Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) – (1945- ) is the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Nafpaktos, an author, and a theologian. He graduated from the Theological School of the University of Thessaloniki and is one of the finest Patristic scholars living. His books include: “Orthodox Psychotherapy: (the Science of the Fathers)“, “The Illness and Cure of the Soul in the Orthodox Tradition“, “The Person in the Orthodox Tradition“, and “A night in the desert of the Holy Mountain“.
Below is an excerpt of a discussion with an Athonite hermit on the Jesus Prayer. From “A night in the desert of the Holy Mountain”, by Met. of Nafpaktos Hierotheos, pp. 57-59
“- Gerondas, allow me a few questions which arose while you were talking about the stages of the Jesus Prayer. What do you mean by the word heart?
– According to the teaching of the Holy Fathers, the heart is the center of the spiritual world. Among the many opinions of the Fathers on this subject I will mention a distinctive one of St. Epiphanios, Bishop of Konstantia in Cyprus: “For this reason, we need not in any way define or ascertain in what part of man the image of God rather is accomplished, but we need to confess that the image of God does exist in man, so that we will not despise the grace of God and disbelieve in Him. For whatever God says is true, although His word has to a certain extent, escaped our capacity to receive it”. Just as a beam when it falls upon a prism is refracted and shown from all sides, in the same way does the soul also express herself through the whole human being.
When we say the Jesus Prayer, however, we fix our attention on the physical organ, on the heart, so that we are distracted away from the outside world and bring it back into ourselves, into the “deep heart”. In this way the nous – the eye of the soul – returns to its home and is united there with the other powers.
– Allow me a second question. Do all who are enchanted by the enjoyment of God follow the course you have just described to me?
– Yes, most of them do. There are some however who, from the very beginning, seek to unite the nous with the heart by doing breathing exercise. They breath in the word “Lord Jesus Christ” and exhale the words “have mercy on me”. They follow the air as it comes into the nose all the way to the heart, and there they rest a little.
This, of course, is done to allow the nous to be fixed on the prayer, The Holy Fathers have also handed over to us another method, We breath in saying all the words of the Jesus Prayer and we breath out saying them again. This method, however, requires maturity in spiritual development. But using this way of breathing can cause many difficulties, many problems; that is why it should be avoided, if there is no guidance from a spiritual father. It can be used, however, simply to fix the nous on the words of the prayer so that the nous is not distracted. I repeat, this needs a special blessing (permission) of a discerning father.
– You said before, Gerondas, that the aim of the Jesus Prayer is to bring the nous back into the heart, that is the energy into the essence. We can experience this specifically at the third stage [prayer of the heart] of this holy pathway. When, however, you recounted the fifth stage [Christ living in the heart], you referred to a quotation from St. Basil the Great: “he who loves God having avoided all these, departs toward God”. How does the nous come into the heart and depart towards God? Is this perhaps a contradiction?
– No it is not, the holy hermit answered. As the Holy and God-fearing Fathers teach, those who pray are at various stages. There are the beginners as well as the advance; as they are better called to the teaching of the Fathers, the practical and the theoretical ones. For the practical ones, prayer is born of fear of God and a firm hope in Him, whereas to the theoretical ones, prayer is begotten by a divinely intense longing for God and by total purification. The characteristics of the first state – that of the practical ones – is the concentration of the nous within the heart; when the nous prays to God without distraction. The characteristic of the second state of prayer – that of the theoretical ones – is the rapture of the nous by the divine Light, so that it is aware neither of the world nor of itself. This is the ravishment (ecstasy) of the nous, and we say that, at this stage the nous “departs” to God. The god-bearing Fathers who experienced these blessed states describe the divine ravishment; “it is the ravishment of the nous by the divine and infinite light, so that is aware neither of itself nor of any created thing, but only of Him Who through love, has activated such radiance in the nous”. (St. Maximos)”