“You got to help me… I can’t do it all by myself…” These words from Sonny Boy Williamson II’s ‘Help Me’ sum up, really, what I have discovered about prayer.
In Shin Buddhism, the terms jiriki and tariki are often used – the former implying the belief that liberation may be obtained by one’s own efforts (as in, say, Zen Buddhism) and the latter complete reliance on a power outside of oneself for salvation. But whatever one’s faith background, all religious practice ultimately boils down to one or the other of these assumptions.
The Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner“, is at root a prayer of surrender, of reliance upon God. It carries within it blind Bartimaeus’ recognition that he could do nothing to help himself (Mark 10.46-52) but that his only refuge was the mercy of Jesus.
Identifying Jesus as Lord, i.e. as source of power, we take refuge by turning to him, to his power, for mercy. By saying “a sinner”, we are not engaging in some act of self-flagellation, but merely acknowledging our helplessness, our inability to do anything from an entirely pure motive, anything, in fact, to help ourselves.
Emilia Fogelklou, the great Swedish Quaker theologian, wrote (speaking of herself in the third person):
But then one bright spring day – it was the 29th of May 1902 – while she sat preparing for her class under the trees in the backyard of Föreningsgatan 6, quietly, invisibly, there occurred the central event of her whole life. Without visions or the sound of speech or human mediation, in exceptionally wide-awake consciousness, she experienced the great releasing inward wonder. It was as if the ‘empty shell’ burst. All the weight and agony, all the feeling of unreality dropped away. She perceived living goodness, joy, light like a clear, irradiating, uplifting, enfolding, unequivocal reality from deep inside.
The first words which came to her – although they took a long time to come – were, ‘This is the great Mercifulness. This is God. Nothing else is so real as this.’ The child who had cried out in anguish and been silenced had now come inside the gates of Light. She had been delivered by a love that is greater than any human love. Struck dumb, amazed, she went quietly to her class, wondering that no one noticed that something had happened to her.