March 15, The Jesus Prayer
The Jesus Prayer, by Fr. David Hester
First of all, Gregory Palamas defended the close link that
exists among all the components of a human being, soul and body.
For Palamas, the Jesus Prayer is the positive means to unite body and
soul in prayer and to have a constant remembrance of God. Because
of the need for giving full attention in prayer, Saint Gregory defends the
psychophysical techniques connected to the Jesus Prayer. He did not
see these techniques of breathing and posture as simply mechanical
ways of obtaining peace, but rather as a practical way for beginners to
avoid distraction and the wandering of the mind. He knew that it was of
great importance to avoid distractions and to become as internally
unified as possible during prayer, for, as the hesychasts knew, those
who persevered in prayer could receive divine illumination. It is through
the use of the Jesus Prayer that this illumination occurs. Saint Gregory
professed the reality of the union with God and of the illumination brought about through prayer. To explain how divine illumination was indeed a true union with God, Gregory made a distinction that became basic to Orthodox theology, the distinction between God's essence and His energies. God's essence is known to be absolutely above participation, but His energies, the way He makes Himself present to all things by His manifestations and by His creative energies, are the way one is illumined and has true union with God. Saint Gregory's syntheses, however, did not have a chronologically continuous influence, for, after 1453, the development of the Byzantine culture and intellectual tradition was interrupted by the Turkish conquest of Byzantium. It was not until the late eighteenth century that hesychasm was to have a revival.
The Age of the Philokalia
At the end of the eighteenth century. Mount Athos once again became the center for an intense diffusion of the Jesus Prayer. In 1782 Saint Nikodemos (1748-1809), a monk of Mount Athos, in collaboration with Saint Makarios (1731-1805). the Bishop of Corinth, published at Venice an anthology of patristic texts by authors from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries, which was called The Philokalia of Neptic Saints. The Philokalia (the Greek meaning "love of beauty") deals chiefly with the theory and practice of prayer, especially the Jesus Prayer. This book became the source for a revival of hesychasm in the nineteenth century in both Greece and Russia. The Philokalia was to have a special influence in Russia. In 1793. the renowned elder. Saint Paisius Velichkovsky (1722-1794), a Ukrainian, published at Saint Petersburg a Slavonic edition of the Philokalia. called the Dobrotolubiye ("The Love of the Good"). Saint Paisius was a monk of Mount Athos who later went to Romania, where he became Abbot of the Monastery of Niamets. In the Dobrotolubiye, Saint Paisius, who had already been translating Greek texts into Slavonic, did not merely translate the texts printed in the Greek Philokalia, but added other original texts as well. His completed work was widely circulated in Russia and was used by monks and lay people alike.
Russia became a great center for the practice of the Jesus Prayer in the nineteenth century. This renewal had at its heart certain significant personalities, particularly the line ofstartzy (elders) at Optina Monastery and Saint Seraphim of Sarov. At the end of the eighteenth century. Optina was nearly abandoned when the Metropolitan of Moscow asked a disciple of Saint Paisius, the Archimandrite Makarios, to send a small group of monks to reestablish the hermitage. They did this in 1821, and soon the elders of Optina acquired unique fame throughout all Russia, where they were sought after by people from all levels of society and all walks of life. The elders exercised a prophetic ministry, and to all who came, they taught the value of the Jesus Prayer. Saint Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833) entered the monastery of Sarov at the age of nineteen, spending his first fifteen years in community life and then thirty years in seclusion. Finally in 1825 he opened the doors of his cell to all who would come to him. Saint Seraphim constantly prayed the Jesus Prayer, and came to be granted the vision of the Divine and Uncreated Light. In Saint Seraphim's case the Divine Light actually took a visible form, outwardly transforming his body. Other nineteenth-century Russian proponents of the Jesus Prayer include Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov (1807-1867), Bishop of Kostroma, who wrote on the value of the Jesus Prayer for all people and also published a more complete Slavonic edition of the Dobrotolubiye. Saint Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894), another important teacher of the Jesus Prayer, prepared a greatly expanded translation of the Philokalia in five volumes—not in Slavonic, but in the Russian vernacular. In addition to these learned works, there appeared at the same time a simple story of a wanderer, called The Sincere Tales of a Pilgrim to his Spiritual Father, or The Way of the Pilgrim. It is the story of a simple Russian peasant who became a pilgrim, a wanderer traveling back and forth across Russia in search of a way to pray without ceasing, who discovers this in the Jesus Prayer. It was during this nineteenth-century Russian revival of the Jesus Prayer that the words "a sinner" were first added to the end of the prayer, giving it the form that is familiar to most of us in the West today.
The Twentieth-Century West
In the present-day Western world the Jesus Prayer is becoming more widely known and practiced, as it has been for centuries in the Christian East. This is due in part to the immigration of Orthodox Christians to the West, particularly Russian and other Slavic immigrants. In addition, there are more and more Orthodox monasteries being established in Europe and North America where monks and nuns from Greek, Russian, and Romanian Orthodox traditions are teaching the importance of the Jesus Prayer. There have also been new editions and translations made of the Philokalia, as well as many other new writings on the Jesus Prayer. One need only look in any catalogue of Orthodox publications to see the works available.