The Jesus Prayer

22 December 2020

The foundation of the Jesus Prayer can be found in the words of the Lord: ‘Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my Name: ask, and ye shall receive… Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my Name, he will give it you’ (John 16:24, 23). The more man is initiated in prayer the more he realises that the centre of all spiritual battle against the passions and the enemy is his very heart. In the Old Testament man is defined as a ‘deep heart’ (Ps. 64:6) which seeks ‘a spiritual and divine sensation’ (cf. Prov. 15:14 LXX). The way that leads to the deep heart goes through our physical heart. The relationship we find between the two is the same as that which we can trace between our mind and our brain. The significant difference lies in the fact that man uses his brain and his physical heart only until the time of his death, whereas the mind and the spiritual deep heart accompany the soul after the departure from this world. Yet, in this life, the actions and energies of our mind are strongly connected with the function of the brain, and in the same way our physical heart remains the centre of our being where all the aspects of our spiritual life are made manifest.

The purpose of the Jesus Prayer is the unity of mind and heart. The Fathers speak about a threefold progress or ‘a cyclical movement of the mind’: after the fall, the mind was spread out into the visible world and became attached to it. The second movement occurs when, by the grace of God and through the practice of the Jesus Prayer, the mind is directed inwards to find the deep heart and unite with it. Then, through this wondrous unity, the third movement takes place when man turns his whole being to God. This cyclical movement of the mind is ‘a movement that knows no delusion’, because during this process the enemy cannot pollute the mind with his alien thoughts. The pain of repentance and the Jesus Prayer kindles a certain warmth in the heart, which forces the enemy to stay outside the walls of our inner fortress. That is why the Fathers say that, ‘He who enters the chamber of his heart, has entered the chamber of heaven.’ Union of mind and heart and the ensuing union with God is a work that can be accomplished only by the grace of God and it is given to us freely as a gift not as a reward to our efforts. We have done nothing to deserve any recompense from God since He first loved us and ‘died for us while we were yet sinners’ (Rom. 5:8).

The general principle of prayer is that quantity brings quality, for prayer loves them that pray. A gradual ascent in prayer is the most trustworthy. The beginner is usually recommended to start with the first step, which is saying the prayer aloud as frequently as possible, until body, tongue, brain and heart assimilate it. For each person the time needed can vary, but the stronger the repentance, the shorter the road. As Father Sophrony explains, we first say the prayer with our lips, trying to concentrate our attention on the Name and on the words of the prayer. Then, we pronounce the Jesus Prayer mentally. In the third stage the attention of the mind is centred in the heart and the prayer is said there. Fourthly, with no special effort on our part, the prayer continues in our heart, where the mind is concentrated. Finally, man reaches the level of charismatic prayer, where prayer begins to act like a gentle flame within him, as inspiration from on High. This last stage is sometimes accompanied by a vision of the uncreated light of God. The invocation of the Name of Christ creates such a state in man’s heart that life becomes truly a foretaste of the life in heaven.

What are the fruits that spring forth when man invokes the Name of the Lord with his mind in his heart? The Jesus Prayer helps him remain in the living presence of God, which becomes ‘a consuming fire’. The divine strength it contains, restores his heart from the death of sin and its light illumines the mind. His being is healed and this awareness of being whole again transmits great peace and joy to his heart. Through the Jesus Prayer, the mind is no longer attached to the vain things of this world, nor does it become the victim of the intrusion of unclean thoughts through imagination, since it has found a stable base in the heart. The whole man is freed little by little from the dominance of sin and becomes the target of the secret visitations of the Lord (cf. Job 7:18). By invoking the Name of Christ with the mind in the heart, man enters the presence of the living God and in the light of that presence he is able, for the first time in his life, to see the true state of his heart. He thus acquires a humble spirit and takes upon himself the work of spiritual mourning, feeding his soul with the bread of tears which the Lord provides sumptuously for those who earnestly desire to follow Him to the end (see Ps. 80:5).

Τhe man who has acquired unity of mind and heart through the Jesus Prayer, is ‘no longer ignorant of the devil’s devices’ (2 Cor. 2:11). Discernment of thoughts happens naturally, since his heart becomes like a crystal clear mirror in which he can perceive all the evil inclinations of his mind and all the machinations of the unclean spirits. The heart is now like a fortress wherein the mind is enthroned as a king, seeing the thoughts of the enemy from afar and not allowing them to interfere with the sacred work of prayer. Once the mind and the heart are cleansed, purity is restored both in the body and the soul of man. However, it is easier to cleanse the mind than to purify the heart. As Saint Isaac the Syrian explains, just as the mind is quickly cleansed, so too it is quickly defiled, whereas the heart, the root of all the senses, is cleansed with more toil. However, if the root is holy, then the branches are holy, too. Man is truly free when he is in full possession of his true nature so that he can love God with all his being and his neighbour as himself.

Question: Is it good to say the prayer even mechanically, because God will do the rest?

Answer: Certainly, even a mechanical prayer is better than nothing. Some people say, ‘I like to hold the rosary and say the prayer with my tongue when I watch TV.’ However, we must not expect that we will find fruits in prayer simply by holding the rosary. We must honour this Name wherewith God has greatly honoured us. ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain’ (Exod. 20:7). It is important to devote a specific time in the day when we will be doing nothing else than prayer. If we talk with all our heart to people we love, how much more we must do so with God: when we stand before Him, we must speak to Him with all our attention, invoking His Name with reverence, from the heart.

Question: When we have thoughts and try to pray, how can we avoid imagining that we are actually in front of God?

Answer: In the beginning it is inevitable to be assailed by thoughts, but Father Sophrony says that our progress will depend on the tension of our repentance. It needs perseverance. If we learn to repent before God, the mind will naturally find the heart, and then the thoughts can no longer assail us as before. The Fathers say that when the mind finds the heart, it is like two people who had great love between them and were separated, finally meet again. Some people ask: ‘Why does it take so long to acquire the Jesus Prayer?’ In fact, this is an honour that God gives us: time is a secret key. If we give it to prayer, then God will open the door to prayer. He wants us to show Him our fidelity. He says, ‘Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine’ (Matt. 7:6). Time gives us the opportunity to convince Him that we belong to Him. In any case, it is surely not neutral to stand for some hours calling upon the Name of Christ. I am sure that he who has tried it, tasted of how this prayer works in the soul and heart of man.

Question: When, with the help of God, the Jesus Prayer becomes undistracted, sometimes a silence descends upon the mind. Shall we continue repeating the words of the prayer?

Answer: This silence can come especially when man is given pure prayer, when the union of mind and heart and the presence of God in the heart are so strong, that he can no longer pray; rather, he becomes prayer. Yet, our nature is weak: we see that even when our Fathers were given such states, they did not remain in it continually. For those who come to know the grace of the Jesus Prayer, the power of the divine Name becomes their teacher. Saint John the Divine says that they are taught by the anointing they received, by the gift of the Holy Spirit in them (1 John 2:27). However, it is always safe to seek the confirmation of our spiritual fathers.

Question: You said that the fruits of prayer are not a reward but a gift, and yet at the same time, we talk so much about the hard work that goes into it.

Answer: Christ says: ‘When ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do’ (Luke 17:10). It is the same with the Jesus Prayer: we must definitely make the effort, but without expecting a reward. If we do, it is the end of prayer. We must have the right attitude and know that grace will not come when we want, but when God wants. This will keep us humble and dependant on God. A wrong attitude can lead to delusion.

Question: What is the best method to acquire unceasing prayer?

Answer: Our purpose is not to acquire unceasing prayer, neither to become Silouans or Sophronies. Our purpose is to be reconciled with God and make His commandments the sole law of our being. The Jesus Prayer then becomes an effort to stand in the presence of Christ, so that His properties may be transmitted to us by grace. Then we no longer invoke a simple name, but the Name of Someone we know and love.

Question: Why can I not keep a consistency in prayer?

Answer: We need to keep making a new beginning in prayer. Saint John of Sinai says that we will not be judged by God because we did not have unceasing prayer, for He knows our weakness, but because we have not made a new beginning. When we see that we do not have prayer, the best is to present our state to God and say: ‘Lord, You see; my heart is dry, my mind is dark, my body cannot stand in Your presence. I am fallen and separated from You and all my life remains unredeemed.’ When we humble ourselves and weep, the Jesus Prayer becomes easy, because tears crush the shell that hardens our heart. Tears bring light and inspiration, revealing in us a strength that we were not aware of. If man becomes attracted by the Jesus Prayer, he may be tempted to use it as a tool that depends on his will alone. Then God allows that we feel nothing while we say the prayer, so that we may come to our senses and understand that our attitude is wrong. Therefore, when we feel dry, it is surely not God’s fault. We definitely know that God loves us and wants to give us all that He has. We need to present this aridity to God humbly, asking Him to help us make a new beginning.

Question: Sometimes, we feel inspired to pray when we have contact with our spiritual father, who prays much more than us. Is there a danger to become dependent on this contact?

Answer: If you are inspired to pray by your spiritual father, you are very blessed. There is nothing more beneficial in prayer than to stand in the presence of someone who prays. It is most important to have a strong reference to our spiritual father. It is the same Spirit that activates both our relationship with our spiritual father and prayer, and so they go together. Also, the spiritual father is informed if we thirst for prayer and God gives him the right word for us. Unfortunately, those who think they can make their own pact with God and underestimate their spiritual father, thinking that they can learn how to pray from books, prove that they have not come to know the truth. The Church is a communion of gifts and if we receive a gift, there is an infallible criterion: does this gift unite us with the Body of the Church or does it make us self-sufficient? If it is truly from God, it attaches us more strongly to the Body.