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.

Anger (with a little help from the Desert Fathers and Evagrius)

Sts. Anthony and PaulI used to have a lot of anger issues. Rarely directed towards fellow humans (usually inanimate objects or myself) and certainly never physically violent — at least regarding humans (in first-year undergrad I once chucked a book across my room and made a hole in the wall; the book was the object of my anger). These issues, which rarely but still manifest themselves to do include a lot of physical energy and, if directed at a person, yellling.

Earlier today I got really angry with someone in a café. Which is always awkward. And I can’t get it out of my mind and focus on my work.

Out of remorse for the book-throwing and to mask my folly back in first-year undergrad, I memorised and posted on the wall over the hole James 1:19:

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. (NIV)

Anger, according the fourth-century ascetic movement (I’m thinking mostly of Cassian and Evagrius here) is a result of our inability, postlapsarianly (?), to control the irascible part of our soul. Irascible is just a Latin-based word that means ‘anger-able’. If we were holy, our irascible part would only result in anger towards actual injustice and the abandonment of the worship of God, as we see in Christ clearing the moneychangers out of the Temple. Most of us are not holy, though. And most of our anger arises out of selfishness, out of frustration, out of fallenness, out of a need to be right, out of wounded self.

So, as an exercise for myself, I’m writing this and wondering: What is the Desert teaching on anger? I have here beside me, pulled from my pile of Late Antique/Early Mediaeval monastic texts, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection as translated by Benedicta Ward, and The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer by Evagrius Ponticus, translated by John Eudes Bamberger. Both are from Cistercian, whose monastic ressourcement I have extolled previously.

From the Sayings (the numbers in brackets are the number of each saying by Abba; this is not exhaustive):

Abba Agathon (19): A man who is angry, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God.

Abba Ammonas (3): I have spent fourteen years in Scetis asking God night and day to grant me the victory over anger.

Abba Isaiah (8): When someone wishes to render evil for evil, he can injure his brother’s soul even by a single nod of the head.

Abba Isaiah (11) was also asked what anger is and he replied, ‘Quarrelling, lying and ignorance.’

Abba John the Dwarf (5): Going up the road again towards Scetis with some ropes, I saw the camel driving talking and he made me angry; so, leaving my goods, I took to flight.

Abba John the Dwarf (6): On another occasion in summertime, [Abba John] heard a brother talking angrily to his neighbour, saying, ‘Ah! you too?’ So leaving the harvest, he took to flight.

Abba Nilus (1): Everything you do in revenge against a brother who has harmed you will come back to your mind at the time of prayer.

Abba Nilus (2): Prayer is the seed of gentleness and the absence of anger.

Abba Nilus (6): If you want to pray properly, do not let yourself be upset or you will run in vain.

It is clear that the Desert Fathers (and, undoubtedly, Mothers) had a fairly bleak view of human anger. Evagrius Ponticus, who was a spiritual master who dwelt among them and was highly influential in later Byzantine spirituality, lists anger in the eight deadly thoughts, which are precursors to Gregory the Great’s Seven Deadly Sins. From The Praktikos:

There are eight general and basic categories of thoughts in which are included every thought. First is that of gluottony, then impurity, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and last of all, pride. It is not in our our power to determine whether we are disturbed by these thoughts, but it is up to us to decide if they are to linger within us or not and whether or not they are to stir up our passions. (6)

What, we may ask Evagrius, is anger?

The most fierce passion is anger. In fact it is defined as a boiling and stirring up of wrath against one who has given injury — or is thought to have done so. It constantly irritates the soul and above all at the time of prayer it seizes the mind and flashes the picture of the offensive person before one’s eyes. Then there comes a time when it persists longer, is transformed into indignation, stirs up alarming experiences by night. (Praktikos 11)

Evagrius is insightful. These and the Sayings are all well and good — but how do we fight anger?

Reading, vigils and prayer — these are the things that lend stability to the wandering mind. Hunger, toil and solitude are the means of extinguishing the flames of desire. Turbid anger is calmed by the singing of Psalms, by patience and almsgiving. But all these practices are to be engaged in according to due measure and at the appropriate times. What is untimely done, or done without measure, endures but a short time. And what is short-lived is more harmful than profitable. (Praktikos 15)

He has much more to say on anger than that. What is clear is that anger is not imagined to be part of the holy lifestyle of the Desert monk. And we are to fight anger through prayer, through Psalmody, by patience, and by almsgiving. The outward disciplines combined with an inner seeking after God, then, will help people like me be free from anger.

What more remains to me than this — Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.