The Jesus Prayer
Dr. Peter Kreeft, see peterkreeft.com
1. Its simplicity and flexibility
2. What it is not: Magic
3. What it is not: Psychology
4. What it is: Power
5. What it is: Real presence
6. What it is: Grace
7. What it is: Sacramental
8. What it is: Sacred
9. Its practice
I am now going to tell you about the shortest, simplest, and most powerful prayer in the world.
It is called the “Jesus Prayer”, and it consists simply in uttering the single word “Jesus” (or “Lord Jesus”, or “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner”) in any situation, at any time and place, either aloud or silently.
There is only one prerequisite, one presupposition: that you are a Christian. If you have faith in Christ, hope in Christ, and love of Christ, you can pray the most powerful prayer in the world, because you have real contact with the greatest power in the universe: Christ himself, who assured us, in his last words to his apostles, that “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Mt 28:18).
It is also the simplest of all prayers. It is not one of the many “methods”, because it bypasses methods and cuts right to the heart of practicing God’s presence, which is the essence of prayer, the secret of which has been given to us by God the Father. The secret is simply God the Son, God incarnate, the Lord Jesus.
As the Catechism says, “The invocation of the holy name of Jesus is the simplest way of praying always…. 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” (CCC 2668).
Because it is so short and simple, this prayer can be prayed literally at any time at all and at all times, even times when longer and more complex forms of prayer are not practical or even possible. This includes times of anguish, pain, or stress, and times of deep happiness and joy.
It can be used by everyone (and has been): by the rankest beginner and the most advanced saint. It is not only for beginners; the saints use it too. It is not “cheating” just because it is so short. For it will make you pray more, not less. This only sounds paradoxical, for one of the things Jesus reminds us to do, when we invoke him by name, is to pray more!
It is so simple that it is like the center point of a circle. It is the whole circle. It contains in itself the whole gospel. The Catechism says: “The name ‘Jesus’ contains all: God and man and the whole economy of creation and salvation” (CCC 2666). Into this name the Christian can pour all of his faith, with nothing whatsoever left over, for to be a Christian is to rest all of your faith on Christ, with nothing left over.
It is not only the shortest prayer but also the shortest and earliest creed. Twice the New Testament mentions this most basic of all the Christian creeds: the simple three-word sentence “Jesus is Lord” (I Cor 12:3) and the same creed in four words: “Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil 2:11). It is also the most distinctively Christian creed, for “Lord” (Kyrios) means “God”, and Christ’s divinity and lordship over one’s life is the distinctive, essential faith of Christians: no non-Christian believes that (if he did, he would be a Christian), and all Christians believe it (if they do not, they are not Christians) .
Like any prayer, it “works”, not by the power of some impersonal magic but by the power of personal faith and hope and love. It is like a sacrament in that way: it “works” objectively (ex opere operato), by the power of God’s action, not ours; but it does not “work” without our free choice. It is like turning on a hose: the water comes to us, not from us, but it comes only when we choose to let it through.
The mere pronunciation of the name “Jesus” is not invoking him and is not prayer. A parrot could do that. God does not deal in magic, because magic bypasses the soul, especially the heart; it is like a machine. But God is a lover, and he wants our hearts, wants to transform our hearts, wants to live in our hearts.
Love is its own end. Magic, like technology, is always used as a means to some greater end. If you pray this prayer as a means, as a kind of magic or spiritual technology, then you are using it as you would use a machine or magic spell. What you love and desire is the higher end, the thing that the machine or magic spell gets you. But whatever that thing is, the love of things—of God’s gifts instead of God—does not bring God closer; it pushes him farther away. So using this prayer as a kind of magic does exactly the opposite of what prayer is supposed to do.
When you pray this prayer, do not concentrate on the name, the word, the sound, or the letters. Do not think of the name but of Jesus. And do not try to meditate on scenes from the Gospels or truths from theology, or to imagine what Jesus looks like, as you do in some other forms of prayer. Just reach out to Jesus in blind faith. “The principal thing is to stand before God with the mind in the heart, and to go on standing before Him unceasingly day and night, until the end of life” (Bishop Theophan, quoted by Kallistos Ware in The Power of the Name: The Jesus Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality).
This prayer is not merely subjective, like a psychological device, any more than it is merely objective, like magic. It is not a sort of Christian yoga. It is not meditation. Its purpose is not to transform our consciousness and make us mystics, or to bring inner peace, or to center on our own heart. Whether these things are good or bad, these things are not what this prayer is for.
For all these things are subjective, inside the human soul; but this prayer is dialogue, relationship, reaching out to another person, to Jesus, God made man, invoking him as your savior, lover, lord, and God. You have faith and hope in him as your savior; you love him as your lover; you obey him as your lord; you adore him as your God.
In this prayer our attention is not directed inward, into our own consciousness, but only out onto Jesus. Even when we address Jesus living in our own soul, he is not self but other; he is Lord of the self.
Yet, although our intention in this prayer is not to transform our consciousness, this prayer does transform our consciousness. How? It unifies it. Our usual consciousness is like an unruly, stormy sea, or like a flock of chattering monkeys, or a cage of butterflies, or a hundred little bouncing balls of mercury spilled from a fever thermometer. We cannot gather it together. Only God can, for God is the Logos. One of the meanings of this incredibly rich word in ancient Greek, the word given to the eternal, divine, pre-incarnate Christ, is “gathering-into-one”. When we pray this prayer and invoke Jesus the Logos, Jesus the Logos acts and does in fact unify our consciousness. But this is not what we aim at; we aim at him. The unification of our consciousness happens in us (slowly and subtly and sweetly) only when we forget ourselves in him. This is one of the ways “he who loses his self shall find it.”
Repetition of the holy name conditions our unconscious mind to see this name as normal, as central, and to expect him to be present and active, as a dog is conditioned by his master to see its master as central and to expect its master to be present and active. Do we train our dogs but not our own unconscious minds?
You may object, “But this sounds like a magic spell or a mantra: something not rational.” In a sense it is (though not in the sense repudiated above). Do you not know that black magic can be overcome only by white magic, not by reason? And our culture’s secularism and materialism is a powerful spell of black magic. It makes us judge Jesus by its standards instead of judging it by his standards, because it makes us see Jesus as abnormal and our culture as normal; to see Jesus as a questionable, tiny thing surrounded by an unquestionable, greater thing, namely, our culture. This is a cosmic illusion! Invoking the holy name builds up resistance to that illusion. That is not black magic; it is not itself an illusion but sheer realism. Jesus is everywhere and everywhen and the ultimate meaning of everything. This prayer in deed conditions us, but it conditions us to know reality.
“The kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power”, says Saint Paul (1 Cor 4:20). The reason this prayer is so powerful is that the name of Jesus is not just a set of letters or sounds. It is not a passive word but a creative word, like the word by which God created the universe. (He is the Word by which God created the universe!) Every time we receive Christ in the Eucharist, we are instructed by the liturgy to pray, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” All our energy and effort is not strong enough to heal our own souls, but God’s word of power is. That word is so powerful that by it God made the universe out of nothing, and by it he is doing the even greater deed of making saints out of sinners. That word is Jesus Christ.
In most ancient societies, a person’s name was treated, not as a mere artificial label for pragmatic purposes of human communication, but as a truth, a sign of the person’s unique identity. Revealing your name was thus an act of intimate personal trust, like a handshake. A handshake originally meant: “See? I bear no weapon. You can trust me.” It is a little like your P.I.N. today.
In all of human history, God revealed his own true name, his eternal name, only to one man—Moses—and only to one people—the Hebrews, his own “chosen people”—and only at one time—at the burning bush (Ex 3). This name was the secret no philosopher or mystic had ever attained, the very essence of God, the nature of ultimate reality: “I AM.”
But then, many centuries later, God did an even greater thing; he revealed a new name in Jesus (“Savior”). This is now the most precious name in the world.
It is a golden key. It opens all doors, transforms all corners of our lives. But we do not use this golden key, and doors remain locked. In fact, our society is dying because it has turned the most precious name in the world, the name of its Savior, into a casual curse word.
Even Muslims respect the holy name of Jesus more than Christians do, in practice: they commonly add “blessed be he” every time they pronounce it.
In the Acts of the Apostles (3:1-10), Peter and John heal a man lame from birth when they say, “In the name of Jesus Christ, walk.” Throughout the history of the Church and the lives of the saints, many such miracles of healing have been done “in his name”. Exorcisms are performed “in his name”. The name of Jesus is so powerful that it can knock the devil out of a soul!
The name of Jesus is our salvation. John ends his Gospel with this summary: “These [things] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:31, emphasis added). “The name of Jesus Christ” is not only the key to power-filled prayer but the key to our salvation. So we had better understand it! What does the phrase “in the name of Jesus Christ” mean?
Suppose you are poor, but your father is rich. When you try to cash a check for half a million dollars in your own name, you will get only a laugh from the bank. But if the check is in your father’s name, you will get the money. Our Father in Heaven gave us unlimited grace in the “account” of Jesus Christ and then put us “into Christ”, inserted us into his family, so that we can use the family name, so to speak, to cash checks on the account of divine grace. Saint Paul tells us that our account is unlimited: “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:19). Jesus himself first assured us of this wonderful truth, which we find hard to believe because it seems too good to be true, and then he explained why it is true:
Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. What man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Mt 7:7-I I).
If even we love our children so much that we do not settle for anything less than the very best for them, why do we think God loves his children less?
It is probably a very good exercise to practice “the imitation of Christ”, to walk “in his steps”, to ask “What would Jesus do?” in all circumstances. But the prayer we are teaching now is even better, for two reasons. First, invoking his name invokes his real presence, not mental imitation; something objective, not subjective; between us and him, not just in us. Second, it is actual, not potential; indicative, not subjunctive; “What is Jesus doing?” rather than “What would Jesus do?”
To invoke Jesus’ name is to place yourself in his presence, to open yourself to his power, his energy, The prayer of Jesus’ name actually brings God closer, makes him more present. He is always present in some way, since he knows and loves each one of us at every moment; but he is not present to those who do not pray as intimately as he is present to those who do. Prayer makes a difference; “prayer changes things.” It may or may not change our external circumstances. (It does if God sees that that change is good for us; it does not if God sees that it is not.) But it always changes our relationship to God, which is infinitely more important than external circumstances, however pressing they may seem, because it is eternal but they are temporary, and because it is our very self but they are not.
In saying it brings God closer, I do not mean to say that it changes God. It changes us. But it does not just make a change within us, a psychological change; it makes a change between us and God, a real, objective change. It changes the real relationship; it increases the intimacy. It is as real as changing your relationship to the sun by going outdoors. When we go outdoors into the sun, we do not move the sun closer to us, we move ourselves closer to the sun. But the difference it makes is real: we can get warmed only when we stand in the sunlight—and in the Sonlight.
When this happens, it is not merely something we do but something God does in us. It is grace, it is his action; our action is to enter into his action, as a tiny stream flows into a great river.
His coming is, of course, his gift, his grace. The vehicle by which he comes is also his grace: it is Jesus himself. And the gift he gives us in giving us his blessed name to invoke is also his grace. So, therefore, his coming to us in power on this vehicle, this name, is also pure grace. Even our remembering to use this vehicle, this name, is his grace. As Saint Therese said, “Everything is a grace.”
The Catechism says: “To pray ‘Jesus’ is to invoke him and to call him within us. His name is the only one that contains the presence it signifies” (CCC 2666). In other words, it is sacramental.
God comes to us on his name like a king on his stallion. When we pray to the Father in Jesus’ name, we provide God with a vehicle to come to us— or, rather, we use the vehicle God has provided for us. We do not initiate, we respond; we respond to his grace by using the gift of his name that he gave us and told us to use; and he responds to our obedience by doing what he promised: actually coming.
This is the definition of a sacrament: a sign instituted by Christ to give grace and a sign that actually effects what it signifies. Jesus himself is the primary sacrament. So the believing Christian’s use of Jesus’ name is sacramental. The very act of praying “Jesus” effects what it signifies, brings about what the name “Jesus” signifies, which is “Savior”, or “God saves”. That is the literal meaning, in Hebrew, of the name God commanded Joseph to give to Mary’s son: “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21).
A name is not a machine, for a person is not a machine. The name of a person must be personally “involved” (that is, called upon) in faith and hope and love, as a human father is “invoked” by his son in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 7. But though it is not a machine, it really “works”: when a son calls to his father, “Dad!” the father actually comes. Why? Suppose we were to ask the father. His answer would be obvious: “Because that’s my son!” The same is true of our relationship to God now that Christ has made us God’s children and his brothers. No stranger can call a human being “Dad”, and no stranger can be sure that a man will come if he calls him only by his “proper name”, for example, “Mr. Smith”. But Mr. Smith’s son can be sure his dad will come because his son can invoke him under the name “Dad”, as no one else can. Jesus has made it possible for us to do the same with God. In fact, the name he taught us to call God is “Abba”, which is the Hebrew word, not just for “Father”, but for “Dad”, or “Daddy”, or even “Dada”. It is the word of ultimate intimacy.
You may think the claim that invoking his name actually brings about his presence is an arrogant one. But in fact it is a humble one, because it is obeying his design, not initiating our own.
Or you may think, “What right do we have to think he will come whenever we call? Is he a dog?” No, he is a lover.
The fact that this holy name of Jesus actually brings about the presence of God explains why God gave us, as the second of all his commandments, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain” (Ex 20:7). In the Old Testament, the self-revealed name of God was YHWH, in Hebrew: a name is always written without the vowels because it was forbidden to pronounce it, since it meant “I AM”, or “I AM WHO AM”, and to pronounce that name is to claim to bear it. You can pronounce any other name, like “Ivan” or “Mary” or “Hey, You” without claiming to be the person who bears that name; there is only one name that you cannot say in the second person (you) or the third person (he or she), and that is “I”. Thus no Jew ever dared to pronounce that holy name, or even guess how the vowels were supposed to be pronounced, because it could be truly spoken only by God himself. That is why the Jews tried to execute Jesus for blasphemy when he pronounced it in his own name (Jn 8:58).
And that is also why Jesus commanded us to pray to the Father, as the very first petition of the model prayer he taught (which we call the Lord’s Prayer, or the Our Father) “Hallowed be thy name” (Mt 6:9). For we actually bring about and fulfill what we pray for when we call on the holy name of Jesus. We bring his presence and his mercy down from Heaven to earth, so to speak. Thus it is blasphemy to treat this holy name like any other name, because it has a holy power unlike any other power.
I will tell you a little bit from my own experience about what I think will happen when you use this prayer. For I have tried many other, more complex, and more abstract ways to pray, and I have found them all less effective than this most childlike of all ways.
Perhaps the most shattering consequence of his real presence, which is brought about by invoking his name, is that we become unable to lie to ourselves any more. He is light, and wherever he inserts his lordship there is now an absolute necessity of honesty and a zero tolerance for any form of self-deception, self-congratulation, or self gratification, even those forms that felt necessary, natural, and almost innocent before. He is gentle, but he is light, and he simply does not and will not coexist with any darkness at all; either he casts it out, or it keeps him out.
This is the negative dimension of the fact that he is light. He subtracts our falsehoods. But he also adds his truth. The positive dimension is essentially a clarification of vision, of perspective, of “the big picture”. He does not (usually) give specific directions or instant solutions, but he always gives a clarification of our vision. (This usually happens gradually.)
Thus there is a positive side to even the negative point made above. For instance, he makes us men see how flawed and mixed our motives are even in such natural and spontaneous things as a look into the face of a beautiful woman. (Half of all the women in the world are beautiful to men, nearly all are beautiful when they smile, and all are beautiful all the time to God.) We find that there is something in this look that is his, and also something that is not from him but is from the world, the flesh, or the Enemy.
And yet this insight does not bring about a guilty despair but a happy humility. For it is a sign of his presence. He is the standard. When the plumb line is present, apparently straight lines show their inclination. And this is, of course, upsetting (how easily our lines incline!), but much more is it a cause of joy (it is he!). As John Wesley said, “The best thing is, God is with us.” Once we realize that, we have the secret of joy: simply to do all that is from his will with joy, because he is there, and what is not from his will do not do.
And when his light and our darkness, his straight and our crooked, are thus brought into relationship and warfare, we gain rather than lose, even if it is upsetting. It is like bringing in the Roto-Rooter man: the garbage becomes visible, but it also becomes removable. Before his light came in, our sin was just as much present but undetected. But he was not just as much present. So that is a gain. Furthermore, he is stronger than sin; he exorcises sin more than sin exorcises him. All we have to do is to give him a chance. Open the blinds, and light casts out darkness every time.
This new sense of vision or perspective that invoking his name brings about is most sharply perceived when we invoke his name upon our problems and complaints. The wordless message I seem to get most frequently is something like this: “There are things that are infinitely more important for you than these little problems. They are all little compared to me. In fact, most of what you think of as your problems are in fact your opportunities—opportunities for the really important thing, the ‘one thing needful’, your relationship with me. So get on with it. You don’t have much more time.” He is surprisingly brisk and unsentimental. He is a no-nonsense God.
Perhaps the most definite and ubiquitous sign of his real presence, and the clearest difference between the times when I invoke his name and the times when I do not, is the state of quiet, calm alertness that he brings. Usually, I am either calm or alert, not both. When I am calm, I am relaxed and ready for sleep; when I am alert, I am worried or agitated and ready for problems. His peace, however, is not sleepiness, and his alertness is not anxiety.
His presence manifests itself, not in fire or wind or thunder, but in a still, small voice. Only in this quietness does he give us the certainty of his presence. We usually cannot hear this because we are making so much inner noise, especially when we are agitated. But this is when he wants most to come, for he goes where the need is.
And what happens when we invoke him during our agitation? He answers! But not by magic or spectacle. Nothing spectacular happens when I invoke the holy name at times when I am reacting to my problems by the “fight-or-flight response” that is so natural to our animal nature (that is, either by the “fight” of inner rage and resentment or by the “flight” of self-pity and fantasizing). At such times, when I pray his name, I do not suddenly feel holy or happy, but I do suddenly feel … well, “mature” is the only word that comes to mind. The word from the Word is often something like “Grow up!” I suddenly see that far more important things are at stake than my feelings, when I let his great wave come in and wash my little garbage away. What had looked big on my beach looks tiny in his waves.
We do not always get specific answers, even when we invoke his name; but we always get the Answerer. It is better to have his authority for “no answer” than our authority for ours. When I am in the middle of some garbage, he gives me no answer to my questions “Why did you put me here?” or “How do I solve it?”, but he gives me instead an answer to another question: “Who? ” It is he. That is his answer: himself. The real question is: “Who’s there?” And the answer is in Matthew 14:27.
We always start our sentences with “I”. We unconsciously play God. He teaches us to see our “I” as surrounded by him instead of vice versa. He is no longer an ingredient in our experience; we are ingredients in his. We are actors in his play; he is not an actor in ours, not even the most important actor.
Let me give you a small example of the positive side to this “sense of perspective” that we get from invoking his name. The other day he reminded me to speak his name while I was painting an unimportant piece of porch wood, and I suddenly saw that what I was doing was not just painting a porch but painting a portrait, myself, I was walking Home to him. Each brush stroke was a small step to Heaven. Heaven was here in this old porch, too. For all beauty, even this tiny bit of it that I was making, is his, is like him; beauty is one of the things he is, and all earthly beauty is a sunbeam of his sun. I remembered the story of two men hauling stones through a muddy medieval street. One was cursing and the other was singing. A traveler asked them what they were doing. The curser replied, “I’m trying to get this damned rock to roll through this damned mud!” The singer replied, “I’m building a cathedral.”
Is there any downside to this prayer? What is the main problem with this prayer?
Simply remembering to do it. This is embarrassing, because this forgetting is so foolish. Why do we forget? Clearly this forgetting is not merely a mental problem. There are mental blocks to remembering. Something in us fears remembering. And I think we all know what that is.
When we do remember and call him, and he comes and acts, he does all the work, for free! Our part is only to call; the Great Physician makes house calls and charges nothing. And yet we continually fail to call him. Is this reasonable?
The solution to this “forgetting” is not in our power but his. In order to receive, we must ask for the grace of remembering to ask. And for the grace to trust him with our thoughts as well as with our lives. He is the Master also of our miserable memories. A thought comes into our mind when he says, “Come!” and leaves when he says “Go!” He is the centurion, our thoughts are his soldiers. The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord.