In our last talk with Fr. Theodore Gignadze, the topic of the Jesus Prayer was raised. We asked Fr. Theodore to speak in a separate article about the need for the laity to pray the Jesus Prayer.
What does it mean when we say that we are Christians? We are not just believers and religious, that is, confident in the existence of God and observing certain rules for the sake of pleasing God. Christians are those of us who know that God came as a man, who have seen Him with the eyes of the heart, and to whom grace has declared (cf. Mt. 16:17) that before us is He Who created the universe and us, by Whom exists all that exists, by Whom our hearts and those of our loved ones beat; He is the foundation of everything (cf. Jn. 1:3-4).
Seeing all this, we can’t help but constantly contemplate Him, we can’t turn our backs to him, we can’t distance ourselves from Him even for a time to take care of our affairs (moreover our affairs are in His hands). Besides this pragmatic approach, He touches our hearts with love (cf. Rev. 3:20) and allows us to experience true life (cf. Jn. 10:28) and happiness (cf. Mt. 11:6). Along with this, He gives us Himself in the liturgical services, makes us an organic part of Himself (cf. Jn. 6:51), and attunes us to a grateful, that is, Eucharistic life.
In other words, we are Christians not for religiosity, but because we want to be with Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 12:2), because we realize ourselves in unity with Him, in following Him, in discipleship to Him (cf. Jn 15:18), in friendship (cf. Jn. 15:14) and brotherhood with Him (cf. Mt. 12:49), as images and likenesses of God, as citizens of Heaven (cf. Phil. 3:20, Heb. 13:14) and children of the Heavenly Father (cf. Jn. 20:17, 1 Jn. 3:2-3, Heb. 12:6-8, Rom. 8:16).
Bearing this in mind, how can the strange question arise: “Can laymen pray the Jesus Prayer?” After all, this prayer is an attempt to constantly be with Christ (cf. 1 Thess. 4:17), to behold Him and follow after Him (cf. Mk. 10:47-52).
The noetic Jesus Prayer is closely connected with hesychasm (“tranquility of mind and body”). It is often asked how advisable such a practice is for the laity. This formulation of the question is erroneous, inasmuch as the hesychastic way of life is one of the most important factors of Orthodoxy’s uniqueness. And as St. Symeon the New Theologian teaches us:
“Do not say: It is impossible for us, because Christ declared His commandments for everyone; He did not give separate commandments for monastics and laity.”1
In the Greek tradition, hesychasm amongst the laity is a common phenomenon, and there’s even a special term for it: lay hesychasm. In the fourteenth century, when hesychasm was dogmatically confirmed in a Council (1351), the fathers of the Church were supporters of hesychasm among the laity (e.g. St. Gregory Palamas, St. Nicholas Cabasilas).
In connection with the fact that in the Orthodox tradition hesychasm is necessary and obligatory for the laity as well, the teaching of the Orthodox Church that every person who is baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity and who submits to God in three Hypostases and one nature enters into a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people (1 Pt. 2:9) should be taken into account. There are other places in Sacred Scripture where this is spoken about:
Unto Him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and His Father (Rev. 1:5-6);
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service (Rom. 12:1).
Therefore, every Christian, regardless of Church rank, must constantly offer God a bloodless sacrifice of praise from the depths of his heart, which, in fact, is the noetic Jesus Prayer.
Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) writes:
We believe that noetic prayer is the most important means for the salvation of man… Perhaps someone will say that all these healing means, that is, eye salves, treating the eye of the heart (cf. Rev. 3:18), can only be used by monks. It is not so. All of us, even those living in the world, can live according to the commandments of Christ. Prayer, repentance, weeping, contrition, vigil, and so on are commanded to us by Christ, and that means everyone can follow them. Christ didn’t name things that would be impossible for man. Speaking of purity of heart, St. Gregory Palamas emphasizes that “it is possible for those living in marriage to satisfy this purity, although with much greater difficult.”2
Everything that makes up the phenomenon called hesychasm is justified by the Councils of Constantinople of 1341, 1346, and 1351, which are recognized by the Orthodox Church:
“Consequently, anyone who objects to any of the above is outside the Orthodox Tradition and can therefore be cut off from its life.”3
Metropolitan Hierotheos makes another interesting observation:
We note that even Orthodox Christians can be divided into two large groups. The first group includes those who can rightly be called followers of Barlaam. They are those who put reason in the first place and place their hope primarily upon man. Such people believe that many problems can be solved this way, including the main question of life—knowledge of God. To the second group belongs those whose hearts (in the fullest sense [ὅλα τήν ἑρμηνεἰα] in the Biblical and Patristic Tradition), like St. Gregory’s, are at the center of their spiritual life. Such people follow the path (τήν μέθοδο) of all the saints of our Church. They are vouchsafed true knowledge of God and true communion (στήν κοινωνία) with God. Thus, nowadays there are two directions, two lifestyles. But since the Church considers St. Gregory Palamas a great theologian and his teaching as the teaching of the Church, we should follow precisely this second path.4
Sacred Scripture repeatedly confirms for us the importance of calling upon the name of the incarnate Son of God, both in our daily struggle with sin and in terms of continuous communication with Him, selfless love for Him, and salvation as a whole:
He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life. These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God (1 Jn. 5:12-13);
But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly (Mt. 6:6);
And whatsoever ye shall ask in My name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask any thing in My name, I will do … whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in My name, that He may give it you (Jn. 14:13-14, 15:16).
And the Lord declares to us: Without Me ye can do nothing (Jn. 15:5). And the fact that, according to Christ, No man cometh unto the Father, but by Me (Jn. 14:6), is the strongest basis for fervent prayer, addressed to Him.
St. Paisius (Velichkovsky) writes:
“The God-bearing Fathers, made wise by the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit—the basis of their teaching on noetic mystical prayer secretly committed in the inner man—believe in the immovable rock of the Divine Scriptures of the New and Old Testaments, taking many testimonies from there as from an inexhaustible spring.”5
One of the common myths against the noetic Jesus Prayer and against hesychasm as a whole is the idea that this prayer is supposedly a source of prelest (spiritual delusion). We are given an answer to this myth by the words of the great Athonite elder of the twentieth century Joseph the Hesychast:
“Noetic prayer, the … invocation of the name of God, leaves no room for doubt nor can it be followed by delusion. For within the heart, the name of Christ is called upon, and He cleanses us from darkness and guides us into the light.”6
And in another letter the Elder writes:
“May, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,’ be your breath.”7
This modern ascetic’s thought is shared by all the Holy Fathers. One of them is the great apologist of noetic prayer St. Paisius (Velichkovsky), who talks about the practice of this prayer and of its results and of its advantages over other prayer practices:
“Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!” If someone says this prayer incessantly, like breath from his nostrils, and with desire, the Holy Trinity—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—will soon settle within him and create an abode with him, and the prayer will devour the heart, and the heart the prayer, and he will say this prayer day and night, and he will be liberated from all the enemies’ webs… If someone does not become accustomed to the noetic Jesus Prayer, he cannot have ceaseless prayer… This path of prayer is quicker to salvation than through the Psalms, canons, and the usual prayers for the literate. What a grown man is to a child, so is this prayer to a learned scholar—that is, a prayer that is written down skillfully.8
And together with the holy father, we boldly ask the opponents of noetic prayer:
“I’m completely bewildered. Do you really think that calling on the name of Jesus is not useful?”9
The negative attitude to hesychasm is also due to those who understand this term to mean the state of a deified man. In fact, hesychasm is the path, the Orthodox practice of the prayerful ascetic life, that process in the spiritual life, which is possible and necessary for the layman, because, from a practical point of view, it is precisely hesychasm that determines the uniqueness of Orthodoxy, because it is based on the teaching of the uncreatedness of Divine grace, of Divine energy, of the Taboric light. And this teaching is specifically Orthodox—we don’t find it in other Christian denominations. Thus, Orthodox prayer practice is unique. According to Orthodox teaching, thanks to prayer, God directly abides with us in grace. Therefore, the attitude towards prayer in our Tradition is different, bringing the corresponding fruits.
In its prayerful-ascetic podvig, Orthodoxy is hesychastic. And for those who believe that these topics are inaccessible and distant for people in such a state as we are, here are the words of Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov):
“I desire to know about something more perfect: about what exceeds my measure. But not because I lay claim to what is higher than myself; no, because it seems necessary to me to somehow see the guiding star, to test myself, whether I am on the right path… I would like to have a vision in the spirit of the true criteria, albeit very high, so as not to rest upon the little that I have known up until this hour.”10
The existence of hesychastic practice in the Church has a special influence on liturgical worship. Many ascetics of the Church speak about how important personal prayerful experience is for a serving priest so he himself would become, in his heart, a partaker in the Eucharistic ministry, so this great mystery would not pass him by; so the glorious service of offering the Bloodless Sacrifice would not be a mere spectacle for him. When the serving priest becomes one with the mystery, makes it his own, he becomes an example for the faithful flock and thus contributes to the creation of the mystical Body of Christ, that is, of the Church. From this point of view, the considerations of an unknown Athonite hesychast are interesting:
“Priesthood should be accompanied by fasting (that is, by a podvig—Fr. T. G.), and it should be accompanied by noetic and heartfelt prayer. For if a priest always fasts and ceaselessly prays noetically from the depths of his soul, then during the Sacraments he will truly feel the grace of God within himself (and, accordingly, give an example to the flock and pave a way for it to the Living God—Fr. T. G.).”11
Noetic prayer and liturgical, Eucharistic ministry are the two wings by which man unites with God. These two mysteries help, complement, and adjoin one another: “The All-Night Vigil can become the best teacher of the Jesus Prayer,” instructs St. Nikon of Optina. But the living experience of worship and profound participation in it is impossible without personal prayerful preparation. Here is what Archimandrite Aimilianos writes in this regard:
Worship “exists as the highest manifestation of our prayer and point of departure for the continuation of prayer. Only he who prays and keeps the name of Jesus on his lips before going to church can say that he fully participates in the Liturgy, that he understands everything.”12
In conclusion, we say together with the apostle that our Christian life is realized by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth (Acts 4:10), and Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved (Acts 4:12); and to those who compel us to renounce the invocation of the holy name of the incarnate God (Acts 4:17-18), we also say together with the apostle: Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye (Acts 4:19).