Friday, 30 November 2012

Praying the Jesus Prayer from and with the heart

It was the great Puritan divine John Bunyan who once said "Better your heart without words than your words without heart". I have often thought about those words as I pray because they remind me that I need to pray the prayers from my heart rather than merely recite them or treat them as hurdles to jump in order to complete the race.Which is why I think one of the hidden dangers in repetitive prayer like the Jesus Prayer is the danger of disconnection. saying the words without owning them or making them yours. There is the need to take them down into your heart so that they become the heart's prayer rather than merely the head's or rather the mouth's.

I don't know if this is what the Fathers mean in their teaching about keeping the mind in the heart at all times? Here is what St. Ignatius Brianchaninov writes:  “The words of the prayer ought to be said without the least hurry, even lingering, so that the mind can lock itself into each word…”

Here is what one person teaches about saying - or rather - praying the prayer:
Slowly say,
Lord …. Jesus Christ …. Son of God …. Have Mercy …. on Me …. a Sinner.
Try to keep your mind from escaping from its total concentration on the words. It will try just like a cornered or caged wild animal continually seeks to find a way out. The body is not accustomed to be under the control of the soul. When you reach the end of the prayer immediately begin to say it again. Make it like a continuous chain. The spacing of the words must fit your own make-up. Some will want to go very slow and others a little faster. The aim, with awe of God and contrition, is to concentrate your mind on the words and let them drop into your heart like drops of water slowly dripping from a leaky faucet.. Let the prayer resonate in your ears and in the area of your heart, savor each word with love, becoming totally absorbed in the words. You need to feel the words being absorbed within. Feel a contriteness in your heart because of your missing the make that God has set for you by creating you in His image. Feel the unconditional love of His unlimited mercy. If you go too fast you lose this feeling. If you go too slow you lose the content of the prayer. Say it slowly and deliberately. You do not want to rush as you are engaged in something important and potentially dangerous. You need to harness the wildness of your biological brain. Its like an automobile racing down the road at 80 miles per hour and is much more difficult to control than one cruising at twenty-five. Slow it down. Operate at the twenty-five miles per hour speed when you start - take it slow and deliberately finding the pace that bests suits you so the prayer can penetrate the inner depths of your heart in silence.

Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov says, “at first, the words should be pronounced with extreme unhurriedness so that the mind may have time to enter the words as forms… One must train oneself to it as if one were reading syllables” (On the Prayer of Jesus, p 56). 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). Do not be disturbed if the words do not drop smoothly and are interrupted by thoughts, images, and feelings in the beginning. It takes some effort to tame the mind that is controlled by the brain. Eventually, the words will drop effortlessly into your heart. You need to focus intently and concentrate on the prayer. Much effort is required in the beginning.
(See here at

The above website continues:
Avoid any association with words of the prayer. Don’t try to visualize the human person of Jesus or any other image. Don’t try and take a diversionary path by letting your mind go into the life of Jesus or any theological questions. Don’t reflect on the details of your sinfulness or try to solve any of your problems. Simply hold in your heart, with total humility, the awe of God and a feeling of contriteness. Keeping focused on the words of the prayer is very important because the mind can very quickly diverge from them to mundane day-to-day activities and when this happens you have lost your focus on God. If this happens, you are back in your own sea of worldly cares and distracted from your prayer. You will most assuredly be distracted this way during prayer. Concentrate on God who lives in the depths of your heart as Saint Theophan says,

“The essential part is to dwell in God, and this walking before God means that you live with the conviction ever before your consciousness that God is in you, as He is in everything: you live in the firm assurance that He sees all that is within you, knowing you better than you know yourself. This awareness of the eye of God looking at your inner being must not be accompanied by any visual concept, but must be confined to a simple conviction or feeling.” (Art of Prayer, p 100)

After commenting about the danger of distractions and how to deal with them the writer continues:
Our attention must be concentrated on the heart and not on the brain. You should feel the action of the Jesus Prayer on your heart. You will feel a warmth. It is important to realize that we love God first with our hearts and then with our mind. Our present condition has this reversed. This is what we are trying to correct through our practice of the prayer. We aim to open our heart and feel the sting of our repentance. You may feel some soreness initially around the heart. Don’t mind this just keep your attention focused on the prayer. There are some people who have thought they have been afflicted with heart disease and go visit doctors who can find nothing wrong. It is a pain similar to those you have when exercising after a period of no exercise. It is the pain of grace you are feeling. (A Night in the Desert of the Holy Mountain, pp 84-86)

All this takes time and so much patience is called for. You don't rush building a wall otherwise it will not bear the weight of the roof. With prayer it is no different. This is what the above writer says:
Remember, this is a process and you will go through stages. Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov reminds us that our simple attentive beginnings lead us to the temple of the heart.

It is one thing to pray with attention with the participation of the heart; it is another thing to descend with the mind into the temple of the heart and from there to offer mystical prayer filled with divine grace and power. The second is a result of the first. The attention of the mind during prayer draws the heart into sympathy. With the strengthening of the attention, sympathy of heart and mind is turned into union of heart and mind. Finally, when the attention makes the prayer its own, the mind descends into the heart for the most profound and sacred service of prayer. All this is accomplished under the guidance of the grace of God. It is harmful to strive for the second before acquiring the first. (On the Prayer of Jesus, p 48)

He ends by offering counsel on how long to pray
Be sure to consult your spiritual Father on the amount of time you should devote to the Jesus prayer. As a general rule you should repeat it for a minimum of 15 minutes at any one prayer session. Any less will not help you develop the attention needed for prayer of the heart. You should then fairly quickly work up to a period of thirty minutes. You will need to measure your time to make sure you fulfill your desired time. One way is with a clock. Another way is to use a prayer rope. A prayer rope has 50 or 100 knots typically. Holding it between your thumb and index finger you can index one knot at a time each time you complete one complete recitation of the Jesus prayer.

Monday, 26 November 2012

The Saints on Daily Prayer

The saints teach us that daily prayer is the foundation of a Christian's life. To sustain this life we should pray in the morning and the evening and also throughout the day. The ultimate aim is for our entire life to be one of prayer.  As Saint Paul teaches: "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

One of the ways to accomplish this is to say the Jesus Prayer. This is what Saint Seraphim writes about it:

"Those who have truly decided to serve the Lord God should practice the remembrance of God and uninterrupted prayer to Jesus Christ, mentally saying: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner... By such exercises in preserving oneself from dispersion and keeping peace of conscience one may draw near to God and be united to Him.

The daily practice of the Jesus Prayer involves numerous disciplined repetitions of this short but all powerful prayer.  As we practice it, our mind is reshaped, our thoughts are tamed, our soul's orientation is pointed towards God, and prayer is always on our lips.

Daily Prayer Habit

The following is an excellent article from  the excellent blog: Orthodox Way of Life (see here) about the importance of habit in regards to daily prayer.

"Much of what we do in life is done by habit. This is necessary because we otherwise would be flooded with decisions, overloading our neural circuits. As you examine your life you will find that are routines that you automatically go through during the day and in differing circumstances. Once established, habits are hard to break and it is difficult to introduce new habits.

Daily prayer is a habit that can help us in the darkest of times.  But, first, you must have a daily prayer habit. Morning prayer (evening too) needs to become as automatic as brushing your teeth. This means that when you awake in the morning you must develop a routine that includes prayer. For me, I get up, take a shower, get dressed and then go automatically to my set prayer place. I have a rule of prayer I always follow. I do this every morning. No matter what is happening in my life, my morning begins with prayer because I have established this habit. There is no choice to make. It is a habit.

What happens when I am faced with a stressful situation or a feeling of depression? I have my prayer habit that saves me. No matter how I am feeling, I always begin my day with prayer out of habit and in prayer I seek help from God. It is prayer that lifts us above all our earthly concerns, even the darkest depression. God is always available to anyone who knows the power of daily pray.

In addition there is another habit that can come from this daily prayer habit, this is the Jesus Prayer. Because part of my daily prayer routine is to say the Jesus prayer again and again, I have another habit which guides me no matter where I am or what time it is. The Jesus prayer is always at the front of my mind because I repeat it so many times each morning.   Then, when I am in need of help, it is there and I am able to pray using this short prayer at any moment.

The point I want to make is that the right kind of habits are extremely helpful in our spiritual journey. The Church puts great emphasis on habit and routine. Our daily services are routine, and repetitive. We are asked to make a habit of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays. We know every Sunday there is a Divine Liturgy at a certain time in a certain place. The Liturgy is basically the same each Sunday and within it there are numerous repetitive prayers. We eventually over time learn them and they become part of us and also available to us wherever we are.

You cannot wait until you are in great distress and then expect to be able to pray. But with good habits of prayer you are able to seek God's help when you need it most.

Work with your Spiritual Father to guide you in creating a daily prayer habit.

Thought from Saint Theophan the Recluse:
"All those who work on themselves must have as their aim to be attentive and vigilant and to walk in the presence of God.  If God grants it, a soreness will appear in your heart; then what you desire, or even something higher still, will come of itself. A certain rhythm will set itself in motion, in virtue of which everything will progress upright, coherently and in the proper way, without your thinking about it.  The you will carry a Teacher within you, wiser far than any earthly teacher. (Art of Prayer, p 170)"
(The article can be found here).

Elder Nkiodim of Karoulia on the Jesus Prayer

Here is how one Elder of the Church teaches us on the practice of the Jesus Prayer. The prayer is simple, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner."  One is instructed to repeat this over and over concentrating on the words.  This is different than a mantra as used in meditation, because one must believe in Jesus Christ and feel the pain of their sinfulness.  One must have a great desire to follow God's will, seeking with sincerity His mercy.  It is more than just concentrating on the words, although it also demands this.

Elder Nkiodim of Karoulia, a monk who lived on Mount Athos, gives us some simple instructions (this is an excerpt):

One starts prayer by standing and then, after introductory prayers, you can sit.  The prayer is said in your mind and you use a prayer rope to help in your concentration.  You move your fingers to the next knot on the prayer rope each time you complete the prayer.  You hold your attention in your breast and not in your head or anywhere else.  He says, "If you pray in your head you will have a head full of thoughts.  You have to lower your attention."  Its best to pray with your head lowered onto your chest.The key is to do what will help you maintain your concentration in prayer. He tells us that it is no longer prayer when you lose the sense that you are praying to God.

The elder says, "If he doesn't have the awareness that he's addressing the Lord, then he's only praying with his head. He knows that there is a God, and remembers that he is addressing God, but is not aware of it.  But awareness leads a man to feeling.  And when feeling comes, then he begins to weep. True repentance is then revealed. He becomes aware of his sins and begins to repent sincerely.  He cries out to the Lord, "Forgive me, forgive me, have mercy on me!"  Everything concludes in the heart."  We pray without invoking any images.

The elder says, "Look upon the Lord and believe that the Lord is looking upon you.  In spirit–pray in spirit!...We will our spirit pray to God the Spirit.  Our spirit is united with God. When we turn with faith to God the Spirit, then the Lord will look upon us and the human spirit will be united with the Spirit of the Lord at the time of prayer."  The main problem we face in prayer is attention.

The elder says, "Strive to maintain your attention in the words of the prayer.  Then there is no place for thoughts to pop up, since attention is occupied with the words of the prayer.... When you pronounce the words be aware– as if you feel them."

The elder elaborates on this in another dialogue. He gives advice on how to eliminate distractions and maintain attention during prayer, "You should not enclose your mind in all the words at once, but in each word separately.  You must do it like this: When you pronounce one word with your mind, you must at the same time listen with your mind to the word that is being uttered. Then, without a pause, immediately pronounce the next word the same way. Likewise with the third, fourth, and fifth words.  Finish one prayer and then immediately without a pause, another, then a third, and so on through the whole prayer rope.  Articulate with your mind the words of the first half of the prayer – "Lord Jesus Christ" – firmly and clearly. Pronounce the second half of the prayer – "have mercy on me" – close together, constraining your chest a little and restraining your breathing, but not too strongly, expressing in this way your contrition of heart and repentance. But this must be done calmly, so as not to irritate the nerves. At the same time you must constantly stand with your attention in your heart and look upon the invisible face of the Lord in His name.  Pronouncing the words of the prayer this way, word after word, without pauses or stops, you give no place for extraneous ideas and thoughts to intrude. Laboring in this way  with God's help you will see the fruit of your labour – the lessening of distraction."

We are advised to engage in this prayer for at least 30 minutes each day in a quiet place.  Most Orthodox Christians have a special place in their home for prayer where they have icons, a cross, incense burner, a candle and their prayer books.

Yes, there are similarities in the practice of meditation and prayer, but there is much more to prayer. For a Christian, in the practice of the Jesus prayer, one will also gain benefits from the physical changes described in the meditation studies, but will gain benefits far beyond these physical ones.  We must remember, our aim is not just longevity, happiness, or peace of mind, but eternal life with God in His kingdom.  This is the aim of the Jesus prayer.  Along with it also comes all the physical benefits ascribed to meditation.

Prostration and the Jesus Prayer

"Do not neglect prostration. I provides an image of man's fall into sin and expresses the confession of our sinfulness. getting up, on the other hand, signifies repentance and the promise to lead a life of virtue. Let each prostration be accompanied by a noetic invocation of Christ, so that by falling before the Lord in soul and body you may gain the grace of the God of souls and bodies.
Theoliptos, Metropolitan of Philadelphia: IV On Inner Work in Christ and the Monastic Profession