About this content: What follows are notes taken from previously recorded audio lectures given by Father Thomas Hopko to seminarians. The recording audio quality was poor at times since they were converted from cassette tapes to mp3. The date of the recordings is uncertain. It seems Father Thomas named this series of lectures “The Practice of Personal Prayer and its relation to the Spiritual Life in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition”. With God’s help, this series of posts simply aims to share some of the main points of this teaching with other people who have a sincere longing for God.
What is the Jesus Prayer?
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,
have mercy on me, a sinner.
- [The Jesus Prayer is] advised to everybody [not just monks].
- In his book, The Spiritual Life and How to be Attuned to it, Saint Theophan the Recluse teaches beginners can start with the Jesus Prayer and that it is not just for high mystics. However, any prayer should be done with help and guidance.
- Prayer should be practiced simply, humbly with faith and with courage.
- We should not be seeking particular visions or voices in prayer
- We should just humbly, simply call on the Name of the Lord
- We should be awake to His presence
- We should be alive to His activity in our life
- We should pray to be in communion with God
- We should pray to do His will
- We should keep His commandments which means to love with the love of God in Christ as He loves us by the power of the Holy Spirit.
If we recite the prayer with faith working to bring the mind to attention in prayer, God will do the rest.
Jesus Prayer as part of a rule
- Generally, a rule of prayer should consist of:
- #1 – Participate in the Divine Liturgy
- #2 – A short prayer that can be said throughout the day
“… lash the devil with the name of Jesus, there is no stronger weapon in heaven and earth.”
– Saint John Climacus
“…one will not overcome temptation without the name of Jesus on the mouth and heart.”
– Saint Theophan the Recluse
- One can make the Jesus prayer part of the rule, e.g. repeat so many number of repetitions rather than an additional part of prayer.
Other uses include:
- Pray the Jesus Prayer at certain times of the day
- Stand or sit and consciously pray the Jesus Prayer
- Some people may use the Jesus prayer as their private rule
- The Way of the Pilgrim describes a rule of a number of prayers, counted on the prayer rope.
- Stand or sit quietly and include prostrations if possible to stay in shape which will help to be able to pay attention better.
- It may be more relevant in our times to simply pray the Jesus prayer quietly and calmly since we are so often bombarded with external noise.
- Take a 10-minute walk while reciting the Jesus Prayer.
- We are bombarded with words in both sound and sight. Prayer should be the opposite – prayer should quiet down; with less words; more attention to God.
- Using less words becomes a relief in some way to many because it is simple and quiet compared to the everyday life for many in the world.
- Practicing silence and paying attention is a lost art in modern times.
- Simply praying the Jesus Prayer quietly and calmly is a great place to start for those that cannot keep any other rule.
- Recite Psalm 50/51 “Hear O Lord the words of my lips…” Start there, then get to the mind and the heart.
- God will honor our prayer if our heart is humble.
The goal is to start prayer somewhere, even if short and lacking in attention at first – God will hear a humble prayer.
Position of the body
- The heart and the mind have to pray, but the body also has to participate in the prayer as well.
- Both St Ignatius Brianchaninov and St Theophan teach this.
- The body participates in the prayer of the heart.
- When done in order for heart and mind to be attentive, the body must be also.
- One can pray walking, standing, sitting, lying down, even while preparing to sleep – if that is the intent at the time – but when one is trying to hold strict attention to the prayer, position matters for the intention of the act.
- Use the bodily position that you can do, not what you think you ought to do.
- Use the prayer rope (chotki) as a means of counting and a material means of concentration [if helpful].
- Bodily position and the prayer rope are simply helps to remain attentive to prayer.
- Be humble, use the prayer rope if it helps. If it is a crutch, fine! Admit that in humility.
- Routine in the spiritual life is an aid. Of course we fall apart if we forget God!
- We should use all helpful aids in our spiritual life.
- Other examples of helpful aids in prayer include:
- darkness + candle + icon
- To progress in prayer, you start with the “law” of prayer
- Use physical things (e.g. place, books, clothes, prayer ropes) that are beneficial to continuous prayer.
- Use anything that reminds you of God and your relationship to Him.
- Wear a cross as a physical reminder of Christ.
- We wear the cross around our neck for ourselves not for others.
- The goal is not having to think about it anymore (e.g. in the monastic habit, monks wear and eat same thing every day, allowing them to think about other things more important than clothing and food – this allows them to focus on God).
- Physical silence
- Strive to learn silence
- It has been said, “If you cannot be silent, you should never speak”.
- In order to be attentive to God, one must learn to be silent.
- Learn to be quiet.
- Before one is ordained they must learn silence and how to be attentive to God.
- Inner silence
- Hesychia means “silence” and is associated with the monastic form of practice of the Jesus Prayer
- Strive to build up an “inner silence” that you can enter even when there is external noise around you.
- The spiritual reality of silence can be present even during external noise – even when around other people and/or talking to other people.
“I practice inner prayer as though I was in the Jordan desert even during the business of seeing people during the day, I carry my desert within.”
– Saint Paisius Velichkovsky
- Saint John of Kronstadt also said, “I carry my desert [solitude] within”.
- Continuous prayer actually produces that inner space of solitude/peace.
- Prayer of silence grows a certain inner silence inside, where you can commune [with God] as St Paisius Velichkovsky and St John of Kronstadt did to be fed spiritually.
- The “prayer of quiet” leads to dispassion or passionlessness (i.e to not be moved).
- Passionlessness does not mean you turn into a rock, it means you are not moved, you are at peace, the shalom of God is in you but you still live in the world.
- Passionlessness does not mean the absence of temptations.
- St Anthony said “temptations are expected until the last breath” but [with God’s help] we can get to the point where the temptation does not move us.
- The temptations conversely inspire a deeper commitment to God.
- No temptations, no salvation.
- Temptations exist, but do not have to move us and/or be acted upon, rather, they can inspire a deeper commitment to God and neighbor as a result [of the temptation].
- Passionlessness does not mean the absence of feelings and emotions.
- Passions (there are good ones), are God-given feelings and emotions that are part of human nature.
- Good passions are different from sinful natures.
- For example, zeal is a human passion that can be good, but it can also be misplaced.
- Blameworthy passions are natural passions in a fallen state.
- The Jesus Prayer helps direct natural passions toward their proper end which is God and to be fulfilled as such. This leads to a satisfaction with desire for more righteousness.
- Righteousness increases peacefully.
- Through the use of the Jesus Prayer, godly passions such as zeal are properly fulfilled while sinful passions are starved.
- Never look for special feelings when practicing the Jesus Prayer.
- Never trust feelings either.
- Lonely times may actually be times of growth, while happier times might be lesser so.
- When something is truly from God, you will know it.
- Joy, peace and well-being definitely come from prayer.
- Feeling rotten and cold is a danger sign that something is wrong.
- Saint Seraphim of Sarov asked Motovilov – “How do you feel”?
Don’t analyze things – especially if you have doubts – just get back to what you should be doing. Let the doubts go, just start praying again.
Tears of Repentance
- Genuine tears are a gift but always have the joy of God.
- When tears are of repentance, they are always connected with joy, not despair.
- Ungodly grief is from the devil such as weeping over sins for egotistical reasons such as:
- “My spiritual life is not going the way I want it to go.“
- “I keep sinning! I should be past this by now.“
- The above are signs of egotistical grief.
- Godly grief is always accompanied by joy.
- Saint John Climacus wrote about the “blessed joy grief” of holy compunction.
- Icons often reveal the furrowed brow of a saint, but the saints also shine forth with radiant light, so joy and grief do go together.
- Compunction is a gift.
- Contrition only comes as we get closer to God.
- Compunction comes from joy, and a sense of forgiveness.
- Don’t look for the gift of tears, but it can come from God, even during the Liturgy!
- Don’t try to make tears happen, but don’t assume you are wrong if there are none.
- The saints teach repentance is blessed through tears.
- Eating makes the body full and less attentive to prayer.
- Eating can make one more lustful.
- Gratifying the belly and sexual drives does not help prayer.
- A full belly adds difficulty to being spiritually attentive, staying focused.
- A full belly also can lead to sexual lust.
- Bodily lusts such as hunger for food and sex are are not conducive to prayer.
- The mind cannot be on God while on these appetites.
- Saint Paul speaks of temporary abstinence in marriage by mutual consent only – to give one self to prayer, but then come back together lest the devil tempt you. (I Corinthians 7:5)
- Food in moderation and sexual relationships within marriage are not evil, but neither do they contribute to devoted efforts to prayer.
- When making a spiritual effort we give up good things such as food and sexual activity to focus on that effort and vigil.
- We remember God at all times, in all activities whatsoever.
- Whatever you do, do to the glory of God. (I Corinthians 10:31)
- The sexual activity is blessed within a marriage [as described in Holy Scripture].
- It is not in the Orthodox tradition that you cannot pray if you are sexually active in a marriage [as described in Holy Scripture].
- Marriage is a sacrament, or a “holy mystery” blessed by God.
- You can be married, but still lustful which is a sin.
- Ideally the sexual union in marriage as described in Holy Scripture can be consecrated by God.
- Saints Joachim and Anna (parents of The Virgin Mary), and Saints Zachariah and Elizabeth (parents of St. John the Baptist) are examples of a wedded couples with the marriage bed blessed by God.
- The Orthodox Church calendar has two feast days that celebrate conception:
- There is a time for everything – sometimes abstain, sometimes not.
- If living for lust and/or for the belly, one will not be a person of prayer.
- Fasting from sex and food at times is essential to the practice of prayer.
- Without attention there is no prayer.
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.
– Galatians 2:20
- True grace-given attention comes from the mortification of our heart to the world.
- Aids to help us with attention such as prayer ropes and icons always remain aids. These are a means to an end.
- The more you pray the more attentive you will become.
- Watchfulness is a form of spiritual vigilance.
- If you are distracted by something, return yourself to watchfulness and attention by using the Jesus prayer even if you are in the liturgy.
- The Jesus prayer can be prayed in silence, slowly with attention, and sensitive to reality.
- Being alive to the present moment is necessary to do God’s will in that moment.
- The Jesus prayer makes one more attentive to the present moment.
- Say the prayer with as much attention as you have.
- Therefore, to increase attentiveness, you need to use attentiveness.
- Attentiveness is cyclical. Like praying to be able to pray, or believing to have more faith.
- Attentiveness illumines the mind.
- Invoking the name of Jesus with attention (watchfulness) mutually reinforces prayer and vice versa, it is a symbiotic relationship. They live together.
- The Jesus prayer makes you alive and present where you are, it is not used as a way to escape reality, but rather it plunges you into reality.
- It is Jesus Christ Who purifies the heart. Everything is flooded with the Light of God, then you finally see things clearly, you see with the the mind of Christ.
- Being in this state makes it impossible to sin [in that moment].
- The fruit of the Holy Spirit is manifested when Christ purifies the heart, thus making sin impossible [when attentive in this way].
When reality is seen in the light of Christ…
it is completely different and leads you to want to help others, be calm, compassionate, do good, just the opposite of when seeing reality in the darkness of the world.
When reality is seen in the light of Christ…
you begin to understanding everything is infinitely loved by God, which leads you to become love yourself, you become prayer, then darkness disappears, hostility disappears, impurities disappear, the person praying this way becomes a presence of God hence “deification” (i.e. theosis).
- This is how praying keeps us from sinning.
- Having the mind of Christ, acquired through the prayer, will actually prevent us from sinning.
- When we see things through the eyes of Christ, we no longer sin.
- To the measure that we are in Christ, is the measure we cannot sin.
- With the mind of Christ, one becomes prayer.
- With the mind of Christ one becomes love, because God is love. This is how theosis begins to happen.
- If you really love God, you weep for everyone.
- Pray for yourself using the Jesus prayer and organically you will embrace a prayer of intercession for everyone and everything.
We cannot force holiness by technique, it is grace and a gift from God.
God is at work in us.
Our task is to make ourselves available to God.
This is what all aids and techniques are for.
- Our method of prayer can be connected with our daily activities such as breathing and walking.
- Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov taught there are bodily practices that aid in attentiveness or assist in prayer, but these can cause difficulty for many readers. If so, do not try to learn this on its own, let the practice manifest itself by its own accord [with God’s help and guidance from one’s spiritual father].
- The essence of the matter is achieving union of the mind with the heart during prayer – this is achieved in its own time, determined by God.
- Aids to attention in prayer include:
- Practice unhurried, annunciation of the prayer.
- Take a short rest between each prayer.
- Practice gentle unhurried breathing.
- Practice enclosure of the mind in the words of the prayer.
- With God’s help, strive for union of the mind with the heart.
- Attention of the mind begins to attract the sympathy of the heart.
- Sympathy of the heart, little by little, begins to form union with the mind, then the mechanism offered by the Church Fathers appears by its own accord.
- Mechanical means are offered by the Church Fathers solely as aids to the attainment of attention in prayer as easily and quickly as possible.
- Repeat the prayer with your mouth if alone.
- If in public the prayer can be prayed in the mind.
- The general teaching is that the prayer is connected with bodily rhythm such as breathing or walking or even falling asleep
- Mechanical aids are not essential.
- Attention is the indispensable essential.
- The Jesus prayer can become part of one’s system enough that it becomes implanted in the heart.
“Let us provide our prayer with two qualities: attention and repentance. Let it fly up to the heavens with them as upon two wings, then appear before the face of God, and intercede for us to gain His mercy.”
– Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov
For more information about the Jesus Prayer, see the Orthodox Faith Volume IV by Father Thomas Hopko