Archive for category Hesychasm – Jesus Prayer
Fr. Richard Rohr – is a Franciscan priest, Christian mystic, and teacher of Ancient Christian Contemplative Prayer. He is the founding Director of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM.
“In the early medieval period, two Christian philosophers offered names for three different ways of seeing, and these names had a great influence on scholars and seekers in the Western tradition. Hugh of St. Victor (1078-1141) and Richard of St. Victor (1123-1173) wrote that humanity was given three different sets of eyes, each building on the previous one. The first eye was the eye of the flesh (thought or sight), the second was the eye of reason (meditation or reflection), and the third was the intuitive eye of true understanding (contemplation).
I describe this third eye as knowing something simply by being calmly present to it (no processing needed!). This image of “third eye” thinking, beyond our dualistic vision, is also found in most Eastern religions. We are onto something archetypal here, I think!
The loss of the “third eye” is at the basis of much of the shortsightedness and religious crises of the Western world, about which even secular scholars like Albert Einstein and Iain McGilchrist have written. Lacking such wisdom, it is hard for churches, governments, and leaders to move beyond ego, the desire for control, and public posturing. Everything divides into dualistic oppositions like liberal vs. conservative, with vested interests pulling against one another. Truth is no longer possible at this level of conversation. Even theology becomes more a quest for power than a search for God and Mystery.
One wonders how far spiritual and political leaders can genuinely lead us without some degree of contemplative seeing and action. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that “us-and-them” seeing, and the dualistic thinking that results, is the foundation of almost all discontent and violence in the world. It allows heads of religion and state to avoid their own founders, their own national ideals, and their own better instincts. Lacking the contemplative gaze, such leaders will remain mere functionaries and technicians, or even dangers to society.
We need all three sets of eyes in both a healthy culture and a healthy religion. Without them, we only deepen and perpetuate our problems.”
Evagrius Ponticus (c. 346-399) – was originally from Pontus, on the southern coast of the Black Sea in what is modern-day Turkey. He served as a Lector under St. Basil the Great and was made Deacon and Archdeacon under St. Gregory of Nazianzus. He was also greatly influenced by Origen of Alexandria and St. Gregory of Nyssa. In about 383, Evagrius left Constantinople, eventually retreating to the Egyptian desert and joining a cenobitic community of Desert Fathers. As a classically trained scholar, Evagrius recorded the sayings of the desert monks and developed his own theological writings.
“If you are a theologian you truly pray. If you truly pray you are a theologian.”
from “The 153 Chapters on Prayer”, Chap. 60.
Note: This chapter is one of the key passages for the full understanding of the Evagrian identification of contemplation with prayer. It is also important to understand what Evagrius meant by the term “theologian”. According to David W. Fagerberg, associate professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, to Evagrius, a “theologian is someone who has been shaped by the cooperative exercise of grace and ascetical submission, whose eyes can see after their light has been restored, whose heart wills only one thing, whose mind has changed, whose life has been reconnected to the source of life. This does not require a PhD, it requires a conversion of life.”
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)”
Kyriacos C. Markides (b. 1942) – Dr. Markides is a professor of sociology at the University of Maine. He has written several books on Christian mysticism including Mountain of Silence (2001), Gifts of the Desert (2005), and Inner River (2012). Dr. Markides is a contributor to Transpersonal Psychology, a sub-field or “school” of psychology that integrates the spiritual and transcendent aspects of the human experience with the framework of modern psychology. Based on the early works of Carl Jung, William James, and Abraham Maslow, it is also possible to define Transpersonal Psychology as a “spiritual psychology”. Dr. Markides is trying to introduce Eastern Orthodox Mysticism into Western secular Psychology, something that is long overdue and desperately needed.
I attach a paper written by Dr. Markides and published in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, in 2008 (Vol. 40, No. 2). It is entitled, “Eastern Orthodox Mysticism and Transpersonal Theory”. As a “teaser” to the paper, I include Dr. Markides’ abstract:
ABSTRACT: Christianity has remained relatively peripheral to the intellectual processes that shaped transpersonal theory. Eastern religions on the other hand provided the base upon which transpersonal theory was founded and developed. Spiritual traditions like Hinduism and Buddhism paved the way towards the exploration of states of consciousness beyond the rational mind. My basic claim in this paper is that the eastern branch of Christianity, or Eastern Orthodox Christianity, has preserved and developed over the centuries a mystical theology and practice that may enrich and perhaps expand what eastern religions have contributed so far to the emergence of transpersonal theory. This paper is an introduction to the mystical pathways of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. It is informed by seminal literature and scriptures, several years of participant observation and depth interviews of Eastern Orthodox practitioners (mystics, monks and hermits), and complemented by experiential data related to my own journey of discovery.
Click on the blue hyperlink or the graphic, below, to open Dr. Markides paper:
St Seraphim of Sarov (1754 – 1833) – is one of the most renowned Orthodox Russian saints. He is generally considered the greatest of the 19th-century startsy (elders). Seraphim extended the monastic teachings of asceticism, contemplation, and theosis to lay Christians. He taught that the purpose of the Christian life was to acquire the Holy Spirit. Perhaps his most popular quotation amongst Orthodox believers is “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and thousands around you will be saved.”
Nikolay Motovilov was a disciple of St Seraphim and wrote down many of his conversations with the starets, including this famous Talk On the Purpose of the Christian Life, that took place in November 1831 in the forest near Sarov. Motovilov’s account is considered one of the spiritual treasures of Russian Orthodoxy.
The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God
Click on the graphic or the blue hyperlink below to open the document:
Saint Ignatius (Brianchaninov), (1807–1867) – was a bishop and theologian of the Russian Orthodox Church. His two most important books translated into English are: The Arena: An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism; and On the Prayer of Jesus.
“The correct practice of the Jesus Prayer proceeds naturally from correct notions about God, about the most holy name of the Lord Jesus, and about man’s relationship to God.
Approach Prayer with Humility
God is an infinitely great and all-perfect being. God is the Creator and Renewer of men, Sovereign Master over men, angels, demons and all created things, both visible and invisible. Such a notion of God teaches us that we ought to stand prayerfully before Him in deepest reverence and in great fear and dread, directing toward Him all our attention, concentrating in our attention all the powers of the reason, heart, and soul, and rejecting distractions and vain imaginings, whereby we diminish alertness and reverence, and violate the correct manner of standing before God, as required by His majesty (John 4:23-24; Matt. 22:37; Mark 12:29-30; Luke 10:27). St. Isaac the Syrian put it marvelously: “When you turn to God in prayer, be in your thoughts as an ant, as a serpent of the earth, like a worm, like a stuttering child. Do not speak to Him something philosophical or high-sounding, but approach Him with a child’s attitude” (Homily 49). Those who have acquired genuine prayer experience an ineffable poverty of the spirit when they stand before the Lord, glorify and praise Him, confess to him, or present to Him their entreaties. They feel as if they had turned to nothing, as if they did not exist. That is natural. For when he who is in prayer experiences the fullness of the divine presence, of Life Itself, of Life abundant and unfathomable, then his own life strikes him as a tiny drop in comparison to the boundless ocean. That is what the righteous and long-suffering Job felt as he attained the height of spiritual perfection. He felt himself to be dust and ashes; he felt that he was melting and vanishing as does snow when struck by the sun’s burning rays (Job 42:6).
The name of our Lord Jesus Christ is a divine name. The power and effect of that name are divine, omnipotent and salvific, and transcend our ability to comprehend it. With faith therefore, with confidence and sincerity, and with great piety and fear ought we to proceed to the doing of the great work which God has entrusted to us: to train ourselves in prayer by using the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. “The incessant invocation of God’s name,” says Barsanuphius the Great, “is a medicine which mortifies not just the passions, but even their influence. Just as the physician puts medications or dressings on a wound that it might be healed, without the patient even knowing the manner of their operation, so also the name of God, when we invoke it, mortifies all passions, though we do not know how that happens” (421st Answer).
Our ordinary condition, the condition of all mankind, is one of fallenness, of spiritual deception, of perdition. Apprehending—and to the degree that we apprehend, experiencing—that condition, let us cry out from it in prayer, let us cry in spiritual humility, let us cry with wails and sighs, let us cry for clemency! Let us turn away from all spiritual gratifications, let us renounce all lofty states of prayer of which we are unworthy and incapable! It is impossible “to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land” (Ps. 136:5), in a heart held captive by passions. Should we hear an invitation to sing, we can know surely that it emanates “from them that have taken us captive” (Ps. 136:3). “By the waters of Babylon” tears alone are possible and necessary (Ps. 136:1).
Rule for Practicing the Jesus Prayer
This is the general rule for practicing the Jesus Prayer, derived from the Sacred Scriptures and the works of the Holy Fathers, and from certain conversations with genuine men of prayer. Of the particular rules, especially for novices, I deem the following worthy of mention.
St. John of the Ladder counsels that the mind should be locked into the words of the prayer and should be forced back each time it departs from it (Step XXVIII, ch. 17). Such a mechanism of prayer is remarkably helpful and suitable. When the mind, in its own manner, acquires attentiveness, then the heart will join it with its own offering— compunction. The heart will empathize with the mind by means of compunction, and the prayer will be said by the mind and heart together.
Do Not Hurry
The words of the prayer ought to be said without the feast hurry. even lingering, so that the mind can lock itself into each word.
Persevere bring attention Back to the Words when the Mind wanders
St. John of the Ladder consoles and instructs the coenobitic… “God does not expect a pure and undistracted prayer. Despair not should inattention come over you! Be of cheerful spirit and constantly compel your mind to return to itself! For the angels alone are not subject to any distraction” (Step IV, ch. 93). “Being enslaved by passions, let us persevere in praying to the Lord: for all those who have reached the state of passionlessness did so with the help of such indomitable prayer. If, therefore, you tirelessly train your mind never to stray from the words of the prayer, it will be there even at mealtime. A great champion of perfect prayer has said: ‘I had rather speak five words with my understanding … than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue’ (I Cor. 14:19). Such prayer,” that is, the grace-given prayer of the mind in the heart, which shuns imaginings, “is not characteristic of children; wherefore we who are like children, being concerned with the perfection of our prayer,” that is, the attentiveness which is acquired by locking the mind into the words of the prayer, “must pray a great deal. Quantity is the cause of quality. The Lord gives pure prayer to him who, eschewing laziness, prays much and regularly in his own manner, even if it is marred by inattention” (The Ladder, Step XXVI11, ch. 21).
It Takes Time
Novices need more time in order to train themselves in prayer… Asceticism needs both time and gradual progress, so that the ascetic can mature for prayer in every respect. In order that a flower might bloom or the fruit grow on a tree, the tree must first be planted and left to develop; thus also does prayer grow out of the soil of other virtues and nowhere else… Pulled hither and thither by its acquired predilections, impressions, memories and worries, the novice’s mind constantly breaks its salvific chains and strays from the narrow to the wide path. It prefers to wander freely, to stroll in the regions of falsehood in association with the fallen spirits, to stray aimlessly and mindlessly over great expanses, though this be damaging to him and cause him great loss. The passions, those moral infirmities of human nature, are the principal cause of inattentiveness and absentmindedness in prayer. The more they are weakened in a man, the less is he distracted in spirit when praying. The passions are brought under control and mortified little by little by means of obedience, as well as by self-reproach and humility—these are the virtues upon which successful prayer is built. Concentration, which is accessible to man, is granted by God in good time to every struggler in piety and asceticism who by persistence and ardor proves the sincerity of his desire to acquire prayer.
Begin by saying the Prayer Aloud
The Russian hieromonk Dorotheus, a great instructor in spiritual asceticism, who was in this respect very much like St. Isaac the Syrian, counsels those who are learning the Jesus Prayer to recite it aloud at first. The vocal prayer, he says, will of itself turn into the mental.
After much vocal prayer there comes Mental Prayer
“Mental prayer,” he continues, “is the result of much vocal prayer, and mental prayer leads to the prayer of the heart. The Jesus Prayer should not be said in a loud voice but quietly, just audibly enough that you can hear yourself.,’ It is particularly beneficial to practice the Jesus Prayer aloud when assailed by distraction, grief, spiritual despondency and laziness. The vocal Jesus Prayer gradually awakens the soul from the deep moral slumber into which grief and spiritual despair are wont to thrust it. It is also particularly beneficial to practice the Jesus Prayer aloud when attacked by images, appetites of the flesh, and anger; when their influence causes the blood to boil. It should be practiced when peace and tranquility vanish from the heart, and the mind hesitates, becomes weak, and—so to speak—goes into upheaval because of the multitude of unnecessary thoughts and images. The malicious princes of the air, whose presence is hidden to physical sight but who are felt by the soul through their influences upon it, hearing as they mount their attack the name of the Lord Jesus—which they dread—will become undecided and confused, and will take fright and withdraw immediately from the soul. The method of prayer which the hieromonk suggests is very simple and easy. It should be combined with the method of St. John of the Ladder: the Jesus Prayer should be recited loud enough that you can hear yourself, without any hurry, and by locking the mind into the words of the prayer. This last, the hieromonk enjoins upon all who pray by Jesus’ name….
Establish a Daily Rule for Prostrations
The novice who is studying the Jesus Prayer will advance greatly by observing a daily rule comprising a certain number of full prostrations and bows from the waist, depending upon the strength of each individual. These are all to be performed without any hurry, with a repentant feeling in the soul and with the Jesus Prayer on the lips during each prostration…. Twelve prostrations suffice in the beginning. Depending upon one’s strength, ability and circumstances, that number can be constantly increased. But when the number of prostrations increases, one should be careful to preserve the quality of one’s prayer, so that one not be carried away by a preoccupation with the physical into fruitless, and even harmful, quantity. The bows warm up the body and somewhat exhaust it, and this condition facilitates attention and compunction. But let us be watchful, very watchful, lest the state pass into a bodily preoccupation which is foreign to spiritual sentiments and recalls our fallen nature! Quantity, useful as it is when accompanied by the proper frame of mind and the proper objective, can be just as harmful when it leads to a preoccupation with the physical. The latter is recognized by its fruits which also distinguish it from spiritual ardor. The fruits of physical preoccupation are conceit, self-assurance, intellectual arrogance: in a word, pride in its various forms, all of which are easy prey to spiritual deception. The fruits of spiritual ardor are repentance, humility, weeping and tears. The rule of prostrations is best observed before going to sleep: then, after the cares of the day have passed, it can be practiced longer and with greater concentration…. Prostrations stimulate a prayerful state of the mind and mortify the body as well as support and strengthen fervor in prayer.
These suggestions are, I believe, sufficient for the beginner who is eager to acquire the Jesus Prayer. “Prayer,” said the divine St. Meletius the Confessor, “needs no teacher. It requires diligence, effort and personal ardor, and then God will be its teacher.” The Holy Fathers, who have written many works on prayer in order to impart correct notions and faithful guidance to those desiring to practice it, propose and decree that one must engage in it actively in order to gain experiential knowledge, without which verbal instruction, though derived from experience, is dead, opaque, incomprehensible and totally inadequate. Conversely, he who is carefully practicing prayer and who is already advanced in it, should refer often to the writings of the Holy Fathers about prayer in order to check and properly direct himself, remembering that even the great Paul, though possessing the highest of all testimonies for his Gospel—that of the Holy Spirit— nevertheless went to Jerusalem where he communicated to the apostles who had gathered there the Gospel that he preached to the gentiles, “lest by any means,” as he said, “I should run, or had run, in vain ” (Gal. 2:2).”
Translated by Stephen Karganovic from The Alphabet of Orthodox Life, Belgrade, 1974. This appeared in Orthodox Life, vol. 28, no. 5, Sept.-Oct. 1978, pp. 9-14. Reprinted with permission.
Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) (1896 – 1993) – also known as Elder Sophrony, was best known as the disciple and biographer of St Silouan the Athonite and compiler of St Silouan’s works, and as the founder of the Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Maldon, Essex, England.
“I propose to devote this chapter to setting out as briefly as possible the more important aspects of the Jesus Prayer and the commonsense views regarding this great culture of the heart that I met with on the Holy Mountain.
Year after year monks repeat the prayer with their lips, without trying by any artificial means to join mind and heart. Their attention is concentrated on harmonizing their life with the commandments of Christ. According to ancient tradition mind unites with heart through Divine action when the monk continues in the ascetic feat of obedience and abstinence; when the mind, the heart and the very body of the ‘old man’ to a sufficient degree are freed from the dominion over them of sin; when the body becomes worthy to be ‘the temple of the Holy Ghost’ (cf. Rom. 6. 11-14). However, both early and present day teachers occasionally permit recourse to a technical method of bringing the mind down into the heart. To do this, the monk, having suitably settled his body, pronounces the prayer with his head inclined on his chest, breathing in at the words ‘Lord Jesus Christ, (Son of God)’ and breathing out to the words ‘have mercy upon me (a sinner)’. During inhalation the attention at first follows the movement of the air breathed in as far as the upper part of the heart. In this manner concentration can soon be preserved without wandering, and the mind stands side by side with the heart, or even enters within it. This method eventually enables the mind to see, not the physical heart but that which is happening within it-the feelings that creep in and the mental images that approach from without. With this experience, the monk acquires the ability to feel his heart, and to continue with his attention centered in the heart without further recourse to any psychosomatic technique.
True Prayer Comes Through Faith and Repentance
This procedure can assist the beginner to understand where his inner attention should be stayed during prayer and, as a rule, at all other times, too. Nevertheless, true prayer is not to be achieved thus. True prayer comes exclusively through faith and repentance accepted as the only foundation. The danger of psychotechnics is that not a few attribute too great significance to method qua method. In order to avoid such deformation the beginner should follow another practice which, though considerably slower, is incomparably better and more wholesome to fix the attention on the Name of Christ and on the words of the prayer. When contrition for sin reaches a certain level the mind naturally heeds the heart.
The Complete Formula
The complete formula of the Jesus Prayer runs like this: Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner, and it is this set form that is recommended. In the first half of the prayer we profess Christ-God made flesh for our salvation. In the second we affirm our fallen state, our sinfulness, our redemption. The conjunction of dogmatic confession with repentance makes the content of the prayer more comprehensive.
Stages of Development
It is possible to establish a certain sequence in the development of this prayer.
…First, it is a verbal matter: we say the prayer with our lips while trying to concentrate our attention on the Name and the words.
…Next, we no longer move our lips but pronounce the Name of Jesus Christ, and what follows after, in our minds, mentally.
…In the third stage mind and heart combine to act together: the attention of the mind is centered in the heart and the prayer said there.
…Fourthly, the prayer becomes self-propelling. This happens when the prayer is confirmed in the heart and, with no especial effort on our part, continues there, where the mind is concentrated.
…Finally, the prayer, so full of blessing, starts to act like a gentle flame within us, as inspiration from on High, rejoicing the heart with a sensation of divine love and delighting the mind in spiritual contemplation. This last state is sometimes accompanied by a vision of Light.
Go step by step
A gradual ascent into prayer is the most trustworthy. The beginner who would embark on the struggle is usually recommended to start with the first step, verbal prayer, until body, tongue, brain and heart assimilate it. The time that this takes varies. The more earnest the repentance, the shorter the road.
The practice of mental prayer may for a while be associated with the hesychastic method-in other words, it may take the form of rhythmic or a-rhythmic articulation of the prayer as described above, by breathing in during the first half and breathing out during the second part. This can be genuinely helpful if one does not lose sight of the fact that every invocation of the Name of Christ must be inseparably coupled with a consciousness of Christ Himself. The Name must not be detached from the Person of God, lest prayer be reduced to a technical exercise and so contravene the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain’ (EX. 20.7; Deut. 5.11).
Attention of Mind gained
When the attention of the mind is fixed in the heart it is possible to control what happens in the heart, and the battle against the passions assumes a rational character. The enemy is recognized and can be driven off by the power of the Name of Christ. With this ascetic feat the heart becomes so highly sensitive, so discerning, that eventually when praying for anyone the heart can tell almost at once the state of the person prayed for. Thus the transition takes place from mental prayer to prayer of the mind and heart, which may be followed by the gift of prayer that proceeds of itself.
Do Not Hurry
We try to stand before God with the whole of our being. Invocation of the Name of God the Saviour, uttered in the fear of God, together with a constant effort to live in accordance with the commandments, little by little leads to a blessed fusion of all our powers. We must never seek to hurry in our ascetic striving. It. is essential to discard any idea of achieving the maximum in the shortest possible time. God does not force us but neither can we compel Him to anything whatsoever. Results obtained by artificial means do not last long and, more importantly, do not unite our spirit with the Spirit of the Living God.
It’s a Long Path
In the atmosphere of the world today prayer requires super human courage. The whole ensemble of natural energies is in opposition. To hold on to prayer without distraction signals victory on every level of existence. The way is long and thorny but there comes a moment when a heavenly ray pierces the dark obscurity, to make an opening through which can be glimpsed the source of the eternal Divine Light. The Jesus Prayer assumes a meta-cosmic dimension. St John the Divine asserts that in the world to come our deification will achieve plenitude since ‘we shall see Him as He is’. ‘And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure … Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him’ (cf. 1John 3.2,3,6). In order in Christ’s Name to receive forgiveness of sins and the promise of the Father we must strive to dwell on His Name ‘until we be endued with power from on high’ (cf. Luke24-49).
In advising against being carried away by artificial practices such as transcendental meditation I am but repeating the age-old message of the Church, as expressed by St Paul: ‘Exercise thyself rather unto godliness. For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation. For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men’ (1Tim. 4.7-10)
It’s Not Like Transcendental Meditation
The way of the fathers requires firm faith and long patience”, whereas our contemporaries want to seize every spiritual gift, including even direct contemplation of the Absolute God, by force and speedily, and will often draw a parallel between prayer in the Name of Jesus and yoga or transcendental meditation and the like. I must stress the danger of such errors-the danger of looking upon prayer as one of the simplest and easiest ‘technical’ means leading to immediate unity with God. It is imperative to draw a very definite line between the Jesus Prayer and every other ascetic theory. He is deluded who endeavors to divest himself mentally of all that is transitory and relative in order to cross some invisible threshold, to realize his eternal origin, his identity with the Source of all that exists; in order to return and merge with Him, the Nameless transpersonal Absolute. Such exercises have enabled many to rise to supra-rational contemplation of being; to experience a certain mystical trepidation; to know the state of silence of the mind, when mind goes beyond the boundaries of time and space. In such-like states man may feel the peacefulness of being withdrawn from the continually changing phenomena of the visible world; may even have a certain experience of eternity. But the God of Truth, the Living God, is not in all this. It is man’s own beauty, created in the image of God, that is contemplated and seen as Divinity, whereas he himself still continues within the confines of his creatureliness. This is a vastly important concern. The tragedy of the matter lies in the fact that man sees a mirage which, in his longing for eternal life, he mistakes for a genuine oasis. This impersonal form of ascetics leads finally to an assertion of divine principle in the very nature of man. Man is then drawn to the idea of self-deification- the cause of the original fall. The man who is blinded by the imaginary majesty of what he contemplates has in fact set his foot on the path to self-destruction. He has discarded the revelation of a Personal God. He finds the principle of the Person-Hypostasis a limiting one, unworthy of the Absolute. He tries to strip himself of like limitations and return to the state which he imagines has belonged to him since before his coming into this world. This movement into the depths of his own being is nothing else but attraction towards the non-being from which we were called by the will of the Creator.
Knowledge of Personal God
The true Creator disclosed Himself to us as a Personal Absolute. The whole of our Christian life is based on knowledge of God, the First and the Last, Whose Name is I AM. Our prayer must always be personal, face to Face. He created us to be joined in His Divine Being, without destroying our personal character. It is this form of immortality that was promised to us by Christ. Like St Paul we would not ‘be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life’. For this did God create us and ‘hath given unto us the earnest of the Spirit’ (2 Cor. 5.4,5).
Personal immortality is achieved through victory over the world – a mighty task. The Lord said, ‘Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world’ (John 10. 3 3), and we know that the victory was not an easy one. ‘Beware of false prophets … Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it’ (Matt. 7.13-115).
Wherein lies destruction? In that people depart from the Living God.
To believe in Christ one must have either the simplicity of little children – ‘Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt. 18.3)-or else, like St Paul, be fools for Christ’s sake. ‘We are fools for Christ’s sake … we are weak … we are despised … we are made as the filth of the world, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day’ (1 Cor. 4. 10, 13). However, ‘other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ’ (1 Cor. 3 .11). ʻWherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me’ (1 Cor. 4. 16). In the Christian experience cosmic consciousness comes from prayer like Christ’s Gethsemane prayer, not as the result of abstract philosophical cogitations.
When the Very God reveals Himself in a vision of Uncreated Light, man naturally loses every desire to merge into a transpersonal Absolute. Knowledge which is imbued with life (as opposed to abstract knowledge) can in no wise be confined to the intellect: there must be a real union with the act of Being. This is achieved through love: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart … and with all thy mind’ (Matt. 22.37). The commandment bids us love. Therefore love is not something given to us: it must be acquired by an effort made of our own free will. The injunction is addressed first to the heart as the spiritual centre of the individual. Mind is only one of the energies of the human. Love begins in the heart, and the mind is confronted with a new interior event and contemplates Being in the Light of Divine love.
A Difficult Task
There is no ascetic feat more difficult, more painful, than the effort to draw close to God, Who is Love (cf. i John 4.8, 16). Our inner climate varies almost from day to day: now we are troubled because we do not understand what is happening about us; now inspired by a new flash of knowledge. The Name Jesus speaks to us of the extreme manifestation of the Father’s love for us (cf.John 3.16). In proportion as the image of Christ becomes ever more sacred to us, and His word is perceived as creative energy, so a marvelous peace floods the soul while a luminous aura envelops heart and head. Our attention may hold steady. Sometimes we continue thus, as if it were a perfectly normal state to be in, not recognizing that it is a gift from on High. For the most part we only realize this union of mind with heart when it is interrupted.
In the Man Christ Jesus ‘dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily’ (Col. 2.9). in Him there is not only God but the whole human race. When we pronounce the Name Jesus Christ we place ourselves before the plenitude both of Divine Being and created being. We long to make His life our life; to have Him take His abode in us. In this lies the meaning of deification. But Adam’s natural longing for deification at the very outset took a wrong turning which led to a terrible deviation. His spiritual vision was insufficiently established in Truth.
Our life can become holy in all respects only when true knowledge of its metaphysical basis is coupled with perfect love towards God and our fellow-men. When we firmly believe that we are the creation of God the Primordial Being, it will be obvious that there is no possible deification for us outside the Trinity. If we recognize that in its ontology all human nature is one, then for the sake of the unity of this nature we shall strive to make love for our neighbor part of our being.
Our most dire enemy is pride. Its power is immense. Pride saps our every aspiration, vitiates our every endeavor. Most of us fall prey to its insinuations. The proud man wants to dominate, to impose his own will on others; and so conflict arises between brethren. The pyramid of inequality is contrary to revelation concerning the Holy Trinity in Whom there is no greater, no lesser; where each Person possesses absolute plenitude of Divine Being.
The Kingdom of Christ is founded on the principle that whosoever would be first should be the servant of all (cf. Mark 9.3 5). The man who humbles himself shall be raised up, and vice versa: he who exalts himself shall be brought low. In our struggle for prayer we shall cleanse our minds and hearts from any urge to prevail over our brother. Lust for power is death to the soul. People are lured by the grandeur of power but they forget that ‘that which is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God’ (Matt. 16.15). Pride incites us to criticize, even scorn our weaker brethren; but the Lord warned us to ‘take heed that we despise not one of these little ones’ (cf. Matt. i8.io). If we give in to pride all our practice of the Jesus Prayer will be but profanation of His Name. ‘He that saith he abideth in Him ought himself also to walk, even as He walked’ (1John2.6). He who verily loves Christ will devote his whole strength to obeying His word. I stress this because it is our actual method for learning to pray. This, and not any psychosomatic technics, is the right way.
Not a Christian Yoga
I have lingered on the dogmatic justification for the Jesus Prayer largely because in the last decade or so the practice of this prayer has been distorted into a so-called ‘Christian yoga’ and mistaken for ‘transcendental meditation’. Every culture, not only every religious culture, is concerned with ascetic exercises. If a certain similarity either in their practice or their outward manifestations, or even their mystical formulation, can be discerned, that does not at all imply that they are alike fundamentally. Outwardly similar situations can be vastly different in inner content.
When we contemplate Divine wisdom in the beauty of the created world, we are at the same time attracted still more strongly by the imperishable beauty of Divine Being as revealed to us by Christ. The Gospel for us is Divine Self-Revelation. In our yearning to make the Gospel word the substance of our whole being we free ourselves by the power of God from the domination of passions. Jesus is the one and only Savior in the true sense of the word. Christian prayer is effected by the constant invocation of His Name: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy upon us and upon Thy world.
Though prayer in the Name of Jesus in its ultimate realization unites man with Christ fully, the human hypostasis is not obliterated, is not lost in Divine Being like a drop of water in the ocean. ‘I am the light of the world … I am the truth and the life’ (John 8.12; 14.6). For the Christian-Being, Truth, Life are not ‘what’ but ‘who’. Where there is no personal form of being, there is no living form either. Where in general there is no life, neither is there good or evil; light or darkness. ‘Without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life’ (John 1:3).
When contemplation of Uncreated Light is allied to invocation of the Name of Christ, the significance of this Name as ‘the kingdom of God come with power’ (Mark 9.1) is made particularly clear, and the spirit of man hears the voice of the Father: ‘This is my beloved Son’ (Mark 9.7). Christ in Himself showed us the Father: ‘he that hath seen me hath seen the Father’ (John 14:9). Now we know the Father in the same measure as we have known the Son. ‘I and my Father are one’ (John 10.30). And the Father bears witness to His Son. We therefore pray, 90 Son of God, save us and Thy world.’
To acquire prayer is to acquire eternity. When the body lies dying, the cry ‘Jesus Christ’ becomes the garment of the soul; when the brain no longer functions and other prayers are difficult to remember, in the light of the divine knowledge that proceeds from the Name our spirit will rise into life incorruptible.”
~From His Life is Mine by Archimandrite Sophrony, trans. Rosemary Edmonds, St. Valdimir Seminary Press, pp112-120