The Jesus Prayer and Me 2: Edinburgh and beyond

St Theophan the Recluse

As I mentioned in my last post, my drifting in and out of various bits and bobs of the literature of Christian mysticism alongside contacts with Eastern Orthodoxy meant that I knew of the Jesus Prayer and liked the concept. I prayed it sometimes — while waiting, or in the place of the Hail Mary with a rosary, that sort of thing. But my actual exertion of energy on anything approaching contemplation was — and is — haphazard.

That alone is reason to pray, yes?

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

Nonetheless, in 2013 I came to a point where I realised that I had some issues with anger. So I went to talk to Fr Raphael at the Orthodox Church here in Edinburgh. I’m not entirely sure what it says about me, Presbyterian ministers, and Fr Raphael that it was the Orthodox priest and not my minister to whom I turned in this time of spiritual crisis, but this is what I did. I spoke with him about anger and about how to work through it, how to overcome it.

Fr Raphael observed that the Fathers say that anger is not so bad a passion to suffer, for you can turn it against the demons when they tempt you. Thus Evagrius of Pontus:

Anger is given to us so that we might fight against the demons and strive against every pleasure. (The Praktikos 44)

As I’ve blogged before, this is expressed by the Russian St Theophan the Recluse:

You say that you cannot help being resentful and hostile? Very well then, be hostile — but towards the devil, not towards your brother. God gave us wrath as a sword to pierce the devil — not to drive into our own bodies. Stab him with it, then, right up to the hilt; press the hilt in as well if you like, and never pull it out, but drive another sword in as well. This we shall achieve by becoming gentle and kind towards each other. ‘Let me lose my money, let me destroy my honour and glory — my fellow-member is more precious to me than myself.’ Let us speak thus to each other, and let us not injure our own nature in order to gain money or fame. (The Art of Prayer, p. 212)

In fact, the above quotation comes from a book that was loaned to me by Father Raphael at the time I went to him for guidance. It is an anthology of texts about prayer, most of them by Theophan the Recluse and Ignatius Brianchaninov. I recommend it highly.

Besides loaning me The Art of Prayer, Fr Raphael made two recommendations. One was to keep track of times that I feel angry and annoyed, and pray about them. The other was the disciplined praying of the Jesus Prayer — not simply when I’m angry or as a way to turn my heart to God when idle, but to set aside time every day.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

Fr Raphael’s counsel, which I have seen Kallistos Ware recommend as well, was to spend no fewer than 10 minutes a day and no more than 20 praying the Jesus Prayer. The goal was (and is) for me to focus on the words and their meaning, to keep my mind from wandering, and fix my heart on Jesus.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

Fr Raphael’s advice is rather evangelical, if you think on it. Fixing our hearts on Jesus is what we’re all about, after all.

Anyway, he also gave me a chomboschini, a knotted prayer rope. At each knot, I recite the Jesus Prayer. He further advised to set aside the same time for the Jesus Prayer each day to aid in making this prayer regular.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

And off I went to Germany for three months. I prayed the Jesus Prayer in my room. I prayed it on the Neckarinsel in Tuebingen (that’s the island in the Neckar). I prayed it on the tram in Leipzig. I prayed it on the train. I prayed it in Austria in a Benedictine monastery.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

And then I came back to Edinburgh — I pray it on my couch, in my bedroom, at my desk, in St Giles’ Church. And then I went to Paris for a month, where I prayed it in my room, in the Bibliotheque nationale, in the old, Gothic churches. And at home again. And on all my research trips.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

I prayed it on my first trip to Rome — in St Peter’s, in Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, in Santa Maria Maggiore. I prayed it in my long stay in Rome as well.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

I’m not a great contemplative. It’s the active life for me. I’m not the best at remembering to pray the Jesus Prayer every day, even though I have an alarm set to remind me. When I do pray it, my mind often wanders. Or my eyes, which bring my mind with them (this is why Kallistos Ware recommends you put the lights out).

But I get angry less frequently. Not just because I might remember to pray this prayer when angry, but because of the attempt at discipline that I bring to it. Because my heart is being ordered towards my Lord and Saviour. Because I have found grace in Jesus through praying this prayer and calling on his Name.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

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Mystical Prayer and Biblical Christianity 4: Silence, Scripture, and the Jesus Prayer

Athonites at prayer

So we come to the final post of my meandering thoughts provoked by Chapter 4 of Prayer by Timothy Keller. I have not read the whole book, so maybe some of my concerns will be settled later. And we finally meet the issue that perhaps got me on guard in the first place — the Jesus Prayer.

The analysis of mystical prayer from Davis’s book as delivered by Keller is more open to the Jesus Prayer but also takes it to task. His first concern is, apparently, that many people use the Jesus Prayer to ‘block out all thoughts’. That is not how it is recommended by Kallistos Ware in The Jesus Prayer and The Power of the Name, nor in the Russian classic The Way of a Pilgrim. It is not how Fr Raphael has taught me to pray it. Nor is it how western Christians describe its use, whether John Michael Talbot in his book The Music of Creation and on his YouTube channel or Richard Foster in Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home. And it is not in the spirit of inner prayer as recommended in The Philokalia.

But it is true that inner prayer is meant to help us block out thoughts, and that the Jesus Prayer is recommended as part of that. But the ascetic philosophy of the thoughts, the logismoi (in Greek), is not the blocking out of all thoughts. It is the attempt to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12) and to seek to order our thoughts towards God, towards Christ, and to his kingdom. The inner experience of Christian spirituality, the quest for inner prayer, the resting in silence, is an attempt to quiet the chatter that rules in the hearts and minds of most of us.

Consider, therefore, what Martin Luther said, that one cannot stop birds from flying overhead, but one can stop them from making nests in one’s hair. The Jesus Prayer is a way of keeping irrelevant and even sinful thoughts from nesting in our hair. An entirely salutary endeavour.

In his handy booklet Meditative Prayer, Richard Foster explains that Christian meditative techniques exist to help us empty ourselves so that God and Christ can fill us instead. If we consider that mystical prayer, inner prayer, the Jesus Prayer, are meant to be part of a full and rich Christian life, such as I’ve discussed in the earlier posts of this series (here and here), then there is nothing wrong with seeking to silence our inner chatter.

Furthermore, Davis’s other criticisms of the Jesus Prayer are either about its abuse or entirely unfounded. I agree with resisting the abuse of the Jesus Prayer. However, he complains that it makes no mention of God the Father, in whose Name Jesus asks us to pray, and that it only names us as ‘sinners’, not as God’s justified, adopted children.

The first of these two complaints boggles the mind. I am reminded of a friend who was concerned after visiting an Anglican church with me that so many prayers end with ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost’, given that Scripture calls us to pray in Jesus’ name. Scripture calls us to pray in the names of both Father and Son. To reject the Jesus Prayer because it doesn’t mention the Father is a form of biblicism almost as dangerous as the aberrations of the Jesus Prayer Davis criticises.

The second is related. Our primary stance before God is always that we are sinners. Simul iustus et peccator — at the same time justified/righteous and a sinner. The Jesus Prayer draws on Scripture, so the closing words, ‘a sinner’, are actually Scripture, from the parable of the publican and the Pharisee in Luke 18. Furthermore, it is not necessary to close the prayer with those words, anyway — some stop at ‘have mercy on me’, others at ‘have mercy’.

The Jesus Prayer draws its words from Scripture, and its invocation of the name of Jesus — Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God — encapsulates orthodox Christology, while the plea — have mercy on me, a sinner — grasps biblical anthropology. Christ has mercy on us. We are sinners. This is all biblical truth. Davis’s grounds are almost manufactured, as though he came expecting a fight.

This brings me to my final thought, which is the relationship of our spiritual practices and disciplines to Sacred Scripture.

The Bible is the record of God’s interactions with the human race and his self-revelation to humanity. It is the normative source of all of our doctrine, ethics, and spiritual disciplines. Anything we do or teach in relation to theology and spirituality must be held up to the light of Scripture. If it is contrary to Scripture, we should reject it. If it is commended, commanded, assumed by Scripture, we are to believe it, live it, do it. (I say this as a fairly committed Anglican who usually believes most of the 39 Articles.)

What about the rest? The rest are to be taken on the basis of the lived experience of Christ’s body throughout the ages, the great cloud of witnesses. If something is not contrary to Scripture, but is not explicitly recommended, and if other Christians have found it helpful, I see no reason to reject it.

I, for one, have found the Jesus Prayer to be a very salutary experience. It has helped me grow in virtue, in holiness, in grace. It has cooled my anger, calmed my anxiety, made me more peaceful overall. It has brought me closer to God. Not because it is magic. Not because it is the only way to approach God. But because, through attentive prayer and focus on Christ, I have found His grace ready and available.

I do not think everyone must pray the Jesus Prayer. I don’t think all Christians need to practise inner prayer or contemplative activity. But I think none should be barred from such prayer, many of us have profited from it, and perhaps still others need it just as other Christians need other practices.

What is The Philokalia?

In conversation over Skype recently, I held up my copy of The Philokalia, vol. 1, as a way to signify who Kallistos Ware is. ‘Ah yes, that book you’ve been blogging about,’ is an approximation of the response. Which is fair enough. I realised that I’ve not actually told the reading public what The Philokalia is. Since it is what my brother and I are slowly wading our way through (and hopefully becoming better pray-ers as a result), here we go.

The Philokalia is a multi-volume anthology of Greek spiritual texts on the subject of prayer. The authors range from the fourth through the fifteenth centuries. So far, the English translation includes four out of a proposed five. The inescapable, inimitable Met Kallistos Ware (for many of us, our first introduction to Orthodoxy, through The Orthodox Church and The Orthodox Way) is one of the translators. The collection was assembled on Mt Athos, the monastic/spiritual heart of Orthodoxy, in the 17th century by Sts Nikodimos and Makarios.

You may recognise some of the authors they included: Ps.-Antony the Great, Evagrios ‘the Solitary’ (aka ‘Ponticus’, in the original attributed to St Neilus of Ancyra), St Maximus the Confessor, St Makarios the Great, St Gregory of Sinai.

This multi-volume anthology is not a comprehensive guide to the entire ascetic life. As I said, it is about prayer. Thus, the external aspects of Christian spirituality, such as fasts and vigils, are lacking. In fact, it is not even about the entire life of prayer. It is about ‘inner prayer’, about the inner kingdom, about the prayer of the heart. I believe that in its later volumes (they arranged roughly chronologically) it is more specifically about The Jesus Prayer (I’ll discuss that prayer soon, I think).

The goal of this inner prayer is the encounter with God through purity of heart, through seeking hesychia — peacefulness, stillness. The Greek spiritual movement associated with the word hesychia is called hesychasm, and its monastic practicioners are hesychasts. The Francisco-Benedictine musician John Michael Talbot described hesychia as being like sitting on the edge of a pool, and letting the detritus subside. When it still and clear, you can see to the bottom and see both the good and the bad. (See The Music of Creation.)

The bad can thus be removed.

It is an approach towards intimacy with God.

Of course, all the texts were selected by hesychast monks for monks and written by monks to begin with. Not everything here will suit all readers, but much wisdom is to be found for the prayerful, attentive reader. A guide, a companion, will help. We are reading vol. 1 straight through, but I’ve discovered a piece by Met Kallistos that has a series of recommended texts to start with. I close with his words, then:

Sometimes I am asked: in what order should the writings of the Philokalia be read? Should we start at the beginning, on page one, and read straight through to the end? Probably that is not the best method. To one who is unfamiliar with Hesychasm but who has a serious and deep longing to discover its true meaning, I sometimes suggest the following sequence of texts:

i. St Kallistos and St Ignatios Xanthopoulos, Directions to Hesy-chasts (Philokalia IV, 197-295, English translation Kadloubovsky and Palmer, Writings from the Philokalia, 164-270) (27).

ii. St Hesychios the Priest, On Watchfulness and Holiness (Philokalia I, 141-73, English translation I, 162-98).

iii. Evagrios the Solitary (alias Neilos the Ascetic: i.e. Evagrios of Pontus), On Prayer (Philokalia I, 176-89, English translation I, 55-71).

iv. A Discourse on Abba Philimon (Philokalia II, 241-52, English translation II, 344-57).

v. St Gregory of Sinai, On the Signs of Grace and Delusion; On Stillness; On Prayer (Philokalia IV, 66-88, English translation IV, 257-86) (28).

But here I strongly recommend readers not to attempt the physical technique mentioned by St Gregory, unless they are under the direct instruction of an experienced spiritual teacher.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus

John Climacus: The Ladder of Divine Ascent (The Classics of Western Spirituality)John Climacus: The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book in Eastertide 2015. I’ve been meaning to write about it for about a year, now! Sorry about that. I felt today would be a good day since yesterday was his commemoration in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Anyway, The Ladder of Divine Ascent is one of the most popular works of spiritual writing in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Its popularity in the Christian East is similar to St Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ — this latter being the most copied, printed, and translated book of western Christendom next to the Bible. It is read in every Eastern Orthodox monastery in Lent as well as by many of the laity.

St John ‘of the Ladder’ (translating klimakos) was the late sixth-century abbot of the monastery at Sinai, now known as St Catherine’s. In this book, he distills the wisdom he has acquired through his own long years as a monk, a solitary, and a spiritual guide.

It is hard when reviewing such a classic as this to find the right words (I used this same cop-out in my review of City of God, I know). I found much of value in it, but it was hard-going. It is not an easy book. Books by monks for monks rarely are. Nonetheless, there is much here even for the lay Anglican. That may not be the strongest recommendation. Nonetheless, I do recommend this book for the determined inquirer in the spiritual reality of the Triune God.

A friend on Facebook asked me if this was a good guide to the via negativa. The answer is that this book is not a work of mystical theology. It is mainly a guide to praktike, the external practices that one must couple to theoria (or contemplation) in order to ascent the ladder to God. A great number of the steps are about how to do battle against the passions, using a slightly different schema of their division from the more famous Evagrian one that made its way into the 7 deadly sins via St Gregory the Great.

This is not to say that theoria is completely ignored by any means. Theoria is the point of the ascent. This text lies historically near the beginning of the Jesus Prayer tradition, as we see in this quotation:

“Let the remembrance of Jesus be present with your every breath. Then indeed you will appreciate the value of stillness.”

St John’s Ladder is about the heart of monastic spirituality. It is about the quest for apatheia — dispassion, that elusive state of being where the unclean logismoi of our flesh or of the demons, stirred up in our fallen hearts, break against our armour, as we storm the gates of Hell armed with prayer and the Holy Name of Jesus on our lips. In this, St John stands with Evagrian apatheia and St John Cassian’s purity of heart.

As the topics of discussion listed below show us, the ascetic practices of the Ladder are not restricted to those of prayer or those of daily life. They embrace the whole of our situation. This is in accord with Archimandrite Sophrony’s warnings in His Life Is Mine against engaging in spiritual practices without the rest of the virtuous life and the doctrine of the Church to uphold us. It resonates also with the introductory remarks to The Philokalia, Volume 1: The Complete Text, where the translators remind us of so many people who get caught up in the externals of Christian life, forgetting the better part of Mary of Bethany.

The 30 steps of the Ladder are:

1. On renunciation of the world
2. On detachment
3. On exile or pilgrimage
4. On blessed and ever-memorable obedience
5. On painstaking and true repentance which constitute the life of the holy convicts; and about the prison (this is about a monastery he visited in Alexandria where monks guilty of certain offences were sent to a “prison”)
6. On remembrance of death
7. On mourning which causes joy
8. On freedom from anger and on meekness
9. On remembrance of wrongs
10. On slander or calumny
11. On talkativeness and silence
12. On lying
13. On despondency (akkedia
14. On the clamorous, yet wicked master—the stomach
15. On incorruptible purity and chastity to which the corruptible attain by toil and sweat
16. On love of money or avarice
17. On poverty (that hastens heavenwards)
18. On insensibility, that is, deadening of the soul and the death of the mind before the death of the body
19. On sleep, prayer, and psalm-singing in chapel
20. On bodily vigil and how to use it to attain spiritual vigil and how to practise it
21. On unmanly and puerile cowardice
22. On the many forms of vainglory
23. On mad pride, and, in the same Step, on unclean blasphemous thoughts
24. On meekness, simplicity, guilelessness which come not from nature but from habit, and about malice
25. On the destroyer of the passions, most sublime humility, which is rooted in spiritual feeling
26. On discernment of thoughts, passions and virtues
27. On holy solitude of body and soul
28. On holy and blessed prayer, mother of virtues, and on the attitude of mind and body in prayer
29. Concerning heaven on earth, or godlike dispassion and perfection, and the resurrection of the soul before the general resurrection
30. Concerning the linking together of the supreme trinity among the virtues

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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.

John Michael Talbot on the Jesus Prayer!

So, if anyone could make me want to become Roman Catholic, it wouldn’t be someone like Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI with his erudition or someone else like that. It would be John Michael Talbot, lay Franciscan and folk musician who writes songs inspired by Scripture, Catholic mystics, the Eucharist, and so forth.

Also, like Kallistos Ware, he has a tremendously mind-blowing beard.

The beards, people! The beards!!!

Anyway, John Michael has been giving talks on the Jesus Prayer around the USA of late, and is going to be releasing a new book on the subject in September, The Jesus Prayer: A Cry of Mercy, A Path of Renewal, from IVP, no less. You can pre-order from his website, or — if you lurk outwith the USA (like me) — Amazon.

And, in the lead-up to the release, he is going to give us a series of YouTube videos with his teaching on the Jesus Prayer! This is very nice of John Michael, and I’m glad he’s done it.

The first video is up already, and in it he discusses very briefly about Christian East and West, and Pope John Paul II’s reference to the Church having two lungs. We western Christians at some point stopped breathing with our mystical lung, and we can learn much from Christians of the eastern traditions.

So he gives us the Jesus Prayer, tying it to the practice of breathing prayer, something he discusses in his earlier book The Music of Creation.

Here’s the video with the whole thing, only seven minutes long: