I call myself a Christian and yet, more often than not, I find that I have little time for God. It’s always something! Most mornings, I wake up with the best of intentions; it’s 7am, cold and quiet, and the sun isn’t even up yet. I get out of bed; pull my Bible off the bookshelf, thinking it’s time for some early morning devotions and prayer. This is meant to be my alone time with God.
But almost every morning; something will distract me from that. My phone starts ringing or I pass by the kitchen and realize I forgot to do the dishes the night before. What about that email I still need to reply to? On any given day I can find a thousand distractions to keep me from even a few minutes with God.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? Do you ever feel like the daily grind has you too busy to spend any time alone with God? If your answer is yes, I’d like to show you how you can have that alone time with God no matter where you are or what you are doing, whether it’s sitting in a cubicle, being stuck in a traffic jam or mowing your lawn.
While this may seem it’s just a problem of our technological age, you aren’t alone in wondering how to find the time to pray. An anonymous 19th century Russian believer was wrestling with the same issue and it gave way to one of the greatest spiritual works in the long history of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
“On the twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost I came to church to attend the Liturgy and entered just as the Epistle was being read. The reading was from Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, which says in part ‘pray without ceasing.’ These words made a deep impression on me and I started thinking of how it could be possible for a man to pray without ceasing when the practical necessities of life demand so much attention.”
And so begins the quest of a spiritual seeker, and a book which I would recommend to all of you called the Way of a Pilgrim. The writer travels across Russia talking to priests, monks and devout laypeople; hoping to find out how to pray without ceasing. On each leg of the journey he is met with disappointment, hardship and spiritual struggle.
Finally, he meets an Abbot who teaches him the Prayer of the Heart, better known as the Jesus Prayer. The Abbot tells him “Sit down in silence. Lower your head, shut your eyes, breathe out gently, and imagine yourself looking into your own heart. Carry your mind, that is, your thoughts, from your head to your heart. As you breathe out, say, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me." Say it moving your lips gently, or simply say it in your mind. Try to put all other thoughts aside. Be calm, be patient, and repeat the process very frequently.”
The Jesus prayer is quite simply “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”
The key to cultivating the prayer is to say it with awareness and focus on the heart. You say it from your heart, from the very depths of your being. This allows the wandering mind to descend into the heart, pushing all other thoughts aside. Have faith that the Lord is hearing you, listening to you and drawing near to you as you recite the words. This will ground you in prayer no matter where you are or what you’re doing. Of this, Saint John of Kronstadt once said: “When you pray, keep to the rule that it is better to say five words from the depth of your heart than ten thousand words with your tongue only.”
If you are willing to practice it several times a day, eventually it will become totally engrained in your mind and you will find yourself doing it all the time. “For a whole week I stayed alone in my hut and recited the Jesus Prayer six thousand times every day, neither worrying about anything nor paying attention to the distracting thoughts...I became so accustomed to the Prayer that if for a short while I stopped reciting it I felt as if I were missing something.”
The Jesus Prayer has helped me to silence the anxious ramblings of my mind and to ground myself in the presence of God. With it, my heart is turned to prayer at all hours of the day and night, no matter where I am or what I am doing. Indeed, it has become a part of me.
And it is perhaps the most Biblical prayer we could ever make; for as a Greek Orthodox monk once told me, “In the Orthodox tradition we call the Jesus prayer the Prayer of the Heart, not just because we say it from the heart, but because in that one sentence is contained the very heart of the Gospel message.”