Let’s suppose that you’re Orthodox. The first thing to do to begin the Jesus Prayer is to make a good confession to an Orthodox priest. We are not in a position to give you a guide on how to confess but would like to raise some issues that are particularly relevant to the practice of the Prayer.
The first thing is your relationship to God. Here it is very important to make a very detailed confession to the priest concerning anything which might have disturbed your relationship to God. Have you ever been involved in non-Christian spiritual practices such as Transcendental Meditation, gurus, Tibetan Buddhism, yoga, New Age? Have you ever been initiated as the disciple of a guru? Have you ever practised non-Christian forms of meditation and prayer, including hatha yoga, T’ai Chi Ch’uan and even karate? Have you ever been involved in non-Orthodox movements such as Pentecostalism and the Charismatic Renewal? Have you ever been re-baptized by an evangelical group? Have you ever gone to fortune-tellers, mediums, card-readers, palm-readers? Even as a joke or a game, such as with the ouija-board? Have you ever been involved in the occult, witchcraft (even white magic); used the Tarot; done astrology; or consulted the I Ching using the coins or yarrow stalks? Even if you have stopped, and a long time ago, you should bring these matters up. They are very important issues, and in some cases may require recourse to an Athonite confessor. Athonite confessors can be found not only on Mt Athos but also elsewhere, on missionary endeavours. Athonite confessors are not more privileged than other confessors before God, but they have a lot of experience with these kinds of issues.
Do you have doubts about the dogmas of the Church? Do you have your own personal interpretation of Orthodoxy? Of Christianity? Is it mixed up with New Age ideas? These may just be tempting thoughts, but bring them up. Be frank with your confessor on these things.
Next, your relationship with other people. Do you commit sins of the flesh? Have you unconfessed sins of the flesh? An Athonite elder remarked that sins of the flesh have a disturbing influence on the soul that is particularly deep. If you are a practising homosexual, you have to be frank with yourself and with your confessor. We do not intend to raise the issue of your civil rights in a pluralistic and post-Christian society. That is a matter for another forum. However, God is not mocked, and the Jesus Prayer is a Christian method of prayer.
Are you in habitual conflict with anyone? Do you hate your mother? Your father? Your spouse? Your children? Do you have a grudge against anyone? Do you get angry often? This last is particularly important. If you are under a relationship of obedience such as of a child with a parent or such as of a disciple with his elder, are you obedient?
Have you wronged anyone?
Next, explain to the confessor if you are on medication for any psychiatric or psychological condition. The Jesus Prayer, as a repetitive activity, stresses the brain. There is a danger that if you have an underlying medical condition you will precipitate a psychiatric episode by use of the Jesus Prayer. Here, you have to be frank with your confessor. It would also help if you have already consulted with your therapist on the relative danger that you might be in, and the degree to which you can engage in such a practice without harm. Even if you are not on medication but in therapy—and even if that is only because it is the fashionable thing to do in your part of society—you should discuss your potential use of the Jesus Prayer with both your therapist and your confessor from the point of view of your psychological condition.
There are three psychological issues of particular relevance to taking up the Jesus Prayer: pride, sorrow (grief, depression etc.) and anger. A spiritual writer remarks that these three things are impediments to taking up the eremitical life. While beginning the Jesus Prayer is not the same thing as becoming a hermit, the same logic applies. Do people tell you that you are arrogant, conceited, proud and so on? Are you a know-it-all? Are you beginning the Jesus Prayer out of arrogance? Because you can? Because you’re better equipped than other people? Because you have a right to have a vision of God? ‘The Lord meets the proud in battle; to the humble he gives grace.’ (Prov. 3, 34.)
Are you depressed or in grief over a death in the family or over something similar? Have you just gone through a divorce? Have you lost your job?
Do you nurse hatred for anyone? Do you get angry easily? Are you unable to control your temper? Do you fly into rages?
These are all danger signs and should be discussed thoroughly with your confessor (and with your therapist if you have one) in the context of taking up the Jesus Prayer.
Are you on drugs? Now it might be thought that a member of the Orthodox Church would not both be on drugs and interested in the Jesus Prayer, but you never know. Psychedelic drugs such as LSD, peyote and mescaline mixed with the Jesus Prayer are a ticket to the insane asylum. We once met a fellow who believed that the Devil was one of the 144 sub-deities. He used to take 1000 micrograms of LSD and practise raja yoga—and this on a regular basis. He had seriously contemplated suicide. In despair he occasionally turned to calling on Jesus. Jesus hears, but what can he do? You can’t be a servant both of Jesus Christ and of the Devil. Substance abuse in general is an impediment to the use of the Jesus Prayer. Here you have to bite the bullet and be frank both with yourself and with your confessor.
Finally, ask permission of your confessor to practise the Jesus Prayer. Ask him how much to practise it. Listen. The very act of asking permission will put you on the right road.