The challenge we find ourselves today is how do we achieve inner stillness is a society that promotes useless and mindless activities and noise? “In a world of noise, confusion, and conflict it is necessary that there be places of silence, inner discipline, and peace. In such places love can blossom.”[1] The way I achieve inner stillness is by praying the Jesus Prayer. This prayer can lead to inner stillness and unceasing prayer whether we live in a city or in the country side.

The origins of the Jesus Prayer begin with the Desert Fathers of Egypt in the 4th and 5th centuries and from there the practice eventually made its way to Greece and to the great monastery on Mount Athos. The Jesus prayer practice is a very important element of Eastern Orthodox spirituality and is becoming popular in the Western Churches.

The monks of the desert went there to practice inner silence or inner stillness. Their practice was to liberate the heart from thoughts, tame the passions and reduce the worlds influence upon their life. They tried to do this on two levels; external quietness and inner stillness or the stillness of the mind. First, in order to progress to the more difficult level of inner stillness, external quietness was important and this was achieved in three ways; through solitude, (spending time alone); by interior silence, (spending time in silence); and by the journey inward into the heart which is a “returning to oneself” in which the mind is no longer concerned by external things or the senses stimulated by worldly happenings. The mind returns to itself and ascends to the “Thought of God.”

This “Grace of Contemplation” can be obtained by people living in the middle of the city because solitude or inner stillness is a state of mind. It is not the external situation but the inner state that matters (but a quiet external environment is helpful).  The real desert is found in the heart, so the monk’s cell in the desert can be found in cultivating the inner cell of the heart. The two practices of watchfulness and remembrance of God are inseparable and attentiveness to oneself leads to attentiveness to God and the Jesus Prayer is key to cultivating this twofold attention.

The Jesus Prayer

The formula is simple; “Lord Jesus Christ, Have Mercy on me.” It can also be said in its longer form; “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me, a Sinner.” Or it can be said simply; “Jesus, Have Mercy.” Jesus taught us that we should pray in His name at the last supper when He invited the disciples to do so (John 14:14). Components of the Jesus Prayer also come from the prayer of the blind man in Jericho (Luke 18:38) who prayed; “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” Also, from the tax collector in Luke 18:13 who prayed from the darkened corner of the temple; “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

The Jesus Prayer is made up of three elements: frequent and continual repetition of the short formula; the invocation of the name of Jesus; and the appeal to God’s mercy, together with a sense of repentance.

The mind is constantly restless and aimless and cannot remain idle or quiet for too long. The Jesus Prayer gives the mind something to do, while focusing on the remembrance of God. It brings the mind into “one-pointedness” and replaces the ten-thousand thoughts with one single thought.

The Jesus Prayer is a concise contemplative prayer that goes beyond images, concepts, and reflective thinking. In this practice, we experience the presence of Jesus without mental pictures but though our spiritual senses. This is a prayer of affection and loving devotion.

The name of Jesus means “God saves” or God is our Savior” and when we recite “have mercy on me,” we confess our sinfulness and wretched condition as a consequence of the fall of Adam and the sin of humanity. We find ourselves in a sinful situation and in need of healing and redemption. We also confess that Jesus is full of mercy and compassion and by invoking His name, we experience His healing and saving presence.

The Jesus Prayer is essential in transforming our thoughts and passions. Thoughts to the Desert Fathers meant passionate thoughts. These are thoughts that are provoked by demons. There are eight passionate thoughts: gluttony; lust; greed; anger; sadness; apathy (acedia); [2] vanity; pride. The passions are impulses placed in humans by God but are now distorted by sin. They are not to be uprooted but transformed and the Jesus Prayer is essential in transforming these thoughts and passions. The method of the Jesus Prayer turns our attention away from passions and directs it towards Jesus by invoking His holy name. The name of Jesus is a healing remedy that cures our sicknesses, both physical and spiritual.

Light and darkness cannot be present at the same time, neither can the Holy Spirit and the Devil dwell together in a person’s mind and heart. By invoking the name of Jesus, the Light of Christ is allowed to shine interiorly, expelling the darkness of evil thoughts. This is the process of transformation, replacing light for darkness, good for evil and invoking the name of Jesus is a purifying fire, spreading the Grace of God over the heart and its sense of perception, burning away the weeds in the field of the soul.

The Jesus Prayer is a journey inward, moving towards the center of a person, towards their heart. The prayer must bring the mind into the heart.

Now, the mind has two functions, Reason and Intellect. The Reason mind is logical, formulating abstract concepts and drawing conclusions through deductive reasoning. This mind is can be thought of as masculine. The Intellect mind is the organ of contemplation which understands divine truth and the inner essences of creation through immediate experience or intuition. This mind is can be thought of as feminine. If mind remains in the head, it is the Reason mind but if the mind descends to the heart it functions as intellect and as the organ of contemplation.

The emotions and affections are not the only things connected to the heart. On a deeper level the heart is the interior center of the whole person, the inner-self or true-self. The heart is the central point where the body, mind and spirit are unified. It is the hidden source from which our intellect, will and our ability to experience or feel our emotions derive. It is the deep self, the seat of wisdom and understanding and the place of our moral decisions. It is the inner shrine of divine grace and the indwelling presence of the Holy Trinity. It is the heart that reveals the man or woman as a spiritual being created in God’s image and likeness. When we journey inward, we stand with the mind in the heart before God.

There are two ways to practice the Jesus Prayer, in a structured way or said spontaneously. Structured is to set aside a period every morning, 20 or 30 minutes and say the Jesus Prayer interiorly following the breath while focusing upon the heart. Breathing through the nose, on the inhale interiorly say, “Lord Jesus Christ” then on the exhale interiorly say, “have mercy on me” but if said audibly, inhale through the nose and on the exhale say the complete prayer. You can also freely repeat the prayer throughout the day as you do your work or chores. You can kneel, sit, stand, walk, or lie down as you say it. One way of saying the Jesus Prayer is to face the east and as you say the prayer make the sign of the cross and then bowing low at the waist as you say “have mercy on me.”  A rosary or special prayer beads called a chotki can be used to help with your focus. There is a famous book about a wandering pilgrim in 19th century Russia called “The Way of the Pilgrim.” The narrator recounts his journey as a mendicant pilgrim while practicing the Jesus Prayer. His travels take him through southern and central Ukraine, Russia, and Siberia.

Authors note: This article is adapted from his book “A Finger Pointing to the Moon: Considerations on Living as a Lay Monk.”

[1] Thomas Merton

[2] The inability to choose the good. It is an affliction of the soul that attacks desire – our desire for the good. A state of listlessness or torpor, of not caring or not being concerned with one’s position or condition in the world.

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