Wednesday, 28 September 2005

The Jesus Prayer 1

The Jesus Prayer is an Orthodox method of prayer. The first recorded reference to the Jesus Prayer is found in the Gnostic Chapters of St Diadochos of Photiki, written about 450 ad. St Diadochos was the Bishop of Photiki, a town in the Epirus region of Greece. St John Cassian, writing in his Conferences about 425 ad, speaks in very similar terms about a related method of prayer that he found to be used by the monks in Egypt when he lived in Egypt with the monks around 400 ad. St John Cassian was writing in Southern France. The Jesus Prayer is used today in Russia, on Mt Athos and in Orthodox Monasteries elsewhere in the world. It has been popularized in the West by J. D. Salinger in his novel, Franny and Zooey. An anonymous Russian work called The Way of the Pilgrim, the manuscript of which was found in the Russian Monastery on Mt Athos, describes its use. This work has been translated into English. The method of the Jesus Prayer resembles to a certain extent the use of the mantra in Buddhism and Hinduism, and the use of zikr in Sufism. That has created much interest in it in the West. However, as a Christian method of prayer, the Jesus Prayer retains some differences from the mantra and zikr, and there is danger in using it as a mantra. However, this similarity of the Jesus Prayer to the mantra and zikr has led to quite a popularity for it in New Age circles, and even in Roman Catholic circles. In some cases, the Jesus Prayer is used to attract young Catholics away from the ‘Far East’ with an Eastern method similar to yoga that retains a Christian identity. This in our view is a mistaken use of the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer is an Orthodox method of prayer and depends on the Orthodox identity of the person praying. In the deeper stages of the practice of the Jesus Prayer, the mind of the person praying is brought into the person’s heart, and the person proceeds to engage in mental ascesis. On the one hand, if there is a faulty understanding of what a person is, and of the meaning of the terms ‘mind’ and ‘heart’ and ‘mental ascesis’ (that is, a faulty understanding of mystical psychology), there is a danger of serious damage to the person practising the Jesus Prayer. On the other hand, if, in a non-Orthodox setting, the deeper stages of the practice of the prayer are excluded out of hand, then the person practising the prayer and his teacher are in danger of fooling themselves. The Jesus Prayer is normally practised by monks. Some lay people practise it also.

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