“I don’t know what to pray. I’m not sure, right now, I know how to pray. I’m not even sure I want to pray, but I know I need to. I’m just a mess.” Ever felt that way? We all have. Whether we are facing the stark nature of our depravity, the aftermath of sinful choices, devastation caused by grief, the crushing weight of setback or the sense of just being overwhelmed, we can be so spiritually depleted, or spiritually numb, that the thought of prayer is simply too much. We don’t know what to say, how to feel, what can break through the complexity of our feelings. We know we need to pray but have little spiritual or emotional strength to even begin. That’s when you should say the Jesus prayer, an ancient prayer, only one sentence:
Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Its origin is unclear. Aspects of meditative prayer such as this ancient prayer date back to at least the time of the monks of the Egyptian desert as seen in the writings of Evagrius Ponticus (d. 339). “The standard form of the Jesus prayer,” writes Kallistos Ware, “is first found in the Life of Abba Phelmon. He was an Egyptian monk, living in the sixth century.” John Climacus, in the seventh century, was the first Greek writer to refer to it with the phrase “Jesus Prayer.”
It is clearly scriptural in origin. “Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 2:6-11), “Son of God” (Luke 1:31-35), “have mercy on me” (Luke 18:9-14). The Orthodox Church took the prayer and developed its use for prayer and meditation. Ware notes that a Jesus-centered spirituality gradually developed around its use, in which four main elements can be distinguished:
Devotion to the Holy Name “Jesus,” which is felt to act in a semi-sacramental way as a source of power and grace. The appeal for divine mercy, accompanied by a keen sense of compunction and inward grief. The discipline of frequent repetition. The quest for the inner silence of stillness; that is to say, for imageless, non-discursive prayer.
This may be more than you care to know or, even more likely, more than you care to attempt to contemplate while praying. The simpler point is that there are times when you have nothing left to breathe out toward God except these few words. And throughout history, even the brevity of this ancient prayer is sometimes reduced to simply praying, “Jesus, have mercy” or even “Jesus.”
Many years ago, I recall counseling a fellow pastor who had shipwrecked much of his life and ended up, for a brief time, in a jail cell and then a mental health institution. He said throughout that experience, all he could pray over and over was, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
And maybe that’s all you can summon to pray as well. The good news? It’s more than enough.
This article on ancient prayer originally appeared here, and is used by permission.