Justice and the Jesus Prayer

Dylan Pahman
By | September 25, 2013

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There are many definitions of justice (and, for that matter, of social justice). Justinian’s Institutes defines justice as “an unswerving and perpetual determination to acknowledge all men’s rights.” Another classical definition, found, for example, in the Catechism of Peter Mogila, states: “Holy justice is to render to each man what is his, in accord with equality, without distinction of persons, not only in regard to possessions, but also in regard to honor; but, Christian justice is not only to return good for good, but also never allows us to wish evil for evil….” There are, of course, many more definitions with various strengths and weaknesses.

Part of the reason for these many definitions is that justice can be conceived as a virtue of the soul or an external condition of society. Perhaps just as bad as having a wrong definition of justice is to have a myopic view, e.g. that justice is only internal or only social. Equally problematic would be to divide the two.

As for me, I agree with Plato that justice ultimately is about order, and justice in the rightly ordered soul is connected to justice in society. Certainly Edmund Burke would agree, and the idea is not limited to him or Plato either.

There is a connection between inner justice and justice in society. Yet discussions of the subject often overlook important ascetic contributions to the former that, in turn, connect in important ways to the latter. This essay focuses on the role of meditation, the Jesus Prayer in particular, in cultivating justice in the soul and how that might also affect our communities and societies. I do not pretend that this is a comprehensive recipe for justice, but it is an invaluable and overlooked ingredient.

First: What is the Jesus Prayer? According to the Orthodox Saint Theophan the Recluse,

In order to teach the mind to rest on one thing, the Holy Fathers used short prayers and acquired the habit of reciting them unceasingly. This unceasing repetition of a short prayer kept the mind on the thought of God and dispersed all irrelevant thoughts. They adopted various short prayers, but it is the Jesus Prayer which has become particularly established amongst us and is most generally employed: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner!”

So this is what the Jesus Prayer is. It is one among various short prayers, oral like all others. Its purpose is to keep the mind on the single thought of God.

The Jesus Prayer, then, is a method of Christian meditation meant to help us focus “on the single thought of God.”

Second: How does one practice the Jesus Prayer? St. Theophan continues,

The practice of prayer is called an “art,” and it is a very simple one. Standing with consciousness and attention in the heart, cry out unceasingly: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me,” without having in your mind any visual concept or image, believing that the Lord sees you and listens to you.

It is important to keep your consciousness in the heart, and as you do so to control your breathing a little so as to keep time with the words of the prayer. But the most important thing is to believe that God is near and hears. Say the prayer for God’s ear alone.

At the beginning this prayer remains for a long time only an activity like any other, but in time it passes into the mind and finally takes root in the heart.

So the Jesus Prayer is the repetition of some variant of “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy.” (St. Gregory of Sinai mentions a few different constructions.) In order to achieve the focus mentioned above, one must endeavor to free the mind from images, concentrate on the heart, pattern one’s breathing along with the words of the prayer, and “believe that God is near and hears.” Over time, the prayer becomes a habit, a second nature even, and takes on an automatic quality. In this way the fathers claim one can “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

Third: What are the effects of practicing the Jesus Prayer? Again, St. Theophan:

Whoever has formed the habit of this Prayer and uses it properly, really does remember God incessantly.

Since the remembrance of God in a sincerely believing heart is naturally accompanied by a sense of piety, hope, thanksgiving, devotion to God’s will, and by other spiritual feelings, the Jesus Prayer, which produces and preserves this remembrance of God, is called spiritual prayer.

According to St. Theophan, the effects of the Jesus Prayer, rightly practiced, are “a sense of piety, hope, thanksgiving, devotion to God’s will, and … other spiritual feelings.”

We can see that some of these, at least, have been confirmed as a result of meditation more broadly. For example, a recent Big Questions Online article features the following from Michael Baime, an M.D. who teaches meditation at the University of Pennsylvania:

In my research on meditation, I have given more than 1,000 participants in my mindfulness-based stress management program a survey that was developed to evaluate non-religious spirituality. The survey quantifies spiritual experience in three dimensions: peace, meaning, and faith. The participants in this completely secular meditation program consistently report significant increases in all three of these areas.

He goes on,

Many people are surprised to see that measure of faith was increased. I teach meditation in a completely secular context, with no mention of religion or spirituality. Yet graduates of the program are more likely to agree with the survey’s statement, “I feel connected to a higher power (or God).”

While this AA-esque articulation of feeling “connected to a higher power (or God)” may not be quite the same as “a sense of piety, hope, thanksgiving, [and] devotion to God’s will,” certainly one would expect a Christian to explain this common phenomenon in a similar way. It would seem that St. Theophan’s claims may be more than anecdotal.

Fourth: What does this have to do with justice? If we take justice to mean “to render to each what is due,” we may have some understanding of how this relates. Practice of the Jesus Prayer increases focus and builds a habit that helps to drive out wandering thoughts and pacify our emotions.

Internally, then, it helps us render to each part of ourselves what is due. Rather than being tossed around by vagrant thoughts and emotions and appetites, we are able to stay in the present and, more importantly, coram Deo.

Furthermore, beginning by rendering to God what is due, we do not end there. Indeed, love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbor (see Matthew 22:36-40).

Writing on the subject of resisting temptation, Roy Baumeister, head of Florida State’s social psychology program, notes the benefit of good habits:

The human psyche is well designed to acquire habits (both good and bad). Doing something new and different takes effort and attention, and sometimes plenty of thought and emotion. In contrast, doing something by habit requires none of those, or at most a very small amount. To conserve the limited mental and physical energy that people have, nature has designed us to convert novel exertions into easy habits.

The Jesus Prayer is one such habit. Not only does Baumeister’s research confirm that such a habit of constant prayer can be cultivated, he notes that acquiring good habits helps us conserve energy and self-control for when we need it most. Constant prayer is one such habit, and the habit-forming skills needed to cultivate it are transferable to others.

In particular, however, in yet another Big Questions article, Christian Miller, associate professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University, notes four beliefs that correlate with virtuous behavior: beliefs about others’ virtue, beliefs about one’s own virtue, moral standards, and certain religious beliefs. The Jesus Prayer would seem to affect all of these. It requires belief in the closeness of God; it makes one more sensitive to God’s will (moral standards); while admitting we are sinners, it gives us reason to hope that we can improve and even that we currently may be improving; and lastly, as the Jesus Prayer transforms us into calmer, more self-controlled, and more virtuous people, we serve as examples to others.

This last point is where constant prayer “for God’s ear alone” actually serves the common good as well, beyond our own behavior. Miller writes,

For instance, the University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt has done research on what he calls the emotion of “elevation.” This is what we feel when we see another person do something particularly virtuous or morally admirable. Just think back to a time when you were feeling uplifted and inspired by someone’s bravery or loyalty or charity — perhaps your heart was moved, inspiring you to similar acts in your own life.

Research by Haidt and others has found a strong relationship between feelings of elevation and increased virtuous behavior. For instance, one study found that elevation neutralized anti-black racism and increased helping, while another found that, when compared to controls, elevation led to participants doubling the amount of time they spent on a helpful task.

It would appear that having more such examples in our lives would, then, increase our tendency “to acknowledge all men’s rights.” Virtue, including justice, has a contagious quality through good examples, be they parents, elders, friends, or even the lives of the saints. Inspired by others, we are more likely to think, “Maybe I can do that too.” This can be seen as empirical support for the saying of St. Seraphim of Sarov: “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved.”

At the end of the day, we will all always be somewhere between vice and virtue this side of the eschaton, and therefore we need just laws and social structures as well. However, personal justice is essentially connected to justice in society, in more ways than one. The more people moving from vice to virtue, the fewer laws and structures we need. And, rightly practiced, the Jesus Prayer is one effective way to move in the right direction.

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  • Dan Hugger


    Really fascinating stuff. Saint Theophan the Recluse’s description of exactly how the Jesus Prayer is supposed to work, ““Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me,” without having in your mind any visual concept or image, believing that the Lord sees you and listens to you.”, strikes me as very similar to Nicherine Buddhist practice.

    Nichiren: “A mind now clouded by the illusions of the innate darkness of life is like a tarnished mirror, but when polished, it is sure to become like a clear mirror, reflecting the essential nature of phenomena and the true aspect of reality. Arouse deep faith, and diligently polish your mirror day and night. How should you polish it? Only by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo”

    Nichiren tradition calls this “chant” and views it as something fundamentally different from “meditation”.

    The “mindfulness-based stress management program” taught by Baime seems closer to traditional Zen practice and the St. Ignatius of Loyola school of “meditation” than the Nichiren and Saint Theophan the Recluse school of “chant”. It would be interesting to see if their are any differences in effect.

  • That is interesting. I’m definitely using a broad (though common) definition of meditation whereas it seems the Nichiren Buddhists have a more narrow distinction in mind.

    It would be interesting, in general, to see if there are different effects of various traditions of meditation (or chanting, as the case may be), whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, et al. My initial thought is that the particular practice and phrasing of the Jesus Prayer encourages the person praying toward a particular understanding of what that meditative experience is: one that combines communion with God through Jesus Christ with a greater moral sensitivity (hence the petition for mercy and the sometimes dropped identification of oneself as “a sinner” at the end of the prayer).

    It seems likely to me that different practices of meditation, among other things, offer different frameworks of interpretation that have significant effects on the experience of meditation itself. Thus we can examine the phenomenon generally without requiring a complete equation of all meditative practices between religious traditions.

  • I should add, then, that I would expect the similarities of method between Nichiren Buddhist chant and the Jesus Prayer would probably yield some similar effects. Yet the differences (such as, in particular, the precise phrase being prayerfully repeated) would nevertheless yield differences as well.

    I agree that Baime’s practice is more akin to Zen mindfulness, but I would still categorize all of these practices as some form of meditation, conceived broadly — same genus, different species. For example: Viewed in one way a gorilla and a mouse are very different animals. Yet as mammals they actually share quite a bit in common as well. One can speak generally about mammals while in the next breath contrasting particular mammal species without any necessary contradiction. Perhaps, to risk pushing the metaphor further, we could say the following:

    mammal : primate : chimpanzee and gorilla ::
    meditation : chant : Jesus Prayer and Nichiren practice

  • Michael Bauman

    The result of the two different practices, no matter how similar they seem outwardly, will be wildly different as two different targets are being aimed at. With the Jesus Prayer we are aiming at the person of the Lord Jesus Christ and unity with Him without loosing our own discreet person.

    Buddhism aims at, quite literally, nothing. The extinguishing of the person and rejects even the idea of person as illusion.

    The Elder Sophrony, who before becoming an Athonite monk practiced Buddhism described the difference as this (paraphrasing): the light revealed during Buddhist meditation is the natural light of one’s own soul. The light revealed because of the proper, humble use of the Jesus Prayer is the uncreated Light of God.

    Just a bit of a difference don’t you think?

  • Certainly! I do not mean to equate them (hence the taxonomy my comment above).

    The point, rather, is to acknowledge both similarities along with differences. Meditation is something all religions do. One can speak about it on that general level. However, the precise way in which it is done has important differences, and some practices are closer than others (while remaining distinct).

    As I am an Orthodox Christian, I focused on the Jesus Prayer in this article. If I knew of any studies that look only at the Jesus Prayer, I would cite them. But since it is a form of medititative prayer more generally, findings on a more general level are also relevant.

    As I mentioned in a comment above, the key distinction of the Jesus Prayer is its focus on communion with Jesus Christ, and that is no insignificant thing. Indeed, it is the most important thing.

    In this regard, while the Nichiren chant above centers on a Mystic/cosmic law, and thus may aim in part at a heightened moral awareness, it does not aim at God as does the Jesus Prayer. Thus, I would not expect it to produce a greater awareness of God’s presence, a key point in the above article.

  • Michael Bauman

    Mr. Pahman, I too am an Orthodox Christian and I was not directing my comment to you, more to Mr. Hugger. Perhaps I am oversensitive to this because I came from a syncretistic mystery cult before coming to the Church. I have seen first hand the danger of equating the revealed Christian tradition and the practice of the Church with any other spiritual practice.

    The commonalities exist because of the image that is in us, but that image is only fully revealed and purified in the Church.

    The best of the pre-incarnation spiritual traditions were pre-cursors and shadows of the truth, Buddhism certainly qualifies. However, once Jesus Christ was Incarnate, those became essentially moot.

  • Fair enough. I appreciate your sensitivity given your personal experience.

  • Dan Heck

    I love the practice of repeating the Jesus prayer. It is central for me, and a rich experience. It would be great if the faction of Republicans that are threatening to destroy the good faith and credit of the US by refusing to pay for the bills they have passed were to earnestly embrace this practice…