The Story Behind the Jesus Prayer

The Story Behind the Jesus Prayer

November 15, 2022

The following article by Rdr. John Malov is taken from the The Catalog of Good Deeds, the official blog of the Catalog of St. Elisabeth Convent.

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The Jesus Prayer is a treasure of the Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church. It reaffirms in succinct form the two central tenets of the Gospel: the divine-human nature of Jesus Christ and the Triune God.

It does the former by calling Him by His name, as a human being, and by addressing Him as the Lord. As the Apostle Paul teaches, no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3). By referring to Christ as the Son of God, it proclaims His sonship to the Father.

So what are the origins of the Jesus Prayer, and how did its text evolve? Keep reading to find out.

In this article, we cover the history of the Jesus Prayer from its beginnings to the universal acceptance of its final text by 14th-century monastics and laymen. We leave out the spiritual achievements of the later fathers of the Church, including the Optina Elders – not out of disrespect for their contributions, but only due to space limitations. We may follow up with another article discussing the tradition of saying Jesus’ prayer after the 14th century if you indicate your interest in this topic in your feedback.

Gospel prototypes and the religious context

Prototypes of Jesus’ prayer can be found in each Synoptic Gospel. Perhaps the best known among them is the famous prayer of the Publican in the Gospel of Luke (18:33): “God, be merciful to me a sinner”. In the Gospel of Matthew (15:22), a woman of Canaan prays: “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David”. Bartimaeus, the blind man from the Gospel of Mark prayed to Christ in this way: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me” (Mark 15:22). The story of his healing is also narrated in the Gospel of Luke (cf. Luke 18:38).

Speaking of the context, one thing to remember is the sacred status accorded to the name in the Jewish culture in the times of the Old Testament. Many Jewish names were theophoric: they had the name of the Lord in them. For example, Michael translates as “Who is like the Lord?”, Josiah as “One strengthened by the Lord”, Zechariah as “One who remembers the Lord”, John as “Lord the Merciful”, and Joseph as “Lord the Giver.”

Even more sacred than the human name was the name of God revealed to the Prophet Moses at the sighting of the burning bush not consumed by fire in the tetragrammaton “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). Only the High Priest could pronounce it once a year, and only in the Holy of Holies. Therefore, this original name was forgotten over time.

When the Lord Jesus Christ was saying to the Jews, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58), He was telling them that the sacred tetragrammaton referred to Him. He was teaching that He, Jesus, was the One whom Moses saw. He projected this thought clearly and made it central to His ministry (see John 8:12, 10:9, 10:30, 14:6, 14:10). Any prayer that invoked the name of Jesus and expressed a supplication to Him was the Jesus prayer.

The Jesus prayer in Church history: the early years

Christian ascetics began to invoke the name of Christ in incessant prayer in the fourth century, inspired in large part by the example of Saint Macarius of Egypt. However, the earliest mention of this prayer is attributed to the Venerable Ammonius, an early fourth-century saint. In his advice to an unnamed monk, he said, “always keep in your heart the words of the Publican, and you may be saved.”

In the fourth century, anyone who wished to join a monastery needed to memorise large fragments of the Psalter and Gospel (you can read about the first monastic cloister here), if not all of them. However, in everyday monastic life, short prayers were preferred.

At the dawn of the fifth century, Saint John Cassian instructed his disciples to remind themselves of God by praying with these lines from the Psalter: “Make haste, O God, to deliver me! Make haste to help me, O Lord!” (Psalms 70:1). By that time, the prayer of the Publican, recommended by Saint Ammonius for everyday use, had undergone an evolution. In some variants, “the Lord” from the original text was replaced by “Jesus Christ”, and the final part of the supplication was reduced to “Have mercy on me.”

The Venerable Macarius gave the following advice on prayer “…tie your mind to our Lord Jesus Christ; He is the mast. He tames the waves of the raging ocean that seeks to devour the righteous. Is it too much difficulty, then, to repeat with your every breath: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me! Our Blessed Lord Jesus Christ: help me”?

During his lifetime, the venerable Macarius became a respected elder. To each successive generation of monastics, he passed on the practice of incessant exhortation of the name of Christ. He taught his disciples to keep themselves from visualising God or the events of the Gospel during prayer, but to concentrate instead on the name of Jesus Christ, which he called the sweetest nourishment of the soul.

He also underlined that the Lord bestowed His numerous gifts on those who say the Jesus prayer. He wrote: “Say the prayer of Jesus Christ: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!” Then stop for a while, and feel His divine tranquillity fill your heart. He will expel the darkness of the passions and restore your heart to a purity akin to that of Adam’s when he was in paradise. His is a blessed name, the light of the world (John 8:12), a sweetness of which we can never have enough. It is the bread of life.”

In the early years of the Church, Jesus’ prayer was more than an ascetic practice: it was the confession of the faith. It had the significance of the Creed, as it affirmed the divine-human nature of Christ and the Holy Trinity, the truths denied by the Nestorians, Arians and other heretics.

Despite becoming a staple of ascetic practice in early monasteries, Jesus’ prayer received almost no attention from theologians until the 13th century. Eventually, its significance waned, and it was on its way to abandonment. For example, reading Jesus’ prayer was discontinued on Mount Athos in the 13th century.

The return of the Jesus prayer and the doctrine of hesychasm

The Venerable Gregory of Mount Sinai (XIII-XIV centuries) was largely responsible for the return of Jesus’ prayer to Christian prayer practice. His study of the works of the holy fathers and the practice of saying the Jesus prayer convinced him of its absolute necessity for monastic life. In his writings, he called to make it central to monastic asceticism. During his life on Mount Athos, he found multiple disciples who learned from him the practice of incessant prayer.

Two of them – St. Kallistos I, Patriarch of Constantinople, and St. Gregory Palamas – were prominent theologians. Saint Gregory had disciples of his own. Together, they wrote on Christian ascetics, silence, prayer, and the Jesus prayer.

Many of these writings were included in the Philokalia, a collection of the most treasured works of monastics. Of these theologians, Saint Gregory Palamas was the most authoritative and had a lasting influence on the evolution of the Christian Orthodox tradition.

He finalised the doctrine of the divine energies (see St. Gregory Palamas’s Doctrine of Divine Energies in Simple Terms) and presented a philosophical and theological argument in its defence. He also contributed to the tradition of hesychasm, with incessant prayer, silence and asceticism as its key parts.

One element of his teaching is the doctrine of participation in the Divine Nature, achieved through the practice of Hesychasm and Jesus’ prayer (for details, see Theosis, Our Growth in the Likeness of God).

Gregory Palamas not only wrote about the practice of Hesychasm for Orthodox monastics but also defended it against Catholic influences. In his lifetime, he became known as the defender of true faith. In popular understanding, the difference between an Orthodox and a Catholic was in their attitude to the teachings of Saint Gregory Palamas. The Council of Constantinople in 1368 recognised his teaching as Orthodox, anathematised its opponents, and glorified Palamas as a saint, nine years after his death.

The works of Saint Gregory Palamas, Saint Callistas and other ascetics returned the Lord’s Prayer to monastic life. The form of the prayer changed over time, as did the practice of saying it, but its doctrinal content has not changed since the fourteenth-century ecumenical council at Constantinople.

Historical texts of the Lord’s Prayer (IV-XIV centuries)

Early years (fourth to eighth centuries):

Fourth century:

Abba Ammonius:
“O Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner” (the Publican’s Prayer Luke 18:13).

St. Macarius:
“Lord, have mercy if that be your will.”
“Lord, help me.”
“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!”

St. John Cassian:
“Hasten, O God, to deliver me, hasten, O Lord, to help me.”

6th century:

St. Dositheus:
“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me! Son of God, help me!”

St. Barsonophy and St. John the Prophet:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!”
“Jesus, help me!”
“Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!”
“Lord Jesus Christ!”

7th and 8th centuries:

Texts from the inscriptions on the walls of the monastic cells in Egypt discovered by archaeologist Antoine Guillaumont:
“Jesus Christ, the salvific name!”
“My Lord Jesus, help me!”

From St. Macarius’ Coptic Virtues:
“Our Lord Jesus Christ gives us the space to repent.”
“Our Lord Jesus Christ!”
“Our Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!”
“My Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me! I bless you, my Lord, help me!”

An anonymous version of the Jesus Prayer:
“Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us!”

Later texts:

13th century:

St. Meletius of Galice:
“Son of God, help me, Christ my Lord, keep me”.

Mark the Monk:
“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me! Son of God, help me!”

14th century:

St. Gregory of Mount Sinai, St. Gregory Palamas, Council of Constantinople of 1368:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me” (still the most common text on Mount Athos)

Barlaam of Calabria (opponent of St. Gregory Palamas):
“Lord Jesus Christ, our God, have mercy on me”.

Monk Dionysius:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, and save me.”