I learned of the ancient Prayer of the Heart or The Jesus Prayer not from church or the bible, but rather from J.D.Salinger’s classic, Franny and Zooey, in which Franny becomes obsessed with this simple prayer and how, with repetition it is supposed to bring you to a zen-like peace of soul.
Their mother is concerned about Franny and asks Zooey, her brilliant son, if he knows anything about it, which he does as he knows something about almost everything. Zooey explains that the prayer has very early origins but is most commonly discovered in an 9th or 10th century Russian book by an annonymous author, The Way of a Pilgrim, which is exactly what his sister had been reading.
The Way of a Pilgrim is about a Russian man who loses everything and becomes something of a wanderer, seeking to discover the meaning of the simple prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The prayer comes from the gospels and is the combination of a couple of passages, including;
Luke 18:13 – And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’
Matthew 16:15-16 – He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus tells Peter that his confession is a revelation from God, and, he explains to the disciples that the tax collector was justified by his humility.
In The Way of a Pilgrim the old wanderer is instructed by his spiritual father to pray the simple prayer often, even repeatedly, hundreds of times per day, until it becomes a part of him, like the beating of his heart, natural, as natural as breathing.
I found a copy of The Way of a Pilgrim and fell in love with the simple story and this wanderers quest. I began saying the prayer and making it a conscious part of my earliest thoughts in the morning, interspersed throughout my work day whenever I have a moment without distraction and the last words that repeat peacefully and thoughtfully in my mind and heart as I close my eyes to sleep. And while I’ve nowhere near the discipline and sense of quest that the dear wanderer exhibits, I really can feel it changing me. I can feel God changing me.
If you like classic novels and haven’t read Franny and Zooey, I’d highly recommend it. If you are intrigued by the story of the Russian wanderer and his quest, track down a copy of The Way of a Pilgrim, you’ll not regret it. And if you seek peace with God and long to know Him intimately, I encourage you to begin saying the Jesus Prayer, say it often. Continuously. Until it becomes for you, truly, a prayer of the heart.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.