“Pray the Jesus Prayer!” my friend shouts.
It’s a warm August day; I’m about eleven years old at the time. A number of my church friends and I are in a rowboat—probably too many of us in one boat, maybe a little too young to be out unsupervised.
“I’ve never had to row in wind this strong before,” a friend calls over the chaos of panicking kids.
“Um, okay, I guess let’s all try praying, guys,” I say quietly.
O Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
Three short years later, I am sitting in a dark hospital waiting room for what seems like the thousandth time. In my hands, I am holding the back brace that will turn me from a confident tomboy to a self-conscious teenager.
Credit to Art4TheGloryOfGod via flickr
“Walk up to the X-ray machine and stand straight,” I heard the familiar voice of the technician.
O Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
Fast forward another six years, and now I am teaching Sunday School. “Okay, everyone, today we are going to learn about the Jesus Prayer. Do you all know it? It goes like this: O Lord Jesus Christ…” “Have mercy on me a sinner!” I hear the group of six- and seven-year-olds say. I look up and smile, knowing that the Jesus Prayer is one of the first things we teach kids when they start Sunday School at age three.
You might be wondering why, at my church, children learn this prayer at such a young age, when they are probably too young to understand its meaning. Yes, it is in part because the prayer is short, but there is so much to it than that.
Earlier I mentioned two stories that have happened in my life where, momentarily, I genuinely felt afraid and alone. Remember the rowboat story? My friend’s older brother swam over and helped us row to shore, and moments later it seemed as though nothing had happened. And the hospital story? The X-ray clinic is a fading memory.
Likely some of you reading this right now are enduring trials much worse than the ones I have mentioned. Maybe, right now, you are living through some of the worst years of your life. I don’t know. Everyone faces different struggles in their lives.
The Jesus Prayer is so important to me because I associate it with God’s enduring work in my life over the years—the work of a God who was present somewhere even during the darkest moments, a God who will never abandon us. The words are so simple but so profound at the same time: O Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. When I pray these words, I am also reminded of these words from the book of Deuteronomy: God will never leave you nor forsake you. If your heart is open to Him, of course God will have mercy on you! I hope this prayer can be a constant reminder to us of God’s enduring love for humankind.
Of course, praying is not magic, as several of my fellow Blog Contributors have dutifully reminded us over the past few weeks. I don’t pretend to understand how God works, and I don’t pretend to understand why it might sometimes seem as though our prayers go unanswered. But, all the experiences that I have associated with the Jesus Prayer over the past few years remind me that, despite moments of genuine fear and pain, we have a loving and merciful God, and that all our trials shall some day pass.
Anastasia Lysack in her third year of her Music degree at the University of Ottawa. She attends Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church in Ottawa, where she teaches Sunday School and sings in the choir. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, volunteering, and visiting just about any coffee shop in the city of Ottawa.
“O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who art in all places and fillest all things, Treasury of blessings and giver of life: come and dwell in us, cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O gracious Lord.”
You may have heard this prayer before, but have you ever taken a second to think about who it is to? We have prayers to God (as a Trinity and in His various Persons), the Theotokos, and various saints: which one is this? As it turns out, this is the only prayer in Orthodoxy (as far as I know) to the Holy Spirit. Let’s break it down.
Of course, I am not an expert on this prayer. I have done no additional research on it for the sake of this article.
From the hand of Deacon Matthew Garrett
Everything I am about to say is stuff that I have learned or thought through, so I strongly encourage you to enhance your knowledge of this prayer by discussing it with a priest and thinking about it on your own.
There are two halves to this prayer. The first half outlines who the prayer is to, the second outlines the request (before adding more about who the prayer is to). The opening line are all phrases that Jesus uses for the Holy Spirit. He tells his disciples multiple times that He will send them “the Comforter,” instructing them to remain in Jerusalem until He does. In fact, one time He goes as far as to tell them that it was good that He was leaving them, because if He had remained on earth, the Comforter would not have come. He also refers to the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Truth in the Gospels.
We go on to say that this Comforter and Spirit of Truth is in all places and fills all things. This is critical in the Orthodox understanding of the Kingdom of God and salvation, and it influences Orthodox architecture.
Let’s suppose for a moment that the purpose of life is to be where God is, and let us suppose that God is in heaven. Therefore, the purpose of life must be to get to heaven so that we can be with God. If we believe that God is in all places, this is problematic because God is already here. God is already present with us, wherever we are, whatever we are doing. We don’t need to get to some other place to be with Him. What does that mean about heaven? Well, it means that we get to live out the Kingdom of God here on earth by connecting ourselves to the God who surrounds us, filling all things. This is why Orthodox churches have domes, showing the encompassing presence of God, rather than steeples pointing to some place where we presume He is.
I know there is still more to unpack in the first half, but I don’t know enough to talk about it, so let’s move on to the second half. What are we asking this omnipresent Comforter, this Spirit of Truth? It looks to me like an invitation. We are simply saying: come, be with us. Whatever we are doing right now, come be a part of it so that what we do may become sanctified. Come live in me, that I may learn to live in you.
We get to live out the Kingdom of God here on earth by connecting ourselves to the God who surrounds us, filling all things.
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One last thought about this prayer: remember it when Pascha comes around, because you will notice that we don’t say it any more. Once Christ is risen, He is with us. Like He said, the Comforter need not come while He’s here. After His ascension, we stop singing Christ is Risen, but we still don’t add this prayer back in. We wait 10 more days until the day of Pentecost, when the Comforter comes. On that day, that prayer is more powerful than ever, as for the first time in 50 days, we as a Church come together and ask the Holy Spirit to “come and dwell in us, cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O Gracious Lord.”
May this prayer have new meaning to us whenever we say it, and may we remember it whenever we are doing anything for which we could use the Spirit’s guidance. May the Holy Spirit guide us all in this effort.
Dear Psalm 50,
To be honest, I do not pray enough in college. I guess that comes from being so busy, but I really think that is an excuse I keep telling myself. In high school, I read you every night before I went to sleep sort of as a challenge to myself to see if I was capable of being that pious person who prayed “enough” and was a “good” Christian, practicing her faith even before she went to sleep.
by Daniel Go via flickr
When I went away for school, I lost the habit. I think because, of course, moving to a new place, I had trouble adjusting, but more than that, I do not think you were ever living inside me. I had not established a personal relationship with your words, and I did not know when I would.
Ironically, God answered my unspoken prayer: Spring Semester of 2016 I took a Shakespeare Acting Class. In this class, I was essentially taught how to properly read his texts. Our professor expressed that we have to listen to what the text is telling us and put aside all our preconceived notions about what we think Shakespeare is saying. It is not about us, rather the importance of clarity in relationship between the performer and the author.
With this knowledge, sections of your thoughts were illuminated for me, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love, according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions…”
It is because of poetry in other places, I was able to relate to the poetry I am given in your words. Moreover, I see the beauty in the language in which you are written that I was not able to appreciate before. It is easy to pray passively, but Psalm 50, you made it personal, and I thank God for that.
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right[b] spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
build up the walls of Jerusalem;
then will you delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.
Claire is a sophomore at UC Berkeley studying Theater and Performance Studies and English. She currently attends Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in San Francisco. Her favorite Saint is Saint Pelagia the actress and when not in church or the theater, she likes to spend her time exploring San Francisco, reading plays, and eating sushi.
Well that was fast (pun intended). It’s already the second week in November. That means Thanksgiving is rapidly approaching, and of course, that means I saw a commercial with Santa in it this past weekend. Fiat is already preparing for Christmas, it would seem.
But for Orthodox Christians, the preparation for Christmas doesn’t begin until November 15th–the day on which the Advent fast begins, the forty day preparation for the Nativity.
Now, if you’re like me, your first thought is, “No more meat,” and your second thought is, “No more meat,” and your third thought is, “Wow, this gives me an excuse to eat bacon every meal until November 15th.”
But fasting has more meaning than that, has more value than that, and I would argue that in college, that value is augmented. It’s impossible to say that a certain arena of our spiritual lives is more important than another, but my experience of fasting in college life tells me that it’s really unique for us, as students. I’d like to think about why.
Firstly, I dunno about y’all, but I had about zero control over what I ate in high school. Whatever was in the pantry was going to be breakfast and lunch for the school day, and whatever my family cooked for dinner was going to be dinner. When it was a fasting period, my mother and father ensured that the only food purchased/prepared was in accordance with the fast. On the off-chance I was purchasing food (maybe on a Wednesday or a Friday) I occasionally forgot–when I was a little kid I always used to buy chili dogs at Friday Night football games–but I was usually pretty solid.
By Larry Miller via Wikimedia Commons
Most of my fasting was, thereby, the choice of my family. That’s fine and good, that’s the passing on of values and traditions, that’s important. But now, I go to the dining hall every day, and there’s a vegetarian station and a vegan station and salads AND A PERMANENT TACO BAR WHICH IS TOTALLY BONKERS. If I don’t want dining hall food, I often cook for myself, and I’m the guy buying the groceries. If I fast, it’s my choice. I always have an opportunity, I always have the means. Fasting, much more so than before, is a decision that I make, and I own the consequences whether I make it or not.
The question easily follows: why make the choice, then?
There is, of course, an easy answer: because we are told to. Obedience is vital, but it is always good to understand why it is we do what we do–especially because fasting is one of the best ways to begin a discussion with someone else on campus about Orthodoxy. People constantly ask me if I’m a vegan/vegetarian, and it opens the door to introduce them to the faith.
So, why fast? I’m no theologian or seminarian, so I can’t tell you perfectly. That’s a good question for a priest.
I can tell you, however, how fasting impacts me.
It makes me feel better. More like the person I’m supposed to be, the person I wish I could be more consistently. Fasting–a little choice, a simple choice, three times a day–recaptures that feeling you sometimes get after an amazing sermon, after acts of service, after reading a prayer or scripture, after hearing a beautiful hymn. Fasting, in short, brings us closer to God.
People will ask how it does this. Quite simply, by letting go of something earthly, there is more room for the heavenly. By relinquishing a tether to the body, you can acquire a tether to the soul.
All of this being said, I don’t really feel the need to understand how, I just have the experience that it does. I have an opportunity to grow closer to God, and I always try to take those opportunities.
By vxla via flickr
But, in all things, in all arenas of the spiritual life, nothing is a panacea. Nothing is an end-all, be-all. Fasting without prayer and almsgiving, fasting without daily reading and service attendance, will likely falter. Of course, by the same logic, prayer life falters without fasting. The spiritual life is holistic, and fasting is an integral piece in the heavenly pie.
The Advent fast begins on November 15th (with a day off for Thanksgiving, and oh, what a glorious day that is). I encourage you to find the permanent taco bar in your dining hall, make a daily choice, and see what it does for you. I think you’ll like what you find.
Hey team! Every Friday in the month of November, my Blog Contributors and I will be sharing our favorite prayers and why we love them so much, why we find them so impactful. If you haven’t checked out some of our Blog Contributors’ awesome work, you should here and here and also here.
I’ll be kicking things off this first Friday with a morning prayer–appropriate, I think, for our first prayer. This, I don’t believe, is in your average li’l red prayer book–at least, it’s not in mine. I’ve added it to my morning prayers though. It was introduced to me in a little prayer book someone made for me at camp arts & crafts this past year, and I’ve used it ever since. It is the Morning Prayer of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, and it goes as such:
O Lord, grant that I may meet the coming day in peace.
Help me in all things to rely upon Thy Holy Will.
In every hour of the day, reveal Thy will to me.
Bless my dealings with all who surround me.
Teach me to treat all that comes to me
throughout the day with peace of soul,
and with the firm conviction that Thy will governs all.
In all my deeds and words, guide my thoughts and feelings.
In unforeseen events, let me not forget that all are sent by Thee.
Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others.
Give me the strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring.
Direct my will.
Teach me to pray.
Pray Thou Thyself in me.
Wow. I’m still such a big fan. New little nuggets stand out to me every time I read it through.
I like beginning my day with this prayer for two big reasons. Firstly, because of my personal struggles, if there’s anything with which I need to ‘meet the coming day’, it’s peace. I think that holds true for a lot of us, but I can only speak for myself, and I know I need that peace.
Naturally. I’m controlling. I’m focused on outcomes. I’m willful. And just that opening line, sometimes it gives me pause, and I find myself really thinking about what it means and repeating it. “Lord, grant me to meet the coming day in peace.” I’m going to meet it, Lord–the coming day is, indeed, coming, and there is no way to stop life’s arrival. But if I am to meet it peacefully, I need Your help.
Secondly, and in a similar vein, at the end of the prayer, the supplicant asks for ‘the strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring’. I just realized that both of my favorite lines are in reference to the ‘coming day’. That’s really cool, and it speaks to why we should think about what we think, think about why we feel what we feel–that introspection, that checking of yo’ self, reveals new truths. This prayer is so forward-oriented, so future-focused, and that’s in harmony with my attitude towards life. I didn’t realize that until right now. How rad is that?
As well as being future-focused, this prayer is honest–I think that’s my favorite part. Not to say other prayers are deceitful, but to say this prayer is plain, it is unabashed–really, it’s human. There’s an inherent admission in the prayer–the coming day will bring fatigue. No way around it. In the midst of praying in the morning, in the midst of starting my day in the BEST possible way…I’m still aware that the day will be trying, will be toilsome.
That’s amazing. How desperately we wish prayer would just take our struggles away, but that’s not the deal. Even in prayer, in the morning, when nothing could have possibly gone wrong yet!–the coming day will bring fatigue, and I need Your strength, Lord, if I am to bear it.
So, that is the Morning Prayer of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow. I hope you can find some use in it–or, seeing it’s example, you can turn to your own favorite prayers and start wondering why they mean as much to you as they do. Until then, look out next Friday, for the next prayer.