Wednesday, 21 December 2011

St. Ignatius Brianchaninov on distractions

The sons of the world consider distraction to be something innocent, but the holy fathers recognize it to be the origin of all evils. The person who has given up to distraction has, concerning all subjects and even the most important ones, a very light most superficial understanding. One who is distracted is usually inconstant. The feelings of his heart usually lack depth and strength; and therefore, they are not solid but transitory. As a butterfly flits from flower to flower so also a distracted person passes from one earthly satisfaction to another, from one vain care to another.

The distracted person is a stranger to love for one’s neighbour. He indifferently looks on the misfortune of men and he lightly lays on them burdens, which are difficult to bear. Sorrows powerfully affect a distracted person, precisely because he does not expect them. He expects only joys. If the sorrow is a strong one but swiftly passing, then the distracted person soon forgets about it in the noise of amusements, but a long lasting sorrow crushes him.

Distraction itself punishes the one who is devoted to it. With time everything bores him; and he as one who has not acquired any sound understandings and fundamental impressions whatsoever is given up to a tormenting endless despondency. As much as distraction is harmful in general, it is especially harmful in the work of God and the work of salvation, which requires constant and intense vigilance and attention. “Watch and pray lest you enter into misfortune,” says the Saviour to his disciples (Matthew 26:41). “I say to all watch,” (Mark 13:21, the Saviour said to all Christianity, and therefore, he said it to us in this time.

He, who is leading a distracted life is directly contradicting the commandments of the Lord Jesus Christ with his life. All of the saints diligently fled from distraction. Constantly or at least as often as possible they were concentrated in themselves. They paid attention to the movements of the mind and heart and they directed them according to the testament of the gospel. The habit of attending to oneself keeps one from distraction, even amongst distractions which is noisy and surrounding one on all sides. The attentive person abides in solitude, even amidst a multitude of people. A certain great father who had learned by experience the benefit of attention and the harm of distraction said that without intense watchfulness over himself it is impossible to succeed in even one virtue….
The works of God, obviously, ought to be learned and examined with the greatest reverence and attention. Otherwise a person can neither examine them nor know them. The great work of God, the creation of man, and then after his fall, his restoration by redemption, ought to be well known to every Christian. Without this knowledge one cannot know and fulfil the obligations of a Christian; but the knowledge of this great work of God cannot be acquired with distraction.

The commandments of Christ are given not only to the outer man but even more to the inner man. They embrace all of the thoughts and feelings of man, all of his most subtle movements. To keep these commandments is impossible without constant vigilance and deep attention. Vigilance and attention are impossible with a distracted life. Sin and the devil who arms himself with sin subtly creep into the mind and the heart. A person must constantly be on the watch against his invisible enemies. How can he be on this watch when he is given over to distraction?

The distracted person is like a house without doors or gates. No treasure whatsoever can be kept in such a house. It is open for thieves, robbers, and harlots. The distracted life, completely full of earthly cares, gains for a person heaviness just as gluttony and surfeiting do (cf. Luke 21: 34). Such a person is attached to the earth. He is occupied with only the temporary and vain. The service of God becomes for the distracted person an irrelevant subject. The very thought about this service is something for him wild, full of darkness, and unbearably heavy….

Distraction is nourished by the unceasing effect of the bodily senses. In vain do distracted people ascribe innocence to the distracted life. With this they are unmasking the evil quality of the illness which has seized them. Their illness is so great and has so dulled the feelings of the soul, that the soul, which is sick with this disease, does not even feel its unfortunate condition.
Those who wish to learn attentiveness must forbid themselves all vain occupations. The fulfilling of one’s personal and social obligations does not enter into the formation of distraction. Distraction is always united with idleness or with occupations that are so empty that they can be undoubtedly ascribed to idleness. A beneficial occupation, especially an occupation which is one of service, and which is joined with responsibility, does not hinder one in preserving attentiveness to oneself. Rather it guides one to such attentiveness. All the more do monastic obediences lead one to attentiveness when they are fulfilled in the due manner.

Being active is the essential path to vigilance over oneself. This path is prescribed by the Holy Fathers for all persons who wish to learn attentiveness to themselves. Attentiveness to oneself ‘in deep solitude brings forth precious spiritual fruits; but for this only people of mature spiritual stature are capable, who have advanced in the struggle of piety, and who first learned attentiveness in the active life. In the active life people help a person acquire attentiveness as they remind him of violations of attentiveness. Being in a subordinate position is the best means of learning attention. No one teaches a person to attend to himself as much as his strict and prudent superior. During your occupations of service amidst people, do not allow yourself to slay time in empty conversations and foolish jokes. In your solitary occupations, forbid yourself daydreaming and soon your conscience will become sharpened and will begin to point out to you every deviation into distraction as a violation of the law of the gospel and even as a violation of good sense. Amen.
Source: Divine Ascent: A Journal of Orthodox Faith, No. 7, Presentation of the Theotokos, November 2001, pp. 123-4

Friday, 9 December 2011

Authentic Prayer

Following on from my previous posts I want to think a little more about experience. We live in an experience-orientated culture in the West and we use it to measure all kinds of things like truth, authenticity, quality of life etc.. And this attitude can seep, quietly, into our attitude to prayer where we are under severe temptation tomeasure it's effectiveness and it's realty on the basis of whether we feel anything or 'get' anything back from the time we invest in doing it. It's a real problem when you make the praying of the Jesus Prayer a daily routine and an integral part of your prayer life.

As a busy parish priest I wonder sometimes if I am getting anywhere with it - a difficulty compounded by the fact that there is no way of really knowing in the short term whether you are doing it properly or not; or whether I should be doing something that is a more productive use of what little time I seem to have each day to pray. An 'experience' of any kind therefore - whether it's a warm spiritual glow of some sort or some kind of sense that you are 'connecting' with God at some level - would surely be some kind of welcome encouragement to help us persevere in saying the prayer.

But this is where faith and perseverance come in - the belief that I am getting somewhere, or doing the right thing and that good things come as a result of self-discipline and a seeking after the Giver rather than His gifts.

I was massively helped in this by a 16th century monk from the West called Brother Lawrance whose writing have been compiled into a little book called "Practicing the Presence of God". Here is what he writes in his 'Second Conversation' recorded in his book:

"Brother Lawrence said that he was always guided by love. He was never influenced by any other interest, including whether or not he was saved. He was content doing even the smallest chore if he could do it for the love of God. He even found himself quite well off, which he attributed to the fact that he sought only God and not his gifts. He believed that God is much greater than any of the simple gifts He gives us. Rather than desiring them from Him, he chose to look beyond the gift, hoping to learn more about God Himself. Sometimes he even wished that he could avoid receiving his reward, so that he would have the pleasure of doing something soley for God."

In a nutshell Lawrence reminds us that our desire should be for God alone and not His gifts, for God is "much greater than any of the simple gifts He gives us". So I am encouraged to keep on perevering with the Jesus Prayer out of love for God rather than any experience that may or may not come. The authenticity of my prayer does not come from what I receive from God, but what I can give Him in and by my praying.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Presence of God and faith

We are to "live by faith not by sight" writes Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians (Chapter 5:7). He could well have added "not by imagination either". In other words we are not to imagine that Christ is present and the addressee of our prayer, we are to take it as fact and act accordingly. This is what David Adam underlines in his excellent book on one of the earliest prayers of the Celtic Church in Britain, known as St. Patrick's Breastplate called "The Cry of the Deer". Here's what he writes:

"The Presence of God is an eternal fact. He never leaves us alone or forsakes us. It is when we lose sight of him that we falter and sink beneath the waves. We need to regain a clear vision of the Presence, to perceive the reality of His relationship with us and act upon it."

He then relates an incident that took place in a chapel he attended one Sunday:

"Not long ago, I was in a little grey chapel in a valley. The preacher was rather tedious and the hymns dull. I could have endured both, but when he started his prayers by saying, 'Now I just want you to imagine god is present,' I could have wept. I now knew why it was such heavy going: he did not know of the Presence, he could only imagine it. God is beyond our greatest imagination; either He is present, and that influences everything we do, or He is absent, and then we are poor indeed."

Note two things here:
First, the truth in the statement that "God is beyond our greatest imagination." What Adams is rightly reminding us of here is that if we try and 'imagine' Him we will always be in great danger of creating an idol of our own making.
Second, faith tells us that God IS present so we don't need to imagine He is. Imagination in this context is opposed to faith. Imagination 'creates' God's presence, while faith affirms it.

Adams continues:
"Faith is the discovery that He is at hand: 'in Him we live and move and have our being.' Faith is the joy of knowing that we dwell in Him and He in us. We cannot imagine this, you cannot even make it happen, but you can experience it as a fact."
"The Cry of the Deer": David Adam page 12

So in terms of the Jesus Prayer we are not to pray to Him "as if He were here" but because He is.

Experiencing the Presence of God

The Fathers fight shy of any talk of experiencing God as they know that all too easily that can become the main focus of our praying. Part of the danger is not only deception but the distraction that takes our eyes off God and onto ourselves instead. But in her excellent book "Living the Jesus Prayer" Irma Zaleski not only acknowledges that but distinguishes between experience and a necessary awareness of God's presence as we pray the Jesus Prayer. This is what she writes on the subject:

"...the experience of the presence of God in Christ of which we are speaking here is not a matter of our own thoughts, feelings or imagination. It is a matter of awareness: of becoming aware of what is real, of what is always there, but that we are usually too busy and distracted to notice and pay attention."

We are not only to distinguish between experience and an awareness of God's presence in Christ but between the use of our imagination and our acknowledgment of the reality of God which comes by faith.

"The kind of awareness that the Jesus Prayer may lead us to is very simple. We do not try to imagine that Jesus is there, and even less what he looks like or what he says. We do not engage in any imaginary conversations with him. We simply try to be aware of him and be attentive to him in a similar way as we are aware of the presence of someone we love in the next room, or as a mother is attentive to what her children are doing, however busy she is. We believe - we know by faith - that God in Christ is here, with us and in us. Our task is to try to remember him and be attentive to him. It is this attentiveness that is the door to our experience of the presence of God".
Irma Zaleski: Living the Jesus Prayer pages 30-31

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Guidance on the Practice of the Jesus Prayer

The following article is from the excellent blog "Orthodox Way of Life" accessed here.

Saint Theophan tells us that it is through asceticism that we purify our heart.  He outlines two ways for doing this.  The first is with ascetic labors  and the other is by turning our mind to God.  It is in this second way where God helps us by burning away the impurities.  This latter way is known as the Jesus Prayer.

Saint Gregory the Sinaite says, "we acquire God by either activity,labor, or the artful calling on the name of jesus."

The Jesus Prayer is thought by many to be shortest path.  Saint Theophan says, "It illuminates, strengthens, enlivens, conquers all enemies visible and invisible, and leads us to God."

Learning  the practice of the Jesus prayer is seen as an art.
Saint Theophan advises as follows:

Standing with awareness and attention in the heart, pronounce ceaslessly: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me." without picturing any sort of image or face, but with faith that the Lord will see you nd attend to you.

In order to become strong in this, you should assign a time in the morning or revening––fifteen minutes, a half hour, or more––however much you can, just for saying this prayer.  It should be after morning or evening prayers, standing or sitting.  This will place the beginnings of a habitual practice.

Then during the day, force yourself minute -by-minute to say it, no matter what you are doing.

It will become more and more habitual, and then it will start working as if by itself during any work or occupation.  The more routinely you take it up, the faster you will progress.

Your awareness should be kept unfailingly in the heart, and during the pracice your breath should lighten as a result of the tension with which you practice it.  But the most important condition is faith that God is near and hears us.  Say the prayer into God's ear.

This practice is not as easily as it sounds at first  You will run into difficulties.  It will develop in you in stages.  At first it will be an activity, then will become a mental prayer and finally a prayer that repeats itself unceasingly in your heart.

It is easy to become deceived in the practice of this prayer so it is best to have a guide.  Remember it is not a device, or a technique like many eastern methods of meditation.  It is first a prayer to God.  Saint Theophan advised that deception can come mainly by placing your attention on the head rather than the heart..  Focus on you chest as you say it.  He says, "Whoever has the attention centered in the heart is safe.  Even safer is the one who fall down before God every hour in contrition, with the prayer that he be delivered from deception."

Much has been written on this prayer by our Church Fathers see the articles on this web page ( Prayer/). Read them.  You will also see some books listed there.

Saint Theophan reminds us that "all the fruits of these labors come from the spirit of zeal and quest.... Always bear in mind that the spirit life must burn within, and we must in humility and pain of heart fall down before God our Saviour."
(Reference: Path to Salvation, pp 258-259)

Tradition of the Jesus Prayer

The following is an article from a Coptic website called "Coptic Heritage" (accessed here).  It's byBishoy K. R. Dawood written on January 23, 2004

A study on the tradition of the Jesus Prayer in Eastern Christendom.


    “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

These are the words repeated continuously by Eastern Christian monks, and constantly used throughout the Orthodox liturgies, even in its simplest form, Kirie eleison, “Lord have mercy.” The prayer directed to the “Lord Jesus Christ” has behind it a long legacy, and is commonly called the “Jesus Prayer.”

The tradition of the “Jesus Prayer” is a prominent tradition in all Eastern Christian churches. It is a long tradition, and many commentators on this tradition believe that its foundation is in Scripture. This essay will discover the origins of the tradition of the Jesus Prayer and the evolving outlook of the tradition, along with presenting the opinions of the Church Fathers who aided in strengthening this tradition.


Prayer is a practice of contemplation of God. Jews practiced prayer, as we learn from the Hebrew Bible, as well as Gentiles, as we find in their many mythological and philosophical literatures; and both the Jews’ and the Gentiles’ methods and teachings about prayer influenced the Christians.

In terms of the Jewish practice of prayer, the Christians preferred to learn from the teachings of Jesus, and even the Apostles, as found in the New Testament. Jesus preached how to pray with others (Mt. 6:8-13) and to pray individually, in secret (Mt. 6:6). In the Gospel of John, Jesus asks his disciples to pray in his name (Jn. 16:24), and the Apostle Peter did this when he miraculously cured a lame man (Acts 3:6). The name of Jesus itself, it was believed, contained a tremendous amount of power and authority - even the (today) non-canonical Shepherd of Hermas contains the saying: “The Name of the Son of God is great and boundless, and upholds the entire universe” (Similitudes, 9:14). Again, we find Paul encouraging the communities to whom he wrote his letters to “pray constantly” (I Thess. 5:17). It is these words of Paul that created the foundation of continuous contemplation through asceticism in Christianity, although the invocation of the name of Jesus was not used in prayers for nearly the first five centuries of Christian asceticism.

Christian asceticism probably began during the time the Gospels and the Pauline letters were written. The apocryphal Acts of each of the Apostles, in particular that of Paul, show a development of Pauline asceticism - in fact, it was the apocryphal Acts and its ascetic ideal that won the interests of early Christians. This is well explained by E. Clark:

“There is now strong agreement that ascetic impulses are present in the earliest extant Christian writings (Paul’s letters) and that the Synoptic Gospels are replete with verses that Christians developed in a highly ascetic direction, for example… the praise for those who became ‘eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven’ (Mt. 19:12).... The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles are now seen as developing the pro-ascetic trajectory of New Testament teaching.”[1]

In addition to the influence of the New Testament, Greek philosophy, in particular Stoic and Platonic philosophy, was also a great influence in early Christianity, especially in Egypt. In Egypt, there were many ascetics even before Christianity was introduced, as witnessed by Philo of Alexandria[2] (20 B.C.E.-50 C.E.); in Alexandria we find a Christian philosophical/theological School that shaped and influenced all the doctrinal and spiritual/ascetic beliefs of Christians in Egypt.

Christianity in Egypt was inspired by Plato’s philosophy of “ideas” and “forms.” According to Plato (427-347 B.C.E.), the key to philosophy is knowledge, which is acquired by the soul through “remembering” a former life before a fall into the body - that is, before the soul was imprisoned in the body. The physical cosmos is always changing, and anything changing is unstable and unreal, so it is only a “form” of the real, created by God to direct the soul to the real and unchanging life. Through the practice of contemplation within the “forms,” the soul can attain “ideas” that reminds it of its pre-existence and its original, beautiful, peaceful, perfect nature. This, then, is the true practice of the philosopher: to contemplate ideas, to contemplate what is the Good, the Beautiful, the one… God. This contemplation can only be done in absolute silence and stillness. Finally, God reveals a vision, which is a “mystical experience.” It is this Platonic (Neo-Platonic in particular) language that was later borrowed by early Christianity.

Clement of Alexandria (d. 215 C.E.), a preacher in the School of Alexandria, was among the first figures in history to wed Christianity with Platonic philosophy. Concerning continuous prayer, he tried to explain it in terms of explicit prayer done in every place and at any time: “Now, if some assign definite hours for prayer - as, for example, the third, and sixth, and ninth - yet the Gnostic prays throughout his whole life, endeavoring by prayer to have fellowship with God. And, briefly, having reached to this, he leaves behind him all that is of no service, as having now received the perfection of the man that acts by love.”[3]

Clement makes it clear that the one (the Gnostic) who seeks to be perfect by continuous prayer leaves literally everything behind; in the words of Irene Hausherr: “The true Gnostic appears to have gone beyond the stage of asking God for anything at all, since he is prepared to renounce everything, even his eternal salvation.”[4] This explains the roots of the ascetic impulse of continuous prayer.

Following Clement of Alexandria in the lead of the School of Alexandria, Origen (182-251 C.E.) wrote an entire treatise on prayer. It was Origen who first made continuous prayer an implicit prayer, although he continues to mention that such prayer is explicitly the entire life of a person, as Clement did: “[He who] prays ‘constantly’ (deeds of virtue or fulfilling the commandments are included as part of prayer)... unites prayer with the deeds required and right deeds with prayer. For the only way we can accept the command to ‘pray constantly’ (1 Thess, 5:17) as referring to a real possibility is by saying that the entire life of the saint taken as a whole is single great prayer.”[5]

From Origen springs out the monastic movement in Egypt, which was followed by many of the Church Fathers in the East and the West, through the influences of fathers such as St. Basil of Caeserea in the East and St. John Cassian in the West; “This teaching of the greatest of the Greek exegetes became also that of the greatest Latin exegete, St. Augustine, and of the earliest Syriac exegete, Aphraates…. When St. Basil… said to his monks, ‘Let your whole life be a time of prayer,’ he was undoubtedly alluding to Origen’s exegesis.”[6]

It is the monks of Egypt who practiced the continuous prayers in an ascetical manner, following both the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles, as well as applying the (Platonic) philosophy taught at the School of Alexandria, and above all following the Origenist tradition of implicit prayer. The “Sayings of the Desert Fathers” contain many simple teachings and advice of monks (and nuns) living in the desert of Egypt, and even in Palestine and Syria, in the fourth century; and the “Lives of the Desert Fathers” contain information about the ascetic life of some of the monks. One of the examples worth mentioning about continuous prayer in monastic communities comes from Palestine:

“The Abba of this cenobium wrote to Epiphanius, Bishop of Cyprus, saying: ‘Thanks to your prayers we have been faithful to our canonical hours. We never omit the office of terce, sext, none or vespers.’ But the Bishop wrote back and reproached the monks in these terms: ‘Evidently you are neglecting the remaining hours of the day which you spend without prayer. The true monk should have prayer and psalmody in his heart at all times without interruption.’”[7]

Abba Arsenius (360-449 C.E.) became the greatest example of praying continuously, even during the time for work. Along with the practice of continuous prayer, he maintained periods of silence and stillness (hesychia) to be able to contemplate. Abba Arsenius became “the champion of hesychia”[8], and,

“Those who came after him and wrote about prayer, such as the famous Abba Isaiah, could claim his authority for saying, ‘Force yourself to say countless prayers.’ Or Hyperechios: ‘The measure of prayer for a monk is to pray without measure.’ Or the anonymous author who recorded this aphorism: ‘If a monk prays only at the times when he is standing at formal prayer, he does not pray at all.’ In briefer form: ‘To pray only at the appointed hours of prayer is not to pray at all.’”[9]

The monks who were instructed to pray continuously prayed by taking a single verse from Scripture, and repeated it throughout the day. We know about this practice through the writings of St. John Cassian (360-435 C.E.), a Romanian and a contemporary of St. Augustine, who traveled through Palestine, Egypt, Constantinople and Rome to meet and to interview all kinds of people (i.e. hermits and monks) who lived an ascetic life. He then introduced the Egyptian form of monasticism into the West, and established a monastery for monks and nuns in Marseilles. In one of his conferences with an Egyptian monk named Abba Isaac, St. John Cassian notes the content of one of the many prayers (and psalmody) that the monk must continuously say:

“And what follows now is the model to teach you, the prayer formula for which you are searching. Every monk who wants to think continuously about God should get accustomed to meditating endlessly on it and to banishing all other thoughts for its sake. But he will not hold on to it unless he breaks completely free from all bodily concerns and cares. This is something which has been handed on to us by some of the oldest of the Fathers and it is something which we hand on to only a very small number of the souls eager to know it: To keep the thought of God always in your mind you must cling totally to this formula for piety: ‘Come to my help, O God; Lord, hurry to my rescue’ (Ps. 69:2).”[10]

It is clear, then, that the monks of fourth century Egypt were praying specific verses from Scripture and using the words as a means for meditation. St. John Cassian quotes the above words from the Psalms, showing how Egyptian monks favored the prayerful words of the Psalms.

The next most influential Father who discussed the ascetic practices in monasteries was a monk living at the end of the fourth century, Evagrius of Pontus (345-399 C.E.), who was a contemporary of the three Cappadocian Fathers - St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory Nazianzen. He traveled to Egypt in 383 C.E., and was the first to have compiled the oral “Sayings of the Desert Fathers” in a systematic manner. He was a true follower of the Origenist tradition, and deployed a Christianized Platonic philosophy and Alexandrian theology in his writing. His theology begins by explaining that human beings are living in a state of ignorance, where their true nature is forgotten. The soul is continuously agitated with evil thoughts and passions, and the mind is constantly confused. The only way for the soul to remember its true state and attain knowledge of God is through contemplation, but this requires a cultivation of a state of silence and tranquility (hesychia), which again requires withdrawing (anachorisis) from family life, the whole of society, and one’s own passions. In other words, withdrawal allows the mind to concentrate by avoiding distractions and becoming passionless (apatheia), which provides silence, which allows for contemplation.[11]

Contemplation is the practice of prayer continuously, and as this sort of prayer is something attained, so are contemplation and knowledge things to be attained. Contemplation allows the mind to free itself of any unnecessary thoughts: “Evagrius… speaks of prayer as a ‘laying aside’ or ‘shedding’ of thoughts - not a savage conflict, not a ruthless campaign of furious aggression, but a gentle yet persistent act of detachment.”[12] It is the Evagrian stream of asceticism that became prominent in Egypt.

So far the focus was on asceticism in Egypt, although there was a different view of asceticism in different geographical areas in the East - that is, in Syria, Asia Minor, and northern Iraq. Unlike Egypt, extreme asceticism was undertaken in these areas, where the body was neglected and somewhat tortured as a result of this neglect, as we find in the example of St. Symeon the Styllite (389-459 C.E.). This sort of asceticism was not practiced in Egypt, even though they also thought of controlling the body, but not to the extent of torture through neglecting the basic needs of the body - to the Egyptians, what was important was to lay aside the thoughts, as Evagrius taught, but not to lay aside the body. This is was not the view of ascetics of Syria.

The asceticism of Syria gave birth to the Enthusiast stream of asceticism. The Enthusiasts had Semitic roots, with its own peculiar understanding of Scripture due to the language barrier (as compared to the Greek understanding). Unlike the Hellenistic philosophical schools, the Enthusiast tradition personalized good and evil in the soul as the Holy Spirit and demons respectively. In the Enthusiast tradition, the body and the soul are extremely connected, to the extent that the soul manifests its feelings in the body, such as charismatic joy during prayers and expressions of tears during emotional periods.

Prayer was very important in the Enthusiast tradition, and for this reason the people who practiced this tradition were called the “Messalians,” which is a Syriac word and “means ‘people of prayer’ or ‘those who pray,’ but this was a term used by their adversaries; they called themselves ‘spirituals.’”[13] The Messalians understood the words of Paul the Apostle, “Pray continuously” (I Thess. 5:17) quite literally, and they did no work of any kind in order to dedicate their whole day to prayer without ceasing. The Messalians were later seen as a heterodox group, as they believed that even after the sacrament of baptism the demons remain in the body. This, according to them, explains why people still sin after baptism; “Baptism is therefore useless like all the other sacraments. The baptized Christian remains corrupted by sin just as before.”[14] Only continuous prayer (after baptism) can drive out the demons - the demons are driven out through a physical expulsion process, and then the Holy Spirit “enters the individual in a manner that also is sensibly and visibly perceived.”[15]

Although many councils condemned the Messalians as heterodox because of their different beliefs about the effectiveness of the sacrament of baptism, they successfully found a position in the Orthodox Church through the use of literature, in particular a set of fifty homilies claimed to be written by Makarios, a monk from Egypt.[16] The pseudo-Makarian homilies, as they are called, are extremely Enthusiastic, and oppose the Evagrian tradition - both the body and soul are involved in the former, but only the soul (the real human being according to Platonic thought) is involved in the latter. Yet, the homilies speak of continuous prayer through “remembrance”: “Christians ought at all times to preserve the remembrance of God… in order that they may show love to the Lord not only when they go into the place of prayer, but that also when they are walking, talking, or eating, they may preserve the remembrance of God, and a sense of love and yearning towards Him.”[17]

There is clear evidence that the Messalians, who were following the Enthusiast tradition, and the monks of Egypt, who were following the Evagrian tradition, were getting into conflicts quite often:

“There came to Abba Lucius in Ennaton certain monks of the kind called the Euchites [Greek for Messalians]; and the old man asked them, ‘What kind of handiwork do you do?’ They replied, ‘We touch no kind of handiwork, but following the Apostle’s words, we pray without ceasing.’ And the old man said to them, ‘So you do not eat?’ They said, ‘Yes, we eat.’ And he said, ‘Now while you are eating, who prays for you?’ Then he asked them again, ‘You do not sleep?’ And they said, ‘Yes, we do sleep.’ The old man said, ‘And while you sleep, who prays for you?’ And they could find an answer to this. And he said to them, ‘Forgive me, but see, you fail to do as you say. But I will show you how I work with my hands and at the same time pray without ceasing. For with God’s aid I sit steeping my few palm leaves, and from them I weave a rope; and all the time I say, ‘Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Thy great mercy, and according to the multitude of Thy mercies, blot out my transgression’ (Ps. 50:1).”[18]

It was only in the fifth century that the two opposing traditions were united through the efforts of one man from Sinai - Diadochos of Photike (? fifth century), who defended the Council of Chalcedon in 451 C.E. Diadochos is “one writer who saw and adopted much that was good in the Messalian teachings, while at the same time cautioning the Christian community regarding the borders between truth and error.”[19] He avoided the error of the Messalians by explaining that baptism expels the demons and the Holy Spirit dwells within the baptized Christian. He adopted the charismatic and experiential theology of the Messalians, and connected it with the Evagrian tradition. Prayer, he said, is contemplation, which leads to wisdom and knowledge, and also passionlessness (apatheia) - this is the Evagrian thought; but he also added that wisdom and knowledge can be expressed outwardly in charismatic ways - this is the Messalian thought.

The Messalians also thought that they could directly see the substance of God, but Diadochos disagreed with that idea: “Using a strongly experiential language, Diadochos speaks of a mystical experience of divine light. In moving over to a symbolic language of light… he avoids the theological difficulties faced by the Messalians with their overly bold claims about mystical vision of God.”[20]

Diadochos of Photike, while writing about prayer, for the first time introduced a new element in the tradition of continuous prayer and hesychia. This new element is the invocation of the name of Jesus in the continuous prayer: “When we have blocked all its outlets by means of the remembrance of God, the intellect requires of us imperatively some task which will satisfy its need for activity. For the complete fulfillment of its purpose we should give it nothing but the prayer ‘Lord Jesus…’”[21] Again, he says: “Whoever wishes to purify his heart should continually cherish the memory of the Lord, making it his meditation and his constant occupation…. He must give himself to prayer at all times and keep watch over his intellect whether he is in a place reserved for prayer or not.”[22] Diadochos of Photike gave birth to the Jesus Prayer, which became widely used by Eastern Christian monks.

During the sixth century, we still have some references to the Jesus Prayer tradition that Diadochos introduced. In a Gaza monastery in Palestine, two elders called Barsanuphius and John, who lived during the sixth century, say the following concerning the power of the Jesus Prayer, reminiscent to that mentioned in the Shepherd of Hermas: “The remembrance of the Name of God utterly destroys all that is evil.”[23] Also, in the Mount Sinai monastery in Egypt, St. John Climacus (of the Ladder), who lived during the sixth century, commented on the Jesus Prayer as follows: “Flog your enemies with the name of Jesus, for there is no weapon more powerful in heaven or on earth… Let the remembrance of Jesus be united to your every breath, and then you will know the value of stillness.”[24] There are certainly other influential writers on the Jesus Prayer tradition, such as Isaac the Syrian, Mark the Hermit, Hesychius of Jerusalem, Philotheus of Sinai, and many others.

In the Coptic monasteries of Egypt, the monks included daily hymns (psalies) prayed during their midnight praises, and they are each based on the Jesus Prayer. Egyptian monks were extremely inclined to the Jesus Prayer, such that its words survived in writing on the walls of a monastery in Kellia dating to seventh century. However, in the rest of the Eastern churches, the Jesus Prayer tradition was liable to collapse. It was only revived once again by Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022 C.E.). Another influential writer was Nicephorus (thirteenth century), a monk from Mount Athos, in whose writings are found plenty of Evagrian thoughts.

It is in Nicephorus’ writings that we read, for the first time, about a psychophysical technique of praying the Jesus Prayer. This method is also attributed to Symeon the New Theologian, although there is more evidence to support that it was written in the thirteenth century. Nicephorus has this to say concerning the technique of practicing the Jesus Prayer, which is a technique of regulating breathing and heat in the heart (based on Greek medical theories):

“You know that breathing brings air into the heart. And so sit quietly and take your mind and lead it by the path of breathing into the very heart and hold it there; do not give it freedom to escape as it would wish to. While holding it there do not leave your mind idle but give it the following holy words to say: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!’ And let the mind repeat them day and night…. Just as a man who returns home from a foreign country is beside himself with joy at seeing his wife and children, in like manner the mind, when it is united with the heart, is full of unspeakable joy and delight.”[25]

The method attributed to Symeon the New Theologian adds more details:

“You should be completely free from passionate attachments; your thoughts should not be inclined to anything worldly. Then sit alone in a quite place, close the door, take your mind from every temporal and vain thing, bow your head toward your chest and stay attentively inside of yourself, not in the head but in the heart….”[26]

Gregory of Sinai, during the fourteenth century, spent most of his time on the mountains between the borders of Byzantium and Bulgaria, and he was responsible for bringing the Jesus Prayer tradition, along with its breathing techniques, into Slavic Christendom. On the other hand, a controversy in Byzantium occurred at nearly the same time Gregory of Sinai preached to the Slavs. During the mid-1330’s, a Greek monk named Barlaam from Southern Italy, who was well-educated in Aristotelian logic and philosophy, went to Byzantium and had discourses in the imperial court. Barlaam involved himself with ecumenical dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, but Gregory Palamas disagreed with him concerning the addition of the Filioque to the creed.[27] Barlaam was also not acquainted with the breathing techniques of the Jesus Prayer practiced by the Athenian monks, and he denounced the monks to Constantinople and called them “naval-gazers,” since they sat with their heads down to their chests; and he accused them of claiming that “the human body, and not only the mind, could be transfigured by divine light and contribute to the knowledge of God,”[28] fearing that they were practicing a form of Messalianism. Gregory Palamas took a stand against Barlaam and defended the monks. He then wrote his book of the Triads, and the Church finally rebuked Barlaam in two councils held in Constantinople in 1341.[29]

With the defense of Gregory Palamas, the Jesus Prayer tradition was fully recovered and widely used again. Since then, we get many sermons and homilies by monks, priest, bishops, and even laypeople, concerning the need and the importance of the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer no longer remained exclusively for monks, but it became a useful prayer for every Christian. This is fully expressed in the writings of Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (1749-1809 C.E.), who, along with Makarios Notaras (1731-1805), compiled the writings of twenty-five Fathers into one book[30] called the Philokalia (Love of Beauty), where the main theme is the practice of the Jesus Prayer. In one of the writings attributed to Nicodemus, we read: “Let no one think, my fellow Christians, that only priests and monks need to pray without ceasing, and not laypeople. No, no: every Christian without exception ought to dwell always in prayer.”[31]

In the nineteenth century, a book by an anonymous Russian author called The Way of the Pilgrim,[32] became a source of encouragement to all Eastern Christian people to practice the Jesus Prayer. The pilgrim in the story traveled from place to place, accompanied by the Jesus Prayer, and carried with him a Bible and the Philokalia for spiritual nourishment. The pilgrim described his many encounters and experiences with people he met while traveling, all to show the power and comfort gained by continuously repeating the Jesus Prayer, which is, according to him, a summary of the whole Gospel.[33]

The story begins with the pilgrim in Church, and heard an epistle of St. Paul read and noted the words, “Pray constantly” (1 Thess. 5:17). He pondered the meaning of these words, and sought out people who could help him to “explain this mystery.”[34] After a long time, he encountered an elderly monk, who explained to him about the practice of the Jesus Prayer. The pilgrim was comforted, and desired to learn how to pray without ceasing. He was given the Philokalia by the elder to read, and a prayer rope in order to keep count of the prayers. Later, the elder died, but continued to guide him through revelations, and the pilgrim slowly advanced to say the Jesus Prayer continuously in his heart, using the breathing techniques: “When I began to pray with the heart, everything around me became transformed and I saw it in a new and delighted way;”[35] “So now I walk and say the Jesus Prayer without ceasing and it is more precious and sweet to me than anything else in the world.”[36]

Today, there are several books on the Orthodox tradition of the Jesus Prayer. Among the most prominent authors is Bishop Kallistos Ware, who sees in the prayer, as did the anonymous Russian pilgrim, a summary of the Gospel, as well as theological completeness: “The Jesus Prayer,” he affirms, “is both Christocentric and Trinitarian.”[37] The Bishop’s words may be taken as a conclusion of this study on the tradition of the Jesus Prayer that is firmly established in the Eastern Christian churches:

“The aim of the Jesus Prayer, as of all Christian prayer, is that our praying should become increasingly identified with the prayer offered by Jesus the High Priest within us, that our life should become one with his life, our breathing with the Divine Breath that sustains the universe. The final objective may aptly be described by the Patristic term theosis, ‘deification’ or ‘divinization’.... ‘The Logos became man,’ says St Athanasius, ‘that we might become god’.... The more the Prayer becomes a part of ourselves, the more we enter into the movement of love which passes unceasingly between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”[38]


[1] Clark, E. Asceticism and Scripture in Early Christianity, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), p.25, 26.

[2] Philo of Alexandria, On the Therapeutes, 1:3.

[3] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata Book VII, Chapter VII, in Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II,

[4] Hausher, Irene, The Name of Jesus, (Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1978), p.146.

[5] Origen, On Prayer XII:2, in Greer, Rowan A. (trans.), Origen, (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), p.104.

[6] Hausher, Irene, The Name of Jesus, (Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1978), p.131.

[7] Ibid. p.132.

[8] Ibid. p.133.

[9] Ibid. p.133.

[10] John Cassian, “Conferences,” Conference 10, 10, in Luibheid, Colm (trans.), John Cassian: Conferences, (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), p.132.

[11] Stewart, Columba, “Chapter 4: Evagrius of Ponticus on Prayer and Anger,” in Valentasis, R., Religions of Late Antiquity and Practice, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), p.66.

[12] Ware, Bishop Kallistos, The Inner Kingdom, Volume I, (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), p.100.

[13] Sinkewicz, Robert E., The Enthusiast Tradition in Byzantium, (Custom Publishing: UTP, 2002), p.1.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid. p.2

[16] This is known as the “Homilies of Pseudo-Makarios” today, and the majority of scholars agree that the Messalians, probably Symeon of Mesopotamia, wrote it.

[17] Pseudo-Makarios, Homily 43:3, in Ware, Bishop Kallistos, The Inner Kingdom, Volume I, (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), p.81.

[18] AP, Lucius, I (253B), in Ware, Bishop Kallistos, The Inner Kingdom, Volume I, (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), p.79.

[19] Sinkewicz, Robert E., The Enthusiast Tradition in Byzantium, (Custom Publishing: UTP, 2002), p.2.

[20] Ibid. p.6.

[21] Diadochos of Photike, “On Spiritual Knowledge,” in Ware, Bishop Kallistos, The Inner Kingdom, Volume I, (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), p.101.

[22] Diadochos of Photike, in Hausher, Irene, The Name of Jesus, (Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1978), p.278.

[23] In Ware, Bishop Kallistos, The Power of the Name: The Jesus Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality, (Oxford: SLG Press, 1987), p.11.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Nicephorus the Solitary, in Bacovcin, Helen (trans.), The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way, (New York: Doubleday, 1992), p.182, 183.

[26] Symeon the New Theologian, in Bacovcin, Helen (trans.), The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way, (New York: Doubleday, 1992), p.177.

[27] Meyendorf, John, “Introduction,” in Gregory Palamas: The Triads, (New York: Paulist Press, 1983), p.6.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Five volumes in English translation.

[31] Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, “From the Life of St. Gregory, Archbishop of Thessalonica,” in Ware, Bishop Kallistos, The Inner Kingdom, Volume I, (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), p.85.

[32] Or, alternatively, The Pilgrim’s Tale.

[33] Bacovcin, Helen (trans.), The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way, (New York: Doubleday, 1992), p.33.

[34] Ibid. p.13.

[35] Ibid. p.34.

[36] Ibid. p.24.

[37] In Ware, Bishop Kallistos, The Power of the Name: The Jesus Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality, (Oxford: SLG Press, 1987), p.11.

[38] Ware, Bishop Kallistos, The Power of the Name: The Jesus Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality, (Oxford: SLG Press, 1987), p.25.


Bacovcin, Helen (trans.). The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
—Nicephorus the Solitary, “Appendix.”
—Symeon the New Theologian, “Appendix.”

Clark, E. Asceticism and Scripture in Early Christianity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Clement of Alexandria, “Stromata” Book VII, Chapter VII, in Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II,

Greer, Rowan A. (trans.). Origen. New York: Paulist Press, 1979.
—Origen, “On Prayer”.

Hausher, Irene. The Name of Jesus. Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1978.

Luibheid, Colm (trans.). John Cassian: Conferences. New York: Paulist Press, 1985.
—John Cassian, “Conferences.”

Meyendorf, John. “Introduction,” in Gregory Palamas: The Triads. New York: Paulist Press, 1983.

Philo of Alexandria, “On the Therapeutes.”

Sinkewicz, Robert E. The Enthusiast Tradition in Byzantium. Custom Publishing: UTP, 2002.

Stewart, Columba. “Chapter 4: Evagrius of Ponticus on Prayer and Anger.” In Valentasis, R. Religions of Late Antiquity and Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Ware, Bishop Kallistos. The Inner Kingdom, Volume I. New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001.

Ware, Bishop Kallistos. The Power of the Name: The Jesus Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality. Oxford: SLG Press, 1987.

Prayer without ceasing

One of the greatest books about the Jesus prayer is one I was asked to read and review while in Theological College called "The Way of the Pilgrim". In fact it was reading this book that started me using the prayer. It tells the story of a Russian peasant who makes a journey of discovery about the Jesus Prayer. This is how he begins:

"By the grace of God I am a Christian man, but by my actions a great sinner.....On the twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost I went to church to say my prayers there during the Liturgy.  The first Epistle of St. Paul to the Thessalonians was being read, and among the words I heard these - 'Pray without ceasing' (1 Thessalonians 5:17). It was this text, more than any other, which forced itself upon my mind, and I began to think how it was possible to pray without ceasing, since a man has to concern himself with other things also in order to make a living."

Several things strike me here:
1. He acknowledges that he is a "great sinner". This surely is an important prerequisite for saying the Jesus prayer as half the prayer is a cry for mercy and an acknowledgment of sin.
2. Out of all the different scriptures that were read that day the Pilgrim only "heard" those from 1 Thessalonians - surely the inner voice of the Spirit calling him. I seem to have read somewhere that the Fathers talk about being 'called' to say the prayer in the sense that not everyone gets on with it or feels they can or should pray it?
3. It was the Pilgrim's concern to obey and explore Paul's command to "Pray ceaselessly.." that led him to the Jesus Prayer. It was not a direct path but it nevertheless led him ultimately to it as he asked the question it posed about how to "make a living" and pray at the same time.

Following the call to prayer without ceasing the Pilgrim wanders from church to church to listen to sermons but was unable to find the answer he desired. Finally he met a holy staretz who said to him:

"Ceaseless interior prayer is a continual yearning fo the human spirit towards God. To succeed in this consoling exercise we must pray more often to god to teach us to pray without ceasing. Pray more, and pray more fervently. It is prayer itself which will reveal to you how it can be achieved unceasingly; but it will take some time."

Then the holy staretz taught the peasant the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me." While travelling as a pilgrim through Russia, the peasant repeats this prayer thousands of times with his lips. He even considers the Jesus Prayer to be his true companion. And then one day he has the feeling that the prayer by its own action passes from his lips to his heart. He says:

" seemed as though my heart in its ordinary beating began to say the words of the Jesus Prayer within each beat....I gave up saying the Prayer with my lips. I simply listened carefully to what my heart was saying."

Reading this wonderful book - and it's sequel "The Pilgrim continues his way" - inspired me to start praying the prayer. I recommend it as a great 'way in' to discovering the prayer and encouraging anyone who wants to begin their journey of prayer.