In an operating room awaiting surgery, I found myself praying, “Even though I walk through the valley of death, you are with me!” After I came to I kept repeating, “The Lord is my shepherd” all night. In the morning I remarked to a nurse that the machine next to my bed that sounded like a stream flowing over rocks had been very soothing. She said, “There’s no machine next to you.” When we are sick, tired, plagued with a problem, or stressed out, we may not be able to muster enough energy to pray a Hail Mary or pick up our Bible. At such times we can fall back on the simplest prayer: a mantra. This is a word or phrase that is repeated. It is a restful and comforting form of prayer. Praying a mantra makes us God-conscious. Of course, God is always present. A mantra gently leads us to become aware of him and his love for us. Mantras are also known as prayer of the heart.
The shortest mantra is just the name Jesus. The oldest and most popular mantra is the Jesus prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Supposedly it originated with the Desert Fathers in the fifth century. Some people like to pray it inhaling on the first half and exhaling on the second half. Mantras can be prayed sitting with hands open on the lap or walking. They can be sung. A priest told me that he spent an eight-day retreat doing nothing but singing, “Jesus, Jesus, let everything that is you flow into me,” and he came out a changed man.
I’ve noticed that sometimes one of the words that I’m saying has become another word, giving new meaning to my prayer. St. Paul encourages Christians to pray always. We can take his advice by praying mantras while we stand in line in a store, wait for something to download, or sit through a long red light. We can pray mantras when we’re put “on hold” on the phone or when we’re trying to fall asleep.
What do we use for a mantra? We can choose a psalm verse or a line from a prayer, or we can make up our own. My book Prayer-Moments for Every Day of the Year is a collection of possibilities. You can find it in the bookstore here.
What has been your experience with mantras? If you’ve never prayed this way, you might try it. You may be surprised.
Image: “The Good Shepherd” by Nathan Greene, © 2003, All Rights Reserved, Used By Permission. www.nathangreene.com