Anyone who's familiar with shows like Star Trek, Doctor Who?, or The X-Files will recognize the phrase from this post's title: First Contact. Perhaps relating this phrase to the Jesus Prayer is somewhat inappropriate as it always implies contact with something that is unfamiliar, alien, not of this world. I suppose some Eastern Christians could argue that the Jesus Prayer is something alien or unfamiliar to the Western Christian tradition, but their argument would be incorrect. Devotion to the Holy Name, whether in the form of the Jesus Prayer or in some other form, has existed in the West for as long as it has in the East.
In choosing the title of this post I didn't mean to imply first contact with something that was unfamiliar to the larger universal tradition of the Church (East and West), but rather with something that was unfamiliar to me. People who know me know that I like to tell stories. I am a huge fan of history because it is so full of inspirational stories. Perhaps I chose to study theology in college because theology itself is such a wonderful story. After all, what more is theology than reflection on "the greatest story ever told?" What more is theology than reflection on Salvation History; the story of man's fall and God's intervention into history in order to raise man up again and elevate him even higher. I've often heard Salvation History referred to as "His-story," God's story. Someone once said that God writes history the way man writes books. All of history, therefore, is God's story, and what a magnificent story it is!
But back to topic. As I was walking this morning I remembered the time from my childhood when I first encountered the Jesus Prayer. As I've mentioned in the past, my mother was a very big advocate of daily Mass. She used to wake us up early every morning just so we could get to Mass (oh, how we hated waking up at 6:00 AM in order to get to 7:00 Mass!). Most of the time my brother and I were fortunate enough to be able to serve Mass. It hasn't been until just recently that I've really began to reflect with gratitude and wonder upon the great privilege I've had of being able to serve at God's Holy Altar on a daily basis...
Apart from daily Mass my mother also tried to instill in us the importance of frequent Confession. We had no excuse not to make use of frequent Confession as most of the time Confessions were heard for at least half and hour before Mass began. In particular I remember going to Confession every Friday. My brother and I would serve Eucharistic Adoration/Benediction every Friday. During the hour-long adoration our pastor would retire to the Confessional where he would sit and hear confessions until it was time for Benediction followed by Mass.
One time, after I had finished confessing my sins, my pastor gave me a "penance" that struck me as odd. Perhaps it is good that it struck me as odd because it's stuck with me ever since. He told me to kneel before the exposed Eucharist and utter the words "My Jesus, mercy!" from the depths of my heart. "My Jesus, mercy!" What an odd phrase. It's not even a complete sentence, I thought. A part of me felt as though this penance were too easy and that he should've at least given me the typical three "Our Father's" and three "Hail Mary's." But I obeyed his words and knelt before the Eucharist uttering that unusual phrase. "My Jesus, mercy!"
How odd. It was much more difficult to utter that phrase from the heart than I thought it would be. I remember repeating it over and over again, never feeling as though my heart were as "in it" as it should be. It troubled me when I went home. The prayer stayed with me. Always weighing on my mind and heart. How can such a simple phrase be so difficult to utter? "My Jesus, mercy!" It's only three words! I suppose the Lord gave me those words so that He could teach me their meaning throughout the rest of my life. They still weigh heavily upon me. I've yet to summon them from the depths of my heart. For now I only have a superficial grasp of them. But if they are to be my life's companion, what better companion could I ask for? "My Jesus, mercy!"
For folks who think that this phrase is not the Jesus Prayer because it isn't the standard formula (Lord Jesus Chirst, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner), let me remind you that the Jesus Prayer has never really been a standard formula, and that there are many "versions" of the Jesus Prayer. St. Theophan the Recluse and St. Ignatius Brianchaninov remind us that the power of the Jesus Prayer doesn't come from the formula itself, but from the Holy Name. All else could fade away from the Jesus Prayer, but the Holy Name is the essence of the Prayer. Any time someone repeats the name of Jesus with love and reverence they are praying the Jesus Prayer.
Fr. Robert Taft, S.J. and Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia, inspired by Fr. Lev Gillet (A Monk of the Eastern Church), affirm that as the Jesus Prayer descends further and further into one's heart the words become fewer and fewer until we are left with that exact phrase, "My Jesus, mercy!" I've even read from a book by a monk of Mt. Athos that the formula of the Jesus Prayer is meant to disappear. Repeat the Jesus Prayer over and over again, and as time goes on fewer and fewer words are needed. Even this monk of the Holy Mountain affirmed that eventually all one is left with is "My Jesus, mercy!" uttered with love from the depth of one's heart.
Over time this little phrase has popped up in my prayer life. When times have been tough, when I've felt like I'm at my wit's end, when I was completely out of physical, psychological, and spiritual strength, then those words formed on my lips. "My Jesus, mercy!" It's like crying "uncle" when one is pinned to the floor and can't take it anymore. There is no need for it to be a complete sentence. Often times, when we are really close to someone, we will often speak without using complete sentences. Often times complete sentences are not needed. What is important is the sentiment behind the sentence.
"My Jesus, mercy!" Without the presence of the heart this phrase means nothing. But with the heart present it sums up everything. The whole of Salvation History, "His-story," the greatest story ever told, can be summed up with one word, "mercy." When we pray the Jesus Prayer from the heart, then Salvation History becomes our history, our story. Our lives become the story of God's mercy bestowed upon us, His saving presence with us. We still see the greater picture of Him reaching down to mankind and pulling us out of the depths of the abyss, but with the Jesus Prayer we experience Him reaching down to us individually, personally, and drawing us up into His presence. "My Jesus, mercy!"