Wednesday, September 16, 2009

On the Jesus Prayer (WOA Ch. 25)

Colliander begins his discussion of the Jesus Prayer, that cherished jewel of Orthodox spirituality, by quoting St. Isaiah the Solitary. According to St. Isaiah, the Jesus prayer is “a mirror for the mind and a lantern for the conscience” (92). The prayer, which in its longest form consists of the words “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner,” is the means to achieving continual remembrance of the Lord, which is fundamental to Christian spirituality. It is the way that many thousands of Christians, both monastic and non-monastic, have managed to keep St. Paul’s command to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).

But how does one get started practicing this prayer? Colliander offers this advice: “Repeat [the prayer] aloud, or only in thought, slowly, lingeringly, but with attention, and from a heart freed as much as possible from all that is inappropriate to it. Not only worldly interests are inappropriate, but also such things as every kind of expectation or thought of answer, or inner visions, testings, all kinds of romantic dreams, curious questions and imaginings. Simplicity is as inescapable a condition as humility, abstemiousness of body and soul, and in general everything that pertains to the invisible warfare” (93).

Some who do not well understand Orthodox spirituality have compared the use of the Jesus Prayer to mysticism, including that practiced in Eastern religions such as Buddhism. Colliander warns against seeing it this way: “Especially should the beginner beware of everything that has the slightest tendency to mysticism. The Jesus Prayer is an activity, a practical work and a means by which you enable yourself to receive and use the power called God’s grace—constantly present, however hidden, within the baptized person—in order that it may bear fruit. Prayer fructifies this power in our soul; it has no other purpose. It is a hammer that crushes a shell: a hammer is hard and its stroke hurts. Abandon every thought of pleasantness, rapture, heavenly voices: there is only one way to the kingdom of God, and that is the way of the Cross. And to hang crucified on a tree is horrible torment. Expect nothing else”(94-95).

As Colliander has just pointed out, the fundamental purpose of prayer is to activate grace—the power of the Holy Spirit—within us. One way prayer, and particularly the Jesus prayer, accomplishes that is to keep our thought life under control. If our thoughts are continually engaged in prayer, they will be much less likely to wander into areas that get us into trouble. Colliander explains it like this:

“You have crucified your body by nailing it fast with a simple and uniform manner of life under strict self-discipline. Your thought-life and imagination ought to be as strictly controlled. Nail them fast with the words of prayer and Holy Scripture, with the reading of Psalms and the works of the holy Fathers, where these things are commanded. Do not permit your imagination to fly about at will. What men call ‘the flight of thought’ is usually an aimless fluttering of the world of illusions. As soon as your thoughts are not occupied in your work’s behalf, let them turn again to prayer.

“See to it that both imagination and thought are as obedient to you as a well-trained dog. You do not allow it to run around and yap and rummage in garbage pails and bathe in the gutter. Likewise you ought always to be able to call back your thoughts and imagination, and you must do so untold times every passing minute. If you do not do so, you are like a horse driven now by one rider and now by another, says St. Anthony, until, worn out and lathered, it collapses” (94-95).

As he often does, Colliander warns the beginner about biting off more than he or she can chew, and about becoming discouraged when progress is slow (in this case, he refers of course to progress in prayer): “If you hammer a nutshell too hard, you may crush the kernel as well. Lay on with caution. Do not pass over suddenly to the Jesus Prayer. Hold back to begin with, and even afterward, use your other prayer practices as well. Do not be overanxious. And do not suppose that you can pay proper attention to a single Lord, have mercy. Your prayer is bound to be divided and scattered: you are, indeed, human. Only in heaven the angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven (Matthew 18:10): you, on the contrary, have an earthly body with its own cravings. Do not shriek to high heaven in amazement if at the beginning you completely forget your prayer practice for many hours at a time, perhaps for a whole day or longer. Take it naturally and simply: you are an inexperienced sailor who has been so anxiously occupied with other things that he forgot to keep watch on the breezes. Thus, expect nothing of yourself. But do not demand anything of others, either” (95-96).

Finally, Colliander discusses the benefits of prayer, especially the continual use of the Jesus Prayer: “Prayer will call forth an inner calm, a peaceful relaxation in grief, love, gratitude, humility. If you are, on the contrary, tense and stirred up, in high spirits or in deep despair, if you feel contrition or bitterness or an exaggerated will to action, if you are thrown into ecstatic experiences or a drunkenness of the senses, such as you enjoy when listening to music, if you feel a supreme enjoyment or satisfaction so that you are “content with yourself and the whole world,” you are on the wrong road. You have built altogether too much on yourself. Sound your retreat and go back to that self-reproach that must always be the starting-point for every true prayer.

“The angel of light always brings peace, the peace that the demons of the dark wish at all costs to disturb. By this, say the holy Fathers, one can recognize the evil powers and separate them from the good” (96-97).


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this nice summary.
Some more resources on the Jesus Prayer:

yudikris said...

This is very beautiful. Father, may I print out this post and bring home to read? :)

Thanks in advance!

Fr. James Early said...

Sure, yudikris! Feel free to print and use any of the posts on this blog.