I heard of the Jesus Prayer early on in my spiritual director training, and along with my classmates I mouthed these words for the first time: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
The class was on the history of Christian spirituality. I learned that this prayer emerged from the desert fathers and mothers of the 4th century. Though it was a simple prayer, there was something about it that intrigued me. The Jesus Prayer is a mashup between the tax collector’s prayer of Luke 18 (God, be merciful to me, a sinner!) and blind Bartimaeus’s cry outside the gates of Jericho in Mark 10 (Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!). These were two of my heroes; the Jesus Prayer showed me that others in church history thought so, too.
There was something about the words of the Jesus Prayer that resonated with my heart. It reminded me of the prayer I would sometimes breathe out when coming in contact with the depths of sin in my soul: “Lord help me!” They were the only words I could say before the Holy One at those times. This usually happened when I was running, and it was often not a very pleasant experience. Knowing that the Jesus Prayer—a cry for help—was very old, helped normalize my own experience of crying out for help. I was not alone—there was an ancient prescription for a soul like mine.
One of the things that intrigued me about this prayer was that the austere desert fathers would assign their disciples the task of repeating it a thousand times or more before they would meet again. Repeating the Jesus Prayer was supposed to help you move from your head to your heart. The idea was that as you repeated it slowly and meditatively, you would move from the world of active thought into the world of feelings, desires, and longings. This continual cry for Jesus’s mercy seemed appropriate in light of my predicament—being a broken man in a broken world.
But here’s the idea that really struck me: I could use beads or a knotted rope to help count my prayers. The desert fathers probably dropped pebbles into a pouch or hole in the ground in their counting to a thousand. It doesn’t take much to move from pebble and pouch to beads on a string or a knotted rope. For me, there was a unique satisfaction that came from participating in this very ancient method of prayer.
Holding a prayer rope as I prayed the Jesus Prayer awoke part of my soul that had long been ignored in prayer. I was raised in a mainline denominational church (remember those?), and in college I started hanging out with an evangelical college ministry where I learned how to have a “quiet time.” In both my home church and my college days, prayer seemed to be disconnected from my body. My default prayer posture was in a chair, head bowed, eyes closed, elbows on my knees. My prayers were mostly in my head and had very little to do with my heart or body. As I prayed with the rope, I was learning to pray with not just with my mind, but with my body, too. The feel of the knots as they slipped through my fingers informed and rounded out my prayer. I began to see my body as a powerful ally in my prayer life.
If you come from evangelical circles like me, this kind of prayer might seem a little strange. What about Jesus’s injunction in Matthew 6:7 against “vain repetitions” or “heaping up of empty phrases”? I believe Jesus’s emphasis is on the “empty” and “vain,” not on the repetitive nature of prayer. (Consider the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18:1-8, where repetition is recommended.) The Jesus Prayer uses scriptural language, which is hardly vain and empty. Not everyone will find using a prayer rope helpful, but I believe that it falls well within the bounds of faithful Christian practice.
I have found that the combination of a prayer rope and the Jesus Prayer has helped me move closer to Paul’s command to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). My prayer rope is now part of my “everyday carry” kit. When I walk, ride the subway, or stand in line at the store, I slip my hand in my pocket and my fingers seek out my prayer rope. That tactile sensation almost reflexively causes me to begin to pray the Jesus Prayer—it’s as if my heart knows what to do without bothering my mind. The Jesus Prayer almost becomes part of my background operating system. Praying the Jesus Prayer throughout my day helps disperse the anxiety that so easily collects on me like lint. I am reminded to pray for those around me and for those on my prayer list. The rope and prayer steady me amid the buffeting of life. My prayer life is much more grounded—it’s as if I was drifting on a sea of my own anxious thoughts and someone threw me a rope.
Could it be that the Jesus Prayer could become that rope of peace for you as well?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Vaughan is an affiliate member of the ChurchNEXT ReNew Team, a CRM ministry working to strengthen the souls of Christian leaders so they can thrive in every season of life and ministry. He lives in La Mirada, CA.