The significance of 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

– Holy father, I started in a low voice, a desire has taken hold of me very strongly lately. I believe that God has planted it. I want to be purified. I can see the passions unfurling within me. I think my heart is a jungle which feeds many wild beasts the devil is its master and does whatever he wants. I want to be free from this awful state. I would like to give my soul completely to God, I would like him to illumine me. The cunning devil has devastated it long enough. So, I want to be purified but I do not know how. Can you hear me, Gerondas! I want to be purified! Show me the way! I am ready to take it and obey without question whatever you tell me.

... I had started in a low voice but ended up crying out and weeping. My last words may have been heard like thunder in the ears of the hermit. So loud were they! He kept silent for a while. He looked at me with much love; only monks have this sort of love and know how to show it. He gave me the impression that I should not be troubled about this concern, for it was blessed.

– It is obvious, he said, that the Holy Spirit exists and acts within us when we experience such a state. We begin walking the way of the theoria (vision) of God. It is the first stage of theoria. If the perfect theoria (vision) of the uncreated Light is "enraptured light" the soul, repentance and the awareness of our sinfulness is "fire consuming" the soul. Then, repentance and the desire for the purification of the soul from the passions constitutes the time of grace. Only when grace enters within us can we see our desolation how far we are from God and we fight to be united with him. We are not able to have these thoughts and these desires if the grace of God does not visit us.

He was a wise director, an experienced spiritual father indeed a man full of grace. He knows, like the best doctor, how to calm you down, to give you peace, to give you a pacifying medicine not in order to leave you contented with your selfishness but in order to deliver you from it, to cure you.

– Having clarified this point, he went on, I must also show you some methods or rather a very simple method. Do not expect me to burden you with very heavy things. The prayer of Jesus, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me" the unceasing cry to God, our Saviour purifies our soul. All our salvation rests upon the invocation of Jesus and union with him. Let us cry to him to come and He will cure us by his coming. Let us moan like a sick man and He like a doctor will come lovingly to our aid . Let us cry like the one who fell among thieves, and the good Samaritan will come to clean our wounds and guide us to the Inn, that is to the theoria (vision) of the Light which consumes all our being. When God comes into our heart, He gains victory over the devil and cleanses the impurities which the evil one has created. The victory, therefore, over the devil is the victory of Christ in us. Let us do the human part, that is to invite Christ, and He will do the divine part, He will gain victory over the devil and cut him off. So we should not want to do the divine part ourselves and expect God to do the human one. We should understand this well, we do the human part, the prayer of Jesus, and God the divine part, our salvation. The entire work of the Church is the collaboration of divine and human.

1. The significance of the Jesus Prayer

–If I have understood correctly, salvation is attained mostly through asceticism, watchfulness* and the Jesus prayer. Allow me however a question. I ask it not because I agree with it but because I hear many objections about the Jesus prayer.

They say that the "Jesus prayer" and the way it is practised is a Christian yoga and is connected with prototypes of Eastern religions. What do you have to say about this?

– It seems that those who say this are completely ignorant of the gracefilled state of our Church, since we obtain divine grace through the Jesus prayer. They have not experienced it, that is why they do not know it. Yet they should never accuse those who have experience. They blaspheme against the Holy Fathers as well. Many of the Fathers fought for the Jesus prayer, and they spoke strongly about its value. What then? Did they fall into error? Did St. Gregory Palamas fall into error? They are even ignorant of the Holy Bible. The blind men said the words: "Son of David have mercy on us", (Matt. 20. 30), which means "Jesus have mercy on us", and their sight was restored; the lepers said it and they were cured from their leprocy (Lk. 4. 27), etc. The prayer "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me", consists of two basic points: The dogmatic one –acknowledgement of the Divinity of Christ– and the suppliant one –supplication for our salvation. In other words the confession of faith in Christ is connected with the confession of our inability to be saved of our own accord. This says everything, and the whole struggle of the Christian is based on these two points: Faith in Christ and awareness of our sinfulness. The "Jesus Prayer", therefore, expresses to the utmost the effort of the faithful in a few words and summarises all the dogmatic teaching of our Orthodox Church.

We acquire this twofold knowledge through the Jesus prayer. St. Maximos points out that the passion of pride consists of two ignorances: the ignorance of the divine power and the ignorance of human weakness. And this double ignorance creates a "confused mind". Proud, therefore, is the man of ignorance, whereas, on the contrary, humble is the man of dual knowledge. The latter knows his own weakness and the power of Christ. So, we acknowledge and confess the power of Christ (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God) as well as our own weakness (have mercy on me) through the Jesus prayer. We acquire in this way the blessed state of humility. Where there is humility there also, is the grace of Christ, and this grace is the Kingdom of Heaven. Can you see then the worth of the Jesus prayer? Can you see that we can obtain the Kingdom of God by its power?

– I know, Gerondas, that a prerequisite of the Orthodox teaching is never to separate Christ from the other persons of the most Holy Trinity. For this reason we often invoke and glorify fully the Holy Trinity in all the prayers which are said aloud by the priest as well as in the meditative endings of the prayers during the Divine Liturgy: "For unto Thee are due all glory, honour and worship, unto the Father and unto the Son, and unto the Holy Spirit now and forever. . . "; "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God the Father and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all", etc. I wonder whether the "Jesus prayer", which refers only to the second Person of the most Holy Trinity, deviates from this correct teaching.

–Definitely not, and I will explain it to you further. The "prayer" is called the "Jesus prayer" but is founded on a Trinitarian basis. Moreover, Christ, "being one of the Holy Trinity" , never exists without the Father and the Holy Spirit and constitute, together with the other Persons, "a Trinity of one substance and undivided". Christology is tightly connected with Triadology. Let me come back to the matter of the "Jesus prayer". The heavenly Father ordered Joseph through the angel to call Christ, Jesus: ". . .and you shall call his name Jesus..." (Matt. 1. 21) Joseph obeying the Father, called the Son of the Virgin, Jesus. Evenmore so according to the Holy Spirit which illumined the Apostle Paul, "no one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor. 12. 3). By saying, therefore, the prayer "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me", we acknowledge the Father and are obedient to Him. Moreover we feel the energy of and the communion with the Holy Spirit. The Fathers illumined by the Holy Spirit, told us that the "Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit, makes everything". The complete Holy Trinity created the world and made man; and again the entire Holy Trinity recreated man and the world. "The Father was well pleased, the Word became flesh". And He "became flesh" by the Holy Spirit. That is to say, the incarnation of Christ was made "by the good will of the Father and the cooperation of the Holy Spirit". For this reason we say that the salvation of man and the acquisition of divine gifts are common acts of the Holy Trinity. I will mention two characteristic teachings of the Holy Fathers.

Saint Symeon the New Theologian writes that the Son and Word of God is the door of salvation according to His declaration: "I am the door; if anyone enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture". (John 10. 9). If Christ is the door, the Father is the house".In my Father's house are many rooms" (John 14. 2). So we enter into the Father through Christ. And in order to open the door (Christ) we need the key, which is the Holy Spirit. For we know the truth, which is Christ, through the energy of the Holy Spirit. The Father sent His Son to the world, the Son and Word of God reveals the Father, and the Holy Spirit, which proceeds from the Father and is sent through the Son, forms Christ in our hearts! We know, therefore, the Father "through the Son in the Holy Spirit".

St. Maximos speaks often in his works about the mystical incarnations of the Word. He writes that, just as the words of the law and of the Prophets were the forerunners of the presence of the Word in the flesh, in the same way the Son and Word of God, being incarnate, became the forerunner of "his spiritual presence", "by instructing the souls through his own words so that they will be able to accept His divine presence". In other words Christ must be incarnate within us, because we shall not be able to see His glory in Heaven otherwise. The incarnation of Christ within us, however, is done by the good will of the Father and the cooperation of the Holy Spirit. Can you see how the common action of the Holy Trinity is expressed, how we acknowledge and confess the great Mystery that the Lord revealed through His incarnation? He who then denies and does not acknowledge the Jesus prayer makes a big mistake. He denies the Holy Trinity. He does not obey the Father and does not accept the illumination of the Holy Spirit, therefore, he does not have real communion with Christ. So, he must be in doubt as to whether he is a Christian or not.

–I would also, Gerondas, like you to explain to me and expand more on what I was saying earlier, on the differences between the Jesus prayer and yoga, and for you to show me its superiority over the other eastern religions, since you offer great experience.

–The subject is very big, my son, and one could say many things about it. From what I said previously the following stand out:

Firstly: In the Jesus prayer faith in God, Who created the world and Who governs it and loves it, is expressed strongly. He is an affectionate Father who cares about saving His mortal creation. Salvation is attained "in God". For this reason when we pray we implore Him by saying: "Have mercy on me". Self-redemption and self-divinization are far from the athlete of noetic prayer,* because this is the sin of Adam, the sin of the Fall. He wanted to become God outside God's plan for him. Salvation is not attained "through ourselves and does not emanate from ourselves", as the human philosophical systems claim, but is attained "in God".

Secondly: We are not struggling to meet an impersonal God through the "Jesus prayer". We do not seek our elevation to "absolute nothingness". Our prayer focuses on the personal God, the Godman Jesus, for this reason we say "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God". Divine and human nature meet in Christ, in other words in the fullness of the divine Word and all of humanity the perfection of divinity dwells in him in the flesh". (Col. 2. 9) Therefore, anthropology and soteriology (teaching about man and his salvation) in Orthodox monasticism are closely connected with Christology. We love Christ and keep His commandments. We place great importance on this matter. We insist on the keeping of the commandments of Christ. He Himself said: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments". (John 14. 15) By loving Christ and by keeping his commandments we are united with the entire Holy Trinity.

Thirdly: We do not reach a state of pride through unceasing prayer. The philosophical systems you mentioned before are possessed by pride. We acquire the blessed state of humility through the Jesus prayer. We say "Have mercy on me", and we consider ourselves the worst of all. We despise none of our brothers. The athlete of the Jesus prayer is a stranger to every sort of pride. And whoever has pride is foolish.

Fourthly: Salvation, as we said before, is not an abstract notion but union with God, the Holy Trinity in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. This union, however, does not efface the human factor. We are not assimilated, since we are ourselves also persons.

Fifthly: As prayer develops we acquire the ability to discern error. We can see and distinguish the movements of the devil but at the same time the energies of Christ. We recognise the deceit of the devil who, many times, changes his form even into an angel of light. We distinguish, therefore, good from evil, the uncreated from the created.

Sixthly: The struggle for the "Jesus prayer" is connected with the cleansing of soul and body from the corrupting effect of passions. We do not aim at reaching Stoic apathy but we strive to attain the dynamic state of dispassion,* which means that we do not aim at the mortification of passions but at their transformation. Without dispassion one cannot love God and be saved, but because this love has been corrupted and distorted, we strive for its transformation. We fight to transform the distorted states that the devil created in us. We cannot be saved without this personal struggle which is achieved with the help of the grace of Christ. According to St. Maximos, "Spiritual Knowledge without practical life (purification of heart) is the theology of the demons".

Seventhly: We do not try to guide the nous noetic faculty to absolute nothingness through the "Jesus prayer", but to turn it to the heart and bring the grace of God into the soul, from where it will spread to the body also. "The kingdom of God is within us" (Lk. 17. 21). According to the teaching of our Church, it is our way of thinking, according to the flesh, which is bad and not our body. We must not try to get rid of "the garment of the soul", as the philosophical systems claim, but we must try to save it. Additionally, salvation means redemption of the whole of man (of the soul and the body). We do not aim, therefore, at the destruction of the body, but we fight the worship of it. Neither do we want the destruction of life. We do not aspire to reach a point where we do not desire life so that suffering ceases. We practise the Jesus prayer because we thirst for life and we want to live with God eternally.

Eighthly: We are not indifferent to the world around us. The various systems you mentioned before avoid facing people's problems, so that peace and impassibility can be maintained. We have in mind the opposite: we pray unceasingly for all. We are suppliants for the whole world. Moreover, salvation is union with Christ while we are in communion with other persons. We cannot be saved just by ourselves. A joy which is only ours, without being joy for other people as well, is not true joy.

Ninthly: We do not place great importance on psychosomatic techniques and on the various postures of the body. We consider some of them as assisting the concentration of the nous on the heart, i.e. which in essence do away with all of this. I repeat, we do not strive for impassibility, a negative state, but for the acquisition of divine grace...

– Thank you very much, Gerondas, for these illuminating thoughts. They have great importance because they come from you, who knows them from experience. Allow me a question. Is purification and salvation, that is divinization, attained only through the "Jesus prayer", Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me? Are other prayers not appropriate? Do they not help?

–Every prayer has enormous power. It is a cry of the soul. Divine help comes according to one's faith and fervour. There is liturgical prayer, individual prayer etc. The Jesus prayer, however, has boundless value, because, as St. Isaak the Syrian says, it is that small key with whose help we can enter into the mysteries which "no eye has seen, no ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived". That is, the Jesus prayer can keep the nous more in check and make it pray without ceasing; the nous, then, becomes "without colour", "without form", "without shape" and receives much grace in a very short period. The Jesus prayer calls forth a lot of grace, even more than psalmody does, because it is closely connected with humility and the awareness of our sin. This is what the Fathers tell us.

St. Gregory the Sinaite says, indeed, that psalmody is for practical* ones and the beginners, whereas the Jesus prayer is for those who have tasted divine grace for the hesychasts.

– Usually, my son, he went on, confusion comes with psalmody, but also selfishness and pride enters the heart for one's beautiful voice, for the impressions that the others express, whereas there are no external factors for the appearance of pride when the believer says "Lord have mercy on me", in his cell. For this reason the hesychasts practise more this sort of prayer which our Fathers taught us and do matins and vespers with the prayer rope, repeating the Jesus prayer.

– The Jesus prayer is quite limited, very short. How can the nous be fixed on it?

– The nous concentrates more on short phrases. But the Jesus prayer has an immense depth which cannot be seen externally. The nous has the property to increase love and desire for that which it concentrates on. St. Maximos says: "the nous seeks to expand on the things it is fixed on; it, then, turns, its love and desire to those things it expands on, either being divine and noetic or of the flesh and of passions". Moreover, the same thing happens with knowledge. Something that, at first glance, is simple can become a subject of length study and research. How much more the sweetest name of Jesus! You can study it all your life.

–Since the Jesus prayer possesses such power, allow me, Gerondas, to ask you how it is done. How can one enjoy it? I know that I may annoy you by being ignorant and... illiterate in these matters, but you can help me a lot if you tell me this.

– The Jesus prayer is the greatest science, my son. It cannot be described precisely nor can it be defined for fear of it being misunderstood or not being fully understood by those who have not had at least a little experience. It is indeed a great feat. I would even say that it is the highest form through which we acquire Theology* or rather the vision of God. Theology is the offspring and emanation of pure prayer, its wholesome and blessed fruit. The climate in which it develops and can be experienced is the quietude of the sweet desert in all its dynamic content as well as purification from passions.

–I have read, Gerondas, some books and articles referring to this work which is filled with grace, the work of noetic hesychia the unceasing calling on the name of Jesus. But I would like you, since you have shown me its significance, to share with me some thoughts about it out of your personal experience and the knowledge of the Fathers. I do not want to learn simply because of curiosity but because of my zeal to experience, as much as I can, this blessed state. Please do not refuse my wish.