The Heart of Philokalic Spirituality: The Jesus Prayer
As we continue our reading of “On Watchfulness and Holiness”, Hesychios emphasizes the importance of prayer to Jesus in the spiritual battle; in particular, the Jesus Prayer.
“You will not find a greater help than Jesus in all your life, for He alone, as God, knows the deceitful ways of the demons, their subtlety and their guile.”
The Jesus prayer is at the heart of philokalic spirituality for the simple reason that Jesus must be there. It is through Him alone that we are redeemed and it through his presence alone that we can overcome the temptations of the demons and be healed of our passions. And so, Hesychios exhorts us:
“Let your soul . . . trust in Christ, let it call on Him and never fear; for it fights, not alone, but with the aid of a mighty King, Jesus Christ, Creator of all that is, both bodiless and embodied, visible and invisible.”
It is with utmost humility and trust that we call upon Christ as both the publican and blind man did in the gospel: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” And when we do this, we likewise seek to fulfill the biblical command to “pray without ceasing.” There is much to be said about this important prayer and we will come back to it repeatedly in future posts. However, Hesychios begins by telling us that the more we pray it, the more we call upon the name of Jesus, the greater our joy becomes and the more pliable our hearts become in order that they might once again be shaped and formed in accord with His will:
“The more the rain falls on the earth, the softer it makes it; similarly, Christ’s holy name gladdens the earth of our heart the more we call upon it.”
We find this echoed in the experiences of the Russian peasant in the spiritual classic “The Way of the Pilgrim” as he immersed himself more and more fully in the practice of the Jesus Prayer. He came to know the transforming joy and power of the name of Jesus and came to understand what it means to have the Kingdom of God within you:
“When I prayed in my heart, everything around me seemed delightful and marvelous. 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 all things prayed to God and sang his praise. . .The invocation of the Name of Jesus gladdened my way. Everybody was kind to 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. . . Sometimes there was such a bubbling up in my heart and a lightness, a freedom, a joy so great that I was transformed and felt in ecstasy. Sometimes I felt a burning love for Jesus Christ and for the whole divine creation. Sometimes my tears flowed all on their own in thanksgiving to the Lord who had mercy on me, such a hardened sinner. Sometimes the sweet warmth of my heart spilled over into all my being, and I felt the presence of the Lord with great emotion. Sometimes, I felt a powerful and deep joy invoking the name of Jesus Christ, and I understood the meaning of his saying, ‘The Kingdom of God is within you’”(from the Way of the Pilgrim).
There is both power and presence in the name of Jesus, “the name that is above every name.” According to Anthony Coniaris, “the name of Jesus alone can fulfill the whole need of the one who prays when it is prayed with faith and with a life that is lived in obedience to Christ” (“Philokalia: the Bible of Orthodox Spirituality, 45).
It is for these reasons that Hesychios states so firmly:
“Those who lack experience should know that it is only through the unceasing watchfulness of our intellect (nous) and the constant invocation of Jesus Christ, . . that we, coarse and cloddish in mind and body as we are, can overcome our bodiless and invisible enemies . . .” (Philokalia, Vol 1, 169)
Through the constant invocation of Jesus Christ, Christ is present in the heart and so we are both strengthened and changed. Perhaps nowhere is this captured more beautifully than in the words of St. John Chrysostom where we are told that through the Jesus Prayer we find both victory in our spiritual battle and unity with our God:
“I implore you, brethren, never to break or despise the rule of this prayer: A Christian when he eats, drinks, walks, sits, travels or does any other thing must continually cry: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.‘ So that the name of the Lord Jesus descending into the depths of the heart, should subdue the serpent ruling over the inner pastures and bring life and salvation to the soul. He should always live with the name of the Lord Jesus, so that the heart swallows the Lord and the Lord the heart, and the two become one. And again: do not estrange your heart from God, but abide in Him, and always guard your heart by remembering our Lord Jesus Christ, until the name of the Lord becomes rooted in the heart and it ceases to think anything else.”
One contemporary writer, Fr Theophanes from Kafsokalyvia, Holy Mount Athos, captures the beauty and power of this constant invocation similarly in his work “The Psychological Basis of Mental Prayer in the Heart.” Fr. Theophanes tells us that we can think of the Jesus Prayer iconographically:
“We might compare this repetitive play to a verbal icon which renders charismatically present him who is portrayed. This is the mental representation explained in the language of the theology of icons. Just as demonic mental representations pollute and disorient the person, so the mental representation of the name of Jesus together with all the mental representations which are introduced by the formula being used make joyous and gladden the heart. This has much to do with the person of Jesus. His name is his icon in the intellect of the person praying the Jesus Prayer. His name warms the soul by making Jesus himself present in the soul of the person praying, in the same way that an icon makes him present in that person’s home.”
Such thoughts make it clear that the Fathers and Hesychios are not simply describing a Christian kind of “mantra” in the Jesus Prayer but a great deal more; for while indeed such a prayer repeatedly places certain representations before the intellect and soul, it does so in the context of the faith and life of a Christian and the one invoked is God from God and Light from Light, true God from true God. Such an invocation brings about not only the deepest healing but through it we are transformed, as St. Paul says, from glory to glory until the two hearts become one; where the estrangement of sin passes away and only an abiding love remains.