Having mentioned the Jesus Prayer in my sermon on Sunday, I am conscious that some Christians find this way of prayer to be puzzling, not least in the light of some words of Jesus that might appear to challenge the practice of regular repetition of a phrase. In the King James version of Matthew 6:7, Jesus condemns ‘vain repetitions’ in prayer (‘heaping up empty phrases’ in RSV/NRSV). I think it would be very easy to deny that a phrase like ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’ is vain or empty but it is still the case that some Christians find the repetition of a phrase – however prayerfully done – to be uncomfortable or just plain odd. I found a lovely response to this in some words reported to have been spoken by St Sophrony:
We were visited once by a Catholic priest, and he saw how we prayed the Jesus Prayer continually at the monastery, and he said to Fr Sophrony, “I cannot understand why you have to repeat the same prayer for so long.” Fr Sophrony, in a very friendly way, answered, “We repeat because we are slow to understand it, and once we have understood it, we do not want to abandon it,”
And how do we understand it? By praying it!