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Concise Lexicon of Christianity

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The Jesus Prayer

We have all heard of the Lord’s Prayer, but you see my title and wonder What is the Jesus Prayer? It comes from this parable:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. Luke 18:12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.””
—Luke 18:10–14 NRSV

Accordingly, The Jesus Prayer is Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me.

Eastern Orthodox Christians have made this prayer into a devotional discipline, one that we might imitate.

Their equivalent of a rosary is just a knotted rope, often with 33 knots for the years of Jesus’ earthly life. Sometimes the ends of the prayer rope are tied together to make the whole thing a circle, with a tassel or a cross where the two ends are tied together and sometimes the rope has beads or larger knots at regular intervals. A lay person’s prayer rope might have as few as 10 knots, but monks and nuns can have prayer ropes with as many as 300 knots. There are rules for who can make a prayer rope, the type of knots that can be tied, and how it must be carried—such as in the left pocket so that it is not ostentatious. If you are not Eastern Orthodox, you can make your own prayer rope and carry it with you in your pocket so that you can pull it out in private and use it at any time.

The prayer rope is a tool to keep you concentrated on praying. Use the prayer rope by holding it in your left hand, while moving the fingers of your right hand from knot to knot to count off the number of times you pray the Jesus Prayer out loud. Your mind and voice do the praying, and your fingers do the counting. There are other variations that supplement the Jesus Prayer with other memorized prayers from Scripture, but it’s best to keep it simple.

You know how you sometimes get a song stuck in your head so that you can’t stop thinking about it? The idea behind repeating the Jesus Prayer so much is to get it stuck in your brain so that it is always going on in the background, so that you are praying at all times, quite literally. If you pray the Jesus Prayer thirty-three times in a row, it will take on a slightly different meaning each time. You pray the same words thirty-three times, but since total concentration is not possible, your mind is actually praying thirty-three different prayers with the same theme.