Posts Tagged Jesus Prayer
One of my main goals in writing is to discover and bring the ancient theology and doctrines of the early charismatic Christian church to the contemporary Charismatic Renewal Movement.
There is a clear disconnect between the doxis of Western Latin Christianity and the praxis of the contemporary Charismatic Renewal Movement which operates in the gifts and fruit of the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit. The Renewal Movement certainly has the basic praxis (how beliefs are practiced, embodied and realized in conduct) of the early charismatic Apostolic church, but does not have a corresponding supportive, complementary doxis (religious beliefs, worship, doctrines, and creeds) which explains and supports that praxis.
The world needs to see lives transformed, but it also needs to know why and how they have been transformed. To do this, the world must see a complementary balance of belief and action at work. But, just as vital, the world must see something else in mutual support and balance: orthodoxy and orthopraxis– that is, right belief and right action.
A key essential in an orthodoxy which supports a Renewal Movement (apostolic church) orthopraxis is an understanding of the Essence and Energies of God and the distinction between them. It is only in understanding Essence (transliterated ousía in Greek) and Energies (transliterated enérgeia in Greek) of God that we can reconcile the seeming paradox of the unknowable transcendence of God with the universal, yet very personal indwelling presence and power of God in all humankind.
Throughout this discussion, I will rely heavily on the writings of 20th century theologians including Vladimir Lossky, Christos Yannaras, and Fr. John Meyendorff. They, in turn, refer to the authority of many early Church Fathers including St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, and St. Macarius the Great (all 4th century); St. Dionysius the Aeropagite (5th century); St. Maximus the Confessor (7th century); St. Symeon the New Theologian (11th century); and last, but not least, St. Gregory Pálamas (14th century). I make all of these citations so that the reader may understand that the theology and doctrines on the Essence and Energies of God are both ancient and continuously attested to throughout the Patristic literature up to this day. These citations also make it clear that none of what you are about to read is my original work or thoughts.
To be continued…
Saint Diadochos of Photiki (c. AD 400 – c. 486). “On Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination. One Hundred Texts”, No. 31. From Philokalia, Vol. 1. One of the earliest written references to the “Jesus Prayer”; “the remembrance of the glorious and holy name of the Lord Jesus…“
“When our intellect begins to perceive the grace of the Holy Spirit, then Satan, too, importunes the soul with a sense of deceptive sweetness in the quiet times of the night, when we fall into a light kind of sleep. If the intellect at that time cleaves fervently to the remembrance of the glorious and holy name of the Lord Jesus and uses it as a weapon against Satan’s deception, he gives up this trick and for the future will attack the soul directly and personally. As a result the intellect clearly discerns the deception of the evil one and advances even further in the art of discrimination.”
“There is a story told from 18th century France of an old man who used to go for a long time each day into Church. His friends asked him: “What are you doing all the time in Church?” “I’m praying”, he said. And they answered: “You must have a great many things to ask God, if you take such a long time praying?” With indignation he responded: “I’m not asking God for anything!” “Well”, they said, “what are you doing all that time in Church?”
And he replied: “I just sit and look at God and God sits and looks at me”.
That is one of the best definitions that I know of prayer. And it sums up the Jesus Prayer in particular; it is a way of sitting and looking at God!
Let us now consider a little the inner meaning of the Jesus Prayer. In the Sermon of the Mount Christ says: “When you pray do not use vain repetitions”. Don’t heap up empty phrases as the heathen do thinking that they will be heard because of their many words. Does then the Jesus Prayer come under Christ’s rebuke? Certainly it is a repetition, but it is not a vain repetition if it is said with faith and with love. Within the Jesus Prayer every word has weight, every word has meaning. It is not verbosity, but the Jesus Prayer is on the contrary, a precise and eloquent confession of faith.
Let us explore then a little of the meaning of the Jesus Prayer. In that very attractive 19th century Russian text; attractive, but also in some ways misleading: The Tales of a Pilgrim. It is said, that the Jesus Prayer contains the whole of the Gospel; all embracing. In what way? First, the Jesus Prayer contains the two poles, the two moments of Christian experience. And these two moments are: adoration and penitence, or glory and forgiveness. There is in the Jesus Prayer a circular movement, a double movement of assent and return. First we ascend to God in adoration “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” and then we return to ourselves in penitence “have Mercy on me the sinner”.
Now, the gulf, the abyss between the divine glory and our human brokenness is bridged in the Jesus Prayer by two words “Jesus” and “Mercy”. In this connection we need to recall the literal meaning of the name Jesus. It means: Salvation! As the angel says before the birth of Christ (Matt 1:21): “You shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sin”.
First of all then, the gulf between glory and sin is bridged by Jesus, who is salvation. Then the other bridge building word in the Jesus Prayer is the word “Mercy”, Eleos in Greek. What does the word “Mercy” mean to you? For me it means love in action, love poured out to heal, to reconcile, to renew. Sometime people say to me that the Jesus Prayer is a rather gloomy prayer. I don’t experience it in that way. I see it as a prayer full of light and hope, because it speaks of Salvation and of Mercy.” ~ From a lecture delivered in 1997
St. Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) was absolutely insistent that every believer must receive a second baptism, the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. It is not to be confused with ritual Orthodox Chrismation.
“… ‘John Baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit’. If one is ignorant of the Baptism wherewith he was baptized as a child and does not even realize that he was baptized, but only accepts it by faith and then wipes it away with thousands upon thousands of sins, and if he denies the second Baptism – I mean, that which is through the Spirit, given from above by the loving-kindness of God to those who seek it by penitence – by what other means can he ever obtain salvation? By no means!” ~ The Discourses. XXXII
“… the noetic energy that functions in the heart of a person that is spiritually healthy.”
Originally, “nous” was understood by ancient (pre-Christian) Greek philosophers, most notably Plato and Aristotle, as man’s highest intellectual faculty. By intellectual faculty, the ancient Greeks did not mean the ability to reason things out to a logical conclusion, but rather the intuitive and immediate grasp of the reality of things. To them, “nous” was more of a direct contact between mind and truth.
The Church Fathers borrowed the term “nous” from Greek philosophy and gave it a distinctive Christian meaning. They used it to refer to the noetic energy that functions in the heart of a person that is spiritually healthy. The “nous” can be used to explain another borrowed concept from philosophy, the Logos Doctrine of the church. Second century Christian apologist Justin Martyr used the spermatikos logos (“seed” of the Word) to explain the universal indwelling presence of the Logos, the Word, or Son of God the Father within every human being (cf. the prologue to the Gospel of John, vv. 1:1-18). The idea of the “nous” also evolved over time among the Fathers. Early use of the term can be ambiguous as some early Fathers used the word “nous” when they were referring to the reasoning rational mind.
According to Orthodox theologian Fr. Michael Pomazansky (in his book, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology), it was the teaching of the overwhelming majority of the Church Fathers that the phrase ‘Image of God’ (cf. Genesis 1:26) refers to man’s soul, more precisely to the highest faculty of the soul, the “nous”. So, man is the “Image” by virtue of the spiritual nature of his “nous”. One common comparison made among patristic writers illustrates the relationship between body and the healthy “nous”. The analogy is that of the body being similar to a horse and the “nous” to the rider guiding and controlling the animal to move in the direction he would have it go.
“a higher state still” ~ John Cassian, ca. AD 400
In this discussion over the next few posts, I will quote recognized Church Fathers from the early centuries of the Church in order to introduce the Primitive Christian Prayer tradition to a mostly Protestant audience. The reason for this is simple: it’s a prayer tradition that we Protestants do not have and never had; it had virtually disappeared from the institutional Roman Catholic Church by the time of the Protestant Reformation.
To the modern Roman Catholic and Protestant believer, prayer is usually broken down into five basic types: Blessing and Adoration, Petition, Intercession, Thanksgiving, and Praise (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church).
John Cassian (c. 350 – c.435) was a Christian mystic who spent 15 years in the Egyptian Desert with the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the 4th century. Highly educated, he was equally comfortable writing in either Greek or Latin. He tells us that Primitive Christian Prayer went well past the types we recognize today:
“The various kinds of prayer [petition, promise, intercession, pure praise] are followed by a higher state still… it is the contemplation of God alone, an immeasurable fire of love. The soul settles in it and sinks into its depths” (Conferences, IX, 18).
“This disposition is accompanied by interior tears, then by a sort of fullness, eager for silence.” ~ Diadochus of Photike, 5th century
We now turn back to John Cassian (ca. AD 400), who tells us how to pray like the Desert Fathers and Mothers:
“We have to take particular care to follow the Gospel precept that bids us go into our inner room and shut the door to pray to our Father.
This is how to do it.
We are praying in our inner room when we withdraw our heart completely from the clamor of our thoughts and preoccupations, and in a kind of secret dialogue, as between intimate friends, we lay bare our desires before the Lord.
We are praying with our door shut when, without opening our mouth, we call on the One who takes no account of words but considers the heart.
We are praying in secret when we speak to God with the heart alone and with concentration of the soul, and make known our state of mind to him alone, in such a way that even the enemy powers themselves cannot guess their nature. Such is the reason for the deep silence that it behooves us to keep in prayer…” (Conferences, IX)
Diadochus of Photike from the 5th century (AD 400’s) is one of the principal spiritual authorities of the Orthodox East. He was one of the first to mention the use of the famous “Jesus Prayer”, which remains one of the primary mystic tools of the Orthodox contemplative tradition of hesychasm (silence, quietude) to this day. Diadochus describes the presence of the Holy Spirit in contemplative prayer and the need for silence:
“When the Holy Spirit acts in the soul he sings psalms and prays with complete relaxation and sweetness in the secret places of the heart. This disposition is accompanied by interior tears, then by a sort of fullness, eager for silence.” Gnostic Chapters, 73
The tricky thing about contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer is that if you think you’re doing it right, you clearly aren’t! By thinking you’re doing it right, by making that judgment, you have made prayer into a dualistic contest, a worthiness exercise. That makes you guilty of “philautia” (φιλαυτία), self-centeredness, the root of all of the deadly sins and the greatest hindrance to pure prayer, at least according to Evagrius Ponticus!
“Always breathe Christ” ~ Anthony the Great, 4th century
In the ancient Eastern Orthodox contemplative tradition of “hesychasm” (silence, stillness, quietude), invoking the name of Jesus Christ has been used as a means of focusing the mind on God and eliminating outside thoughts, images, and other distractions from pure presence. Invoking the name of Jesus also acknowledges that God is personal; He only manifests as Persons in Trinity, in an endless “circle dance” (perichoresis) of co-inherent divine love (agape). This invocation of Christ has been combined with breathing as a “psycho-somatic” (involving both “psuche” (soul) and “soma” (body)) aid in centering the spirit (nous) in the heart for its ascent to God.
Athanasius of Alexandria (295 – 356), besides being the hero of the first Ecumenical Council of the Church at Nicaea in AD 325, also wrote “The Life of Anthony”, about the greatest and most celebrated of the first monks. In it, Athanasius quotes Anthony (whom he personally knew) as follows:
“[Anthony] called his two companions… and said to them, ‘Always breathe Christ’.”
Pseudo-Macarius echoes the same idea in about AD 400 with this elegant sentiment from his “Coptic Cycle of Sayings”:
“The Holy Spirit, the Breath of God, is linked to the Word from all eternity. Therefore when a person’s intellect and breathing utter the name of the Incarnate Word – Jesus – they are united with the Holy Spirit, and the person breathes and thinks in the Spirit.
The intellect [nous], strengthened by the invocation, finds its connection with the heart again, and this, or rather the presence in it, becomes conscious. Intellect and heart together form that heart-spirit in which a person collects, opens, unifies, harmonizes, and enlarges himself infinitely. It properly constitutes the ‘place of God’.”
Anthony and Macarius were joined in this same sentiment more than 200 years later by 7th century mystic master John Climacus. John wrote the “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”; 30 short tracts, or steps, of spiritual instruction for his monks. In Step 27 of “The Ladder” he wrote:
“Let your calling to mind of Jesus be continually combined with your breathing and you will know the meaning of silence.”
“It should therefore be given the Jesus Prayer…” ~ Diadochus of Photike, 5th century
The tradition of invoking the name of Jesus in contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer was so common that by the 5th century that it was assuming a standard form, the “Jesus Prayer”. Diadochus of Photike tells us that:
“The spirit, when we close all its outlets by our concentration on God, demands of us expressly some task that may satisfy its need for activity. It should therefore be given the Jesus Prayer as the only occupation that answers fully to its purpose. It is, in fact, written that ‘No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit’… Those who meditate on this holy and glorious Name continually in the depths of their heart can see also the light of their own spirit. For if it is entertained with great care by the mind, the Name with intense emotion destroys all the impurities that cover the surface of the soul.”
The “Jesus Prayer” remains a principal spiritual tool of the Eastern Orthodox contemplative tradition of “hesychasm” to this day. In its full form, it is, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a (the) sinner”. It is used also in various shortened forms, sometimes shortened down to “Lord have mercy”, or “Kyrie eleison” in Greek. In its psycho-somatic form, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” is prayed (“breathed”) into the body on the inhale; and “have mercy on me, a sinner” is exhaled (just like our sin is expelled through His grace and mercy). It’s easier to do in Greek than it is in English!
I would be unfaithful to the Eastern contemplative tradition if I did not add a stern warning, born of centuries of experience. Contemplation, or theoria, should not be undertaken except under the guidance of an experienced spiritual Father, or guide. Even then, visions, dreams, and emotions are looked on with great suspicion in the Eastern tradition. Without a keen and well developed discernment of spirits, Satan and his minions can easily wreak havoc in a novice and do great physical and spiritual harm.
“pray without ceasing” ~ Paul, ca. AD 55
In what is probably the earliest authentic letter we have from the Apostle Paul, he urges his nascent Christ community in Thessalonica to “pray without ceasing”. The Primitive Christian ekklesia took that charge very seriously. Contemplative prayer became ingrained in the lives of many of the early saints, providing a constant subtle presence or leitmotif; a divine music infused throughout their entire being, creating the themes, rhythm, tempo, melody, tone, and mood of a sanctified life.
The institutional church, especially after becoming part of the Imperial infrastructure of the Roman Empire beginning in AD 313, naturally began to become more concerned with that which concerns empire; power, prestige, and possessions. As a result, the concept of prayer began to get “dumbed down” to a level that the institutional church could define and control. Hence, we have the five basic kinds of prayer we are familiar with today; Blessing and Adoration, Petition, Intercession, Thanksgiving, and Praise. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with these types of prayer; Jesus and Paul used all of them. These prayers are good, powerful, and edify the body of Christ. My point is that they constitute a very small subset of the much larger contemplative Primitive Christian Prayer tradition. As evidence, I again cite John Cassian (ca. AD 400) who tells us, “The various kinds of prayer [petition, promise, intercession, pure praise] are followed by a higher state still… it is the contemplation of God alone, an immeasurable fire of love.” It is to this “higher state” of prayer that all Christians are called to aspire.
Many serious God-seekers, repulsed by the questionable antics and priorities of the early institutional Imperial Church, started fleeing to the isolation of deserts of Syria, Palestine and Egypt in the AD 300’s. There they were free to continue to practice and develop their contemplative Primitive Christian prayer tradition; praying in the tradition of Jesus and Paul. These were the famed Desert Fathers and Mothers. This was the beginning of monasticism. Contemplative prayer pretty much remained isolated to the monks and nuns of the sketes and monasteries from that point on; somewhat removed from the institutional “church” structure, or, as I refer to it in its current incarnation, “Jesus, Inc.”.