An existential prayer

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Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap

We are living in a world full of anxiety. For instance, psychology has it that we are living within a climate of social anxiety. As psychologist Dr Thomas A. Richards defined it, “social anxiety is thefear of interaction with other people that brings on self-consciousness, feelings of being negatively judged and evaluated, and, as a result, leads to avoidance. Social anxiety is the fear of being judged and evaluated negatively by other people, leading to feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression”.

But how can we counter this feeling of inadequacy, inferiority, embarrassment, humiliation and depression? What can really help us live without ending up being victims of these unwanted feelings? A powerful yet simple prayer that can be used in these situations of tension and distraction is the Jesus Prayer. In other words that prayer which the Eastern Churches highly esteem and advocate. This prayer can be found in the following short formulaic form: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

What is special about this prayer? Let us see what the Cathecism of the Catholic Church can tell us about it. The power of the Jesus Prayer resides in the very Name the Prayer is based upon, Jesus!

“But the one name that contains everything is the one that the Son of God received in his incarnation: JESUS. the divine name may not be spoken by human lips, but by assuming our humanity the Word of God hands it over to us and we can invoke it: ‘Jesus,’ ‘YHWH saves’. Thename ‘Jesus’ contains all: God and man and the whole economy of creation and salvation. To pray ‘Jesus’ is to invoke him and to call him within us. His name is the only one that contains thepresence it signifies. Jesus is the Risen One, and whoever invokes the name of Jesus is welcoming the Son of God who loved him and who gave himself up for him.

This simple invocation of faith developed in the tradition of prayer under many forms in East and West. The most usual formulation, transmitted by the spiritual writers ofthe Sinai, Syria, and Mt. Athos, is the invocation, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us sinners.’ It combines the Christological hymn of Philippians 2:6-11 withthe cry of the publican and the blind men begging for light. By it the heart is opened tohuman wretchedness and the Savior’s mercy.

The invocation of the holy name of Jesus is the simplest way of praying always. Whenthe holy name is repeated often by a humbly attentive heart, the prayer is not lost by heaping up empty phrases, but holds fast to the word and ‘brings forth fruit with patience.’ This prayer is possible ‘at all times’ because it is not one occupation among others but the only occupation: that of loving God, which animates and transfigures every action in Christ Jesus” (2666-2668).

The anonymous author of The Way of the Pilgrim states that the Jesus Prayer has two very concrete effects that completely transformed his worldview. First, it transfigureshis relationship with the material creation around him. Thank to the Prayer the worldnow becomes transparent, a sign, a vehicle of communicating God’s presence. He writes:

“When I prayed in my heart, everything around me seemed delightful and marvellous.The trees, the grass, the birds, the air, the light seemed to be telling me that they existed for man’s sake, that they witnessed to the love of God for man, that all things prayed to God and sang his praise.”

Second, the Prayer transfigures his relationship to other people. His relationships are rightly focused thanks to the forgiveness and compassion of the crucified and risen Lord that emanate from the Prayer.

“Again I started off on my wanderings. But now I did not walk along as before, filled with care. The invocation of the Name of Jesus gladdened my way. Everybody was kind to me. If anyone harms me I have only to think, ‘How sweet is the Prayer of Jesus!’ and the injury and the anger alike pass away and I forget it all.”

Do I really want that my relationship with the world and other fellow human beings be transfigured? Why not tapping into the Jesus’ Prayer? Into that existential prayer?

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