Most of us know about the Jesus Prayer, at least how to say it in its various forms: “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Whichever way one says it is less important than saying it on a consistent basis, for a period of time each and every day, uninterrupted, and with attention.
The question has been posed to me in the past, “How effective is this prayer to our healing and to drawing us closer to God?” This may seem like a rhetorical question, and we could easily cite many monks, Saints, and theologians concerning the tremendous impact that the Prayer has on a person. Some of you may even give testimony to your own experience of saying the Prayer. Nevertheless, the question is valid.
Outside of personal testimonies, there has been research on the Jesus Prayer. I recently came across a doctoral dissertation of a friend and colleague of mine who studied the effects of the Jesus Prayer. The title of his dissertation: The Impact of Contemplative Prayer on Psychological, Relational, and Spiritual Well-Being: A Study of the Jesus Prayer (George Stavros, Ph.D.), brought to light some interesting data that I’d like to share with you.
The significance of the study, according to Dr. George Stavros, is manifold and I cannot possibly cover it all in this article, so I’ll just highlight a couple of things. In his words, the study was for the purpose of “bringing together theoretical, experiential, and empirical literature and research from religious, theological, psychological and medical studies in an attempt to understand the effects of practicing the Jesus Prayer on contemporary persons.” More specifically, and for our own interests as Orthodox Christians, this study has importance on how the recitation of the Jesus Prayer brings about “relational and healing aspects” to our lives, both spiritually and psychologically. Forgive me if this is too “scientific” for some of you. Coming from a family of academicians, it was appealing to me and I believe it can be used with those who may place less emphasis on personal “subjective” testimonies, and lean a bit more toward scientific data. Of course we know that this can only take us so far in God’s cosmos.
Population: The treatment group studied consisted of 88 parishioners from Greek Orthodox congregations throughout the United States. “There were 45 participants in the experimental group and 43 in the control group. The sample was evenly divided between males and females. The participants ranged in age from 25 to 74, with over half (53%) of the sample under 40 years of age. Virtually all (99%) of the participants were white, and a large number were married (78%) and were parents (75%). Most of the participants were of Greek ethnic background (68%), and 92% identified themselves as being Eastern Orthodox Christians. 83% of the participants had at least college degrees . . . The treatment group was instructed to practice the Jesus Prayer ten minutes daily for a total of thirty days. The Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” was prayed continuously while sitting quietly and in solitude.
Among several things the study showed, there were two that were very significant. First, “The treatment group’s adjusted post-test means on two scales measuring reported relationship with God were significantly higher than those of the control group. Second, the treatment group’s adjusted post-test means on measures of depression, anxiety, hostility, and interpersonal sensitivity were significantly lower than those of the control group.” The data showed that the practice of saying the Jesus Prayer ten minutes a day for 30 days sitting quietly, increased one’s perception of feeling closer to God and decreased one’s level of depression, anxiety, hostility, and interpersonal sensitivity.
Through his research, Dr. Stavros was able to show the effectiveness of the Jesus Prayer in a person’s life. In his dissertation he stated, “Practicing the Jesus Prayer ten minutes per day for thirty days provided the prayer group with a specific technique by which they could replace dysfunctional, primitive thinking with the words and thoughts of the prayer. Primitive thinking is characterized by harsh, global, moralistic, and irreversible ideas about the self and the self’s place in the world (Beck, 1976). Some of the most prevalent and well-documented cognitive experiences of depression include hopelessness, worthlessness, and meaninglessness in life (Westgate, 1996). In this way the Jesus Prayer could serve as a means of thought stoppage by offering a simple, repetitive, cognitive focus with a positive meaning in place of more primitive and destructive cognitions. The Jesus Prayer could also contribute to psychological symptom reduction by challenging and stopping depressive cognitions, including negative views of self, world, and the future and anxiety-provoking cognitions, including fears of physical and psychological danger, catastrophic misinterpretations of bodily and mental experiences, and obsessions and doubts (Kaplan, Sadock, and Grebb, 1994, p. 861). The Jesus Prayer, as a therapeutic intervention, may have also contributed to stopping primitive thinking and impulses, which characterize a cognitive movement toward an anger response. Finally, practicing the Jesus Prayer appears to have contributed to stopping and replacing some of the negative assumptions and expectations and harsh character diagnosis associated with interpersonal sensitivity.”
Beyond this research, we read in the Fathers of the Church that reciting the Jesus Prayer does have tremendous impact on the soul of the person. St. Barsanuphius the Great (6th cent.) states, “Unceasing calling upon the name of God cures one not only of passions, but also of actions; and as a medicine affects a sick man without his comprehension, similarly the invocation of the name of God destroys passions in a manner beyond our comprehension.” How is this possible? One answer can be found in the teaching of St. Mark the Ascetic who said, “Christ is hid within the Scripture.” In other words, we cannot read the word and the Word of God not be present. Thus, we cannot utter the name Jesus Christ and not have Him present at that moment because as St. Mark alludes, it’s impossible to separate the Name from the Person. In all, whether through scientific research of the writings of the Holy Fathers of the Church, the practice of saying the Jesus Prayer is a means of healing and deeper union with God. However, as we begin the practice of saying the Prayer, we must simultaneously strive to live by the commandments of God. If we do not strive to live according to our Lord’s gracious teachings, the Jesus Prayer will have little impact on us. While it’s good to see a reduction in symptoms as this research shows, and people having a sense of being closer to God, it is just the beginning. The goal of every Orthodox Christian is purity of heart “for they shall see God” (c.f. Mt. 5:8). The process of becoming more like Christ is the process of becoming less carnal and more spiritual in our being, something that is only possible through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the action of God’s grace in our life. So we strive to unite our mind with our heart through the Prayer, pushing out the distractions and the impurities of this world and our passions. St. Ignatius Brianchaninov puts it this way:
“The union of the mind with the heart is the union of the spiritual thoughts of the mind with the spiritual feelings of the heart. Since man has fallen, since his thoughts and feelings have been changed from spiritual into carnal and earthly thoughts and feelings, it is necessary by means of the commandments of the Gospel to lift up the mind and spirit to spiritual thoughts and feelings . . . This means that the mind and heart cannot be united unless we completely renounce our fallen nature, unless we surrender ourselves entirely to the guidance of the Gospel, unless we attract the grace of the Holy Spirit to heal us by constant and increased obedience to the Gospel commandments, unless we are healed and restored to life by the touch of grace, by the overshadowing of the Spirit” (The Arena).
Dr. Stavros reminds us that, “healing requires an interaction between the human person and an “other,” a person or Person with whom one interacts in ways which are lifegiving and directed towards wholeness.” Our Lord said, “Behold, I stand at the door (of your heart) and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me” (Rev. 3:20). It is up to us to set aside a little bit of time each day to say the Jesus Prayer and strive to follow the soul saving teachings of our Lord.
One last thing, it’s a good idea to study the Scripture with commentaries of the Holy Fathers by your side. It’s also a good idea to be under the guidance of a spiritual father or mother who has been steeped in the Jesus Prayer for some time. You have heard that “the path to hell is paved with good intentions.” It’s not difficult to fall into spiritual pride, so for this reason, it is always good to have a guide.