Theophan the Recluse and realism at prayer

St Theophan the Recluse. Loving the hat.

I once googled the Jesus Prayer and got a site somewhere out there that claimed this special, powerful, little prayer was essential for salvation, using a variety of Patristic and Byzantine quotations out of context. Since I do pray the Jesus Prayer, I am interested in what people have to say on the subject, but only the truth.

At present, I am slowly working through The Art of Prayer, which is an anthology about private prayer mostly focussed upon the Jesus Prayer and mostly drawn from Sts Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894) and Ignatius Brianchaninov (1807-1867) — it was compiled for personal use by Igumen Chariton of Valamo in the early twentieth century and includes Greek Patristic passages and Byzantine writers such as St Gregory of Sinai as well as nineteenth-century Russians. I recommend this book which I see as part of Kallistos Ware’s programme — along with E M Palmer — to bring the world of Orthodoxy to the English-speaking world through modern translations of important texts.*

I find the words of St Theophan realistic and true.  One of the most important pieces of advice I read over breakfast one morning in Paris (and thus didn’t note the location in the volume) was the reminder that true prayer, that is, truly entering into mindfulness of God with our spirits/hearts, is entirely an act of grace; no technique will bring it to us — only God can. Nevertheless, we must continue working at prayer and mindfulness through the interior and exterior actions of life.

He said it better.

This morning, he gave two pieces of advice that relate to the the opening of this post. St Theophan does not believe the Jesus Prayer is magical. He does not believe it is the only way to achieve the grace of inner prayer with the mind in the heart. He does not think that it is absolutely essential for salvation. Here are two pieces of his realistic advice, from page 99 of this volume. Hopefully of use to those of you who also pray the Prayer:

The Jesus Prayer is like any other prayer. It is stronger than all other prayers only in virtue of the all-powerful Name of Jesus, Our Lord and Saviour. But it is necessary to invoke His Name with a full and unwavering faith — with a deep certainty that He is near, sees and hears, pays whole-hearted attention to our petition, and is ready to fulfil it and to grant what we seek. There is nothing to be ashamed of in such hope. If fulfilment is sometimes delayed, this may be because the petitioner is still not yet ready to receive what he asks.

The Jesus Prayer is not some talisman. Its power comes from faith in the Lord, and from a deep union of the mind and heart with Him. With such a disposition, the invocation of the Lord’s Name becomes very effective in many ways. But a mere repetition of the words does not signify anything.

*Ware and Palmer were also involved in project to translate the entire Philokalia; Ware with Mother Mary translated the Festal Menaion and Lenten Triodion. Of course, Ware’s work of bringing Orthodoxy to Anglophones goes beyond translations to his own writings, such as The Orthodox Way, The Orthodox Church, and The Power of the Name.

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5 thoughts on “Theophan the Recluse and realism at prayer

  1. Some of its power arises, I feel, in the way the prayer works in repetition as a chant. Each round, another word/thought comes to the foreground of understanding. Rather than having our mind keep running ahead, this approach has us returning to a core.

  2. Thanks for the reminder of the Jesus Prayer. I really love the way you said it. “True prayer, that is, truly entering into mindfulness of God with spirits/hearts, is entirely an act of grace; no technique will bring it to us — only God can.”
    I have found that God uses any efforts we make to bring us closer to Him. I think one of the reasons the Jesus Prayer is powerful is because it affirms who Jesus is, and who we are in relation to Him. 🙂

    • You’re welcome, Amy! Thanks for the comment. The utter simplicity of the Jesus Prayer combined with its straightforwardness in speaking what are truly profound truths — exactly why it is powerful. It is not us posturing or anything. As you say, ‘it affirms who Jesus is, and who we are in relation to Him.’ And all of us need that!

  3. One thing I have found and appreciated about Orthodoxy is the delicate but firm wield of the mystery (the image of rapier-hold comes to mind). In this context, that the two seemingly-diametric aspects of the spiritual activity of prayer are both veritable. Prayer is both powerful because the name of Jesus is invoked, and because the agent invokes by faith. Where Western, medieval and modern deliberations sorted the issue into different hats on matters such as this, the reception of Holy Communion, the effect of Baptism, etc. Orthodoxy says, “Christ taught us to pray by rote and by faith.” What of it? Get busy prayin!

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