The Jesus Prayer

January 12, 2012 Length: 20:25

Michael Tishel, the new director of the CrossRoad program at Hellenic College, presents Dr. George Stavros on the Jesus Prayer. Dr. Stavros heads up the Counseling, Psychology, and Religion doctoral programs at the Boston University School of Theology. Here he speaks at a parish retreat at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Weston, Massachusetts.

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Mr. Michael Tishel: Hello, friends, and welcome to the CrossRoad podcast. My name is Mike Tishel, and I’m the new director of the CrossRoad summer institute. It’s really a joy to work with such a wonderful ministry. If we haven’t already met, I hope our paths will cross soon or that you’ll swing by our office here at Hellenic College/Holy Cross in Brookline, Mass., for some coffee. On this week’s podcast, we will be hearing from a dear friend of our program and father of a CrossRoad alumnus, Dr. George Stavros.

Dr. Stavros is a graduate of Holy Cross and Boston University, and currently a member of the Boston University School of Theology faculty, where he oversees the counseling, psychology, and religion doctoral program. His teaching and research interests are in the connection between death, psychotherapy, and theology, and he’s a licensed psychologist and certified pastoral counselor. We will be joining Dr. Stavros as he addresses a parish retreat at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Weston, Mass., on the topic of the Jesus prayer.

[Applause]

Dr. George Stavros: So the Jesus prayer—I’m sure all or most of us have heard of it—is one of the core spiritual practices of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It’s an ancient prayer. It has its roots in scriptural accounts of people who encountered Jesus within the gospels and would cry out to him: “Son of David, have mercy on me!” or “Lord, have mercy on me!” And it can be said in several forms. The long form is: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” but it can also be said as: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,” “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” “Lord, have mercy.” So there are many ways that that core idea can be expressed.

There is no limitation on when the prayer can be said, and throughout the ancient tradition of Eastern Orthodox spiritual life, spiritual writers, that is emphasized over and over again: Don’t wait to say it, don’t think you have to know a lot to say it, don’t put yourself down by saying, “I’m not worthy to say it”—just say it, say it, say it, no matter what the situation is.

How did I come up against this? Well, about 20 years ago, I was a doctoral student at BU, and the program that I was in was an interdisciplinary one; it was a pastoral psychology program, so it was some theology and some psychology. In order to get out of that program, I had to write a dissertation, and I had to come up with an idea for that dissertation, and I could not come up with anything. But every night I would have to ride a succession of bus, train, bus in order to get from BU back to my house in West Roxbury. I was on the bus from Kenmore Square to Ruggle Station—that would be the number eight bus—and I had a book that somebody had given me, called The Way of the Pilgrim. “Okay, I’ll give this a shot.”

So I started reading it, and it was about this man who traveled like a thousand miles; he traveled from St. Petersburg to Moscow or something like that, having been taught the Jesus prayer. And all he had was a sack with some bread in it and a Bible and the Jesus prayer. It was an account of what those thousand miles were like. And the guy got mugged, the guy got his bread stolen, the guy got his Bible stolen, the guy got attacked by animals, and it was a harrowing account of all these things, but the most remarkable thing about it was he kept talking about the way the Jesus prayer contained him and held him and gave him strength and faith and calmness in the face of all these awful things that were happening to him.

As I looked at it more closely, because I had to have a dissertation project, I thought: Well, now, isn’t that interesting? He’s saying that he could’ve been very angry about what happened to him, but he was not—because he used the Jesus prayer. He could’ve been depressed about what happened to him, but he was not depressed, he said—because of the Jesus prayer. He could’ve been fearful at every turn, that another mugger or animal or thief was going to confront him, but he wasn’t afraid—because of the Jesus prayer. He could’ve hated people. He could’ve avoided people. He could’ve mistrusted people, all the time. But he didn’t: he was open to other people, he said—because of the Jesus prayer.

So I thought: “Now that’s an interesting idea. I’m going to study the Jesus prayer.” So in my kind of naïve, doctoral-student sort of way, I put together a study which some of the people in this room may have participated in, actually, where I took a hundred people, randomly split them up into two groups. Fifty of them prayed the Jesus prayer for ten minutes a day for thirty days; fifty of them just lived their regular spiritual life. It was a hundred people who didn’t regularly pray the Jesus prayer to begin with. And what I asked within this study was: Did people, did their level of anger change? Did their level of depression change? Did their level of anxiety change? Or did their level of inter-personal conflict change, if they were in the prayer group or not the prayer group?

And what the results showed was that the group who prayed had healthier results comparing between the time they started the prayer, the beginning of the thirty days and the end of the thirty days, in comparison to those who did not, on all four measures. So they were less angry, less depressed, less anxious, and less inter-personally conflicted than the group that didn’t pray. So those were the results that got me my PhD. Now, when I finish this talk, I’m going to tell you why I don’t think that’s really the big news of that, but anyway, it was interesting and it got people praying the Jesus prayer. But that was my own entry-way into it.

In order to do this study, I also had to learn a lot about the Jesus prayer, and I’m not, obviously, going to share a whole lot about that, but one thing I did want to share was a description of what it is we’re asking for when we say to Jesus, “Have mercy on me,” the word mercy being the operative or most active part of that: “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me,” because the word mercy in the West, in many Western religions, is looked upon as a cry for forgiveness almost exclusively, a cry to be released from punishment, a cry for release from the debt of sin. And in Greek, the word mercy... it’s really, it’s not that. I think that’s probably another word; it’s probably sygchōrisēs or something like that. In Greek, the word mercy, the root for it, eleos, is elaiōn, which is olive or olive oil. Isn’t that right? Elaiōn: isn’t that oil, olive oil?

So what is olive oil? What is olive oil? Well, in the ancient world, olive oil had many uses, but I’m going to point out four quick ones that are related to what we’re asking for, what the people of God are asking the Christ for, are asking the Savior for, when we say, “Lord, have mercy.” Well, it’s not so different from now. What are some things that olive oil [is] used for now? Cooking! It’s sustenance; it’s food. As a matter of fact, depending on where you look and whom you ask, it’s considered some of the healthiest food that you can take in. So when we say, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner,” we’re asking the Lord to sustain us, to feed us, to fill us up with goodness, to fill us up with health. It’s very different [from] asking to be released from the debt of sin or to avoid punishment from an angry God. It’s asking, “Lord, feed me.”

Other uses of olive oil. Do you use any olive oil in the church, or is it electric lights now? [Laughter] Kantēlia, yeah. The stuff burns incredibly efficiently. If you have enough oil and enough of a wick, it’ll go all through the night. Let’s think about it: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”: Feed me, enlighten me. Give me light. Take me out of the darkness, the darkness of my pain, the darkness of my sin, the darkness of my ignorance, the darkness that comes from a world that can assault us with all kinds of dark images. Give me light, Lord. Mercy. Feed me, give me light.

All right. Just two more uses of olive oil. Any other ideas? This one’s a little off the track, but I’m going to share it anyway. I had this good friend who was a cliff-diver, and we were in Greece a long time ago one summer, and he did one of his double-gainer triple flips into the water, and we’re like, “Ohh! Terry!” And he came up holding his heel. He goes: “Aaah! Ohh!” And we looked, and he had stepped on a sea urchin, and his heel was full of those spikes which are barbed; they’re like fish-hooks. So Terry’s a tough guy, as some of you can attest, so we all kind of took turns going: “Let me see if I can get them out, Terry,” and he’s yelling and screaming. And this yiayia comes up to us, and she says, “Ti kanete ekei? What are you people doing?” And she went into her house and she got some olive oil and she put it on his heel and she said, “[Afēsete]. Leave it there for half a day, and it’ll draw the barbs out.” And he did, and it did. He took it off a half a day later, and it was full of barbs.

So it’s healing. Olive oil has a healing property. So when we say, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” we’re saying: Feed me, enlighten me, heal me, not: Don’t strike me down. Heal me.

And there’s one more, and this—this is more a product of the ancient world, but it applies now. It’s part of our sacramental life. What else do we use oil for, sacramentally speaking? Unction, anointing. Olive oil used to be what kings and princes were anointed with when they were elevated. It’s what we use now to bless the newly baptized Christian. It’s a substance that tells us who we are, that… and not just… you know what, not just who we are but whose we are. It’s a substance that says, “We are God’s.” So when we say that we belong to God, so that when we say, “Have mercy on me,” we’re saying: Feed me, enlighten me, heal me, and tell me, remind me whose I am, remind me that I’m yours; and that you bless me with your presence, with your mercy; that you anoint me; that you remind me who and whose I am.

That ended up being a very important part of the context for this study and the teaching for this study, and it’s something that I’ve never forgotten. Twenty years later, it means more to me now than it did then.

I just want to say one more thing before we finish up. What’s different for me now as somebody who had the great privilege to study some of this as part of my schooling between when I first dove into it and now? Twenty years later, I’ve spent thousands and thousands and thousands of hours as a psychotherapist, as a couples therapist, being with people who are suffering, who are in pain, who have lost a sense of who they are. Twenty years later, I don’t think so much about symptom relief the way I was thinking about it then. And it’s not that we don’t need our symptoms relieved, as though that’s not important, to be less depressed or less anxious or less angry—those are all important things—but I think now I see the healing that comes from the Jesus prayer as being much more about the four other things: relationship, repetition, rhythm, and regulation.

And that’s a talk for another night, but I just want to say the first one: relationship. This prayer—and I think the patristic tradition of the Church, the modern theological understanding of the patristic tradition for this prayer would emphasize that it’s a prayer of relationship first and foremost. It’s a prayer that we use to ask God to remind us whose we are. And if we think about the way we learn about who we are, from the time that we’re infants all the way until we die, it’s in relationship. No matter what great things we accomplish, we still don’t feel whole unless we can look around and share those great things and know that we belong to someone and can share them. No matter what hell we go through, what pain we suffer, it becomes intolerable only when we forget that we belong to someone.

So a prayer—simple, beautiful prayer that the Church has given us, that we can do any time, anywhere—roller coaster, MRI: anywhere—is a prayer that we use to affirm that we are God’s children, that we need sustenance and light, that we need healing and anointing, and that we can affirm that we become fully alive only inasmuch as—whether we are in the midst of great triumph or we’re in the midst of great suffering—that the Lord Jesus Christ is there with us, no matter what. When the disciples—we’re coming up on Holy Thursday, and the disciples are getting all excited at Palm Sunday, and they’re thinking, “Jesus is the Christ! He’s the King! He’s going to… usher in the new age!”

Jesus just shakes his head and he goes: “Don’t you know who I am?” And he tells them, “I belong to the Father. I and the Father are one.” He doesn’t tell them who he is; he tells them whose he is. And it’s no different for us. Orthodox Christians, we don’t talk about who we are; we talk about whose we are, and that’s all carried within that beautiful little prayer.