Conversation II—Prayer continued (Jesus Prayer)

Purification, Illumination, Deification: Orthodox Spirituality

Fr. Stephen Rogers is the priest at St. Ignatius Orthodox Church in Franklin, TN. He gave a series of 9 talks at the parish on Orthodox Spirituality concentrating on Purification, Illumination, and Deification.

March 2014

Conversation II—Prayer continued (Jesus Prayer)

March 1, 2014 Length: 45:08





Every night when I go to bed, right on the night stand beside me I have a small fan operating. It sits on the night stand, and the last thing I do before I turn off the lights is turn on the fan. That fan is very important to me, by the way. It’s so important I have a back-up fan, so when this one dies, I have that fan. [Laughter] But the reason that fan is important to me is because the constant and consistent sound of those blades stirring the air provides a calming background. It provides a calming background noise that buffers the other noises in the house, the creaks and the cracks and the cat. It sort of drones along and blocks out distractions, and every night it provides a consistent background and creates the same conditions, and sort of trains me to go to sleep. It also eliminates total silence, which, for me can lead to just a non-stop train of thinking and thoughts and fantasies that agitate me and prevent me from sleep. So every night that fan provides a consistent background that sort of mitigates everything else going on to allow me to calm down and be at peace.

And I find that any obstacles that prevent any consistency in my spiritual life are the very same distractions that make it difficult for me to go to sleep at night: noise, distractions, changes in the environment, and a vacuum of silence sometimes that’s filled with all sorts of random thoughts and concerns. So to have any spiritual calmness, to have any spiritual consistency, I need the spiritual equivalent of my fan. It’s way more information than you need, but the fan is so important to me it has a name. It’s referred to as “Lovey.” That’s how important it is to me in our house. Actually, this is “Lovey IV.” [Laughter] The other three, after good and faithful service, met their mechanical demise.

But just like I need that fan to go to sleep at night, because it’s a consistent background, I need a consistency in the backdrop of my spiritual life, a consistency in my thoughts and thinking that provide that calmness, that consistency. And for Christians throughout the ages, the source of that grounding, that consistency, that background, has been something called the Jesus prayer. And volumes and volumes and volumes have been written about this simply prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” Spiritual fathers have referred to the Jesus prayer as the pearl of great price, the key to the kingdom, the doorway to paradise. And for most of us Orthodox Christians who’ve been Orthodox for any length of time at all, we’ve come into contact with this prayer, or at least the literature about it, and maybe some of us have dabbled with it—but few master it.

It seems so simple, this prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner,” but yet the literature about it is so enigmatic and so esoteric—discussions of entering into the heart to pray, discussions about prayers of the nous, discussions about practicing hesychasm. What in the world does all this mean? Am I simply to pray this prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”—as often as I can and expect it somehow to change me? Well, the answer is yes. Yes, you are.

Prayer is many things. It is praise. It is the acknowledging of God as the awesome and almighty God, the Creator and Sustainer of all things. Prayer is thanksgiving, recognizing our benevolent God, who is the Giver of every good and perfect gift. Prayer is petition. It’s bringing our needs and hopes to the God of all. Prayer is worship, the proclamation of who God is and an affirmation of my relationship to him. In all of these things, prayer is conversation, a communing with God, a fulfilling of our purpose as human beings. And prayer is also a fundamental component in the purification process so necessary for our progression in the spiritual life.

So prayer, like the other purifiers we have been speaking of—fasting, obedience, Scripture reading—just as those are, prayer also is a revealer of self. And the person who attempts to be serious about prayer discovers very quickly that the scattered mind does not take well to prayer, and the pampered body is very uncomfortable with it. And the scriptural exhortation to “pray without ceasing” is quickly relegated to the “nice in theory, but impossible in practice” category of our lives. We agree it’s a good thing, but we agree that in my particular circumstance, it’s quite impossible.

In our zeal, we read these great works of spirituality like the Philokalia or The Ladder of Divine Ascent, and we encounter what seems to be an overwhelming set of conditions to pray properly. I’ll give you an example. St. Kallistos the Monk, in his instructions to those of you that would wish to pray properly, he provides the following simple guidelines that, if you wish to be a person of prayer, you need to exhibit the following things.

1. Your life should be filled with good works. “Not everyone who saith to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven. But he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Gospel of Matthew). To pray properly, your life should be filled with good works.

2. You should have a faith that is free from all cares. Again, from the Gospel of Matthew: “In all things, whatsoever you ask in prayer believing, ye shall receive.”

3. You should be at peace with all men. In Hebrews we read, “Follow peace with all men in holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.”

So, number one, fill your life with good works; number two, be free from cares; number three, be at peace with all men…

4. You should never be distracted.

5. You must not be engrossed in worry and concern. From the Gospel of Matthew: “Therefore I say to you: Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink, nor for your body, what ye shall put on.” We can’t have any worries or concerns.

6. You should be very restrained in your speech, and you should love solitude. “Silence is the beginning of purification,” says St. Basil the Great.

7. You should give thanks to God for everything. “In everything, give thanks,” says the epistle to the Thessalonians

8. You should never forget your own weakness. “Have mercy upon me, O Lord, for I am weak,” the psalmist says.

9. You should valiantly endure all temptations. “God is faithful and will not suffer you to be tempted beyond what you are able,” Paul tells the Church at Corinth.

10. You should welcome persecution and injustices. “Blessed are you when men revile you and say all manner of evil about you.”

So let’s review quickly those ten conditions for being a good prayer warrior. Your life should be filled with good works, you should have a faith free from all cares, you should be at peace with all men, you should not be distracted, you should never worry or be concerned, you should be quiet and love solitude, you should be thankful for everything, you should always remember your own weakness, you should never give into temptation, you should welcome persecution and injustice—see how easy it is to pray? [Laughter]

All silliness aside, we are to pursue these attributes in our life. But how is it even possible, with all the clutter and all the responsibilities and all the distractions we live with every single day? This is where we come back to my fan, to finding a means through which there is a background, humming behind all the noise, a background that filters out these distractions and this clutter, something that may not eliminate all these things, but puts them in their place. That background, that humming, that ison—do you know what the ison is? Musicians, what is the ison? In the chanting, when you hear the chanters doing the melody, you hear another chanter: “Mmmm,” hitting a note, a base, a background, something that keeps it all together.

And we need an ison in our life that is constantly chanting behind all the noise and all the clutter, and from time immemorial that background has been this: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.”

From the earliest times, Christians pondered how to actualize that scriptural commandment to “pray without ceasing.” It’s quite obvious, for most of us if not for everyone, it’s impossible to verbalize prayer all day long without interruption. And while it might be impossible to keep the name of Christ constantly on our lips, it is possible to keep his name constantly within our hearts.

St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite, one of the compilers of the monastic manual, the Philokalia, which means “love of the beautiful,” defined the Jesus prayer this way:

Prayer of the heart consists principally of placing the mind within the heart, and without speaking with the mouth, but only with inner words spoken in the heart, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

And the Jesus prayer developed as a means to pray unceasingly, by providing a short and simple form that can be prayed unhurriedly, in any circumstance, in any location. And disciplined pray-ers of the Jesus prayer, throughout the ages, have discovered that the utterance of the name of Jesus, though somewhat laborious and mechanical at first, eventually gives way to a constant flow that perpetuates itself, serving as that constant, that backdrop, that ison, that in the midst of activity calms the soul and directs the spirit towards God.

Quoting Frederica Mathewes-Green:

Murmuring like a brook, the prayer becomes the background music behind every other thought and deed in life. It beats in the heart through long years, accompanying the believer at every moment. As he approaches declining age and enfeeblement, the prayer is still there. It is even there when consciousness grows dim and memories fade away.

I think it’s easy for us to bring our preconceptions to this prayer and misunderstand its content. From a Western perspective, the content of the Jesus prayer sounds like an appeal for forgiveness; we are appealing to the almighty Judge, Lord Jesus Christ, to forgive, have mercy on me, a worthless, guilty sinner.

But there is much greater content in this simple prayer, for in it is distilled the entirety of our faith. Lord—the one we are addressing is God. Jesus—the omnipotent God became a man. Christ—this God-man is my Savior, my Messiah. Son of God—he is of the Triune God, the only-begotten Son, within the Holy Trinity. Have mercy on me—the meaning here is not just a petition for forgiveness, but the bestowing of a steadfast, healing love, an abiding love that perseveres. A sinner—I’m separated from God, and I’m powerless to repair that separation; I’m helpless—not worthless, but helpless.

And the Jesus prayer is ultimately much more than an appeal for forgiveness as it is an appeal for healing and restoration. It’s in that broader context of the prayer that we can understand the simple story of the dying abbot, which I’ve told before. After faithfully leading the brethren in the monastery for fifty years as a wise and saint-like spiritual father, the abbot was on his deathbed. For most of the monks in the monastery, this was the only spiritual father they had ever known, and the thought of struggling on without him terrified them. And the monks gathered around the abbot’s deathbed and appealed to him that he would give them final instructions on how to live their lives and continue to struggle. “Father, please,” they cried. “Give us some final wisdom. Tell us what to do!” And this abbot, who had guided them with years of experience, with knowledge of the Scriptures, steeped in the wisdom of the Fathers, this miracle-working, living saint looked at them, and with his dying breath, said, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

He had experienced the power of this prayer, because within it lies all the aspects of purification that we’ve been talking about so far. Within that prayer lies renunciation of the world; within that prayer lies repentance; within that prayer lies obedience; within that prayer lies the wisdom of the Scriptures. In that simple prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” is the entirety of our faith and the summation of our purification. And it is the witness of the Church that the use of this prayer grounds us, connects us, and purifies us.

But as with the other topics that we’ve been discussing thus far, what about the practicalities? What about the how of the prayer? The Fathers speak of not simply praying the Jesus prayer, but acquiring it, of it becoming a possession, or perhaps, more clearly, it acquiring us. How do we acquire it? How do we allow it to become part of us? How? As silly as it sounds, we begin by doing it. And let’s be honest with ourselves. How many times in our life have we been satisfied in merely studying or talking about something? “Oh, I go to Bible study every week, and we get together around a table and we read our Bible, and Mary gives her opinion about it and what it means to her, and Sue gives hers. We read the Scriptures and we feel good about that.” Or: “I’ve read such-and-such a book. Isn’t it wonderful? Isn’t Our Thoughts Control Our Lives... Isn’t Elder Thaddeus wonderful?” But how often do we do it?

Remember the words of St. John that we started our talks with? “To be a knower, you have to be a—“What?”—doer.” And the acquisition of the Jesus prayer begins by taking hold of it. St. Theophan the Recluse tells us, “When you begin to pray, start as if you had never prayed before. The essential and indispensable part of prayer is attention.” So if you feel called and determined to take up this prayer, then I would suggest the following practical applications to you.

1. You should begin with a formal time of praying this prayer. Hopefully upon waking and before sleeping. And in this formal praying of the Jesus prayer, pray the prayer a set number of times. 100 times takes about 15 minutes. Do less than that if it’s difficult. And in this formal praying of the prayer, if the mind wanders, bring it back to focus by concentrating on the meaning of each individual word as we outlined before. St. Gregory Palamas says, “Many words in prayer often fill the mind with images and distract it, while often one word draws it into reflection.” So in our recitation of the Jesus prayer, if our mind starts to wander, then focus on each word, and when the attention returns, resume the rhythm of the prayer.

2. If the mind wanders, verbalize the prayer a few times to recapture the words and their meaning.

3. The Fathers tell us it is okay to pray this prayer either standing or sitting, whichever posture promotes attention.

4. Fight the temptation to rush the prayer. It’s helpful to align the utterance of the prayer with our breathing. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God”—as we inhale, “Have mercy on me, a sinner”— as we exhale. And there’s a spiritual meaning to attaching the words to the rhythm of our breathing. For as we utter the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” we inhale, we inspire, we take in. As we say, “Have mercy upon me, a sinner,” we exhale, we get rid of the waste, we get rid of the toxins, we get rid of the poisons.” And there’s the taking in of Jesus and the letting go, the release, of those things which separate us from him. We’re breathing in the Spirit and breathing out the passions.

5. Pray it with eyes closed to avoid outside stimuli and distraction, but do not attempt to conjure up any images or any feelings. In fact, almost universally, the Fathers of the Church warn us to be suspicious of any images that are conjured up in the mind while we’re praying, and to reject them rather than to cultivate them. They warn us that any image we conjure up in our prayer can be an idol.

6. Concentrate on your inner being, the place of your heart. The concept of the heart we find in most of the writings associated with this prayer as a reflection of the biblical perspective that the heart is the seat of the functions of the spirit. It’s that deepest part of our humanity. It’s that part of our humanity that was created in the image of God. It is that inner temple where God wishes to reside. For the kingdom of God is within you.

St. Theophan the Recluse says, “You must descend from your head into your heart.” In the beginning, your thoughts are in your head, and when they are in your head, they whirl around like snowflakes in winter and mosquitoes in the summer. So when we pray the prayer, we concentrate on our inner being and ask the Spirit to reveal to us that innermost, secret chamber of our heart that communes with him. And if you ask the Holy Spirit to open up that place to you, he will.

7. (If I can reach in here and find it…) A prayer rope is a great aid in maintaining the focus of the prayer, for it involves an additional sense, the sense of touch, as we pray the prayer. And it also, from a practical standpoint, when we pray the prayer formally, relieves us of a need to maintain a count. “Oh no, I lost count; I’ve got to start all over again.” When it comes to the prayer rope—and, again, there are many prayer ropes, but I prefer the simple, black, woolen rope, because it’s full of symbol. Black is the color of mourning and sorrow, to keep me serious and sober-minded.

Wool reminds me of the Good Shepherd—our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. There is a line in the preparation service where I’m preparing—the priest is preparing—the Lamb for the Eucharist. There is a line as one side of that Lamb is cut that says, “As a sheep is silent before his shearer, so he did not open his mouth.” And the wool… as I touch the wool, I am reminded of my Shepherd. The cross at the end of the rope—this is a little one, so you can’t see—speaks of victory, of life over death, of humility over pride, of light over darkness. And the tassel at the end is to wipe away tears: the tears of contrition, or as some Fathers say, if we have no tears, we should weep that we have no tears. So I like the little woolen one.

As an aside, a prayer rope is not jewelry. A prayer rope is not adornment. And, frankly, I don’t think it should be worn in such a way as to be seen and displayed. When using it publicly, it should be used discreetly, and you don’t need a 300-knot prayer rope dragging behind you as you walk down the aisle of the church. We must guard at all times the constant intrusion and potential for pride in our spiritual life, and the prayer rope can provide an opening to that pride if we’re not careful. And if the Jesus prayer is the pearl of great price, the keys to the kingdom, and this prayer rope is our physical way of entering into that, then we need to treasure it, to keep it discreet, and not allow ourselves to be tempted to be… to hope that somebody sees it and asks us about it.

Now, I will say, as an aside, the prayer rope worn and displayed a certain way is part of the monastic habit in tradition, so what I’m saying about me has nothing to do with monastics.

[8.] When praying the prayer, if we are distracted by wandering thoughts, don’t try to fight them off. Just continue the prayer. Let the prayer do the cleansing work. Don’t stop praying to turn your attention to the distraction. Probably half of you in this room, during private conversations, we’ve played the game where I’ve said to you, “Whatever you do, do not think of a pineapple,” and when you think of that pineapple, it captivates you and has your attention. And the Fathers of the Church tell us when random thoughts come in, when a train of inappropriate thoughts come in during prayer, rather than standing there and trying to block the train, that we continue to pray, and that the prayers will dissipate and derail the train.

9. When you pray the Jesus prayer, do not seek to conjure up a feeling or to analyze how the prayer is making you feel or the lack thereof. If it feels pointless, do it anyway. If it makes you feel stupid, be stupid. If your mind wanders 99 times, come back 100 times. Let the prayer do its work.

10. In addition to the formal times of praying the Jesus prayer, strive to intersperse the prayer into what I call the little crevices in our day, those moments between activities, those moments between concentrated thought. Practice letting the prayer fill those little gaps. You’re at a stop light, or you’re walking between one place and another. I don’t know about you, but those little gaps in my thinking, that’s where I get into trouble, because when there’s a hole, in my mind all kinds of things try to crawl into that hole. So train yourself and concentrate throughout the day and the evening, in those little moments, in between things, in the cracks and the crevices of our day, that we pray the prayer. And practice letting the prayer fill those gaps of thought and activity.

As the prayer grows within us, we should not see it as a replacement for our structured prayer life. Morning and evening prayers do not lose their importance; they take even more significance. They provide the means for the other functions of prayer: praise, thanksgiving, petition, worship. They remind us that everything is by God’s grace, and even our progress in the Jesus prayer is a gift of God’s grace and not the result of our own efforts. If we’re diligent in this effort, then we will discover that the prayer will take on a life of its own. It will be on your heart and your mind when you awake; it will be on your heart and mind as you start to fall asleep. It will be that murmuring brook behind all the activities of the day.

What is the greatest hindrance? What leads to our failure to acquire the Jesus prayer? I believe it’s simply a lack of persistence. We demand instant gratification. We expect immediate results, and if a method or a philosophy does not produce immediate results, we cast it aside as invalid. As we pray the Jesus prayer, we cannot rush it, because we have to allow ourselves to be purified. You cannot rush it. How long did it take you to become 30 years old? It took you 30 years; you couldn’t rush it. It happened when it happened. And the prayer of the heart comes when it comes.

The monastic Fathers speak at great length about acquiring dispassion, dispassion through asceticism, and they’re not speaking about coming to a place in our spiritual development in which we have no feelings whatsoever, or no emotions whatsoever. Life in Christ brings joy! It brings happiness; it brings consolation. The Fathers are not speaking of no emotion; they’re speaking of mastery over emotion. And one of the greatest lies we are taught in our culture, from our birth, is that our emotions—how we feel—is the greatest validator of something’s value. Something or someone’s desirability, or lack of desirability, is determined by how it makes us feel.

And overcoming this lie is what purification is all about. Purification is about no longer being enslaved to our feelings, so that we can see things as they truly are. To be freed from enslavement to our feelings and see things as they truly are—that is illumination. And to live in the true joy and happiness and consolation of God’s grace, and not the blind spot of emotion, is deification. And in all of our ascetical practices—in renunciation, in repentance, in obedience, in Scripture-reading, in the Jesus prayer—the flesh and the devil and the world are going to attempt to drag us back to the repetition of this lie: “Do this because it makes you feel good, and don’t do this because it makes you feel bad. Or there’s no point in continuing, because you don’t feel anything at all.”

But the witness of the Church attested to, time and time and time again, brothers and sisters, is that if we are diligent, if we call upon our God, then slowly but surely we are freed from our captivity, and we shall know the truth, and the truth will set us free, and we will experience the peace that passes all understanding, the peace that comes from an unmovable God, not a fleeting emotion. If we continue to knock, the door will be opened. If we continue to seek, we will find.

And the Jesus prayer is a great gift from God in his Church that is a door, it is a path, and we must knock and we must seek. And the only thing that will hinder this prayer from doing a great work in your life is your refusal to do it.

Before closing, I want to share a few reflections on the Jesus prayer from the elders of the Optina Monastery. The Optina Monastery was the epicenter of Orthodox spirituality in pre-Revolution Russia, and, thanks be to God, it’s coming alive again today, after the fall of Communism. But a few quotes from the Fathers of Optina, or at least two of them.

In order to always have the memory of God, there is the Jesus prayer. —St. Barsanuphius

With all your might, strive to retain the prayer of Jesus. It is all of our life, all beauty, all consolation. That it is difficult in the beginning is known to everyone, but after that, it’s priceless, joyous, all-loving. —St. Anatoly

Hold onto the Jesus prayer with all your strength, and when you grow weak, have the remembrance of God. And do not grieve that your prayer is [not] unceasing—it’s too early for you!—but thank God for what there is. —St. Anatoly

One should not pay attention to tempting thoughts, but should drive them far away from himself and not be disturbed, continuing the prayer. And though the fruit of this labor is imperceptible, though a person may not experience spiritual delight or tenderness, still it remains active, and it quietly completes its work. —St. Barsanuphius

Pray the Jesus prayer according to your strength. Do it with humility, and you’ll get used to it. And you’ll love the prayer, so that they can’t take it away from you, even by force. —St. Anatoly

The Jesus prayer is the most essential weapon in the work of our salvation, but he who takes hold of it must expect temptation and be prepared for an inner battle, a battle with thoughts. The demons do not like the Jesus prayer, and in every way they try to take vengeance on the person who strikes them with this sword. —St. Barsanuphius

And then one final quote from St. Barsanuphius. It’s about prayer in general; it applies to the Jesus prayer and prayer in general. He says:

Do not look for delight in prayer. Do not become despondent when you feel no joy. Sometimes you stand and stand and stand in church, and it seems to you that you don’t even have a heart within you: it’s a piece of wood, rough and coarse.

And what does this humble saint say to that? He says:

So what? For the piece of wood, say, “Thank you, Lord.” It means that what you’re experiencing is how it should be. By experiencing sweet delight, a soul can become puffed up. By such a disposition of stony insensibility, it can be humbled.

When you become frustrated in the Liturgy and you find your mind being distracted, rather than getting frustrated about, have you ever have the perspective, “This is as it should be”? Thank God that I’m not paying attention—because it reminds me that I need to pay attention! Thank God for the wood!

So far in our talks about purification, again, renunciation of the world is a thing in and of itself, having a repentant heart, having a spirit of obedience, reading Scriptures, praying the Jesus prayer—all of these things have had a personal orientation, but our purification goes beyond the personal, and there is a communal aspect to our purification, and a communal aspect to our life in Christ. We are not a Church of one, and we are not purified in isolation. So beginning next week, we will look at the liturgical life and the sacramental life as means of purification.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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