Tag Archives: Jesus Prayer

Homily: We Are Called to Know God

March 4 (O.S., February 19) 2018: Second Sunday of the Great Lent: St. Gregory Palamas the Archbishop of Thessalonica; Synaxis of all Venerable Fathers of the Kyiv Caves; Apostles Archippus and Philemon of the Seventy, and Martyr Apphia (1st c.); Martyrs Maximus, Theodotus, Hesychius, and Asclepiodotus of Adrianopolis (305-311); Sts. Eugene and Macarius, presbyters, confessors at Antioch (363); St. Dositheus of Palestine (6th c.), disciple of St. Abba Dorotheus. St. Rabulas (530).

Epistle: Hebrews 1:10-2:3/Hebrews 7:26-8:2
Gospel: Mark 2:1-12/John 10:9-16

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Today the Church commemorates our father among the saints, Gregory Palamas the 13th-century Archbishop of Thessalonica.

Reading the saint’s vita, indeed reading the life of many of saints and fathers of the Church, it’s hard to avoid the realization that it has never been easy to follow Christ. St Gregory, for example, spent the three years immediately before he was consecrated bishop in prison because of his unwavering commitment to the Gospel.

After he became the archbishop of Thessalonica, popular opposition prevented from taking his diocese. In fact, he spent most of his episcopate not in Thessalonica but an exile in Constantinople.

So what is it about the saint that stirred up such opposition?

St Gregory is primarily known for his defense of those monks on Mount Athos who taught that it was possible to see the divine light with, as they said, our bodily eyes. This teaching has a solid biblical foundation. On Mount Tabor, the disciples Peter, James and John, the monks argued, were able to see the divine light when Jesus was transfigured before their eyes (see Matthew 17:1–8, Mark 9:2–8, Luke 9:28–36).

The important point for our salvation is this. If, as Palamas’ opponents argued, what the monks saw was not the uncreated divine light but merely an internal psychological phenomenon (a “created reality” as they said), then if fact we don’t know God. All we know is our idea about God.

It also means that my body hasn’t been redeemed. Instead, my body becomes an obstacle to communion with God.

And if all this is true then God never REALLY became Man and took on our nature. All we have, for Palamas’s opponents, are ideas. Beautiful ideas, inspiring ideas but just ideas.

This is the error that St Gregory fought. While the details of his argument are interesting, they are too complex for a homily. What matters for us is his conclusion that we can have a tangible experience of God. Even in this life, we are not limited merely to ideas about God.

In the troparion for Transfiguration we sing that Jesus revealed as much of His glory as the disciples “as they could bear.” The idea here is clear. On Mount Tabor Peter, James and John get a glimpse of the divine light that always surrounded Jesus. They, and we, see as much of God’s glory as we are able to bear.

My openness to see and willingness to receive His glory is what matters.

For many Orthodox Christians, hearing that the experience of God is an ordinary part of life in Christ is something they’ve never heard. It such a strange thing to hear that it sounds wrong.

But one of the central reasons why my spiritual life often feels rote, like I’m only going through the motions is because I confuse the means of the Christian life with its goal. The sacraments and the services of the Church, the ascetical life and the works of mercy, reading the Scriptures and the fathers, all of these are the means of the Christian life. They are things we do.

But the goal of the Christian life is, as St Gregory tells us, to experience God’s love for us. And to experience not just theoretically but tangibly. Bodily even.

Often when I tell people this they nod their heads in understanding but then they’ll pause. Their expression makes clear that they are wondering why they haven’t experienced God’s love for them. Across their face is written the thought, “What’s wrong with me? Does God not love me?”

In fact many of us do experience God’s love for us. We just don’t recognize the experience for what it is. Often a deep sense of peace will settle on a person. It is these moments of inner quiet that the monks of Mount Athos understood to be an experience of God’s love.

I overlook the importance of these moments because I so rarely take the time to be still. I get so busy that those moments of inner quiet that the monks saw as the fruit of the Jesus Prayer–”Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on me a sinner”–can seem to us more like checking out of life. Worse, we might even wonder if there isn’t something physically or psychologically wrong with us.

The opposite is the case.

The busyness that consumes my life, the frenetic pursuit of material goods or social status,  are the real pathologies of human life. It is inner quiet–heyschia in Greek–that’s normal and healthy not only spiritually but physically and psychologically.

None of this is to say it is wrong to work hard or to be successful, Far from it!

God has given us not only spiritual gifts but material and intellectual gifts as well. All the gifts that God gives us should be received with thanksgiving. And, like the good steward in the Gospel (Matthew 25:14-30), we should develop the gifts God has given us so that we are profitable servants.

The problem is that I’ve flipped the script. I value worldly success as an end in itself. My love of worldly success is so deeply rooted, I even think of my spiritual life in worldly terms. How long I pray and how strictly I fast; how many good deeds have I done or how well do I know Scripture or the fathers.

Again, like material and social success, are good gifts given in the service of growing in God’s love. All the good things in our lives find their fulfillment in the experience of inner quiet. In the tangible experience of God’s love for us.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! As we go through the rest of the Great Fast, we should try to carve out for ourselves times of quiet. It is in these moments when, like the disciples on Mount Tabor and the monks of Mount Athos, that we can become more aware of God’s presence in our lives and His great love not only for us but for all we meet.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The Jesus Prayer

When I talk with people about their spiritual lives I often come away with the impression that they don’t think praying counts unless it hurts. So many of us think we need to stand at attention to pray; so many of us undermine our own spiritual lives because we act like a soldier on guard duty rather than like a small child on our Father’s lap.

This anxiety about prayer isn’t helpful. “Prayer,” says St Isaac the Syrian, “is a joy that gives way to thanksgivings.” As we cultivate inner stillness, we become aware of the presence of God in our lives and the myriad small blessings He has bestowed on us. So how can we begin to pray?

I like to teach young people to say the Jesus Prayer.

St Porphyrios says that “There’s no need for any special concentration in order to say the Jesus Prayer.” He goes on to say that the Jesus Prayer “doesn’t require any effort if you have love of God.” What make the Jesus Prayer especially valuable for young people is that, as the saint says, it is a prayer you can say “Wherever you are, on a stool, a chair, in a car, anywhere, on the road, at school, in the office, at work, you can say the prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me’.”

Prayer requires silence and silence requires privacy. So we first need to help young people a cultivate a healthy sense of privacy, of being alone. In time, and by God’s grace, privacy grows into solitude—of being alone with God.

And with solitude comes a sense of atonement of being of “at one”-ment, of being reconciled with God in and through the Person of Jesus Christ.

But being alone, and especially being alone without distractions can be hard for all of us but especially for young people.

When I’m alone my thoughts tend to intrude. At first, my thoughts are pleasant, or at least not unwelcome. But very quickly they turn morbid. I recall past sins—mine or my neighbors—and I’m tempted to forget that God is man befriending and easy to be entreated.

The more we focus on human sinfulness, the more we forget that God loves us. This is why in the Jesus Prayer I ask Christ for mercy BEFORE I confess my sinfulness: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

It is in that last phrase, “a sinner” that my solitude opens up to embrace all humanity. I’m not “the” sinner, much less the only sinner. I am “a” sinner surrounded by sinners and all forgiven by the mercy of God.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t have our struggles. It doesn’t mean that we don’t fail or aren’t at times treated unjustly.  What it does mean, is that we need to help young people experience God’s love for them. This is a great blessing of the Jesus Prayer.

In teaching, young people the Jesus Prayer (or really any form of prayer) need to remember what we heard from St Porphyrios

There’s no need for any special concentration in order to say the Jesus Prayer. It doesn’t require any effort if you have love of God. Wherever you are, on a stool, a chair, in a car, anywhere, on the road, at school, in the office, at work, you can say the prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me’.

So, I’ve included for your consideration, a short video about the Jesus Prayer that might make a good introduction for young people. How might we go about helping young people learn to cultivate silence and begin to including the Jesus Prayer in their own spiritual lives?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory


Let Us Begin!

jesus_prayer_04Without a doubt, the hardest part of the journey through inner silence to love is beginning. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t challenges and struggles along the way—there are—but that first step is still the hardest.

What makes it hard is that I don’t know what I’m doing. My understandable ignorance is often a source of anxiety. A lack of understanding might also be a why I undertake the spiritual life with an unwise enthusiasm. The former makes me afraid to start, the latter over-eager to finish. Where ever I find myself, starting is hard.

This is why I think Tito Colliander’s advice on the first page of The Way of the Ascetic is helpful.

If you wish to save your soul and win eternal life, arise from your lethargy, make the sign of the Cross and say: In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

“Faith,” he goes on to say, “come not through pondering but through action.” I come to know God “not with words and speculation” but through the experience of prayer. “To let in the fresh air we have to open a window; to get tanned we must go out into the sunshine.” Our pursuit of inner silence and a life of sacrificial love is no different; “we never reach a goal by just sitting in comfort and waiting, say the holy Fathers. Let the Prodigal son be our example. He ‘arose and came’ (Luke 15:20).”

So daily I must take some time apart from others, settle myself and begin saying the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

As I say the prayer different things might come to mind.

Lord…I begin with a reminder that I am not my own. I am under obedience to someone else.

Jesus Christ…And to Whom do I owe obedience? The One who saves me because He loves me. He suffers, dies, is buried and arose from the dead because of His great love for me. It is to the Lord Jesus Christ that I owe my obedience.

Son of God…It isn’t just for what He has done, but for Who He is, that I am obedient. Jesus is the Son of God, the second Person of the Holy Trinity Who by the power of the Holy Spirit became Man of the Virgin Mary and reveals God the Father to me.

Have Mercy on Me…It is to Jesus that I look for mercy, not just in the sense of forgiveness but also comfort, healing and strength. Above all though I look to Him to bring to an end my loneliness. Created in the image of God my greatest wound is my isolation. Not only my lack of being loved but my inability to love.

A sinner…Only now that I have some experience of God’s mercy and love for me am I able to confess my sinfulness to Him. Only now am I able to grasp a great paradox of the Christian life. Yes, I am a sinner but I am only one sinner among many sinners. And all of these other sinners are as much in need of God’s mercy, compassion and love as am I. Seeing myself as a sinner, I am now able to see my unity with my neighbor. Even though we are both fallen, even though we both often falter in our attempts to love each other, we are both loved by God. It is this last realization which now must become for me the first and most important thing in my life.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Love is the Goal

As important as inner stillness and the Jesus Prayer are, we can never lose sight of the goal of both: love.

For all that is wrong with me and with the world, God’s love is always greater. Seeing this requires that I truly repent. This isn’t a matter of looking in the mirror and saying “BAD!” Rather repentance worthy of the name means seeing myself as God sees me. Though I a sinner, what matters, even more, is that God loves me.

The medieval Catholic monastic reformer St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) helps us understand what it means to be loved and to love God. In On Loving God Bernard traces out the four degrees or stages of our journey from immature to mature love.

I begin this journey in self-love. Bernard doesn’t judge this harshly. Rather he sees it as a necessary concession to our fallen state. He writes that “nature is so frail and weak that it has to love itself first.” And so love at this stage means “loving oneself selfishly.” As he explains (#8)

“The spiritual does not come first. The natural comes first and is followed by the spiritual” (1 Corinthians 15.46). This is not what we are commanded, but what nature directs: “No one ever hated his own body” (Eph. 5.29).

Over time, though, the command to love my neighbor comes to play a role in our lives. This happens because I can’t love myself, even selfishly, without also loving those around me. I am to a greater or lesser degree dependent on my neighbors. Even if this doesn’t take the form of a material dependence, I still need the affection and support of others.

And so I grow, however faltering, in love for my neighbor.

Soon though I come to realize that I can’t really love my neighbor unless I also love God. What causes me to have this realization, according to Bernard,  are the life’s troubles. These teach me the limits of human strength and my dependence not simply on my neighbor but on God. It is because we “suffer troubles” that we “begin to love God through our own love for ourselves.” As troubles wax and human strength wanes, we learn that “in God we can accomplish anything and without God we can do nothing.”

This leads us to the next two stages of love.

We begin to love God for our own sake and grow in time to love Him for His own sake.

If frequent troubles drive us to frequent prayer, surely we will taste and see how gracious the Lord is (Ps. 34.8). Then, realizing how good he is, we find ourselves drawn to love him unselfishly, even more powerfully than we are drawn by our own needs to love him selfishly (#9).

St Bernard has helped me understand that the great moral and spiritual problem of my life isn’t that I don’t love but that my love is too frequently immature and selfish. And yet, even though my love is damaged by sin, it is still love and God wants to heal my love. This means that even my  “worldly wants,” he says, “have a speech of their own, broadcasting the gifts they have received from God.”

Once we recognize this, “it will not be hard to … love our neighbor.” As I come to understand that even the most selfish of my own desires is really a frustrated search for God and a step along the way towards Him, I can have compassion on others. After all, what is human weakness, what human sinfulness–mine or yours–but the disfigured love for God and His creatures?

Seeing this in myself allows me to see this in my neighbor and so selfish love is made “pure, and finds not burden in the command” to love others “in unfeigned love” (see, 1 Peter 1:22)

This love, Bernard says,

… is thankworthy, because it is spontaneous. It is pure because it is shown not in word nor tongue, but in deed and truth (1 John 3.18) It is just because it repays what it has received. Whoever loves like this, loves as he is loved, and no longer pursues his own desires but Christ’s, even as Jesus did not pursue not his own welfare, but ours — or rather pursued ourselves (#9).

As important as self-discipline and habit are in the spiritual life, we can’t forget that the fruit of inner stillness is freedom or what Bernard calls deeds of love that are spontaneous, pure, just, true because they are obedient to the will of God for the person we love.

Practically this means that when I love someone, I don’t simply have warm feelings about them. Sometimes the person I love will even cause me pain. But if I love you, I want what is best for you. And what is best for you is not what I want or even what you want. What is best for you is God and what He wants for you. Ultimately what God wants for each of us is to draw us ever closer to Himself. He wants to share His life with us and through us with the world.

Ultimately what God wants for each of us is to draw us ever closer to Himself. He wants to share His life with us and through us with the world.

This leads us to the highest degree of love: to love ourselves because we have first been loved by God. “How blessed is he who reaches the fourth degree of love, in which one loves oneself only for God’s sake!”

At this stage, love is like an experience of deep contemplation. We lose ourselves as if “we were emptied and lost and swallowed up in God.” This love isn’t mere “human love; it is heavenly.” This is the goal of inner stillness. And this is why we say the Jesus Prayer, to purify ourselves of every and anything that stands in the way of being emptied, lost and swallowed up by God.

In the theological tradition of the Church, this is what we mean when we talk about theosis or deification. To become “partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) means to love as God loves.

O chaste and holy love! O sweet and gracious affection! O pure and cleansed purpose, thoroughly washed and purged from any selfishness, and sweetened by contact with God’s will! To reach this state is to become godlike. As a drop of water poured into wine loses itself, and takes the color and savor of wine; or as a bar of iron, heated red—hot, becomes like fire itself, forgetting its own nature; or as the air, radiant with sun—beams, seems not so much to be lit as to be light itself; so for those who are holy all human affections melt away by some incredible mutation into the will of God (#10).

This last stage is never complete. This isn’t because of human sinfulness or the limitations of human nature (though both play a role). It is rather because the love of God knows no limits. God love is eternal and beyond anything we can imagine. At this stage, we come to realize that we don’t really hope “to possess” God’s love. Rather we hope “to be,” Bernard says, “possessed by it.”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Next: Let Us Begin!

Privacy, Silence and Prayer

As we saw in an earlier post, a spirit of inner stillness requires something from me. Simply put, I need to begin. But what, concretely, do I need to do?

To grow in alife of inner stillness I need to cultivate three basic spiritual disciplines that are both foundational to life in Christ and human flourishing more generally. The absence, indeed the general cultural indifference and hostility to them, makes beginning the spiritual life difficult.

While the life of inner stillness has always been hard, the lack of appreciation for key human values means that even Orthodox Christians are likely to misunderstand the spiritual life. This is why so many of us equate life if Christ with moralism (whether conservative or progressive) or social activity (sometimes philanthropic, sometimes liturgical).

Without inner stillness and the disciplines that support it, my life becomes superficial. I am at the mercy of ever-changing fashions and desires—my own as much as those of the people around me. So what are the disciples we need to foster? There are three:

  1. Privacy
  2. Silence
  3. Prayer

And we mustn’t forget that, important as they are, these are all in the service of something far greater: Love.

Stillness requires prayer and prayer requires silence, but silence requires privacy. So we begin by cultivating a healthy sense of privacy, of being alone. In time, and by God’s grace, privacy grows into solitude—of being alone with God. And with solitude comes a sense of atonement a state of “at one”-ment or of being reconciled with God in and through the Person of Jesus Christ.

But being alone, and especially being alone without distractions, can be hard. When I’m alone my thoughts tend to intrude. At first, my thoughts are pleasant, or at least not unwelcome. Very quickly though they turn morbid. I recall past sins—mine or my neighbor’s—and I’m tempted to forget that God is man befriending and easy to be entreated

And so Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God.”

Because I am always tempted to remember and ruminate on past sins (again, mine or my neighbor’s) in the Jesus Prayer I ask Christ for mercy BEFORE I confess my sinfulness: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

It is in that last phrase, “a sinner” that my solitude opens up to embrace all humanity. I’m not “he sinner, much less the only sinner. I am a sinner; I am a sinner surrounded by sinners and all of whom are forgiven by the mercy of God.

And so, love is right there at the very beginning of the Jesus Prayer and of our journey to inner stillness. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Silence. We all have all known someone who speaks so quickly as to be incomprehensible. There are no gaps between the person’s words and so we can’t understand what’s being said. The philosopher Max Picard noticed this and drew from this experience the insight that silence isn’t the absence of speech. It is rather the gaps between words that make speech meaningful.

Or take another example, this one from history.

Like other written works at the time, the first copies of the New Testament were written in a style called “scriptura continua.” This is “a style of writing without spaces or other marks between the words or sentences.” In addition, all the words are written in all upper-case or capital letters. As you might imagine, reading these early copies of the New Testament was a chore.

So like gaps between words in a book, silence is essential for understanding.

In the spiritual life silence isn’t so much the absence of noise but the absence of fear. Fear is noisy. 

The Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian tell us that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18, NKJV). As an aside, understanding what Apostle’s words mean in my own life is why I need a spiritual director.

The perfect love that drives our fear is not my love for God but His love for me. The great risk of the spiritual life—delusion—is imagining that my love, if not greater that God’s, is in some way equal or comparable to His when it it isn’t.

God’s love is the source from which all good things flow in silence. The fathers of the Church tell “us that the mysteries of Christ all involve silence. Only in silence can the word of God find a home in us, as it did in Mary, woman of the word and, inseparably, woman of silence” (Verbum Domini n. 21).” St Augustine says that “When the Word of God increases, the words of men fail” (cf. Sermon 288; 5: PL 38, 1307; Sermon 120,2: PL 38,677).

Or as we hear in the Akathist, we can only stand “mute as fish before” the mystery of God’s love for us (Stanza 17).

But, as I said a moment ago, silence isn’t negative but fruitful. Silence is what helps us understand that we are loved by God. For example at the Divine Liturgy on Holy Saturday, we sing

Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and in fear and trembling stand; for the King of kings and Lord of lords comes forth, to be slain, to give Himself as food to the faithful.

In silence, as Fr John Breck, the “warnings of judgment are transformed into a ringing promise of salvation, as the Lord offers Himself as eucharist ‘for the life of the world.'”

Prayer. And so as privacy is transformed into solitude, and solitude gives birth to silence, silence leads us to prayer and we become able to hear God.

“Prayer,” says St Isaac the Syrian, “is a joy that gives way to thanksgivings.” 

This doesn’t mean that I don’t have our struggles. It doesn’t mean that I don’t fail or aren’t at times treated unjustly. I do struggle against sin—though not as much as I should—and I am treated unfairly—though not as much as I imagine.

We need to remember the words of St Porphryios:

There’s no need for any special concentration in order to say the Jesus Prayer. It doesn’t require any effort if you have love of God. Wherever you are, on a stool, a chair, in a car, anywhere, on the road, at school, in the office, at work, you can say the prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me’.

This means that sin—my own or my neighbor’s—doesn’t have the last word. No, the last word is the first word and that word is LOVE.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Next: Love is the Goal

Why Cultivate Inner Stillness?

What do we mean when, like in the last post, we talked about inner stillness? And why do we need to cultivate stillness in our spiritual lives? Let’s see I can answer the second of these questions first.

Stillness, the Orthodox theologian Fr John Breck writes, is important for a number reasons. We need stillness if we are “to attain spiritual knowledge.” It also is essential as we “engage in spiritual warfare against the passions and against demonic powers.” Finally, in stillness we are able to hear “the voice of God.”

Fr John recounts a saying from the Desert Father. “A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him for a word.  The old man said to him, ‘Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.'” If we want to acquire inner stillness and the wholeness of being that comes through the Jesus Prayer, we need to practice “solitude.” Real inner peace is the fruit not only of divine grace but also of adopting a certain attitude toward the world of persons, events and things.

Specifically, we need to undertake “a temporary withdrawing from the noise and busyness of the world that cause endless distractions and hinder us in our quest for God.” This is more than not being around people or not talking to people. No, what’s necessary is that we “transform the heart and mind, our inner being, into a place of silence and solitude, an interior monastic cell in which the Spirit of Truth dwells, to teach us everything we need for our journey toward the Kingdom of Heaven (cf. John 16:13-15).”

It is this same Spirit Who inspired the authors of Sacred Scripture, Who leads the Church in every generation, raised up the Church fathers to defend the faith and preach the Gospel. Above all else, it is this same Spirit that caused the Son to come and dwell in the womb of the Most Holy Theotokos.

It is the Holy Spirit Who together with the Father and the Son comes to dwell in our hearts at Holy Baptism. When we turn inwards, we do so not to flee from our neighbor but to find the Holy Trinity. When we find the Holy Trinity, we also find our neighbor.

Together with physical silence, inner stillness allows us to hear the God Who dwells in our hearts. This is why, as I said earlier, prayer isn’t so much talking to God but listening to Him. By stopping my inner monolog, or, at least, slowing it down, and by stilling my heart, the Jesus Prayer helps me listen to God as He speaks to me in the depths of my heart. Stillness, says St Isaac the Syrian, “brings fruits that no tongue can speak of, neither can it be explained.”

Unfortunately, some misinformation has developed around the Jesus Prayer. Our prayer life should be sober and regular, not prone to emotionalism or erratic. And while guidance from our spiritual father or confessor is important, we don’t need to be afraid to start praying even if that guidance doesn’t seem available. Remember, we a have guide in the Holy Spirit and as long as we don’t deviate from the moral or dogmatic tradition of the Church—the same tradition that the Spirit inspires—we are on safe ground.

Remember the same God Who inspires us to pray, also inspires those who offer us guidance in prayer and He will bring us that guidance when, and how, it is needed.

So the first rule of cultivating inner stillness so we can hear God speaking to us is this: Begin. And beginning is easy.

St Porphyrios says that

There’s no need for any special concentration in order to say the Jesus Prayer.

It doesn’t require any effort if you have love of God. Wherever you are, on a stool, a chair, in a car, anywhere, on the road, at school, in the office, at work, you can say the prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me’.

Gently, without pressure, without pushing.

When I talk with people about their spiritual lives I often come away with the impression that they don’t think praying counts unless it hurts. So many of us think we need to stand at attention to pray; so many of us undermine our own spiritual lives because we act like a soldier on guard duty and not like a small child on our Father’s lap.

So, to cultivate inner stillness we need to begin. But how, concretely, should we begin?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Next post: How to Cultivate Inner Silence

I’ve Got a Thinking Problem

As I mentioned in the last post, the goal of the Jesus Prayer—indeed a central goal of our spiritual life—is to come to a place of inner stillness. Unlike Buddhism, for the Christian tradition stillness isn’t an end in itself but in the service of charity. I need to still my heart before I can discern the will of God for my life and for the lives of those entrusted to my care.

We often hear that love isn’t a feeling but a decision. True enough but it begs the question. What is it we decide when we decide to love? 

To love my neighbor doesn’t mean I have warm feelings about him. It doesn’t mean that I like my neighbor. Sometimes my neighbor is rather unlikable. But so what? God doesn’t call us to like each other but to love each other.

God doesn’t love me because I’m good; if I’m good at all it is because God loves me and because I return His love for me.

Love then is objective—it is determined by God. To love my neighbor means that I unite my will to God’s will for him. I love you if I want what God wants for you. And this is where things get complicated.

Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive behavioral therapy, writes that how “we think determines to a large extent whether we will succeed and enjoy life, or even survive.” This isn’t “positive thinking” or of keeping an upbeat attitude so everything will work out. Rather my thinking needs to conform to reality, to the truth of my situation. And so

If our thinking is straightforward and clear, we are better equipped to reach these goals. If it is bogged down by distorted symbolic meanings, illogical reasoning, and erroneous interpretations, we become in effect deaf and blind. Stumbling along without a clear sense of where we are going or what we are doing, we are destined to hurt ourselves and others. As we misjudge and miscommunicate, we inflict pain on both ourselves and our mates and, in turn, bear the brunt of painful retaliations (Love Is Never Enough: How Couples Can Overcome Misunderstanding, 2).

Beck says we are suffering from a “thinking problem.” The Apostle James says the same thing.

Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures (James 4:1-3, NKJV).

Recall the last argument you had with someone.

While sometimes you know it’s coming, as often as not we don’t. We don’t even realize we disagree with someone until the argument breaks out. Usually I’m just chatting with someone when—seemingly out of nowhere, it becomes clear that while the other person and I are using the same words, we’re not speaking the same language.

The problem is that I’m not listening to the person but to my own, internal monologue. Basically, I’m talking to myself in the presence of another person. This doesn’t just happen with my neighbor but with God as well.

Actually, I got that backwards. I don’t listen to my neighbor because I don’t listen to God. Yes, I might talk to God—indeed I might talk to God a great deal, constantly even—but how often do I listen to God?

In a fallen world, listening to God is more difficult than I imagine. The neptic fathers in their outline of the process of how I come to commit a sin help us understand why it is so hard to listen to God.

Well before a sin, there is the image/ikon, an abstraction sensory experience. Images arise from any/all of the following:

  • the physical world
  • other human beings
  • my own intraspsychic processes (memory/imagination/anticipation)
  • the demonic

Next comes the thought/logismos or my evaluation of the image. This judgment is typically self-referential (what it means for me) and involves an increased level of abstraction. Like images, thoughts arises from any/all of the following:

  • other human beings
  • my own intraspsychic processes (memory/imagination/anticipation)
  • the demonic

Over time, I develop a desire for the object represented by the image. This is what the fathers mean by the passion/pathosA passion is “that which happens to a person . . . , an experience undergone passively” (“Glossary” in Philokalia, vol. I, 362). It is often an involuntary movement toward pleasure or away from pain. In more popular language it is my desire for the image and/or what the image represents to me.

Finally, there is action/synkatathesis or my surrender to desire or desire enacted and rewarded. We can also think about this as my assent to the passion. My actions are both the fruit of the passions and serve to reinforce my passions.

Over time my actions become habitual. Vice are those habits of thought and action undermine human flourishing and Christian holiness; virtues are those habits that foster flourishing and holiness. Typically when we read about the passions, we are concerned with vice rather than virtue.

The goal of the spiritual life is to grow more practiced in stilling the process of vice formation and to be less prone to the distractions that come from our internal monologue.  Another word for stillness is sobriety.

As this happens we discover, underneath if you will, a deeper, more primordial process—that of the heart and its ability to illumine the world of persons, events and things. In other words, as I still the passions and that internal monologue that sweeps me away, I discover that I am more and more able, and more importantly, willing, to love God with all my heart and soul and to love my neighbor as (and not instead of) myself.

So how does the Jesus Prayer help us to do this? How does the Jesus Prayer help us to listen to God and so help us come “to love one another”? How, in other words, to be cultivate a life of inner stillness and active charity?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Next: Cultivating Inner Stillness.

The Jesus Prayer

By the grace of God I am a Christian man, by my actions a great sinner, and by my calling a homeless wanderer of the humblest birth who roams from place to place. My worldly goods are a knapsack with some dried bread in it on my back and in my breast pocket a Bible. And that is all (The Way of the Pilgrim).

So begins a 19th century classical of Eastern Orthodox Christian spirituality, The Way of the Pilgrim. The text is a fictionalized, first-person narrative of one man’s attempt to fulfill the command of the Apostle Paul “to pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). The means by which he comes to fulfill the apostolic call is through the recitation of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The Protestant Evangelical Christian author Richard Foster (Streams of Living Water: Essential Practices from the Six Great Traditions of the Christian Faith, 288) say of the Jesus Prayer or as it is sometimes called the “‘prayer of the heart”” that it “may well be one of the finest gifts Eastern Orthodoxy has to offer to all Christians. It is certainly the most borrow-able.”

Foster situate the Jesus Prayer within a spiritual tradition that emphasizes “a meditative approach to prayer . . . developed beginning in the fourth century, with Evagrios of Pontus (c. 344-399) as the key figure.” The tradition and practice of hesychastic (the word “hesychasm. . . literally means ‘quietness,’ ‘stillness,’ ‘peace.’) prayer “experienced considerable subsequent development in the fourteenth century, with two writers having extensive influence–Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) and Gregory of Sinai (?-1346).” It is to the second Gregory, Gregory of Sinai, that we owe the addition of the phrase “a sinner” which is today the typical formulation of the Jesus Prayer (Foster, 288-289).

In my experience, I have found the Jesus Prayer to be a powerful aid for both my spiritual life and the spiritual lives of those who have sought out my guidance as a priest. At its core, when undertaken properly and, this necessarily means under the watchful eye of a spiritual director who is skilled in a life of prayer, the Jesus Prayer becomes a “prayer of the entire person.”

Again, Foster summarizes this well:

Though we may begin by praying with the lips, in time we “descend with the mind into the heart,” allowing the intellect and the heart to be united. We “find the place of the heart,” and our spirit acquires the power to “dwelling in the heart,” so that our prayer becomes a “prayer of the heart.” All this signifies a complete state of reintegration in which, as we pray, we are totally united with the prayer itself and with our divine Companion to whom we pray. We are not so much saying a prayer as we are being turned into prayer (Foster, 289, emphasis added).

Within Holy Tradition is a personal life of prayer—liturgical as well as private—is essential not only soteriologically (that is, for our salvation), but also psychologically and socially. St Ephraim the Syrian describes the goal of our spiritual life in this way:

Make me whole, O Lord, and I will become whole! On only wise and merciful Physician, I beseech Thy benevolence: heal the wounds of my soul and enlighten the eyes of my mind that I may understand my place in Thine eternal design! And inasmuch as my heart and mind have been disfigured, may Thy grace repair them, for it is as true salt.

What shall I say to Thee, O Knower of the heart who searchest the heart and inner workings of men? Indeed, Thou knowest that, like a waterless land, my soul thirsts after Thee and my heart longs for Thee. And Thy grace has always sated those that love Thee.

Thus, as Thou has always heard me, so now do not scorn my prayer. For Thou seest that my mind, like a prisoner, seeks Thee, the Only true Savior.

Send Thy grace, that it may satisfy my hunger and quench my thirst. For insatiably do I desire Thee, O my Master! And who can have enough of Thee if he truly loves Thee and thirsts for Thy truth?

O Giver of light! Fulfill my supplications and grant me Thy gifts according to my prayer; impart to my heart just one drop of Thy grace, that the flame of Thy love may begin to burn in my heart; and, like a fire, may it consume evil thoughts like thorns and thistles!

Give me all this in abundance; grant it to me as God unto man, as the King to His subjects, and increase it as a kind Father (Psalm 3 in A Spiritual Psalter or Reflections on God, 17).

The absence of this integration, our lack of wholeness of being, or if you will a “catholic” (from the Greek kata by + holos whole) personality, is the sign of our fallen state.

Moving from the personal to the social, this means that my relationships with my neighbor are broken because I am broken. It is the lack of my wholeness that undermines my ability to love. Maybe even more tragically, that lack on integration also makes me inclined to refuse to accept love from God and from my neighbor.

But building on the grace of the sacraments—especially Holy Communion and Confession—through the practice of the Jesus Prayer God can restore us first to a wholeness of being and heal our relationships with Him and with our neighbor.

Next: “I’ve Got a Thinking Problem.”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory