The Jesus Prayer: A Fitting Advent Discipline (updated)

Those of you who know me, know that I am always refining and adding. It seems the Truth won’t let me write something without showing me more as a result of what I wrote. That, then leads me to revise or add to what I previously wrote (or said) so it matches, more perfectly, the Truth. It is a constant process of realizing and revising and realizing and revising — on and on and on… (But then that is the whole journey of transformation in a nutshell, isn’t it?!)

My last blog post is a case in point. So, here, below the dashed line, is my revised (better – more truth filled) version of what I posted yesterday.


Advent is about yearning. Not superficial yearning. Deep, edgy, risky yearning. An “out beyond,” cost what it will, lead where it may” kind of yearning. Indeed, a yearning that is unceasing.

The Jesus Prayer is the Advent prayer. It has all the qualities just articulated.

The Jesus Prayer is the unceasing prayer of the righteous person. It avails much (James 5.16). I hear in the word “much,” that James intending us to understand him to mean “everything.”

For, indeed, it is the groaning for union with the One who placed the yearning in us by design.

Let me take time and space to unpack all of this.

St. Augustine is most often quoted at this point:

“Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee…”

Another way of saying “union with God” is “Sabbath rest.” For, don’t the Scriptures from Isaiah to Hebrews to Revelation speak of the new heavens and the new earth? Don’t they speak of the “universal shalom” of God? (See Living the Christian Year, by Bobby Gross for the use of this beautiful term.) The prophets and the glorious company of the saints cry out (yearn/groan) for it!

“So then, there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God; for whoever enters God’s rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, that no one fall by the same sort of disobedience.” (Hebrews 4.9-11)

Again, St. Augustine speaks of this yearning in his reflections on Psalm 38.

“A psalm to David himself, on the remembrance of the Sabbath.
What doth this recollection of the Sabbath mean? What is this Sabbath? For it is with groaning that he ‘calls it to recollection.’ You have both heard already when the Psalm was read, and you will now hear it when we shall go over it, how great is his groaning, his mourning, his tears, his misery. But happy he who is wretched after this manner! Whence the Lord also in the Gospel (Matt v.4). called some who mourn blessed. ‘How should he be blessed if he is a mourner? How blessed, if he is miserable?’ Nay rather, he would be miserable, if he were not a mourner. Such an one then let us understand here too, calling the Sabbath to remembrance (viz.), some mourner or other: and would that we were ourselves that ‘some one or other!’ For there is here some person sorrowing, groaning, mourning, calling the Sabbath to remembrance. The Sabbath is rest. Doubtless he was in some disquietude, who with groaning was calling the Sabbath to remembrance.…”

Our groaning/yearning for Sabbath rest begins now and will never end. We groan in our brokenness for union with God in Christ Jesus. We groan in our union for ever more consummate union with God in Christ Jesus. We will yearn for eternity in our full righteousness for more and more consummate union with God in Christ Jesus, for God is eternally inexhaustible in His knowability. So, our yearning is multifaceted – mysterious. It is our heritage by design. Eternal Sabbath delight. (Heaven will never get boring.)

The Psalmist notes this multifaceted source of our groaning/yearning/longing. Our longing for ever more consummate delight in God begins in our brokenness:

“For thy arrows have sunk into me, and thy hand has come down on me.There is no soundness in my flesh because of thy indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin… Lord, all my longing is known to thee, my sighing is not hidden from thee.” (Psalms 38.2-3 9)

This longing is unceasing, St. Augustine says:

“’I go mourning all the day long.’ ‘All day long,’ that is, ‘without intermission.’ By ‘all the day long,’ he means, ‘all my life long.’ But from what time hath he known it? From the time that he began to ‘call the Sabbath to remembrance.’ For so long as he ‘calls to remembrance’ what he no longer possesses, wouldest thou not have him ‘go mourning?’ ‘All the day long have I gone mourning.’”

Why an unceasing longing even in our brokenness? The “remembrance of the sabbath” inscription at the beginnning of Psalms 38, doesn’t, I propose, speak only of David’s remembrance of all the sabbaths he enjoyed, but also of the inherent remembrance of the sabbath rest of our lost union with God. Because our “fallenness” does not include the destruction of our yearning for God. It remains like a splinter in the illusion/delusional mind of fallen mankind. This faint echo never leaves us no matter how far we have fallen. Here we begin to turn a corner. In our consideration of The Jesus Prayer, we must now realize that it is the very essence of prayer, and as such, the very essence of the groaning/yearning:

For, indeed, as the elder told the pilgrim,

“…St. Paul clearly states that prayer should precede all actions. ‘First of all, thee should be prayers offered’ (1 Tim. 2:1). The Apostle’s directive indicates that the act of prayer comes first; it comes before everything else. The Christian is expected to perform many good works, but the act of prayer is fundamental because without prayer it is not possible to do good. Without frequent prayer it is not possible to find one’s way to God, to understand truth, and to crucify the lusts of the flesh. Only fidelity to prayer will lead a person to enlightenment and union with Christ… The Spirit comes to help us in our weakness when we do not know how to pray (Rom. 8:26). Consequently, our only contribution toward perfection in prayer, the mother of all spiritual good, is regularity and constancy.” The Way of the Pilgrim (pg.8)

The Jesus Prayer sums up the journey of salvation/transformation; namely the dynamic interplay between revelation and repentance that takes the form of a transformed life. We must, if we are to find and live out our Sabbath rest in Christ, not only come to know the Truth (be confronted with it), but embrace the truth. We must be “disillusioned.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of this in Life Together. St. Augustine spoke of it many centuries before:

“For my soul is filled with illusions, and there is no soundness in my flesh” (ver. 7). Where there is the whole man, there there is soul and flesh both. The “soul is filled with illusions;” the flesh hath “no soundness.” What does there remain that can give joy? Is it not meet that one should “go mourning”? “All the day long have I gone mourning.” Let mourning be our portion, until our soul be divested of its illusions; and our body be clothed with soundness. For true soundness is no other than immortality. How great however are the soul’s illusions, were I even to attempt to express, when would the time suffice me? For whose soul is not subject to them? There is a brief particular that I will remind you of, to show how our soul is filled with illusions. The presence of those illusions sometimes scarcely permits us to pray. We know not how to think of material objects without images, and such as we do not wish, rush in upon the mind; and we wish to go from this one to that, and to quit that for another. And sometimes you wish to return to that which you were thinking of before, and to quit that which you are now thinking of; and a fresh one presents itself to you; you wish to call up again what you had forgotten; and it does not occur to you; and another comes instead which you would not have wished for. Where meanwhile was the one that you had forgotten? For why did it afterwards occur to you, when it had ceased to be sought after; whereas, while it was being sought for, innumerable others, which were not desired, presented themselves instead of it? I have stated a fact briefly; I have thrown out a kind of hint or suggestion to you, brethren, taking up which, you may yourselves suggest the rest to yourselves, and discover what it is to mourn over the “illusions” of our “soul.” He hath received therefore the punishment of illusion; he hath forfeited Truth. For just as illusion is the soul’s punishment, so is Truth its reward. But when we were set in the midst of these illusions, the Truth Itself came to us, and found us overwhelmed by illusions, took upon Itself our flesh, or rather took flesh from us; that is, from the human race. He manifested himself to the eyes of the Flesh, that He might “by faith” heal those to whom He was going to reveal the Truth hereafter, that Truth might be manifested to the now healed eye. For He is Himself “the Truth,” (John xiv. 6). which He promised unto us at that time, when His Flesh was to be seen by the eye, that the foundation might be laid of that Faith, of which the Truth was to be the reward. For it was not Himself that Christ showed forth on earth; but it was His Flesh that He showed. For had He showed Himself, the Jews would have seen and known Him; but had they “known Him, they would never have crucified the Lord of Glory.” (1 Cor. ii. 10). But perhaps His disciples saw Him, when they said unto Him, “Show us the Father, and it sufficeth us;” (John xiv. 8). and He, to show that it was not Himself that had been seen by them, added: “Have I been so long with you, and have ye not known Me, Philip? He that seeth Me, seeth the Father also.” (John xiv. 9). If then they saw Christ, wherefore did they yet seek for the Father? For if it were Christ whom they saw, they would have seen the Father also. They did not therefore yet see Christ, who desired that the Father should be shown unto them. To prove that they did not yet see Him, hear that, in another place, He promised it by way of reward, saying, “He who loveth Me, keepeth My commandments; and whoso loveth Me, shall be loved of My Father; and I will love Him and” (as if it were said to Him, “what wilt Thou give unto him, as Thou lovest him?” He saith), “I will manifest Myself unto him.” (John xiv. 21). If then He promises this by way of a reward unto them that love Him, it is manifest that the vision of the Truth, promised to us, is of such a nature, that, when we have seen it, we shall no longer say, “My soul is filled with illusions.”

Prayer, in its most essential form – the dynamic of revelation/repentance/transformation…, precedes and fills all the spiritual disciplines. Indeed, it fills (or will come to fill over time) to fullness all things in the life of the disciple of Christ Jesus. Hear more from St. Augustine on this matter,

“I have roared with the groaning of my heart.” You observe the servants of God generally interceding with groaning; and the reason of it is asked, and there is nothing apparent, but the groaning of some servant of God, if indeed it does find its way at all to the ears of a person placed near him. For there is a secret groaning, which is not heard by man: yet if the thought of some strong desire has taken so strong hold of the heart, that the wound of the inner man finds expression in some uttered exclamation, the reason of it is asked; and a man says to himself, “Perhaps this is the cause of his groaning;” and, “Perhaps this or that hath befallen him.” Who can determine, but He in whose Eyes and Ears he groaned? Therefore he says, “I roared with the groaning of mine heart;” because if men ever hear a man’s groanings, they for the most part hear but the groaning of the flesh; they do not hear him who groans “with the groaning of his heart.” Some one hath carried off his goods; he “roareth,” but not “with the groaning of his heart:” another because he has buried his son, another his wife; another because his vineyard has been injured by a hailstorm; another because his cask has turned sour; another because some one hath stolen his beast; another because he has suffered some loss; another because he fears some man who is his enemy: all these “roar” with the “groaning of the flesh.” The servant of God, however, because he “roareth” from the recollection of the Sabbath, where the Kingdom of God is, which flesh and blood shall not possess, says, “I have roared with the groaning of my heart.”

And who observed and noticed the cause of his groaning? “All my desire is before Thee” (ver. 9). For it is not before men who cannot see the heart, but it is before Thee that all my desire is open! Let your desire be before Him; and “the Father, who seeth in secret, shall reward thee.” (Matt. vi. 6). For it is thy heart’s desire that is thy prayer; and if thy desire continues uninterrupted, thy prayer continueth also. For not without a meaning did the Apostle say, “Pray without ceasing.”  (1 Thess. v. 17). Are we to be “without ceasing” bending the knee, prostrating the body, or lifting up our hands, that he says, “Pray without ceasing”? Or if it is in this sense that we say that we “pray,” this, I believe, we cannot do “without ceasing.” There is another inward kind of prayer without ceasing, which is the desire of the heart. Whatever else you are doing, if you do but long for that Sabbath, you do not cease to pray. If you would never cease to pray, never cease to long after it. The continuance of thy longing is the continuance of thy prayer. You will be ceasing to speak, if you cease to long for it.

Who are those who have ceased to speak? They of whom it is said, “Because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.” (Matt. xxiv. 12). The freezing of charity is the silence of the heart; the burning of charity is the cry of the heart. If love continues still you are still lifting up your voice; if you are always lifting up your voice, you are always longing after something; if always longing for something absent, you are calling “the Sabbath rest to remembrance.” And it is important you should understand too before whom the “roaring of thine heart” is open.

Now then consider what sort of desires those should be, that are before the eyes of God. Should it be the desire for the death of our enemy, a thing which men flatter themselves they lawfully wish for? For sometimes we pray for what we ought not. Let us consider what they flatter themselves [in thinking] they pray for lawfully! For they pray that some person may die, and his inheritance come to them. But let those too, who pray for the death of their enemies, hear the Lord saying, “Pray for your enemies.” (Matt. v. 44). Let them not pray for this, that their enemies may die; but rather pray for this, that they may be reclaimed; then will their enemies be dead; for from the time that they are reclaimed, henceforth they will be enemies no longer. “And all my desire is before Thee.” What if we suppose that our desire is before Him, and that yet that very “groaning” is not before Him? How can that be, since our desire itself finds its expression in “groaning”? Therefore follows, “And my groaning is not hid from Thee.”

From Thee indeed it is not hid; but from many men it is hid. The servant of God sometimes seems to be saying in humility, “And my groaning is not hid from Thee.” Sometimes also he seems to smile. Is then that longing dead in his heart? If however there is the desire within, there is the “groaning” also. It does not always find its way to the ears of man; but it never ceases to sound in the ears of God.

The universal, unceasing, every fulfilling and evermore fulfilling shalom of God in Christ Jesus. For this we long, and strive. Behold a mystery. The unceasing prayer – the groaning – is not something we can observe and analyze or judge. Sometimes it is hear with the ears and seen in our very bodies. Sometimes it is invisible to the observer. Yet it pervades us. It pervades the whole universe (Romans 8.22). Its pervasive character within in all creation and even within us personally and corporately is too deep for our words and explanations. We yearn for it and enjoy it and yet yearn for it evermore deeply. We are one with those who have gone before us in the yearning. The prophets and the saints:

“Depart not from me. Make haste to help me, Lord of my salvation” (ver. 22). This is that very “salvation,” Brethren, concerning which, as the Apostle Peter saith, “Prophets have enquired diligently,” (1 Pet. i. 10). and though they have enquired diligently, yet have not found it. But they searched into it, and foretold of it; while we have come and have found what they sought for. And see, we ourselves too have not as yet received it; and after us shall others also be born, and shall find, what they also shall not receive, and shall pass away, that we may, all of us together, receive the “penny of salvation in the end of the day,” with the Prophets, the Patriarchs, and the Apostles. For you know that the hired servants, or labourers, were taken into the vineyard at different times; yet did they all receive their wages on an equal footing (Matt xx. 9). Apostles, then, and Prophets, and Martyrs, and ourselves also, and those who will follow us to the end of the world, it is in the End itself that we are to receive everlasting salvation; that beholding the face of God, and contemplating His Glory, we may praise Him for ever, free from imperfection, free from any punishment of iniquity, free from every perversion of sin: praising Him; and no longer longing after Him, but now clinging to Him for whom we used to long to the very end, and in whom we did rejoice, in hope. For we shall be in that City, where God is our Bliss, God is our Light, God is our Bread, God is our Life; whatever good thing of ours there is, at being absent from which we now grieve, we shall find in Him. In Him will be that “rest,” which when we “call to remembrance” now, we cannot choose but grieve. For that is the “Sabbath” which we “call to remembrance;” in the recollection of which, so great things have been said already; and so great things ought to be said by us also, and ought never to cease being said by us, not with our lips indeed, but in our heart: for therefore do our lips cease to speak, that we may cry out with our hearts (Heb. iv. 9).

What is required is to have the direction (maturing movement) of the groaning be toward Christ Jesus. For this we struggle. For this we yearn. For this, indeed, is the proleptic dynamic of the “upward call.”

Source for the quotes from the writings of St. Augustine can be found here.


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