It has perhaps seemed remarkable to many a reader of The Way of a Pilgrim that the traditional formula for the perpetual prayer of the heart goes: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He may have been surprised that this centrepiece of the hesychastic tradition in the Eastern Church is actually a sort of penitential prayer. Anyone who has read the chapter about the tears of metanoia, though, will not be surprised. Rather, it will seem to him quite consistent that the Fathers finally agreed upon this formula, which we do not hear about in the early period of monasticism. For it reflects perfectly that spirit which from the beginning inspired the Fathers in their endeavours. (113)
In this third section of the third chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition, Father Gabriel (Bunge) outlines the development of what has come to be known as the Jesus Prayer, which originated in the Desert tradition of using oft-repeated phrases in prayer, and which is rooted in an attitude that calls out to God for help. This practice of short invocations goes back to the origins of monasticism and soon became known outside of Egypt. Evagrius advocated frequent and uninterrupted prayers like “spear thrusts” that were often comprised of scripture verses. While Evagrius did not seem to know of any fixed formula, Saint John Cassian passed on the Egyptian tradition of praying “O God, come to my assistance, O Lord, make haste to help me.” Abba Ammomas advised a monk to recall the prayer of the tax collector – “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” whereas Abba Macarius the Egyptian, when asked “How should we pray?” answered:
It is not necessary to ‘rattle on,’ but one has only to stretch out one’s hands and say, ‘Lord, as you will’ and ‘as you know’, ‘have mercy on me!’ On the other hand, if a battle is impending, pray, ‘Lord, help me!’ He himself knows what is necessary and treats us with mercy. (116)
Whatever the differences in form, these “ejaculatory prayers” are all cries of help to God. This is what Evagrius meant when he recommended “praying, not like the Pharisee, but like the tax collector,” for
The spirit common to all of these ejaculatory prayers is the spirit of metanoia, of remorse, conversion, and repentance. Precisely that spirit, then, which alone is capable of accepting the “glad tidings” of “reconciliation in Christ”.
The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel. [Mk 1:15]
Without “conversion” (μετἀνοια) there is no faith; without faith there is no share in the gospel of reconciliation. For this reason the sermons of the apostles, which Luke has preserved for us in his Acts of the Apostles, almost without exception end with this call for “conversion”. This metanoia, however, is not a single act, but rather a life-long process. The “spirit of repentance”, that is, humility that comes from the heart, is not attained once and for all. A lifetime is not sufficient to “learn” from Christ this essential feature, which, as he himself tells us, is his distinguishing characteristic. The practice of repeating over and over again – audibly or in one’s heart – this “supplication” (which was discussed in the previous chapter), in the spirit of the remorseful tax collector, is one of the best means of vigilantly maintaining an interior desire for genuine metanoia. (117-118)
These prayers were usually directed to Christ, even if, in the case of psalm verses, this was not always explicit.
The formula that later became usual, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”, merely says explicitly what was meant implicitly from the beginning, namely, that “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”, except through the Name of Jesus Christ. Therefore it is with good reason that the Fathers later gave particular emphasis to this salutary affirmation of “Jesus the Christ” – to the extent of developing a full-fledged mysticism of the Name of Jesus. For the person who prays with a “supplication” consciously takes his place among the blind and the lame, and so on, who cried out to Jesus for help during his life on earth. They did this in a way that is in fact appropriate only when one is turning to God – and thus they demonstrated more clearly than by any verbal profession their faith in the Divine Sonship of the Redeemer. (119-120)