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An Icon of Saint Sophrony of Essex

On Naming

“As the most effective prayer the Church Fathers use the phrase, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.’ This prayer is the key to the spiritual life. It is a prayer that cannot be taught either by books, or by spiritual fathers or by anyone else. Its sole teacher is divine grace.” – St. Porphyrios

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

As a Kindergarten teacher, it is likely I repeat this prayer a hundred times a day. Those much further along the path of sanctification say it hundreds, if not thousands, of times daily. It is as frequent as their breath or the beat of their hearts. As a novice to the use of the Jesus Prayer, I often say it with exasperation and desperation rather than gentleness and love for Christ.

The Jesus Prayer, or “prayer of the heart,” originates in the story of the Publican and the Pharisee in the Gospel of Luke. The Pharisee and the Publican stand in the temple at prayer. The Pharisee prays with self-righteousness. The Publican, in humility, can only beat his breast and cry out “God be merciful to me, a sinner”.

There are many iterations of the Jesus Prayer, the usual form being “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” We may say other forms in times of need: “Lord Jesus, have mercy!” or “Lord, save me!”. The power of these short “arrow” prayers comes from the repetition of the name of Jesus.

Throughout the Scriptures, naming is powerful. It gives power to the person doing the naming. In Genesis, Adam names the animals and thus, has dominion over them. In the Old Testament, God does not disclose His name. It is Jesus who reveals His Father to us and by using His name in prayer we draw near to God.

St. Sophrony of Essex tells us that there is no ascetic practice that is more difficult or painful than the effort to draw close to God. The Jesus Prayer is not magic. Through prayer we are transformed. We put forth desire and effort, and the answer is left to our merciful God who does all things for our salvation. We pray not to receive some benefit, but to receive God. Invoking the name of Jesus is an act of love used as a balm for the continual healing of our soul and an opportunity for communion, a direct meeting with God.

Our names are not without significance either. In my class, as I teach penmanship, we begin with the lower case cursive letters. I introduce students to the capital letters by teaching G, for God, and J, for Jesus, specifically. We talk about how we honor and show reverence to God by capitalizing His name, by making His name stand out as important. The students understand quickly why we would do the same for Jesus.

Then I tell them that when we write our own names, we capitalize them, as well as when we write “I”. We capitalize names because we are important! Not on our own, by our own merit, but because we are bearers of God’s image and the Holy Spirit abides in us. Our names are significant to who we are in the depths of our souls.

The world around us, however, is in turmoil over names. They are seen as, at once, full of power and utterly meaningless. Many people feel strongly that names clearly say something about who we are as people, and they speak to a truth about our soul. Therefore, if who we feel we are in our soul does not match our name it can simply be changed to match our feelings (and this is just the beginning). Names can be thrown away if they do not suit our feelings. But, this is not true. The power of our name comes from those who do the naming, namely Him who does the naming – “he who formed you” has “called you by name” (Isaiah 43:1).

To cast off our name is to cast off who we are. By embracing a name, crying out to it, we somehow do the opposite. We embed it into ourselves. With every repetition of the Sacred Name, we change the entire cosmos, and we change ourselves. Every knot of the prayer rope, every inward breath of “Lord Jesus Christ” and exhale of “have mercy on me,” and every moment of stillness where the mind is able to stand in the heart is movement away from the straining anxieties of life toward utterly unrestrained joy.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!