Lenten Reflections: The Jesus Prayer Revisited

At one point in my book, Before Nature: A Christian Spirituality (Fortress 2014), I allude to my encounter with the Orthodox Church’s celebration of the Jesus Prayer – constant repetition of “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner” or words like that. Then I discuss at length and recommend instead “the Trinity Prayer,” which claimed my soul early in my own spiritual trajectory. And I encourage readers to pray the Trinity Prayer constantly, akin to usage of the Jesus Prayer in Orthodox piety: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Come Holy Spirit, come and reign.”

I now think that my argument in Before Nature would have been enhanced had I been able to discuss the history of the Jesus Prayer, by way of introduction. This I recently realized following a close reading of an insightfully probing essay by George Lindbeck in his book The Church in a Postliberal Age (Eerdmans 2002): “Hesychastic Prayer and the Christianizing of Platonism: Some Protestant Reflections.” The Jesus Prayer was the heart of that type of prayer. All this in response to the biblical injunction: “pray constantly.” (I Thessalonians 5:16f.)

As a deeply committed proponent of the Reformation tradition, Lindbeck celebrates that Orthodox prayer tradition. First, it is Christocentric, as Luther’s theology was. Second, it affirms that “the presence of Christ at the core of the self is not dependent on what we are or what we do.” Which of course sounds like a critically important Reformation motif. Third, it presupposes that precisely in praying for Jesus’ mercy the sinful Christian becomes aware of being saved, again resonating with what was to become normative Reformation piety. Fourth, all this happens without the mediation of a priest, a Reformation-like motif, for sure.

Lindbeck concludes: “To those who affirm that human beings are psychosomatic unities, it should at least seem possible that mantra-like repetitions and yoga-like breathing exercises can be used by God as a means of grace by which to enhance a genuine and fruitful awareness of union with Christ.”

But Lindbeck adds a serious critique to these explorations, too, with which I agree. Historic practices of the Jesus Prayer seem to have led to a certain kind of escape from social engagement, according to Lindbeck. Was I implicitly aware of this liability when I, without much reflection, readily moved on from the theology of the Jesus Prayer to the theology of the Trinity Prayer? I would like to think so. Would a discussion of those limitations of the Jesus Prayer tradition, along the lines that Lindbeck suggests, have strengthened my own argument? I am sure that it would have.