On the Practical Use of the Jesus Prayer

Павел Викторович Рыженко. Послушник

A monk of the Eastern church (Archimandrite Lev Gillet)

1. The form of the prayer.

The Byzantine East, as we have seen, has somewhat inadequately designated by the term "Jesus Prayer" every kind of invocation centering upon the actual name of the Savior. This invocation has assumed various specific forms according to whether the name was used alone or inserted into more or less developed formulas. It rests, however, with each individual to determine his or her own form of the invocation of the name. In the East the invocation became crystallized in the formula "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner", but this formula has never been and is not the only one. Every repeated invocation, in which the name of Jesus forms the core and motive force, is authentically the Jesus Prayer in the Byzantine sense. One may say, for example, "Jesus Christ" or "Lord Jesus". The oldest, the simplest, and in our opinion the easiest formula is the word "Jesus" used alone. It is with this last possibility in mind that we shall speak here of the Jesus Prayer.

This type of prayer may be pronounced or merely thought. Its place is thus on the boundary between vocal and mental prayer, between prayer of meditation and prayer of contemplation. It may be practiced at all times and in any place: church, bedroom, street, office, workshop, and so on. We can repeat the name while walking. Beginners, however, will do well to bind themselves to a certain regularity in their practice of the Prayer, choosing fixed times and solitary places. Yet this systematic training does not exclude a parallel and entirely free use of the invocation of the name.

Before beginning to pronounce the name of Jesus, we should try first of all to put ourselves in a state of peace and recollection, and then implore the help of the Holy Spirit in whom alone we can "say that Jesus is the Lord" (1Кор. 12:3). Every other preliminary is superfluous. In order to swim one must first throw oneself into the water; similarly we must in one leap cast ourselves into the name of Jesus. Having begun to pronounce the name with loving adoration, all that we have to do is to attach ourselves to it, cling to it, and to repeat it slowly, gently and quietly. It would be a mistake to "force" this prayer, to raise our voice inwardly, to try to induce intensity and emotion. When God manifested himself to the prophet Elijah, it was not in a strong wind, nor in an earthquake, nor in a fire, but in the gentle, whispering breeze that followed them (1Цар. 19:11-12). Little by little we are to concentrate our whole being around the name, allowing it like a drop of oil silently to penetrate and impregnate our soul. When invoking the name, it is not necessary to repeat it continually. Once spoken, the name then may be "prolonged" for several minutes of repose, of silence, of purely interior attention, much as a bird alternates between the flapping of its wings and gliding flight.

All tension and haste are to be avoided. If fatigue comes upon us, the invocation should be interrupted and taken up again simply when one feels drawn towards it. Our aim is not a constant, literal repetition but a kind of latent and quiescent presence of the name of Jesus in our heart. "I sleep, but my heart keeps vigil" (Песн. 5:2). Let us banish all spiritual sensuality, all pursuit of emotion. No doubt it is natural to hope to obtain results that are in some measure tangible, to want to touch the hem of the Savior's garment and not to give up until he has blessed us (Мф. 9:21). But let us not think that an hour during which we have invoked the name without "feeling" anything, remaining apparently cold and arid, has been wasted and unfruitful. This invocation that we thought sterile will be, on the contrary, highly acceptable to God, since it is chemically pure, if we may put it that way, because stripped of all preoccupation with spiritual delights and reduced to an offering of the naked will. At other times in his generous mercy the Savior often enfolds his name in an atmosphere of joy, warmth and light: "Thy name is as oil poured forth... draw me" (Песн. 1:3-4).

2. Episode or Method?

For some the invocation of the name will be an episode on their spiritual journey; for others it will be more than an episode, it will be one of the methods they habitually use, yet without being the method; for yet others it will be the method around which their whole interior life is organized. To decide by arbitrary choice, by some whim, that this last case will be ours, would be like constructing a building which then collapses wretchedly. We do not choose the Jesus Prayer. We are called to it, led to it by God, if he thinks it right. We devote ourselves to it out of obedience to a very special vocation, provided that other obediences do not have prior right. If this form of prayer does not stand in the way of the other forms to which we are committed by virtue of our state in life, if it is accompanied by a pressing attraction, if it produces in us fruits of purity, charity and peace, if our appointed spiritual guides encourage us to practice it, there is in all this, if not the infallible signs of a vocation, then at least indications which deserve to be humbly and attentively considered.

The "way of the name" has been approved by many Eastern monastic Fathers and also by several saints of the West. It is therefore legitimate and remains open as a possibility for all. But we should avoid all indiscreet zeal, all untimely propaganda. We should not cry out with an ill-informed fervor, "It is the best prayer", much less, "It is the only prayer". We should keep hidden in their secret place the mysteries of the King. Those who are bound to a community or to a rule will discern to what extent the way of the name is compatible with the methods to which they owe obedience; the appropriate authorities will help them in this task of discernment. We are not referring here to liturgical prayer; for this could not enter into conflict with the kind of inner prayer that we are discussing. In particular we would not wish to suggest to those whose existing prayer is an authentic dialogue with the Lord, nor to those who are established in the deep silence of the contemplative life, that they should abandon their way of prayer in order to practice the Jesus Prayer. We do not depreciate the value of any form of prayer. For in the final analysis the best prayer for each person is the one, whichever it may be, to which each is drawn by the Holy Spirit, by particular circumstances, and by properly appointed spiritual direction.

What we may say with soberness and truth on behalf of the Jesus Prayer is that it helps to simplify and unify our spiritual life. When complicated methods dissipate and weary the attention, this "one-word prayer" possesses the power of unification and integration, assisting the fragmented soul that finds its name and its sin to be "legion" (Мк. 5:9). The name of Jesus, once it has become the center of our life, brings everything together. But let us not imagine that the invocation of the name is a "short-cut" that dispenses us from ascetic purification: The name of Jesus is itself an instrument of asceticism, a filter through which should pass only thoughts, words and acts compatible with the divine and living reality which this name symbolizes. The growth of the name in our soul implies a corresponding diminution of our separated self, a daily death to the selfcentredness from which all sin is derived.

3. The first steps. Adoration and salvation.

There are many levels in the Jesus Prayer. It grows deeper and broader as we discover each new level in the name. It should begin as adoration and a sense of presence. Then, this presence is experienced specifically as that of a Savior (for such is the meaning of the word "Jesus"). The invocation of the name is a mystery of salvation in the sense that it brings with it deliverance. In uttering the name, we already receive what we need. We receive it here and now in Jesus who is not only the giver but the gift; not only the purifier, but all purity; not only the one who feeds the hungry and gives drink to the thirsty, but who is himself our food and drink. He is the substance of all good things (if we do not use this term in a strictly metaphysical sense).

His name gives peace to those who are tempted: instead of arguing with the temptation, instead of thinking about the raging storm-that was Peter's mistake on the lake after his good beginning-why not look at Jesus alone and go to him walking on the waves, taking refuge in his name? Let the person tempted gather himself together gently and pronounce the name without anxiety, without feverishness; then his heart will be filled by the name and in this way protected against violent winds. If a sin has been committed, let the name serve as a means of immediate reconciliation. Without hesitation or delay, let it be pronounced with repentance and perfect charity, and it will become at once a token of pardon. In an altogether natural way Jesus will take his place again in the life of the sinner, just as after his Resurrection he came back and sat in such a simple manner at table with the disciples who had deserted him, and then offered him fish and honey (Лк. 24:41-42). Of course we do not intend to reject or underestimate the objective means of repentance and absolution which the Church offers to the sinner; we are speaking here only of what happens in the hidden places of the soul.

4. Incarnation.

The name of Jesus is more than a mystery of salvation, more than help in time of need, more than pardon after sin. It is a means by which we can apply to ourselves the mystery of the Incarnation. Beyond his presence, it brings union. By pronouncing the name, we enthrone Jesus in our hearts, we put on Christ; we offer our flesh to the Word so that he may assume it into his Mystical Body; we cause the interior reality and the power of the word "Jesus" to overflow into our members that are subject to the law of sin. In this way we are purified and consecrated. "Set me as a seal upon thy heart, as a seal upon thy arm" (Песн. 8:6). But the invocation of the name of Jesus does more than enable us to appreciate the meaning of the mystery of the Incarnation for ourselves personally. Through this prayer we also catch a glimpse of the "fullness of him who fills all in all" (Еф. 1:23).

5. Transfiguration.

The name of Jesus is an instrument and method of transfiguration. When we utter it, it helps us to transfigure - without any pantheistic confusion - the whole world into Jesus Christ.

This is true even of inanimate nature. The material universe, which is not only the visible symbol of the invisible divine beauty, but which turns with "groaning" toward Christ (Рим. 8:22), and whose mysterious movement elevates all that comes into being towards the Bread and Wine of salvation, this universe murmurs secretly the name of Jesus: "...even the stones will cry out..." (Лк. 19:40). It belongs to the priestly ministry of each Christian to give a voice to this aspiration, to pronounce the name of Jesus upon the elements of nature, stones and trees, flowers and fruit, mountains and sea, and so to bring to fulfillment the secret of things, to provide an answer to that long, silent and unconscious expectation.

We can also transfigure the animal world. Jesus, who declared that not a sparrow is forgotten by his Father (Лк. 12:6) and who dwelt in the desert "with the wild beasts" (Мк. 1:13), did not leave the beasts outside the sphere of his goodness and influence. Like Adam in Paradise we are to give a name to all the animals. Whatever the name that science gives to them, we shall invoke upon each one of them the name of Jesus, thereby giving back to them their primitive dignity which we so often forget, and remembering that they are created and loved by the Father in Jesus and for Jesus.

But it is especially in relation to our fellow humans that the name of Jesus helps us to exercise a ministry of transfiguration. Jesus, who after his Resurrection chose several times to appear to his disciples "in another form" (Мк. 16:12) - the unknown traveler on the road to Emmaus, the gardener near the tomb, the stranger standing on the shore of the lake - continues to meet us in our daily life in a veiled way and to confront us with this all-important aspect of his presence: his presence in man. What we do to the least of our brethren, we do to him. Under the faces of men and women we are able, with our eyes of faith and love, to see the face of the Lord; by attending to the distress of the poor, of the sick, of sinners, of all men, we put our finger on the place of the nails, thrust our hands into his pierced side, and experience personally the Resurrection and the real presence (without any confusion of essence) of Jesus Christ in his Mystical Body; and so we can say with St Thomas, "My Lord and my God" (Ин. 20:28).

The name of Jesus is a concrete and powerful means of transfiguring men into their most profound and divine reality. Let us reach out toward the men and women whom we pass in the street, the factory or the office - and especially toward those who seem to us irritating or antipathetic - with the name of Jesus in our heart and on our lips. Let us pronounce silently over them his name, which is their very own name; let us call them by this name in a spirit of adoration and service. Let us devote ourselves to them in a practical way, if that is possible, or at all events by an interior aspiration, for in them we are really devoting ourselves to Jesus Christ. By recognizing and silently adoring Jesus imprisoned in the sinner, in the criminal, in the prostitute, we release in some way both these poor jailers and our Master. If we see Jesus in everyone, if we say "Jesus" over everyone, we will go through the world with a new vision and a new gift in our own heart. In this way, as far as lies in our power, we can transform the world and make our own the words that Jacob spoke to his brother: "I have seen thy face, and it is as though I had seen the face of God" (Jn. 33:10).

6. The Body of Christ.

The invocation of the name of Jesus has an ecclesial aspect. In this name we meet all those who are united with the Lord and in the midst of whom he stands. In this name we can embrace all those who are enclosed within the Divine Heart. To intercede for another is not so much to plead on his behalf before God, but rather to apply to his name the name of Jesus and to unite ourselves to the intercession of our Lord himself for his loved ones.

Here we touch upon the mystery of the Church. Where Jesus Christ is, there is the Church. The name of Jesus is a means of uniting us to the Church, for the Church is in Christ. In him the Church is unsullied. It is not that we seek to dissociate ourselves from the existence and the problems of the Church on earth, or to close our eyes to the imperfections and disunity of Christians. We do not wish to separate or oppose the visible and invisible aspects of the Church. But we know that what is implied in the name of Jesus is the spotless, spiritual and eternal aspect of the Church which transcends every earthly manifestation and which no schism can destroy. When Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman about the hour that "comes and now is" (Ин. 4:23) in which the true worshipers will worship the Father, no longer in Jerusalem or on Garizim, but in spirit and truth, there is an apparent contradiction in his words. How can the hour already have come and yet still be coming? The paradox is explained by the fact that the Samaritan woman was standing at that moment before Jesus. Certainly the opposition between Jerusalem and Garizim still existed, and Jesus, far from minimizing it, had declared that salvation comes from the Jews: therefore the hour was still to come. But, because Jesus was there and in his person Jerusalem and Garizim are infinitely transcended, the hour had already come. When we invoke the name of the Savior we are in an analogous situation. We cannot believe that divergent interpretations of the Gospel are all equally true or that divided Christians all possess the same measure of light; but we do believe that those who, in pronouncing the name of Jesus, try to unite themselves to their Lord by an act of unconditional obedience and perfect charity, transcend human divisions, participate in some way in the supernatural unity of the Mystical Body of Christ and are, if not visible and explicit, at least invisible and implicit members of the Church. And thus the invocation of the name of Jesus, made with an upright heart, is a way towards Christian unity.

It also helps us meet again, in Jesus, the faithful departed. To Martha who professed her faith in the future Resurrection, Jesus replied: "I am the Resurrection and the Life" (Ин. 11:25). This means that the resurrection of the dead is not merely a future event; that the person of the risen Christ is already the resurrection and the life of all the redeemed; and that instead of seeking, either through prayer or by the memory and the imagination, to establish a direct spiritual contact between our departed and ourselves, we should try to reach them in Jesus, where their true life now is, linking the name of Jesus to their own names. These departed, whose life is hidden in Christ, are within the heavenly Church that forms the most numerous part of the eternal and total Church.

In the name of Jesus we meet the saints who bear "his name on their foreheads" (Отк. 22:4), and also the angels, one of whom said to Mary, "Thou shalt call his name Jesus" (Лк. 1:31), as well as Mary herself. Let us in the Spirit seek to hear and to repeat the name of Jesus as Mary heard it and repeated it!

7. The supper of the Lord.

The name of Jesus can become for us a kind of Eucharist. Just as the mystery of the Upper Room was a summing up of the Lord's whole life and mission, so also a certain "eucharistic" use of the name of Jesus brings together and unites all the aspects of the name considered thus far.

The sacramental Eucharist does not fall within the limits of our theme. But our soul is also an upper room where Jesus desires to eat the Passover with his disciples, and where the Lord's Supper can be celebrated at any moment whatever in an invisible way. In this purely spiritual Last Supper, the name of the Savior can take place of the bread and wine of the sacrament. We can make of the name of Jesus an offering of thanksgiving-and this is the original meaning of the word "eucharist" - the support and substance of a sacrifice of praise rendered to the Father. In this interior and invisible offering, we present to the Father, by pronouncing the name of Jesus, a lamb sacrificed, a life given, a body broken, blood poured out. The sacred name, when used in this sacrificial way, becomes a means of applying to ourselves here and now the fruits of the perfect oblation offered once for all on Golgotha.

There is no Lord's Supper without communion. Our invisible Eucharist implies what tradition has called "spiritual communion", that is, the act of faith and desire by which the soul is nourished on the Body and Blood of Christ without making use of the visible elements of bread and wine. Nothing could be further from our mind than to diminish or underestimate the sacrament of the Eucharist, as practiced by the Church, which we cannot simply identify with spiritual communion. But we believe that we are within the Church's authentic tradition in affirming the reality of a constant, invisible, purely spiritual approach to the Body and Blood of Christ, an approach which is distinct from the general drawing-near to his person, for it implies a special kind of relation between ourselves and the Savior, who is considered in this instance as both the feeder and the food of our souls. The name of Jesus can be used as the form, support and expression of this approach. It can be for us a spiritual food, a sharing in the Bread of Life. "Lord, give us always of this bread" (Ин. 6:34). In his name, in this bread we are united to all the members of the Mystical Body of Christ, to all those who sit down at the banquet of the Messiah, we who "being many, are one bread, one body" (1Кор. 10:17).

And since the Eucharist proclaims "the death of the Lord, until he come" (1Кор. 11:26), since it is an anticipation of the eternal kingdom, the "eucharistic" use of the name of Jesus also possesses an "eschatological" meaning. It proclaims the "end" and the Second Coming, it is an ardent yearning, not only for the occasional "breakings-in" of Christ into our earthly life, but for that definitive coming of Christ to us which will be the moment of our death. There is a certain way of saying the name of Jesus which constitutes a preparation for death, a leaping of our heart beyond the barrier, a last general appeal to the Bridegroom "whom, without having seen, you love" (1Пет. 1:8). To say "Jesus" is therefore to repeat the cry of the Apocalypse: "Come, Lord Jesus" (Отк. 22:20).

8. The Name and the Spirit.

When we read the Acts of the Apostles, we see what a central place the name of Jesus occupied in the message and action of the apostles. Through them "the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified" (Деян. 19:17); in this name miraculous signs were performed and lives were changed. After Pentecost the apostles became capable of proclaiming the name "with power". Here we have a "pentecostal" use of the name of Jesus, a use which is not the monopoly of the apostles, but which remains open to all believers. Only the weakness of our faith and charity prevents us from renewing in the name of Jesus the fruits of Pentecost, from driving out devils, from laying hands on the sick and curing them. Saints continue to act in this way. The Spirit writes the name of Jesus in fiery letters upon the hearts of his elect. This name is a burning flame within them.

But there also exists, between the Holy Spirit and the invocation of the name of Jesus, another link more interior than the "pentecostal" ministry of the Christian. By pronouncing the name of our Savior, we can obtain a certain "experience" - this word being used with all the necessary reservations - of the relation between the Son and the Spirit. We can make ourselves coincide with the descent of the dove upon our Lord; we can unite our heart - in so far as a creature can unite itself to a divine activity - to the eternal movement of the Spirit towards Jesus. "Oh that had wings like a dove" (Пс. 55:6), not only to take flight far from earthly cares but to alight upon him who is all my good! 0 if only I knew how to hear the "voice of the turtledove" (Песн. 2:12), as she speaks with "sighs too deep for words" (Рим. 8:26) the name of the Beloved! Then the invocation of the name of Jesus would be an initiation into the mystery of the relationship of love between Christ and the Spirit.

Conversely, we may strive to coincide - always respecting the proper limits - with the reverse relationship, Jesus' attitude towards the Holy Spirit. Conceived by the Spirit, led by the Spirit, Jesus showed the most humble docility towards the Breath of the Father. While pronouncing the name of Jesus let us unite ourselves, in so far as this is given to humans, to the complete surrender that Jesus made of his life to this divine Breath.

Let us also see in the name of Jesus a hearth whence the Spirit radiates, let us see in Jesus the point of departure whence the Spirit is sent to men, the mouth whence the Spirit is breathed upon us. The invocation of the name of Jesus, uniting us with these various moments - Jesus being filled by the Spirit, the sending of the Spirit to men by Jesus, and also Jesus' yearning for the Father - will make us grow in knowledge of, and union with, the one whom Paul calls "the Spirit of his Son" (Гал. 4:6).

9. Towards the Farther.

There is the Son. And there is the Father. Our reading of the Gospel will remain superficial as long as we see in it only a life and a message directed to men. The heart of the Gospel, the mystery of Jesus, is the relationship between the Father and the only-begotten Son.

To utter the name of Jesus is to utter the Word which "was in the beginning" (Ин. 1:1), the Word which the Father utters from all eternity. The name of Jesus, we might even say with a certain anthropomorphism (easily corrected), is the only human word which the Father utters as he begets the Son and gives himself to him. To utter the name of Jesus is to draw near the Father, to contemplate the love and the gift of the Father which is concentrated upon Jesus; it is to feel, to a limited extent, something of that love and to unite ourselves to it from afar; it is to hear the Father's voice declaring, "Thou art my beloved Son" (Лк. 3:22), and humbly to respond "yes" to this declaration.

To utter the name of Jesus is, on the other hand, to enter, as much as a creature is able, into Christ's filial consciousness. After finding in the word "Jesus" the Father's tender appeal "My Son"!, it is also to find in it the Son's tender response, "My Father"! It is to recognize in Jesus the perfect expression of the Father, to unite ourselves to the eternal orientation of the Son towards the Father, to the total offering of the Son to his Father. To utter the name of Jesus - if it is permissible to speak in this way - is in a certain fashion to join the Son to the Father and to glimpse some reflection of the mystery of their unity. It is to find the best approach to the Father's heart.

10. Jesus in his totality.

We have considered various aspects of the invocation of the name of Jesus. We have arranged them in a kind of ascending ladder, perhaps pedagogically useful, but artificial, because in point of fact the various steps intermingle and "God does not give the Spirit by measure" (Ин. 3:34). At various stages in the practice of the invocation of the name of Jesus, it can be good, even necessary, to concentrate our attention upon one or other particular aspect of the divine name. But a moment comes when such specialization grows wearisome, difficult, and sometimes even impossible. The contemplation and invocation of the name of Jesus then becomes all-embracing. Every implication of the name becomes simultaneously, although obscurely, present to our mind. We say "Jesus", and we rest in a plentitude and totality that can no longer be taken from us. The name of Jesus then becomes a bearer of the whole Christ. It brings us into his total presence.

In this total presence are found all the realities towards which the name has served as a means of approach: salvation and pardon, the Incarnation and the Transfiguration, the Church and the Eucharist, the Spirit and the Father. All things then appear to us "gathered together in Christ" (Еф. 1:10). The total presence is all. The name is nothing without the Presence. He who has attained the Presence has no longer any need of the name. The name is only the support of the Presence. At the end of the road, we are to become free from the actual name, free from everything except from Jesus, from the living and ineffable contact with his person.

A ray of light brings together the various colors which the prism scatters. Thus the "total name", the sign and bearer of the total Presence, acts as a lens which receives and concentrates the white light of Jesus. This lens helps us to light the fire of which it was said: "I am come to cast fire on the earth" (Лк. 12:49). If we cling to the name of Jesus, we shall receive the special blessing that Scripture promises, "Have mercy on me as is thy custom toward them that love thy name" (Пс. 119:132). And may the Lord be pleased to say of us what he said of Saul: "He is a chosen vessel of mine, to bear my name" (Деян. 9:15).