The Jesus Prayer is a supplication of penance, known today by its modern prayer formula “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Both the practice and the wording of the Jesus Prayer are deeply rooted in biblical spirituality. The Jesus Prayer is recited repeatedly in penitential contemplation, following the Pauline directive to pray unceasingly (1 Thess. 5:17). The wording of the modern prayer formula comes from the lamentations in Psalms, the prayer of the blind man (Luke 18:38) and the prayer of the publican (Luke 18:13). Earlier formulas of the Jesus Prayer may have consisted of as few as one or two words (or monologistic phrases) calling on the name of God for mercy and forgiveness (John 16:23).
The first documented use of the Jesus Prayer is in the prayer culture of Egyptian monasticism in the fourth century. The sayings of Macarius the Great (also known as MACARIUS THE EGYPTIAN) in the APOPHTHEGMATA PATRUM and The Virtues of Saint Macarius (Vivian 2004) established the fourth-century practice of using short phrases such as “Our Lord Jesus, have mercy on me,” (Virtues 41) and even “Lord, help!” (AP Macarius the Great 19) as unceasing prayers of penance.
The Egyptian monks knew that by calling on the name of God for mercy, their unceasing prayers of remorse would result in the realization of the promise contained in the sixth beatitude (Matt. 5:8): purity of heart and union with God. The tradition of the Jesus Prayer has remained within the prayer culture of Egyptian monasticism to the present day (Vogt 1997), preserved through oral tradition and discipleship and later documented in the Egyptian monastic texts.
Visitors to the anchoritic communities of Lower Egypt in the fourth century had the opportunity to witness the Egyptian practice of the Jesus Prayer as evidenced by the writings of John Cassian (CASSIAN, SAINT JOHN). Cassian abandoned his monastic community in Bethlehem and spent approximately fifteen years with the anchorites of SCETIS. In the early fifth century, Cassian documented his experiences and understanding of Egyptian monasticism for the western monastic community in two volumes: The Institutes of the Cenobia and the Remedies for the Eight (De institutis cenobiorum et de octo principalium vitiorum remediis) and Conferences (Collationes).
In Conferences, the second of his two works, Cassian discusses the intimate details of the prayer culture of Egyptian monasticism as he experienced it in the late fourth century— providing his readership with unprecedented access to the private contemplative prayer life of the Egyptian monks and their ultimate intention: purity of heart and the kingdom of heaven (Conference I.4.3, IX.2.1). Cassian describes their unceasing use of the Jesus Prayer as a continuous plea for remorse and suggests using Psalm 70:1 as the perfect formula to replicate the practice of the Egyptian Jesus Prayer (Conference X.10.2).
In the fifth century, monastic texts such as the works of Cassian and the sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the Apophthegmata Patrum introduced new disciples to the prayer culture of Egyptian monasticism and, with it, their contemplative use of the Jesus Prayer. Benedict of Nursia (ca. 480–ca. 547) adopted their instructions on prayer in his monastic rule, the Rule of Saint Benedict (RB), with specific references to the Jesus Prayer formula in RB 4, 7, 17, 18, 20, 42, and 52.
Egyptian monastic texts also impacted the lives of ascetics in the East such as Barsanuphius (d. 563) and John (d. 543) of Gaza who adopted the wisdom of the Desert Fathers in their practice of unceasing prayer and employed an early formula of the Jesus Prayer in their private devotions (Ware 1986: 180; Stewart 2003: 97–108; Barsanuphius and John 2006: 187; Johnson 2010: 34). Abba Philemon (sixth or early seventh century) chose to emulate the spirituality of Abba Arsenius (Kadloubovsky and Palmer 1992: 402) and used the prayer formula “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me” as his unceasing prayer of compunction (Philokalia 2:345).
The Jesus Prayer has remained an important part of the mystical tradition in the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches and is gaining in popularity in the west through organizations on contemplative prayer such as the Centering Prayer movement of the Catholic Church (Johnson 2010: 52).
- Barsanuphius and John. 2006. Letters, Volume 1. Translated by John Chryssavgis. The Fathers of the Church 113. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press.
- Cassian, John. 1997. The Conferences. Translated by Boniface Ramsey. Ancient Christian Writers 57. New York: Newman.
- Eshagh, Patricia. 2016. “Tracing the Jesus Prayer Westward: Reaffirming Egyptian Influence on Western Monasticism in Late Antiquity.” PhD Dissertation: Claremont Graduate University.
- Johnson, C. D. L. 2010. The Globalization of Hesychasm and the Jesus Prayer: Contesting Contemplation. London and New York: Continuum International Publishing.
- Kadloubovsky, E. and G. E. H. Palmer. 1992. Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart. London: Faber and Faber.
- The Philokalia: The Complete Text 2. 1981. Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth. Translated and edited by G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware. London: Faber and Faber.
- Stewart, Columba. 2003. “The Practices of Monastic Prayer: Origins, Evolution, and Tensions.” Paper presented at Living for Eternity: The White Monastery and its Neighborhood,” a symposium at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, March 6-9. URL: http://egypt.umn.edu/Egypt/1-pb%20pdfs/stewart.pdf (accessed 16 May 2016).
- Venarde, Bruce L., ed. and trans. 2011. The Rule of Saint Benedict. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Vivian, Tim, trans. 2004. Saint Macarius the Spiritbearer: Coptic Texts Relating to Saint Macarius the Great. Popular Patristic Series 28. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
- Vogt, Kari. 1997. “The Coptic Practice of the Jesus Prayer: A Tradition Revived.” In Between Desert and City: The Coptic Orthodox Church Today, edited by Nelly Van Doorn-Harder and Kari Vogt, 111–20. Oslo: Novus Forlag.
- Ware, Kallistos. 1986. “The Origins of the Jesus Prayer: Diadochus, Gaza, Sinai.” In The Study of Spirituality, ed. Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, and Edward Yarnold, 175 183. New York: Oxford University Press.