The Jesus prayer also called the Prayer of the Heart is, in its original Greek: Κύριε Ιησού Χριστέ, Yιέ Θεού ελέησον με τον αμαρτωλό: (in Latin) ‘Domine Iesu Christe, Fili Dei, miserere mei, peccatoris‘ — Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ Originally, it was said without the word ‘sinner.; it was added later to the rest of the words of this prayer. This word expresses the inner voice and acknowledgement of the fall.
The name of Jesus:
In Evagrius Ponticus’ masterful little treatise, On Prayer he stated: ‘Prayer is the mind’s conversation with God’, and St. Macarius the Egyptian added saying: ‘the inexpressible and incomprehensible God has lowered himself: in his goodness he clothed the members of the body and placed himself a limit to his glory, in his clemency and in his love for men is transformed and incarnated, unites deeply with the saints, the pious, the faithful and becomes one and the same Spirit with them.’ This is because prayer furnishes the intellect with religious knowledge; within our will it produces sentiments of admiration, respect, fear, joy, and a deep desire for God; it makes the virtues of faith, hope, and charity more vital and dynamic within a person’s life.
‘Whatever you ask of the Father in my Name,’ the Lord tells his apostles, ‘I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me for anything in my Name, I will do it.’
(John 14:13-14). ‘And whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it.’ ‘Until now you have not asked anything in my name; ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.’ (John 16:23-24).
‘There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.’ (Acts 4:7-12), for ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ (Romans 10:13), ‘that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth.’ (Philippians 2:8-10).
The Jesus’ prayer unifies the Divine and the human also through the divine revelation that is contained in it.
The Prayer of the heart, rooted in the New Testament, is assumed by a certain ‘current’ proper to ancient Eastern spirituality which has been called Hesychasm. The name comes from the Greek ησυχία: hesychìa which means: calm, peace, tranquility, absence of worry. This state of rest designates two different purposes at the same time; the first relates to those who tend to abandon the world and allude to an exit from the transient, the second is the achievement of the goal itself, that is, internalised peace.
Hesychasm can be defined as a spiritual system of essentially contemplative orientation that seeks the perfection (deification) of man in union with God through incessant prayer.
The Hesychast tradition can be considered the true heart of Orthodox monasticism.
In a document of the monastery of Iviron on Mount Athos, I read this definition: ‘Hesychast is he who speaks to God alone and prays to him without rest.’
The story of Hesychasm begins with the monks of the desert of Egypt and Gaza. ‘We, little and weak, have nothing left to do but take refuge in the Name of Jesus’ says one of them. He then affirms himself at the monastery of Sinai, with Saint John Climacus.
Generally hesychia means quiet, but it can also mean deep peace of heart.
In monastic literature, hesychia reveals at least two meanings. First of all tranquility, stillness and peace as a state of mind, and a stable condition of the heart which is necessary for contemplation. It still means detachment from the world within the double-entendre of solitude and silence.
The hesychìa expressed in peace, quiet, solitude and inner silence, which is reached through solitude and outer silence, nevertheless presents itself as an excellent means to reach the end of union with God in contemplation, through prayer or prayer, uninterrupted prayer.
This is an excellent means, a journey of authentic love, lived in silence and solitude in order to reach true prayer and authentic contemplation.
Ultimately, hesychìa is the attitude of one who places himself in the presence of God within his heart.
To grasp the various aspects of the hesychìa that the monk is called to express, we can refer to the life of Father Arsenius, the father of the anchorites.
Here is how Arsenius the Deacon’s vocation to hesychìa is recounted: ‘While still living in the palace, Abba Arsenius prayed to God in these words, ‘Lord, lead me in the way of salvation.’ And a voice came saying to him, ‘Arsenius, flee from men and you will be saved.’ (Arsenius 1)
The same, having then become an anchorite, in his condition as a hermit, again addressed the same prayer to God, and heard a voice that said to him: ‘Arsenius flee [the world], be silent, pray always, for these are the source of sinlessness.’ (Arsenius 2).
This last sentence is at the genesis of the vocation of a Hesychast: ‘Fuge, Tace, Quiesce: flee, keep silent and be at rest.’ Escape from the world, silence and inner peace are the three standpoints which shape the state of life of a monk, particularly for an anchorite.
Flee: hesychìa as solitude
The authentic monk is first of all called to experience solitude. The Desert Fathers strongly underline the flight from mankind, that is, the need to minimise all contact with them. It is expressed in this regard: ‘Blessed Archbishop Theophilus, accompanied by a magistrate, came one day to find Abba Arsenius. He questioned the old man, to hear a word from him. After a short silence the old man answered him ‘Will you put into, practice what I say to you?’ They promised him this. ‘If you hear Arsenius is anywhere, do not go there.’ (Arsenius 7).
Abba Mark said to Abba Arsenius, ‘Why do you avoid us?’ The old man said to him, ‘God knows that I love you, but I cannot live with God and with men. The thousands and ten thousands of the heavenly hosts have but one will, while men have many. So I cannot leave God to be with men.’ (Arsenius 13).
Some discreet contacts with the world can also be beneficial. However, only for those monks who have acquired complete spiritual maturity and to those who have been expressly commanded to do so by God. Primarily a monk is invited to guarantee fir himself an area of calm, silence and solitude in order to receive formation from God Himself and getting used to His silent presence.
Hesychaia as solitude does not only mean escape from the world, but also indicates a certain stability in a certain solitary place. This requirement is expressed with a famous formula which later became traditional: A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him for a word. The old man said to him, ‘Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’ (Moses 6). ‘… will teach you everything …’ is the same phrase we find in Jesus’ words when he foretells the coming of the Spirit (John 14:26). Remaining in the solitude of the cell is then openness to the Spirit, to his fire and his light. Abba Macarius the Egyptian binds together the flight from men and staying in the cell: ‘Abba Isaiah questioned Abba Macarius saying: ‘Give me a word.’ The old man said to him ‘Flee from men,’ Abba Isaiah said to him: ‘What does it mean to flee from men?’ The old man said: ‘It means to sit in your cell and weep for your sins’ (Macarius 27).
Abba Aio questioned abba Macarius and said: ‘Give me a word.’ Abba Macarius said to him: ‘Flee from men, stay in your cell, weep for your sins, do not take pleasure in the conversation of men, and you will be saved.’ (Macarius 41).
In fact, a κελλια—kellia—cell is the necessary environment for hesychìa, Anthony the Great himself will say: ‘Just as fish die if they stay too long out of water, so the monks who loiter outside their cells or pass their time with men of the world lose the intensity of inner peace. So like a fish going towards the sea, we must hurry to reach our cell, for fear that if we delay outside, we will lose our interior watchfulness.’ (Anthony 10)
Solitude can also express itself in an attitude of continuous pilgrimage from one place to another. In fact, every place must be foreign to the monk. Such an extraneousness — ξενιτειά xeniteía or peregrinatio in Latin— indicates a kind of voluntary exile away from all worldly things. St Nilus affirms: ‘The first of the great struggles consists of xenitèia, that is, in dispossession, only by stripping off like an athlete, of one’s homeland, of one’s race, of one’s possessions.’ Passing from one place to another is to imitate the path of Jesus, as the following story demonstrates:
“It was said of Abba Agathon that he spent a long time building a cell with his disciples. At last when it was finished, they came to live there. Seeing something during the first week which seemed to him harmful, he said to his disciples: ‘Get up, let us leave this place’ (John 14:31). But they were dismayed and replied, ‘If you had already decided to move, why have we taken so much trouble building the cell? People will be scandalised at us, and will say, ‘Look at them, moving again; what unstable people!’ He saw they were held back by timidity and so he said to them, ‘If some are scandalised, others, on the contrary, will be much edified and will say, ‘How blessed are they who go away for God’s sake, having no other care. However, let him who wants to come, come; as for me, I am going.’ Then they prostrated themselves to the ground and besought him to allow them to go with him. (Agathon 6; cf. also Ammoes 5).
This last apophthegm allow us to emphasise the wandering aspect of the hesychìa. The cell is, most certainly, important; but one cannot stay within it whilst having a spirit of ownership over it. The monk is conscious of the fact that, he, is a stranger upon this earth and therefore he has to abandon everything in order that nothing can distract him from God’s service, living in hiding and waiting, fervently awaiting the return of our glorious Lord and Saviour. Outward solitude is also without question important, but I believe that solitude of the heart is a far greater requirement. Here, authentic hesychìa could be in jeopardy, that is inner hermitism or an interior anchorage, the monasticism of the heart, the only one that can lead us to the Jesus Prayer.
Silent: hesychia as silence
In solitude, a monk is called to live in silence. The voice that Arsenius had heard was in fact expressed in the terms we know so well: fuge, tace, quiesce.
The silence expressed by the Desert Fathers, as has rightly been said, ‘is a silence with a thousand names and thousand faces where everything is in its right place, it is a precious silence for the soul, a silence that is on the side of transcendence. From the various apothegms it emerges that the silence of the Desert Fathers is a silence of humility, of keeping silent about oneself, it is a silence that takes away the words ‘selfishness, pride and self-love,’ it is the silence of those who make themselves pilgrims and strangers, but it is also a silence of love, the silence of those who do not judge their neighbours, of those who do not speak idly or gossip about others, lastly it is a silence of faith, of complete trust, of those who place themselves completely in His hands.
I would like you to consider some of the aspects of this great silence.
Unceasing prayer is a fundamental practical problem that was greatly debated by early Christians. Monks have a strict obligation in carrying out this Scriptural command, more so than any other Christian. Their love for silence I think is undoubtedly the shape, the spirit, the very logic of unceasing prayer.
Silence is like a cell and a portable hermitage from which the person of prayer will never leave, even when for charitable reasons he will have to leave his visible cell. The great Poemen said ‘If you are silent, you will have peace wherever you live’ (Poemen 84).
Preserving this silence, whenever the opportunity to speak arises, is a true escape from men: ‘To dominate one’s own language is the true extraneousness – xenitèia -‘, affirms Abba Tithoes.
‘The same abba [John the Dwarf] was vey fervent. Now someone came to see him praised his work, and he remained silent, for he was weaving a rope. Once again the visitor began to speak and once again he kept silence. The third time he said to the visitor. ‘Since you came here, you have driven away ~God from me.’ (John the Dwarf 32).
‘Abba Macarius the Great said to the brothers of Scetis when he dismissed the assembly, ‘flee my brothers.’ One of the old men asked him, ‘where would we flee to beyond this desert?’ He puts his finger on his lips and said, ‘Flee that,’ and he went into his cell, shut the door and sat down.(Macarius 16).
The silence to which the Desert Fathers invites you is also a testimony. According to their experience you need to speak through deeds and not your speech. On one’s own journey of faith, which works, one finds that words are often useless.
A brother asked Abba Sisoes to give him a word. He said, ‘Why do you make me speak without need? Whatever you see, do that.’ (Sisoes 45).
A brother asked Abba Poemen, ‘Some brothers live with me; do you want me to be in charge of them?’ The old man said to him, ‘No, just work first and foremost, and if they want to live like you, they will see to it themselves.’ The brother said to him, ‘But it is they themselves, Father who want me to be in charge of them.’ The old man said to him, ‘No, be their example, not their legislator.’ (Poemen 174).
It is further said: ‘It must not be your tongue that speaks, but your works, and your words must be humbler than your works. Do not think without your intellect, never fail to teach without humility, so that the earth may receive your seed.’
The fruits of silence according to the Desert Fathers are manifold. Silence gives rest; fosters chastity; it helps against the wicked; keep the soul at peace; silence is humility; silence helps us not to judge our neighbours, silence does not to condemn anyone, it is a remedy for backbiting; it is a school of tolerance and benevolence towards all.
However, such silence requires a lot of courage. Poemen says: ‘The first time you flee; the second time, flee; and the third become like a sword’ (Poemen 140).
Quiesce: remain in inner peace
Solitude and silence practiced concretely, therefore, represent for the Fathers of the Desert, the fundamental moment of a hesychia of the body, of the external hesychia. A stillness which, even if external, is fundamental. Indeed, as Macarius affirms: ‘No one can have hesychia of the soul, if he has not first ensured that of the body.’
Certainly, however, interior hesychia is the essential cornerstone of Eastern monastic spirituality. From solitude and the absence of words, the monk is called to pass into deep, active and creative silence. And this is anything but quietism. On the contrary, it is ‘the search for the only possible rest, which is the peace of and in Christ, the exultant peace of God within the depths of one’s heart’.
The monk consecrates himself by vocation to pursue a union with God alone, through prayer, which in turn presupposes total detachment, perfect purification, the renunciation of everything that could decline the activity of his spiritual journey.
The Desert Fathers ‘often recalled that Jesus, even after his first retreat into the desert, would often seek solitude. Solitude therefore places the monk at the very centre of the mystery of redemption, configured to Christ which reaches the most painful, but also the most fruitful apex of His work of salvation. In this way the links between solitude and unceasing prayer, bliss and suffering are solidly affirmed.’
A Christian’s pursuit of solitude, silence and inner peace could also appear to be driven by complex selfishness. But that is not so. ‘Consecrating one’s earthly life entirely to God to be everything in all things is in all respects the antithesis of selfishness. To participate in the most charitable way possible, after martyrdom, within the great work of ‘God’s love’.