jesus Prayer is founded on the biblical view by which God's name is conceived as the place of his presence. The Eastern Orthodox mysticism has no images or representations. The mystical practice (the prayer and the meditation) doesn't lead to perceiving representations of God (see below Palamism). Thus, the most important means of a life consecrated to praying is the invoked name of God, as it is emphasized since the 5th century by the Thebaid anchorites, or by the later Athonite hesychasts. For the Eastern Orthodox the power of the Jesus Prayer comes not from its content, but from the very invocation of the Jesus' name.
Theologically, the Jesus Prayer is considered to be the response of the Holy Tradition to the lesson taught by the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, in which the Pharisee demonstrates the improper way to pray by exclaiming: "Thank you Lord that I am not like the Publican", whereas the Publican prays correctly in humility, saying "Lord have mercy on me, the sinner" ().
The Essence-Energies distinction, a central principle in the Eastern Orthodox theology, was formulated by St. Gregory Palamas in the 14th century in support of the mystical practices of Hesychasm and against Barlaam of Seminara. It stands that God's essence (ousia) is distinct from God's energies, or manifestations in the world, by which men can experience the Divine. The energies are "unbegotten" or "uncreated". They were revealed in various episodes of the Bible: the burning bush seen by Moses, the Light on Mount Tabor at the Transfiguration.
Apophatism (negative theology) is the main characteristic of the Eastern theological tradition. Incognoscibility isn't conceived as agnosticism or refusal to know God, because the Eastern theology isn't concerned with abstract concepts; it is contemplative, with a discourse on things above rational understanding. Therefore dogmas are often expressed antinomically.
For the Eastern Orthodox the knowledge of the uncreated energies is usually linked to apophatism.
The Eastern Orthodox Church holds a non-juridical view of sin, by contrast to the satisfaction view of atonement for sin as articulated in the West, firstly by Anselm of Canterbury (as debt of honor) and Thomas Aquinas (as a moral debt). The terms used in the East are less legalistic (grace, punishment), and more medical (sickness, healing) with less exacting precision. Sin, therefore, does not carry with it the guilt for breaking a rule, but rather the impetus to become something more than what men usually are. One repents not because one is or isn't virtuous, but because human nature can change. Repentance (metanoia, "changing one's mind") isn't remorse, justification, or punishment, but a continual enactment of one's freedom, deriving from renewed choice and leading to restoration (the return to man's original state). This is reflected in the Mystery of Confession for which, not being limited to a mere confession of sins and presupposing recommendations or penalties, it is primarily that the priest acts in his capacity of spiritual father. The Mystery of Confession is linked to the spiritual development of the individual, and relates to the practice of choosing an elder to trust as his or her spiritual guide, turning to him for advice on the personal spiritual development, confessing sins, and asking advice.
As stated at the local Council of Constantinople in 1157, Christ brought his redemptive sacrifice not to the Father alone, but to the Trinity as a whole. In the Eastern Orthodox theology redemption isn't seen as ransom. It is the reconciliation of God with man, the manifestation of God’s love for humanity. Thus, it is not the anger of God the Father but His love that lies behind the sacrificial death of his son on the cross.
The redemption of man is not considered to have taken place only in the past, but continues to this day through theosis. The initiative belongs to God, but presupposes man's active acceptance (not an action only, but an attitude), which is a way of perpetually receiving God.
The practice of contemplative or meditative chanting is known from several religions including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam (e.g. japa, zikr). The form of internal contemplation involving profound inner transformations affecting all the levels of the self is common to the traditions that posit the ontological value of personhood. The history of these practices, including their possible spread from one religion to another, is not well understood. Such parallels (like between unusual psycho-spiritual experiences, breathing practices, postures, spiritual guidances of elders, peril warnings) might easily have arisen independently of one another, and in any case must be considered within their particular religious frameworks.
Although some aspects of the Jesus Prayer may resemble some aspects of other traditions, its Christian character is central rather than mere "local color." The aim of the Christian practicing it is not humility, love, or purification of sinful thoughts, but becoming holy and seeking union with God (theosis), which subsumes them. Thus, for the Eastern Orthodox:
A magistral way of meeting God for the Eastern Orthodox, the Jesus Prayer does not harbor any secrets in itself, nor does its practice reveal any esoteric truths. Instead, as a hesychastic practice, it demands setting the mind apart from rational activities and ignoring the physical senses for the experiential knowledge of God. It stands along with the regular expected actions of the believer (prayer, almsgiving, repentance, fasting etc.) as the response of the Orthodox Tradition to St. Paul's challenge to "pray without ceasing" ().
"There isn't Christian Mysticism without Theology, especially there isn't Theology without Mysticism", writes Vladimir Lossky, for outside the Church the personal experience would have no certainty and objectivity, and "Church teachings would have no influence on souls without expressing a somehow inner experience of the truth it offers". For the Eastern Orthodox the aim isn't knowledge itself; theology is, finally, always a means serving a goal above any knowledge: theosis.
The individual experience of the Eastern Orthodox mystic most often remains unknown. With very few exceptions, there aren't autobiographical writings on the inner life in the East. The mystical union pathway remains hidden, being unveiled only to the confessor or to the apprentices. "The mystical individualism has remain unknown to the spiritual life of the Eastern Church", remarks Lossky.
In the Eastern tradition the prayer is said or prayed repeatedly, often with the aid of a prayer rope (Russian: chotki; Greek: komvoskini), which is a cord, usually woolen, tied with many knots. The person saying the prayer says one repetition for each knot. It may be accompanied by prostrations and the sign of the cross, signaled by beads strung along the prayer rope at intervals.
People who say the prayer as part of meditation often synchronize it with their breathing; breathing in while calling out to God and breathing out while praying for mercy.
Monks often pray this prayer many hundreds of times each night as part of their private cell vigil ("cell rule"). Under the guidance of an Elder (Russian Starets; Greek Gerondas), the monk aims to internalize the prayer, so that he is praying unceasingly. St. Diadochos of Photiki refers in On Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination to the automatic repetition of the Jesus Prayer, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, even in sleep. This state is regarded as the accomplishment of Saint Paul's exhortation to the Thessalonians to "pray without ceasing" ().
Paul Evdokimov, a 20th century Russian philosopher and theologian, writes about beginner's way of praying: initially, the prayer is excited because the man is emotive and a flow of psychic contents is expressed. In his view this condition comes, for the modern men, from the separation of the mind from the heart: "The prattle spreads the soul, while the silence is drawing it together." Old fathers condemned elaborate phraseologies, for one word was enough for the publican, and one word saved the thief on the cross. They only uttered Jesus' name by which they were contemplating God. For Evdokimov the acting faith denies any formalism which quickly installs in the external prayer or in the life duties; he quotes St. Seraphim: "The prayer is not thorough if the man is self-conscious and he is aware he's praying."
"Because the prayer is a living reality, a deeply personal encounter with the living God, it is not to be confined to any given classification or rigid analysis" an on-line catechism reads. As general guidelines for the practitioner, different number of levels (3, 7 or 9) in the practice of the prayer are distinguished by Orthodox fathers. They are to be seen as being purely informative, because the practice of the Prayer of the Heart is learned under personal spiritual guidance in Eastern Orthodoxy which emphasizes the perils of temptations when it's done by one's own. Thus, Theophan the Recluse, a 19th century Russian spiritual writer, talks about three stages:
Others, like Father Archimandrite Ilie Cleopa, one of the most representative spiritual fathers of contemporary Romanian Orthodox monastic spirituality, talk about nine levels (see External links). They are the same path to theosis, more slenderly differentiated:
In its more advanced use, the monk aims to attain to a sober practice of the Jesus Prayer in the heart free of images. It is from this condition, called by Saints John Climacus and Hesychios the "guard of the mind," that the monk is raised by the Divine grace to contemplation.
A number of different repetitive prayer formulas have been attested in the history of Eastern Orthodox monasticism: the Prayer of St. Ioannikios the Great (754–846): "My hope is the Father, my refuge is the Son, my shelter is the Holy Ghost, O Holy Trinity, Glory to You," the repetitive use of which is described in his Life; or the more recent practice of St. Nikolaj Velimirović.
Similarly to the flexibility of the practice of the Jesus Prayer, there is no imposed standardization of its form. The prayer can be from as short as "Have mercy on me" ("Have mercy on us"), or even "Jesus," to its longer most common form. It can also contain a call to the Theotokos (Virgin Mary), or to the saints. The single essential and invariable element is Jesus' name.
The most common form, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner," was composed in Greek and it has been translated into numerous other languages, Eastern Orthodoxy not distinguishing between vernacular and liturgical languages. The following are languages of autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Churches: