My goal as a writer and Catholic small business–owner is similar to the mission statement of this website: to evangelize and to rebuild traditional Catholic culture and orthodoxy through holy objects and educational materials about the faith. In keeping with this goal, I would like to talk about our daily prayer lives in connection with an ancient custom in the Church: the Jesus Prayer.
St. Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18, “Always rejoice. Pray without ceasing. In all things give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you all.” This advice seems impossible, though: how could we possibly pray without ever stopping? The image of being on your knees in contemplative prayer for 13, 14, or 15 hours a day is obviously not what Paul is talking about here. So, practically speaking, how can we pray unceasingly? Enter the Jesus Prayer.
Unceasing prayer is a sort of mindset, a constant acknowledgment of God’s presence, His love, and His power. Much like how asking yourself the cliché “what would Jesus do?” is supposed to help you make better decisions in your life by calling to mind how Christ on Earth would handle something, the Jesus Prayer is a way to frequently and humbly acknowledge Jesus as God and ourselves as sinners in need of His mercy. When practiced with great frequency and reverence, this is a beautiful and loving way to be always united to God in prayer.
The prayer is usually associated with Eastern Catholicism or the Orthodox faiths, and it dates back to the early 4th-century monastic tradition. The prayer goes like this: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The idea is to attach this short prayer to something we frequently do every day: using the stairs, standing up from or sitting into a chair, using your turn signal, filling a glass of water, or — more traditionally — taking a breath. Usually, your breathing does not require any focus or concentration; you do it unceasingly, to keep yourself physically alive. In order to follow the command of 1 Thessalonians and to keep yourself spiritually alive, attach this simple prayer to the breathing you do unceasingly day and night.
Try this exercise: *inhale* “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” *exhale* “have mercy on me, a sinner.” By using this prayer you are invoking the powerful name of Christ and thereby counteracting the horribly common abuses against His name, breathing in the grace of Christ and expelling sin, and building a habit of prayer and connection to God. We read in John 15:5, “I am the vine: you the branches: he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for without me you can do nothing.” We need to be connected to God like a branch to a vine, sending constant signals or signs of life, and the Jesus Prayer is one of the most ancient and effective ways to do so.
I have personally tried numerous times to incorporate the Jesus prayer with my breathing and found it difficult. Then it dawned on me to attach it to a habit that is frequent, but not as frequent as breathing, and then work my way up. Is there a better habit to attach a prayer to than drinking coffee? With the astronomical number of people who consume coffee multiple times a day, it is the perfect daily activity to help form you in unceasing prayer. Therefore, I want to challenge you: every time you taste coffee, smell coffee, wait in line for coffee, talk about coffee, or even desire coffee, you should whisper the Jesus Prayer to yourself.
If you can successfully build a habit of prayer that is as consistent and dedicated as your habit of coffee consumption, you will be well on your way to unceasing prayer, constant communion with God, and a clear path to sanctity. Frequent prayer and acknowledgment of God’s life in your soul has profound impacts on you by allowing for constant focus on higher things. All of the sudden, that co-worker becomes less annoying, and that curse word is easier to swallow because you have God on the brain; on your lips; and, more importantly, in your heart (the other name for the Jesus Prayer is the “Prayer of the Heart”).
Once you have built up this habit of prayer attached to your habit of coffee-drinking, try to move to saying the prayer when you take a deep breath. You will not say it with every breath you take every day, but over time, it will become like second nature, and you will say the prayer almost as often as you breathe: “without ceasing.”
For a great explanation of this tradition that dives a little deeper, you can check out the “Catholic Stuff You Should Know” podcast episode “Jesus Prayer” — the content starts about 8 minutes in.
Jake is a Catholic convert and is passionate about spreading orthodox Catholicism and the traditional Latin Mass through writing and through his work on the Mass of the Ages documentary series. Additionally, he helps his wife, Emily, to run the Catholic All Year Market in partnership with Catholic author Kendra Tierney. He resides in Northern Virginia with Emily and his three children. He can be reached at [email protected] or through Mass of the Ages at [email protected].