“Tuning the heart” with the Jesus Prayer

Mount AthosOver the past couple of days, I’ve been reading Frederica Mathewes-Green’s book The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God.

This is a short introduction to the Jesus Prayer, on which I’ve posted occasionally in the past. It focuses mostly on the “fixed use” of the Prayer (specifically setting time aside to say it) rather than the “free use” (spontaneously saying the Prayer as you go about your daily business). As my own use of the Prayer has tended towards the latter, it was good to be given a fresh impetus to attempt more of the former. (It should be noted that the “free use” is not to be confused with the spontaneous, “prayer of the heart” to which Orthodox practice of the prayer, whether “fixed” or “free”, is ultimately directed, and which is seen as a fulfilment of St Paul’s call for Christians to “pray without ceasing”.)

One of the most illuminating aspects of the book is its explanation of the word nous. Rather than our modern division of “head” vs “heart”, “thoughts” vs “feelings”, the practice of the Jesus Prayer is based on the Greek distinction between dianoia (the reasoning faculty of our minds) and nous: the mind’s “receptive” faculty, the part of our mind that perceives truth directly rather than by a process of logical reasoning. We have no word for this in English, so “we don’t know it exists”, but it is the nous – and not merely our “feelings” – that is engaged when we encounter Christ in the Jesus Prayer.

The majority of the book is taken up by a series of questions and answers addressing practical and theological issues that western Christians, in particular, may have about the Prayer (for example, is it just an example of the “vain repetition” condemned by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount?). That said, it is not a long book: as Mathewes-Green points out, very few books on the Jesus Prayer are: “It’s a short prayer, and the way to do it is to keep saying it over and over.”

The hard part, she observes, is not to say the words but “to mean them”. It is is conviction that prompted her to write the book in the first place: to plot a middle course between those Orthodox Christians who insist that the Prayer should not even be attempted by non-Orthodox Christians, owing to the risk of self- (and demonic) deception, and those who would appropriate it as a tool of generic “spirituality”. As she writes at the end of the first part of the book (p.30):

I know that I am not qualified to write about the Jesus Prayer at the level it deserves; it’s fair to say that a beginner like me should not write about it at all. But I came to think that an inadequate book might be better than none, for I could see that the use of the Prayer is spreading, severed from its original context. While searching the Internet, I come across a site that teaches that the “Jesus Prayer” consists of repeating the name “Jesus” only and no other words. I see a review of a book in which the author reports that his experience with the Jesus Prayer was enhanced when he combined it with Buddhist meditation. I run across an all-purpose prayer website that offers this invitation: “Enjoy the inspirational words of the Jesus Prayer. Pray using these free online words.”

So I decided to go ahead and do the best I can.

She did a great job. I warmly recommend this book.

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4 thoughts on ““Tuning the heart” with the Jesus Prayer”

  1. I’m intrigued by the idea that non-Orthodox Christians shouldn’t be praying the Jesus prayer; I’d have thought there was more risk of self- and demonic deception in spontaneous prayer, and that it’s biblical roots would serve to make it less dangerous, if anything.

    Ditto for the discomfort with repeating only the name “Jesus”; if you think about its meaning, it doesn’t seem like a bad idea to me. And it’s basically devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus, which wikipedia cites as commended by quite a lot of saints in Western Christianity, plus Calvin and Luther.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holy_Name_of_Jesus#Development_of_devotions

    1. Hi Mark,

      On the first point, Ms Mathewes-Green points to arguments by Orthodox writers that any error in dogma, “however slight it may appear to our clumsy experience of the things of God” (Metropolitan Anthony Bloom), is potentially dangerous. Since non-Orthodox Christians are (in the Orthodox view) to a greater or lesser extent heretical, that’s where the danger comes in.

      However, it’s pretty clear that Mathewes-Green disagrees with that view (though she can’t quite bring herself to say so outright), and that the main risk is of falling into a self-deluded, egotistical mysticism – of thinking oneself superior to “ordinary” Christians – rather than it being inherently dangerous for any non-Orthodox Christian to use the Jesus Prayer. Also, she strongly advises that some of the additional exercises associated with the Prayer in the Eastern Church (such as changes to one’s breathing and so on) should not be attempted without an experienced spiritual guide.

      As for her discomfort with repeating only the name “Jesus”: she doesn’t explain what the problem is, but from reading other parts of the book I’d infer two possible issues. First, the potential confusion from calling that devotion “the Jesus Prayer”. Repetition of the name “Jesus” isn’t necessarily harmful for Christians, but it’s not the Jesus Prayer.

      Second, and probably more important, Mathewes-Green is keen to warn against the use of the Prayer as a form of “generic spirituality” that is “unhitched from actual communion with God”. Some non-Christians might adopt the Prayer as a mantra without acknowledging the reality of who Jesus is – a reality that is placed front and centre in the Jesus Prayer, where we address Jesus as Lord Jesus Christ, thus acknowledging him as being far more than an “inspiring religious teacher” or whatever. I think that may be Mathewes-Green’s main concern.

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