Learn how Eastern Orthodox Christian spirituality provides seekers of our day clear guidance on acquiring stillness, overcoming the passions, dealing with thoughts, and cultivating the virtues, as well as precise teachings on spiritual *deception, all of which* guides seekers more safely and surely on the path to communion with God (Tao – Chinese). In the profound mystical and contemplative tradition of the Christian East, seekers are able to go well beyond the realizations in Eastern religions. A long – awaited answer for those who, having turned away from modern Western religiosity, are drawn to the freshness, directness and simplicity of Lao Tzu and eastern philosophies, and at the same time are strangely, inexplicably drawn back to the all-compelling reality of Jesus Christ.
Hieromonk Damascene (Christensen) is an Eastern Orthodox priest, monk and spiritual child of ascetic and spiritual struggler Bl. Father Seraphim Rose, of St Herman of Alaska Monastery, Platina, California. Fr Damascene is the author of Fr Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works and Christ the Eternal Tao, as well as numerous articles on Eastern Orthodox faith, doctrine and spirituality.
Host: Now, Father Damascene is going to be concluding the talk, and he will be speaking, specifically, on the watchfulness of prayer, and the deeper aspects of prayer and unification with our Lord Jesus Christ.
Father Damascene: In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For those of you who have been following the outline that we gave out, we will go right into the subject of watchfulness now.
In order for us to grow in the life of prayer, and on the path of union to God, we must cultivate the virtue of watchfulness, which is a state of inner vigilance, attention, and spiritual sobriety. Due to the corruption of our human nature that began at the fall of man, we are inclined toward sin, and our consciousness is broken up and easily influenced by our imagination, which is often inclined toward sinful thoughts.
Therefore, we need to stand guard with our minds against these sinful thoughts, and cut them off when they arise. During time set aside for prayer, we must cut off, not only sinful thoughts, but also all thoughts which distract us from prayer.
Christ spoke much concerning watchfulness. “Take heed to yourselves,” he said, “lest at any time your hearts be weighed down with surfeiting or drunkenness, and the cares of this life.”
To further impress upon the people the need for watchfulness, he told parables about it, such as the story of the five wise virgins, who trimmed and guarded their lamps. “Let your waists be girded about,” Christ said, “and your lamp burning, and you, yourselves, like men who wait for their Lord, when he will return from the wedding, that when he comes and knocks, they may open to him immediately. Blessed are those servants whom the Lord, when He comes, shall find watching.”
As I mentioned last night, before his trial and crucifixion, when a time of great temptation was about to come upon his apostles, Christ told them, “Watch and pray, lest ye enter into temptation. The spirit truly is ready, but the flesh is weak.” He says watch, and then pray while watching.
Prayer cannot be pure if the mind is actively engaged in following thoughts. For prayer to be pure, it must arise from a pure spirit, and this can only occur when one first stands watch and thus rises above thoughts and images. That is why Christ said, “Watch and pray.” Prayer and watchfulness are inseparably bound together. Also, as I mentioned last night, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov said, “An essential and dispensable property of prayer is attention. Without attention, there is no prayer.”
St. Simeon the New Theologian provides one of the best explanations of the relationship between watchfulness and prayer. He writes:
Watchfulness and prayer should be as closely linked together as the body to the soul. For the one cannot stand without the other. Watchfulness first goes on ahead like a scout and engages sin in combat. Prayer then follows afterwards, and instantly destroys and exterminates all the evil thoughts with which watchfulness has already been battling. For attentiveness alone cannot exterminate them. This, then, is the gate of life and death. If by means of watchfulness we keep prayer pure, we make progress. But if we leave prayer unguarded, and permit it to be defiled, our efforts are null and void.
Through attention, or watchfulness, we continually make our eye single, to use Christ’s words. We continually rise above all sensory forms and images, all conditioned thoughts and emotions. We continually allow our nous, or mind, to rise in its journey to receive purification, and thus be united with its creator.
We continually stand guard so as not to let in any thoughts or images that will pull it down to the realm of the senses, and we continually burn away, in the light of understanding, all forms and images of desire, together with all the resentments hiding in the recesses of our souls.
In order to gain attention, we must, as the writers of the Philokalia teach, “go within ourselves.” St. Nicephoros the Monk writes, “We cannot be reconciled with God and assimilated to him, unless we return, or rather, enter into ourselves, insofar as this lies within our power. For the miracle consists in tearing ourselves away from the distraction and vain concerns of the world, and in this way, relentlessly seizing hold of the Kingdom of Heaven within us.”
Closing our eyes and not focusing on outward sensory impressions, we stand or sit at attention before God in prayer. Almost immediately, we find our fallen, fragmented consciousness filling our head with thoughts, images, fantasies and memories. But as we continue to realign our will toward Christ, yearning to have his mind, and be filled with his life, rather than our own, gradually our awareness will begin to separate itself from our thoughts.
St. Theophan the Recluse writes, “Little by little, you will separate from your thoughts. You will find that you have strayed far from your first created image.” Of course, we spoke at length in the last talk this morning about what that first created image is.
Above all, our inward attention should be directed at thoughts. This is because, in the words of St. Theophan, “Sinful passions and desires rarely attack by themselves. They are most often born of thoughts.” From this we can make a rule: Cut off thoughts, and you will cut off everything.
When thoughts come, we should not attempt to get involved or argue with them. For such struggle only binds us to them. As St. Silouan of Mt. Athos affirms, “The experience of the holy Fathers shows various ways of combating intrusive thoughts, but it is best of all not to argue with them. The mind that debates with such a thought will be faced with its steady development, and, bemused by the exchange, will be distracted from remembrance of God, which is exactly what the demons are after. Having diverted the mind from God, they confuse it, and it will not emerge clean.” Here he is speaking specifically of intrusive thoughts that come during prayer.
Struggle against thoughts is vain and futile. It is enough simply to observe the thoughts as they arise, and then let them go without reacting to them or following them. “When someone is in the beginning of his spiritual life,” says Elder Paisios of Mt. Athos, “he should not study a lot, but instead watch himself and observe his thoughts.”
A thought cannot exist for long under the light of direct objective observation. If we do not align our will with it, it naturally disappears. As the ascetic Abba Poimen teaches in the fifth century, “If we do not do anything about thoughts, in time they are spoiled, that is, they disintegrate.”
Many ancient Christian teachers speak of a struggle with thoughts. It is vital that we understand what they mean by this. Our struggle is not against the thoughts, for as Christ said, “Resist not evil.” Rather, out struggle should be to rise toward our source of knowing, that is, toward God, who is beyond thought.
In other words, we do not engage the thoughts, but instead, struggle to keep our attention lifted above them in stillness of mind. Each time we catch ourselves in a sinful thought, we should just return our attention to what is above it, to God. We do not validate the thought by giving it any more attention. This is already to repulse or to cut off the thought without directly struggling against it. It is active, not passive, for the action does not involve movement towards the distracting thought.
To raise our attention to our creator is simply to humbly yearn for him, to look up to him with the eye of our soul, and in many cases, to express our yearning with words. “Never allow your mind to be dragged down,” says St. Macarius the Great of Egypt, “but always raise it on high and God will help you.”
Raising our minds to God does not mean trying to imagine God. To deliberately create images in the mind is only to create more distraction, and it can lead to delusion. In watching over our thoughts during times of prayer, we should not focus on them, but rather de-focus from them. We should not try to analyze them, for analysis involves us in the very thing from which we are seeking to separate ourselves. Once again, it means we are trusting in our own powers, rather than in God’s powers. Therefore, we should be simple. Just watch the thought disappear, as if we were an objective, disinterested spectator, and they will pass, one by one.
Above all, we should not be agitated by the appearance of thoughts, for this also enables them to steal our grapes. As Abba Barsanuphius of the 6th century writes, “If a thought comes, do not be alarmed. The bad thing is not that a thief enters the house, but that he takes what he finds in the house.”
Even in times of prayer, we should not try to force our mind to be empty of thoughts. Instead, as I just mentioned, we are to watch the thoughts arise and disappear as we focus our attention on prayer. We will thereby come to recognize that the thoughts are not who we are.
St. Theophan the Recluse says, “It is a great mistake, and a common one, to honor everything that comes up in us as the property of our own blood, for which we take a stand, as for our own selves.” He is speaking about thoughts. It is a great mistake to honor the thoughts, the ideas, the opinions that come in us as the property of our own blood, for which we take a stand as is for our own selves.
We tend to identify with our thoughts. Descartes had the famous phrase, “I think, therefore I am,” during the Enlightenment, where rationalism took precedence over faith, and in our Orthodox faith, of course, we do not believe that our thoughts are who we are, that we just simply let them go, not attaching ourselves to them.
Although it is wrong to try to determine the source of every thought, we should realize the primordial enemy of man—the devil—is constantly at work to divert us from our path to union with God, and that he does this by making suggestions to us in the form of thoughts.
St. Theophan the Recluse writes:
The enemy has a law, not to begin suddenly, with a passion, but with a thought, and to repeat the thought often. Continual thoughts are onerous and murderous. To them, more than others, belongs the name, Tempting. Concerning them, it is necessary to know, they are not from nature, although they are similar to it in character, but are always from the enemy. These are temptations such as blasphemy, despair, and unbelief. The main thing is to never incline towards them, never adopt them, and to keep the heart free from them, separating them from yourself.
It is also crucial to remember that the fallen spirits, or the demons, have no power over us unless we give it to them by consenting to their suggestions. St. Theophan expresses it this way:
When the soul is bright, the demons are unable to look at it, like bats who fear the light. They look at it only when it begins to darken. They run in packs everywhere, and as soon as they notice a darkened soul, they immediately fall upon it, and begin to twist it to and fro with thoughts, passionate desires, and disturbance of feelings. They even attempt to creep up to bright souls, but are struck down by rays of light, as if by an arrow.
In watching over our thoughts, we will be able to cut them off before they develop into passions. In the Philokalia, the growth from a thought into a passion is described with scientific precision. First comes the provocation of the thought, then the conjunction of the thought with emotion, then the joining or agreement of the will with the thought. If the soul does not pull back at this point, the thought becomes a habit, and the mind is constantly preoccupied with the object of his passionate urge.
Finally, the person falls into the captivity of the urge, and rushes gladly and violently to satisfy it. For this reason, it is much better to cut off the sinful thought when it first rises up in us, before it turns into a sinful passion. Just as it is much easier to pull up a tree when it is a seedling than when it is full-grown, so it is much easier to cut off thoughts in the beginning.
As I mentioned earlier, it is not only obviously evil thoughts that should be passed over during times of prayer. Even seemingly good thoughts should be left behind. “Impassioned thoughts,” said St. Hesychios, “follow hard upon thoughts that appear to be innocent and dispassionate. The latter open the way to the former. This we have found through years of experience and observation.”
Continuing to this practice of going within and standing apart from thoughts, we will continue to shed layers of our compulsive thought patterns. At unexpected moments of the day, we may suddenly become aware of aspects of our corrupted condition that had previously been hidden from us. Buried resentments will come to the surface where we can at last repent and be free of them.
Above all, we will begin to realize our secret rebellion against God, which we reveal each time we condemn another person, or feel dissatisfaction. As we become aware of our wretchedness, tears may come to our eyes, cleansing our inward filth. We may not know from where these tears come, for they may not be related to anything in particular, but rather, they are related to who we really are.
As St. Niketas Stethatos in the 11th century writes,
Once you come to know yourself, a kind of supra-rational divine humility suddenly descends upon the soul, bringing contrition and tears of fervent compunction of heart. To know yourself means that you must guard yourself diligently from everything external to you. It means rest from worldly concerns and cross-examination of a conscience. This is true humility, the humility that teaches us to be inwardly humble, and makes our heart contrite. If you do not know yourself, you cannot know what humility is. To know oneself is the goal of the practice of the virtues.
When we go within ourselves and truly begin to stand apart from thought, we begin to trust the calculations of our egotistical minds. We begin to grow sick of our stupid judgments. Throughout the life of our ego, we have become habituated to trusting the opinions and calculations of our minds, which are often the mere servants of our emotions. To practice watchfulness is essentially to practice distrusting them. Once we have begun to become aware of who we really are through entering within ourselves, we will realize what a weak tool is the calculating machine of the human brain, how low its form of knowledge.
For us who have been conditioned by the modern Western mentality, “I think, therefore I am,” it is especially difficult to begin to distrust our thoughts, since our society has been built precisely on reliance on human reason. But this is precisely what we must do if we are to conform our minds to the mind of Christ.
The aforementioned Elder Paisios of Mt. Athos, a beautiful, innocent soul, and a much loved spiritual father of our times, once said, “The devil does not hunt after those who are lost. He hunts after those who are aware, those who are close to God. He takes from them trust in God, and begins to afflict them with self-assurance, logic, thinking, criticism.” A very interesting statement for our times. These are things we are told that we are supposed to have: Self-assurance, logic, thinking, criticism. We all should be critics. He says that the devil takes from people trust in God, and begins to afflict them with these things.
Therefore, we should not trust our logical minds. Never believe your thoughts. Live simply, and without thinking too much, like a child with his father. Faith in God, without too much thinking, works wonders. A logical mind hinders the grace of God and miracles. Practice patience, without judging with a logical mind.
A spiritual son of Elder Paisios of Mt. Athos recalls, “The elder always tried to have good thoughts. He said to us, however, that it is not necessary to make this our final aim, namely, having good thoughts, because our souls should be purified, even of them, and be left naked, clothed only in the divine grace which we received for free in holy baptism.” The first stage is to cultivate good thoughts. The final stage is to be purified even of good thoughts, to just be enlightened by the grace of God.
Elder Paisios counseled,
We ought always to be careful, and be in constant hesitation about whether things are really as we think, for when someone is constantly occupied with his thoughts and trusts in them, the devil will manage things in such a way that he will make the man evil, even if by nature he was good.
The ancient fathers did not trust their thoughts at all, but even in the smallest things, when they had to give an answer, they addressed the matter in their prayer, joining it to fasting, in order to some way “force” divine grace to inform them what was the right answer according to God. And when they received the “information” they gave the answer.
Today, I observe that, even with great matters, when someone asks, before he has even had the time to complete his question, we interrupt him and answer him. This shows that not only do we not seek enlightenment from the grace of God, but we do not even judge with the reason that God gave us. On the contrary, whatever our thoughts suggest to us, immediately, without hesitation, we trust it and consent to it, often with disastrous results.
Almost all of us view thoughts as being something simple and natural, and that is why we naively trust them. However, we should neither trust them, nor accept them. Thoughts are like airplanes flying in the air. If you ignore them, there is no problem. If you pay attention to them, you create an airport inside your head, and permit them to land.
Above all, judgmental thoughts block us from God, since in the very act of harboring them, we are trying to take the place of God, who alone is judge. When we feel an exhilaration by seeming to get on top of someone through judgment, then sooner or later this will lead to inward conflict. If the source of the conflict, which is the soul playing God, is not eradicated, then it can lead to depression and to despair, and even to physical sickness.
The person who is truly following Christ will immediately recognize that the indulgence of a single judgment separates him from God. Therefore, when judgmental thoughts intrude upon his mind, begging to be attended to, and promising the exultation of pride, he immediately cuts them off and lets them pass into oblivion. It does not matter how sagacious, how compelling, how profoundly psychological such judgments appear to him. He wants God above all else, and these thoughts deprive him of God, and so he rejects them.
The 19th century Russian elder, St. Ambrose of Optina, gave this practical advice to his spiritual daughter: “Look at everything simply. Living simply means not judging. Do not judge anyone. For example, ‘Here comes Elikonida. She passed by, and that is all.’ This is what thinking simply means. Otherwise, at seeing Elikonida passing by, you could think about her bad side—she is such and such, her character is thus and so—that is not simple.”
It is not only people that we can judge. We can pass judgment on our surrounding circumstances, or even on life itself. In doing so, we are at heart judging God, himself, often without even knowing it. This, too, is a way of playing God, and so it separates us from him, the source of our life.
I mentioned earlier that to cut off a sinful thought, it is enough just to turn our attention away from it and toward God. We can do this without words, or we can do it with the help of words, calling upon God from our hearts. Often a short phrase will be enough, such as “Lord, have mercy” or “Lord, forgive me.”
St. Theophan the Recluse explains:
Whenever we appeal directly to the Lord, with fear, reverence, hope and faith in his complete activity, without entering into a verbal battle with a passionate thought, the passionate thought then moves away from the mind’s eye, which is fixed on the Lord. When it is cut off from the mind through such attention, the passionate thought departs of its own accord, if it has been naturally stimulated. If the enemy is involved, however, then a discerning ray of light that comes from contemplation of the Lord strikes him. It happens that the mind immediately calms down from passionate violations as soon as it turns to the Lord and calls upon him.
There are times when, such as after a passion or demonic temptation has begun to get a hold on us, an especially fervent appeal is in order. St. John Climacus advises:
For those who have not yet obtained true prayer of the heart, violence in bodily prayer is a great help. I mean, stretching out the hands, beating the breast, sincerely raising the eyes to heaven, deep sighing, frequent prostrations. If possible, go apart for a brief space; hide for a while in some secret place; raise on high the eyes of your soul, if you can, but, if not, your bodily eyes. Hold your arms motionless in the form of a cross in order to shame and conquer the unclean spirit by the sign. Cry to him who is mighty to save, not with cleverly spun phrases, but in humble words, preferably making this your prelude: “Have mercy on me, for I am weak.” Then you will know by experience the power of the most high, and, with invisible help, you will invisibly drive away the invisible ones, that is, the demons.
Now having laid more of a foundation by discussing what prayer is and how it is connected with watchfulness, let us look more closely at the Jesus Prayer. “The action of this prayer,” says St. Barsanuphius of Optina, “is always hidden in the greatest mysteries. It does not consist merely in speaking the words, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,’ but reaches the heart and mysteriously settles there. Through this prayer, we enter into relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. We become accustomed to him. We merge with him into one whole. This prayer fills the soul with calm and joy amidst the most difficult trials, in the midst of every oppression and human vanity.”
As St. Ignatius Brianchaninov teaches, the essence of the Jesus Prayer was indicated by Christ himself, shortly before his crucifixion. He writes, “The use of the all-holy divine name, ‘Jesus,’ in prayer, and prayer in his name, was appointed by our Lord Jesus Christ himself, when Christ said, ‘And whatsoever you shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you shall ask anything in my name, I will do it. So far, you have asked for nothing in my name. Ask and you will receive it, that your joy may overflow.’ “
What is it that will be given to a person who prays in the name of the Lord Jesus, that can fill him to overflowing with joy? He will be given, we reply, in the words of our Lord, “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name.”
St. Gregory of Sinai affirms that the Jesus Prayer is one of the primary ways by which one can cultivate the seed of grace given at baptism. He writes, “The energy of the Holy Spirit is manifested to those under spiritual guidance, through the continuous invocation of the Lord Jesus, repeated with conscious awareness, that is, through mindfulness of God.”
St. Gregory says that this means can be more effective than others
if one diligently and persistently learns how to dig the ground and locate the gold. Thus, if we want to realize and know the truth, let our aim be to make the energy of prayer alone active in our hearts, for it brings warmth and joy to the soul, and sets the heart alight with an ineffable love for God and man. It is on account of this that humility and contrition flow richly from prayer, for prayer in beginners is the unceasing noetic activity of the Holy Spirit. To start with, it rises like a fire of joy from the heart. In the end, it is like light made fragrant by divine energy.
When doing the Jesus Prayer as it should be done, one does not merely say the words, but actually prays them from the depths of one’s being, speaking person-to-person, always returning to the awareness that one is addressing someone. Here is an analogy that might make it a little more clear: I have a telephone, and I turned it off, so it is just a dead piece of metal, so I can talk on this phone, I can be saying something, but I know that nobody is listening on the other line. If I know nobody is listening, I can just talk and I am just talking into nothing. But if the phone is on, and I have called somebody, and I know that the person is on the other line, and when I am talking he or she is listening to what I am saying, then I know, and I am conscious, that I am addressing someone.
This is the way we have to be in prayer. In other words, we should not just repeat the prayer by rote: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” We should be concentrated on the words of the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ.” We are addressing Christ, we are conscious of him, we are affirming that he is the Lord, that he is the Christ, he is the Messiah, that he is God, and we ask him to have mercy on us, which means to give us all that we need for our salvation and deification, and by extension, not only on us but on everyone around us.
We are conscious of this and we are conscious of the words of the prayer, but more so, on a deeper level, we are conscious of the one that we are addressing in the prayer. We are addressing Jesus Christ. We are not speaking into a dead telephone. We are speaking to someone who is present with us, who is before us, who is closer to us than our own soul, who within, is inside of us, all around us, and so we are addressing a live, living person. This is the consciousness of addressing someone that we need to have.
St. Archimandrite Sophrony says, “The name of Christ must not be detached from the person of God, lest prayer be reduced to a technical exercise, and so go against the commandment, ‘You shall not take the name of your Lord God in vain.’ “
Elder Nikodim of Karoulia, a practitioner of the Jesus Prayer, who died in 1984 on Mt. Athos, says,
You have to turn to the Lord with your mind. Don’t just pronounce the words. You have to see the Lord himself in the prayer. It is our designation to be like angels. Angels gaze unceasingly upon the Lord, and we have to strive for this—to see the Lord in the words, with our mind to look upon him, but if with our mind, we only say the words, then we will not look upon the Lord, and this is not enough for prayer. But this seeing is without images. It is with the spirit. God is a spirit.
As he explained to the Samaritan woman, “You will worship in spirit.” We pray in spirit to the Lord, Himself. How is this? When I turn to the Lord, and right then believe and feel that I am looking upon the Lord, and the Lord is looking upon me, the Lord is ceaselessly looking upon me. You have to look upon the Lord with faith. Look upon the Lord and believe that the Lord is looking upon you, in spirit. Pray in spirit.
God demands worshipers who worship him in spirit. God is a spirit, and one must worship him in spirit. We, with our spirit, pray to God the Spirit. Our spirit is united with God. When we turn to God the Spirit, with faith, 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.
You have to practice this. As always, when you pray, immediately turn to the Lord. You must address the Lord and sense the Lord. Then there will be an echo. You will receive a response. Mercy will come to you. This is all by faith. It is accomplished by faith, by faith and compulsion. That is what it is. “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” This is a very good prayer. From one utterance of the prayer, you already sense and taste God’s mercy, and the further you go, the greater it gets, if it is with attention. At the time of prayer, if you go through the whole prayer rope, then tears will begin to flow, contrition will come, and then warmth of heart will set in.
Elder Porphyrios, another holy elder of recent times who lived on Mt. Athos, speaks of the love and longing with which one should say the Jesus Prayer. He says,
Pray to God with love and yearning and tranquility, with meekness, gently, and without forcing yourself. And when you repeat the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” say it slowly, humbly, gently and with divine love. Pronounce the name of Christ with sweetness.
Say the words one at a time: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” smoothly, tenderly, affectionately, silently, secretly, mystically, but with exultation; with longing; with passion; without tension, force, or unbecoming emphasis; without compulsion and pressure, in the way a mother speaks to the child she loves: “My little boy, my darling girl, my little Johnny, my wee Mary,” with longing. Yes, with longing. That is the whole secret. Here is the heart speaking, “My little child, my joy—my Lord, my Jesus, my Jesus, my Jesus.”
Here he is relating this to parents speaking to the child. Obviously, he is not saying that we should pray to God, “My little child, my joy.” He is saying that, as a parent says this to a child, we should say, “My Lord, my Jesus, my Jesus, my Jesus.”
What you have in your heart and in your mind, that is what you express with “all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.”
That is from the gospel according to St. Luke [Luke 10:27].
While doing the Jesus Prayer, as all other kinds of prayer, we are to practice watchfulness—to stand guard against a mental takeover by thoughts. The Jesus Prayer is especially conducive to watchfulness, since it is such a short, one-pointed prayer, which one can more easily focus one’s attention on.
As Father Sophrony writes,
While saying the Jesus Prayer, a Christian is to face thoughts, and then exterminate them by shutting the door of his mind, and stationing his mind on guard like a sentinel, unfettered by imagination and cogitation, but armed with prayer and the name of Jesus Christ. By keeping one’s mind enclosed in the words of the Jesus Prayer, and by directing the yearning of one’s heart toward Jesus Christ, one can cut off the thoughts that lead to sinful passions. One can learn to stand apart from thoughts, while keeping one’s attention fixed firmly on Christ, and can cut off thoughts with the aid of the words of the Jesus Prayer, itself.
As Elder Nikodim stated in the passage I read earlier, the Jesus Prayer, and all other kinds of prayer, for that matter, should be entirely without the deliberate formation of mental images, pictures of Jesus coming, and so on. The creation of mental images pulls one down to the level of the fallen imagination, and as I have mentioned, it can lead to delusion.
Such images become idols. Elder Porphyrios teaches, “With an image, the focus of prayer is easily lost, because one image can easily be displaced by another, and the evil one may intrude images, and we will lose grace. Also, when saying the Jesus Prayer, one should be careful not to idolize the prayer itself, as if one can be saved by words, rather than by Jesus Christ himself.”
St. Theophan the Recluse writes,
Hold no intermediate image between the mind and the Lord when practicing the Jesus Prayer. The words pronounced are merely a help, and are not essential. The principle thing is to stand before the Lord with the mind and the heart, that is, this, and not the words, is inner spiritual prayer.
The words here, are as much, or as little, the essential part of the prayer as the words of any other prayer. 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. A man in a warm room feels how the warmth envelops and penetrates him. The same must be the effect on our spiritual nature, of the all-encompassing presence of God, who is the fire in the room of our being.
The words, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,” are only the instrument, and not the essence of the work, but they are an instrument which is very strong and effective, for the name of the Lord Jesus, is fearful to the enemies of our salvation, and a blessing to all who seek him. Do not forget that this practice is simple, and must not have anything fanciful about it.
Archimandrite Sophrony indicates a certain sequence in the development of the Jesus Prayer. He says:
First, it is a verbal matter. We say the prayer with our lips while trying to concentrate our attention on the name and the words. Next, we no longer move our lips, but pronounce the name of Jesus Christ, and what follows after, in our minds, mentally.
The third stage, mind and heart combined to act together, the attention of the mind is centered in the heart. The prayer is said there. Fourthly, the prayer becomes self-propelling. This happens when the prayer is confirmed in the heart, and with no especial effort on our part, continues there, where the mind is concentrated.
Finally, the prayer, so full of blessing, starts to act like a gentle flame within us, as inspiration from on high, rejoicing the heart with a sensation of divine love, and delighting the mind in spiritual contemplation. This last state is sometimes accompanied by a vision of light.
Now we will speak more about praying in the heart, what Archimandrite Sophrony talks about when he talks about prayer being “stationed in the heart.” As prayer grows and deepens in us, it descends into the heart. This leads to what is called, in the Philokalia and other Orthodox spiritual writings, “prayer of the heart.”
The heart, say the writers of the Philokalia, is the secret place, or inner chamber, of our mind, or nous. This is, in fact, the traditional understanding of the heart, which we find in ancient cultures, such as the Hebrew, the Chinese, and the Greek. As the Chinese painter and author, Mai-mai Sze, points out, in Chinese, “mind” is denoted by the character “xīn,” which is “heart,” and, in Chinese thought, the heart was regarded as the seat of spiritual and moral intelligence and perception, its function being to control the emotions.
The form of the Chinese character “sī,” which means “to think” or also “thought” which is composed of a pictograph of a head, in the form of a skull, placed above that of heart, suggests that thinking is guided by the heart and originates from it, and is more important intuitively, than intellectually. This is an understanding of the heart found in many ancient cultures.
In many places of the gospels, Christ spoke of the heart as a center of spiritual awareness. “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks,” he said, and that people should “understand with their heart,” he said in another place. And again he said, “Those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart.”
This ancient understanding of the heart was passed on to the Greek fathers of the Philokalia, who would at times use the word, kardia, or heart, and nous, or mind, interchangeably. They taught that the nous resides in the head, and at the same time, is active in the heart. The nous is united to the body, but it is not entirely within or without the body, for it is bodiless. [In] the Philokalia, the heart refers to the physical organ, but it also refers to the spiritual center of man’s being. In watchfulness and prayer, one’s mind first descends to the physical heart, and then one’s metaphysical or spiritual heart.
Father Sophrony writes:
The ascetic learns the great mysteries of the spirit through pure prayer. He descends into his inmost heart, into his natural heart first, and thence to those depths that are no longer of the flesh. He finds his deep heart, reaches the profound spiritual, metaphysical core of his being, and, looking into it, sees that the existence of mankind is not something alien and extraneous to him, but is inextricably bound up with his own being.
From his long experience of praying in the heart, Elder Nikodim speaks on the heart as a center of spiritual awareness. He says:
We pray with the heart. We are aware through the heart. But with the mind we can only know that we are praying. If I am praying, then I realize I sense that I am praying. I bring myself to an awareness. Then the feelings become manifest, and when the feelings appear, then tears flow. Without consciousness, without feeling, not one little tear will roll out.
If you only know in the mind that you are praying to the Lord, that is one thing, but when it is with the heart, then you sense that it is the Lord himself whom you are addressing. When a person prays with his heart, he is praying and has prayer of the heart. But if he does not have the awareness that he is addressing the Lord, then he is only praying with his head. He knows that there is a God and remembers that he is addressing God, but he does not realize 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. “Forgive me, forgive me, have mercy on me.” Everything concludes in the heart. That is how the Lord created us. He gave us a heart, our life. That which you pronounce in prayer, be aware of it with your heart.
It is not only with the mind, but I hear and understand when I am pronouncing the words. No, with the awareness. Our awareness is located in the heart. This is the feeling of the heart. When you pronounce the words, be aware, as if you felt them. You have to practice this.
What we have called the descent into the heart, is at the same time, a unifying of mind and heart. The separation of the mind from the heart, and their opposition to one another, have resulted from the fall of man. This separation is overcome when our nous, distributed throughout our being, unites its power in drawing closer to its creator. Then we can truly love God with all our heart, mind, and soul, as with a single, unified force.
In the Philokalia, one will also find instruction on how, while mentally saying the Jesus Prayer, one can lead the mind into the heart with the aid of one’s breathing. Father Sophrony writes of this method:
The monk, having suitably settled his body, pronounces the prayer, with his head inclined on his chest, breathing in at the words, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” and breathing out at the words, “have mercy on me, a sinner.” During inhalation, the attention, at first, follows the movement of the air breathed in, as far as the upper part of the heart. In this manner, concentration can soon be preserved without wandering, and the mind stand side-by-side with the heart, or even enters within it.
This method eventually enables the mind to see, not the physical heart, but that which is happening within it—the feelings that creep in, and the mental images that approach from without. With this experience, the monk acquires the ability to feel his heart, and to continue with his attention centered in the heart, without further recourse to any psychosomatic technique.
Because the misapplication of this method, without proper guidance from a spiritual father in the Orthodox Church, can also lead to bad consequences, ascetic elders of recent centuries have generally steered people, especially lay people, away from the technique, and toward a safer, and simpler, practice. Thus, Father Sophrony writes:
This procedure of following one’s breath to the upper region of the heart can assist the beginner to understand where his inner attention should be stayed during time of prayer, and as a rule, at all other times, too. Nevertheless, true prayer is not to be achieved thus. True prayer comes exclusively through faith and repentance accepted as the only foundation. The danger of psychotechnics is that not a few people attribute too great a significance to method qua method.
In order to avoid such deformation, the beginner should follow another practice, which, though considerably slower, is incomparably better, and more wholesome—to fix the attention on the name of Christ, and on the words of the Jesus Prayer. When contrition for sin reaches a certain level, the mind naturally heeds the heart.
In the same manner, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov teaches, “The essence of the matter consists in the union of the mind with the heart during prayer, and this is achieved, by the grace of God, in its own time, determined by God. The above mechanism is fully replaced by the unhurried enunciation of the prayer, by a short rest or pause after each prayer, by gentle and unhurried breathing, and by the enclosure of the mind in the words of the prayer.”
As St. Ignatius goes on to explain, “As we continue to say the Jesus Prayer in this way, our heart will enter into closer sympathy with our praying mind. At first, this is felt as contrition. Tears come to our eyes. In our heart, we feel a certain soreness, a pain which is not unpleasant, and which helps to draw the mind’s attention to the heart.”
About this pain, St. Theophan the Recluse writes, “Constant effort will achieve this quickly. There is nothing peculiar in this. The appearance of this pain is a natural effect. It will help you to collect yourself better, but the chief thing is that the Lord, who sees your effort, will give you help and grace in prayer. A different order will then be established in the heart.”
Ultimately, the union of the mind and the heart comes about through divine grace, when God wills to grant it. “It is natural for divine grace,” writes St. Ignatius, “when it stretches out its finger to heal a man, crushed and broken to pieces by his fall, to join together his severed parts, and to unite the mind, not only with the heart and soul, but even with the body, and to give it a single true ardor for God.
With the union of the mind and heart, the ascetic receives the power to resist all passionate thoughts and passionate feelings. Can this be the result of any technique? No. It is the result of grace. It is the fruit of the Holy Spirit, who overshadows the unseen labor of the Christian ascetic, and it is incomprehensible to carnal and natural people.”
Elder Porphyrios, likewise states, “Prayer of the heart is prayed only by a person who has attracted the grace of God. It must not be done with the thought, ‘I’ll learn it, I’ll do it, I’ll acquire it,’ because in this way we may be led to egotism and pride. Not only experience and genuine desire, but also wisdom, care, and prudence are required if our prayer is to be pure and pleasing to God. A single seductive thought, ‘I have really made progress,’ for example, brings everything to nought. Why should we be proud? We have nothing that is our own. These are very delicate matters.”
Many holy fathers, St. Theophan, and others, say that we are not to try to measure our progress in the spiritual life, because the minute we start to think that we are achieving something, then we have lost it, so, as Elder Porphyrios just said, “When through divine grace, the mind is united with the heart in prayer to Jesus Christ, one’s heart is filled with irrepressible love for God, for man, and for all creatures.”
Elder Porphyrios described this experience:
Only through grace can you pray. No prayer can occur without divine grace. (This, again, goes back to what I was saying before about the synergy between our free will and God’s grace, that obviously we turn to God in prayer through our free will, but God’s grace assists us.) When grace comes, then when love comes, you say the name “Christ,” and your mind and heart are flooded.
This love, this craving, also has degrees. When you experience this love, you desire to acquire spiritual things. You desire to do everything within the embrace of love, to move within this love. You wish to engage in every effort out of love for God. You feel love and gratitude towards God, without having in mind to achieve anything specific. The sense of love floods through you, and unites you with Christ. You are filled with joy and exultation, which shows that you have the divine perfect love within you. Divine love is selfless, simple, and true.
I repeated the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” and new horizons would open up. Tears of joy and gladness would flow from my eyes on account of Christ’s love and his sacrifice on the cross: insuperable longing. In this, the whole greatness is concealed—Paradise itself. Because you love Christ, you repeat this prayer, these seven words (in Greek it is five words), with craving, and with your heart. And gradually, the words are lost.
The heart is so replete that it suffices to say two words—My Jesus—and ultimately, no words at all. Love is better expressed without words, but when a soul truly falls in love with the Lord, it prefers silence and spiritual prayer. The flood of divine love fills the soul with joy and exultation.
Here again, it can be seen that the highest pinnacle in the practice of the Jesus Prayer occurs not through human effort alone, but it is given by divine grace. As Elder Porphyrios, and others who have experienced this, testify, “Man’s soul becomes flooded with the light of divine grace.”
This leads us to the final section of this talk, which is on the end of our Christian life—union with God. As we have seen in the Orthodox Christian tradition, grace is known to be not merely a created energy, or merely created effects on the soul, but rather the uncreated energy of God, in which God himself is fully present. In being filled with God’s grace, we are filled with God himself. We are filled with his life. We become one with God, not by essence and sonship, as only Jesus Christ was and is, but rather by grace and by adoption.
This union with God by grace is what we have called theosis, or deification. One might say that when one is baptized and chrismated into the Orthodox Church and receives Holy Communion, one is already deified, since through these mysteries, one receives the grace of the Holy Spirit united with one’s soul, as Adam had it before the Fall. However, as we discussed earlier, this is only in potential. A seed of grace has been implanted in the soul, which must be nurtured and cultivated by the baptized Orthodox Christian.
The Romanian Orthodox theologian, Fr. Dimitru Staniloae, calls this “deification in the broad sense.” That is, every person who is baptized, chrismated, receives Holy Communion in the Orthodox Church, is deified in the broad sense of the word. There is even a prayer of St. Simeon the New Theologian, which we read before Holy Communion, in which we talk about Christ’s deifying Body and Blood.
But as Fr. Dimitru Staniloae goes on to say, “Deification, in the strict sense, is given by God to a soul that has been purified of simple passions and has drawn closer and closer to God through watchfulness and prayer. In deification, in the strict sense, one’s human powers are taken over, as it were, by God’s divine power, and one is wholly interpenetrated by God’s life, energy, or grace.”
Orthodox saints and elders who have experienced the grace of deification, in the strict sense, often speak of it as an experience of light—not a physical, created light, but the uncreated light of God. Such an experience of grace is not limited to those who are practicing the Jesus Prayer at the time of the experience. Nevertheless, in the Orthodox Church, the experience of the grace of deification is seen most commonly in the hesychast tradition, and, as we have seen, this tradition is strongly associated with the practice of the Jesus Prayer.
I would now like to read to you an account of this experience of grace, written by a modern holy elder, Archimandrite Sophrony, whom I have quoted at length above. Five years before his repose in England at the age of 97, he recorded his experiences of uncreated light. These experiences had begun many years earlier, when he had been living as a monk on Mt. Athos in Greece, and, like all Orthodox monks, had been practicing, daily, the Jesus Prayer:
Now at the close of my life, (he writes,) I have decided to talk to my brethren of things I would not have ventured to utter earlier, counting it unseemly. At the beginning of my monastic life on Mt. Athos, the Lord granted me unceasing prayer. I will relate what I remember well enough, since we are talking of the prayers which marked me indelibly. This is how it often used to be:
Towards evening at sunset I would shut the window and draw three curtains over it, to make my cell as quiet and dark as possible. With my forehead bent to the floor, I would slowly repeat words of prayer, one after the other. I had no feeling of being cooped up, and my mind, oblivious to the body, lived in the light of the gospel word. Concentrated on the fathomless wisdom of Christ’s word, my spirit, freed from all material concerns, would feel flooded, as it were, with light, from the celestial sun.
At the same time, a gentle peace would fill my soul, unconscious of all the needs and cares of this earth. The Lord gave me to live in this state, and my spirit yearned to cling to his feet in gratitude for this gift. This same experience was repeated at intervals for months, perhaps years. Early in the 1930s—I was a deacon then—for two weeks, God’s tender mercy rested upon me. At dusk, when the sun was sinking behind the mountains of Olympia, I would sit on the balcony near my cell, face turned to the dying light.
In those days, I contemplated the evening light of the sun, and at the same time, another light, which softly enveloped me, and gently invaded my heart, in some curious fashion making me feel compassionate and loving towards people who treated me harshly. I would also feel a quiet sympathy for all creatures in general. When the sun had set, I would retire to my cell, as usual, to perform the devotions preparatory to celebrating the Liturgy, and the light did not leave me while I prayed.
Under the influence of this light, prayer for mankind and travail possessed my whole being. It was clear that the inescapable, countless sufferings of the entire universe, are the consequence of man’s falling away from God, our creator, who revealed himself to us. If the world loved Christ and his commandments, everything would be radically transformed, and the earth would become a wonderful paradise.
Elsewhere, Father Sophrony attempts to describe the indescribable:
The soul feels apprehensive at approaching the subject of the light which visits the man who craves to behold the face of the eternal. Its nature is mysterious. In what terms can it be described? Incomprehensible, invisible, yet it may sometimes be seen by the physical eye. Quiet and gentle, it draws heart and mind to itself, until the earth is forgotten, one’s spirit caught up into another sphere. It can happen in broad daylight as in the blackness of night. It is a soft light, yet more powerful than all around.
In strange fashion, it embraces from without. You see it, but your attention is drawn deep within the inner man, into the heart, burning with a love, now compassionate, now grateful. It may happen that one is not aware of the material world of external circumstances, and one sees oneself as light. Aches and pains disappear. Earthly cares fade away. Anxieties are absorbed into a sweet peace. The light used, at first, to appear like a thin flame, healing and cleansing, consuming both within and without, everything not in harmony with it, but calmly, hardly making itself felt.
This holy light, coming in strength, brings humble love, banishes all doubt and fear, obliterates every earthly consideration, the whole pyramid of secular grades and hierarchies. The repentant man becomes a nobody, as it were. He no longer stands in the way of his brother, seeks no place for himself in the world.
This light is, in itself, life imperishable, suffused by the peace of love. It brings to our spirit knowledge of another indescribable being. The mind is stayed, above reflection, by the very fact of its entry into a new form of life. Weightless, more finely attuned than anything the earth knows, the light conveys to the soul invulnerability, making her safe from everything that hitherto weighed her down. Death flees from this light. Our spirit exults. This light is God—God almighty, and at the same time, indescribably gentle. Oh, how discreet is its approach. It will heal the heart broken by despair, the soul bruised by sin. It will inspire with a hope of victory.
A millennium earlier, in the 9th century AD, the same kind of experience was described by St. Simeon the New Theologian, in his Hymns of Divine Love. St. Simeon writes:
I am sitting on my couch, all the while beyond the world. Being in the middle of my cell, I see him present, the one who is beyond the world. I see him, and I speak with him. I—dare I say it? I love him, and he, in turn, loves me. I nourish myself with this contemplation alone, forming one with him, I transcend the heavens. That is true, I know, and yet, where my body is, I do not know.
I know that the one who remains unmoved, descends. I know that the one who remains invisible, appears to me. I know that the one who is separated from all creatures, takes me inside himself and hides me in his arms, and then I find myself outside the whole world. Yet, in turn, I who am so insignificant in this world, I contemplate in myself, completely, the creator of the world. I know that I will not die, since I am inside of life. All of life surges within me. He is in my heart, yet he remains in heaven. Here and there, equally dazzling, he reveals himself to me.
How can all of this come about? How can I accurately understand it? How would I be able to express all that I understand and see? In truth, these are indescribable things, utterly ineffable.
In similar manner, but with even stronger expression, St. Simeon speaks of this in another hymn. He writes:
He himself is discovered within me, resplendent inside my wretched heart, enlightening me from all sides with his immortal splendor, shining on all of my members with his rays. Entirely intertwined with me, he embraces me entirely. He gives himself totally to me, the unworthy one, and I am filled with his love and beauty. I am sated with pleasure and divine tenderness. I share in the light. I participate also in the glory. My face shines like that of my beloved, and all my members become bearers of the light.
This illumination, this deification, that Christ offers, does not end with this life, nor is it static in the life to come. It is only the beginning of a progress that will never end. “Indeed,” says St. Simeon, in the passage that I read last night, “over the ages, the progress will be endless, for a cessation of this growing toward the end-without-ending, would be nothing but a grasping at the ungraspable. The one on whom no one can be sated, would then become an object of satiety. On the contrary, to be filled with him, and to be glorified in his light, will cause unfathomable progress.”
This eternal progress was originally intended for man, who was ever to rise in a vision of God, but man lost that possibility when he departed from the way. Through Christ, who was called the New Adam, this possibility is once more open to mankind in his Church.
But it is not only man’s soul which can experience everlasting deification, everlasting progress towards God. As we discussed earlier, through his redemptive work, Christ destroyed, not only spiritual death, but also physical death.
These two types of death are overcome, in turn, by Christ, the New Adam, just as they were introduced into the world through the first Adam. Because of Adam’s fall, first, spiritual death entered the world, then physical death. Likewise, spiritual death is first overcome by Christ, then physical death.
We can experience the overcoming of spiritual death, in other words, a spiritual resurrection, even now, in Christ’s Church, by experiencing the life of God within us, vivifying us, transforming us into his likeness. And finally, in the general resurrection, which has been made possible by Christ’s resurrection, we will experience the overcoming of physical death, as well—our physical resurrection.
It is in the general resurrection that all the fruits of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection, are to be fully revealed. At that time, because Christ rose from the dead, becoming the first-fruits of those who slept (or who had fallen asleep, according to the words of St. Paul), the unnatural separation of the soul from the body at death, which began at the Fall, will be overcome for all mankind, and man will experience everlasting physical life in bodies that have been made, once again, incorruptible. “The dead shall be raised incorruptible,” writes the apostle Paul, “and we shall be changed.” Moreover, the entire visible creation will be recreated and become incorruptible, along with man, since it exists for man’s sake.
But again, it was not only to restore what the first Adam had ruined, that the second Adam, our Lord Jesus Christ, came upon this earth. Christ also came to accomplish what the first Adam had failed to accomplish. Man had been created for deification. As St. Simeon the New Theologian, writes:
If Adam and Eve had not fallen, the soul of each would have become brighter, and the perceptible and material body of each, altered and changed into an immaterial and spiritual one, into something beyond sense perception. And man would have been led up, in due time, to a more perfect glory and transformation, drawing nearer to God, and to the rays which spring from his divinity.
As we have seen, through his redemptive work, Christ has already granted to man the possibility to experience such a deification of soul, in and through his Church—a deification that is to grow and become more perfect in the life to come. In the general resurrection, however, he will do more than this. In reuniting man’s soul with his body, he will raise man in a body that is not only incorruptible, but also spiritual, and will grant an everlasting deification to man’s body, together with his soul.
Furthermore, he will make the entire cosmos to be a spiritual dwelling-place for man, and will grant unending deification to the entire cosmos, together with man. God will be all in all. All this, and the immutable glory of the future age, has been made possible by the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. Through the totality of Christ’s redemptive work, man is spiritually united with God and deified, man can attain to paradise and heaven after death, and at the general resurrection, man’s body and the entire creation are to be renewed as an incorruptible, spiritual, and divine, deified dwelling-place.
Our Orthodox Christian faith is eschatological. That means we look forward to faith and hope to the future age that will come into being through Jesus Christ. But as we have seen, the union with God that Christ has made possible for man does not begin at the general resurrection. It is possible for us begin the way to this union, even now, and to experience foretastes of it, even in this life. We have abundant counsels and testimonies of those who have endured to the end on the narrow path toward union with God, and who are enjoying it eternally in the heavens, even now.
Images of them are depicted all over church. These holy ones beckon us to follow them, and they pray for us to reach the blessed realms in which they now live. What hinders us? Only our laziness, our stubborn attachment to our sinful passions. Let us, therefore, cut off these passions at the root, by cutting off the thoughts which engender them. Above all, let us continually turn our minds and hearts to him who has the power to save us from our sins, and to grant everlasting deification to our souls and bodies.
May we place our whole life and hope in his hands, which were outstretched to us and to the whole world on the Cross. May we gratefully accept his loving invitation, “Abide in me, and I in you,” forever drawing closer to him who is the Resurrection and the Life, our only true life. Amen.