Monday, September 3, 2012

Is the Jesus Prayer 'Vain Repetition?' -a guest post from Eastern Catholic Spiritual Renewal

At one point in my practice of our Byzantine traditionsI remember a question that someone asked. They wanted to know if our traditions concerning the Jesus Prayer went against the Lord's teachings. The teaching that they were speaking of are in the gospel of Matthew where the Lord says, "When you pray, don't babble on and on as people of other religions do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again (6:7,NLT).The question that was asked was reasonable based on this passage but this teaching does not represent the way the Jesus Prayer is used in our tradition. What the Lord was addressing was abusive forms of prayer, which in this case meant people who were not addressing God in personal way.
There are various ways that our Byzantine spiritual fathers have taught us to pray the Jesus Prayer. Among the teachings of our fathers there is nothing close to what can be considered vain repetition. The fathers were always clear that the goal of prayer is a personal relationship. Anything short of this is vain. For example, Elder Sophrony on addressing centering prayer techniques said, "In diverting our mind from all images, meditation can afford us a sense of tranquility, of peace, release from time and space, but there is no feeling of standing before a personal God. It is not real prayer-face to Face.(On Prayer pg.139)." According to Elder Sophrony's teachings repetitive forms used in the Jesus prayer must oriented toward knowing and loving a personal God. We do not use them to enter states of mind or to somehow manipulate God. As the Elder said real prayer is "face to Face".

When oriented properly the repetition used in the Jesus Prayer helps a person grow in their personal relationship with God. However, it's important to understand why we use repetition in the first place. It's easy to understand why we do it but often we lack the knowledge associated with the tradition. First of all, we were created with the propose of loving God for all eternity. Every aspect of what we are was geared toward developing a personal relationship with God, which would include our mind and body. Next, because of sin there was a disorientation in how we were naturally geared toward God. Being obscured the body and the mind were no longer used for their original purpose. Third, in the work of Jesus Christ and his Church we find a way back to what we were originally created for. In the spirituality of the Church we discover various systems that help return the body and mind to their original purpose. In conclusion, There are many forms of discipline in the Church that we use to struggle against are sinful condition. The use a repetition in the Jesus Prayer is way to recondition the body and mind to their original use. 

Repetition used in praying the Jesus Prayer has taken on many forms in the history of the Byzantine tradition. Many of us know the popular usage that involves inhaling(Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God) and exhaling(Have mercy on me a sinner) a method that's often used in conjunction with a prayer rope. St. Nicodemos in his instructed went a little further with this method in his day. He instructed his followers to hold their breath and say the whole prayer in the mind and then exhale. A method that demonstrates well how the mind and the body are reconditioned back toward God. In this way the mind is disciplined to overcome its tendency to wander in prayer with the body's help. In all the forms that we can find in the history of the Byzantine tradition the goals are always the same, which are to return the body and the mind to the proper use.

There really is nothing vain about our use of repetition in our Byzantine tradition if we understand it. The use always involves personal salvation. One of our spiritual fathers demonstrated this in his instruction on repetition of the Jesus Prayer. He said that the prayer must be prayed with the same intensity as one drowning at sea who calls for help(over and over again) with all their might hoping that someone will hear them. Likewise we call out to God focusing all our energy upon the single prayer hoping to seek our own salvation. Unlike someone who is drowning in a sea we know our God is listening. His arms are always reaching down to us ready to pull us into His embrace. It could be said that the repetition that we use in Jesus Prayer is our way to open our arms to God.
The tradition of controlling ones breath in prayer as our fathers have taught is one of the most misrepresented aspects of our Byzantine tradition. Many of us have heard the same things: that "we are borderline Buddhists" or that we have "an exaggerated psychophysical symbolism ". One time I had some one send me some Roman Catholic teachings on prayer after they read some of my posts on Hesychasm. He demanded that I stopped teaching it claiming that the tradition is against the Catholic Church. This understanding often comes from a failure to understand the role of the body and how it is an instrument for our salvation, which is a teaching highly developed in the Byzantine tradition.

Sometimes in the Western spiritual traditions there has been a lack of understanding when it comes to the role of the body in the work of salvation. It is as if in seeking ways to purify the soul the body has been left out. For example, I heard a teaching around thanksgiving many years ago where there was great emphasis on avoiding lustful thoughts and in the same teaching there was a joke about overeating. It was as if the mind was the only thing in need of purification for salvation. In contrast, in the Byzantine spiritual tradition the body's role in salvation has been fully integrated in every aspect of worship. There is not one liturgy where we don't see constant physical work especially in the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, in which there are constant prostrations. 

Many saints of the Byzantine tradition have provided many teachings concerning the body. Among them it could be said that St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain was one of the most prolific. Based on his writings not only concerning the body but many other aspects of spirituality the saint continues to be source for spiritual renewal in the churches of the Byzantine tradition. This was even more so in his time where he helped bring about lasting renewal in many areas of the church of his day. In my opinion, he should be named as an essential saint that we should look to for the renewal of our churches in our modern time.

When it comes to the role of the body we find In the teachings of St. Nicodemos an understanding that many of us are not used to. Often we find a tendency to understand the soul as something trapped or contained in a body, which makes the body of little value when it comes to spirituality . Echoing the words of St. John Damascene St. Nicodemos writes," the difference between a rational and irrational soul is this: The irrational soul is led and ruled body the body and the senses, while the rational soul leads and rules the body and the senses (A Hand Book on Spiritual Counsel pg.69).".According to the saint the soul is better understood as containing the body making the body truly at its service. However, because of sin there is a disruption in body's relationship to the soul. The body tends to exist for itself leaving the realm of the soul subject to it. Instead of being an instrument that helps develop our relationship with God the body leads us away from him. 

Understanding the body\soul relationship is essential for understanding Byzantine spirituality. The ascetic disciplines found throughout the Byzantine tradition are for the reconditioning of the body's relationship with soul and in turn God. All too often some of the bodily acts are attributed to being purely symbolic or even psychosomatic. For example, history can attest that there have been at times people in the West who have even accused the Byzantine churches as being those who contemplate their navels, which has been the case concerning the tradition of Hesychasm. However, any bodily action involved in the Byzantine tradition has always been for the ultimate healing of the broken condition that resulted from sin.
For most, some of the bodily disciplines of the Byzantine traditions, such as fasting or prostrations, are easily accepted as ways to develop spiritually. However, there is one aspect of the Byzantine tradition that sometimes is met with reservation, which is controlled breathing that is employed in our prayer tradition of Hesychasm. What is often misunderstood as a psychosomatic technique is really a way to subject the body to the workings of the soul and in turn God. In fact, St. Nicodemos demonstrates great insight in how our relationship with God develops through controlled breathing. He writes," The mind, the activity of the mind, is used from a very early age to be scattered toward the external world. For this reason when you say this sacred prayer(Jesus Prayer) do not breathe continually as is natural to our nature, but hold your breath until your inner consciousness has a chance to say the prayer once. By holding your breath even for this short interval the heart is pressed and troubled and feels pain for not receiving natural oxygen. The mind on the other hand is much more readily controlled to return to the heart, both because of the pain and suffering of the heart but also because of the pleasure that is created from this warm and vivid memory of God" (A Hand Book on Spiritual Counsel pg.160). As the saint demonstrates the controlling of breath that we often employ in praying the Jesus prayer is a way to use the body in order to grow in intimacy with God.

Byzantine spirituality can be physically demanding. However, undergoing the labor leads to a better relationship with God. Not to be confused with purely symbolic acts the bodily actions found in prayer and worship should be properly understood as ways to develop spiritually. Nicodemos and many fathers of Byzantine tradition can attest to this fact. Also, this understanding is essential for understanding the Byzantine tradition of Hesychasm, which would include the breathing disciplines or even bodily postures associated with the Jesus Prayer. Not approaching this from a Byzantine mindset has led to many in our day to believe that we have a practice that's identical to what can be found in non-Christian religions of the East. This understanding could not be farther from the truth. All though they might look the same the discipline behind it has a different goal and even the structure for its use.
(note: controlled breathing takes on various forms, is optional at times, and is not for everyone.)


  1. this lutheran is muchly a fan of the Jesus prayer...

  2. Fantastic blog post. The Jesus prayer is a calming meditation in any situation. Holly, another priests wife

  3. Love the Jesus Prayer, as echoed by Holly, it's indeed a calming reverence, to our Lord Jesus Christ.

  4. I think the Rosary and the Our Father are also good prayers. Thanks for the guest article.


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