Throughout my life I have memorized a whole litany of prayers, but very few have reached the depths of my heart. Many prayers stay at the surface and sometimes it seems like I am babbling on instead of entering into an authentic state of prayer.
There is one prayer, however, that I discovered and which I believe can help a person transform their life and root out sinful habits.
What is the prayer? It can be found in the book The Way of a Pilgrim.
Not being satisfied with the preaching of numerous priests on the topic of prayer, the Pilgrim wandered about from village-to-village until he ran into an old hermit. After the Pilgrim explained his struggles with “ceaseless prayer,” the elder (staret) gave this advice:
“The ceaseless Jesus Prayer is a continuous, uninterrupted call on the holy name of Jesus Christ with the lips, mind, and heart; and in the awareness of His abiding presence it is a plea for His blessing in all undertakings, in all places, at all times, even in sleep. The words of the Prayer are: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!‘ Anyone who becomes accustomed to this Prayer will experience great comfort as well as the need to say it continuously” (18, emphasis added).
The elder goes on to advise the Pilgrim to recite it six thousand times a day, using a chotki to count them. The number may seem impossible to accomplish, but because of the brevity of the prayer, it is meant to become a habit that you recite with each breath.
But why this prayer? Where does it come from?
It is an ancient prayer that was popular among the Desert Fathers and is found in a collection of spiritual writings called the The Philokalia. This collection of writings dates back to the 4th century and has authors such as St. Anthony the Great, St. John Damascus, and St. Mark the Ascetic.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes a few paragraphs explaining this prayer:
2667 “This simple invocation of faith developed in the tradition of prayer under many forms in East and West. The most usual formulation, transmitted by the spiritual writers of the Sinai, Syria, and Mt. Athos, is the invocation, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us sinners.’ It combines the Christological hymn of Philippians 2:6-11 with the cry of the publican and the blind men begging for light. By it the heart is opened to human wretchedness and the Savior’s mercy.”
2668 “The invocation of the holy name of Jesus is the simplest way of praying always. When the holy name is repeated often by a humbly attentive heart, the prayer is not lost by heaping up empty phrases, but holds fast to the word and ‘brings forth fruit with patience.’ This prayer is possible ‘at all times’ because it is not one occupation among others but the only occupation: that of loving God, which animates and transfigures every action in Christ Jesus.”
As you can see, it is an ancient prayer that has its roots in Sacred Scripture. It focuses on the name of Jesus, which has great power, and His Divine Mercy. It is a perfect prayer for Lent.
The beauty in the prayer lies in its ability to open our hearts to recognize our sinfulness and reliance on God’s bountiful Mercy. When prayed throughout the day it brings our attention back to God.
That is why it is a powerful prayer for anyone struggling with specific sins. A great suggestion is to pray this prayer every time you are tempted and to keep praying it until the temptation dies down.
It is also a great prayer because it fosters humility; it reminds us that we are sinners and rely upon God for everything.
Practically speaking, the prayer has many forms (all of which are acceptable):
- Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!
- Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
- Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us sinners.
- Lord Jesus, have mercy!
So consider praying this prayer during this Lenten season and allow it to penetrate the depths of your heart.