The Jesus Prayer and the Rosary

In a Lenten departure from my movie blogging beat, I’d like to share a development in my family’s prayer life that may be of interest to others.

For years we have prayed a daily rosary, a practice that has borne much fruit in our lives. Recently, I’ve felt moved to introduce some variation into this discipline. Several factors contributed to this; in particular, I took inspiration from Pope John Paul II, whose devotion to the rosary was probably a factor in our family’s daily rosary in the first place.

We’ve also been influenced by John Paul II’s openness to varying usages of the rosary. Like many Catholics, we generally pray the Luminous Mysteries on Thursdays, following the Holy Father’s proposal. We also usually open with the invocation from the liturgy of the hours—“O God, come to my assistance / Lord, make haste to help me” (Psalm 70:1)—rather than the Creed, a practice apparently of venerable Dominican origin, and recommended by Pope John Paul. (We still open with the Creed once a week.)

I was also inspired by the Christocentricity of Pope John Paul’s theology, and by the Holy Father’s esteem for the witness of the Christian East. These two lines converged in my prayer life in a growing attachment to the Jesus Prayer, most commonly given in the form “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

The Jesus Prayer is certainly familiar to Latin Catholics, but for Eastern Christians it’s the essential staple of private prayer. The closest thing in the West would be the triptych of Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be, alone or elaborated in the rosary. None of those, though, is addressed directly to Jesus. Of course the Glory Be is addressed to the whole Trinity, and Jesus himself taught us to pray to the Father; but the early Christians (beginning with my namesake) prayed directly to Jesus too, and prayer to Jesus remains a crucial dimension of Christian prayer.

The Jesus Prayer, then, adds something indispensable and central to our prayer vocabulary. It is utterly simple—it can be prayed in one breath and one thought—though Eastern Christians sometimes use a knotted prayer rope much like a rosary and pray it over and over.

For our family, I decided the best way to familiarize our children with the Jesus Prayer and make it part of their regular experience was to improvise a Jesus Prayer chaplet—not a regular rosary with the Jesus Prayer worked in, but a different devotion prayed with rosary beads (like the Divine Mercy chaplet). Initially I introduced it for some holy day, then I proposed praying it on Sundays, and now we pray it on the weekends, with the weekdays for the regular rosary.

Here is our Jesus Prayer chaplet as it has developed.

  1. In lieu of the Creed, we open with the Divine Praises (with their similarly Trinitarian structure).
  2. We pray five decades much like a normal rosary, praying the Jesus Prayer ten times, with an introductory Our Father and closing Glory Be. Before each decade I almost always read (or quote from memory) a short scriptural text (a verse or two of a psalm, say).
  3. Finally, we conclude with a sung Trisagion, repeated three times.

We don’t have formal mysteries; we contemplate Christ and scriptural themes. The mysteries are crucial to the regular rosary’s Christocentricity, but the Jesus Prayer is as directly Christocentric as prayer can be.

We don’t include the Fatima Prayer or other pious additions to the rosary. I appreciate these prayers, and we sometimes pray them with our regular rosary, though caution regarding what could be called devotional creep (i.e., the tendency of such pious add-ons to accumulate over time) makes me appreciate simplicity there as well.

We don’t necessarily stick to exactly five decades. The Jesus Prayer is so short that you can easily pray ten decades in the time it takes to pray five regular rosary decades. (The number of decades isn’t the point. You can pray as many or as few as you have time for.)

I share this as something that has blessed our family. I’m not proposing this specific structure to anyone else, though I do enthusiastically urge all Christians, Catholic and non-Catholic, to fully embrace the Jesus Prayer in their prayer lives in whatever ways they find most helpful.