Failing at the Jesus Prayer

No matter where we go in the Orthodox Christian world—books, podcasts, blogs, sermons, monastery road trips—somebody is mentioning the Jesus Prayer.

[Jesus Prayer plaque available from]

It’s ubiquitous. Sometimes it’s referred to as simply “The Prayer,” and everyone knows exactly which prayer that means. It is one of many tools the Church has provided us for spiritual growth and for living an Orthodox life. These tools include making the sign of the cross, establishing a prayer rule, participating in the sacraments, and the three-part recipe for spiritual growth—altogether now!—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

We also have many written prayers that are a regular part of Orthopraxy, such as the Trisagion prayer and, of course, the Lord’s Prayer.

The Jesus Prayer belongs high on the priority list of Orthodox life. 

But, why?

It took me a long time to begin to wrap my head around this. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Or the shorter version, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

It’s a good prayer. But why does the entire Church keep pointing us to it?

Failing at Praying

I have wanted to be a woman of prayer from the early days of my Christian faith, but I have to admit that I’m not very good at it. Part of the reason is that I was taught so many heterodox ideas about prayer, from the good—utilize the Psalms in my prayer life—to the flat-out wrong—“Name it and claim it.” (Also known more cynically as “Blab it and grab it” or “Lip it and grip it.”)

As I found my way to Eastern Christianity, I initially struggled with what I called “canned prayers.” But I was inspired by the idea of the Jesus Prayer, partly because it has gained some traction in Evangelical circles, and it wasn’t entirely new to me. But I am not very good at that either.

[Photo by Ruben Hutabarat on Unsplash]

I’ve been incorporating the Prayer into my life in fits and starts, and last year my priest recommended that I read a little book by Bishop Kallistos Ware of blessed memory, The Power of the Name: The Jesus Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality, which was first printed about 50 years ago. Physical copies are a bit pricey online, but the Kindle version is only about $7. I have gone back to it again and again, and I will be quoting Bishop Kallistos a lot in this post. Not because I’m doing a book review, but because it’s really helpful.

So, why am I talking about the Jesus Prayer when I keep failing at it? Because I’ve always come to this blog and podcast not as a Sherpa with the skills to guide you as you scale spiritual mountains, but as a fellow pilgrim. And as a regular gal in the pews, I know lots of other believers who are trying to incorporate the Jesus Prayer into their daily lives. It’s nice to strive together and share what we’ve learned.

I think the Jesus Prayer is a great topic for the final post of Walking an Ancient Path because growing in our practice of the Prayer is something we can all continue throughout our lives as we press forward in Christ.

The Church really does keep returning to the Jesus Prayer as a tool in our daily lives, largely because it is simple and flexible. It is easy to memorize, and so simple that even small children can pray it. It contains great depths of meaning, and it doesn’t require a seminary degree to use it. We need only begin.

How do we go about praying it? Even though people have used variations of the Prayer across the centuries, one consistent, unchanging element is the name “Jesus.” When we invoke the name of Jesus, Bishop Kallistos advises, “Begin to pronounce it with adoration and love. Cling to it. Repeat it. Do not think that you are invoking the Name; think only of Jesus himself. Say his Name slowly, softly and quietly.”

“Free” and “Formal” Prayer

Believers use the Jesus Prayer in their lives in both free and formal ways. The free way is especially useful for those of us in the world, juggling work and school and home and family. You might be  doing this already—reciting the Prayer during your usual activities. Familiar, repetitive tasks are ideal for this—we can recite the Jesus Prayer while folding laundry or digging in the garden. If I’m walking our dog Cassie alone, I will recite the Prayer silently for a while, at least until I get distracted. It’s also great for the many waiting periods in life: at stoplights, in grocery-store queues, at the dentist’s office.

The simplicity of the Prayer also makes it ideal when other types of prayer might be impossible, such as when we’re in the middle of a difficult conversation or struggling with anxiety.

The use of the Jesus Prayer is also a great example of the importance of holy Tradition in the Church to ground us. For example, in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, St. Paul famously instructs us to “pray without ceasing.” I remember discussions about this in Protestant Bible studies. How in the world is this possible? One friend knew a young man at a Christian university who interpreted this verse to mean, “Pray out loud.” So, he prayed aloud while walking to classes and while standing in the cafeteria line or browsing the bookstore. But he wasn’t reciting psalms. This was spontaneous, conversational prayer: whatever popped into his head, he told the Lord about it for everyone around him to hear. 

man in black shirt holding telephone
[Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash]

Can you imagine getting stuck in an elevator with this guy?

The use of the Jesus Prayer is a tried-and-true way of prayer that helps us stand in God’s presence wherever we are and begin to pray without ceasing. The words of the many Fathers of the Church about it are available to instruct us, as well as living spiritual fathers to guide us.

In formal use of the Jesus Prayer, which most listeners have probably tried and may even practice daily, we cease the external activity—the folding, the cleaning, the digging—and we pray with attentiveness. This can be part of a daily prayer rule—for example, five or ten minutes of invoking the name of Jesus—or tucked in during open blocks of time. Let’s look at some guidance for this.

Practical Guidance for Formal Use of the Jesus Prayer

For times devoted to uninterrupted recitation of the Jesus prayer, Bishop Kallistos recommends a seated position in a chair that is not so comfy that we might doze off. Monastics often use a short wooden stool. But, really, any posture is fine—seated, standing, kneeling, and even lying down when we’re feeling ill.

One piece of his advice surprised me: The bishop writes that the Prayer “is normally recited in more or less complete darkness or with the eyes closed, not with open eyes before an icon illuminated by candles or a votive lamp.” Sometimes I like to pray the Jesus Prayer in front of my icon corner. There’s nothing bad about that, but the guidance for darkness is mostly about avoiding distraction. We’ll get to that in a moment.

Our intentions may be good, but it’s often the case that, as our Lord observed, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38). If we’re sitting with our prayer ropes and find ourselves getting drowsy or drifting, Bishop Kallistos advises to stand up for a while to pray, make the sign of the cross at the end of each prayer, then offer a deep bow, touching the ground with the fingers of the right hand. 

Prayer Rope, 100 knots with cross and red beads
[Prayer rope available from Ancient Faith store.]

Or, make a full prostration after each prayer. That will definitely get the blood pumping.

Another long tradition of the Church is the use of a prayer rope, where the user moves her thumb over a knot of the rope with each repetition. Interestingly, the purpose of a prayer rope is to aid in concentration and regular rhythm, not so much for counting. Active hands help to still our bodies and focus our minds. This small amount of action and rhythm might be very helpful for people who struggle with ADHD.

Bishop Kallistos points out that the counting out of thousands of repetitions of the Jesus Prayer, a method featured in the spiritual classic The Way of a Pilgrim, is unusual. Saint Theophan the Recluse advised, “Do not trouble about the number of times you say the Prayer. Let this be your sole concern, that it should spring up in your heart with quickening power like a fountain of living water. Expel entirely from your mind all thoughts of quantity.”

This is good advice. (You’re welcome, St. Theophan. As if you need my approval.) Especially for those of us who are new to this spiritual practice, it’s easy to get caught up in practical considerations like posture and repetition—all the how-to’s—and forget what we are doing: we are communing with a Person. He is the focus. Techniques are only good if they help drive our hearts to Christ.

green tree on grassland during daytime
[Photo by Johann Siemens on Unsplash]

And as far as the repetition is concerned, Bishop Kallistos writes that it is okay to vary the Prayer occasionally. For example, sometimes I use the longer form, and other times I’ll intercede for someone in need with a round of “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on so-and-so.” But it’s best to settle on one formulation and stick with it. St. Gregory of Sinai warned that “trees which are repeatedly transplanted do not grow roots.”

The Theological Richness of the Jesus Prayer

There is a completeness to the Jesus Prayer; it is a summary of the gospel message. Bishop Kallistos points out that it encompasses the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity. When we pray “Jesus,” we recall His human nature; “Lord,” “Christ,” and “Son of God” (if using the longer form) emphasize His eternal Godhead.

The prayer speaks by implication, although not explicitly, of the three Persons of the Trinity. While addressed to the second Person, Jesus, it points also to the Father, for Jesus is called “Son of God”; and the Holy Spirit is equally present in the Prayer, for “no one can say ‘Lord Jesus,’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). So the Jesus Prayer is both Christocentric and Trinitarian. — Bishop Kallistos Ware

The prayer encompasses worship: we reach up to God and become aware of His glory as we pray to “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God.” Penance is present as well when we continue with “have mercy on me, a sinner.” We become conscious of our sin and unworthiness. There is a rhythm of ascent and return.

Once again I am grateful for the balance of the Orthodox Church. We are sinners, but we approach God in prayer because of His abundant mercy. It’s not about groveling with low self-esteem but understanding the reality of our station and the hope of His grace.

He who says to God, “Have mercy,” laments his own helplessness but voices at the same time a cry of hope. . . . So the Jesus Prayer contains not only a call to repentance but an assurance of forgiveness and restoration. — Bishop Kallistos

silhouette of pregnant woman beside religious altar
[Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash]

The Power of the Name

My first name, Lynnette, doesn’t really mean much. Most baby-name search engines agree that it is a diminutive—“little Lynn.” In the US, people name their babies for relatives or, more often, because they like the sound of the name. Some unfortunate children get saddled with unusual names and spellings because the parents value their own creativity.

But ancient cultures saw a close connection between a person’s name and soul. In the Old Testament, a change of name signified a change in life: Abram to Abraham (Gen. 17:5), Jacob to Israel (Gen. 32:28). When novices become monastics, they are given a new name, usually not of their own choice, as an indication of the radical renewal in their lives.

Calling on a name or doing something in someone’s name—say, “in the king’s name”—was understood as making that person present and calling forth his or her soul.

Living in the 21st-century West, this understanding of the power of a name is something I wouldn’t normally consider. But in the New Testament, healings and exorcisms were performed in the name of Jesus because His Name is power. His disciples were even annoyed that other people were using Jesus’ name: “Teacher,” St. John said, “we saw someone who does not follow us casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow us” (Mark 9:38). Whoever that DIY exorcist was, he understood the power of Jesus’ name.

The Jesus Prayer is rooted in this biblical reverence for the Name. Bishop Kallistos explains, 

Attentively and deliberately to invoke God’s Name is to place oneself in his presence, to open oneself to his energy, to offer oneself as an instrument and a living sacrifice in his hands. . . . God’s Name is intimately linked with his Person, and so the Invocation of the divine Name possesses a sacramental character, serving as an efficacious sign of his invisible presence and action.

This was an eye-opener for me. The power is in Jesus’ name, not in my ability to say the Prayer well, with perfect attention and the perfect posture. No matter how scattered I am, when I say the Jesus Prayer, I am placing myself in His presence. This is not magic. It is not manipulating the deity. It is relationship.

Redirecting Our Thoughts

The Jesus Prayer is great in theory, but our thoughts keep getting in the way. Saint Theophan the Recluse compared our thoughts to the buzzing of flies, which is pretty accurate. The tendency for our thoughts to move about restlessly in our heads is part of our interior fragmentation and a result of the Fall.

[Photo by KTMD Entertainment on Unsplash]

Many Orthodox Fathers have written about our inability to dwell in the present; our minds constantly reach forward and back, remembering and anticipating. “To stop the continual jostling of your thoughts,” says Bishop Theophan, “you must bind the mind with one thought, or the thought of One only” ( From The Art of Prayer, p. 97, quoted by Bishop Kallistos).

But a trick—if it’s not too flippant to call it that—to taming our thoughts, according to the Fathers, is to turn our attention aside to the Prayer rather than fighting or dwelling on our wayward thoughts themselves.

That’s an important insight. As I talked about in the “Canned Prayers” post of my “Stumbling Stones on the Orthodox Road” series, my lifelong tendency, when praying about an upsetting situation or difficult relationship, had been to rehash the whole situation and tell God all about my feelings. This is what was known in my circles as “conversational prayer,” but in my case it was really more of a monologue. In genuinely trying to give the difficult situation over to God, I was actually holding on to it with my many words. In confessing my anger or despair or sense of injustice, I was riling up those feelings within myself and becoming even guiltier of additional sinful thoughts.

In short, I acted as if God needed to be reminded of all the details. And if I reminded Him, maybe He would be more likely to intervene. I didn’t really think that so baldly, but my type of prayer betrayed that kind of transactional thinking. Even though I realized that I was focusing on the problem and not on Christ, for years I didn’t know how to grapple with this conundrum. During my brief charismatic phrase, I tried naming the problem, claiming healing and victory, and banishing the demons with Scripture and faith. And even then, I felt a bit like I was using a “technique,” not necessarily to manipulate God, but to gain His favor or metaphorically bend His ear my way and remind Him of His promises. Which . . . sounds like a form of manipulation.

The larger point is that even in Christ, even while turning to God, my focus remained on the problems and on trying to get rid of my anger, hurt, and confusion. Evidently lots of Christians struggle with this, because Bishop Kallistos addresses this tendency in light of the Jesus Prayer:

Our spiritual strategy should be positive and not negative: instead of trying to empty our mind of what is evil, we should fill it with the thought of what is good. ‘Do not contradict the thoughts suggested by your enemies,’ advise Barsanuphius and John [6th-century monks], ‘for that is exactly what they want and they will not cease from troubling you. But turn to the Lord for help against them, laying before him your own powerlessness; for he is able to expel them and to reduce them to nothing.’

All the willpower in the world can’t stop the parade of thoughts and images in our minds as we pray. As the old saying goes, “Don’t think about a pink elephant.” Probably right now you are conjuring up an image of a pink elephant in your mind. I know I am. Why is it oddly Disney-esque? Oh, right. “Pink Elephants on Parade” from Dumbo. But I digress.

Bishop Kallistos quotes St. Mark the Monk:

The rational mind cannot rest idle, for thoughts keep filling it with ceaseless chatter. But while it lies beyond our power to make this chatter suddenly disappear, what we can do is to detach ourselves from it by “binding” our ever-active mind “with one thought, or the thought of One only”—the Name of Jesus.”

I remember a time early in my Orthodox life when I was driving somewhere—I had two high schoolers still at home, so I did a lot of driving—and I was upset about something. I started rehashing the situation then realized that my old prayer habits needed overhauling. So I stopped myself and began reciting the Jesus Prayer aloud. I’m not sure that I was praying in faith, or even with any sort of intentionality. I just knew I needed to change course.

And I discovered something life-changing. No, I didn’t have any mystical experiences. But as I murmured the Jesus prayer over and over while driving the city streets, not caring at stoplights what other drivers might think of this mumbling crazy woman in the minivan, my mind and heart shifted. A bit of peace descended. Repeating the powerful name of Jesus over and over will do that.

My problems did not go away, but by reciting Jesus’ name instead of my grievances, I became much calmer. At other times, when I wasn’t in the car, I used my 33-knot prayer bracelet. Once around the rope, I experienced some calm. Twice around the rope, and I was much more at peace. Once again, the problems remained. But my thoughts were now centered on Christ, His mercy, and my helplessness without Him. 

woman spreading her arms
[Photo by Fuu J on Unsplash]

Bishop Kallistos notes that experienced monastics might have the spiritual discernment and long experience to battle their wayward thoughts and passions directly. But for the rest of us, redirection can be a powerful tool.

I’ve tried my best to retain this practice. When a painful memory surfaces or a terrible situation drags on and on, sometimes I’ll simply pray, “Lord, it hurts.” Then I recite the Jesus Prayer inwardly—maybe only a few repetitions if I have other tasks to attend to. But now, most of the time, I don’t tell God why it hurts—He knows. I don’t tell Him how the situation is affecting me—He knows. He also knows the who, what, and when.

Very few words are involved. What freedom!

What to Think About during the Jesus Prayer

In our minds, words tend to be accompanied by images—or at least ideas. But the Jesus Prayer is not a form of meditation on the events of Jesus’ life or reflection on His parables or sayings. It’s not about inwardly pondering theological truths. Meditation on images and concepts is a very Western approach that became popular with the Counter-Reformation of the Roman Catholic Church. It has strayed far from ancient Eastern Christian practices.

But I’m a very Western gal still learning to think Orthodox, so this advice from Bishop Kallistos brought me up short: “As we invoke the Name, we should not deliberately shape in our minds any visual image of the Saviour.” Huh? I had often prayed the Jesus Prayer with an icon, so was this advice simply the bishop’s personal preference?

Nope. He quotes St. Gregory of Sinai: “Keep your intellect free from colours, images and forms; beware of the imagination (phantasia) in prayer.” Saint Theophan expands on this idea: 

The essential part is to dwell in God, and this walking before God means that you live with the conviction ever before your consciousness that God is in you, as he is in everything: you live in the firm assurance that he ees all that is within you, knowing you better than you know yourself. This awareness of the eye of God looking at your inner being must not be accompanied by any visual concept, but must be confined to a simple conviction or feeling.

[Photo by Rob Horner]

I still struggle with that—my mind is full of pictures. Plus, I like to pray the Jesus Prayer in front of my icon wall. That’s not necessarily wrong, but the point of the prayer is to become one with Christ without anything coming between us, whether an image or a theological concept or some sort of elevated thought. As St. Philotheus of Sinai taught (9th or 10th century), “Through the remembrance of Jesus Christ, gather together your scattered intellect.”

So, the repetition of the prayer is not about logical thought or even iconographic images but the simplicity of love. We repeat the name of Jesus over and over . . . because we love Him.

Let me say straight off that I am absolutely no good at this. I am most aware of the rambling thoughts, images, and feelings inside me when I am trying to devote just a few short minutes to reciting the Jesus Prayer. But—back to the principle of not fighting thoughts but instead directing our thoughts elsewhere—I press on. Bishop Kallistos advises, 

Do not think about your thoughts and how to shed them; think about Jesus. . . . If your attention wanders, as undoubtedly it will, do not be discouraged;  . . . If it wanders again and again, then again and yet again bring it back. Return to the centre—to the living and personal centre, Jesus Christ.

I think it’s tempting for converts like me to give up too easily. We’re learning so many new things—Liturgy, new ways of prayer, looking to the Church for biblical interpretation—that we worry about doing everything right. The right prayer posture. The correct fasting rules. Fear that our food allergies and medical conditions will prevent us from practicing the strictest, purest form of fasting. Am I doing it wrong? Will I miss God’s blessing because I can’t do all this stuff right?

If you struggle with this inward panic, please talk with your spiritual father. The point of ascesis of any sort is to tame our passions and to draw closer to Christ. We’re not doing this to check off boxes or to graduate from some invisible academy. In the meantime, the good news about the Jesus Prayer is that if our goal in repeating it is to know and love Him better, we can’t do it wrong. Maybe that means that I’m not really a failure after all, as long as I seek Him, imperfectly but sincerely.

Without denying or diminishing the classic teaching of the Hesychast masters on the Jesus Prayer as a “shedding of thoughts,” it has to be acknowledged that over the centuries most Eastern Christians have used the Prayer simply as an expression of their tender, loving trust in Jesus the Divine Companion. And there is surely no harm in that.

Inward Prayer

Now, this is the mystical part. A few years ago I watched the excellent 60 Minutes documentary about Mount Athos, which is available on YouTube. At one point the interviewer was talking with a young monk about prayer, and the monk responded with something like, “How do you know I’m not praying now?” I thought, “Aha!” As a newly minted Orthodox Christian, I felt very in-the-know. I knew he was reciting the Jesus Prayer inwardly and had perhaps even  achieved the prayer of the heart.

This is sometimes also called “prayer of the intellect-in-the-heart,” and it’s a big Orthodox life goal for me. “Heart” in this context does not just mean our emotions—which is the common Western understanding— but “the totality of the human person”—our innermost being, our deepest self.

Okay, that’s not entirely clear. So Bishop Kallistos quotes Russian philosopher Boris Bysheslavtsev: 

[The heart is] the centre not only of consciousness but of the unconscious, not only of the soul but of the spirit, not only of the spirit but of the body, not only of the comprehensible but of the incomprehensible; in one word, it is the absolute centre.

Um, okay. Regular gal in the pews talking over here: That’s not particularly helpful either. I kinda sorta almost get the general idea, that the heart is not just the physical, beating organ; it is also more than the spiritual and emotional center of our being. I can vaguely imagine the idea of my truest, inner self.

One more shot, from Bishop Kallistos again: “Like a drop of ink that falls on blotting paper, the act of prayer should spread steadily outwards from the conscious and reasoning centre of the brain, until it embraces every part of ourselves.”

Now that’s something I can envision, whether or not I experience it. For the mind to descend into the heart during the recitation of the Jesus Prayer, I have no idea how that happens. I’m guessing that when it happens, you know it.

Attaining true prayer requires this descent. We don’t abandon our intellect, which is God’s gift. Instead, among advanced practitioners, the mind and heart unite. The descent of the mind into the heart is a restoration of unity and wholeness.

Much has been written on the prayer of the heart. When I describe this as an Orthodox life goal, I’m being simultaneously serious and ridiculous. Inner prayer, in which the prayer continues inside at all times, is not something I can achieve with my will, or even with practice. It is a transition from deliberately saying the prayer to the prayer sort of “saying itself.” More specifically, it is Christ praying the prayer in me. As such, it is a gift from God. As Christians we are temples of the Holy Spirit, and God meets us here in His temples.

green and black typewriter with white printer paper
[Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash]

In short, this process is a mystery. Of course. This is Orthodox Christianity. What was I expecting—an instructional manual with bullet points? As Bishop Kallistos describes it, “Prayer of the heart, then, designates the point where ‘my’ action, ‘my’ prayer, becomes explicitly identified with the continuous action of Another in me. It is no longer prayer to Jesus but the prayer of Jesus himself.”

There are a few unusual few people in history, like the author of The Way of the Pilgrim, who move to self-acting prayer in a span of only a few weeks and months,. The prayer repeats itself in their hearts even when asleep. For most people, it happens after a lifetime of struggle, if at all. In the 7th century St. Isaac the Syrian stated that “scarcely one in ten thousand” receives the gift of pure prayer.

That is both discouraging and . . . a relief. I don’t need to do my usual task-oriented setting of goals, followed by self-reproach when I don’t achieve pure prayer. Because it’s the wrong goal. My Orthodox life goal should be—and is, when I apply some course correction—knowing Christ and being united with Him. I am on the path, and by God’s grace I will incorporate the Jesus Prayer more and more into my daily life and press on.

[Photo by Rob Horner]

The final objective of practicing the Jesus Prayer—and of all of the Christian life—is theosis, deification or divinization. 

Christ is the goal. His Life in me is the goal. Achieving pure inner prayer would be wonderful, but even if God gives me that gift, I will still need to continue walking the path of repentance, of faithfulness, of participating in the sacraments, of ascesis as I am able—and willing. The Jesus Prayer will be an important part of this journey, regardless of my self-imposed definitions of success and failure. And I am grateful for the beginner-level blessings I have received from reciting it as I am walking this ancient path.


Let’s press on toward Christ and pray for one another. I am ending Walking an Ancient Path, but you can find the blog posts at Also, the podcast episodes will still be available, archived on the Ancient Faith Radio app and the website. 

I hope you have been encouraged by the content and have found the Orthodox Christian Faith more approachable through the thoughts of this fellow gal in the pews.

May God continue to bless and lead you on your journey in Him, whether or not you are part of the Orthodox Church. Here on earth or in eternity, I hope you can join me and that we can walk this path together.


  1. Well, I finally read the last two posts! And they are wonderful. Thank you for all of the posts you’ve written, Lynnette, they are a blessing. Pray! And continue in your journey to help others, like myself, who need to hear “the view from the pew” (do real Orthodox Churches have pews? LoL!)!

    God bless and hold you and yours close!

    1. Byron, I just now saw this. Thank you! I’m so glad my varied thoughts hit the mark for you. May God bless you and your family as well!

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