Allison Backous Troy: Praying the Jesus Prayer showed me Christ

Close-up of hands of person in hospital

Bigstock/VILevi

In the midst of a painful health crisis, a simple prayer revealed God’s presence not only in the midst of the writer’s own suffering, but also in the suffering of others.

I am no stranger to physical pain. For years, I have suffered from migraines, endometriosis and hip issues; my epidural failed during labor; and in college, I was hospitalized for two and a half weeks for a complicated case of appendicitis. But the suffering I experienced during my most recent health scare -- portal vein thrombosis, a series of three clots blocking my liver’s main blood vessel -- was different.

Excruciating and intense, the pain and all that came with it left me disoriented and then reoriented. It moved me to lament and to trust. It brought me suffering, but also mercy.

With no family history of blood clotting or liver problems, I was floored by the diagnosis. For two weeks, I had thought I had the flu. But after a blood test and a CT scan, my doctor identified the problem and wrote me two prescriptions for blood thinners -- one oral, the other a pre-packaged syringe I was to use to inject myself twice daily.

In my abdomen.

Myself.

The first time, it took me half an hour to figure out how to open the syringe package, and another half hour to work up the courage to stick myself. After I finally did, I collapsed on my bed and wept, my skin burning from the medicine, my heart and mind exhausted.

Over the next two weeks, the pain slowly settled in as a neighbor I wasn’t prepared to like, let alone welcome. I was bewildered and in disbelief. How could this happen to me?

As I canceled long-awaited trips to visit loved ones, friends on Facebook posted pictures of their summer vacations. In the middle of the night, I would become nauseated, and would throw up as quietly as possible, trying not to wake my 3-year-old son. My husband, a seminary student, was on a required school trip to Jerusalem and Greece, his internet access shaky and his absence palpable. I was angry, and I was tired, and I couldn’t believe that I had to carry all this.

Pain and the burdens that it brings are hard to describe. It can be intense, tiring, surprising. How do you even begin to make sense of it? What meaning, theological or otherwise, do you attach to it? Is it punishment? A trial meant to refine you?

I had no idea; nothing fit neatly into any theological category. I just knew that I hurt, and that I needed help. As I opened syringes and watched my blood fill endless vials, all I could do was mouth a silent, aching prayer:

Lord, have mercy.

Lord, have mercy.

Lord, have mercy.

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus passes by a blind beggar who, in his desperation, cries out “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” He calls over and over again, ignoring the shushing of the crowds around him. Likewise, in the parable of the publican and the Pharisee, the publican prays the same humble words, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

This plea is the root of the Jesus Prayer, an ancient prayer that gets much attention from contemplatives of various traditions. A translation of the Kyrie eleison, it is known in my Orthodox tradition as a “prayer of the heart.” Or, as one of my mentors describes it, a “walking stick” prayer -- a prayer to lean on throughout your life’s journey.

For me, in the early weeks of my illness, the Jesus Prayer was more oxygen supply than walking stick. Across every hospital parking lot, in every waiting area and exam room, and with each prick of the needle, I breathed the prayer in and out, its gentle repetition calming my nerves.

But the prayer was much more than a centering exercise. As I prayed, I became attuned to the people surrounding me in hospital corridors and clinic waiting rooms, patients and their families, all carrying their own burdens of pain.

Suddenly, I found I was not only praying for myself, but also for them:

The elderly woman whose middle-aged sons stood grimly behind her as she vomited into a towel on her lap. The panicked woman in an elevator, her face searching and unsure as she pushed her weeping grandmother’s wheelchair. The man standing at the nurse’s desk in the hematology waiting room, his belongings wrapped in plastic grocery bags, digging through papers and soda bottles and saying in a thick Indian accent: “I’m sorry, let me find it, I’m sorry.”

Writing about the Jesus Prayer, St. Gregory of Nyssa said it gives one, among other things, a “sense of presence.” Expanding on that notion more recently, the Most Rev. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, an Orthodox bishop and theologian in England, said the prayer enables one to see “Christ everywhere.”

It did for me. There is no other way to say it: praying the Jesus Prayer showed me Christ. It revealed to me God’s presence in the midst of not only my suffering, but the suffering of strangers. How else can I explain the deep compassion I felt for the people around me? How else could the fluorescent glare of waiting rooms become a holy light, revealing not only the image of God in these suffering strangers, but Emmanuel, God with us?

Ware notes that, in Greek, the words for “mercy” and “oil” have similar roots, and that, for Greek patristic writers, asking for mercy was simply asking for “God’s love poured out to heal, to forgive, to restore.” The blind man in Luke’s gospel received his sight, but he also received Jesus, who turned to him and gave him his presence, restoring an ancient, broken bond between God and humanity.

I, too, felt this bond healed as I prayed the Jesus Prayer, not only for myself but between me and my suffering neighbors. I asked for and received mercy -- for my clot to heal and the pain to be relieved. But I also received new vision, my eyes opened to what Jean Pierre de Caussade called “the sacrament of the present moment.”

As I prayed I saw that each waiting room was a holy place. Hurting strangers became my neighbors, and in our suffering, the presence of God became the mercy of God, who “anoint(s) my head with oil, my cup overflows.” The prayer echoes the sacraments: when we ask for mercy, God sets up a table and gives us himself.

Since then, the pain has subsided, and, eventually, the clot will be reabsorbed into my blood. I don’t know the outcomes or even the diagnoses of the many people I saw and prayed for. And I have no simple “takeaway” from my exposure to suffering.

But what I can say is that I felt anointed by the oil of mercy as I prayed this prayer. And I pray that when the time of suffering comes -- and it will -- you too will be anointed. In every packed subway car; in every difficult conversation; in every moment of pain or despair -- may you find God’s table set for you. May you feel that same oil being poured out on you.

Lord, have mercy.

Lord, have mercy.

Lord, have mercy.