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Deacon Kyle Eller: Praying the Jesus Prayer has been a gift for me

For many years, whenever the subject has come up, I’ve said that my favorite prayer is the Jesus Prayer. There are several slight variations on it, but the one I pray most often is one of the wordiest versions of it: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” 

Deacon Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

We have a weekly day of Eucharistic Adoration in one of the parishes I serve, and almost every week I am there for the last hour before celebrating Benediction. Several months ago, as I was sitting there wrestling even more than usual with anxiety and distraction, I felt as if the Lord gave me one of those little nudges he sometimes does: “You always say the Jesus Prayer is your favorite prayer. Maybe you should pray it.” 

So I did, and I was so grateful for the peace that followed that evening and for weeks after. Since then, I have tried to be more deliberate in making that a daily part of my prayer life, and I have encountered it in a number of different contexts, such as church leaders and friends mentioning it and a Catholic writer I admire writing about it in a recent issue of Magnificat. 

So, I wanted to share with you some of the things I find so beautiful about it, in case you might find it a beautiful devotion too. 

The Jesus Prayer as I try to pray it formally is a devotion more associated with the Christian East, where it is repeatedly prayed as you follow the knots of a prayer rope, somewhat akin to the way Western Christians repeat the Hail Mary on the beads of a rosary. But while in the rosary we engage our minds and hearts and imaginations in meditating on a particular mystery in the lives of Jesus and Mary, in the Jesus Prayer, it’s not really about that kind of meditation. Rather, one tries very simply to place oneself in the presence of Jesus, speaking to him, and just invoking his name and his mercy. 

The words of the prayer are simple and short but unfathomably rich, beginning with the heart the prayer, which is the invocation of the Holy Name of Jesus. Devotion to the name of Jesus is deeply scriptural — St. Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians that “at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (2:10). The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “the name ‘Jesus’ contains all: God and man and the whole economy of creation and salvation. To pray ‘Jesus’ is to invoke him and to call him within us. His name is the only one that contains the presence it signifies. Jesus is the Risen One, and whoever invokes the name of Jesus is welcoming the Son of God who loved him and who gave himself up for him” (2666). 

Put simply, when we prayerfully call his name, Jesus, true God and true man, comes to be truly present with us. Just saying his name prayerfully is a form of prayer we can pray at any time, even in the midst of the greatest grief and trial, even if we are overcome with weariness. This is why there are devotions in both the Christian East and West centered around the Holy Name. 

Variations of the Jesus Prayer also nearly always include the title “Lord,” a prayer of adoration and confessing his divinity, as well as the title “Son of God.” I like the version with “son of the living God,” echoing St. Peter’s profession of faith in Matthew 16. 

After invoking the name of Jesus and his presence within us and confessing him as Lord and God, what is the natural response of the human heart standing before the all holy? Surely if we know ourselves and are honest, the response is humility and repentance. Think of how Peter responded in one of his first encounters with Jesus, after the Lord performs a miracle: “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). 

The Jesus Prayer reflects this with great simplicity: we simply and humbly ask for mercy. 

As the Catechism notes (2667), in this call for mercy, the Jesus Prayer echoes two deeply moving passages of the Gospel. We are like the tax collector in the Temple in Jesus’ parable recounted in Luke’s Gospel, who despite his sins (and unlike the self-righteous Pharisee praying nearby) “went home justified” because he humbled himself, confessed his sinfulness, and asked for mercy (Luke 18:9-14). And we are like the blind man Bartimaeus, who sat by the roadside begging for Jesus for mercy in the form of restoring his sight, something no one else could do for him and he could not do for himself (Mark 18:46-52). 

These passages suggest for us the grand scope of what we mean by God’s mercy. Think of how we refer to mercy when we speak of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. God’s mercy embraces both our need for forgiveness for our sins and, at the same time, all of our other needs and cares of this life. That’s the mercy we ask for in the Jesus Prayer. 

All this (and no doubt more) is embodied in this simple prayer and these simple motions of the heart in God’s presence: adoration, love, humility, trust. The idea of sitting down and praying this prayer intentionally is that, by God’s grace, over time it becomes ingrained deeply in our souls and becomes the constant prayer of our hearts. 

There is a lot of anxiety and distraction in the world. If that is something you’re seeing in your life, or if you are looking for a simple devotion to help you grow closer to Jesus, maybe consider adding this to your prayer life. Block out some quiet time with Jesus, praying with great simplicity and sincerity: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” 

Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected].