Possible Problems and Cautions in Practicing the Jesus Prayer
Possible Problems Encountered
Sleep or drowsiness can be a problem in prayer. When you come from a very busy and tense environment, your body changes dramatically when you enter into prayer. It relaxes to the extent that you may then fall asleep. As you begin to concentrate the neuromuscular system begins to relax and this may cause drowsiness. When you feel this condition coming on you can change your position. If you are using a seated position for prayer, consider standing for prayer which for some is a preferred position. If you are praying silently in the mind, begin to say the prayer orally. If you are saying the prayer orally, say it louder. Make a few prostrations. Drowsiness is a condition that you will have to fight. If you let it become a pattern, it too will get etched into your brain and become more and more difficult to overcome. You can develop an automatic response of drowsiness every time you begin to pray. Don’t let this condition be distressing as it simply means that your nervous system has begun to relax. It is an indicator that you have successfully made a transition from your normal hectic world to one that is much slower and relaxed. Learn to take some gentle action to fight it off.
It is also possible that you may experience strong emotions during prayer. This can happen as you begin to find a deeper level of concentration and feel like you are about to enter in the place of the heart. If you are overcome with strong emotions simply open your eyes for a moment, make the sign of the cross and a few prostrations and then continue on with your prayer. If you experience tears this is a good sign, but do not delight in the tears. They are normally accompanied with a feeling of humility and contrition coupled with a profound love for God.
Another problem is seeing lights, images or even apparitions. They may even seem like bright ones. Saint Nil Sorski tells us,
“Do not permit yourself any concepts, images, or visions. For vivid images darting to and fro, and flights of fancy do not cease even when the mind stand in the heart and recites prayer: no one is able to rule over them, except those who have attained perfection by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and who have acquired stability of mind through Jesus Christ.” (Art of Prayer, p 101)
Saint Gregory the Sinaite warns similarly,
It must be completely imageless and we must on no account give freedom to the imagination or allow the fancy to form an image of any saint or light; because usually delusions, especially at the beginning deceive the minds of the inexperienced with false fantasies.
(Saint Gregory Sinaite, On the Prayer of Jesus by ignatius Brianchaninov, p 67)
The imagination is very strong and active. It will be stimulated by things in your memory. You may project into the future or dig back into unpleasant past. You want to dispel all images from your mind in prayer.34 Apparitions are especially dangerous. If you ever do have an apparition while praying, do not listen to, respond, or follow its direction, even if it is the Theotokos or your patron saint. Ignore it and immediately arrange to see your spiritual Father for advice. Any legitimate encounter will be surrounded with peacefulness and love and will return if it is legitimate. Such images are a common way the evil spirits work on us to mislead us. Often this work of the imagination will help us see a sinful past that we need to cleanse though the sacrament of Confession. Be sure to see your spiritual father when you experience any such images.
There are some cautions that are in order when practicing the Jesus Prayer.
• First, you should not practice this method of prayer unless you are regularly attending worship services, participating in the Sacraments of the Church, and reading the Scriptures.
• Second, you should not force yourself into the discovery within yourself of the action of the prayer of the heart.
• Third, you should not connect this practice with breathing exercises or other yoga techniques unless you are directed by your spiritual father.
Remember, delusion is your enemy. “An insignificant, unnoticed hope or trust in something outside God can stop the advance of progress... Faith in God is leader, guide, legs and wings.” If you begin to think that it is by your efforts that you will find unity with God, you are being deluded and in great spiritual danger.
Pride in your accomplishments through these efforts can stop you dead in your tracks. Any hint of pride needs to be recognized. Grace comes with humility. As soon as you feel pride recognize it and ask for forgiveness. If you don’t, your prayer will become cold and dark. Once you repent, recognize your error and ask for forgiveness, you will be able continue on the path. This is normal. We fall down and we seek help and mercy asking for forgiveness and we cleanse ourselves of impurity. We do this time and time again. Through this process, step by step, we become purer and our prayer life deepens until we find the union of love with God.