The Stages 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
2. The Stages of the Jesus prayer

–I referred to something before. Noetic prayer requires mainly renunciation of the world, submission to a Gerondas, a decision by the monk to remain in exile and to keep the commandments of Christ for a long period of time. In the beginning our attention concentrates on the fulfilling of the commandments of Christ and is occupied in practising abstinence and obedience. We know from the teaching of our Holy Fathers that virtues do not unite man with God perfectly, but they create the appropriate climate so that prayer comes which unites man with God–the Holy Trinity. Virtues are a prerequisite for the granting of much grace, yet they also offer grace. When, therefore, the Gerondas, who has the experience of the Jesus prayer, realises that his disciple's will has been cut off, and has been cleansed from the gross passions, only then does he decide to initiate him in the Jesus prayer. Even then, however, he does not tell him everything but only as much as he can endure and carry out. He guides him little by little in case he may be led into disappointment or error.

–What are these stages? Which are the mystical steps which bring us to perfect union with Christ and to the enjoyment of deifying grace?

The basic purpose of the Jesus prayer is to unify the whole of man "who has become fragmented".

–Please, forgive me for the interruption. What does unification of the whole of man mean?

–Man, according to Scripture, has been created "after the image of God". (Col. 3. 10) God is Trinity, that is, one essence in three hypostases (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). Thus the soul, being created in the image of God, is single as well as manifold. She has three powers: the appetitive power, the intelligent power and the irascible power. All three must be united and be directed to God. According to St. Maximos their development according to nature is for the intelligent power to have the knowledge of God, for the appetitive power to desire and love only God and for the irascible power to carry out the will of the Lord. In this way the commandment is fulfilled: "And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength". (Mk. 12. 30) When the nous remains in God, it raises the appetitive power to love Him and the irascible power to fight against the evil spirit and seek for purification. So, union exists because an impetus towards God exists. Well then! Sin tears up the union of the three powers of the soul. The nous comes to ignore God, the appetitive power loves the creatures and not the Creator and the irascible power is submitted to the tyranny of the passions. Thus, we have the complete enslavement of the soul. St. Gregory Palamas describes this state very well.

Firstly, the nous moves away from God and turns to other creations: "whenever we open a door to the passions, the nous is immediately scattered, wandering all the time over carnal and worldly things, over the manifold pleasures and the impassioned thoughts which go with them".

Secondly, the nous, fallen away from God, leads desire astray from God and His commandments: "when the nous rebels, desire is also scattered in fornication and foolishness".

Thirdly, the will is submitted to the passions and is tormented and becomes enraged: "man, who has been destined to be a child of God, becomes a murderer, becoming comparable not only to the wild beasts, but also to the reptiles and venomous animals, he becomes a scorpion, a snake, an offspring of vipers".

Therefore, the three powers of the soul depart from God but at the same time, they lose their unity with each other. The appetitive power wants to return to God but the irascible power does not allow it; desire wants the return but the nous, not believing in God, does not want to love God. We strive for this unity and attain it finally through the Jesus prayer. The return to God starts with the concentration of the nous. Our aim is to detach the nous from its attraction to surrounding objects and bring it back to itself so that the desire is brought back.

– I think you have presented it to me very vividly, and thus I have understood it.

–It is the Fathers that present these, not me, my son.

–After my interruption and your explanation, can you please tell me the stages of the prayer more analytically? Where does one start from and how does one progress?

–There are primarily five stages.

Firstly: The reciting of the Jesus prayer vocally. We repeat the Jesus prayer with our lips while trying at the same time to focus our attention on the words of the prayer.

Secondly: The nous takes the Jesus prayer and says it noetically. Our whole attention is centred again in the words, but is concentrated on the nous. When the nous gets tired then we start again to vocalize the prayer with the lips. This method, of course, or the use of the prayer rope is still the elementary level school of the Jesus prayer. A beginner should start however, from this stage, and when he reaches the more perfect, the imperfect one will then fade away. After the nous has rested, we start again to concentrate our attention there. St. Neilos advises: "Always remember God and your nous will become heaven".

Thirdly: The Jesus prayer then descends into the heart.* Nous and heart are united. The attention now is centred in the heart and is immersed again into the words of the Jesus prayer, and primarily into the name of Jesus which has an imperceptible depth.

Fourthly: The prayer now becomes automatic. It is done while the ascetic is working, eating, discussing or while he is in church or even while he is sleeping. "I sleep but by heart waketh" is said in the Holy Scripture. (Song of Songs 5. 2)

Fifthly: Then one feels a divine soft flame burning within his soul and making it joyful. The grace of Christ lives in the heart. The Holy Trinity is established. "We become the dwelling place of God, when He lives within us, established in the memory. Thus, we become the temple of God when remembrance of Him is not disturbed by earthly cares, and the mind is not distracted by unexpected thoughts. Fleeing the latter, the friend of God withdraws into Him, chasing away the passions which invite intemperate thoughts, and occupying himself in a way which leads to virtue". (St. Basil the Great) Thus, he feels the divine presence within himself, and this grace passes through to his body which becomes dead to the world and is crucified. And this is the most extreme stage which is sometimes connected with the vision of the uncreated Light.* This is, virtually, the course of the development of the Jesus prayer. Each stage has a corresponding grace.

–Gerondas, allow me a few questions which arose while you were talking about the stages of the Jesus prayer. What do you mean by the word heart?

– According to the teaching of the Holy Fathers, the heart is the centre of the spiritual world. Among the many opinions of the Fathers on this subject I will mention a distinctive one of St. Epiphanios, Bishop of Konstantia of Cyprus: "For this reason, we need not in any way define or ascertain in what part of man the image of God rather is accomplished, but we need to confess that the image of God does exist in man, so that we will not despise the grace of God and disbelieve in Him. For whatever God says is true, although His word has to a certain extent, escaped our capacity to conceive it". Just as a beam when it falls upon a prism is refracted and shown from all sides, in the same way does the soul also express herself through the whole human being. When we say the Jesus prayer, however, we fix our attention on the physical organ, on the heart, so that we are distracted away from the outside world and bring it back again into ourselves, into the "deep heart". In this way the nous – the eye of the soul– returns to its home and is united there with the other powers.

– Allow me a second question. Do all who are enchanted by the enjoyment of God follow the course you have just described to me?

–Yes, most of them do. There are some however who, from the very beginning, seek to unite the nous with the heart by doing breathing exercises. They breathe in the words "Lord Jesus Christ" and exhale the words "have mercy on me". They follow the air as it comes into the nose all the way to the heart, and there they rest a little.

This, of course, is done to allow the nous to be fixed on the prayer. The Holy Fathers have also handed over to us another method. We breathe in saying all the words of the Jesus prayer and we breathe out saying them again. This method, however, requires maturity in spiritual development. But using this way of breathing can cause many difficulties, many problems; that is why it should be avoided, if there is no guidance from a spiritual father. It can be used, however, simply to fix the nous on the words of the prayer so that the nous is not distracted. I repeat, this needs a special blessing (permission) of a discerning father.

–You said before, Gerondas, that the aim of the Jesus prayer is to bring the nous back into the heart, that is the energy into the essence. We can experience this specifically at the third stage of this holy pathway. When, however, you recounted the fifth stage, you referred to a quotation of St. Basil the Great: "he who loves God having avoided all these, departs towards God". How does the nous come into the heart and depart towards God? Is this perhaps a contradiction?

– No it is not, the holy hermit answered. As the Holy and God–bearing Fathers teach, those who pray are at various stages. There are beginners as well as the advanced; as they are better called in the teachings of the Fathers, the practical and the theoretical ones. For the practical ones, prayer is born of fear of God and a firm hope in Him, whereas to the theoretical ones, prayer is begotten by a divinely intense longing for God and by total purification. The characteristic of the first state – that of the practical ones– is the concentration of the nous within the heart; when the nous prays to God without distraction. The characteristic of the second state of prayer –that of the theoretical ones– is the rapture of the nous by the divine Light, so that it is aware neither of the world nor of itself. This is the ravishment (ecstasy*) of the nous, and we say that, at this stage the nous "departs" to God. The God–bearing Fathers who experienced these blessed states describe the divine ravishment; "it is the rapture of the nous by the divine and infinite light, so that it is aware neither of itself nor of any other created thing, but only of Him Who through love, has activated such radiance in the nous". (St. Maximos)

– Allow me another question. I wasn’t able to understand the quotation you mentioned before: "I sleep, but my heart waketh". (Song of Songs 5. 2) Please do love for me.* Explain it to me. How is it possible that the heart continues to pray while man is sleeping?

–This passage is written in the book of the Old Testament which is called "Song of Songs". It is not difficult to explain. Prophet David says that man's heart is deep. All the events, all the impressions of the day and the occupations of the mind go into the depths of the heart, into what we call nowadays the subconscious. So, whatever man is occupied with during the day, the heart will be occupied with these same things at night, when the mind and the human energies rest. And this can be seen clearly in our dreams.

St. Basil says that "to a great extent, the phantasies of night (dreams) are an echo (reflection) of our daily thoughts". Evil occupations and thoughts of the day create evil dreams. The same also happens with good deeds. The ascetic or the man of God in general, thinks of God all day long through the Jesus prayer. The remembrance* of God by the repetition of the Jesus prayer, is his delight. He does everything, whether he eats or he drinks, for the glory of God according to the word of the Apostle. It is natural, therefore, that his heart thinks of God and prays even during the few hours of nightly rest. His heart is ever awake.