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The Rev. Dr. Jim Somerville The Rev. Dr. James Somerville

The Rev. Jim Somerville is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Richmond, VA.

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Dr. Jim Somerville: The Jesus Prayer...Abbreviated?

March 24, 2011

Years ago I learned something called "the Jesus Prayer," that goes like this:

Jesus Christ,
Son of God,
Have mercy on me
A sinner.

I found it in a book called A Dresser of Sycamore Trees, by Garrett Keizer, in a chapter where he tells a story about a man who mumbled the Jesus prayer all the time under his breath.  That man may have come from the Eastern Orthodox tradition, where the prayer is often repeated continually as part of a personal ascetic practice.  Although it has never been widely accepted among Roman Catholics, it reminds me of the "Hail Mary" you often hear in that tradition:

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee;
blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

The closing lines of the Hail Mary are these: 

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

It's that line about the "hour of our death" that got me thinking. 

Suppose the Jesus prayer is one that some people mumble continually because they don't know when the hour of their death will come and they're trying to be ready.  Wouldn't you love to think that those words would be on your lips in that hour, so that when you looked up and saw the 18-wheeler coming straight toward you on the interstate you would continue to say (though with a bit more urgency), "Jesus Christ!  Son of God!  Have mercy on me a sinner!"  Wouldn't that pretty much get you a free pass into Heaven?

So, that's what I'm thinking today: that there may be some people who have been practicing that prayer for years, trying to make it such a regular part of their life that it will be the first thing they say in the hour of their death.  And I'm thinking that sometimes (when they are startled by a loud noise for instance), they might shout out the first part of the prayer almost as a reflex, and they might be so startled they forget to say the rest of it.  Their children might grow up thinking that's just what you say when you almost get hit by a truck-"Jesus Christ!"-without knowing that there's more to the prayer.  So, the next time I hear someone yell the first part of the Jesus prayer I'm just going to finish it for him, quietly, under my breath: 

Jesus Christ,
Son of God,
Have mercy on that
Poor sinner.

[Taken with permission from the blog of the Rev. Dr. Jim Somerville. Originally posted 3/23/2011.]


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