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Spiritual Warfare Forum: The Jesus Prayer

by Catherine Frakas 02 Feb 2001

The Jesus Prayer QUESTION from David Lindsay on May 21, 2002 Dear Brother Ignatius
I've recently come across the practise known as The Jesus Prayer - a technique pioneered by the Russian author of The Way of The Pilgrim. I'm very impressed by it. But I can't help noticing that some versions rely upon the simple repetition of the name of Jesus whilst concentrating on one's breath. Need one worry too much about its striking similarity to the eastern repetion of the mantra - with that's, I presume, unhealthy mind-emptying quality?
David Lindsay
ANSWER by John-Paul Ignatius, OLSM on May 30, 2002 Dear Mr. Lindsay:
The Jesus Prayer comes from an Eastern Catholic and Orthodox tradition of Hesychasm. The word is derived from the Greek word for tranquility, silence or condition of rest.
Quoting from the Sunday Visitor's Catholic Encyclopedia, ...hesychasm is a method of interior prayer of the spirit characterized by a conscious and constant attitude and awareness of the Presence of God, a style of uninterrupted prayer as regular as the beating of the heart or breathing.
This method of prayer is very ancient in the Eastern Church and was handed down by word of mouth for many centuries. A written account of this form of prayer is attributed to Symeon the New Theologian in the 11th century.
There are physical aspects of this form of prayer that are similar to the non-Christian Eastern Mystical meditation traditions -- the control of breathing, body posture, and a rhythm of prayer. But this is only an external similarity and that is where the similarity ends.
In non-Christian Eastern mysticism these physical disciplines are practiced to empty the mind so that, as the theory goes, one may merge and be at one with the cosmic plasma, the universe, with a balance of energies called yin and yang in Chinese mysticism. This is NOT what hesychasm does.
In hesychasm the physical disciplines mentioned above are a aid to concentration, not an emptying. One focuses on the Jesus Prayer O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God as one breathes in deeply, and then on have mercy on me, a sinner as the person exhales -- but not in the sense of a mantra that facilitates an emptying of the mind, but fills the mind with the presence of God.
Again quoting directly from the Encyclopedia: Far from rendering the interior life mechanical, it has the opposite effect, of freeing it and turning it toward contemplation by constantly driving away from the region of the heart all contagion of sin and every external thought or image; and this by the power of the Most Holy Name of Jesus. Thus this particular style of spiritual prayer make the heart ready for the indwelling of grace by constantly guarding its interior disposition. This constant remembrance and perpetual prayer in the Name of Jesus is meant to produce in the practitioner the habit of loving God perfectly and without hindrance.
With practice the Jesus Prayer becomes as natural as breathing. Those practiced in this prayer form can be doing this prayer at every waking moment even when they are talking to someone.
A more complete article on this subject, its history, and its controversies can be found in the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia at Hesychasm
Quietism is a false version of hesychasm. You can read about that at Quietism

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