Jesus Prayer - The Journey’s Endby Bishop Kallistos-Ware
The aim of the Jesus Prayer, as of all Christian prayer, is that our praying should become increasingly identified with the prayer offered by Jesus the High Priest with us, that our life should become one with his life, our breathing with the Divine Breath that sustains the universe. The final objective may aptly be described by the Patristic term theosis, ‘deification’ of ‘divinization’. In the words of Archpriest Sergei Bulgakov, ‘The Name of Jesus, present in the human heart, confers upon it the power of deification.’ ‘The logos became man,’ says St Athanasius, ‘that we might become god.’ He who is God by nature took our humanity, that we humans might share by grace in his divinity, becoming ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Pet. 1:4). The Jesus Prayer, addressed to the Logos Incarnate, is a means of realizing within ourselves this mystery of theosis, whereby human persons attain the true likeness of God.
The Jesus Prayer, by uniting us to Christ, helps us to share in the mutual indwelling or perichoresis of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. The more the Prayer becomes a part of ourselves, the more we enter into the movement of love which passes unceasingly between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Of this love St Isaac the Syrian has written with great beauty:
Love is the kingdom of which our Lord spoke symbolically when he promised his disciples that they would eat in his kingdom: ‘You shall eat and drink at the table of my kingdom.’ What should they eat, if not love? … When we have reached love, we have reached God and our way is ended: we have passed over to the island that lies beyond the world, where is the Father with the Son and the Holy Spirit: to whom be glory and dominion.
In the Hesychast tradition, the mystery of theosis has most often taken the outward form of a vision of light. This light which the saints behold in prayer is neither a symbolical light of the intellect, nor yet a physical and created light of the senses. It is nothing less than the divine and uncreated Light of the Godhead, which shone from Christ at his Transfiguration on Mount Tabor and which will illumine the whole world at his second coming on the Last Day. Here is a characteristic passage on the Divine Light taken from St Gregory Palamas. He is describing the Apostle’s vision when he was caught up into the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2-4):
Paul saw a light without limits below or above or to the sides; he saw no limit whatever to the light that appeared to him and shone around him, but it was like a sun infinitely brighter and vaster than the universe; and in the midst of this sun he himself stood, having become nothing but eye.
Such is the vision of glory to which we may approach through the Invocation of the Name.
The Jesus Prayer causes the brightness of the Transfiguration to penetrate into every corner of our life. Constant repetition has two effects upon the anonymous author of The Way of a Pilgrim. First, it transforms his relationship with the material creation around him, making all things transparent, changing them into a sacrament of God’s presence. He writes:
When I prayed with my heart, everything around me seemed delightful and marvellous. The trees, the grass, the birds, the air, the light seemed to be telling me that they existed for man’s sake, that they witnessed to the love of God for man, that everything proved the love of God for man, that all things prayed to God and sang his praise. Thus it was that I came to understand what The Philokalia calls ‘the knowledge of the speech of all creatures’ . . . I felt a burning love for Jesus and for all God’s creatures.
In the words of Father Bulgakov, ‘Shining through the heart, the light of the Name of Jesus illuminates all the universe.’
In the second place, the Prayer transfigures the Pilgrim’s relation not only with the material creation but with other humans:
Again I started off on my wanderings. But now I did not walk along as before, filled with care. The invocation of the Name of Jesus gladdened my way. Everybody was kind to me, it was as though everyone loved me. . . . If anyone harms me I have only to think, ‘How sweet is the Prayer of Jesus!’ and the injury and the anger alike pass away and I forget it all.
‘Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me’(Matt. 25:40). The Jesus Prayer helps us to see Christ in each one, and each one in Christ.
The Invocation of the Name is in this way joyful rather than penitential, world-affirming rather than world-denying. To some, hearing about the Jesus Prayer for the first time, it may appear that to sit alone in the darkness with eyes closed, constantly repeating ‘. . . have mercy on me’, is a gloomy and despondent way of praying. And they may also be tempted to regard it as self-centred and escapist, introverted, an evasion of responsibility to the human community at large. But this would be a grave misunderstanding. For those who have actually made the Way of the Name their own, it turns out to be not sombre and oppressive but a source of liberation and healing. The warmth and joyfulness of the Jesus Prayer is particularly evident in the writings of St Hesychius of Sinai (eighth-ninth century):
Through persistence in the Jesus Prayer the intellect attains a state of sweetness and peace . . . .
The more the rain falls on the earth, the softer it makes it; similarly, the more we call upon Christ’s Holy Name, the greater the rejoicing and exultation it brings the earth of our heart . . . .
The sun rising over the earth creates the daylight; and the venerable and Holy Name of the Lord Jesus, shining continually in the mind, gives birth to countless thoughts radiant as the sun.
Moreover, so far from turning our backs on others and repudiating God’s creation when we say the Jesus Prayer, we are in fact affirming our commitment to our neighbour and our sense of the value of everyone and everything in God. ‘Acquire inner peace,’ said St Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833), ‘and thousands around you will find their salvation.’ By standing in Christ’s presence even for no more than a few moments of each day, invoking his Name, we deepen and transform all the remaining moments of the day, rendering ourselves available to others, effective and creative, in a way that we could not otherwise be. And if we also use the Prayer in a ‘free’ manner throughout the day, this enables us to ‘set the divine seal on the world’, to adopt a phrase of Dr Nadejda Gorodetzky (1901-85):
We can apply this name to people, books, flowers, to all things we meet, see or think. The Name of Jesus may become a mystical key to the world, an instrument of the hidden offering of everything and everyone, setting the divine seal on the world. One might perhaps speak here of the priesthood of all believers. In union with our High Priest, we implore the Spirit: Make my prayer into a sacrament.
‘We can apply this Name to people . . . .’ Here Dr Gorodetzky suggests a possible answer to a question that is often raised: Can the Jesus Prayer be used as a form of intercession? The reply must be that, in the strict sense, it is distinct from intercessory prayer. As an expression of non-discursive, non-iconic ‘waiting upon God’, it does not involve the explicit recalling and mention of particular names. We simply turn to Jesus. It is true, of course, that in turning to Jesus we do not thereby turn away from our fellow humans. All those whom we love are already embraced in his heart, loved by him infinitely more than by us, and so in the end through the Jesus Prayer we find them all again in him; invoking the Name, we enter more and more fully into Christ’s overflowing love for the entire world. But if we are following the traditional Hesychast pattern of the Jesus Prayer, we do not bring others before him specifically by name, or hold them deliberately in our mind, as we recite the Invocation.
All this, however, does not exclude the possibility of also giving to the Jesus Prayer an intercessory dimension. On occasion, alike in the ‘free’ and the ‘formal’ use, we may feel moved to ‘apply’ the Name to one or more particular persons, invoking Jesus upon them as we say ‘. . . have mercy on us’, or even including the actual name or names, ‘. . . have mercy on John’. Even if this is not exactly what the Hesychast texts envisage, it is surely a legitimate and helpful extension to the practice of the Jesus Prayer. The Way of the Name has a wideness, a generosity, not to be confined within rigid and unvarying rules.
‘Prayer is action; to pray is to be highly effective.’ Of no prayer is this more true than of the Jesus Prayer. While it is singled out for particular mention in the office of monastic profession as a prayer for monks and nuns, it is equally a prayer for laymen, for married couples, for doctors and psychiatrists, for social workers and bus conductors.
The Invocation of the Name, practised aright, involves each one more deeply in his or her appointed task, making each more efficient in his actions, not cutting him off from others but linking him to them, rendering him sensitive to their fears and anxieties in a way that he never was before. The Jesus Prayer makes each into a ‘man for others’, a living instrument of God’s peace, a dynamic centre of reconciliation.