Prayer: A Defense Against Evil, An Expression of Hope

Prayer: A Defense Against Evil, An Expression of Hope

August 1, 2020 – “O heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who art in all places and fillest all things; Treasury of good things and Giver of life: Come and dwell in us and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O gracious Lord.”A Pocket Prayer Book for Orthodox Christians.

The importance and power of prayer is a gift to be cherished and nurtured. The picture of Jesus in the cover art is one that depicts the two sides to Him; on the right, His divine side and on the left, His human side. It is a reminder that Jesus was both divine and holy, but also that He came into this world, and took on flesh to show us the example of how to live, that we might be saved. He is the Son of God, the Word, Logos made manifest, to lead us along the long and narrow path, so that we may find redemption and eternal life.

According to Father John P. Russel, in an article entitled “Pray The Jesus Prayer Wherever You Are” one of the earliest and best prayers one can say throughout the day is the Jesus Prayer:

Two blind men follow Jesus, crying aloud, ‘Have mercy on us, Son of David” (Matt 9:27). And later they call him ‘Lord’ (9:28). And Jesus opens their eyes. This is one of the scriptural roots of the Jesus Prayer.

Even those of us who can see with the eyes of the body are often spiritually blind. We do not know where we are going in life. We cannot see where God is in all of this. Note that the blind men were blind in body but that they could nonetheless follow Jesus from one place to another (Matt 9:27-28). Following Jesus set them on the right course. First, they followed. Then they could see. It is the same with us. If first we will follow Jesus (even for our whole earthly lives), then we will spiritually see.

Our vision of God’s presence in our lives will be 20/20 if we first live faithfully and then look back upon it. Perhaps we cannot always see where God is in our lives right now, but we know by faith that he is present and, if we follow him, he will give us eyes to see that he was with us all along. I have experienced this already in my own life. Most of the time, I know where God intends me to go only after I get there, like a blind man following him through the streets of the city.

But how can I begin or continue to follow Jesus if I am blind and do not see where he is? It would help then to call out to him, like the blind men do. I promise, it will help us just to call out his holy name – the name of Jesus. Let us pray the Jesus prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.

Can you hear how this is like the prayer of the blind men? ‘Have mercy on us, Son of David,’ they pray. This is, as I say, one of the scriptural roots of the Jesus Prayer. 

Another blind man sits outside of Jericho and similarly calls out to Jesus: ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ (Mark 10:47; Luke 18:38; cf Matt 20:30–31).

The publican (unlike the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable) shows us how to pray when he bows his head, beats his breast, and says, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner’ (Luke 18:13).

In a village between Samaria and Galilee, ten lepers stand at a distance, lift up their voices and say, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us’ (Luke 17:13).

From these examples, I think we can see that the prayer of Jesus has been with us from the very beginning of Christianity. From these scriptural roots, the prayer developed further.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers of Egypt would frequently repeat short and simple prayers like these – ‘arrow prayers’ we sometimes call them because, as St. Augustine observed, ‘the brethren of Egypt offer prayers that are frequent but very brief and suddenly shot forth’ – rather like an arrow meant to pierce heaven.

Of these short prayers, St. Diadochus recommends we constantly repeat the utterly simple prayer, ‘Lord Jesus.’ The frequent repetition of the divine name of Jesus serves as a constant reminder of his divine presence with us and helps us fulfill St. Paul’s instruction that we pray unceasingly (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

We are beset constantly by distracting thoughts and temptations, which threaten to remove remembrance of God from our minds and hearts. A short and simple prayer like this, that can be called upon at any moment and for any need, is a powerful tool against these thoughts and temptations. The prayer must be as constant as are the thoughts. It must be unceasing.

There are many ways to approach unceasing prayer. The Jesus Prayer is not the only way, but it is a great help and it may be the best way.

A benefit of constantly repeating this prayer is that it then enters into the unconsciousness and you begin to find it there behind the noise of life. It joins with your breathing and the beating of your heart – the rhythms of life itself – and helps us in this way to approach unceasing prayer and the constant remembrance of the presence of God. – Fr. John P. Russel

The modern world does not teach us any of these things. It does not properly equip us for the world. It provides no spiritual drink or food to quench our thirst for something more. Often times we turn to destructive things to try to fill the spiritual void and hole deep within us. Some turn to sex to try to offset the emptyness and feel some fulfillment, others to drugs or material wealth. None of these things patch the hole in your heart. Instead they provide doors for demonic activity and they lead us down the path to death. Modernity has shortened our attention span, and because of this we seek instant gratification and are often selfish in our thinking. We let our egos or fears get in the way of having any kind of relationship with God.

When I feel tempted to sin, or feel that urge to engage in behavior I know is unhealthy or sinful, one thing I have tried is going into my room closing the door and saying “Lord have mercy on me a sinner.” This is something you can repeat a few times, even while looking at or thinking about holy iconography and soon that urge goes away. Sometimes it is even replaced by a feeling of calmness and inner peace.

Here is a specific prayer for Saturdays, according to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America:

Remember, Lord, our fathers and brethren who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection to eternal life, and all those who ended this life in piety and faith. Pardon their every transgression, committed voluntarily or involuntarily, in word, or deed, or thought. Place them in a place of light, a place of refreshment, a place of peace from which every ailment, sorrow, and lamen­tation are banished, and from which the light of your countenance shines and gladdens all your saints from all ages. Bestow on them and on us your kingdom. Grant to them the participation of your ineffable and ever­lasting blessings, and the enjoyment of your endless and blissful life. For you are the life, the resurrection, and the peace of your departed servants, Christ our God, and to you we give glory, together with your all holy, good, and life giving Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.

It is a short and beautiful prayer that you can say before breakfast every Saturday morning with your family.

Saint Ignatius tell us that the power of the Jesus prayer is in the name of our Lord. It is a powerful tool to fight off demonic attacks and temptations to sin.

Aquinas Academy’s Michael Whelan, SM, in an article entitled “Introduction to The Jesus Prayer” tells us that prayer is not only a defense against attacks but an expression of hope and faith:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-19)

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

This is an ancient prayer with its roots in the Christian Scriptures. Very early in the tradition there developed the practice of repeating a word or brief phrase, often taken from the Psalms. For example, John Cassian, in his well-known Tenth Conference, recommends the repetition of ‘O God come to my assistance, O Lord make haste to help me’ (Psalm 70:1). Such a practice was intended to keep alive one’s awareness of God and availability to God, and to seek protection from the Evil One. Thus Macarius of Sketis (d c 390), said:

There is no need to lose oneself in speaking. It is enough to hold out one’s hands and say: ‘Lord, as you know and will: Have mercy!’ If the combat presses hard, say: ‘To the rescue!’ God knows what is needful for you and will have pity on you.

In the form above, the Jesus Prayer dates from about the middle of the 5th century. It is a cry from the heart that is at once an acclamation of faith in the victory of God in Jesus Christ, a cry for mercy, a defense against any evil force and a profound expression of hope.

The words are important therefore. The content is the content of the Good News. However, far more important is the disposition of the one who utters those words in her or his heart. Mary’s response to the Angel is a good model:

The angel said to her ‘ …. nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’

The Jesus Prayer is pre-eminently a prayer of the heart. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me is an expression of one’s inmost being. The speaking is both an expression and a facilitator of the radical disposition of surrender to God and the expectation of the mercy that will make us whole:

The Abbot Evagrius said:Tormented by the thoughts and passions of the body, I went to find the Abbot Macarius. I said to him: ‘My father, give me a word that I may live by it’. Then Macarius said to me: ‘Attach the rope of the anchor to the rock and, by God’s grace, the ship will cross the diabolic waves of the deceptive sea and the tempest of the darkness of this vain world’. I said to him: ‘What is the ship, what is the rope, what is the rock?’ The Abbot Macarius said to me: ‘The boat is your heart: guard it. The rope is your spirit: attach it to our Lord Jesus Christ who is the rock that has power over all the diabolic waves and surges that the saints are contending with; for is it not easy to say with each breath: Our Lord Jesus, the Christ, have mercy on me; I bless You, my Lord Jesus, help me?’

In Psalm 6:2 (NKJV) we hear the psalmist cry out: ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am weak.’ In Luke’s Gospel we hear the blind man cry out: ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ (see Luke 18:36-43); in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians we read: ‘God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name … at the name of Jesus every knee should bend’ (see 2:5-11); St Paul urges us to pray without ceasing (see 1 Thessalonians 5:16-19).

The Orthodox tradition kept this practice of the Jesus Prayer alive. In the 19th century a book was published in Russia describing a Russian peasant’s use of the Jesus Prayer. That book was translated into English in 1931 as The Way of a Pilgrim. J D Salinger’s short story, ‘Franny’, in his best-selling book, Franny and Zoey, drew attention in the West to The Way of a Pilgrim and with it the Jesus Prayer. In the first chapter of that book we read the following instruction concerning the Jesus Prayer, given by an old monk to the young man who wishes to learn ‘unceasing prayer’ (see 1 Thessalonians 5:17). – Michael Whelan, MS

We are admonished by the church fathers to pray without ceasing, and as you can see there is good reason for this. It is a tool for spiritual combat.

The above exercise is very good for people who are new to prayer. I recommend joining a church and seeking a spiritual father. I am in the process of first finding the right church. It is important that we seek our spiritual counsel, attend services and confession. Hearing the liturgy, songs and speaking to your priest about your sins helps keep us accountable. If you are uncomfortable in churches, you can still pray at home. One of the things I find helpful is to create a small area inside your home where you can display some holy iconography and your cross. Praying here, and even lighting a candle helps us feel a deeper connection to the saints.

Saint John Church writes, in an article titled “The Power of the Jesus Prayer“:

Prayer means everything to the Orthodox Christian. We engage in quiet conversation with God and come to know Him intimately. And we find our souls attain true peace when we regain control of our minds and focus only on God. While every prayer has the power to transform the heart, mind, and soul, one in particular holds a special place in Orthodox Tradition: the Jesus Prayer.

The Jesus Prayer, also called the Prayer of the Heart or the Prayer of a Single Thought, is a short, simple prayer. In it, we confess our faith in Christ and ask for His mercy. The wording of the prayer may vary. But it’s most commonly used form is: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.’

Since the prayer is said repeatedly, many Orthodox will use prayer ropes to aid them in praying the Jesus Prayer. Some may make the sign of the cross every time they recite the prayer. Still others perform prostrations or metanias.

Many opponents of Eastern Orthodoxy mistakenly characterize the Jesus Prayer (because of its use in hesychasm) as a pagan practice, like far-Eastern meditation (i.e Hinduism, Buddhism). While the Jesus Prayer may share certain characteristics with these other non-Christian practices, the Jesus Prayer is fundamentally different and unique in the way it expresses faith in God.

With regard to Scripture, we see the Jesus Prayer most clearly practiced by the Publican in Luke 18:10-14. The Pharisee exalted himself and thanked God he was not like other men. But the Publican stood far from the altar, refused to raise his eyes to heaven and hit his chest and cried, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner’. We also see a form of this prayer when Peter called out, ‘Lord, save me’ as he sank into the sea (Matthew 14:30).

The Jesus Prayer has been practiced through the centuries as part of the Eastern tradition. In the 20th century, Western churches started to use it, including some Latin Catholics and Anglicans.

The Jesus Prayer begins with the name of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ. The transformative power behind this prayer lies in proclaiming the name itself, for ‘there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12). But why is calling on the name of the Lord so powerful?

In the Old Testament (OT), knowing a person’s name gave you power over that person. Name was inexorably linked to a person’s very being. Address them by name, and they will respond when you call them. God would not disclose His name to anyone in the OT. But in the New Testament (NT), Jesus explicitly calls God Father and tells us to use that name in prayer. Further, Christ gives us access to the Godhead through His own name. He says, ‘And in that day you will ask Me nothing. Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you’ (John 16:23). – Saint John Church

This prayer has become a proven, powerful prayer for Christians to maintain a humble and pure spirit. When we begin to lead a spiritual life, when we begin to live for His will and not ours, the Evil one attacks and sets many snares and traps. Praying is one way to help keep us close to God, and ward off these attacks and temptations seeking to divert us off the long and narrow path. Thus, humility and unceasing prayer are our revolutionary tools in the manufactured culture wars raging about us. We shall not fall for those traps. We are the calm and stillness in the storms. We must pray for even those who would do us harm. We must pray for the Church. We must pray for everyone in pain around the world.

“But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” – Matthew 5:44

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