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The Jesus Prayer (Part 2)

Orthodox Institute 2014 - Theosis: Your Life with God

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.

October 2014

The Jesus Prayer (Part 2)

Fr. David Hester, priest at St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church in Wilkes-Barre, PA.

October 31, 2014 Length: 1:20:38


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Very Rev. Fr. David Hester: As all of you know, this is the second part of the talk, that we finished the first part of the talk whereby we spoke about how, in the sacred Scriptures, we see the power of calling on the name of the Lord Jesus and how you have, in the birth and development of monasticism that occurs in the second half of the 200s, the importance of simple-phrased prayers and repetition of simple-phrased prayers, constantly, to have that sense of remembrance of God and of the way to have quiet meditation, and that those two things gradually come together. As I said this morning, the place where you see that most clearly is in the writings of Diadochos of Photiki. He was the one who then talks about the need for constantly calling on the name of the Lord Jesus.

And [we spoke of] how following him into the next century, which would be into the 500s, we find for the first time in that Life of Abba Philemon, which is in the volume II of that collection called the Philokalia—we’ll talk about that collection in this class—in volume II, that’s the first place where he tells the monk finally: “When you go to pray, pray: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” Then after that you begin to find some of the monastic writers, especially with St. John of the Ladder or Pseudo-Hesychius of Mt. Sinai, both of them from Mt. Sinai, which becomes a great central focal point for the Jesus prayer in that period of the 600s into the 700s. The importance of now seeing that it’s pray “the Jesus prayer,” that it has now actually a name for that prayer.

If you remember, I was talking about different kinds of prayer [ropes] that they have, and talking with Fr. Michael, I came to realize he’s made prayer ropes, and I knew that you tied the rope with four fingers, and before I was saying that you had four ropes, and he said to me that… He said to me it was two ropes, so I thought to myself, “When I watched the seminary students at St. Tikhon’s do it, they only had two ropes, too.” So if you correct what you would have said, because it’s two ropes wrapped around your four fingers, and that’s how you’re able to make these knots that have, in the knot, the shape of a cross, the way that they all cross, at the top of the chart, and that that is something that is developed in the monastic tradition for the purpose of counting, of keeping track, of how you pray, but especially because you have a spiritual father who would ask you [to] pray the prayer a certain number of times.

Let’s see if we can ask Father… Something he said outside, a really interesting story… Would you be willing to say that to the class?

Father: Well, there’s a hermit in the mountains in British Columbia that I came and got to know, and I’d go and visit him three or four times, two or three times a year, and after about three years, I decided to… It took me a lot of courage, because I wanted… He was a hermit; he spends most of his day in the cell, or a room. He comes out just for a couple of hours a day, and some days not at all. But for some reason he’ll talk to me, and we developed a friendship, so I finally thought, well, I’ll ask him for a prayer rule, because I knew that was something that you’re supposed to do, but I was afraid that it would be too hard, because he wouldn’t understand, like you’re saying: I’ve got a parish, I’ve got family, I’ve got a wife, I’ve got all kinds of stuff going on.

But finally I got up the courage and I said, “Can you give me a rule for saying the Jesus prayer?” And he said, “For you, the rule is 50. It will take you ten minutes. I want you to say 50 Jesus prayers once a day, any time, any way. Like driving your car, any time is acceptable. At least 50; if you want to do more, you can. Be free.” It was the most life-giving thing ever for me! Because it was like: ten minutes! I can almost hold my breath for ten minutes. [Laughter] I can do ten minutes. For about three years, I just tried to keep this ten… but of course, it started to grow on me, to the point where I was saying it here and there, driving my car, going to bed. I just was always saying it, without it ever being something heavy for me.

Fr. David: Thank you, Father. Because he was a very holy and a very wise man. It’s one of the things on that is when you read these things from the Desert Fathers, is you don’t want to crush the flower that’s beginning to grow. That was a very wise statement.

We stopped, then, in the last time, looking at Mt. Sinai and what was being said about the prayer and how the prayer was being practiced, and we looked at these passages from St. John of the Ladder, where he talks about the power of calling on the name of the Lord Jesus. After that, there is a period in which there is not terribly much known about the prayer, hesychasm, or the monastic life and structure. Part of the reason for this is the turmoil that occurs in the Middle East with the coming of Islam and life becoming much more difficult for Christians living in all of that part of the world. And it’s not until we come to the 1300s that we start to find again the great flowering of the monastic tradition of quiet prayer and of praying the Jesus prayer. That monastic tradition is called hesychasm, which was, you know, what was practiced by St. John of the Ladder, which was practiced by these monks who lived in the desert when we read these statements of the Desert Fathers.

And it is, then, in the 1300s that there is a great flowering of the Jesus prayer. One of the first individuals connected to this is St. Gregory, who comes from Sinai, and he lives on the Athonite peninsula in the first half of the 1300s, but the thing that’s striking: he comes as a monk from Mt. Sinai, and he does not know about the Jesus prayer. He goes to Crete, and on the island of Crete he runs into a monk, a spiritual father, Abba Arsenios, and that Elder Arsenios is the one who teaches him about the prayer. And then when he goes to Mt. Athos, which has already been established in the latter part of the 800s, with the founding of the Great Lavra and the other monasteries that are being developed there, when he arrives at Mt. Athos, he only finds three monks in the entire peninsula who ever heard of the Jesus prayer. And he begins to teach the monks about the importance of that invocation of the name of Jesus, and that calling: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”

From his experience, working with the monks, he begins to write about this, and he writes one of his works that’s entitled On the Contemplative Life and Prayer. If you have access to the four volumes of the English translation of the Philokalia, the things I’m talking about are all in the fourth volume of the Philokalia. This is the volume that talks about what is going on in the 1300s. In this work on contemplative life and prayer, we find:

It is revealed in a life of obedience to a spiritual father by the methodic and continual calling upon the Lord Jesus that one has remembrance of God.

In the work, he says

One should remain seated and make a profound bow, pronouncing the formula, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

And this is what he is telling the monks to do. In another one of his works, called Seven Texts on Prayer, that’s also found in this fourth volume of the Philokalia, in the Seven Texts on Prayer, he describes this in this way:

Sometimes, and most often, you should sit on a stool, because it’s arduous (he doesn’t want you falling asleep like a class after lunch), but sometimes for a break you should sit for a while on a mattress.

So he is telling the people, in a sense there’s a place to have that sense of strictness and the arduous approach, but sometimes you just need to rest, but that doesn’t mean you stop praying. He says:

As you sit, be patient and assiduous. Do not grow discouraged and quickly rise up again because of the strain and effort you need to keep your intellect concentrated on its inner invocation.

And what’s the inner invocation? “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”

You should bend down and gather your intellect into your heart, and call on the Lord Jesus to help you.

In another one of the Seven Texts, he says:

Some of the Fathers advise us to say the whole prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy.”—while others specify that we say it in two parts—“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy. Son of God, have mercy.”—

So you see from these monastic guide and elders, they say there is indeed flexibility, and sometimes it’s because of the need to find something that’s even more, as we were talking about in the last class, monologic, those single words, single phrase.

...because this is easier, given the immaturity and feebleness of our intellect. For no one of his own account, and without the help of the Spirit, can mystically invoke the Lord Jesus. For this can be done alone with purity and in its fullness only with the help of the Holy Spirit. Again, some Fathers teach that the prayer should be said aloud; others, that it should be said silently, with the intellect alone. On the basis of personal experience, I’d recommend both ways.

Sometimes saying it out loud, sometimes saying it quiet, and that’s very good advice for all of us, because depending on what’s going on in our life at a certain time, as someone was saying, when you’re driving, as Fr. David said, you might very much want to say it out loud: “Lord Jesus Christ, help us!” So you find, again, that’s a very wise sense of flexibility. He offers other advice on praying the prayer, and someday when you have a chance, you could read it in the fourth volume from the Philokalia.

Another important monk in the community on the Athonite peninsula, on Mt. Athos, at this time, is the spiritual father Nicephoros the Hesychast. And the one thing that’s noted of Nicephoros the Hesychast is that he was an Italian who converted to Orthodoxy, and so it’s nice to see a convert to the Orthodox faith who has done so well that he becomes one of the great Fathers of Athonite monasticism.

When he becomes a monk on Mt. Athos, he there learns of the Jesus prayer, and he comes to be recognized as one of the great practitioners of the prayer. He writes a work entitled On Guarding the Heart, and in his work, On Guarding the Heart, he writes:

This is why we should search for an unerring guide. If, however, no guide is to be found, call on God with a contrite spirit and with tears, and do what I now tell you.

So he’s saying sometimes you’re not going to find a guide, so I’m trying to offer some advice.

You know that what we breathe is air. As we exhale it, it’s for the heart’s sake, for the heart is the source of life and warmth for the body. Seat yourself, then concentrate your intellect and lead it into the respiratory passage through which your breath passes into your heart. When your intellect is firmly established in your heart, it must not remain there silent and idle. It should constantly repeat and meditate on the prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,” and should not stop doing this. Banish, then, all thoughts from this faculty. You can do it if you want to. And in the place put the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” And compel yourself to repeat this prayer ceaselessly.

One of the things that we find with Nicephoros is that he’s now [connecting] the prayer much more to breath and to the physical position of the body. And in the tradition of the prayer, this particular type of the way to pray the prayer is known as the psycho-physical method; they even give a name to it from the monastic tradition. Which is what? We’re now praying the prayer using certain techniques to help us pray the prayer.

In another one of the works from St. Nicephoros, he places a great emphasis on the bodily position to be used, and the work is called The Method of the Jesus Prayer, and in his work, The Method, he goes into great detail about the psycho-physical method. But the thing that’s most interesting is that, in the later editions of the work, where he spends all of this time doing this very precise description, many of the later editions refused to put it in. And they refused to put it in, and instead put in a footnote, saying, if you want to learn about this, go see your spiritual father. [Laughter]

And this is important to realize, because what he’s trying to say, the important thing is the prayer. It’s not that you’re learning a method. And his fear is that the method can lead one astray. In a certain sense, I think what he’s trying to say, if we’re using modern terms, it’s not like teaching somebody yoga, where you’re trying to learn a position and then you do certain things and you’re supposed to have a spiritual experience out of that, or like transcendental meditation. He’s saying this is prayer, and that’s the primary thing, always, that you’re calling on the name of the Lord Jesus in prayer.

What he says in the work—and this is a description from someone who went through the Greek manuscripts and dug it up to find what the original work said—he says:

Go into the room of your cell and close the door. Place yourself in a state of quiet, sitting down. Press your chin against your chest, and, looking towards the middle of your stomach, restrain your breath, and then, as you breathe, repeat the remembrance of the Lord Jesus.

So he’s giving this kind of technical way to do the prayer, but the concern with this is always that it what? It becomes the technique and is not what it ought to be. And what it ought to be is what? A prayer, and that is the concern with this.

Q1: I want to ask a question, because we’re talking about it now and I don’t want to forget and I will forget… but isn’t part of the reason that we have to be careful, not just about the technique, but isn’t part of it also that we have to be careful when we go so deep inside and we’re doing it alone without any guidance, that we have to make sure we’re listening to the right voice, when we go in? Is that not part of the reason?

Fr. David: Well, that can also be part of the fear, yes.

Q1: Okay.

Fr. David: That you’re opening up the depth of yourself.

Q1: Because you’ve really opened yourself up if you go that far in, and that’s where we have to be careful, and that’s why keeping in touch, you know…

Fr. David: With a spiritual guide.

Q1: Connected with our spiritual guide.

Fr. David: And actually, in the whole monastic tradition, when you read all these things, The Ladder of Divine Ascent or from the Desert Fathers or any of these great writers, they always emphasize so strongly the importance of being willing to divulge what comes into your mind, that if you’re willing to do that, then you can have a check on what you’re thinking and is it something good or is it something that’s leading you into something that’s terribly askew, into the wrong direction?

Q1: I think that’s why, the checking…

Fr. David: Yes, and that’s why you try at least to have a father confessor. If you can’t find some great spiritual father, at least your parish priest should have and would have a certain ability at least to help you examine and to judge.

Q2: Isn’t there a second prong to the Jesus prayer in that it’s not, not about the prayer aspect of it, but isn’t it there also… you just bring stillness and quiet to the person so that…

Fr. David: Well, that’s part of the whole world that it comes out of, is that hesychastic monastic movement.

Q2: Right, so that you’re not always going into a depth of self, you’re quieting the self against all the anxiety of the world and all the anxiety around us and all the turmoil around us, just to develop some kind of quiet around us.

Fr. David: And taking time to be quiet. Like Father said, his ten minutes proved to be very, very powerful.

C1: Even I can do that.

Fr. David: We know that’s one of those important things, because the thing that so marks so much of our life is that we are active, we’re busy. We used to have radio, then we had television, then we had computers, now we have portable computers, now we have iPads and iWatches. I mean, it’s all things that are constantly pulling us in all kinds of directions. When my wife and I go out to dinner, we’re always so bothered when we see a couple go out to dinner together and then they’re sitting, talking on the phone or playing on the iPad. It’s like, you know, what kind of life is this? And that’s part of the sense that comes from this deep tradition of the importance of prayer, and the great gift that the Jesus prayer is. It’s a way that we can pray and be still and be, in a powerful way, in the presence of God.

As we find these famous spiritual Fathers on Mt. Athos, on the Holy Mountain, in the 1300s, there is another important spiritual Father connected to Athonite monasticism at this time, and he is a man who grew up in Constantinople and was being prepared by his father to be in the Roman government in Constantinople, and then finally, at the age of 18, decides he wants to be a monk and goes off to Mt. Athos, and this is Gregory Palamas. He is the one who is so important for the life of the Church that the second Sunday of Great Lent comes to be dedicated in his memory. So we have the one monastic saint from the end of the 500s and into the early 600s, St. John of the Ladder, for the fourth Sunday, and then St. Gregory Palamas from the 1300s, dying in 1359, to whom the second Sunday of Great Lent is dedicated.

He spent much of his life defending the monastic practices of prayer and silence and hesychasm as it was being practiced on the Holy Mountain, and his reason for doing this is that this was under attack. It was under attack because, from southern Italy, which was a part of the world that was Greek-speaking long before the Romans captured it in the first century B.C., there continued to be Greek-speaking communities, and a Greek-speaking monk from southern Italy, from Calabria, whose name was Barlaam, went to Mt. Athos and was looked upon as being a great intellectual teacher. At that point, the Renaissance was starting in the West, and he had studied some of Plato and some of Aristotle, but he spoke perfect Greek. So they were quite impressed in Constantinople, but then as he hears about the monks and the monastic practice, and some of it even the psycho-physical aspects of the monastic practice, he begins to attack all of this. And he’s the one who accuses the monks of being “navel gazers,” and that’s [how] he refers to the monks from the Holy Mountain.

And in this, he expresses what comes much more from that Platonic and neo-Platonic philosophy, that what is really important is the intellect, the nous, and that’s how you contemplate God; it’s not in the body. He attacks the monks, saying they’re claiming that they have seen in each other the glory of the transfigured Christ coming out of the very holy monks, and he just says all of this is those navel-gazing monks, and that’s foolishness; that does not happen. And it’s St. Gregory Palamas who begins to defend the monastic practices and to defend and to bring together from the earlier Church Fathers a clear expression of the theology that stands behind the monastic practices. He writes in one of his works these words:

But what pain or pleasure or movement is not a common activity of both body and soul? For just as the divinity of the Word of God Incarnate is common to soul and body, since he has deified the flesh through the mediation of the soul to make it also accomplish the works of God, so similarly, in a spiritual man, the grace of the spirit, transmitted to the body through the soul grants to the body also the experience of these divine things, and allows it the same blessed experiences as the soul undergoes. When the soul pursues this blessed activity, it deifies the body also, which, being no longer driven by corporeal and material possessions, returns to itself and rejects all contact with evil things. Indeed, it inspires its own sanctification and inalienable divinization as the miracle-working relics of the saints clearly demonstrate.

From what we have heard from these earlier and previous Fathers talking about prayer—they’re all talking about the fact that it’s your body and your spirit together praising God; that’s why they’re saying sometimes you use your tongue out loud to pray, or you put your body as St. John of the Ladder says: hold out your arms and then call of the name of the Lord Jesus, and then you won’t be afraid—that it is indeed the body and the soul. St. Gregory adds this about the Jesus prayer:

We supplicate with this continual supplication, not to convince God, for he always acts spontaneously; not to draw God to us, for he is everywhere; but to lift ourselves up towards him.

So the purpose of prayer, in a sense, is not attracting God to us—God’s already there—but it’s bringing us in God’s presence.

Q3: I have a question.

Fr. David: Ah-huh.

Q3: The writings, for example, of the Church Fathers, a lot of this came from this type of prayer…

Fr. David: Many of them came from those in the monastic communities who were praying, seeking to pray continual prayer.

Q3: When we’re praying, experiencing this, and some profound thought comes to our mind, should we enter that, like in a journal or something? Or is it just a… What do we do with that?

Fr. David: It depends on what you usually do with your profound thoughts. If you have a journal, yes, write it down, because then you can place judgment on it, because the other important thing is that sometimes the thoughts that come into our mind are not always the best or the clearest. There’s an interesting thing in the Life of St. Gregory Palamas where it talks about him once being in the Great Lavra and the monks are all there praying, and in the midst of the prayer this thought comes into his mind: “Listen to these people. They can’t sing, they’re off-key, they’re talking to each other. I would be much better off walking out of this chapel and going back and praying by myself.” And that night he has a vision from the founder of Athonite monasticism; Peter of Athos comes and tells him off, basically telling him: “How can you allow these kinds of thoughts? You must be there for you to strengthen the brethren and the brethren to strengthen you.” He had the profound thought, but the profound thought was, you know.

Q3: I remember I had had a vision of my going up the cross with Jesus who’s on there, and his body still was there, and all that I saw and felt and smelled and was there was very profound, and I came down, and later I told Betty about it. “That’s disgusting!” [Laughter] And I went to my church and told Father about it, and he says, “That wasn’t for her. That was for you. Next time, you come to me and talk about it.” But you have to pick and choose where or how….

Fr. David: Yeah, and to see how God moves you, and to be able to place in a good judgment on that, because then, if the thought had come into your head after doing that, “Oh, this is totally disgusting,” then, wait a minute, you’d better stop and look.

Q3: It wasn’t the prayer that was disgusting, it was what I was describing in that vision.

Fr. David: Oh, yeah. No, but the fact that it came into your head, then it’s like: “Hmm, where is this thought coming from?” That’s where they have one of the steps in The Ladder of Divine Ascent is called diakrisēs, which means being able to analyze, to place judgment, to discern; that’s what the word means in Greek, to have discernment. And it’s always important to be able to have personal discernment or to have sometimes someone else to help you discern. When your spiritual father, when you talk to him about it, says, “That was a powerful experience for you,” and then you talk to your wife, and your wife says, “What is going on?”

C2: This is probably off the subject, but St. John of Kronstadt wrote his journal, My Life in Christ; did he edit it somewhat on that basis? He wrote a journal, collecting daily thoughts into a big book.

Fr. David: Ah-huh. I’ve seen that; I have a copy of that.

C2: Did he edit that, do you know? Maybe he had thoughts he wouldn’t…

C3: Almost certainly. I would have to look at it really closely to distinguish where, but I can’t imagine someone publishing something without something being edited.

Fr. David: Or also just to look at what you were saying, because one of the things that’s really fascinating about these great works by some of the Church Fathers: they worked on these things for years to get together what they had. Some of them, it’s always interesting, like St. John of Damascus wrote that very, very powerful book, The Fountain of Knowledge or The Fount of Knowledge, and he talks about all Orthodox faith and all of this. There are so many different versions of it that it was obvious he was never satisfied with it. He just kept working on it and working on it and changing it. When you have those kinds of things, I think there is always that kind of importance of having that sense of judgment. But you can read, as I said, one of those steps in The Ladder that’s entitled that, and he just talks about the importance of that as part of one’s own life, climbing the ladder towards Christ.

Well, for St. Gregory, he knew that there was that intimate connection, that of body and of soul, body and the mind, body and the intellect, and that, in prayer, prayer transforms us, both in our heart and in our body, in our inner side and in our physical side. To be able to express this, he uses writings, some of which come from St. Basil the Great and some of the Cappadocian Fathers, in which you talk about the fact that in what God is, it’s totally beyond us; that God’s being, his essence, is beyond us. One of the writings that comes to us from the 400s, written by Dionysios the Areopagite, under his name, speaks of God as being the superbeing, the hyperousia, the being that’s beyond all being, that no one can approach and no one can contemplate.

With that, St. Gregory also said when we speak of what God is, we say God is love and God reaches out to us and God touches us and God transforms us, and therefore, in his writings, he talks about the fact that when we talk about God, there is a distinction that exists between the essence of God—what God is—and his energies—the way that God reaches out to us and touches us and transforms us and makes us. And the work where he deals with this is called Triads. He says

Since one can participate in God, and since the super-essential essence of God is absolutely above participation, there exists something between the essence that cannot be participated in and those who participate. To make participation in God possible for them, thus he makes himself present to all things by his manifestations and by his creative and providential energies. In one word, we must seek a God in whom we can participate in one way or another so that, by participating, each of us in the manner proper to each and by the analogy of participation, may receive being, life, and deification.

So he says God indeed does reach out to us and touch us and fill us, but it’s the power, in a sense, the love, the energy that comes out of God, and that’s what touches all creation, and ultimately is what has made all creation; and that the Father created us through the Son, and that was the power that created energy, of the Father through the Son and the Holy Spirit. And that was the contribution of St. Gregory Palamas, in talking about the fact, then, that those energies of God reach the entire person. They touch me in my intellect in my mind, they touch me in my heart, they touch me in my body, and they transform me; they make me to be more and more like unto God.

Or, as we read this morning, that passage from St. Diadochos of Photiki, where he talks about the fact that in baptism we are made in the image of God and that we grow in the likeness, and it’s like the painter who takes this blank sheet and on top of the blank sheet makes the outline and then on top of the outline gradually fills in the colors on top of each other until you see the face, the person. And he says—St. Diadochos, remember—it even captures the intricacies of the person’s smile, and that’s the power of God working in us, and in a sense, that’s when you talk about theosis, that’s what it is: God reaching out to us—but we have to cooperate, and as we said this morning again, it’s like the flint that’s first sparked, and that when God sees a little response to the spark, then you’re beginning to open yourself to the power of God and God touches us and reaches us all the more.

After we see these very important Fathers from Mt. Athos in the 1300s, the monastic life on Athos continues, but it becomes much more difficult, because by the time we get to the beginning of the 1400s, the Ottoman Turks are now taking over all the outer parts of the empire and are moving ever more closely into the only city that’s left, which is Constantinople. And then, in May of 1453, that falls to the Turks, and you have all of those centuries of those Christian countries in Eastern Europe now all being occupied by Ottoman Turkish Muslims. And the life of the Christians there is difficult. In many ways, their whole mode of life is transfigured into survival.

When we come, finally, to the mid-part of the 1700s, there is a revival of religious life being led out of the monasteries in Greece under the Turkish rule, and it’s a movement that the monks call the [Kollyvades] movement, and part of the purpose of this movement is to re-enliven the faith of the Orthodox people, re-enliven the faith of the monastic life. It’s someone whom you would see in the late 1700s, like St. Cosmas Aitolos, who’s traveling all around through Albania and these Greek-speaking areas, trying to get the people to be more religious, trying to wake them up; that you’re trying to do that. And he, like so many of the other people whom we see in our calendar called the New Martyrs—the Turks do not want this. And we have in the calendar thousands of people who got usually beheaded, but there were sometimes worse things [that] happened than being beheaded by the Turkish rulers, as you seek to revive the life of the Christian people, of the Orthodox Christian people, during the time of the Turkish rule.

One of the things that occurs during this time is that one of the monastic fathers of Mt. Athos, St. Nicodemus of Athos, and one of the bishops of a city in southern Greece, the bishop of Corinth—St. Nicodemus of Mt. Athos and St. Macarius, the bishop of Corinth—they decide to go through the monastic libraries and see what they can find that would help to teach people in the monasteries—and this is written for the monks—how to pray, how to live the monastic life, how to pray the Jesus prayer. And they gradually put a collection of works together that are important works by different monastic fathers, different teachers, and the work is called the Philokalia, and the Philokalia means the love of the good.

Because the Turks would not allow the Christians to publish, they finally take all their manuscripts and get them sent off to Venice, and in the West, in the year 1782, the volumes are published. The great thing about publishing is that you can make multiple copies in a much faster time than you had been able to do for all those previous centuries when everything had to be hand-copied. So you have, then, this work that is there for the purpose of reviving the life of prayer, reviving monastic hesychasm. And the work begins to spread throughout the Orthodox Christian world.

The five volumes of the Philokalia begin with writings that come— Yes? Oh, yes, Father!

Q4: Could you talk a little bit more about the purpose of the collection? Did it have anything to do particularly with the defense of hesychasm against something in particular—that you know of, anyway—or was it just an attempt to present texts that St. Nicodemus and St. Macarius found helpful in their own spiritual development and they thought these texts would also be helpful, or was there a particular philosophical or religious thing they were, for example, Latinism or some ideas from the West, that they were particularly trying to counteract, counterbalance?

Fr. David: When you read about the [Kollyvades] movement, the major thing that it was trying to do was to bring the Orthodox religion back to life, that under the time of the Turkish rule, things had been bad. People were not allowed to have schools, and you would have night schools, sending children off to try to study something. You have a very sort of low time in the life of the Church, and the purpose of the [Kollyvades] movement was to try to encourage people to pray, also to encourage people to start receiving holy Communion again, because that was another part of the [Kollyvades] movement. Another part of it was to try to have the Liturgy in the parishes be more decently celebrated, and part of it was to try to revive monasticism.

It wasn’t so much under attack; it was just after the Turks had been ruling for all of these years, and you had lived under this threat and fear that there was not a very high level of monastic life, and that was what you were trying to do, and that’s why they were trying to find the best examples from these great Fathers, from the 300s up through the time of the great Athonite renaissance there in the 1300s and to present these things that had been lost. They were in some manuscripts in some of the monasteries, but no one had access to them. The monastic life and such was not in a very… The whole Church life was not in a shining state, and that’s what you’re really trying to do.

Now, in the midst of that, they realized the errors of the Latins, and they’re fighting against some of the things they see coming from the West, because the other thing that was going on in that time was that, from the West, you had in the Ottoman Empire, the arrival of Jesuits and Dominicans and Franciscans, and they’re all trying to get these Orthodox people to come into communion with Rome. And that had been the Roman policy, actually, from the time of Ferrara-Florence, where you tried to get different groups to come into communion with Rome, and some of the Greek islands had already done that later on in the later 1300s, early 1400s, and all of this. Then you finally get the Ukrainians in the late 1500s and then the Carpatho-Rusyns in the 1640s and all of this. There’s all these people… Do what?

C4: I’m checking the time; it’s four o’clock.

Fr. David: Yeah, well, I think it’s 4:30 [when] it’s done.

C5: 4:50.

Fr. David: 4:50? Oh, okay. Good.

Anyway, so you do have that, and they’re fighting against that, so part of the movement is anti-Western, but that was not the main purpose of it. The main purpose is to try to get life and spirituality and prayer, and in that sense, to re-invigorate the people of the Orthodox world after the time of the oppression. And some of the things that will actually come out of that will be fine. You’ll start to have those revolutions where you start in the Orthodox countries to push the Turks out. So you gradually have all of that kind of thing, but that’s the purpose of it.

So what they wanted to do was to find the best examples from these great Fathers, of what prayer, monastic life, monastic quiet, hesychasm, the Jesus prayer, and all of the things that are contained in these texts, and these texts have all kinds of things contained in them… And the people whom they selected were the ones that they believed had the most to teach, and that’s why they put those texts together. But they are connected to monasticism. I mean, they don’t have the theological texts of the Cappadocian Fathers; they don’t have St. John Chrysostom and his homilies. That wasn’t their purpose. Their purpose was to re-invigorate monastic life.

This push for the revival of monastic life will begin to make changes, as monks and especially as spiritual fathers begin to have access to some of these great things that have been done and said and written by all of these previous generations. Seeing that happen, the spread, then, of these Greek texts goes into the Slavic-speaking world, and a Russian monk, St. Paisius Velichkovsky—his name’s in all those notes that you have—he spent some time and went to the Athonite peninsula, to Mt. Athos, there becomes familiar with what is happening and knows about these texts, and he leaves Mt. Athos and goes to a part of Romania called Moldova, which is an area in Romania where there [are] many monasteries. There he translates these texts from Greek into Church Slavonic, which was the common educated language for all of the Slavic peoples.

When the texts are translated, they are published in the year 1793, and so you can see it’s only a short time after—in Venice, in 1782, you have the text published in Greek—he publishes them in Church Slavonic in 1793, and he entitles the work The Dobrotolubiye, which means the love of the good. You have to remember in the Greek language, for the Greek language “good” and “love” are very, very close in their meaning. So he publishes this for the Slavic world, and this will begin to give a monastic revival in the Slavic-speaking world. One of the things that grows out of this work now being published at the very end of the 1700s for the Slavic-speaking world is that in the early 1800s there is a large monastic center, a skete, but it’s not like a tiny skete: it’s a magna-skete that had been abandoned at the end of the 1700s, and the metropolitan of Moscow asks a disciple of St. Paisius Velichkovsky, the Archimandrite Macarius, to send a group of monks from Moldova to Russia to the monastery and, in 1821, they arrive there and they begin the revival of monastic life in this monastery of Optina.

And the monastery of Optina becomes a powerful center for monastic revival in all of the Russian world. The monastery will become known as the great center for the Jesus prayer. The monastery, the elders, the startsy, the elders of the monastery, will reach out to people from all levels of society. And we know that they had noblemen who came to them, they had the poorest of poor peasants [who] came to them, they had students who came to them, intellectuals, they had authors and writers, and they all came for spiritual guidance. And one of the things that the elders from Optina would teach them would be to pray the Jesus prayer.

It’s striking that some of the great 19th century Russian literary figures, like Gogol and Dostoyevsky and Khomyakov and Solovyov and Tolstoy, they all went there, and they all were guided by the monks. You can see this so profoundly in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, where he’s talking about the experience of the monks and the way that they touch people and touch people’s lives. All of this is based on what comes from the monastic revival that’s begun there in the Greek-speaking world that’s now transferred to the Slavic world. It’s noted that these elders, these startsy, would have a prophetic ministry. They would speak to people in their hearts, trying to give them guidance in how to live their lives, but they would also be teaching the people: pray the Jesus prayer.

Another important saint of the Russian Church during that period of the 1800s is St. Seraphim of Sarov. St. Seraphim lived in the monastery for 15 years, and then after living for 15 years in a monastery, lived in seclusion for 30 years, but the striking thing about his seclusion is that that didn’t mean he closed the door to people who came to him. The people would come to him to speak to him, to ask for advice. It’s like Father was talking about the elder in Canada, that there is a certain importance of being willing to reach out to others. And it was known that St. Seraphim placed a great emphasis on the praying of the Jesus prayer, and taught everyone who came to him to pray it. If you’ve ever seen an icon of St. Seraphim, in his hand he has the prayer rope. It’s always prominent in his hand, because he was teaching that to people.

Another 19th-century Russian, a bishop, St. Ignatius or Ignatii Brianchaninov, wrote different works about the Jesus prayer, encouraging people to pray the Jesus prayer, but the other thing that he did was to put together a more complete Slavonic edition of the Dobrotolubiye, of the love of the good, and also to begin to do a Russian translation, because he knew that in the common language you would even reach more people than you would in the Church language. He was followed by St. Theophan the Recluse, who was a bishop who eventually decided that he wanted to live his life in seclusion and became a recluse. And St. Theophan prepared an even more expanded translation, and this expanded translation would contain even more texts than the earlier editions.

The purpose for all of this was to reach out, to try to bring this prayer and this spiritual life and this commitment to prayer to people.

While this was being done, one of the things we notice in the prayer was something that someone asked me this morning—or not this morning, but in the first class today, and it’s the fact that when you read the texts that come from the Slavic world in this period, the prayer is given a few more words than what you find in the Greek tradition of the prayer and the Greek texts, and you start to see the prayer being given as “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and you see an even more expanded form, whereas when you read all these texts in the Philokalia—these are all translated from the Greek—these all just have the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”

Do you have your hand raised?

C6: Well, you made me think of one of my spiritual mothers, when we were talking about this Jesus prayer, and I said, “Some people say, ‘forgive me, the sinner’ or ‘forgive me, a sinner,’ ” and she said, “Well, when we say, ‘forgive me the sinner,’ we place upon ourselves the importance to remind ourselves that we are the sinner, and so when we say, ‘a sinner,’ it means I’m one of thousands,” so she said, “Focus and say, ‘a sinner,’ so that you’re focusing on how you want to change that sin and how you’re using your prayer to change, and when you just say, ‘me, I’m the sinner,’ it doesn’t have the same meaning to yourself as when you say, ‘the sinner,’ like: I’m the one, and I need to pray and to take care of it and to change.” So that is just… I thought it was important.

Fr. David: I think that is important spiritual advice. I mean, it’s ultimately what Christ said: Don’t try to pick the splinter out of your brother’s eye when you have an entire log in your eye, or whatever the version is; something like that, that kind of thing, that we need to ask God’s mercy for ourselves, and for everyone around us.

C6: But if we are fixing ourselves, and we are changing, then we will turn around and do what we’re called to do, and love others and…

Fr. David: And, God willing, help to change them.

C6: ...to heal ourselves so that we can be available to others.

Fr. David: And to touch them. Yeah, that was very good words of advice.

During this same time, when you start to find the monastery of Optina, you see these great spiritual fathers, bishops, elders, speaking about the Jesus prayer, there comes to be a book that’s published in Russian around the year 1855 that’s known as The Sincere Tales of a Pilgrim to his Spiritual Father, or sometimes just the shorter title: The Way of the Pilgrim. The purpose of the work was to present, in a more popular way, using in a sense the style of a kind of novel, the deep theological and spiritual value of the Jesus prayer.

The story is the story of a simple Russian peasant who becomes a wanderer and starts wandering around Russia. As he wanders, he carries with him a copy of the love of the good, the Dobrotolubiye. As he travels around, he is in search of how to pray without ceasing, and goes to different people to ask them: How do you do this? What does this mean? How does one do this? And he buys a copy of the book, of the Dobrotolubiye, and he consults it, both as a way to present and to understand the Jesus prayer, but in a broader sense to understand the need for every Christian person to pray, because that’s what stands at the foundation of the book.

And the book becomes very, very popular. As we get into the 20th century, it’s translated into all kinds of modern languages. As well, in the 20th century, there come to be new translations. We have the four volumes in English of the Philokalia. There comes to be a translation in French, there comes to be a translation in Romanian, as you’re bringing these very important texts to try to reach people, to teach them of the importance of the spiritual life. And you have different monks and bishops working to do that work. Originally, before you had the four volumes of this, there was a work that was published in England called Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, and it was one of the earlier translations of this work.

And the one thing that is interesting: when they were doing this, there was supposed to be a fifth volume, and some of the translators died, and it never happened. So there are a few texts that aren’t in any of those four volumes that are found in this, so it’s the one… and it’s by this older book, but just the bits and pieces of translations.

C7: I’ve heard that book five had been in Bishop Kallistos Ware’s office.

Fr. David: God willing!

C7: Well, it’s been there for a long time, because he has way too much to do in order to get to it. So the fear is: what is going to happen? Who is going to do it, with that work, to get that done?

Fr. David: But if it’s already been at least translated…

C7: I don’t know if it’s been translated.

Fr. David: Sometimes that’s the hardest work. Because the liturgical books that he worked with, they always had Mother Maria [who] did a lot of those, and she was the one that ended up doing a lot of those translations. God willing, then. Because that’s the last part of it. Because what we have doesn’t complete all the things that were in the five volumes of the Greek version.

C8: One thing I noticed about the Greek version… we had to read The Way of the Pilgrim. In The Way of the Pilgrim there’s a section where they’re suggesting what works: you should start with the beginners. Those are the works of the abridged version.

Fr. David: Yeah, in a sense the more significant works. And one of the things that also… and I’m not familiar… I know that this was translated from the Church Slavonic. And the earlier translations in the Church Slavonic didn’t contain all the texts. So it may have been that this was taken from the ones that contained what was considered to be the more important texts, but that’s only a speculation. It would be something for you to look into, if you would like and you’ve heard. But there are, as I said, some things that are in this that are not… I hope they’re in that volume, that fifth volume, that someday will be put together. Having done some translations myself of things, it’s very difficult and it’s very time-consuming, and you have to really spend the time to be able to do that.

In our 20th century, in a number of ways, there has been an important revival in monasticism. We see it in Greece, on the Holy Mountain, where many of the monasteries… When I studied in Greece from 19— and this is just in the summertime, three summers: the summers of ‘82, ‘83, and ‘84, I visited the Holy Mountain, and many of the huge monasteries, which were magnificent buildings, had 20 monks. It was a rather sad time, visiting some of that. What I’ve discovered now is that some of those same monasteries now have 200 monks. So there is a real revival. Then with the end of Communism, monasticism is in a great revival in Russia, in Romania, in Bulgaria, in many places. There is a real revival in the 20th century of monasticism, and, God willing, this will be an important time for the ideals that we have saying, studying, and looking at in the importance of the Jesus prayer and the practice of the prayer.

I have one more thing that I wanted to talk about, and then I’m going to stop. Over the years, I have read different things in which different writers talk about the importance of the words [themselves] of the prayer. I have collected some of these together for myself, and I thought that I would end with that today, the importance of the specific words: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” What is it that we are praying? What is it that we are deeply expressing from the depth of our heart, from the depth of our being before God? One of the things that always struck me when I would read people writing about what do the words of the prayer mean, they would oftentimes say that the words are the full expression of our Orthodox faith, and that’s our setting before ourselves who and what we are as Orthodox faithful.

The first word, “Lord”: the word Kyrios is the title that was used for God in the Old Testament. Then in the New Testament, it’s applied to our Lord Jesus. St. Paul says that no one can ever say, “Jesus is Lord,” unless that person has been moved by the Holy Spirit. So when we say that Jesus is Lord, we’re saying that we know that he is God. And in knowing that he is God, we only can say that because we have been moved by God’s Spirit to confess that. So when we say the word, “Lord,” we are acknowledging Jesus is God and that we are touched by the Holy Spirit and moved by the Holy Spirit.

The second word, “Jesus”: it was the name that was given by the angel to Joseph, and they told him, “Call the child Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.” So that whenever we say the name Jesus, we are saying that he is our Savior, he is our Redeemer, he is the one who protects us, he is the one who keeps us, he is the one who saves us.

And then the third word, “Christ”: Lord Jesus Christ. It’s the Greek word for Messiah. The Greek word and, actually, the Hebrew word both come from the root word that means “the one who is anointed,” because “Christos, Mesīh,” all of them mean to anoint. So we’re saying that he is the anointed one of God, he’s the promised one of God, he’s the one that people have been longing for, for centuries, and when we say that he is Christ, we are acknowledging that the fullness has now come. It’s the reason why the most powerful name that we wear is “Christian.” We are the ones who have been anointed.

There’s a work by one of the important liturgical writers of the mid-300s, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, and he writes theological sermons to the catechumens. In his Catechetical Homilies, one of the homilies that he preaches to the people who have now been baptized is a homily on the importance of the chrismation that you’ve received, and in the chrismation that you received, in this particular homily, he likes to use a play—and he goes through this in a very elaborate way—on the word “chrism,” on the word “Christ,” and on the word “Christian,” talking about how all three of these speak of the anointing: “The anointed one of God anoints you to be his through the anointing.” So you’re using in that sense the play on words, and that’s what this word, “christ,” is about, that he is the anointed of God and that he has anointed us.

And then we say that this Lord Jesus Christ is “Son of God.” He’s the one who is of God, promised of God. He’s given to us, but he’s not just a human being. He is the incarnate Son of God. He is not just another great teacher, not another prophet, but he truly is God in our midst, which is why at Christmastime they always love to talk about him being Emmanuel, as the prophecy says. When we say, “Son of God,” what we’re ultimately saying is what we pray in the words of the Creed: “the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made.”

We thus pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God.” We ultimately are expressing our belief in the Trinity, because to be the Son of God means he’s the Son of the Father, he’s the one who has come forth, begotten of the Father. So we are speaking of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God.”

And then in professing that, we also are professing his humanity and his divinity, that he is truly God and that he’s truly man. In that sense, what we’re professing in those words is what we always do when we make the sign of the Cross. We stick three fingers together to say that there is one God who is three Persons—Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit—and two fingers together to remind us that Jesus as Christ is truly God and truly human.

So we say, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” and then after that profession, which in a sense we’re reaching out to God when we do that, we look back to ourselves and say, “have mercy on me.” We in our Divine Liturgy say, “Lord, have mercy,” over and over and over again. Some of the earliest liturgical texts find in the life of the Church that that was used in the Liturgy. It was how people responded to prayer, by saying, “Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy.”

But the striking thing: when we ask for mercy, it’s not just like we’re the criminal kneeling before the judge, saying, “Have mercy on me.” When we ask for the mercy of God and when we look in the Scriptures, mercy has a much broader sense, and it refers to God’s love for us, God’s goodness for us, God’s kindness towards us. It’s not just asking for forgiveness, but it’s ultimately we’re asking the Lord to take care of us, and that God, in his mercy and with his divine energies that I was talking about, we’re asking him to touch us deeply in our entire being and to keep us and to make us grow more and more like unto God.

Some of that is the importance of that prayer. Part of that was why, when they connected this to that psycho-physical method, they would have you breathing one part of the prayer out and breathing one part of the prayer in, breathing out proclaiming the goodness of God, and breathing in asking God, “Touch me, have mercy on me.” That’s one of the ways that the prayer is prayed—not the only. We’ve read those Fathers. They always would say, in a certain broad sense, “You have to do the best you can.”

So this prayer is a way for us to pray throughout all the day: when we have time, take prayer rope and to pray, the 50 times, the 100 times; when we’re riding in the car, we can pray; when we’re sitting quietly, we can pray. Sometimes when we’re very disturbed, we can be going through something, we can be in some terrible meeting, we can have something going on—we can pray, and this is the most direct way to call upon the power of the Lord through his holy name, and to ask the Lord to have mercy on us. So I just encourage all of you to please do that. That was my purpose for giving this talk, was to give you some sense of how the prayer came to be, but to talk about the importance of it, and how we recognize that importance and all of these great holy people, from all these centuries, who spoke about the importance of turning to the Lord and calling on his name and asking, “Lord Jesus, have mercy.”


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