Thursday, 14 August 2014
The Jesus Prayer - Fr Maximos of Simonopetra
Prayer is our true life, our highest task. Without prayer, we become disconnected from our inner depth and lose something fundamental to our humanity. Without prayer, we become dead inside. A great saint once said that when a person who is terminally ill stops eating, his friends know that death is near, and when the angels see us refraining from the nourishment of prayer, they know our souls are dying. To pray is to open oneself to the source of divine life. To pray is to cast off the unreality of our troubled thoughts and enter into reality. Prayer restores our lost inner unity. Where there is unity — in individuals, families, parishes, and churches—we can be sure that people are praying. Where there is no unity, but only quarreling and divisions, we can be sure that there is no prayer.
There are many forms of prayer, and many different prayers, and we should make use of them all. We should have a prayer book and pray using the prayers in it. It is good to speak directly to God, and we should do this whenever we feel the need, but we should also learn the prayers of the Church and make them our own. Of all the prayers of the Church, surely the most beloved, and certainly the most powerful, is the Jesus Prayer.
What is the Jesus Prayer? It is the ceaseless repetition of the words: “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God Have mercy on me the sinner.” Many people use a slightly shorter form, such as: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” or even: “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me.” What is common to these different forms is the Divine Name of Jesus.
Who is this prayer for? The Jesus Prayer is for everyone, not simply for monks and nuns. Saint Gregory Palamas taught that the Jesus Prayer “should be taught to men, women, children, to the educated and the illiterate, and indeed to all.” Saint Gregory’s views met with resistance from an elderly monk on Mount Athos, who believed the Jesus Prayer should be restricted to monks. That night, an angel appeared to the monk in a dream, and rebuked him, and confirmed the teaching of Palamas (Philotheos Kokkinos, Encomium on St. Gregory Palamas, 29). Saint Nikodemos, in his introduction to the Philokalia, likewise teaches that the Jesus Prayer should be practiced by all Christians.
The earliest written evidence for the practice of the Jesus Prayer is found in a text called A Discourse on Abba Philemon, which is dated to the fifth or sixth century, but clearly reflects much older traditions and practices (English translation found in volume 2 of the Philokalia; London, 1981; 344-57). To be sure, the call to unceasing prayer is found in Saint Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, where he teaches all Christians to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). In his first letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul speaks of “five words uttered in the mind” (1 Corinthians 14:19). This verse has long been understood to mean the five words of the Jesus Prayer (i.e., in Greek).
The Power of the Name
The practice of the Jesus Prayer reflects the teaching of the Bible regarding the nature of personal names, and especially the Divine Name. The name is closely linked to the person who bears it, so that to invoke the name is to invoke the person. Similarly, when there is a change in the life of a person, there is a change of name. Thus Abram became Abraham, Simon became Peter, and Saul became Paul.
A name is not an arbitrary, random combination of letters and sounds, but conveys the essence, as it were, of a thing or person. When Moses asks God: “What is your name?” He is not asking: “What should I call you,” but: “Who are you?” (Exodus 13:13-22). And if one profanes the name, or blasphemes it, he is not harming a “word,” but the person named by it. This is why the Jews have always had great respect for the name of God. Observant Jews will not write the name of God casually (since once it is written, it can be defaced or destroyed by someone else). While there is no prohibition against saying the name of God, the practice evolved to use various substitutes (e.g., Ha-Shem = “The Name”). Even so, the use of the Divine Name is usually restricted to prayer and study.
The Old Testament belief in the power of the name continues in the New Testament. In Acts 4:12, Saint Peter says: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” In Philippians 2:9-11, Saint Paul says: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Saint Luke the Evangelist writes that: “The disciples returned with joy saying, ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!’” (Luke 10:17). These are but a few of the many examples that one can find in the New Testament concerning the power of the name of Jesus.
How to Say the Jesus Prayer
We are encouraged to begin by saying the Jesus Prayer aloud, softly vocalizing the words. After a while, we will naturally find ourselves repeating the Prayer inaudibly in our minds. Finally, with God’s grace, the Prayer will descend more deeply within our consciousness so that the prayer of the lips and the mind will become the prayer of the heart. Because our thoughts are scattered among external objects and superficial sensations, we must return our attention to our self, first to the mind and then to the heart, uniting these divided aspects of our being. The saints teach us to descend with the mind into the heart, and from there to say the Jesus Prayer. This is because the activity of the mind has its root or source in the heart, and we must allow that activity to relax and return to its source. Once we have entered the heart, we do not remain silent, but we say the Jesus Prayer with gentle but unwavering concentration, as much as we are able. If we are distracted, as we will be, we simply return our attention to the words of the prayer in our heart.
The heart is the center and core of our being. In the human fetus, the cardiovascular system is the first to form, with cardiac cells beating usually within three weeks from the moment of conception. The brain and nervous system are formed later. Of course, the heart is much more than the natural center of the human organism. It is also the spiritual core of the person, the deepest organ of intuition and perception, the place where we connect most fully and deeply with God. To discover one’s heart is an act of reintegration and the occasion of spiritual joy and delight. When the mind returns to the heart, it is like a man returning home after a long journey, embracing his wife and children.
The Breath and Breathing
Needless to say, it is not easy to free ourselves from distractions, it is difficult to find our center, and difficult to remain there once we find it. This is why the teachers of the Jesus Prayer encourage us initially to focus on our breath, to follow the breath as it enters the body and descends to the chest and the area around the heart. We spend most of our time either ruminating over the past or worrying about the future, being forever absent from the present. The activity of breathing, however, takes place unambiguously in the present, and by turning our attention to the breath we will enter the present moment, find and enter our heart, and locate the center of our spiritual gravity.
As we continue to repeat the Jesus Prayer, the prayer will naturally unite itself to the rhythm of our breathing. Many people silently say the first half of the prayer while inhaling (i.e., “Lord Jesus Christ”), and the second half while exhaling (“have mercy on me the sinner”). But this should be allowed to happen naturally and never be forced.
It should be underlined that this is not mere introspection. The turn to the breath and the heart is not self-centeredness in the sense of solipsistic, ego-centered selfishness. At the baptism of Jesus, the Holy Spirit descended on his human nature. At our baptism, we likewise received the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is the uncreated grace of God, which was placed in our heart. But it was placed there as a seed, or as a small spark, and remains dormant until we freely choose to cultivate it. The Jesus Prayer is precisely this cultivation, “for no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). By returning to ourselves and by entering the heart, we open the seed of grace and kindle the divine spark that God has planted within us.
If we take time to pray, to make room for God in our lives, God’s grace will fill our hearts and our lives, and we will know joy even in the midst of sorrows. I hear many people say that they want to pray but “don’t have time.” It is obvious that we live very busy lives, but when we say we “don’t have time” we are often really saying that we don’t believe in the power of prayer, or that we don’t believe in the possibility of our own transformation. We find the time to do the things we like, and if we want to, we can turn off our gadgets, pick up and read a spiritual book, go for a solitary walk with God, or sit quietly at home and say the Jesus Prayer.
God has given us everything we need. We don’t need to run into the future, or flee to some other place (where things will be “better”), or get anything beyond what we already have. Bring your mind home to your heart. Follow the path of your breath to your heart. Be in the here and now. With one breath you can come home to your body, to the present, to your heart, and to the love of God the Father, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.
The best introduction to the Jesus Prayer is a small book called The Way of a Pilgrim, translated by R.M. French. Anyone wishing to learn more about the Jesus Prayer is encouraged to read it.