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9.2: Orthodox Christian Hesychasm

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    The way of mystical quest in Christianity has never had the focused, central emphasis that it has had in Buddhism. In particular, it has not had the precedent of specific and systematic guidelines laid down by Jesus that the Buddhist mystical quest was given by its founder, Siddhartha Gautama. What guidelines it does possess have been laboriously developed, for the most part by trial and error, by many generations of spiritual fathers and mothers over the course of the development of Christian contemplative monasticism. There has been accordingly much less unanimity from one subtradition to another and much less of a systematic character to those guidelines than is characteristic of Buddhism. Moreover, there is another, more important reason why Christian traditions of mystical quest have never become systematic: a virtually unanimous conviction concerning the sovereignty of divine grace that is believed to govern the quest. This means that ultimately God is supposed to be actively involved and in charge of the process and that one's proper role should always be one of attentive discernment and responsive obedience to divine leading. It is believed that human beings cannot by their own power attain to a mystical experience of God, in part because of the transcendence of God and in part because of human sinfulness (humans having turned their backs to divine grace through the Fall). On the contrary, so far as there is such a thing as a genuine mystical experience of God, it is only because of what is understood to be the grace of God in Christ that one is called, equipped, and enabled to participate in such an experience. Western Christian mysticism has tended to emphasize the role of divine grace at the expense of human initiative and activity. Eastern Christian mysticism speaks of a synergy of divine grace and human activity and is more encouraging of things a person can specifically do to prepare for, invite, and expect the infusion of divine grace that is said to culminate in a mystical experience of God. Accordingly, it tends to be somewhat more systematic than its Western Christian counterpart.

    The following excerpt is from the Eastern Orthodox tradition of hesychasm ("tranquillity") and presents an account of the practice known as "the prayer of the heart," which makes use of the Jesus Prayer. It is by Kallistos Ware, Bishop of Diokleia.6 It is recommended that persons who undertake this practice do so under the guidance of a spiritual director (geron in Greek, starets in Russian). Moreover, i~ is a practice that is not meant at all to compete with participation in the sacramental life of the Church. Rather, it presupposes participation in that life and that the participant is herself a baptized and chrismated member in good standing of the Church, regarded as the Body of Christ. In that sense, the practice is believed to rely on and develop the supernatural gifts consequent to being united with Christ through the sacraments.

    It should be said here that the Jesus Prayer is used in a variety of contexts within Christianity and within Eastern Orthodox Christianity in particular. Its use is not exclusive to the way of mystical quest. It is often used as a more spontaneous and less disciplined, personally focused prayer ("free" as opposed to "formal") that is more suggestive of the way of devotion than mystical quest. One might say that its use as described below represents a kind of fusion of some aspects of the way of devotion with the way of mystical quest, which fusion often characterizes the mystical quest within Christianity. (Ware at one point in what follows calls it "a prayer of affection" and at another "an invocation specifically addressed to another person."7) While that may be so, the apparent fusion may also be accounted for in terms of the distinctive symbol system of Christianity that conceives of the relationship between the individual person and God in personally intimate terms and explicitly solicits petitionary prayer.


    Prayer and Silence

    "When you pray," it has been wisely said by an Orthodox writer in Finland, "you yourself must be silent ... ; let the prayer speak" [Tito Colliander8]. To achieve silence: this is of all things the hardest and the most decisive in the art of prayer. Silence is not merely negative, a pause between words, a temporary cessation of speech-but, properly understood, it is highly positive: an attitude of attentive alertness, of vigilance, and above all of listening. The hesychast, the person who has attained hesychia, inner stillness or silence, is par excellence the one who listens. He listens to the voice of prayer in his own heart, and he understands that this voice is not his own but that of Another speaking within him....

    But how are we to start? How, after entering our room and closing the door, are we to begin to pray, not just by repeating words from books, but by offering inner prayer, the living prayer of creative stillness? How can we learn to stop talking and to start listening? Instead of simply speaking to God, how can we make our own prayer in which God speaks to us? How shall we pass from prayer expressed in words to prayer of silence, from "strenuous" to "self acting" prayer (to use Bishop Theophane's terminology), from "my" prayer to the prayer of Christ in me?

    One way to embark on this journey inwards is through the Invocation of the Name.

    "Lordjesus ... "

    It is not, of course, the only way. No authentic relationship between persons can exist without mutual freedom and spontaneity, and this is true in particular of inner prayer. There are no fixed and unvarying rules, necessarily imposed on all who seek to pray; and equally there is no mechanical technique, whether physical or mental, which can compel God to manifest his presence. His grace is conferred always as a free gift, and cannot be gained automatically by any method or technique. The encounter between God and man in the kingdom of the heart is therefore marked by an inexhaustible variety of patterns. There are spiritual masters in the Orthodox Church who say little or nothing about the Jesus Prayer. But, even if it enjoys no exclusive monopoly in the field of inner prayer, the Jesus Prayer has become for innumerable Eastern Christians over the centuries the standard path, the royal highway.... Wherein, we ask, lies the distinctive appeal and effectiveness of the Jesus Prayer? Perhaps in four things above all: first, in its simplicity and flexibility; secondly, in its completeness; thirdly, in the power of the Name; and fourthly, in the spiritual discipline of persistent repetition. Let us take these points in order.

    Simplicity and Flexibility

    The Invocation of the Name is a prayer of the utmost simplicity, accessible to every Christian, but it leads at the same time to the deepest mysteries of contemplation. Anyone proposing to say the Jesus Prayer for lengthy periods of time each day-and, still more, anyone intending to use the breathing control and other physical exercises in conjunction with the Prayer-undoubtedly stands in need ... of an experienced spiritual guide. Such guides are extremely rare in our day. But those who have no personal contact with a starets may still practise the Prayer without any fear, so long as they do so only for limited periods-initially, for no more than ten or fifteen minutes at a time-and so long as they make no attempt to interfere with the body's natural rhythms.

    No specialized knowledge or training is required before commencing the Jesus Prayer. To the beginner it is sufficient to say: Simply begin. "In order to walk one must take a first step; in order to swim one must throw oneself into the water. It is the same with the Invocation of the Name. Begin to pronounce it with adoration and love. Cling to it. Repeat it. Do not think that you are invoking the Name; think only of Jesus himself. Say his Name slowly, softly and quietly" ["A Monk of the Eastern Church," Lev Gillet].

    The outward form of the prayer is easily learnt [sic]. Basically it consists of the words "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me." There is, however, no strict uniformity. We can say" ... have mercy on us," instead of "on me." the verbal formula can be shortened: "Lord jesus Christ, have mercy on me," or "Lord jesus," or even "jesus" alone, although this last is less common. Alternatively, the form of words may be expanded by adding "a sinner" at the end, thus underlining the penitential aspect. ... The one essential and unvarying element is the inclusion of the divine Name "jesus." Each is free to discover through personal experience the particular form of words which answers most closely to his or her needs. The precise formula employed can of course be varied from time to time, so long as this is not done too often: for, as St Gregory of Sinai warns, "Trees which are repeatedly transplanted do not grow roots."

    There is a similar flexibility as regards the outward circumstances in which the Prayer is recited. Two ways of using the Prayer can be distinguished, the "free" and the "formal." By tlile "free" use is meant the recitation of the Prayer as we are engaged in our usual activities throughout the day. It may be said, once or many times, in the scattered moments which otherwise would be spiritually wasted: when occupied with some familiar and semi-automatic task, such as dressing, washing up, mending socks, or digging in the garden; when walking or driving, when waiting in a bus queue or a traffic jam; in a moment of quiet before some especially painful or difficult interview; when unable to sleep, or before we have gained full consciousness on waking, part of the distinctive value of the jesus Prayer lies precisely in the fact that, because of its radical simplicity, it can be prayed in conditions of distraction when more complex forms of prayer are impossible. It is especially helpful in moments of tension and grave anxiety. . . .

    The "free" recitation of the jesus Prayer is complemented and strengthened by the "formal" use. In this second case we concentrate our whole attention on the saying of the Prayer, to the exclusion of all external activity. The Invocation forms part of the specific "prayer time" that we set aside for God each day. Normally, along with the jesus Prayer, we shall also use in our "set" time other forms of prayer taken from the liturgical books, together with Psalm and Scripture readings, intercession, and the like. A few may feel called to an almost exclusive concentration upon the jesus Prayer, but this does not happen with most. Indeed many prefer simply to employ the Prayer in the "free" manner without using it "formally" in their "set" time of prayer; and there is nothing disquieting or incorrect about this. The "free" use may certainly exist without the "formal."

    In the "formal" usage, as in the "free," there are no rigid rules, but variety and flexibility. No particular posture is essential. In Orthodox practice the Prayer is most usually recited when seated, but it may also be said standing or kneelingand even, in cases of bodily weakness and physical exhaustion, when lying down. It is normally recited in more or less complete darkness or with the eyes closed, not with open eyes before an icon illuminated by candles or a votive lamp. . . .

    A prayer-rope or rosary (komvoschoinion, tchotki), normally with a hundred knots, is often employed in conjunction with the Prayer, not primarily in order to count the number of times it is repeated, but rather as an aid to concentration and the establishment of a regular rhythm. It is a widespread fact of experience that, if we make some use of our hands as we pray, this will help to still our body and to gather us together into the act of prayer. But quantitative measurement, whether with a prayer-rope or in other ways, is on the whole not encouraged....

    The Prayer is sometimes recited in groups, but more commonly alone; the words may be said aloud or silently. In Orthodox usage, when recited aloud it is spoken rather than chanted. There should be nothing forced or labored in the recitation. The words should not be formed with excessive emphasis or inner violence, but the Prayer should be allowed to establish its own rhythm and accentuation, so that in time it comes to "sing" within us by virtue of its intrinsic melody. Starets Parfenii of Kiev likened the flowing movement of the Prayer to a gently murmuring stream....


    Theologically, as the Russian Pilgrim rightly claims; the Jesus Prayer "holds in itself the whole gospel truth;" it is a "summary of the Gospels." In one brief sentence it embodies the two chief mysteries of the Christian faith, the Incarnation and the Trinity. It speaks, first, of the two natures of Christ the God-man (Theanthropos): of his humanity, for he is invoked by the human name, "Jesus," which his Mother Mary gave to him after his birth in Bethlehem; of his eternal Godhead, for he is also styled "Lord" and "Son of God." In the second place, the Prayer speaks by implication, although not explicitly, of the three Persons of the Trinity. While addressed to the second person, Jesus, it points also to the Father, for jesus is called "Son of God": and the Holy Spirit is equally present in the Prayer, for "no one can say 'Lord Jesus,' except in the Holy Spirit" (I Cor 12:3). So the Jesus Prayer is both Christocentric and Trinitarian.

    Devotionally, it is no less comprehensive. It embraces the two chief "moments" of Christian worship: the "moment" of adoration, of looking up to God's glory and reaching out to him in love; and the "moment" of penitence, the sense of unworthiness and sin. There is a circular movement within the Prayer, a sequence of ascent and return. In the first half of the Prayer we rise up to God: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God ... "; and then in the second half we return to ourselves in compunction:"... on me a sinner." ...

    These two "moments"-the vision of divine glory and the consciousness of human sin-are united and reconciled in a third "moment" as we pronounce the word "mercy." "Mercy" denotes the bridging of the gulf between God's righteousness and the fallen creation. He who says to God, "Have mercy," laments his own helplessness but voices at the same time a cry of hope. He speaks not only of sin but of its overcoming. He affirms that God in his glory accepts us though we are sinners, asking us in return to accept the fact that we are accepted. So the Jesus Prayer contains not only a call to repentance but an assurance of forgiveness and restoration . . . .

    Such are among the riches, both theological and devotional, present in the Jesus Prayer; present, moreover, not merely in the abstract but in a vivifying and dynamic form. The special value of the jesus Prayer lies in the fact that it makes these truths come alive, so that they are apprehended not just externally and theoretically but with all the fullness of our being. To understand why the jesus Prayer possess such efficacy, we must turn to two further aspects: the power of the Name and the discipline of repetition.

    The Power of the Name

    "The Name of the Son of God is great and boundless, and up holds the entire universe." So it is affirmed in The Shepherd of Hermas, nor shall we appreciate the role of the Jesus Prayer in Orthodox spirituality unless we feel some sense of the power and virtue of the divine Name. If the Jesus Prayer is more creative than other invocations, this is because it contains the Name of God....

    In the Hebrew tradition, to do a thing in the name of another, or to invoke and call upon his name, are acts of weight and potency. To invoke a person's name is to make that person effectively present. "One makes a name alive by mentioning it. The name immediately calls forth the soul it designates; therefore there is such deep significance in the very mention of a name" [Johannes Pederson].

    Everything that is true of human names is true to an incomparably higher degree of the divine Name. The power and glory of God are present and active in his Name. The Name of God is numen praesens, God with us, Emmanuel. Attentively and deliberately to invoke God's Name is to place oneself in his presence, to open oneself to his energy, to offer oneself as an instrument and a living sacrifice in his hands. . . .

    This Hebraic understanding of the Name passes from the Old Testament into the New. Devils are cast out and men are healed through the Name of Jesus, for the Name is power....

    It is this biblical reverence for the Name that forms the basis and foundation of the Jesus Prayer. God's Name is intimately linked with his Person, and so the Invocation of the divine Name possesses a sacramental character, serving as an efficacious sign of his invisible presence and action....

    The Name is power, but a purely mechanical repetition will by itself achieve nothing. The Jesus Prayer is not a magic talisman. As in all sacramental operations, the human person is required to co-operate with God through active faith and ascetic effort. We are called to invoke the Name with recollection and inward vigilance, confining our minds within the words of the Prayer, conscious who it is that we are addressing and that responds to us in our heart. Such strenuous prayer is never easy in the initial stages, and is rightly described by the Fathers as a hidden martyrdom. St Gregory of Sinai speaks repeatedly of the "constraint and labor" undertaken by those who follow the Way of the Name; a "continual effort" is needed; they will be tempted to give up "because of the insistent pain that comes from the inward invocation of the intellect." "Your shoulders will ache and you will often feel pain in your head," he warns, "but persevere persistently and with ardent longing, seeking the Lord in your heart." Only through such patient faithfulness shall we discover the true power of the Name.

    This faithful perseverance takes the form, above all, of attentive and frequent repetition. Christ told his disciples not to use "vain repetitions" (Mt 6:7); but the repetition of the Jesus Prayer, when performed with inward sincerity and concentration, is most emphatically not "vain." The act of repeatedly invoking the Name has a double effect: it makes our prayer more unified and at the same time more inward.


    As soon as we make a serious attempt to pray in spirit and in truth, at once we become acutely conscious of our interior disintegration, of our lack of unity and wholeness. In spite of all our efforts to stand before God, thoughts continue to move restlessly and aimlessly through our head, like the buzzing of flies (Bishop Theophane) .... To contemplate means, first of all, tobe present where one isto be here and now. But usually we find ourselves unable to restrain our mind from wandering at random over time and space. We recall the past, we anticipate the future, we plan what to do next; people and places come before us in unending succession. We lack the power to gather ourselves into the one place where we should be-here, in the presence of God; we are unable to live fully in the only moment of time that truly exists-now, the immediate present. This interior disintegration is one of the tragic consequences of the Fall. The people who get things done, it has been justly observed, are the people who do one thing at a time. But to do one thing at a time is no mean achievement. While difficult enough in external work, it is harder still in the work of inner prayer.

    What is to be done? How shall we learn to live in the present, in the eternal Now? How can we seize the kairos, the decisive moment, the moment of opportunity? It is precisely at this point that the jesus Prayer can help. The repeated Invocation of the Name can bring us, by God's grace, from dividedness to unity, from dispersion and multiplicity to singleness. "To stop the continual jostling of your thoughts," says Bishop Theophane, "you must bind the mind with one thought, or the thought of One only."

    ... Rather than gazing downwards into our turbulent imagination and concentrating on how to oppose our thoughts, we should look upwards to the Lord Jesus and entrust ourselves into his hands by invoking his Name; and the grace that acts through his Name will overcome the thoughts which we cannot obliterate by our own strength. Our spiritual strategy should be positive and not negative: instead of trying to empty our mind of what is evil, we should fill it with the thought of what is good. "Do not contradict the thoughts suggested by your enemies," advise [the ascetic Fathers] Barsanuphius and John, "for that is exactly what they want and they will not cease from troubling you. But turn to the Lord for help against them, laying before him your own powerlessness; for he is able to expel them and to reduce them to nothing."

    ... "The rational mind cannot rest idle," says St. Mark the Monk, for thoughts keep filling it with ceaseless chatter. But while it lies beyond our power to make this chatter suddenly disappear, what we can do is to detach ourselves from it by "binding" our ever-active mind "with one thought, or the thought of One only"the Name of Jesus. We cannot altogether halt the flow of thoughts, but through the Jesus Prayer we can disengage ourselves progressively from it, allowing it to recede into the background so that we become less and less aware of it.

    According to Evagrius of Pontus (t3999), "Prayer is a laying aside of thoughts." A laying aside: not a savage conflict, not a furious repression, but a gentle yet persistent act of detachment. Through the repetition of the Name" we are helped to "lay aside," to "let go," our trivial or pernicious imaginings, and to replace them with the thought of Jesus. But, although the imagination and the discursive reasoning are not to be violently suppressed when saying the Jesus Prayer, they are certainly not to be actively encouraged. The jesus Prayer is not a form of meditation upon specific incidents in the life of Christ, or upon some saying or parable in the Gospels; still less is it a way of reasoning and inwardly debating about some theological truth . . . . In this regard, the Jesus Prayer is to be distinguished from the methods of discursive meditation popular in the West since the Counter Reformation ....

    As we invoke the Name, we should not deliberately shape in our minds any visual image of the Saviour. This is one of the reasons why we usually say the Prayer in darkness, rather than with our eyes open in front of an icon. Keep your intellect free from colors, images and forms," urges St Gregory of Sinai; beware of the imagination (phantasia) in prayer otherwise you may find that you have become a phantastes instead of a hesychastes! "So as not to fall into illusion (prelest) while practising inner prayer," states St. Nil Sorskii (t1508), "do not permit yourself any concepts, images or visions." "Hold no intermediate image between the intellect and the Lord when practising the Jesus prayer," Bishop Theophane writes. " . . . The essential part is to dwell in God" and this walking before God means that you live with the conviction ever before your consciousness that God is in you, as he is in everything: you live in the firm assurance that he sees all that is within you, knowing you better than you know yourself. This awareness of the eye of God looking at your inner being must not be accompanied by any visual concept, but must be confined to a simple conviction or feeling." Only when we invoke the Name in this way-not forming pictures of the Saviour but simply feeling his presenceshall we experience the full power of the Jesus Prayer to integrate and unify.

    The Jesus Prayer is thus a prayer in words, but because the words are so simple, so few and unvarying, the prayer reaches out beyond words into the living silence of the Eternal. It is a way of achieving, with God's assistance, the kind of non-discursive, non-iconic prayer in which we do not simply make statements to or about God, in which we do not just form pictures of Christ in our imagination, but are "oned" with him in an all-embracing, unmediated encounter. Through the Invocation of the Name we feel his nearness with our spiritual senses, much as we feel the warmth with our bodily senses on entering a heated room. We know him, not through a series of successive images and concepts, but the unified sensibility of the heart. So the Jesus Prayer concentrates us into the here and now, making us single-centered, one-pointed, drawing us from a multiplicity of thoughts to union with the one Christ. "Through the remembrance of Jesus Christ," says St Philotheus of Sinai (?ninth-tenth century), "gather together your scattered intellect," gather it together from the plurality of discursive thinking into the simplicity of love.

    Many, on hearing that the Invocation of the Name is to be non-discursive and non-iconic, a means of transcending images and thoughts, may be tempted to conclude that any such manner of praying lies altogether beyond their capacities. To such it should be said: the Way of the Name is not reserved for a select few. It is within the reach of all. When you first embark on the Jesus Prayer, do not worry too much about expelling thoughts and mental pictures. As we have said already, let your strategy be positive, not negative. Call to mind, not what is to be excluded, but what is to be included. Do not think about your thoughts and how to shed them; think about Jesus. Concentrate your whole self, all your ardor and devotion, upon the person of the Saviour. Feel his presence. Speak to him with love. If your attention wanders, as undoubtedly it will, do not be discouraged; gently, without exasperation or inner anger, bring it back. If it wanders again and again, then again and yet again bring it back. Return to the center-to the living and personal center, Jesus Christ.

    Look on the Invocation, not so much as prayer emptied of thoughts, but as prayer filled with the Beloved. Let it be, in the richest sense of the word, a prayer of affection-although not of self-induced emotional excitement. For while the Jesus Prayer is certainly far more than "affective" prayer in the technical Western sense, it is with our loving affection that we do right to begin....


    The repeated Invocation of the Name, by making our prayer more unified, makes it at the same time more inward, more a part of ourselves, not something that we do at particular moments, but something that we are all the time; not an occasional act but a continuing state. Such praying becomes truly prayer of the whole person, in which the words and meaning of the prayer are fully identified with the one who prays....

    . . . In Orthodoxy, as in other traditions, prayer is commonly distinguished under three headings, which are to be regarded as interpenetrating levels rather than successive stages: prayer of the lips (oral prayer); prayer of the nous, the mind or intellect (mental prayer); prayer of the heart (or of the intellect in the heart). The Invocation of the Name begins, like any other prayer, as an oral prayer, in which words are spoken by the tongue through a deliberate effort of will. At the same time, once more by a deliberate effort, we concentrate our mind upon the meaning of what the tongue says. In course of time and with the help of God our prayer grows more inward. The participation of the mind becomes more intense and spontaneous, while the sounds uttered by the tongue become less important; perhaps for a time they cease altogether and the Name is invoked silently, without any movement of the lips, by the mind alone. When this occurs, we have passed by God's grace from the first level to the second. Not that vocal invocation ceases altogether, for there will be times when even the most "advanced" in inner prayer will wish to call upon the Lord Jesus aloud. (And who, indeed, can claim to be "advanced"? We are all of us "beginners" in the things of the Spirit.)

    But the journey inwards is not yet complete. A person is far more than the conscious mind; besides the brain and reasoning faculties there are the emotions and affections, the aesthetic sensitivity, together with the deep instinctive layers of the personality. All these have a function to perform in prayer, for the whole person is called to share in the total act of worship. Like a drop of ink that falls on blotting paper, the act of prayer should spread steadily outwards from the conscious and reasoning center of the brain, until it embraces every part of ourselves.

    In more technical terms, this means that we are called to advance from the second level to the third: from "prayer of the intellect" to "prayer of the intellect in the heart." "Heart" in this context is to be understood in the Semitic and biblical rather than the modern Western sense, as signifying not just the emotions and affections but the totality of the human person. The heart is the primary organ of our identity, it is our inner-most being, "the very deepest and truest self, not attained except through sacrifice, through death" [Richard Kehoe]. According to Boris Vysheslavtsev, it is "the center not only of consciousness but of the unconscious, not only of the soul but of the spirit, not only of the spirit but of the body, not only of the comprehensible but of the incomprehensible; in one word, it is the absolute center." Interpreted in this way, the heart is far more than a material organ in the body; the physical heart is an outward symbol of the boundless spiritual potentialities of the human creature, made in the image of God, called to attain his likeness.

    To accomplish the journey inwards and to attain true prayer, it is required of us to enter into this "absolute center," that is, to descend from the intellect into the heart. More exactly, we are called to descend not from but with the intellect. The aim is not just "prayer of the heart" but "prayer of the intellect in the heart," for our varied forms of understanding, including our reason, are a gift from God and are to be used in his service, not rejected. This "union of the intellect with the heart" signifies the reintegration of our fallen and fragmented nature, our restoration to original wholeness. Prayer of the heart is a return to Paradise, a reversal of the Fall, a recovery of the status ante peccatum. This means that it is an eschatological reality, a pledge and anticipation of the Age to Come-something which, in this present age, is never fully and entirely realized.

    Those who, however imperfectly, have achieved some measure of "prayer of the heart," have begun to make the transition about which we spoke earlier-the transition from "strenuous" to "self-acting" prayer, from the prayer which I say to the prayer which "says itself" or, rather, which Christ says in me. For the heart has a double significance in the spiritual life: it is both the center of the human being and the point of meeting between the human being and God. It is both the place of self-knowledge, where we see ourselves as we truly are, and the place of selftranscendence, where we understand our nature as a temple of the Holy Trinity, where the image comes face to face with the Archetype. In the "inner sanctuary" of our own heart we find the ground of our being and so cross the mysterious frontier between the created and the Uncreated. "There are unfathomable depths within the heart," state the Macarian Homilies."... God is there with the angels, light and life are there, the kingdom and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there."

    Prayer of the heart, then, designates the point where "my" action, "my" prayer, becomes explicitly identified with the continuous action of Another in me. It is no longer prayer to jesus but the prayer of jesus himself. This transition from "strenuous" to "self-acting" prayer is strikingly indicated in The Way of a Pilgrim 10: "Early one morning the Prayer woke me up as it were." Hitherto the Pilgrim has been "saying the Prayer"; now he finds that the Prayer "says itself," even when he is asleep, for it has become united to the prayer of God within him. Yet even so he does not consider that he has as yet attained prayer of the heart in its fullness.

    Readers ofThe Way ofa Pilgrim may gain the impression that this passage from oral prayer to prayer of the heart is easily achieved, almost in a mechanical and automatic fashion. The Pilgrim, so it seems, attains self-acting prayer in a matter of weeks. It needs to be emphasized that his experience, while not unique, is altogether exceptional. More usually prayer of the heart comes, if at all, only after a lifetime of ascetic striving. . . .

    Prayer of the heart, when and if it is granted, comes as the free gift of God, which he bestows as he wills. It is not the inevitable effect of some technique. St Isaac the Syrian (seventh century) underlines the extreme rarity of the gift when he says that "scarcely one in ten thousand" is counted worthy of the gift of pure prayer, and he adds: "As for the mystery that lies beyond pure prayer, there is scarcely to be found a single person in each generation who has drawn near to this knowledge of God's grace." One in ten thousand, one in a generation: while sobered by this warning, we should not be unduly discouraged. The path to the inner kingdom lies open before all, and all alike may travel some way along it. In the present age, few experience with any fullness the deeper mysteries of the heart, but very many receive in a more humble and intermittent way true glimpses of what is signified by spiritual prayer.

    Breathing Exercises

    It is time to consider a controversial topic, where the teaching of the Byzantine Hesychasts is often misinterpreted-the role of the body in prayer.

    The heart, it has been said, is the primary organ of our being, the point of convergence between mind and matter, the center alike of our physical constitution and our psychic and spiritual structure. Since the heart has this twofold aspect, at once visible and invisible, prayer of the heart is prayer of the body as well as soul: only if it includes the body can it be truly prayer of the whole person. A human being, in the biblical view, is a psychosomatic totality-not a soul imprisoned in a body and seeking to escape, but an integral unity of the two. The body is not just an obstacle to be overcome, a lump of matter to be ignored, but it has a positive part to play in the spiritual life and it is endowed with energies that can be harnessed for the work of prayer. If this is true of prayer in general, it is true in a more specific way of the Jesus Prayer, since this is an invocation addressed precisely to God Incarnate, to the Word made flesh. Christ at his Incarnation took not only a human mind and will but a human body, and so he has made the flesh into an inexhaustible source of sanctification. How can this flesh, which the Godman has made Spirit-bearing, participate in the Invocation of the Name and in the prayer of the intellect in the heart?

    To assist such participation, and as an aid to concentration, the Hesychasts evolved a "physical technique." Every psychic activity, they realized, has repercussions on the physical and bodily level; depending on our inner state we grow hot or cold, we breathe faster or more slowly, the rhythm of our heart-beats quickens or decelerates, and so on. Conversely, each alteration in our physical condition reacts adversely or positively on our psychic activity. If then, we can learn to control and regulate certain of our physical processes, this can be used to strengthen our inner concentration in prayer. Such is the basic principle underlying the Hesychast "method." In detail, the physical technique has three main aspects:

    (i) External posture. St Gregory of Sinai advises sitting on a low stool, about nine inches high; the head and shoulders should be bowed, and the eyes fixed on the place of the heart. He recognizes that this will prove exceedingly uncomfortable after a time. Some writers recommend a yet more exacting posture, with the head held between the knees, following the example of Elijah on Mount Carmel [1 Kings 18:42].

    (ii) Control o f the breathing. The breathing is to be made slower and at the same time coordinated with the rhythm of the Prayer. Often the first part, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God," is said while drawing in the breath, and the second part "have mercy on me a sinner," while breathing out. Other methods are possible. The recitation of the Prayer may also be synchronized with the beating of the heart.

    (iii) Inward exploration. just as the aspirant in Yoga is taught to concentrate his thought in specific parts of his body, so the Hesychast concentrates his thought in the cardiac center. While inhaling through his nose and propelling his breath down into his lungs, he makes his intellect "descend" with the breath and he "searches" inwardly for the place of the heart. Exact instructions concerning this exercise are not committed to writing for fear they should be misunderstood; the details of the process are so delicate that the personal guidance of an experienced master is indispensable. The beginner who, in the absence of such guidance, attempts to search for the cardiac center, is in danger of directing his thought unawares into the area which lies immediately below the heart-in the abdomen, that is, and the entrails. The effect on his prayer is disastrous, for this lower region is the source of the carnal thoughts and sensations which pollute the mind and the heart.

    For obvious reasons the utmost discretion is necessary when interfering with instinctive bodily activities such as the drawing of breath or the beating of the heart. Misuse of the physical technique can damage someone's health and disturb his mental equilibrium; hence the importance of a reliable master. If no such starets is available, it is best for the beginner to restrict himself simply to the actual recitation of the Jesus Prayer, without troubling at all about the rhythm of his breath or his heart-beats. More often than not he will find that, without any conscious effort on his part, the words of the Invocation adapt themselves spontaneously to the movement of his breathing. If this does not in fact happen, there is no cause for alarm; let him continue quietly with the work of mental invocation.

    The physical techniques are in any case no more than an accessory, an aid which has proved helpful to some but which is in no sense obligatory upon all. The Jesus Prayer can be practiced in its fullness without any physical methods at all. St Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), while regarding the use of physical techniques as theologically defensible, treated such methods as something secondary and suited mainly for beginners. For him, as for all the Hesychast masters, the essential thing is not the external control of the breathing but the inner and secret Invocation of the Lord Jesus.

    Orthodox writers in the last 150 years have in general laid little emphasis upon the physical techniques. The counsel given by Bishop lgnatii Brianchaninov (1807-67) is typical:

    We advise our beloved brethren not to try to establish this technique within them, ifit does not reveal itselfofits own accord. Many, wishing to learn of it by experience, have damaged their lungs and gained nothing. The essence of the matter consists in the union of the mind with the heart during prayer, and this is achieved by the grace of God in its own time, determined by God. The breathing technique is fully replaced by the unhurried enunciation of the Prayer, by a short rest or pause at the end, each time it is said, by gentle and unhurried breathing, and by the enclosure of the mind in the words of the Prayer. By means of these aids we can easily attain to a certain degree of attention.

    As regards the speed of recitation, Bishop lgnatii suggests:

    To say the Jesus Prayer a hundred times attentively and without haste, about half an hour is needed, but some ascetics require even longer. Do not say the prayers hurriedly, one immediately after another. Make a short pause after each prayer, and so help the mind to concentrate. Saying the Prayer without pauses distracts the mind. Breathe with care, gently and slowly.

    Beginners in the use of the Prayer will probably prefer a somewhat faster pace than is here proposed-perhaps twenty minutes for a hundred prayers. In the Greek tradition there are teachers who recommend a far brisker rhythm; the very rapidity of the Invocation, so they maintain, helps to hold the mind attentive. . . .

    The existence of a physical technique in connection with the Jesus Prayer should not blind us to the Prayer's true character. The Jesus Prayer is not just a device to help us concentrate or relax. It is not simply a piece of "Christian Yoga," a type of "Transcendental Meditation," or a "Christian mantra," even though some have tried to interpret it in this way. It is, on the contrary, an invocation specifically addressed to another person--to God made man, Jesus Christ, our personal Saviour and Redeemer. The Jesus Prayer, therefore, is far more than an isolated method or technique. It exists within a certain context, and if divorced from that context it loses its proper meaning.

    The context of the Jesus Prayer is first of all one of faith. The Invocation of the Name presupposes that the one who says the Prayer believes in Jesus Christ as Son of God and Saviour. Behind the repetition of a form of words there must exist a living faith in the Lord Jesus in who he is and in what he has done form me personally. Perhaps the faith in many of us is very uncertain and faltering; perhaps it coexists with doubt; perhaps we often find ourselves compelled to cry out in company with the father of the lunatic child, "Lord, I believe: help my unbelief" (Mk 9:24). But at least there should be some desire to believe; at least there should be, amidst all the uncertainty, a spark of love for the Jesus whom as yet we know so imperfectly.

    Secondly, the context of the Jesus Prayer is one of community. We do not invoke the Name as separate individuals, relying solely upon our own inner resources, but as members of the community of the Church. Writers such as St Barsanuphius, St Gregory of Sinai or Bishop Theophane took it for granted that those to whom he commended the Jesus Prayer were baptized Christians, regularly participating in the Church's sacramental life through Confession and Holy Communion. Not for one moment did they envisage the Invocation of the Name as a substitute for the sacraments, but they assumed that anyone using it would be a practicing and communicant member of the Church. Yet today, in this present epoch of restless curiosity and ecclesiastical disintegration, there are in fact many who use the Jesus Prayer without belonging to any Church, possibly without having a clear faith either in the Lord Jesus or in anything else. Are we to condemn them? Are we to forbid them the use of the Prayer? Surely not, so long as they are sincerely searching for the Fountain of Life. Jesus condemned no one except hypocrites. But, in all humility and acutely aware of our own faithlessness, we are bound to regard the situation of such people as anomalous, and to warn them of this fact.

    The journey's End

    The aim of the Jesus Prayer, as of all Christian prayer, is that our praying should become increasingly identified with the prayer offered by Jesus the High Priest within us, that our life should become one with his life, our breathing with the Divine Breath that sustains the universe. The final objective may aptly be described by the Patristic term theosis, "deification" or "divinization." In the words of Archpriest Sergei Bulgakov, "The Name of Jesus, present in the human heart, confers upon it the power of deification." "The Logos became man," says St Athanasius, "that we might become god." He who is God by nature took our humanity, that we humans might share by grace in his divinity, becoming "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pet 1:4). The Jesus Prayer, addressed to the Logos Incarnate, is a means of realizing within ourselves this mystery of theosis, whereby human persons attain the true likeness of God.

    The Jesus Prayer, by uniting us to Christ, helps us to share in the mutual indwelling or perichoresis of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. The more the Prayer becomes a part of ourselves, the more we enter into the movement of love which passes unceasingly between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Of this love St Isaac the Syrian has written with great beauty:

    Love is the kingdom of which our Lord spoke symbolically when he promised his disciples that they would eat in his kingdom: "You shall eat and drink at the table of my kingdom." What should they eat, if not love? . .. When we have reached love, we have reached God and our way is ended: we have passed over to the island that lies beyond the world, where is the Father with the Son and the Holy Spirit: to whom be glory and dominion.

    In the Hesychast tradition, the mystery of theosis has most often taken the outward form of a vision of light. This light which the saints behold in prayer is neither a symbolical light of the intellect, nor yet a physical and created light of the senses. It is nothing less than the divine and uncreated Light of the Godhead, which shone from Christ at his Transfiguration on Mount Tabor and which will illumine the whole world at his second coming on the Last Day....

    The Jesus Prayer causes the brightness of the Transfiguration to penetrate into every corner of our life. Constant repetition has two effects upon the anonymous author of The Way of the Pilgrim. First, it transforms his relationship with the material creation around him, making all things transparent, changing them into a sacrament of God's presence. He writes:

    When I prayed with my heart, everything around me seemed delightful and marvelous. The trees, the grass, the birds, the earth, 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 everything proved the love of God for man, that all things prayed to God and sang his praise. Thus it was that I came to understand what The Philokalia calls "the knowledge of the speech of all creatures." I felt a burning love for jesus and for all God's creatures.

    In the words of Father Bulgakov, "Shining through the heart, the light of the Name of Jesus illuminates all the universe."

    In the second place, the Prayer transfigures the Pilgrim's relation not only with the material creation but with other humans:

    Again I started offon my wanderings. But now I did not walk along as before, filled with care. The Invocation of the Name ofjesus gladdened my way. Everybody was kind to me, it was as though everyone loved me. . . . If anyone harms me I have only to think, '1How sweet is the Prayer ofjesus!" and the injury and the anger alike pass away and I forget it all.

    . . . The Jesus Prayer helps us to see Christ in each one and each one in Christ. The Invocation of the Name is in this way joyful rather than penitential, worldaffirming rather than world-denying. To some, hearing about the Jesus Prayer for the first time, it may appear that to sit alone in the darkness with eyes closed, con-

    stantly repeating"... have mercy on me," is a gloomy and despondent way of praying. And they may also be tempted to regard it as self-centered and escapist, introverted, an evasion of responsibility to the human community at large. But this would be a grave misunderstanding. For those who have actually made the way of the name their own, it turns out to be not somber and oppressive but a source of liberation and healing....

    Moreover, so far from turning our backs on others and repudiating God's creation when we say the Jesus Prayer, we are in fact affirming our commitment to our neighbor and our sense of the value of everyone and everything in God. "Acquire inner peace," said St. Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833), "and thousands around you will find their salvation." By standing in Christ's presence even for no more than a few moments of each day, invoking his Name, we deepen and transform all the remaining moments of the day, rendering ourselves available toothers, effective and creative, in a way that we could not otherwise be. . . .

    "Prayer is action; to pray is to be highly effective" [Tito Colliander]. Of no prayer is this more true than of the Jesus Prayer. While it is singled out for particular mention in the office of monastic profession as a prayer for monks and nuns, it is equally a prayer for laymen, for married couples, for doctors and psychiatrists, for social workers and bus conductors. The Invocation of the Name, practised aright, involves each one more deeply in his or her appointed task, making each more efficient in his actions, not cutting him off from others but linking him to them, rendering him sensitive to their fears and anxieties in a way that he never was before. The Jesus Prayer makes each into a "man for others," a living instrument of God's peace, a dynamic center of reconciliation.

    Reprinted by permission of the publisher from Bishop Kallistos, The Power of the Name (Oxford: SLG Press, 1986).

    This page titled 9.2: Orthodox Christian Hesychasm is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dale Cannon (Independent) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform.

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