This year’s conference offered courses on acquiring the proper tools to achieve our greatest potential as Christians: communion with God. Keynote speakers included Dan Christopulos and Dr. Kyriacos Markides. Held at Antiochian Village in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, from October 30 through November 2.
Announcer: I just want to introduce your speaker today, Fr. David Hester, Very Reverend Dr. David Hester. Fr. David’s the pastor of St. Mary’s Antiochian Orthodox Church in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He has been a pastor there since 2000?
Very Rev. Fr. David Hester: That’s correct.
Announcer: And he was at St. George Antiochian Church in Vicksburg, Mississippi, for ten years prior to that. Fr. David has his doctorate degree in oriental ecclesiastical studies from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, Italy. His licentiate thesis is on St. Diadochos of Photiki, and his doctoral dissertation is on the monastic spirituality of the Italo-Greek monks from the ninth to the twelfth century. That’s all gave me.
I’ve known Fr. David for many years. Fr. David also teaches at St. Tikhon’s Seminary, and I’m sure he’ll talk later a little bit about that as well. Those of you who may not know that our seminarians at the various seminaries are assigned to a parish in the area, and the priest of the parish mentors them and teaches them about the Liturgy and also about life, especially life in the parish and the priesthood. I know Fr. David has done that for years now.
Very Rev. Fr. David Hester: Thirteen years.
Announcer: Thirteen years, and he’s an excellent mentor from what I understand and from what I know of him. Fr. David…
Fr. David: Thank you. Thank you very much. Believe me, you could talk to Fr. John Oliver; he was one of the seminary students who was assigned to my parish, so that was something that was always nice to see.
For the class there are three things that are sitting on your desk. One is a copy of a book that I did a number of years ago called The Jesus Prayer. I have the older version. I saw they put a new cover on it, so the ones you’ve received have the newer cover.
And then, secondly, I was asked in the beginning part of September to put something together that they could put on a CD to pass out to people for the class and I had started working on the talk, and I had put together what I had done at that point and sent it off, and then when I got here I discovered not only is it on a CD, but they actually made a hard copy of it, so part of what I’m going to be saying is on those papers in front of you, and I’m hoping that won’t make that too boring, because one of the things I always remembered from school is how awful it was sometimes when some of the professors would have you come into the task and they would say, “Turn to page one of your handout,” and then would start reading to you page one of their handout. But you do have some of that information.
And finally, when I came in here, I discovered that they had a course evaluation form. I put that out onto your desks. The one thing about the course evaluation form is that it’s for both of the parts, so it will be at the end of the class, if you will be so kind as to write something in that, and then you can put it into this folder. And then the thing I have learned from St. Tikhon’s is that the professor is never to touch this! [Laughter] They don’t want the professor to see what people have said or who has said it, or for the professor to say, “Ah, this one didn’t get it; I’ll throw this one out or get rid of it.” So they don’t want anything like that.
I thought, to begin, we’ll just pray. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen. O heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who art in all places and fillest all things, the Treasury of good things and the Giver of life, come and dwell in us, cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O gracious Lord. Amen. [Amen.]
When I speak about the Jesus prayer, I’m going to be speaking about a prayer that, for me, is very important, because I try to pray it very often, and frequently throughout the day. As a parish priest, you’re not a monk, and so your life gets pulled in all kinds of different directions and you have things that go on, with your wife and your family and parishioners and everything else, but the one thing that’s always powerful about this prayer is that it’s a way that you can turn your mind to the Lord and just ask the Lord for his help.
Now, to help me to do that, in my car I have a small prayer rope, in my wife’s car I have a small prayer rope, and in my own pocket I always carry this prayer rope around with me, just so that it’s a reminder to pray, and that’s the important aspect, because in a very powerful way, these very simple words—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”—sum up for us all of our Orthodox faith, they help to turn our mind to the Lord, and they help us to ask the Lord to come and to help us and to strengthen us.
And these words in many ways are of great importance to all of us as Eastern Christians. It’s a style of prayer that goes to the very heart and beginnings of the life of our Eastern Christian churches. In the book that I have on the Jesus prayer, I found a quote that comes from a Russian Orthodox bishop from the 1800s, Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, and Bishop Ignatius or Bishop Ignatii Brianchaninov—hello, Mother—wrote this:
Examine all the Scriptures, and you will find the name of the Lord exalted and glorified everywhere within them. Study the writings of the Fathers, and you will see that all of them, without exception, suggest and advise the practice of the Jesus prayer. Turn to the canonical decrees of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and you will find that the Church has established the recitation of the Jesus prayer as a substitute for the reading of psalms and prayers in one’s own cell or room.
That prayer is so important that it’s a way that you turn to the Lord and at times pray this perhaps when you’re not praying in another kind of way. The thing about the prayer is that, irregardless of whether you are a weak and sinful parish priest or a monk who may be living in a secluded cave in a monastery, it’s the same prayer that’s prayed. It’s a prayer for those who are beginners, for those who are proficient, for those who are seeking in weak ways to deepen the life in the Lord, and those who are seeking in very profound ways to deepen their life in Christ. The prayer is meant to be a kind of driving force in our life of prayer.
One of the things I wanted to speak about today is: how did the prayer come to be? When we look at the sacred Scriptures, we find that people are always calling on the Lord. They call on the Lord to help them, they call on the Lord to heal them, they call on the Lord to touch them, and usually when they call on the Lord, they do it in a few very simple, straight-forward, brief set of words. We read in the Scripture, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me,” “Son of God, have mercy on me,” “Lord, have mercy on my son,” “Lord, Master, have mercy on me,” “Lord, save me,” “Lord, help me.”
A number of weeks ago, there’s one of the gospel readings that we had in church, and you find the person calling out twice, “Son of David, have mercy on me. Lord, have mercy on me.” As a parish priest, one of the things you’re always struggling to do is trying to come up with something to preach about, because when you’ve been in a parish—now, in my parish I’m beginning my 15th year, and you’re usually preaching about 50 Sundays of the [year]—sometimes it’s hard to think of things to preach about, and whenever I have those Scripture readings, I always say that’s my opportunity to talk to people about the Jesus prayer, to talk to them about the importance of using those simple words to call on the Lord.
This is when we look at the early monastic tradition in the life of the Church. In those early centuries, as the monastic tradition was developing, especially in the latter part of the 200s… And it’s very striking: in the life of the Church, up until the year 260, there was off and on fairly regular persecution, and the 250s were a very, very terrible time in the life of the Church, because there were two major persecutions, and unlike any other persecution, these were the most organized, because the two emperors decided, to save the empire, we’re going to force everyone in the empire to offer to the gods. And to make sure all that was done, all the local officials had to fill out little books saying that so-and-so has done this. And we have many many Christian martyrs who come from the persecutions of Dacius and the persecution of Valerian.
And then after that the Church was given peace—it was given actually for a time a legal recognition—and all of a sudden martyrdom seemed like martyrdom was something that was done and over with. And it was exactly at that time that you start to see people turning to the desert, especially in Egypt, and turning into the desert, where they were living a new type of martyrdom which is described in some of those early documents, like from St. Athanasius writing about St. Anthony, saying that it’s no longer the martyrdom of blood but the martyrdom of conscience, and that that was the beginning of monasticism. It’s always striking when in 270-something, whenever it was, St. Anthony went off to become a monk. We say he’s the father of monasticism. What did he do? Well, he went out and found some monks and lived with them. So you had the monks were there, even when the father of monasticism went to go into the desert.
One of the things about these monks is that they placed a very strong emphasis on the importance of single, short, repetitive prayers that you would pray. Some words again and again and again. And secondly, that the monks had great respect for the power of the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that they would call on the name of Jesus. And these two would gradually come together.
From the sacred Scriptures, there was a strong sense of the importance of the divine name. A monk of the Eastern Church wrote, “If the divine name that is invoked upon that a country or a person, it becomes henceforth the property of the Lord.” The name abides in the temple. The name is a guide in man’s life and in the service of God, and it is above all in the Acts of the Apostles where we can call this the book of Jesus. In the name of Jesus the good news is preached, converts believe, baptism is conferred, cures and other signs are accomplished. We read that in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. The apostles walking up to some person, saying, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I say to you: Arise.” There is that sense of respect for the Lord’s name and the use of the Lord’s name in praying and healings and exorcisms.
In the sayings of the Desert Fathers… I found out that St. Vladimir’s books on patrology have just recently published a new edition of the alphabetical sayings of the Fathers, and it was a collection of the writings that come from the desert of northern Egypt, the desert of Scetis, and there are so many different monks that when they decided to put together the stories of the monks and writings about the monks, they just went through the letters of the alphabet, and for every letter of the alphabet, all the monks who have that name are under alpha, vita, gamma, delta, epsilon, as they put them together in this work.
Well, in the work there is, under the letter sigma (/s/), the story of Abba Sisoes. And in the fifth of the stories about Abba Sisoes, it says this:
Abba Sisoes once confidently affirmed: Take heart. Here I have been for thirty years and am no longer pleading with God about sin, but this is what I say when I pray: Lord Jesus Christ, protect my tongue, for every day, even unto now, I fall because of my tongue and commit sin.
So he’s asking for the Lord’s help with where he knows sin is found, so he says: “Call upon the name of Jesus.”
We also find that strong emphasis on the shortness of the prayers. When we look at one of the great Fathers of the monastic world, St. John of the Ladder, St. John Climacus, he will talk about this, and in talking about this he will talk about this as being “monologic prayer,” from the Greek word “monologikos,” which means single-word, single-thought, single-phrase. And for monks, this monological prayer is something that’s very significant. The Desert Fathers gave great prominence to the importance of continual prayer. They would talk about this as being the “secret meditation” or the remembrance of God constantly in your mind and in your heart. And to help with this, the monks would encourage each other to repeat something over and over and over again.
From the Life of St. Macarius, who lived there in the desert of northern Egypt in the desert of Scetis, where you have all of those other important Desert Fathers, we find it written:
They asked Abba Macarius, “How should one pray?” The old man answered, “There is no need at all to make long discourses. It is enough to stretch out one’s hands and to say: Lord, as you will and as you know, have mercy on me. And if the conflict grows fiercer, say: Lord, help me. He knows very well what we need, and shows us his mercy.”
So there’s that sense that God knows what we need, but we’re the ones who need to turn to him.
Among these Desert Fathers, one of the Fathers who was there came from Gaul, from France, of western Europe, and settled among the Fathers of the desert of Scetis, and his name is St. John Cassian. St. John Cassian, when he left Egypt in 399, he returned back to France and he wrote several books on his experiences with the monks in northern Egypt. And in these, he talks about their life of prayer, their life of fasting, all kinds of aspects, and the thing that’s striking about this is: from what St. John Cassian did, [which] was to write about the monks, it began to be known in the West, and in the West the writings of St. John Cassian were finally picked up by a monk whose name was Benedict who wrote a rule, and that rule gave order and structure to the monastic life of Western Europe, but it was all based on the writings of St. John Cassian, that was based on his experience in Egypt.
St. John Cassian says that when the monks pray, they pray: “Lord, help! Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! O God, come to my assistance! O Lord, make haste to help me!” Words from the psalms, words that were said to Christ as we read in the gospels.
One of these disciples from the desert of Scetis, who was a disciple of St. Macarius, is the monk who was named Evagrius the Solitary, or also known as Evagrius of Pontus, and he dies in northern Egypt in the year 399, but he writes a very, very different type of work, and what I mean by this is that Evagrius of Pontus is a philosopher, and he had studied the philosophy of Origen. He is ordained a subdeacon by St. Basil the Great, who also, if you know the life of St. Basil, was a very, very highly educated man, and then was ordained a deacon by St. Gregory the Theologian, who was another very well-educated man. For Evagrius, he used neo-Platonic philosophy as a way to explain the spiritual life of the monks, and for him the purification of the mind, or as it says in Greek, the nous, the intellect, is the whole point of monastic life and monastic prayer. Most other Fathers would say that’s part but not all, but for him that’s the important part. And he will talk about the importance, then, of the purification of the nous.
He wrote a work entitled The Chapters on Prayer, and in this work we find what he says is at the heart of the prayer of the monks. And what does he say? In the ninth section, he says:
Stand resolute, fully intent on your prayer. Pay no heed to the concerns and thoughts that might arise the while.
And then in number 11 of the 100 Chapters on Prayer, he writes:
Strive to render your mind deaf and dumb at the time of prayer, and then you will be able to pray.
Or in number 66:
When you’re praying, do not fancy the divinity like some image formed within yourself. Avoid also allowing your mind to be impressed with the seal of some particular shape, but rather, free from all matter, draw the immaterial being into you, and you will attain to understanding.
And then in number 110:
Keep your eyes lowered while you are praying. Deny your flesh and your desires, and live according to the mind.
Before I said 100 Chapters; it’s more 153 Chapters, and there’s a very specific reason why it’s 153, and if you pay attention to Orthros on Sunday at the gospels, when we come to the, I believe it’s the tenth Orthros gospel, how many fish do they catch? And it’s 153 fish. So when he writes about his Chapters on Prayer, he has 153 Chapters.
After his death, some of Evagrius’ teaching would be condemned along with those of Origen, and both of them are condemned at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 533, but the striking thing is that his writings on prayer were so important that they continued to be recopied, and they came to be attributed to St. Nilus. So you still had his writings being read and studied, just under someone else’s name. That’s why it was very striking when Bishop Kallistos Ware and Philip Sherrard and G.E.H. Palmer put the English version of the Philokalia together, they have a footnote at the beginning, saying, “This is indeed the writing of Evagrius of Pontus, and we’re going to give his name back to it.” Just so that people would know that.
Now, his philosophical approach, he will have an influence on the spiritual life, and some of those ideas about the purification of the nous, ideas about apathia, the purification of the passions, the eight passions—he’s the one who puts all these things together, using his monastic experience and the philosophy that he had studied. So he will have an importance.
At the same time, we find St. Basil the Great in the 37th part of his Great Rule, or the Rule More Fully Treated, stating that monks must practice perpetual prayer. And St. John Cassian will describe [at] great length in the early part of the 400s, all of the invocations that the monks use to pray. So you have this emphasis on this monologic prayer, the single-word prayer, and gradually this will come to be brought together with the name of Jesus, that you will use the name of Jesus in these prayers.
The earliest reference that we find that recommends the praying of the name Jesus in your short prayers comes from a letter that’s written by a monk whose name is Nilus the Ascetic. In his letters, he talks about: “Call upon the name of the Lord Jesus constantly.” When in the 1700s the Philokalia was put together, they didn’t put his letters into the Philokalia. They put others, other of his writings in there, but not his letters, so the writings in the Philokalia about St. Nilus don’t mention the calling upon the name of the Lord Jesus.
But rather a younger contemporary of St. Nilus is the one that is most clearly known and seen as the great teacher of the prayer to the name Jesus. And this is a man who, for the most part, lived a life that we know absolutely nothing about until the end of his life when Diadochos became the bishop of Photiki, which is in northwestern Greece and in the area called Epirus. And St. Diadochos, the bishop of Photiki, would be the first one to write extensively about the importance of bringing together the name of Jesus and constant short prayer.
He wrote a work that’s called A Century on Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination. Already Evagrius of Pontus wrote many works that had the style that was known as a century. What’s a century? It’s a hundred chapters. And the reason for having the hundred chapters, is there’s always a sense of “I’ve got a nice, full number,” but the chapters are always written independently and were written that the idea that monks could read one little part and then think about it. And if the poor monk couldn’t read, someone else could read it to him, or you get a whole group together and you read just one part of the century. And in this first volume of the Philokalia, we have that first Century of Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination: 100 texts. And in this work, St. Diadochos talks about calling upon the name of the Lord Jesus. In the 85th section—and if you remember, I said every one of these 100 are separate little topics so that you can read it and think about it—well, in this 85th section, he says:
Grace at first conceals its presence in those who have been baptized, waiting to see which way the soul inclines, but when the whole man has turned towards the Lord, it then reveals to the heart its presence and there, with the feeling which words cannot express, if then a man begins to make progress in keeping the commandments and calls ceaselessly upon the Lord Jesus, the fire of God’s grace spreads even to the heart’s most outward organs of perception, consciously burning up the tares in the field of the soul.
So as we should begin to progress, God gives you the grace, but then he’s waiting to see how you’re going to respond. And as you begin to respond to this, as you call on the name of the Lord, you have this gradual transformation. And that’s what we mean when we talk about theosis. It’s the gift that’s given in baptism, but that baptism is not magic. It’s our response. As we say in the more theological terms, the very fact that we have to have that synergia, the working together with the grace of God.
In chapter 59, St. Diadochos wrote, writes about “filling your mind” with Jesus Christ. He says:
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.
If you stop and think, this is what, prior to this, Evagrius of Pontus was talking about: making the mind still, making the mind calm, but St. Diadochos goes beyond that now and says:
What you must do, then, for the complete fulfillment of its purpose, we should give it nothing but the prayer: Lord Jesus.
Here the saint says: pray constantly those words, “Lord Jesus.” Then in chapter 61, he continues the same thought and he writes:
Our desire that our intellect, that our nous, should keep the remembrance of God cannot make any impression, because the recollective faculty of our mind has been hardened by the rawness of the passions. But on the other hand, when the soul has attained freedom from these passions, then even though the intellect is momentarily deprived by forgetfulness of the object of its longing, it at once resumes its proper activity. The soul now has grace to share its meditation and to repeat with it the words, “Lord Jesus.”
Just as a mother teaches her child to repeat with her the word “father” instead of prattling away in the usual way, until she has formed in him the habit of calling for his father even in his sleep, since we are but children as regards perfection and virtue and prayer, we have need of the Spirit’s aid, so that all our thoughts may be concentrated and gladdened by his inexpressible sweetness and so that, with all our being, we may aspire to the remembrance and love of our God and Father.
For as St. Paul says, “It is in the Spirit that we pray when we are taught by him to cry without ceasing to cry with him to God the Father: Abba, Father!”
Then in chapter 31, he says:
When our intellect begins to perceive the grace of the Holy Spirit, then Satan, too, tries to trick the soul with the sense of deceptive sweetness in the quiet time of the night, when we fall into a kind of light sleep. If the intellect at that time cleaves fervently to the remembrance of the glorious and holy name of the Lord Jesus and uses it as a weapon against Satan’s deception, Satan gives up his trick, and as a result the intellect clearly discerns the deceptions of the evil one.
So you start to see this strong emphasis on the great importance on calling upon the name of the Lord Jesus.
I have one more passage from St. Diadochos, and then I will stop looking at these passages, but if you ever want to read something and really have something that you can look at think about, where you have a great spiritual teacher, I would encourage you to read some of these parts of the Century written by St. Diadochos, because he was a very, very holy and wonderful man. In some of the parts of the work, he refers to monastics and aspects of the monastic life, but we know nothing about him. The only thing we know is that at the end of his life he was the bishop of Photiki and then, in a certain year, the Vandals came running through the northern part of Greece, and they picked him up and they took him to north Africa as part of the people they were carrying off. And then there was a work written in the Church of north Africa, called The History of the North African Martyrs, and it mentions the fact that when the book was written, the holy Bishop Diadochos had already died, and that was around the year 480, so that’s the very little bit we know about him.
Anyway, the other part that I want to read on this is where St. Diadochos speaks about our growth in godlikeness. He speaks about our growth in godlikeness, which, as you know, is one of the purposes of this weekend, is to look at the meaning of theosis, that growth in godliness, and this is in chapter 89, or the 89th century of the work. St. Diadochos writes:
Divine grace confers on us two gifts through the baptism of regeneration, one being infinitely superior to the other. The first gift is given to us at once, when grace renews us in the actual waters of baptism, and cleanses all the lineaments of our soul, that is, the image of God is placed in us by washing away every stain of sin. The second, our likeness to God, requires our cooperation. When the intellect begins to perceive the Holy Spirit with full consciousness, we should realize that grace is beginning to paint the divine likeness over the divine image within us. Artists first draw the outline of a man in monochrome, and then add one color after another until, little by little, they capture the likeness of the subject, down to the smallest details.
And you know what he’s talking about here is that ancient way of doing art, which is what we still continue to do when we paint iconography: you make the outline and then you start with the colors that are in the back and add the colors up in the top. And he says that’s what God’s doing inside each and every one of us as we grow in the divine likeness.
In the same way the grace of God starts by remaking the divine image in man into what it was when he was first created, but when it sees us longing with all our heart for the beauty of the divine likeness and humbly standing naked in God’s workshop, then by making one virtue after another come into flower, and exalting the beauty of the soul from glory to glory, it depicts the divine likeness on the soul. [...] Only when it has been made like God—insofar, of course, as that is possible—does it bear the likeness of divine love as well.
In portraiture, when the full range of colors is added to the outline, the painter captures the likeness of the subject, even down to the smile. Something similar happens to those who are being repainted by God’s grace in the divine likeness: when the luminosity of love is added, then it is evident that the image has been fully transformed into the beauty of the likeness. Love alone among the virtues can confer dispassion on the soul, for love is the fulfilling of the law. In this way our inner man is renewed day by day through the experience of love, and in the perfection of love it finds its fulfillment.
So we find that very powerful analogy with the ancient form of painting. That’s what’s God’s doing in each and every one of us.
What have we seen so far? We’ve seen the importance of the single-word prayers. We’ve seen how that’s used as the way that you have constant prayer, your perpetual meditation, your meditation before God. And then we see the importance of the name Jesus, and calling on the Lord Jesus, and how these two start to come together, and especially in what we read from St. Diadochos, and that’s basically the background to the Jesus prayer. Does anybody have any questions on that so far? Ah-huh, please.
Q1: Some versions of the Jesus prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”—can you speak about that?
Fr. David: I’m going to talk about it, but I will just mention that now. When you read the Greek texts, and all of the texts that are written in the Greek collection called the Philokalia, it’s always just “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” When we get into the 1800s, and the Greek texts are translated into Church Slavonic, and you start to find the different works in Church Slavonic, that’s where you start to see the prayer in the form “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And it’s a broader expression of the prayer. But in all of these texts, and we look at all of these things up through the 1300s, that have been collected in the Philokalia, the basic form of prayer that was used in the Greek-speaking world in these earliest centuries was always “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”
Q1: [Thank you.]
Fr. David: You’re welcome.
Q2: I want to respond to two possible responses that we would get from talking about it with someone. “That’s just a mantra, just like any other name, you could say it over and over again.” And the other is: “Oh, it’s like the Roman Catholic rosary.”
Fr. David: Well, the origins of the Roman Catholic rosary are the same origins in the background, because it is, again, that monastic emphasis on short, repetitive prayers. So that is kind of the common background that lies with that.
But the other important part of it… and we’ll see later on when we look at some of the monks in the 1300s, they start to develop techniques to the prayer, and some of the monks are very, very worried that people will become too involved in the technique and lose what’s most important, and what is most important? The fact that it’s a prayer and that it’s not just a mantra. It’s not transcendental meditation or yoga or anything else, but it’s actually turning to the Lord. As we know from the Scripture, the powerful way to turn to the Lord is from all these things that we’ve seen and then, especially as St. Diadochos is saying is to call upon the name of Jesus and to pray, so that it’s not the “Ohm” of whatever, but it is actually a Christian prayer, and that was the important part.
We’ll look at one of the later writings—it’s in the Philokalia—where there is a great fear, and it’s talked about, that to do this you need to go to a spiritual father or a spiritual mother who’s going to teach you this rather than have you just pick this up and do this. So that’s the important part of it, that it still is always a prayer. And it’s a prayer calling upon the important name of our Lord Jesus. That’s, I think, a way that you can answer those.
Fr. David: Yes!
Q3: Do you have a list of those books somewhere written down so that we…
Fr. David: Oh, I didn’t. I can write them on the board. It’s just the volumes of the Philokalia.
Q3: Oh, is that what it is? Just the Philokalia? Okay.
Fr. David: Yes. I brought the first volume and the fourth volume, because those are the two I was using the most for these classes.
Q3: I thought it was something different, but now I know.
Fr. David: Okay. It’s just the Philokalia, and these are just some of the books that have the sayings of the Desert Fathers.
Fr. David: Then the only other book I bought—I’m just going to talk about this very shortly—is The Ladder of Divine Ascent, which is a work that was written by St. John of the Monastery of St. Catherine’s, and he uses the analogy of a ladder and talks about that as being the symbol of our ascent to Christ.
Q2: An infamous [gentleman], Chuck Colson, he converted, and said there were two books every Christian ought to read: one, The Cost of Discipleship and the other St. John’s The Ladder.
Fr. David: Interesting. And what was he converted to?
Q2: I think he converted to… maybe something like… I don’t know.
Fr. David: Baptist?
Q2: Connected with the Baptists.
Fr. David: Okay, very interesting then.
C1: Well, he changed a lot of lives.
Fr. David: But this is another one of those books that’s also written… And this isn’t written as a century, but rather as a collection of aphorisms, short sayings. This particular edition, which I… When I did this book, I had mentioned that the quotes that I took, I took from the one put together by the Paulist Press. And I always liked that edition because it was a thirty-some-page introduction written by Bishops Kallistos, and what he… Before you read The Ladder of Divine Ascent, it tells you everything you should look for. And it’s nice when you already know what you should be looking for.
C2: Yeah, and The Ladder is daunting.
Fr. David: It is, and you have to… So that’s the wonderful in that, but the wonderful thing about this one that’s put together by Holy Transfiguration Monastery is that they have gone through The Ladder, and every one of the little separate paragraphs, aphorisms, they have them all numbered separately, so it almost looks like the New Testament so that you can look at the text, and you realize how separate some of these texts are. I mean, if you look at this, there’s already 16 numbers just on two pages, because each one of these is one of those very, very short statements, very, very short aphorisms, and each one is meant to be something for itself.
Well, we’re talking about St. Diadochos, and, as I said, St. Diadochos is there in Photiki until the 460s, and then he’s carried off by the Vandals, and that’s kind of the last thing we know about him until it’s mentioned that he died there in north Africa. In the century after this—and this is also found in the Philokalia—in the second volume of the Philokalia, it mentions that in the next century, which now brings us into the 500s, we find for the first time someone talking about the Jesus prayer in the form that we know it. This is from the Life of Abba Philemon, and Abba Philemon is an Egyptian hermit, and his Life is contained in the beginning part of the second volume of the Philokalia. The Life says this:
A younger monk asked what he must do to keep his mind from being distracted. Abba Philemon says, “Keep watch in your heart, and with faithfulness say in our mind with all entrembling: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. For this is the advice which the blessed Diadochos gave to beginners.
So you can see he’s reading that Century on Spiritual Perfection. And then the Life goes on to say:
Later when the same monk returned for further instruction, he is told: “Without interruption, whether asleep or awake, drinking or in company, let your heart inwardly and mentally at all times be meditating on the psalms. At other times, be repeating the prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”
And this is the first text where we find those words put together. The next person who then talks about this short prayer and this calling upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ is in this work by St. John of Mt. Sinai, St. John of the Ladder, St. John Climacus. This work was written by St. John, who, as a young man goes off to the monastery and then lives with a few other monks for about—there’s two ways to interpret his Life—either for three years or for 19 years, and if you pay attention to what he wrote, it should have been 19 years, because after that, living with this small group of monks together, he goes off and becomes a hermit. And while he is a hermit, he decides he’s going to travel up to the desert in northern Egypt, to leave Mt. Sinai, which is in the southern part of the Egyptian peninsula, and he goes up to the great monasteries and spends some time there.
And he’s never seen anything like this, because there you have monasteries with several hundred monks, and you see the importance of the spiritual father in the monastery and the wisdom of the spiritual father guiding these hundreds of monks! He sees that. Then he goes back home and lives life as a solitary, and the abbot of the monastery of St. Catherine’s dies and the monks call on him as an older man to become the abba for the monastery of St. Catherine’s.
It was after that point, where he has lived all those different kinds of monastic experiences that the monk in the neighboring monastery writes him a letter and says, “I call upon you as the new Moses to come down from Mt. Sinai and to tell us what monastic life is about.” And he writes back and says, “I’m only a beginner! I can’t do anything! I can’t do this.” And then the other one writes back and says, “In the name of Christ, I ask you, please, and plead with you to do this.” And then he says, “Well, as an act of obedience to Abba John of Raithu Monastery, I will do this.” And that’s when he writes down his experiences and his descriptions of the monastic life.
It’s striking. It wasn’t like someone decided, “Oh, I think I’ll write a book and talk about something,” but he was doing it as an act of obedience. And in two of the parts, the section that’s on obedience, the fourth chapter and in the fifth chapter, he will go on for pages describing his experiences in those large monasteries in the desert of Scetis, and how impressed he was by what he saw, because that had never been his experience. So you can read very wonderful accounts of what was going on among those monks, the very ones that all of these are written about in the latter part of the 300s and into the 400s, while he’s writing about what was going on with them in the beginning part of the 600s.
But that’s not what I want to talk about. I know what I was going to say. It was because of the importance of this that they began to read this in all of the monasteries, and they would read it, you had the monks on their own, but they’d also read it during the meals, just part of the monastic life. And the great importance of this book led the Church to name the fourth Sunday of Great Lent in his honor. So every year the fourth Sunday of Great Lent is the Sunday of St. John of the Ladder, St. John Climacus.
In this work, he talks about monologic prayer, those single-word prayers, single-phrase prayers. In step 28, he writes:
In your prayers, there’s no need for high-flown words, for it is the simple and unsophisticated babbling of children that have more often won the heart of their Father in heaven. Try not to talk excessively in your prayer in case your mind is distracted by searching for words. One word from the publican sufficed to placate God, and a single utterance saved the thief. Talkative prayer frequently distracts the mind and deludes it, whereas single words (that monologia, is what the Greek text says) make for concentration.
Then in step 27:
Close the door of the cell of your body, the door of your tongue, to talk, and the gate within to evil spirits. Stillness is worshiping God unceasingly and waiting on him. Let the remembrance of Jesus be present with your every breath.
We’re in step 15:
Let the remembrance of death and the concise Jesus prayer (and it’s striking here that he’s giving it the name now! It’s the Jesus prayer!) go to sleep with you and get up with you, for nothing helps you as these do when you are asleep.
And then in step 21, he writes about the fact that some monk had come to him, and the monk had some kind of duties that he had to do outside at night and he was scared to death, going out into the dark. And he speaks to the monk about how he needs to overcome his fears at night, and he tells him this. He writes:
When you reach the spot, stretch out your hands and [flog] your enemies with the name of Jesus, since there is no stronger weapon on heaven or on earth.
So we see again that sense of the power of the name of Jesus and calling upon the Lord Jesus in prayer.
Following this in the collection of the Philokalia, there is a statement that is attributed to one of the next age of the monks of Mt. Sinai, St. Hesychius. When you read in the Philokalia, in volume two, about St. Hesychius, Bishop Kallistos goes to great length to say, “We don’t think he wrote this,” and therefore sometimes they refer to it as “Pseudo-Hesychius.” Doesn’t matter. What’s important is what’s said. And it says this:
Truly blessed is the man whose mind and heart are as closely attached to the Jesus prayer and to the ceaseless invocation of his name as air is to the body and flame is to wax. The sun, rising over the earth, creates the daylight, and the venerable and holy name of the Lord Jesus, shining continually in the mind, gives birth to countless intellections, radiant as the sun.
What we see now is the prayer has form. The prayer even has a name; it’s the Jesus prayer. And this is the importance of how this prayer develops and grows.
It was some time during this period, and we honestly don’t know when, that the monks began to tie together rope as a way to count the prayers. When you read St. John Cassian, and they have those prayers like “Lord, help me. Lord, come to my assistance,” he says the monks would have a pile of stones, and as they said each prayer, they would take the stone and put it from one side to the other, and it was a way that you kept track of the number of times that you prayed the prayer. In the monastic tradition gradually, in encouraging people to pray the prayer, you began to find the spiritual father or the mother or whomever, telling the person, “Pray the prayer a hundred times.” “Pray the prayer two hundred times.” “Pray the prayer three hundred times.” Whatever would be given to them as their monastic task. So you start to find the emphasis and the importance of keeping track.
Over the years, as I’ve gone to different places and I’ve had the chance, when I see striking prayer ropes, I’ll bring them with me. And this time I’ll do something different before we continue on. I think I already mentioned I like this prayer rope. It was made by the monks who are in the monastery in West Virginia, Wayne, West Virginia, and it’s a nice, small prayer rope: I can use it and put it in my pocket and for the most part not lose it. There’s a great variety to prayer ropes. When I had the opportunity to visit the Holy Mountain, the monks are all… you find them selling prayer ropes.
One of the places where they actually had a very, very nice monastic store, it was in the Great Lavra, the oldest monastery, and they had a large monastic store there. I was able to find the one… This was a prayer rope I found on Mt. Athos but I don’t remember where. That’s the one thing of life, that gradually we forget. Thank God remembers. That’s my new prayer for that. But this prayer rope I found, and I always thought it was a very fascinating prayer rope that was from the Monastery of the Great Lavra. One of the monks wanted to make a prayer rope, and it may have been made for a bishop, to stand up, very well and nicely. It’s a 100-knot prayer rope, but the holy father when he made it decided to make it nice, with all kinds of different colors.
The other thing, when I was there at the monastery, visiting monasteries, many of the monks would be given their assignment, how many times to pray the prayer, and as they would be given the assignment to pray the prayer, I found that the monks would be in the church services, praying, but they had prayer ropes that were this size! [Laughter] And it’s a prayer rope with 300 knots on it. The purpose of this is that always in a sense you are fulfilling the requests of your spiritual father in your prayers, so you’re keeping track. So you can find different kinds of prayer ropes. The one that I carry in my pocket has 33, and the number of 33 is quite obvious; it’s for the number of years of the life of Christ. The other kind usually have 100 knots, but this one, for the monks to keep more accurate accounting of their prayers, has 300.
I found another, different type of prayer rope, and this was made in Russia. In this prayer rope, they made it so that every time you prayed the prayer ten times, you knew you had finished ten, and then you went on to the next ten, so that it has a large wooden ball in between. The purpose of this is to just help you keep track of how you’re praying.
Then, finally, I had the opportunity once to visit some of the monasteries of Moldova, and one of the nuns was there in the store, and they had prayer ropes that were made by the nuns in Romania, and they had… It was a very, very striking prayer rope in that I… in the little bit I could talk to her—and I think we were talking in French; she knew some French and I was talking in French—she said they would use this also to pray other prayers in between, and the prayer rope has all kinds of different numbers of knots, short knots, long knots, sometimes with three knots and a large knot, and then ten knots, so it was a prayer rope that comes from a different part of the Orthodox world.
The purpose of all of these, though, is what? To help the person to pray. I see Mother there has one on her hand, on her finger, and that helps her to pray in a very, very good and direct way. So the purpose of all of this is to pray the prayer. This is the first half of my class.