We must keep contact with God
—What is spiritual joy?
—Spiritual joy… This is something unexplainable. It can only be experienced. One person asks another: “Have you ever loved? Do you know what love is like?” He replies, “Yes, I have. I know what love is.” The former asks, “Then share it with me!” The latter agrees: “Okay.” He starts sighing, choosing suitable words and citing examples. And finally he confesses: “Listen, I can’t explain what love is like… This can only be experienced…” How can you explain what love is? It is beyond all the categories of this world.
—How do you communicate with icons while painting them?
—I don’t communicate with icons, I just paint them. As I paint an icon I say, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me… Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me…”
When someone does creative work, he can get distracted from prayer. Once I was frescoing a sanctuary at Karoulia on Mt. Athos. As I painted I repeated all day long: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me… Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me…” My lay friend had come with me. So, while I painted icons and prayed, he would carry firewood all day long and pray: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me… Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me…”
On the third day an Athonite monk couldn’t contain himself any longer and wondered, “There are no questions for you… But your companion… Is he really a bank manager?” I replied: “He is the manager of all the banks in the Orenburg region!” He continued: “Does he really read the Jesus Prayer all day long?” I said: “He does, and not only that. He also rises to pray from two till three A.M. every night!” By the way, this is a lesson to those who claim they are extremely busy. And the manager of all the banks in the Orenburg region is an idler, isn’t he? After all, he manages to rise and pray from two till three every night. He says, “My wife scolds me in the evening, saying that I have become addicted to Orthodoxy and should ‘slow down.’ I answer: ‘Okay, no problem.’” After she falls asleep he rises at two a.m. and starts praying! And she doesn’t have the slightest idea that her husband has a meeting with God from two till three at night.
Go out into the open
—How can laypeople perform the Jesus Prayer? It is intended for monks and may be dangerous for laypeople…
—Where do you have such experience of the Jesus Prayer from? Whenever I hear categorical judgments, I want to get more precise information: “Why do you assert in a peremptory tone that only monks and not laypeople can perform the Jesus Prayer?”
—This is what my spiritual father says…
—Then no arguments! Amen! Though I would do it secretly anyway. If only you could “walk over the edge” of the Jesus Prayer… As for me, no one will force me to abandon it. Though I won’t argue with anybody. And I will certainly consider other people’s opinions. But it is impossible to make someone who knows the taste of the Jesus Prayer give it up. It’s not possible.
A friend of mine, a priest, came to visit me. He said: “Fr. sergiy, you read the Jesus Prayer by the prayer rope all the time, while I only do it sporadically. Sometimes I resume this rule, sometimes I gave it up, and sometimes I’m too busy… But now I won’t abandon it anymore.” I asked, “Why?” He said: “Because now I know its taste. All the rest is tasteless to me.”
I wish all these priests who dissuade others from performing the Jesus Prayer could also experience its taste. Not the taste of this: “Have you read the preparatory prayers through and through?” “Yes, I have.” “Alright. Then you may take Communion!” But rather the taste of the closeness of God to us. He is so inspiring, so sensitive…
Sometimes I say, “Imagine a man born to homeless parents. He was born and lived in a basement, from childhood he was fed on bread and water, and the sun was scarcely discernible through a little dust-laden window… And all of a sudden he is led out into the open: he sees the bright sun, the azure sky, and the emerald green stretching into the distance… He is allowed to taste this life… And what next? Before, when he was ignorant of this, he was content with glass of water with a hunk of stale bread given to him regularly. Now that he has gotten to know the taste and power of true life it will be unbearable for him to return to his former life.
Don’t think when you stand up and pray—just pray
—How do you acquire undistracted prayer?
—Have patience. Just persevere all the time. Stay away from the “reasonable” and “analytical” mind. As long as you are in this domain, you won’t be able to stay focused during prayer. Abandon imaginative thinking, which usually draws up long, logical chains.
When we practice the Jesus Prayer, we keep the mind in our heart unseeing and unfeeling. We reject all of this. God is in the realm of the irrational. “Ratio” impedes our progress here.
—Can you give me advice? Should I pronounce the Jesus Prayer slowly or quickly? I have read that the Athonite practice is the fast repition and the Russian practice is slow. What is your opinion?
—My opinion: Do it however you can. If you succeed, then glory to God! I don’t like these arguments when some say that we must do it fast and others that we must do slowly! The manner of this argument means that someone is not very healthy spiritually: He wants to argue over and over again.
Advocates of the slow form support their claim by the need to ponder over the words of the prayer. I should tell you that thinking and praying are different things. When we pray, we don’t think—we pray. It’s another state of mind. If you practice “thinking, considering, analyzing” from the start, you will remain at a standstill. You will think about Christ for ten, twenty, or thirty years, but you will never meet Him in person.
—I want to stay alone, or, to be more exact, face to face with the Savior, ever more often. But I have a husband, children, grandchildren, and I am surrounded with people at work… What should I do with this desire?
—You are unlikely to succeed to the degree that St. Joseph the Hesychast did. True, your conditions are different. But it may be possible to some degree. If someone has chosen a right path and walks it, then everything is possible to him with God, even among people…
Sometimes, when one person speaks to another, the latter seems to be looking at him but in reality he isn’t. Are these situations known to you? I often cite the example of Constantine, the father of St. Gregory Palamas, who was a senator and courtier of the Byzantine Emperor Andronicus II. He practiced the Jesus Prayer. Sometimes someone addressed him during meetings of the Senate, but Constantine was silent. Then the Emperor would say: “Don’t bother him! He is praying!”
If someone has a very strong desire… You just need to have it… Come to understand how precious this gem is and long for it. The Lord relates that when a man found a very precious pearl, he sold all he had and bought it (cf. Mt. 13:45-46). To sell everything you own (and this entails bureaucratic delays etc.) and buy a pearl, you must know its great value. Someone who’s ignorant of its value says, “It’s folly!”; and he who knows its price is ready to renounce his fortune no matter how large it is. The value is so great.
The problem is in your heart
—Why has the Church been silent about the genocide of the Russian people which has continued for over a century?
—You see, there is the word, and there is the spirit. Sometimes the word can be true, while the spirit is aggressive and not peaceful. This is something that will always do even the most sincere seekers of truth a bad turn.
There was the following occurrence on Mt. Athos. When I was sitting in Karoulia, a local monk sat down next to me. In the 2000s, robber-like people spent their time there. This was their distinctive manner: “We will be dare-devils in order not to fall into delusion.” I won’t reveal the monk’s name because he no longer lives on Mt. Athos. He sat down in front of me, we got into a conversation, and when he learned that I am a married priest (and not a monk) from Russia, he started ridiculing me and picking on me. He said that they were Athonites, who were praying for the entire world, while we, priests in the world, were relaxed and inert. He even cracked a joke: “Beat the priests and save Russia.” I then replied, “Listen, Fr. N., your problem is not the priests. The problem is in your heart, where spite and aggression live. Even if you exterminate all the priests (shooting them, as in the USSR), you will have another issue to deal with. Because your spite needs space, and you will be able to find that space anytime.”
There will always be an excuse to speak about revolutions. May God save us from revolutions. They are terrible.
Forgive me for these words. But peace must reign in our hearts. It will inspire you to act correctly and wisely regardless of who is in front of you…
Such things occur: I don’t want to talk about others and judge them in case I lose what I have. I wrote a play called “Fools”, dedicated to mental patients. In it the senior nurse is always angry with the professor who devoted most of his time to caring for these “fools”, loving them and talking with them. She reprimanded him: “Why are you always talking with them? They are fools! They will be slobbering again in a minute!” And he answered: “My dears! What matters to me is not only what they will be like but also what I will become like by treating them in this way.”
What language does God speak?
—Are our “meeting with the Lord” and repentance gifts from God, or can we acquire them by prayer? Or maybe the time will come when the Lord grants everything?
—Whenever I am asked about the Jesus Prayer, namely whether it is allowed to enter the heart (the practice of joining the heart and the mind), I answer that this is not something we do: our mind stands near our heart, but the heart is the holy of holies; we can’t enter it, only the Lord can take us there with Himself. It is daring to enter the holy of holies on your own. We just stand like beggars and wait, “Lord, Lord, Lord…”
We yearn for the Lord, but it is He that will reveal Himself to us. You just stand and implore Him. Don’t be daring.
—How to cut off thoughts during prayer?
—You won’t be able to cut them off, you can only ignore them. I don’t like the expression, “the struggle with thoughts.” We misinterpret it. It at once gears us up for battles. But you won’t cope with this war. Ignore thoughts; while they are knocking at your door, you are doing your work—“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me… Lord Jesus Christ…” Even if they are firing from a revolver near your ear, you must stay focused: “Lord Jesus Christ…”
The aim of satan is to put you beside yourself. Once you’ve lost your temper, he will bring you into submission.
You shouldn’t let a gipsy stop you in the market. You’ll start arguing with her and be left without your purse. You can only run away from her. It’s the same with thoughts: Once you’ve started arguing with them, they’ll envelop you. You’ll get bogged down in them, and this dragging down will never end!
I remember one comic situation. After the birth of one of my children my wife and I went to a market. She went shopping, while I was standing and feeding the baby. Suddenly two gypsies spotted me and started talking about something. I realized they had decided to take my purse (though my wife had taken it with her). One of them moved towards me… When she was about ten steps away from me, I suddenly struck her dumb with a scathing phrase in Romany. “Are you a gypsy?” she stared at me. “Yeah, I am earning money here!” I answered, rocking the baby slightly. In fact, there used to be a Gipsy camp next to our church. I would socialize with their children who begged in the area who taught me a few phrases in Romany, and I learned them by heart. So the gypsy woman walked away, pointing at me and saying to the others, “Don’t go over there, that’s his territory!”
You must be thinking, how can I practice the Jesus Prayer if I am not serious at all?...
But we must speak with God only in His language.
—How can I understand that I am with God and that it’s not just my way of life?
—Well, since you have doubts about that, your meeting with Christ hasn’t taken place yet. When God comes, all questions disappear and tears begin to flow.