In this post we discuss how actually to pray the Jesus Prayer. If you have not already done so, please read thoroughly previous posts ‘The Jesus Prayer 1’ through ‘The Jesus Prayer 5’.
So we assume that you are Orthodox, that you have gone to confession, and that your Confessor has given you permission to practise the Jesus Prayer. If you don’t fit this description, then what we are saying is not for you. We say this because we cannot take responsibility for what happens to you if you don’t fit this description. Read on if you wish, but we don’t take any responsibility.
We also assume that you are a lay person with a job. If you are a monk or a nun or a priest, we expect that you have a guide who is more competent than us to tell you what to do and how much to do of it. If you are a lay person but don’t have a job, you will merely make the appropriate changes to what we suggest.
The best time to pray is in the early morning before the sun rises. If you can fit this into your schedule, it is the best thing. If you can’t, fit the prayer into your schedule where you can. Some people are early-rising morning people; others are late-night people—and this apart from what their daily duties permit them to do. If you just can’t hack it to get up early in the morning, then pray late at night. It is best if you haven’t just eaten.
Let’s assume that you are praying early in the morning. If you can arrange it with your priest, it would be good if you kept antidoron and holy water on hand at the house so that you could take these things (first the antidoron) when you first get up. In some cases your confessor will allow you to keep Great Holy Water and to take it every day (first the Great Holy Water, then the antidoron).
After you take the antidoron and the holy water (or the Great Holy Water and the antidoron), then make yourself a cup of coffee or tea. We prefer tea because coffee makes us physically active—we want to move around physically—whereas tea keeps us mentally alert without making us physically active. But whatever you think best is fine, even doing without tea or coffee.
Next, although its practice is part of the larger issue of the spiritual life, it would be good if you made an examination of conscience once a day. This is normally done at the end of the day. However, if your routine is such that it has to be combined with your period of prayer, then in our opinion it would be good to make the examination of conscience before beginning the prayer, even if that is early in the morning.
Next, you should have a stable place to pray. Depending on your economic circumstances, this could be anything from a chapel on the grounds of your mansion to a space on the floor of your one-room pad. This stable place to pray is not absolutely necessary. After all pilgrims wander around reciting the Jesus Prayer and they get heard. However, it helps.
Next, although we recommend praying before dawn, or even late at night, we do not recommend that you pray in complete darkness. At the very least, there is a good chance that you will fall asleep. The room should be dimly lit, with a colour of light that is not hard on the nerves. For example, a blue-lit prayer room would be grotesque. So would a room brightly lit with fluorescent lamps. If you want to use candles, or prayer lamps, yes they provide an adequate colour and level of lighting. But be careful of fire. You should keep your eyes open when you pray, so that you are grounded, so that you do not get lost in fantasy, so that you don’t fall asleep. The candle, lamp or other source of light should not be in your immediate field of vision. You are not going to use it for concentration exercises; it will distract you.
Please don’t play music, even Byzantine chant. You can do that some other hour of the day.
If there is a lot of noise about—say you live across the street from a place where they empty the garbage late every night with a lot of banging—you might consider ear plugs.
While the prayer rope is obviously meant for counting prayers, we find it easier to set an electronic alarm clock to go off at the end of our period of prayer and to use the prayer rope as an aid to concentration without bothering to count the prayers. Counting prayers is distracting. The ticking of a non-electronic alarm clock is also distracting.
How should you sit? Well yes, you can go out and order or make a prayer stool of the right height. You can also sit on a kitchen chair. The chair shouldn’t be soft and cosy. On the one hand, you’re going to drift off; on the other hand it’s not really appropriate. Please don’t sit on the floor in a position that you learned in yoga. Should you put your chin on your left breast above your heart? Maybe. Ask your confessor. These things are not that important. When you’re in a cave praying twenty-four hours a day, then you can worry about them.
Now forget whatever you’ve heard about how to pray the Jesus Prayer. Simply start reciting the words of the formula: ‘Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner.’ Do NOT put an emotional load—as if you were a method actor emoting—onto the words. Simply repeat the words of the prayer. Concentrate on the meaning of the words. Here, there is a subtle point: on the one hand, you want to aim for a heartfelt rendition of the words of the prayer; on the other hand, you don’t want to force things. Repeat the prayer slowly, but not excessively so. At this stage, you should be aiming for a natural rendition of the prayer. This is important, because you have to start by calming down, and if you put a heavy emotional load on the words, if you over-concentrate on the words of the prayer, if you grind each word of the prayer out of your heart (‘heart-felt’), then you are going to damage yourself. Better to recite the words of the prayer naturally. The heart-felt stuff will come later. However, you shouldn’t recite the prayer indifferently or mechanically as if it was an ‘obligation’ you had to fulfil or a magical mechanical mantra that will do everything by itself in no time flat. After all, you really do mean that you are a sinner asking Jesus Christ the Lord the Son of God for mercy. Let the alarm-clock take care of when you should stop praying. Simply use the prayer rope for concentration, advancing one knot for each prayer. When you get to the end of the rope, continue. That’s why it’s a loop.
Do NOT make any effort to coordinate your recitation of the Jesus Prayer with your breathing. Proceed naturally.
Be careful of all those things that you suddenly remember you had to do. Unless it’s very urgent. Here we have another one of George’s stories. George was visiting a monastery when a novice told him the following:
One day I was praying the Jesus Prayer about in the morning. I heard something that sounded like rain. Now although I knew I was supposed to ignore the temptation to stop the prayer to check out the rain, I succumbed, stopped the prayer and went to the window to look at the rain. Outside, instead of raindrops I saw fire. I thought to myself, having been appropriately calmed by the practice of the Jesus Prayer, ‘Hum, I don’t think the Fathers light fires like that at in the morning’. So I put in an alarm. Fortunately the Fathers put out the fire before the monastery burned down.
Now here is another very important point. You are going to have memories, fantasies, images and so on coming into your field of consciousness. Just ignore them. That’s why you have your eyes open. Get on with the business of saying: ‘Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner.’ Anything that’s important can be taken care of when the alarm clock goes off.
And that’s all there is to it.