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The Jesus Prayer

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The Jesus Prayer - Introduction

The Jesus prayer is an ancient form of prayer. It is described in the book “The Way of a Pilgrim” which is a Russian book by an unknown writer. This manuscript was discovered by a monk of Mount Athos. Mount Athos is a peninsula in northern Greece and its entire peninsula is home to a vast monastery which at one time was home to thousands of monks. After the manuscript was found, it was transcribed and published in Kazaan in 1884. The references to historical occurrences in the book show that the pilgrim was on his journey 25 years before this. The book was translated into English in 1930 and is now available from various publishers with slightly different translations. In addition to the instruction on the Jesus prayer, the book is a wonderful story in it’s own right, and worth reading. The story in the book is simple. The author undergoes many trials and misfortunes in his life that leave him with a withered arm, widowed, and alone. The book opens with the following:

“By the grace of God I am a Christian, by my deeds a great sinner, and by my calling a homeless wanderer of humblest origin, roaming from place to place. My possessions consist of a knapsack with dry crusts of bread on my back and in my bosom the Holy Bible. This is all. On the twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost I came to church to attend the Liturgy and entered just as the epistle was being read. The reading was from Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians, which says in part, "Pray constantly." These words made a deep impression on me and I started thinking of how it could be possible for a man to pray without ceasing when the practical necessities of life demand so much attention. I checked my Bible and saw with my own eyes exactly what I had heard, that it is necessary to pray continuously (1 Thess 5:17); to pray in the Spirit on every possible occasion (Eph. 6:18); in every place to lift your hands reverently in prayer (1 Tim. 2:8). 1 thought and thought about these words, but no understanding came to me.

"What shall I do? I thought. Where can I find a person who will explain this mystery to me? I will go to the various churches where there are good preachers and perhaps I will obtain an explanation from them. And so I went. I heard many very good homilies on prayer, but they were all instructions about prayer in general: what is prayer, the necessity of prayer, and the fruits of prayer, but no one spoke of the way to succeed in prayer. I did hear a sermon on interior prayer and ceaseless prayer but nothing about attaining that form of prayer." [(The Way of a Pilgrim: And the Pilgrim Continues His Way , Helen Bacovcin (Translator) Foreword by Walter J. Ciszek, S. J. 1992 Image Books (doubleday)]

And so the pilgrim embarks upon a journey of learning ceaseless prayer. After a year he finally meets up with a monk elder who presents him with a book called the Philokalia and starts instructing him on ceaseless interior prayer. The Philokalia consisted of a collection of writings, originally in Greek, by the fathers of the church from the fourth to the sixth century and includes writings by many eastern orthodox writers including St. John Climacus (sixth century), Hesychius of Jerusalem (fourth century), and St. John Chrysostom (fourth century).

The Way of the Pilgrim continues as he learns and practices this prayer on his journey. He is blessed with many interesting fellow travelers and hospitable hosts along the way and observes God working in his life and in those around him. He spreads the word of the Jesus prayer to those he meets and engages in spiritual discussions, all of which benefit the reader. Eventually he embarks upon a journey to the Holy Land, but he never makes it for a variety of reasons. Perhaps he ended up in Mount Athos.

  • 1 Thessalonians 5:17 - Pray without ceasing.
  • Ephesians 6:18 - With all prayer and supplication, pray at every opportunity in the Spirit. To that end, be watchful with all perseverance and supplication for all the holy ones.
  • 1 Timothy 2:8 - It is my wish, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands, without anger or argument.

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