When I was three years old, my dad taught me a prayer that praised the holy name of Jesus. Every night my siblings and I fell asleep with the names of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph on our lips. Later in life, I found another simple way of praying that involved the constant recitation of Jesus’ name.
This ancient prayer is called the “Jesus Prayer,” also known as the “Prayer of the Heart.” It has been the key for me to be able to live through each day in the presence of God. The prayer is like background music continually playing in the back of my mind. As soon as I finish my work or whatever I may be doing at the moment, immediately my thoughts return to our loving God. I no longer think about the words; they simply lead me into the depths of my heart, where God dwells with me.
Always in God’s Presence. My first encounter with the Jesus Prayer was after I became a cloistered nun in 1947. I spent many hours in the kitchen preparing meals for nuns, guests, chaplains, and workmen. It was demanding work, but I enjoyed the solitude of the kitchen. The biggest drawback was that I frequently missed our community prayers. That was why I first adopted the practice of repeating the Jesus Prayer as I worked: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!
Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches teach that this prayer, repeated often, helps the speaker enter into God’s presence throughout the day. The desert monks and hermits who were spiritual giants of the early Church discovered that this contemplative practice opened a person’s heart to the Lord. This has been true for me.
Learning to pray this way doesn’t require any special training. But it is helpful for a person to carve segments of silence and solitude out of their busy life. I started by praying the Jesus Prayer on my rosary beads. Over months and years, I grew in my ability to be alone with God, focused on his love and mercy. This focus has helped me to become aware of God’s greatest gift to me and my greatest treasure—his constant presence in my heart.
Total Surrender to Jesus. During my twenty-five years in the monastery, many priests and laypeople began to come and ask me to help them learn how to enter into prayers of the heart. This ministry began to take me away from my duties—so much so that the community encouraged me to seek another lifestyle in which I would be freer to give spiritual retreats. Thus, with the blessing of my superior, I left the cloister in 1972.
Wherever I shared about surrendering to God in faith and praying the Jesus Prayer, wonderful things began to happen. People with all types of physical and spiritual afflictions experienced Jesus’ healing in their lives.
On one occasion, I was speaking to a group of women. One lady who had breast cancer approached me afterward and asked me to pray with her. I took her aside and taught her how to say the Jesus Prayer. I encouraged her to repeat it for fifteen minutes in the morning and evening while visualizing the blood of Jesus flowing through her, destroying the cancerous cells and replacing them with new healthy cells. About a month later, she called me from Houston. She had gone for her checkup, and no cancer cells could be found in her body. The doctors were amazed.
Another young woman suffered from severe curvature of the spine. She was advised never to get pregnant, although she was married and hoped to have a family. I taught her this manner of praying as well. She did become pregnant, and she carried the baby to full term without any complications. These are only a few of the marvelous things that have happened when people prayed the Jesus Prayer in faith.
A Crisis of Meaning. One tragedy of our lives today is the sense of isolation and meaninglessness that afflicts so many people. One day I visited a care facility for the sick and elderly. There was a lady there who had no legs. To have some kind of social contact, she spent her days next to the elevator, hoping to be near another human being. I put my arms around her, and tears rolled down her cheeks. She cried out, “I am so lonely!”
How can we ask God to fill such emptiness? The Jesus Prayer is one tool that can help a person draw near to God, no matter how difficult their life is. They can bring it to mind anytime they are “waiting”—at the supermarket, stoplights, the post office, or road construction sites. Such pauses have become moments of silent worship for me. The pressures and strains of daily life become opportunities to lift my heart to God. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us.
A Living Prayer. Anyone can come to a deeper experience of God within themselves by learning to carve out time alone with him, paying attention to his love. It is not just a matter of “saying” the Jesus Prayer for long periods of time. The goal is to make our lives into a living prayer. The prayer of the heart is a wordless response to love—to God’s presence within us that we received at our baptism.
For the next week or even month, try repeating the Jesus Prayer and paying attention to God during moments of stillness throughout your day. Jesus is within you, calling you to partake of his very own life. He says, “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13). Believe then; call on his name, and receive.
Joyce Venaglia lives in Indio, California. More information about the Jesus Prayer is available in the spiritual classic The Way of a Pilgrim, translated by Nina A. Toumanova.