The question is: What differentiates the Jesus prayer from other expressions of prayer, and what is it that makes it particularly effective or powerful? Well, the first thing I want to say is that it is not the only short prayer that Christians prayed historically. We have records of very short prayers that were prayed by Christians in the early centuries. Not all of them are early forms of the Jesus prayer: Lord, help me; God, help me; God, save me. These short prayers were very, very popular among Christians in early times. What makes all of them effective is that they are short. Rather than entering into a kind of more discursive exercise, the prayer brings one immediately into the presence of God. When the prayer is short, the heart can learn it. The heart can learn it and pray it according to its own rhythm.
What makes the Jesus prayer particularly effective, if we would use a word like that—and I think there’s a context in which we can use it like that, powerful—is its content, because it’s directly connected to Christ. It is a profoundly christocentric prayer in which we are confessing the Lord Jesus as our Lord and God. We are calling him by name. We are confessing him as compassionate, and we are asking him to relate to us personally and have compassion on us. So in a couple of words we have really entered the core of our own experience of salvation. And yet the prayer is short enough that the heart can learn it and pray it.
Here is when we discover that we are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made. I made reference to the fact that we are psychosomatic beings. The word of course comes from Greek, because psyche is soul, or life, but in this case soul; and soma is body. We aren’t simply a soul stuck in a body or an animate body that is carrying a soul. We are both, completely integrated, and that means that you and I have faculties we are not aware of. I am careful when I say that, because of course instantly in our society people start thinking about secret powers or something like that. It’s not so much about secret powers as about discovering that we have capacities of the heart and of the soul that are untapped, undiscovered.
One of them is the capacity, the ability to repeat a prayer, and to repeat that prayer even when the mind is busy doing something else, so that even when you are engaged in work that requires a lot of thought—supposing you’re an architect or an engineer, you’re doing some kind of work that requires a lot of mental concentration—your mind, what would be called in Greek dianoia, your thinking, your mind, has to be active, concentrating on that activity in order for you to do it well or do it safely in many cases, like drive a car or fly a plane. You want to make sure that if your pilot is a great practitioner of the Jesus prayer that your pilot’s dianoia is fully functional before he or she takes the plane up, and hopefully remains functional for the entire time that the plane is in the air.
But we have those faculties, those abilities, that allow us to pray, and the good part about all of this, constantly. We can’t pray with the cognitive aspect of our persons, the dianoia, 24 hours a day, but the heart can. So early Christians were… Their whole thinking and imagination was captured by a short verse that St. Paul wrote: “Pray constantly; rejoice always.” Pray constantly. And early Christians had the options of treating that as something of a literary device or taking it literally. We know they took it literally and began to explore the ways in which they could pray constantly.
So that’s what makes the Jesus prayer so effective: that it can be prayed when you are busy doing something else. And it can allow you to have a very rich life of prayer while you are in the world, where you do have to concentrate on what you are doing, and where that kind of concentration is probably going to be taking place or needed more than when you’re just at work. If you’re raising children, your level of concentration needs to be fairly high, I’d say. So it could be many hours in a day in which you are busy, and maybe even mentally exhausted, physically exhausted. That makes it harder to pray the Jesus prayer, but not impossible.
And that, I think, is the part of it that people discovered and really loved: that it could be internalized and that the heart could, once it’s internalized, just keep praying it according to its rhythm. And the heart can do that, but of course if you expose the heart to very, very long prayers, it can’t pick them up in exactly the same way, although some people have the capacity, of course, to commit to memory very, very long prayers. I think that’s the part that makes it powerful.