When Elisabeth Elliot’s second husband Addison Leitch was dying of cancer, he suffered intense physical pain. Even more devastating to both of them, though, was the crisis of faith that accompanied his final suffering. Elisabeth wrote that the weight of sorrow from witnessing his daily despair was one of the deepest trials of her life.
She, exhausted by grief, and he, paralyzed by terror and pain, found comfort in praying The Jesus Prayer together.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
When other words failed them and when God’s unfailing presence seemed distant and doubtful, this ancient prayer bridged the abyss and connected them to God.
On the strength of that story, I have also borrowed those words during seasons of sleeplessness or pain, so I was eager to read John Michael Talbot’s unique perspective in The Jesus Prayer: A Cry for Mercy, a Path of Renewal. He was raised in the Methodist tradition, but went astray, renewing his faith at the height of The Jesus Movement. When he became disillusioned with his career as a contemporary Christian musician, he embraced monasticism and Catholic spirituality. The Jesus Prayer is part of that contemplative and mystical tradition, but has also been embraced by evangelicalism.
No Magic Words
It goes without saying (and yet, I will say it anyway), that the particular words of The Jesus Prayer have no spiritual energy and are not powerful in themselves. Prayer is communication with God, and he responds to the believing heart that reaches out to him.
A common objection to the use of traditional prayers is that they can become vain repetition. Of course, it is also possible for our spontaneous prayers to become rote and meaningless. “Repetitive prayer is not the problem,” says Talbot. “Vain repetition is.” Right meaning wedded to right intention is the recipe for genuine prayer.
Breathing in with “Lord Jesus, Son of God,” and breathing out with “have mercy on me a sinner” unites the prayer with the rhythm of our bodies and slows the mind. Inhaling pictures the believer’s infilling with God; exhaling images our letting go of anything that stands in the way of full communion with God.
A Cry for Mercy, a Path of Renewal
With word-by-word detail, The Jesus Prayer explores the content both theologically and personally, offering a prayer exercise at the end of each chapter. Talbot’s Catholic underpinnings find their way into his thoughts on Mary and the nature of the Eucharist, but do not detract from the message of the book. The reader is invited into a worshipful pondering of deep truth about the Son of God in relationship to the Trinity, the paradox of the incarnation, and Jesus’s transcendence over all as Lord of the universe.
What better preparation for true repentance than an acknowledgement of Jesus’s identity wrapped up in a cry for mercy and an understanding that we are deeply flawed? Thanks be to God, we are also deeply loved, and the ultimate cure for our brokenness is implicit in the words of The Jesus Prayer. Our cry for mercy sets us on the road to renewal, and we find that God meets us on the path of prayer, carrying grace and offering us the gift of himself.
Many thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.
Grace and peace to you,
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