Joanne McPortland – Growing up Catholic, I had never heard of the Jesus Prayer, at least not in the form in which it has been cherished and prayed by Orthodox Christians for centuries. The simplest formula of this brief repetitive petition – “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” – was of course vaguely familiar from the Gospel stories it echoes: the cure of the blind man (Mark 10:46-52), the publican’s humble confession in the parable (Luke 18:9-14). It is, in some ways, a more elaborate version of the Kyrie eleison (“Lord, have mercy”), that other litany we inherit from the East. And I was raised on (and have returned to) the practice of silently praying “My Jesus, mercy!” at the elevation of the Chalice at Mass. But there was no Jesus Prayer as such in my childhood missal or prayerbook.

It was my husband, devoted to Byzantine liturgy and spirituality, who first introduced me to the Jesus Prayer. The repetition of this prayer is central to the Eastern Christian contemplative tradition known as Hesychasm (from the Greek for “keeping silence”) or prayer of the heart, as it is often described in the West. Popularized by an anonymous 19th-century Russian spiritual classic, The Way of the Pilgrim, the Jesus Prayer is associated with the kind of round-the-clock prayerful contemplation that St. Paul called prayer “without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). The prayer is so beloved of Eastern (and now, increasingly, Western) Christians that it is said to be the most frequently recited Christian prayer after the Our Father and the Hail Mary. CONTINUE READING