We were milliseconds from a wreck that could have taken our lives, and this prayer was all that came to mind.
Some 15 years ago, my sister and I decided to take a road trip to visit her roommate in Connecticut. We had a great weekend and a miserable drive home. First we went the wrong direction for 75 miles, then sat in traffic for hours. Back before Waze, there was no way around it and our five-hour drive ended up taking 12.
But we were young and rather delighted to be on an adventure, so we cranked the music (a ridiculous CD of panpipe renditions of pop songs) and embraced our sister bonding time.
When a wrong turn in West Philly eventually brought us to the same stretch of highway we’d already driven, we replayed the conversation we’d had earlier. We laughed about how slowly the car in front of us had been going when we’d taken that exit half an hour before—and, apparently, forgot to slow down when taking an exit on slick roads.
The car spun out of control, dangerously close to concrete pylons on one side and the wall of the underpass on the other. As my sister gripped the wheel and tried desperately to gain control of the car, I prayed.
“Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus Jesus!” I shouted.
I’ve always been rather eloquent in prayer. I learned to pray from Evangelicals, for whom prayer was necessarily extemporaneous, and had developed a powerful voice in prayer through years of studying Scripture and praying with other Christians. I had a bachelor’s degree in Theology and was working on a master’s.
But in that moment, shouting the name of Jesus was the best I could do.
When the car finally stopped spinning, we were facing the wrong way on the onramp, shaken but unbattered. As I took a deep, grateful breath, my 19-year-old sister looked over at me in a mixture of amusement and disdain.
“Jesus Jesus Jesus?” she asked.
“Oh, just shut up and turn the car around,” I retorted, somewhat embarrassed at my juvenile prayer.
But the more I thought about it, the more it felt right. My eloquence in prayer can be satisfying to me and edifying to those I pray with, but it’s not necessary. God doesn’t need to be impressed by fancy words, nor is he more likely to listen to the words of a poet than a child. It’s all well and good to pray in beautiful turns of phrase if that’s an authentic expression of your spirit and not an attempt to impress those who listen, to earn God’s favor, or to mask the true prayer of your heart. But there is no prayer more powerful than the name of Jesus.
In the name of Jesus, Sts. Peter and John gave a crippled man the power to walk (Acts 3:6). At the name of Jesus, St. Paul tells us, “every knee shall bow, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Phil 2:10). And Jesus himself tells us that we will work miracles in his name (Mk 16:17-19).
The name of Jesus—which literally means “God saves”—is a plea for God to save us, a prayer that St. Peter promised would be answered (Acts 2:21). It’s the name given him by the angel Gabriel (Lk 2:21), the name uttered so lovingly by the Blessed Mother, the name in which we’re told to pray (Jn 16:23-24), all of which makes it a powerful prayer in itself.
There is a certain intimacy in a name, an intimacy that we who call all acquaintances by their first names may forget. But something happens when we sit before the Blessed Sacrament and speak the name of Jesus, praying slowly and reverently this name that is above every name (Phil 2:9). We begin to realize that when God took a human name and instructed us to address him by it, he made himself ours in a profound way.
It’s a petition that he save us. It’s a whisper of the beloved’s name. It’s a cry of anguish, a lonely heart reaching out for anyone to remind her she’s not alone. It’s an intercession, a plea that he give us the words to speak or the wisdom to stay silent. It’s a moment’s pause in a frantic day where we turn our eyes towards him and remember who we are, who he is, and how we are loved.
Fifteen years ago, I laughed along with my sister when the best prayer I could come up with was the name of Jesus. Now, I find myself sitting silent before the tabernacle, breathing slowly as I close my eyes and pray his name, making space in my heart for him to fill me. I murmur his name in my mind when people share their pain with me. I cry out his name when temptation or shame threaten to overwhelm me. That holy name threads its way through my day, a stunning moment of union that brings me back to him, whatever the circumstances. Sweet Jesus, what a gift.