On the Jesus Prayer by St. Ignatius Brianchaninov

Excerpts on the Jesus Prayer from The Arena: An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism, by Bishop Ignatius (Brianchaninov)

Chapter 23


Strictly speaking by prayer the holy Fathers mean the Jesus Prayer which is said thus: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. St. John of the Ladder says of silent contemplatives1 that 'some of them sing and spend most of their time in it, while others persevere in prayer.'2 By the term singing we must understand here the prayerful reading of the psalms (there were not at that time the other forms of prayer that are used now), and by the term prayer the Jesus Prayer. The folllowing words of the same Saint have an identical meaning: 'Devote the greater part of the night to prayer and only what is left to reading the psalter.'3 That is how the meaning of the words prayer and psalmody is explained in St. John Climacus' work, 'The Ladder,' and later by the great ascetics and guides of monasticism, St. Symeon the New Theo­logian and St. Gregory the Sinaite.

The Jesus Prayer is divided into two forms: vocal and mental. The ascetic passes from vocal to mental prayer auto­matically on this condition : when vocal prayer is attentive. At first the Jesus Prayer should be practised vocally. The Jesus Prayer is performed standing; but in the event of weakness or exhaustion it may be performed sitting, or even lying down. The essential properties of this prayer should be : attention, the enclosure of the mind in the words of the prayer, extreme un­hurriedness in pronouncing it, and contrition of spirit. Although these conditions are necessary for all prayer, they are more easily observed and more needed in the practice of the Jesus Prayer. In psalmody the diversity of thought in which prayer is clothed involuntarily attracts the attention of the mind and causes it some diversion. But in the case of the Jesus Prayer, the mind is concentrated on a single thought : the thought of the sinner's forgiveness by Jesus. Outwardly this activity is the most dry, but in practice it proves to be the most fruitful of all the soul's activities. Its power and value derive from the all-powerful. all-holy name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Prophesying about the God-Man, the Prophet foretold: Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.4 The holy Apostle Paul repeats the Prophet's words.5 If you confess the Word in your mouth, he says, the Lord Jesus, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.6 The holy Apostle Peter, after healing a man who had been lame from his birth by the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, bore witness before the Jewish Sanhedrin in the following words : Rulers of the people and elders of Israel! If we (the holy Apostles Peter and John) are being cross-examined today fora kindness done to a helpless man, and are questioned how he has been saved and healed, be it known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, Whom you crucified, Whom God raised from the dead, in Him this man is standing here before you well and strong. For there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we can be saved.7

The use of the all-holy, divine name Jesus in prayer, and prayer in His name, was 'appointed by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. We can be convinced of this from the most sublime and profound conversation recorded in the Gospel of St. John8 which the Lord had with the holy Apostles after the Mystical Supper, in that momentous hour which preceded the Lord's voluntary departure to the place of His betrayal and agony, for the salvation of mankind. The teaching given by the Lord in that hour has the character of a final, death-bed instruction in which He gathered and expounded before His disciples, and in their persons before the whole of Christendom, the most soul-saving and final commandments, sure and infallible pledges of eternal life.

Among other pledges and spiritual gifts, there is given and ratified the command and permission to pray by the name of Jesus. Whatever you ask the Father may be glorified in the His disciples, I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. It you ask anything in My name, I will do it.9 Truly, truly I tell you, you ask whatever the Father in My name, He will give you. So far you have asked for nothing in My name. Ask and you will receive, that your joy may overflow.10

What is it that will be given to a person who prays in the name of the Lord Jesus that can fill him to overflowing with joy? He will be given—we reply in the words of our Lord—the Holy Spirit Whom the Father will send in My name.11 This experimental knowledge belongs to the holy Fathers, and is their tradition. 12


If you live in a monastery where the evening rule is performed with bows in church, then on returning to your cell engage at once in the prayer of Jesus. If you live in a monastery where the evening rule is performed in church but without bows, then on returning to your cell first perform the rule with bows and after that get busy with the prayer of Jesus. If you belong to a monastery where there is no common evening rule but it is left to each one individually to perform it in his cell, first perform the rule with bows, then engage in prayer or psalmody and finally the Jesus prayer.

At first set yourself to say a hundred Jesus prayers unhurriedly and with attention. Later, if you see that you can say more, add another hundred. In course of time, if need be, you can still further increase the number of prayers said. To say a hundred prayers attentively and unhurriedly, thirty minutes or about half an hour is needed; but some ascetics require even longer. Do not gay the prayers hurriedly, one immediately after another. Make a short pause after each prayer, and so help the mind to concentrate. Saying the prayer without pauses distracts the mind'. Breathe with care, gently and slowly; this precaution prevents distraction. When you have finished praying the Jesus prayer do not give yourself up to different considerations and dreams, always empty, seductive and deceptive; but according to the guidance received in the work of prayer, pass the time till sleep. On going to sleep, repeat the prayer; fall asleep with it.

So train yourself that on waking from sleep your first thought, your first word and action is the Jesus prayer. Say it a few times, get out of bed, and hurry to matins. During matins, whenever possible, engage in the Jesus prayer. If you have some free time between matins and the liturgy, engage in the Jesus prayer. Do exactly the same after dinner as well. The Fathers advise us after dinner to occupy ourselves with the remembrance of death. That is perfectly correct, but actually the living prayer of Jesus is inseparable from a living remembrance Of death.' A living remembrance of death is linked with living prayer to the Lord Jesus Who abolished death and gave men life eternal by His temporary subjection to death.

During the church services it is useful to practise the Jesus prayer. It prevents distraction and helps the mind to attend to the church singing and reading. Try to train yourself to the Jesus prayer to such an extent that it becomes your unceasing prayer, for which it is very convenient on account of its brevity and -for which long prayers are unsuitable. The Fathers have said: 'A monk, whether he is eating or drinking, whether he is in his cell or engaged on an obedience, whether he is travelling or doing anything else, must unceasingly cry Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.'


Unceasing prayer was enjoined by God Himself. The Saviour of the world said: Ask and you will be given; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.1 Will not God give judgment for His chosen, who cry to Him day and night, while He waits for them patiently? I tell you, He will give them prompt judgment.2

The Apostle repeats the Lord's teaching and says : Pray without ceasing.3 I desire therefore that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands, free from anger andreasoning.4 By the term men the Apostle means Christians who have attained to Christian perfection. Only mature or perfect Christians can pray without anger and reasoning, that is, in profound peace, with the purest love for one's neighbour and without the least resentment or criticism of him, without the distraction of irrelevant thoughts and imaginations (without reasoning). Such people can at all times and in all places offer prayer to God, raising and lifting up to Him holy hands the mind and heart being purified of the passions and sanctified by the Spirit.

It is obvious that unceasing prayer cannot be the possession of a novice; but in order to become eventually capable of unceasing prayer he must practise frequent prayer. Frequent prayer in due time passes automatically into unceasing prayer. As the easiest way of practising unceasing prayer is to pray the Jesus Prayer, a beginner should apply himself to the Jesus Prayer as often as possible. Do you happen to have a moment free? Do not waste it in idleness! Do not waste it by using it for some impracticable and fatuous castle-building, or for some vain and trivial employment! Use it for the practice of the Jesus. Prayer.

If from weakness or, more correctly, on account of your fallen nature, you happen to be distracted by alluring thoughts and fancies, do not get despondent and do not grow slack. Repent before God of your levity and frivolity, confess your fallen nature and your distraction, fall down mentally before His mercy, and take precautionary measures against seductive dreams and seductive thoughts.

He who does not train himself to frequent prayer will never receive unceasing prayer. Unceasing prayer is a gift of God, given by God to a slave and servant of His of proved fidelity. `It is impossible to draw near to God otherwise than by unceasing prayer.'5 Unceasing prayer is a sign of God's mercy towards a man; it is a sign that all the powers of his soul are bent on God

Have mercy on me, O Lord,
for all day long I cry to Thee.
Rejoice the soul of Thy slave,
for to Thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul.6


He who wishes to avoid all error in practising the Jesus Prayer should test himself and his exercises by frequently reading the following writings of the Fathers: (1) The Article on Sobriety1 by St. Hesychius of Jerusalem; (2) The Chapters on Sobriety1 by St. Philotheus of Sinai; (3) The Discourses on Secret Activity in Christ by St. Theoleptus, Metropolitan of Philadelphia; (4) The Works of St. Symeon the New Theologian and St. Gregory of Sinai; (5) The Articles of St. Nicephorus and the Writings of Saints Kallistus and Ignatius Xanthopoulos; (6) The Traditions of St. Nile Sorsky; (7) St. Dorotheus' Symposium, etc.

The reader will find in the Philokalia in St. Symeon the New Theologian's article 'On the Three Ways of Prayer,' in St. Nicephorus' article, and in the writings of SS. Kallistus and Ignatius Xanthopoulos, instruction on the art of leading the mind into the heart with the help of natural breathing, or in other words a mechanism or technique which assists the acquisition of mental prayer. This teaching of the Fathers has caused and continues to cause difficulty to many readers, though there is really no difficulty in it. We advise beloved brethren not to try to discover this mechanism within them, if it does not reveal itself of its own accord. Many wishing to learn it by experience have damaged their lungs and gained nothing. The essence of the matter consists in the union of the mind with the heart during prayer, and this is achieved by the grace of God in its own time, determined by God. The above mechanism is fully replaced by the unhurried enunciation of the prayer, by a short rest or pause after each prayer, by gentle and unhurried breathing, and by the enclosure of the mind in the words of the prayer. By' means of these aids we can easily attain to a certain degree of attention. The attention of the mind at prayer very soon begins to attract the sympathy of the heart. Sympathy of the heart and mind little by little begins to pass into a union of the mind with the heart, and then the mechanism offered by the Fathers appears of its own accord. All the mechanical means having a material character are offered by the Fathers solely as aids to the attainment of attention in prayer as easily and quickly as possible, and not as something essential.

The essential, indispensable property of prayer is attention. Without attention there is no prayer. True grace-given attention.2 comes from the mortification of our heart to the world. Aids always remain merely aids. The same holy Fathers who suggest that we should lead the mind into the heart with the breathing say that when the mind has acquired the habit of uniting with the heart (or, more correctly, when it has obtained this union by the gift and action of grace), it does not need the help of a mechanism for this union, but simply of its own accord and by its own proper movement it unites with the heart. And it must be so. The separation of the mind from the heart, and their opposition to one another, have resulted from our fall into sin. It is natural for divine grace, when it stretches out its finger to heal a man, crushed and broken to pieces by his fall, to join together his severed parts and to unite the mind not only with the heart and soul but even with the body, and to give it a single, true ardour3 for God.

With the union of the mind and heart the ascetic receives the power to resist all passionate thoughts and passionate feelings. Can this be the result of any technique? No! It is the result of grace; it is a fruit of the Holy Spirit Who overshadows the unseen labour of the Christian ascetic; and it is incomprehensible to carnal and natural men.

In reading the Fathers about the place of the heart which the mind discovers by prayer, we are to understand the spiritual power of 4 the heart placed by the Creator in the upper part of the heart. It is this power which distinguishes the human heart from the hearts of animals, which have the power of the will or desire and power of jealousy or anger equally with human beings. The power of spirituality is expressed in the conscience, or in the consciousness of our spirit (it is quite independent of knowledge),5 in the fear of God, in spiritual love for God and our neighbour, in a feeling of penitence, humility, meekness, in contrition of spirit or deep sorrow for sin, and in other spiritual emotions unknown to animals. The power of the soul is the mind, and although it is spiritual, yet it has its seat in the brain. So too, the power of spirituality, or the spirit of man, though spiritual, has its seat in the upper part of the heart which is under the left nipple of the breast, near the nipple and slightly above it.

The union of the mind with the heart is the union of the spiritual thoughts of the mind with the spiritual feelings of the heart. Since man has fallen, since his thoughts and feelings have been changed from spiritual into carnal and earthly thoughts and feelings, it is necessary by means of the commandments of the Gospel to lift up the mind and spirit to spiritual thoughts and feelings. When mind and spirit are healed, then they are united in the Lord. In that section of the heart where the power of spirituality or the spirit resides, there will gradually come to be formed the wonderful, spiritual temple of God, the Holy of Holies not made with human hands. Thither the mind, ordained a priest or high-priest by the Holy Spirit, descends for the worship of God in the Spirit and in Truth.6 Then the Christian knows by blessed experience what is said in Holy Scripture: You are the temple of the living God. As God has said, I will dwell in them and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they will be My people.7

Below the power of spirituality, in the centre of the heart, is located the power of jealousy; below it, in the lower part of the heart, is located the power of desire and will. In animals these two powers act very crudely, since they are not in the least connected with spirituality; in people they act according to the extent and manner in which their spirit is developed. But they can act rightly and be in complete subjection to the spirit or spiritual power only in a true Christian who has banished not only the obviously sinful but even all natural thoughts and feelings before the knowledge8 of Christ—the Gospel.

Mind and heart cannot be united otherwise than by the mediation of the Spirit and Truth. This means that the mind and heart cannot be united unless we completely renounce our fallen nature, unless we surrender ourselves entirely to the guidance of the Gospel, unless we attract the grace of the Holy Spirit to heal us by constant and increased9 obedience to the Gospel commandments, unless we are healed and restored to life by the touch of grace, by the overshadowing of the Spirit.

Not only does every sinful emotion and every sinful thought disrupt this union; even all natural thoughts and feelings, however subtle and disguised by an appearance of righteousness, destroy the union of the mind with the heart,' and set them in opposition to one another. Any deviation from the spiritual direction supplied by the Gospel renders all aids and techniques useless; heart and mind will never unite.

The fulfilment of the commandments which precedes the union of the mind with the heart differs from the fulfilment of the commandments which succeeds the union. Before the union the ascetic fulfils the commandments with the greatest labour and difficulty, forcing and compelling his fallen nature; after the union the spiritual power which unites the mind with the heart impels him to fulfil the commandments--makes it easy, light, sweet, delightful. I ran the way of Thy commandments, when Thou didst enlarge my heart, says the Psalmist.10

For one practising the Jesus Prayer it is extremely useful to read through the Notes (Introductions) of Schemonk Basil Polianomeroulsky to the books of Saints Gregory the Sinaite, Hesycbius of Jerusalem, Philotheus of Sinai, and Nile Sorsky.11 After reading these notes the reading of the whole Philokalia becomes much clearer and more profitable. In reading the Fathers we should also not lose sight of the fact that the standard of a tyro of their time is the standard of a very advanced person in our time. The application of the Fathers' teaching to oneself and to one's own activity must be carried out with great circumspection.


Chapter 23
1 silent contemplatives. Or, 'those who practise silence'.
2 Ladder 27: 33. (Russ. tr.)
3 Ladder 27:77.
4 Joel 2: 32.
5 Rom. 10:13.
6 Rom. 10 : 9.
7 Acts 4: 8-1 2.
8 John 13, 14, 15, 16.
9 Jn. 14: 13-14.
10 Jn. 16:23-24.
11 Jn. 14:26.
12 SS. Kallistus and Ignatius, 'Directions to Hesychasts,' ch. 12..

Chapter 24
1 Ladder 28:46.

Chapter 25
1 Mat. 7:7.
2 Lk. 18:7.
3 1 Thess. 5:17.
4 1 Tim. 2:8.
5 St. Isaac the Syrian, ch. 69 (Russ. trans.).
6 Ps. 85:3.

Chapter 26
1 Sobriety: or Vigilance (Philokalia, Vol. 2 of Russ. trans.).
2 Gal. 6:14; 2 Tim. 2:11; 2 Cor. 4:10-16; Rom. 8:13.
3 Ardour: or, devotion, aspiration, craving, yearning, longing. elan.
4 On the powers of the soul, see Saint Philotheus of Sinai in Philokalia.
5 Knowledge: See footnote 8 below.
6 cp. Jn. 4:24.
7 2 Cor. 6:16.
8 Knowledge: the word also means on occasion understanding, reason. (2 Cor. 4: 6).
9 Or: forcible, energetic, strenuous, painstaking. Lit. forced, exerted.
We must force and exert ourselves to obey. "If you love Me, you will obey My commandments' (Jn. 14:15). 'The forceful take of (Mt. 11:12).
10 Ps. 118:32.
11 Optina edition, 1847.

From The Arena: An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism, by Bishop Ignatius (Brianchaninov), translated from the Russian by Archimandrite Lazarus (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1991), pp. 78-88. This is one of the most important books for our times on the spiritual life. Do not let the title fool you. Though written primarily as an "offering to contemporary [late 19th century] monasticism," it contains much wisdom for laypeople as well. The Arena represents a portion of the works written late in his life, reflecting his extensive experience, balance, and patristic wisdom. This book cannot be too highly recommended for all serious Orthodox Christians.