In the Eastern Church, many of the clergy and even the laity practice the repetition of the Jesus Prayer. For those wondering, the Jesus Prayer is the following:
Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a Sinner.
The original form has come to us from St. John Chrysostom, though there have been a few changes throughout the years. St. Theophan the Recluse, an Eastern Orthodox saint, explains:
Every prayer must come from the heart, and any other prayer is no prayer at all. Prayer-book prayers, your own prayers, and very short prayers, all must issue forth from the heart to God, seen before you.
And still more must this be so with the Jesus Prayer.
I think this is an important mentality for us to have towards prayer. We’re always told that prayer is supposed to come from the heart, but do we really live that out? How many prayers do we repeat repetitiously without touching our heart? Even in some of the most religious Catholic families, we pray rosary after rosary ‘because it is a good thing to pray the Rosary’, but this mentality of praying the prayer for the sake of merit is an unhealthy attitude towards prayer; and even further, it is not even prayer!
The reason why I brought up the Jesus Prayer is because the Eastern Catholics and Orthodox try to practice praying it with every breath they take. This is much more repetitious than saying a rosary or Divine Mercy chaplet, yet it seems that their hearts are totally in unison with their prayers. They mean what they are praying about every single time, and that definitely takes some discipline!
Prayer isn’t just a petition; nor is it just words that we should say so we can receive something. Prayer is an opening up of our hearts to Someone Who is part of our lives; Who is our Source of life. Prayer isn’t like a test; putting the ‘right things’ down isn’t going to merit us anything; prayer isn’t a merit system! These Eastern Catholics have the right idea; we want to become like Christ, so our prayer should reflect our own desires to conform to Christ’s Will. There’s nothing wrong with a prayer of petition; but convincing ourselves that our words will merit God’s grace and then we become sorrowful when our prayers are not answered is not the right idea.
How should we pray then? We should first strive to live in a Christ-like way; prayer should be something that comes as something done out of praise or petition, but in doing so we should continue to discipline our hearts to pay attention to the words that we say; to emphasize them because we mean them. That’s prayer; not just simple repetition. This is why St. Augustine says,
Many cry to God, but not with the voice of the soul, but with the voice of the body; only the cry of the heart, of the soul, reaches God.
The voice of the body is found in our material desires and the lack of meaning. We don’t merit the ‘fulfillment’ of our desires by prayer.
In conclusion, we should be ever vigilant in our prayers. They are ever important in developing our relationship with God, but just praying because we think it is a task that has to be accomplished isn’t prayer. We should discipline our hearts towards true external and internal prayer, and working towards hearing every word resonate within us and with what we believe rather than just says the words ‘one more time’. A million ‘Hail Mary’s’ are nothing compared to one ‘Hail Mary’ prayed truly from the heart.
For me prayer is a surge of the heart, it is a simple look towards Heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.
— St. Thérèse of Lisieux