From the Chapel — April 3: The Jesus Prayer

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Our Sunday Visitor chapel. Scott Richert photo

Scott Richert “From the Chapel” is a series of short, daily reflections on life and faith in a time of uncertainty. As people across the world cope with the effects of the coronavirus — including the social isolation necessary to combat its spread — these reflections remind us of the hope that lies at the heart of the Gospel.

Over the last few weeks, I have mentioned on more than one occasion “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” by St. John Climacus. It’s a work of great spiritual insight, originally written for monks, but read every Lent by many Eastern Catholics and Orthodox. I’ve read it a few times myself and have returned to it this year after several years away.

“The Ladder” is inspired by the ladder in Jacob’s dream, the one on which he saw angels descending from, and ascending to, Heaven. It is composed of 30 chapters, which are (appropriately) called steps, or rungs.

I read Step 28 today. It’s a chapter on prayer, and I was struck, as I have been in previous readings, by how simple and straightforward St. John’s advice is. After all, each step is supposed to build on the previous one, and so the reader might reasonably expect that, by the time he gets to the third-to-last step, more might be expected of him.

Yet here is the essence of St. John’s advice: “Let your prayer be completely simple. For both the publican and the prodigal son were reconciled to God by a single phrase.”

That single phrase, in the case of the publican, became the heart of the Jesus Prayer, the most famous of Eastern Christian prayers. There are slight variations, but the one I took to heart over 30 years ago is this: “O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

There’s a whole literature on the Jesus Prayer, including techniques for praying it (slowly, while breathing in on the first clause, out on the next, in and out), but at its heart it embraces three things: first, the power of Jesus’ name; second, the need to humble ourselves; and last, St,Paul’s admonition to pray unceasingly.

You can pray the Jesus Prayer a single time, as an aspiration or ejaculation, but it’s meant to be repeated, over and over, until you find yourself praying it without having consciously to do so.

That’s not something that happens in one sitting, or overnight, or even in the course of a single Lent. But if you keep at it, one day you’ll find that you are praying the Jesus Prayer when you didn’t even realize that you were praying.

There’s no time better than these last days of Lent, as we’re all struggling to stay on course (especially this year), to start praying the Jesus Prayer. When you feel a bit anxious about the latest news, or your family is getting on your nerves, or your broadband is on the fritz and your videoconference isn’t working, take a deep breath, call to mind the story of the publican and the Pharisee, and pray: “O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.

Scott P. Richert

Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.