A book I’ve taken delivery of, but haven’t yet started reading, is Kyriacos C. Markides’ The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality. I have, however, taken the opportunity to flick through the pages dealing with the Jesus Prayer (see previous posts 1 | 2).
Markides’ book consists of conversations between him and Father Maximos, a monk from Mount Athos working to establish churches, convents, and monasteries in Cyprus. In one chapter, Markides discusses the tradition of “ceaseless prayer” with Father Maximos, and in particular the Jesus Prayer – or, as Father Maximos refers to it, the Efche (transliterating the Greek Η Ευχή, “the Wish”):
Father Maximos then talked about the Efche, the “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner,” a subject that we had discussed earlier. This special form of prayer has been considered by the holy elders as central to the spiritual life. He reminded me that the Prayer is to be recited continuously by the serious pilgrim and full-time practitioner of the spiritual arts. It is, he claimed, the most potent medicine for the cure of the soul, the “science of the sciences,” precisely because it is the method which, once mastered, can lead to the opening of the doors toward God. Repeating these simple words, Father Maximos said, by virtue of their power, can lead us into realms beyond the words and into the great mystery of Theosis. (p.198)
Markides suggests that the Efche bears some resemblance to the mantras used in Eastern religions, but Father Maximos rebuts this:
Whatever secrets are revealed are not the result of intellectual knowledge of some occult formula. They are revelations that come from above as a result of the purification of the heart through deep metanoia and humility. (p.199)
A key element of this comes from filling the mind with a good thing – the name of Christ – in order to exclude the other, less wholesome, influences that surround us:
When you practice the Jesus Prayer systematically, it is as if you move about within a polluted city wearing an oxygen mask over your face. Nothing can touch you. (p.199)
(As one very minor example of this, I’ve noticed that I pay less attention to advertising posters if I’m reciting the Prayer as I walk.)
The risk of using the Prayer in this way, of course, is that it becomes a matter of superstition: an incantation that I must keep uttering lest some evil befall me. Markides raises this in his conversation with Father Maximos:
“Father Maxime, the other day someone who was waiting for confession mentioned to me that whenever she is in a plane ready to take off, she begins to recite the Prayer. But she feels as if she is not honest. That somehow she has an ulterior motive, to keep herself safe. When that idea enters her head she loses the urge to pray.” (p.200)
Father Maximos advises people in that position not to worry too much. It is precisely because the Prayer is not about our efforts, but about the work of the Holy Spirit, that our mixed motives do not determine its value:
“It does not matter what your motives are when you concentrate on the Prayer. Even if your intentions are not perfect, with time the systematic practice of praying will also perfect your motives. What happens, you see, is that the Jesus Prayer teaches you how to pray. Do the Prayer and then God will take care of the rest. He will lead you to Him through the Prayer.” (p.200)
Markides admits to retaining “some residue of doubt” in his mind, however, and asks Father Maximos whether praying nonstop really is achievable for people who are living in the world, as opposed to monks:
“But as I told you before, it is simple,” Father Maximos insisted. “Just fill up your idle time with the Prayer.”
“I don’t have idle time,” I reacted half-humorously.
“Look. You drive a car, don’t you? While you do that, you can neither read nor solve mathematical puzzles. Use that time to recite the Prayer. Or, while you cook, wash the floor, wait at a bus stop, recite the Prayer. If you get into the habit of filling up these empty time slots with the Jesus Prayer you will experience extraordinary benefits in your heart, truly extraordinary, believe me.” (p.203)
Father Maximos still recommends taking time to pray the Jesus Prayer deliberately and with concentration, even if only for five minutes a day at first:
“The Jesus Prayer becomes even more effective when, in addition to filling up idle time, one takes a few minutes regularly every day to exclusively focus on it.” (p.203)
The important thing is to be persistent, and to keep praying even when you start “remembering all the work that you needed to do, all the things that you forgot to do during the day and so on”.
Father Maximos also joins with other Orthodox writers in counselling the unguided layperson against the breathing exercises and other techniques used by monks while reciting the prayer:
“So,” Father Maximos went on, “the best way for someone to practice the Prayer, the Efche, is to focus on the words with humility. This is a safe approach that protects the layperson from possible pseudospiritual experiences and delusions. What’s important, you see,” he expanded, “is to get into the habit of praying. And if one has access to a spiritual guide, so much the better.” (p.204)
All this helps us to see how the Jesus Prayer can fit into a “Protestant”, and in particular Lutheran, framework: that it is not a work we carry out in order to ascend some ladder of mysticism, but a way of centring our focus and attention on the heart of the Gospel: the Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, and his mercy to me, a sinner.