More than any other prayer, the Jesus Prayer aims at bringing us to stand in God's presence with no other thought but the miracle of our standing there and God with us, because in the use of the Jesus Prayer there is nothing and no one except God and us.
The use of the prayer is dual, it is an act of worship as is every prayer, and on the ascetical level, it is a focus that allows us to keep our attention still in the presence of God.
It is a very companionable prayer, a friendly one, always at hand and very individual in spite of its monotonous repetitions. Whether in joy or in sorrow, it is, when it has become habitual, a quickening of the soul, a response to any call of God. The words of St Symeon, the New Theologian, apply to all its possible effects on us: 'Do not worry about what will come next, you will discover it when it comes'.
Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, from The Orthodox Church of EstoniaThese words from St Symeon have come to mean more to me, over the years, than I have often realised. My own spiritual path has not, on the face of it, been all that straightforward, but since the summer of 1978, though, I have known, and (if not always too consistently) practiced the Jesus Prayer, and in a sense all the turns and apparent blind alleys of my journey have been its outworkings. Certainly, it has been at times of crisis that I have been most aware of clinging to the Prayer as to a liferaft, to carry me through the waves.
The early desert monastics were said to regard a monk away from his cell as being like a fish out of water, and yet few of us these days, in the West at least, appear to be called to this reclusiveness of life. Immersed in the world, we must pray where we find ourselves, and perhaps this is indeed our calling. Swept on the same floodwaters of change that carry us all, our prayer is more than a clinging. Embedded as we are in the common condition of humanity, of creation, our prayer becomes - sometimes despite ourselves - intercession. We become as it were aerials for the Spirit, receiving stations for grace that we may not even ourselves understand.
One of the things that has always touched me about the Jesus Prayer is its simplicity. It is not in any way a mode of prayer reserved for religious professionals, nor one that requires training or qualifications. How do you pray the Jesus Prayer?
Well, you say Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Rinse. Repeat.
Obviously the Jesus Prayer is a prayer of repetition. Not the "vain repetition" of the King James Version translation of Matthew 6:7 (which the NRSV translates, more accurately, as "heap up empty phrases", which is more a criticism of long, wordy prayers than of repetitive ones), but the insistent, longing prayer of the blind men of Matthew 20:30-31, who would not keep quiet, but went on and on calling out to Jesus, "have mercy on us!" (The prayers of Isaiah 6, and Revelation 4:2 and 5:11-14 are prayers of repetition too, but of praise rather than of supplication or intercession.)
In the Orthodox tradition, the Jesus Prayer is usually counted by the 100 - this takes around 20-30 minutes, and is a convenient practical measure - and is prayed with the aid of a 50- or 100-knot woollen prayer rope, or a chotki, a set of simple wooden beads, often 33 in number.
In the West, a standard set of Latin Rosary beads is often used, or an Anglican Rosary.
These methods are all good, and have a long tradition supporting them, but the use of beads or a knotted rope will not suit everyone, since for some people the mechanical process will in itself be a distraction, rather than a defence against distraction. Some have found that the use of a visual focus, a candle maybe, or a crucifix, will bring the mind to the necessary level of concentration to avoid wandering thoughts and drifting attention - as well as having its own symbolic value; but for me, nothing replaces the tactile. I have discovered that often the most effective focus for me is a holding cross.
The holding cross can be used in both formal and informal prayer times, when walking for instance, and while it is ideally suited to the Jesus Prayer, it is most certainly not confined that that, or indeed to any, form of words. In fact that is for me one of its great benefits: unlike beads or a rope, the holding cross allows the Jesus Prayer to shade off into the prayer of silence, and back again, without any loss of rhythm or "falling behind", which so easily pulls the mind back, away from God, onto the mechanics of counting.
It is best to approach saying the Jesus Prayer with as few preconceptions as possible. Although I have read widely, and I hope deeply, on the Prayer over the years, I began saying it when I knew very little of the tradition, or the traditional methods, of praying the Prayer. It took hold, as God had obviously intended it should, and became simply part of who I am before God. The accounts of Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52), and of the tax-collector at the temple (Luke 18.10-14), became part of my own story. In fact, although when, as I mentioned above, I was first introduced to the Prayer by Fr. Francis Horner SSM back in 1978, he gave me Per-Olof Sjogren's wonderful book to read, a good deal of what happened in the years following were things for which I had no frame of reference. I only discovered much later that they were commonplace in the experience of those who pray the Prayer!
So don't be afraid, if God calls you on this way of knowing him, to strike out into the deep. After all, even the best maps can do no more than hint at destinations, and maybe warn of shoals; they can convey nothing of the sea-wind, the endless cry of the gulls, the wonderful scent of the waves as they break, or the peace there is in the lift and rock of the deep-water swell...