Sunday, 1 December 2019

"The" or "a".

I expect you know the Jesus prayer — simple, humble abiding mantra of the Orthodox Church.

It appears in slight variations of form:

  • Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, a sinner.
  • Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
  • Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, the sinner.
  • Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, the sinner.
The last one is the version I prefer in my own private prayer.

I like the addition of "Son of the living God". I'm not quite sure why, but I think maybe because of the word "living" — the vitality and aliveness and ever-freshness of God who is present and real.

I also like "the sinner" instead of "a sinner".

If I say "a sinner", I am making no connection with other people. 

As for instance, if I say, "I am a writer", that's just a piece of information about me alone. But if I say, "I am the writer", there is imported the sense of an unspoken "as opposed to these other people".

So, as I pray into the circumstances, relationships, events and connections of my life, if I say "I am the sinner", then I am taking responsibility for my own culpability where things have been spoilt or gone wrong, if you see what I mean.

It's as if I look at some mess that's shown up in my life and I accept responsibility.

In an ideal world, each and every one of us will do this, and that will be all that's needed for the global human community to live in peace. "I am the sinner" lays to rest all strife.

If I say, "I am a sinner", I've made a general statement about myself, but not accepted responsibility within a relationship — I haven't admitted culpability for things going wrong.

Of course, in a breakdown of relationship there's bound to be misunderstanding in both parties and likely to have been fuel added to the fire from both sides of the divide. But if I step forward and say, "I am the sinner", it seems to me very likely I will make it easier for my antagonists to relax and lay down their weapons.

And that's why I like that version best.


Elin said...

The "a" and "the" in this prayer seems a question of collective vs. individual to me. In the first instance it is a recognition of being a sinner, but one of many. In the second part it is a recognition of your own role in sin. I must say I was not very familiar with this prayer, don't know why though.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Elin — waving! There's an interesting Wikipedia article about the Jesus Prayer, here:

Mike Farley said...

Good morning, Pen, this Advent morning. Thank you for this! Interesting, isn't it, how these little variations develop significance for us over the years? For me, it was 10 years before I found the need to add the "sinner" bit at all, having originally learnt the Prayer without it. Now, another 30 years down the line, "a sinner" is the only way I can pray. You see, for me, the indefinite article is a way of expressing my solidarity with all the rest of fallen, broken creation - not just humanity - I am "a sinner" among many, bearing my share of the responsibility for the whole mess; and so for me the intercessory dimension (which I keep on about on my own blog!) of the Prayer comes through most strongly.

I love the way the Prayer becomes many things for many pray-ers - always a prayer, repeated but never vain repetition, and never losing its meaning and its edge no matter how many thousand iterations one makes in a lifetime of praying it!

Pen Wilcock said...

Hello, Mike — nice to meet you!

(Mike's written about the arrival of Advent here on his blog, folks: )

Reading what you say in your comment, I absolutely see how it could feel that way. To take your place in the whole of creation, the whole people of God, belonging to all of it, and all of it needing mercy.

And yes, it's a curious thing how this short simple prayer takes you deeper . . . and deeper . . .

Pen Wilcock said...

Oh — also from Mike's blog, friends, this piece on the Jesus Prayer:

Sandra Ann said...

When I literally thought I was dying last year, my body was in shock and in the middle of the night my heart beat shot through the roof those were the words I clung onto for a full twenty minutes. I used the 'a' version and had this deep need to be right with God should I die! I know Jesus intercedes for us at the right hand of the Father and so this prayer gave me something to cling to and to quell the terror. I am forever grateful for this prayer, it is grounding and says everything xx

Pen Wilcock said...

Oh, my goodness. I'm so glad we still have you with us. xx

Mike Farley said...

It's good to meet you, too, properly at last, Pen. Thank you for the links!

Sandra, I had a similar experience myself a few years ago, with a different kind of cardiac episode; and yes, it is, and it does - He does. Thank you so much for posting this.

Julie B. said...

I'm glad Sandra is with us too. I love the Jesus prayer. I say "a sinner" and I sometimes use rosary beads when I pray it in the dark at night. I don't pray the rosary, but I like the tactile help when I pray the Jesus prayer.

I look forward to checking out Mike's blog. xoxo

Pen Wilcock said...

Hello, friends! Waving!

The Rev. Susan Creighton said...

Ahh, there must be something about the holy climate of the British Isles that so many of you love the Jesus Prayer! It was at the Burrswood Healing Home, near Groombridge, near Kent that in 1974 I met a wonderful Orthodox woman, Marina Chavchavadze, who taught me the Jesus Prayer. When she visited me in Oregon a year later, her coaching laid the foundation for my long spiritual journey into the heart of Orthodox spirituality, although I remain an Episcopal priest.

I, too, have found myself praying various versions of the Jesus Prayer over the years...probably my most frequent use is the Greek version, "Kyrie Jesu Christe, eleison imas." But I also find myself enlarging that to "Lord Jesus Christ, Thou Son of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us." Or, another version came one day when praying for those with autism, "Lord Jesus Christ, Thou Lamb of God, you heal the wounded soul, have mercy upon us."

And Mike, I'm delighted to have found your blog, and especially to see that you were once upon a time a "dairy herdsman", as my own ancient history includes raising purebred Hereford beef cattle! They taught me so much about creation, birth, life, and death.

Blessings to you all.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hello, Susan! Waving! I remember reading about Maria in your book. I love those alternate versions of the Jesus Prayer you've given us here.

Mike Farley said...

Hello, Pen!

Hello Susan - good to meet you too. Herefords? Lovely cattle - I have very fond memories of several Hereford bulls over the years. I was a dairy herd manager - big herds, mostly, and mainly Holsteins, as you might imagine. Retired now.

I am delighted to have discovered your own "Holy Dwelling" - a treasure trove! I shall very much look forward to exploring.

I learnt the Jesus Prayer at Willen Priory, from a dear friend and guide Fr Francis Horner SSM, back in 1978, (In 1974, I was just getting ready to go to Hadlow College of Agriculture, not so far from Groombridge. Mature(?) student, having left Guildford art school some years before. Oddly tiny world, sometimes.)

Pen Wilcock said...

It is. Groombridge is not so far from me, on the coast in Hastings.

Mike Farley said...

I knew all those Kent and Sussex lanes so well, from holiday jobs delivering bottled beer, spirits and soft drinks in an old Austin FG, for Findlater's in Tunbridge Wells. Ha - memories!

Pen Wilcock said...


Lucie said...

Dear Pen, I’ve been thinking about this all week trying to find what I really felt about my own sin and prayer. I don’t know if I’m brave enough to say I am ‘the sinner’ because it feels so naked and vulnerable. I’m much more comfortable being one of many. But then that sort of absolves one of the stab of repentance, doesn’t it, which must be immediate and personal? Well, last night I went to hear the Westminster Choir sing advent songs. One of them was this song prayer set to song by Thomas Tallis:

You are born from light. Jesus the Redeemer
Of the ages. Mercifully hear the praises and prayers
Of your worshippers. Long ago you lowered your
Dignity by assuming flesh for us sinners. Gather
Us together now as parts of your blessed body.

And that fit for me. I love the being together, as sinners all, as parts of his blessed body. The particular sinner, joining all the sinners as part of the whole. I will try to attach the lovely song. Xx Lucie

Pen Wilcock said...

Ah — "O Nata Lux". Here it is, sung as it should be, by the Tallis Scholars (there are some rubbish versions cluttering up YouTube!)


Thank you, Lucie.