A simple prayer: Jesus, have mercy

Photo: Pedro Lima, Unsplash.

In Matthew 15, when the Canaanite woman seeks out Jesus, she needs a miracle of healing for her daughter. Her first words are a plea for -mercy: “Have mercy on me, Lord.” 

Jesus doesn’t attend to her request at first. So she asks again: “Lord, help me.” He finally listens. She draws him into a conversation, and he heals her daughter. 

Since the early centuries of the church, readers of the Gospels took stories like this one as guidance for prayer. If that’s how the Canaanite woman encountered Jesus, they thought, then we should follow her example. 

Her language, as well as other Gospel stories, inspired them to develop a simple prayer, “the Jesus Prayer,” which has been a guide for Christians for generations. 

I like the prayer because there’s nothing complicated about it. Just simple words from the Gospels. Here are the three main versions of the Jesus Prayer that have been passed down through the centuries:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.

Jesus, have mercy.

Here’s a quick history of this guide to prayer. In the third and fourth centuries, groups of Christians withdrew from the centers of power in the Roman empire to the Egyptian deserts. In these remote settings, they formed communities dedicated to prayer. We call them the desert fathers and mothers. In their surviving letters, we find mention of the Jesus Prayer.

Their wisdom on prayer grew into an important tradition in Eastern Christianity. The Jesus Prayer became useful not only for the marginal groups in desert enclaves but for all sorts of people. Pastors and theologians have reflected on the prayer and developed further guidance. 

In the 900s, Symeon of Constantinople offered this advice: “Sit down alone and in silence. Lower your head, shut your eyes, breathe out gently and imagine yourself looking into your own heart. Carry your thoughts from your head to your heart. As you breathe out, say, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, 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 frequently.”

Since the Jesus Prayer is short enough to remember, people were able to focus on the rhythm of the words and the breath that enables the speaking of the words. 

Breath is biblically and theologically important. In Genesis, the first human being receives life through the breath of God. In John 20, when the resurrected Jesus greets his friends in the upper room with peace, he breathes the Holy Spirit. 

Breath is prayer, a sharing in God’s Spirit. “Let every breath praise the Lord” (Psalm 150:6). 

Eastern Christianity has preserved a collection of writings from the fourth century to the 15th century on the Jesus Prayer. The collection is called the Philokalia. In Western Christianity, no one paid much attention to this tradition of prayer until the 20th century, when the Philokalia began to be translated into other European languages, including English.

The focus of the prayer, including the attention to breathing, helps us locate ourselves in the Bible scenes. We can see ourselves in the Canaanite woman asking for mercy. The Jesus Prayer helps to draw us into the story, to breathe our way into the scene, to imagine ourselves with Jesus. 

Many books offer techniques for prayer. There’s a whole industry on methods for a robust prayer life. The Jesus Prayer has proved durable over time. People have found the words important enough to pass along, to share from one generation to the next. 

I like that the prayer is simple. I’m Mennonite, after all. The language is straightforward, basic, available to anyone. No experts needed. It’s a prayer for walking or working or to calm your thoughts, to disengage from anxieties. 

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Jesus, have mercy on me.

Jesus, have mercy. 

The prayer is an invitation into Scripture: to find ourselves with people who ask Jesus for healing, for restoration, for hope. With these words, we open our lives to the mercy of Jesus — mercy for us, for our loved ones and for the world. 

Isaac S. Villegas

Isaac S. Villegas of Durham, N.C., is president of the North Carolina Council of Churches and an ordained Mennonite minister. Read More

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