The Jesus Prayer and me 1: Some books, and a little practice

My four-part discussion (starts here) of why I take issue with Timothy Keller’s severity towards mystical prayer in his book Prayer stems largely from the fact that I, in fact, pray the Jesus Prayer, as I discuss in the last of the four. The Jesus Prayer is:

I first encountered this prayer through The Way of a Pilgrim, in the translation of Helen Bacovcin. I’d picked up a used copy at an event in the summer before my fourth year of undergrad; sadly, I lost it along with my copy of The Poems of St John of the Cross on the bus one day. And, while I think it worked out well for me at the time to seek elsewhere for devotional reading, I have since replaced both in the same translations. The Way of a Pilgrim is a classic of nineteenth-century Russian spirituality; it recounts the story of a Russian pilgrim (wanderer?) who meets different spiritual elders and people in his journeys — and learns the art of the Jesus Prayer along the way.

In The Way of a Pilgrim, the Pilgrim learns from his spiritual father to pray the prayer many times a day, increasing the number of Jesus Prayers he prays until he attains what is called the ‘self-actuating prayer of the heart’ and prays the Jesus Prayer without ceasing. He also reads The Philokalia, as it turns out (my quick intro to that anthology here).

I believe I next met the Jesus Prayer through the work of John Michael Talbot, the summer following graduation. I read The Music of Creation, and it challenged me in various ways. My interest in the mystical/contemplative paths had been piqued by St John of the Cross and Talbot’s work on St Francis already. I’m not actually certain that the Jesus Prayer comes up in that book, but Talbot’s work is where I first met the term hesychasm, and I’ve a feeling I met in that book the idea of praying the Jesus Prayer by inhaling on the invocation, and exhaling with the petition.

Anyway, this was the cusp of leaving for Cyprus, where I spent a year having various adventures and doing evangelistic work amongst the international students. I was loaned vol. 1 of The Philokalia by the dean of St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Nicosia, I read the whole of The Way of a Pilgrim, and I learned much about the Jesus Prayer and icons and the Orthodox tradition from the priests I befriended there, as well as Richard Foster, Prayer, which I was loaned by my team leader. This was an important time — serving others, praying, delving into Scripture. The Jesus Prayer was not yet really woven into my devotional world, though.

However, one way in which Cyprus is important for the Jesus Prayer and Me part of my spiritual journey is the fact that I met the Orthodox and Orthodox liturgy and read Orthodox books and haven’t really stopped since. And that has kept the Jesus Prayer part of my consciousness ever since.

For most of my time after Cyprus, the Jesus Prayer was a sometimes prayer. For a period of time, I would pray it in the style of the rosary, replacing the ‘Hail Marys’ with the Jesus Prayer. As Kallistos Ware says in The Power of the Name, it is a good prayer for waiting in queues or walking down the street. It is a way to use our minds in idle moments, turning those moments to prayer and Almighty God.

And then came the terrible day when anger got the better of me.

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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.