Thursday, 17 November 2011
Thoughts, thinking and the Jesus Prayer
"But how are we to stop talking and to start listening? Of all the lessons in prayer, this is the hardest to learn. There is little profit in saying to ourselves, 'Do not think', for suspension of discursive thought is not something that we can achieve merely through an exertion of will-power. The ever-restless mind demands from us some task, so as to satisfy its constant need to be active. If our spiritual strategy is entirely negative - if we try to eliminate all conscious thinking without offering our mind any alternatives activity - we are likely to end up with vague day-dreaming. The mind needs some task which will keep it busy, and yet enable it to reach out beyond itself into stillness. In the Orthodox hesychast tradition, the work which is usually assigned to it is the frequent repetition of some short 'arrow prayer', most commonly the Jesus Prayer...
We are taught, when reciting the Jesus Prayer, to avoid so fas as is possible any specific image or picture. In the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa, 'The Bridegroom is present, but he is not seen." The Jesus Prayer is not a form of imaginative meditation upon different incidents in the life of Christ. But, while turning aside from images, we are to concentrate our full attention upon, or rather within, the words. The Jesus Prayer is not just a hypnotic incantation but a meaningful phrase, an invocation addressed to another Person. Its object is not relaxation but alertness, not waking slumber but living prayer. And so the Jesus Prayer is not to be said mechanically but with inward purpose; yet at the same time the words should be pronounced without tension, violence, or undue emphasis. The string round the spiritual parcel should not be drawn so tight as to cut into the edges of the package."
Bishop Kallistos Ware: The Orthodox Way (pp.163-164)
I love that phrase where Bishop Kallistos tells us to concentrate our full attention not so much upon, but rather within, the words. Images then are ignored and thought which wander or stray outside of the words themselves are brought firmly and continually back 'indoors' so that they focus within, or are drawn around, the words like a string around a spiritual parcel - to use the Bishop's illustration. But not with such violence or wrenching that they cut into the parcel itself.