Errors in practising the Jesus prayer

Excerpt from A night in the desert of the Holy Mountain by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos.

Discussion with the Gerondas on the Jesus Prayer
7. Errors in practising the Jesus prayer and how we cope with them

– You are asking too much. Nobody can become a scientist of the Jesus prayer unless he struggles personally, unless he himself starts this work. Whatever the others would say is simply an introduction, to give him a good spiritual appetite. However, in order to complete my thoughts about the Jesus prayer, I must, perhaps, say a few things about the dangers and the errors that may arise along the way.

–Indeed, I said. You said something before, that the monks avoid the direct descent of the nous into the heart by the use of various means, in order to avoid dangers. What are these dangers and errors?

– The error starts with the thought that we must acquire grace in a short period of time. There are many people who are practising the sacred work of the Jesus prayer and want to enter into the vision of Light in a short while. And they lose heart and get disappointed because this cannot happen immediately and to all. The athlete must accept that he must struggle many years. God does not force our will, because we are persons and have free will nor should we force God's freedom, because He is a Person, too. We should let Him come, whenever He thinks, whenever He wants.

He stopped for a while.

– Another error is to give great significance to psychotechnic methods. These methods (breathing in and out, beating of the heart) are simply helpful means so that we can concentrate our nous and free it from elements alien to its nature. These methods do not have a magical power, but they are useful to us in avoiding the distraction of the nous. When the nous is focused and maintained within itself easily, then all auxiliary means are unnecessary.

–Are there other errors as well?

–There are, indeed. When we move quickly during the course of prayer. We mentioned a little while ago that there are various stages of development in the practice of the Jesus prayer and we summed them up into five. The first stage is to recite the Jesus prayer with the lips. The second is to keep the remembrance of Jesus in the mind and it will descend by itself into the heart. Some people, however, skipping the first stage, start from the second and do not succeed in accomplishing very much. Others go straight from the first stage to the third and develop it mainly by breathing. This is dangerous, because, as I said before, the physical heart may suffer and this can cause the Jesus prayer to cease. There is no illness of course, but, nevertheless, it is possible that this sacred work may stop.

On the subject of tears, he went on, there are also certain problems.

– What do you mean?

– We said earlier that when the Jesus prayer stays in the nous the eyes shed abundant tears. However, this is not always indispensible. Prayer can go well even if there are no tears. So, we should not get disappointed in the absence of tears, because they will come when God allows it. And even if we are flooded by them, we should not pay attention to them, neither should we describe these states to others. The ascetic experience says that when we talk about these states, then they cease immediately, and it takes a long time for them to return. Needless to say, although we know the stages of noetic prayer, we should avoid thinking about which stage we are in. We must proceed in humility. Besides, I think I told you a short while ago, feeling pride in and during prayer is stupidity. It really is stupidity. Man is like a beggar who asks for a piece of bread and then he feels proud because he has obtained it. And this is stupidity and a sin!

– I can see that humility plays an important part here.

–Yes, it does –in all stages. St. Basil the Great says that humility is the treasury of all virtues. It conceals all virtues and finally it conceals itself. In general, we must diligently avoid pride in the spiritual life, especially when it comes as vainglory. And you know, of course, that vainglory appears in every virtue; when we talk, when we keep silent, when we fast, when we keep vigil and even when we say the Jesus prayer, in hesychia and in forbearance. The Fathers say that vainglory is like a traitor who secretly opens the gates of the city so that the enemy can enter. In such a case, no matter how strong the city is and how good its defences are, it is captured by the enemy. The same also happens in the spiritual life. No matter how many virtues we have and no matter how much strength we hold on to, vainglory hands us over to the devil. And the Fathers recommend that one must never undertake a work which will possibly lead him to vainglory.

–I did not understand this. Can you explain it further?

–Let me come to the subject of prayer. The faithful must not overdo it, as far as prayer is concerned, because it is certain, then, that he is being allured by the devil. In such a case, whatever, he might do –even things beyond his strength– is achieved by the power of the devil. So, dragged by the devil, he is later abandoned by him at some time, then pushed backwards, and impelled to fall very low. He is actually destroyed.

–And how can one avoid this most heavy fall?

–The saving path is mourning and obedience. Prayer is very closely connected with mourning. When the devil sees somebody living in mourning, he does not remain there but flees, because he is afraid of the humility which is engendered by mourning. St. Gregory of Sinai tells us that the best defence for the athlete of prayer is to be in a state of mourning, so that the joy which comes in prayer may not lead him into pride, for the bright sadness keeps his soul unharmed. Mourning and the awareness of our sinfulness are indispensable in the course of pure prayer. The athlete “should keep his nous in hell and despair not”. Moreover, the awareness of our sinfulness, of our nothingness, and the hope in the Merciful Jesus are characteristic of Orthodoxy and of all of our hymns. It should be stressed, though, that not all can live in deep mourning because great strength and an earlier taste of divine grace are needed so that they are not shaken. However, as far as it is possible, we should all live this blessed mourning. Indiscriminate obedience to a Gerondas is also necessary. Everything, even the smallest things, should be done with his blessing and his wise guidance; even in the case of the uncreated Light.

– What does obedience to a Gerondas have to do with the vision of the uncreated Light? I asked astonished at what I had heard.

–When man walks alone, without the indispensable blessing, then he is pursued by the devil, as we said before. He experiences within himself the dissatisfied desire to see the uncreated Light. He believes that this is perfection and he wants to reach there quickly.

– Is this not right? I interrupted him.

–No, it is not. St. Diadochos recommends that the ascetic should not practise his ascetic life with the hope of seeing the uncreated Light, “so that the devil will not find his soul ready on that account to be carried off”. One should start the work of the Jesus prayer with love towards God and obedience to His holy Will. For, it is possible for the devil –who can disguise himself as an “angel of light” (2 Cor. 11 . 14)– to take the form of an angel who will serve him. And, then, the poor man thinks that he has reached the height of perfection, since he lives with angels, without being aware that he is conversing with devils. It is also a temptation when the ascetic while praying accepts thoughts from the demons that he will soon see the uncreated Light. Much care is needed in this delicate and dangerous situation. He must stop praying and reprimand himself severely: “How dare you, so wretched and vile, desire to see the uncreated Light”. The greatest danger is to think oneself worthy of seeing the uncreated Light! He can even say: “Alas! the demons, my murderers are coming to destroy my soul!” Then, immediately, the enemy disappears. Many times the devil, in order to satisfy the ambition of the monk and captivate him even more, brings even light into his cell. It is not the uncreated Light, but the created one, that of the devil.

–And how can it be distinguished?

–There are many ways which help the monk to distinguish the two lights. The criteria are as follows: Firstly, if he has reached the vision of the uncreated Light through obedience. The path of perfect and indiscriminate obedience is the guarantee that the vision of Light is genuine. The ascetic must confide all matters concerning “vision” to a discerning, holy and dispassioned Gerondas and ask him about them. The thought that he should not ask his guide is from the devil who aims at keeping him in darkness, error and slavery.

Secondly, the Lord said about the false prophets: “you will know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7. 16). The same holds true in this case, too. A clear distinction between the uncreated and created light is made by their fruits. The uncreated Light brings into the soul, calm, peace, humility and awareness of our wretchedness. When Abraham talked to God, he called himself dust and ashes: “Behold, I have taken upon myself to speak to the Lord, I, who am but dust and ashes” (Gen. 18. 27). The same happened with Job: “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42. 5). And Prophet Isaiah, when he saw the glory of God, exclaimed: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Is. 6. 5). On the contrary, the vision of the light of the devil engenders pride, vainglory, the thought that we have acquired perfection. St. Gregory of Sinai says: “Know, then, that the energies of grace are obvious and the demon, even if he disguises himself, cannot administer them; he cannot give meekness, nor forbearance, nor humility nor hatred for the world, neither can he extinguish pleasures and passions –this is the work of grace; his activity is pride, haughtiness, cowardice, and every kind of evil”. Apart from pride, the vision of the light of the devil creates disturbance. The energy of the Holy Spirit bestows peace, boldness and calmness to both body and soul, whereas the activity of the devil gives vent to fear and disturbance. St. Isaac says that every disturbance is a plague of the devil, because one transmits to others what he has in his nature. The Holy Spirit is by nature a spirit of peace and it transmits peace, whereas the devil is by nature a spirit of disturbance and fear and transmits disturbance and fear.

Thirdly, the soul does not accept the light of the devil immediately, but it is reluctant at the beginning. The vision of the uncreated Light conveys certainty and acceptance at once. The uncreated Light comes unexpectedly and you do not doubt whether it is genuine or not.

Fourthly, even in colour there is also a difference between the two lights. The disciples witnessed on Mount Tabor, during the Transfiguration of Christ, that “his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light” (Matt. 17. 2). On the contrary, the colour of the devil's light is reddish, according to the testimony of many Saints, who realised the difference.

Fifthly, there is also a difference in shape between the two lights. Those who behold the uncreated Light “see no shape or form or image, but light without any form” (Symeon the New Theologian). And if it should take any form, it would look like the disc of the sun. God appears like the “sun or like the disc of the sun, presenting Himself in the shape of a sphere, radiant, like a flame”, without any shape and form. The reverse happens with the vision of the created light of the devil. St. Gregory Palamas gives the following example. He writes that once Akindinos went to Mt. Athos. He stayed there for a few days and told St. Gregory that while he was trying to pray, he saw a light which was split, and a human face could be seen within it. The Saint asserted that the light was from the devil, because it had a shape. “And I declared to him that it was a terrible deceit and mockery and game of the devil, or rather a cunning trap”.

The Fathers suggest, the experienced ascetic went on, that we should not immediately accept every incident that occurs during our prayer. “Consider something as good after great testing”. We must ask the Gerondas about all of these matters and only after an intense and long struggle, according to the grace we acquire, are we able to distinguish error from truth. Vinegar and wine are the same in appearance, but they differ in taste. Similarly as years pass, the athlete of prayer acquires the ability to discern the difference. The Gerondas was speaking unremittingly. His head was bent toward the ground. I was listening to him, literally charmed. I did not want to interrupt his Orthodox thoughts, which expressed the teachings of the Fathers. Peace and calmness filled my heart while he was speaking, and that was a sign that his teaching was true and sound.

– All of these factors I have just mentioned to you are clearly shown in a conversation that St. Symeon the New Theologian cites. You can see there that God appears as Light which brings sweetness. The disciple asks the discerning spiritual father, who has already seen God, and is assured that what he saw was God.

He took the book and started reading:

“God is light, His vision is light
When He reveals Himself, It is a light.
The beholder marvels knowing not Who hast appeared,
daring not to ask the question “Who art thou?”
Daring not to lift the eyes to see His greatness,
except in fear, in trembling, prostrate before Him,
knowing only that someone has come, someone has appeared.
If there is a person who has already spoken of these things,
a person who has already seen God, to him, it can be said:
“I have seen”.
“What have you seen, child?”
“A light, Father, sweet, so sweet, to say what it was, is beyond me”,
even as he speaks his heart is dancing on fire with love
for Him Whom he saw. He says, weeping-
the light, this light has come to me, father; my cell was engulfed
the world fled away before His face:
only I by myself and the light. Was I in the body, or out: I do not know.
The joy which I had is with me still, unspeakable,
except in tears which flow unceasingly as you see.
He replied “It is He, my child”.
At these words, He came again and gradually,
little by little, purified, encouraged, I could ask
“my God, Thou art here?" “Yes, I am here, “Your God, Who
“became man for you “and now, “you share my divinity,
“I make you god”. When you devote yourself to tears, to contrition,
to prostration, to humility, He brings you little by little
to knowledge of God”.

The novice appeared then, whom I had begun to feel jealous of, because he had found such a wise and experienced guide and asked his Gerondas.

– You told me to water one of the trees. I have done it. Shall I water the other one, now?

– Yes, water it.

And, turning to me, he said:

–This is the obedience which I was speaking of before, and he who practises it and asks his instructor about everything, makes spiritual progress. He achieves many things through obedience. Firstly, he does not let his imagination work out solutions, as many monks do. In this way, he purifies his mind, not only of the complex but also of the simple thoughts; and thus he concentrates more on the Jesus prayer. Secondly, he gets used to asking. Asking one's own spiritual father is salvation. Where obedience exists, there, too, exists humility, which is the foundation of obedience.So the spirit of pride, the devil, can not penetrate and create stressful situations. In general, obedience is absolutely necessary in the course of this holy work. We must not proceed without a guide. The Gerondas shows us the way, regulates the program of our spiritual life, orders us to stop a task and tells us whether we are proceeding well and in the sight of God. The person of Gerondas stands for God Himself. He is “in the place of Christ”. The Gerondas is for the monks whom he has under his care, what the bishop is for his diocese and the abbot for his holy monastery.

–Does asceticism give such a great importance to the existence of the Gerondas?

–Yes, indeed, it does. No one can go on without a Gerondas nor can he live within pure Orthodox tradition. As physical life is imparted from generation to generation in the same way too is spiritual life imparted. The Gerondas, being the possessor and bearer of this tradition, imparts it to his spiritual child and gives birth to him in Christ. The Gerondas imparts the tradition to him who wants to obtain it. The meaning of obedience concerning salvation rests on this point. I am obedient, not so that I will disappear, but in order to mortify my bad self and get rid of my own will and accept tradition; in order that Christ be formed within me. I am obedient so that I may be born. Obedience is also necessary because the danger of error lurks. That is why Abba Dorotheos writes: “No one is more wretched, no one is more vulnerable than he who walks the path of God without anyone to guide him”. The same Father, interpreting the passage from the Proverbs: “where there is no guidance, a people falls like leaves” (Prov. 11 . 14), says that the leaf is in the beginning green and fresh but then it fades and falls. It is despised and stepped upon. The same happens to the man who does not have a spiritual father. He soon withers and succumbs to his enemy. “In the beginning he is full of fervour concerning fasting, vigil, practising hesychia, obedience, and other virtues; then his fervour fades away and, because he does not have a spiritual father who sustains, increases and excites this fervour, he withers away and falls and is subject to his enemies, who do whatever they want to him”.

I will give you an example so that you understand why the existence of a Gerondas is necessary for us to avoid mistakes. I met a monk who, while praying, felt a strong pain in his heart. He told it immediately to his Gerondas. The Gerondas was worried and, being himself experienced, asked him where in his heart he felt the pain. When the monk answered that his heart hurt on the outer lower part, he ordered: “You must stop saying the Jesus prayer immediately; you will not say it for a week, for you should have felt pain on the upper in side part of the heart. Since the passions act on the lower part, the devil is surely preparing something against you”. Thus, the monk was delivered from the deceit of the devil which had already begun to take action. The Fathers teach from their experience: “If you see a young man ascending to heaven by his own will snatch him by the leg and pull him down because it won't be beneficial to him”.

I considered that disciple blessed because he was humble and his spiritual father was holy. And I remembered a poem by Theodore the Studite:

To the Disciple.

“Come young athlete of God, keep close to me, keep full of zeal, bend low your neck in complete obedience, humble yourself, dead to your own will, telling all the thoughts of heart and mind you are already in the arena, have no fear of desert, have no fear of the pillar, nor of any other order in the race that is before us, the race to know God you are the first according to Holy Scripture; you follow the path of the first martyrs”.

– Blessed are the monks, athletes of the spiritual life. Blessed are the birds which sing and enjoy the dewy spring time of God. We cannot live these ecstasies. We breath the fumes of our impurities. We eat the dust of the earth, from which we are made.

–Yet, you too can enjoy the beams of divine glory, shedding of divine light. If you want to become true theologians you must pray because only then the Most Holy Spirit is present and acts. “If you are a theologian you pray truly and if you pray truly you are a theologian”. I will tell you something to help you to understand this. It is possible after committing a sin (primarily a carnal one) that a person can write theological treatises and be engaged in the analysis of the works of the Fathers, but, since he has lost grace by committing the sin, he cannot pray. Prayer ceases but work does not. Thus, a true theologian is he who lives in prayer. Therefore, you too can receive, the joyful heart–beat of divine illumination...