As a junior in college, I came across a reference to the Jesus Prayer in a book by Madeleine L’Engle. I was intrigued. The Jesus Prayer? What was that?
In those days before Google and Wikipedia, it took a bit of searching my college library’s stacks before I was confident I had learned the words to this ancient Christian breath prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”
A breath prayer is just what it sounds like, a prayer that you pray in rhythm with your breathing. The purpose of a breath prayer is to enable us to heed St. Paul’s oft-repeated injunction to pray without ceasing.
This particular prayer emerged from the desert tradition. In the third century, Christians began to go into the deserts of Egypt and Palestine in order to devote themselves to ceaseless communion with God. To this end, they experimented with different forms of prayer.
They memorized Scripture, especially the Psalms, and prayed the words throughout the day. Since communion with God was the goal, they often simply repeated one verse over and over as a way of focusing all their attention on God. Over time, the words “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me” solidified into one of the most precious desert prayers to focus the pray-er on Christ.
I have been praying this prayer for about 15 years now. Sometimes I find I’m praying it and I wasn’t even aware of it. I sort of wake up to myself and realize the prayer is praying itself.
But if the goal of praying the Jesus Prayer is unceasing prayer, I am nowhere near it. In my life, the Jesus Prayer sort of looks like this:
Jack is crying because he doesn’t feel good. Ben is crying because he’s poopy. Luke is crying because he’s tired. Jane is crying because she wants me to read to her and for some reason – maybe because there are three other children wailing!?! – I just can’t right now sweetheart, okay?!? Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
It’s ten in the morning, and I have not yet managed to get dressed. The kitchen looks like a category three storm has struck it. The bathroom smells like a puppy mill. The laundry baskets are overflowing. And the kitties have left a trail of muddy paw prints all over my white sheets. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
I’m cleaning out the drawings and coloring pages Jane has shoved between the sideboard and the wall, an outside wall, mind you, in our 98-year-old, insulated-with-newspaper house, and I find black mold growing up said wall. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
I fall into bed, grateful the day is finally over. I have cleaned up a lot of messes. I have grumbled and complained about it. I have yelled at my kids. I have been impatient and unkind. Just like last night and the night before that and the night before that, I want to do better tomorrow, truly I do. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
I take heart, though: at least some of the time instead of swearing or screaming or dissolving into a blubbering mass of self-pity when circumstances conspire against me, I pray. It’s not unceasing communion with God, but it’s a start.
For a brief introduction to practicing breath prayer, check out pages 120-121 of my book, The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year.
For a more in-depth look at breath prayer, see chapter 3 of Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life by Marjorie Thompson.
For a wise and well-written introduction to the Jesus Prayer, check out The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Matthewes-Green.
This post is part of a Lenten series on spiritual practices that help us attend to the presence of God. Click here to read the whole series.