Jesus Prayer - Simplicity and Flexibility
by Bishop Kallistos - Ware
The invocation of the Name if a prayer of the utmost simplicity, accessible to every Christian, but it leads at the same time to the deepest mysteries of contemplation. Anyone proposing to say the Jesus Prayer for lengthy periods of time each day — and, still more, anyone intending to use the breathing control and other physical exercises in conjunction with the Prayer — undoubtedly stands in need of a starets may still practise the Prayer without any fear, so long as they do so only for limited periods — initially, for no more than ten or fifteen minutes at a time — and so long as they make no attempt to interfere with the body’s natural rhythms.
No specialized knowledge or training is required before commencing the Jesus Prayer. To the beginner it is sufficient to say: Simply begin. ‘In order to walk one must take a first step; in order to swim one must throw oneself into the water. It is the same with the Invocation of the Name. Begin to pronounce it with adoration and love. Cling only of Jesus himself. Say his Name slowly, softly and quietly.’
The outward form of the prayer is easily learnt. Basically it consists of the words ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’. There is, however, no strict uniformity. We can say ‘… have mercy on us’, instead of ‘on me’. The verbal formula can be shortened: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me’, or ‘Lord Jesus’, or even ‘Jesus’ alone, although this last is less common. Although this last is less common. Alternatively, the form of words may be expanded by adding ‘a sinner’ at the end, thus underlining the penitential aspect. We can say, recalling Peter’s confession on the road to Caesarea Philippi, ‘… Son of the living God…’. Sometimes an invocation of the Mother of God or the saints is inserted. The one essential and unvarying element is the inclusion of the divine Name ‘Jesus’. Each is free to discover through personal experience the particular form of words which answers most closely to his or her needs. The precise formula employed can of course be varied from time to time, so long as this is not done too often: for, as St Gregory of Sinai warns, ‘Trees which are repeatedly transplanted do not grow roots’.
There is a similar flexibility as regards the outward circumstances in which the Prayer is recited. Two ways of using the Prayer can be distinguished, the ‘free’ and the ‘formal’. By the ‘free’ use is meant the recitation of the Prayer as we are engaged in our usual activities throughout the day. It may be said, once or many times, in the scattered moments which otherwise would be spiritually wasted: when occupied with some familiar and semi-automatic task, such as dressing, washing up, mending socks, or digging in the garden; when walking or driving, when waiting in a bus queue or a traffic jam; in a moment of quiet before some especially painful or difficult interview; when unable to sleep, or before we have gained full consciousness on waking. Part of the distinctive value of the Jesus Prayer lies precisely in the fact that, because of its radical simplicity, it can be prayed in conditions of distraction when more complex forms of prayer are impossible. It is especially helpful in moments of tension and grave anxiety.
This ‘free’ use of the Jesus Prayer enables us to bridge the gap between our explicit ‘times of prayer’ — whether at church services or alone in our own room — and the normal activities of daily life. ‘Pray without ceasing’, St Paul insists (I Thess. 5:17): but how is this possible, since we have many other things to do as well? Bishop Theophan indicates the method in his maxim, ‘The hands at work, the mind and heart with God’. The Jesus Prayer, becoming by frequent repetition almost habitual and unconscious, only in the sanctuary or in solitude, but in the kitchen, on the factory floor, in the office. So we become like Brother Lawrence, who ‘was more united with God during his ordinary activities than in religious exercises’. ‘It is a great delusion’, he remarked, ‘to imagine that prayer-time should be different from any other, for we are equally bound to be united to God by work at work-time as by prayer at prayer-time.’
The ‘free’ recitation of the Jesus Prayer is complemented and strengthened by the ‘formal’ use. In this second case we concentrate our whole attention on the saying of the Prayer, to the exclusion of all external activity. The Invocation forms part of the specific ‘prayer time’ that we set aside for God each day. Normally, along with the Jesus Prayer, we shall also use in our ‘set’ times other forms of prayer taken from the liturgical books, together with Psalm and Scripture readings, intercession, and the like. A few may feel called to an almost exclusive concentration upon the Jesus Prayer, but this does not happen with most. Indeed, many prefer simply to employ the Prayer in the ‘free’ manner without using it ‘formally’ in their ‘set’ time of prayer; and there is nothing disquieting or incorrect about this. The ‘free’ use may certainly exist without the ‘formal’.
In the ‘formal usage, as in the ‘free’, there are no rigid rules, but variety and flexibility. No particular posture is essential. In Orthodox practice the Prayer is most usually recited when seated, but it may also be said standing or kneeling — and even, in cases of bodily weakness and physical exhaustion, when lying down. It is normally recited in more or less complete darkness or with the eyes closed, not with open eyes before an icon illuminated by candles or a votive lamp. Starets Silouan of Mount Athos (1866-1938), when saying the Prayer, used to stow his clock away in a cupboard so as not to hear it ticking, and then pull his thick woollen monastic cap over his eyes and ears.
Darkness, however, can have a soporific effect! If we become drowsy as we sit or kneel reciting the Prayer, then we should stand up for a time, make the Sign of the Cross at the end of each Prayer, and then bend from the waist in a deep bow, touching the ground with the fingers of the right hand. We may even make a prostration each time, touching the ground with our forehead. When reciting the Prayer seated, we should ensure that the chair is not too restful or luxurious; preferably it should have no arms. In Orthodox monasteries a low stool is commonly used, without a back. The Prayer may also be recited standing with arms outstretched in the form of a cross.
A prayer-rope or rosary (komvoschoinion, tchotki) normally with a hundred knots, is often employed in conjunction with the Prayer, not primarily in order to count the number of times it is repeated, but rather as an aid to concentration and the establishment of a regular rhythm. It is a widespread fact of experience that, if we make some use of our hands as we pray, this will help to still our body and to gather us together into the cat of prayer. But quantitative measurement, whether with a prayer-rope or in other ways, is on the whole not encouraged. It is true that, in the early part of The Way of a Pilgrim, great emphasis is laid by the starets on the precise number of times that the Prayer is to be said daily: 3,000 times, increasing to 6,000, and then to 12,000. The Pilgrim is commanded to say an exact number, neither more nor less. Such attention to quantity is altogether unusual. Possibly the point here is not the sheer quantity but the inner attitude of the Pilgrim: the starets wishes to test his obedience and readiness to fulfil an appointed task without deviation. More typical, however, is the advice of Bishop Theophan: ‘Do not trouble about the number of times you say the Prayer. Let this be your sole concern, that it should spring up in your heart with quickening power like a fountain of living water. Expel entirely from your mind all thoughts of quantity.’
The prayer is sometimes recited in groups, but more commonly alone; the words may be said aloud or silently. In Orthodox usage, when recited aloud it is spoken rather than chanted. There should be nothing forced or laboured in the recitation. The words should not be formed with excessive emphasis or inner violence, but the Prayer should be allowed to establish its own rhythm and accentuation, so that in time it comes to ‘sing’ within us by virtue of its intrinsic melody. Starets Parfenii of Kiev likened the flowing movement of the Prayer to a gently murmuring stream.
From all this it can be seen that the Invocation of the Name is a prayer for all seasons. It can be used by everyone, in every place and at every time. It is suitable for the ‘beginner’ as well as the more experienced; it can be offered in company with others or alone; it is equally appropriate in the desert or the city, in surroundings of recollected tranquillity or in the midst of the utmost noise and agitation. It is never out of place.
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