Lesson 11: The name of Jesus
‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.’ These ten words make up the Jesus prayer, one of the forms of prayer that can help you grow in contemplative prayer.
‘Are we even allowed to pray to Jesus?’ a participant once asked me. ‘I always pray to the Father, isn’t that what Jesus taught us?’
In a later lesson I will come back to this question. In this lesson we will first get to know the Jesus prayer a bit more.
11.1 Pray without ceasing
The Jesus prayer is rooted in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. They tell the story of a Russian pilgrim who during a church service felt his soul touched deeply by the words from 1 Thessalonians 5:17: Pray without ceasing. ‘This is what God wants from me, to pray incessantly’, he felt.
He visited numerous churches and listened to many beautiful sermons about prayer. But he could not find the answer to his question of how to pray without ceasing anywhere. Then he takes to the roads and after much wandering around he encounters a spiritual leader who teaches him to pray the Jesus prayer.
That prayer is a combination of the prayer of Bartimaeus: Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! (Mark 10:47) and the prayer of the tax collector from the parable: God, be merciful to me, a sinner! (Luke 18:13).
The traditional Jesus prayer goes like this, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” The spiritual leader teaches the pilgrim to recite this prayer so often – first out loud and then in his heart – that eventually it will continually and permanently resound deep within himself, so to speak. This is to pray without ceasing.
11.2 The gospel in a nutshell
When it comes to the Jesus prayer you could say it contains the core message of the gospel. They are not just some words, these words are brimming with the good news of which the Bible speaks. When saying ‘Lord’, one confesses Jesus as Lord of heaven and earth, as the shepherd of life. And these words of Paul also resonate: No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:3).
Whoever says ‘Jesus’ acknowledges the only name that saves. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4: 12) And: Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2: 9-11)
Whoever says ‘Christ’ confesses that Jesus is God’s anointed one, the Messiah, and together with Peter affirms: You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. (Matthew 16: 16)
Whoever says ‘Son of God’ honors Jesus Christ, who is both man and God, Son of the Father: No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (John 1: 18)
And when you say “have mercy on me,” you are confessing that you are a vulnerable and failing human being who is entirely dependent on God’s grace. Hear, O Lord, and be merciful to me! O Lord, be my helper! (Psalm 30: 10)
Sometimes the words ‘a sinner’ are added to the end of the Jesus prayer, but the earliest versions did not have that, this is a later addition.
You can quite easily pray the Jesus prayer to the rhythm of your breathing. I don’t know if you have any familiarity being attentive to your breathing during stillness and prayer. I felt some resistance to this originally, because it reminded me of Eastern meditation, or New Age practices. However, I still began doing it and noticed how natural it actually is to give attention to my breathing.
Focusing your attention on your breathing helps being in the here and now physically as well as spiritually, and to participate with your whole being. You always carry your breath with you, so to speak: breathing is our most fundamental engagement, it keeps us alive. But the wonderful thing is we are usually not aware that we are breathing. The breath breathes itself.
If we want to combine focused breathing with the Jesus prayer, it can be done like this:
- when breathing in you say (in your heart and in your mind): Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God
- when breathing out you say (in your heart and in your mind): have mercy on me.
1. To illustrate the biblical essence of the Jesus prayer I mentioned several Bible verses. There are, of course, many more that resonate in the background of this prayer. Which words of the Bible are you reminded of?
2. How do you feel about coupling the Jesus prayer with a focus on the cadence of your breath?
What is a good way to practice the Jesus prayer? It’s best to just begin, and I’ll give you these three suggestions.
- First, memorize the ten words of the Jesus prayer. This won’t take a long time, but it is important.
- Spend the same amount of time as you normally would for a lectio divina exercise, but instead just silently and reverently repeat (in your heart) the words of the Jesus prayer, led by your desire to worship Jesus and be in His presence. If you like, use one of the timers.
Choose your ’timer’:
At any time during the day (or night), when you feel a desire to pray, let the Jesus prayer run through your mind (like a little prayer).
In case you look for a lectio divina exercise as well, you could use the following words from the gospel of John, 1: 1-4
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things were made through him,
and without him was not anything made that was made.
In him was life,
and the life was the light of men.
And for the aficionado, a completely different genre of music this time. Be surprised by this song where the sweet name of Jesus is lovingly sung. Listen attentively to: Andreas Scholl O Jesu, nomen dulce (O Jesus, amiable name). For years it has been a piece that for me personally, analogous to the Jesus prayer, expresses a profound love for the name of Jesus.
It really is a beautiful and powerful song in which you worship the name of Jesus.
These are the words of this hymn in Latin and English:
O Jesu nomen dulce / O Jesus, sweet name
Nomen admirabile / wonderful name
Nomen confortans / invigorating name
Quid enim canitur suavius / what indeed is more delightful to sing
Quid auditur jucundius / what is more pleasing to hear
Quid cogitatur dulcius / what is sweeter to consider
Quam Jesus, Dei filius / than Jesus, the Son of God
O nomen Jesu / O name of Jesus
verus animae cibus / true food for my soul
In ore mel / honey in the mouth
in aure melos / music in the ear
in corde laetitia mea / joy in my heart
Tuum itaque nomen / That is why thy name
dulcissime Jesu / sweetest Jesus
in aeternum in ore meo portabo / shall bear forever in my mouth
Lev Gillet, a monk of the Eastern Orthodox Church, wrote a short book titled The Jesus Prayer (1987). In this book he set forth the following:
Even in the act of invocation of the Name, its literal repetition ought not to be continuous. The Name pronounced maybe extended and prolonged in seconds or minutes of silent rest and attention. The repetition of the Name may be likened to the beating of wings by which a bird rises into the air. It must never be labored and forced, or hurried, or in the nature of a flapping. It must be gentle, easy and~ let us give to this word its deepest meaning-graceful. When the bird has reached the desired height it glides in its flight, and only beats its wing from time to time in order to stay in the air. So the soul, having attained to the thought of Jesus and filled herself with the memory of him, may discontinue the repetition of the Name and rest in Our Lord. The repetition will only be resumed when other thoughts threaten to crowd out the thought of Jesus. Then the invocation will start again in order to gain fresh impetus.