Thursday, 29 September 2005

The Jesus Prayer 2

Last time, we talked about the Jesus Prayer without saying what it was. So let’s do that now. In its most basic form, the Jesus Prayer is the following prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’ There are variations, but nowadays this is the standard form of the Prayer. Now what makes this prayer so special? Monks recite this prayer twenty-four hours a day! Now that’s pretty odd. Don’t monks sleep? They recite the prayer in their sleep! We can see that something very odd is involved here. If monks can recite prayers in their sleep…

Let’s look at the content of the prayer before getting into this mystery of monks reciting prayers in their sleep.

The first word of the Jesus Prayer is ‘Lord’. The person praying the Jesus Prayer is addressing Jesus Christ as Lord. The person praying the Jesus Prayer has the relationship to Jesus Christ of a servant to his Lord. Next, Jesus Christ is addressed as ‘Son of God’. When he is praying the Jesus Prayer, the person praying the Jesus Prayer confesses that Jesus Christ is the Word of God made flesh. He confesses the divinity of Jesus Christ. (We Orthodox believe that Jesus Christ also had a full human nature.) Next, the person praying the Jesus Prayer asks Jesus Christ to have mercy on him. In this petition is summed up all the person’s needs, both spiritual and material. Next, the person praying the Jesus Prayer confesses to Jesus Christ that he is a sinner. We Orthodox do not believe that while he is on earth a person is ever ‘saved’ in such a way that he can ever forget that he is a sinner. Until our last breath we have the relationship to Jesus Christ of a sinner asking mercy from his Lord. We could say much more about the content of the Jesus Prayer, but let’s now look at how it’s prayed.

In its full exercise by an advanced monk, the Jesus Prayer is repeated mentally (silently) in the heart twenty-four hours a day. This might seem a very hard thing to do. It is. It requires Grace, the Grace of the Holy Spirit. We Orthodox believe we receive the Holy Spirit in Baptism and that our Baptism is the basis of any spiritual progress that we might make after that. However, not everyone in the Orthodox Church who has been baptized prays the Jesus Prayer twenty-four hours a day. A special grace is required. St Silouan the Athonite, who died on Mount Athos in 1938, writes that he received the grace of the unceasing Jesus Prayer in the heart while he was in prayer before an icon of the Virgin Mary. The Jesus Prayer continues automatically in the heart, even in sleep, and the monk ‘follows it’ with his mind—with his attention and with his intention. By that we mean that the monk pays attention to the prayer and that he ‘means it’. This is very important, and it is one of the basic differences between the Jesus Prayer and a mantra. The Jesus Prayer is a petition to Jesus Christ, the Lord, the Son of God; and the monk prays the Jesus Prayer seriously, as someone who honestly asks mercy of the Only-Begotten Son of God. Remember the Tax-Collector in the Parable of the Tax-Collector and the Pharisee. That is how the monk prays the Jesus Prayer.

Now, this is how an advanced monk prays the Jesus Prayer. Tomorrow, we will discuss how we begin the Jesus Prayer, what things to look out for and so on.

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.

Tuesday, 27 September 2005

Question from Reader 1: Are you reading the Bible in Greek?

QUESTION: Are you reading the Bible in Greek?


First, the Old Testament. In the Orthodox Church, the Old Testament is read in the Septuagint Version. The Septuagint is in ancient Greek, in a form of Greek called 'Hellenistic'. In the case of Orthodox Churches that are not Greek-speaking, the Old Testament is translated into the national language from the Septuagint.

The Oxford English Dictionary says this in its entry for ‘Septuagint’:

The Greek version of the Old Testament, which derives its name from the story that it was made by seventy-two Palestinian Jews at the request of Ptolemy Philadelphus (284-247 b.c.) and completed by them, in seclusion on the island of Pharos, in seventy-two days. (Denoted by LXX.)

The authority for the old story is the Letter of Aristeas to Philocrates, long known to be spurious, which purports to give contemporary evidence of the undertaking. The translation is now held to have been made of Egyptian Jews, independent of each other and living in different times.

There is a web site (link updated August 29, 2010) that has comprehensive information on the Septuagint, with many links.

The canon of the Septuagint is broader (it contains more books) than the Protestant version of the Old Testament, based on the Masoretic edition, and broader (but not much) than the Roman Catholic edition of the Old Testament.

The Septuagint exists in a fairly limited number of versions (ancient manuscripts). There is a critical edition.

The psalms are of course included in any edition of the Septuagint. In the Septuagint, the numbering of the psalms, and to a certain extent their division into specific psalms, differs from Western translations of the Old Testament based on the Masoretic edition of the Old Testament. The Septuagint also includes Psalm 151, not accepted in the West.

However, for the translations of the psalms, I have been using a service book called the Psalter. This contains the psalms with the readings, numbering and divisions of the Septuagint, but arranged for recital during the services in Church. The edition I am using was published in Athens in 2005. When I’m stuck for a word to convey the exact nuance of the Greek, I sometimes refer to the Revised Standard Version, even though it is based on the Hebrew. This is not very useful. The King James Version is more useful.

Next, the New Testament. I use the textus receptus of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. It is in the original Greek. In the critical apparatus of the edition of the Greek New Testament called Nestle-Aland (26th Edition), the readings denoted M (Majority) more or less correspond to the textus receptus, as the editors of Nestle-Aland themselves point out. Nesle-Aland is the standard critical edition of the New Testament in the original Greek. It contains most of the variant readings found in the manuscripts of the New Testament.

For the Gospel in particular, I depend on an edition of the original Greek originally published in Venice in 1847. When I am interested in the variant readings of a passage, so as to shed further light on the meaning of that passage, I refer to the variant readings in Nestle-Aland.

In translating the New Testament, if I am stuck for a word to convey the nuance I am looking for, I prefer to look at the King James Version, but I also refer to the Revised Standard Version. However, I do not have much confidence in the King James translations of the epistles of Paul, since those translations depart quite visibly from an Orthodox interpretation.

In cases of serious doubt about the meaning of a passage of Scripture, whether in the Old or in the New Testament, I refer to the commentaries of the Fathers of the Church, starting with St John Chrysostom.

In the case that I am translating a passage of Scripture as it is used in the Church services, I refer to the service books of the Orthodox Church for the exact form of the text to translate. That is why the translation of the Gospel in the previous post begins ‘The Lord said’. Reference to any edition of the New Testament, including the textus receptus, will show that that phrase is not in the Bible. In the service books of the Church, it is added to the Gospel passage in order to make the reading in Church smoother. Similarly, my choice of where to begin and where to end the Gospel passage was dictated by the service book for Orthros of the Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross. It was not arbitrary. (Orthros corresponds in the West to ‘Matins’, the early morning service.)

Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross

The Gospel reading of Orthros:

The Lord said: ‘Father, glorify your name.’ There thereupon came a voice from Heaven: ‘Both have I glorified it and will I glorify it.’

The crowd, that which stood by and heard, was saying that a clap of thunder had occurred. Others were saying: ‘An angel has spoken to him.’

Jesus replied and said: ‘Not for me has this voice occurred, but for you.

‘Now is the judgement of this world; now will the ruler of this world be utterly cast out.

‘And I, if I am raised up from the earth, will draw all men towards myself.’

(He was saying this, then, to indicate by what death he was going to die.)

The crowd replied to him: ‘We heard from the Law that the Christ remains to the Age, and how do you say that the Son of Man must be raised up? Who is this Son of Man?’

Jesus thereupon said to them: ‘For yet a little time the Light is with you. Walk while you have the Light, so that the darkness not overcome you. And he who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going.

‘While you have the Light, believe in the Light so that you become Sons of Light.’

(John 12, 28–36.)

It is on the Cross that the Son is glorified by the Father. This is not a literary device: the glorification of the Christ occurs not in the Resurrection but on the Cross. Who can penetrate to the depth of this mystery?

Monday, 26 September 2005


St Benedict said: ‘Laborare est orare.’ (‘To work is to pray.’) Let us take that in this sense: we work in silence praying. We drink from silence praying the Prayer, the Jesus Prayer.

To be able to deepen the Jesus Prayer, we must turn to God. That is why it is so important to experience illness. So important to experience poverty. Deprivation. Hunger. Thirst. Such things make us turn to Jesus in the Jesus Prayer, to God the Father in the Our Father, to the Holy Spirit; and to depend on them for our very existential salvation. Only thus can we move beyond being buffeted by the winds of everyday life so as to base ourselves on the Rock in faith. And it is standing on the Rock that we pray.

And it is standing on the Rock that we can remain silent and pray, drinking from the silence while we work with our hands, our mind repeating in our heart the words of the Prayer in love of Jesus Christ, the Son, the Father and the Holy Spirit. May God be with us.

Sunday, 25 September 2005

Another Psalm, Of Thanksgiving and Love of the Lord

Psalm 102

By David

Bless the Lord, my soul, and all that is within me his holy name.

Bless the Lord, my soul, and do not forget all his rewards,

Him who has propitiated all your acts of lawlessness, him who has healed all your sicknesses,

Him who has ransomed your life from corruptions, him who has crowned you in mercy and compassions,

Him who has fulfilled your desire in good things; your youth will be renewed as the eagle’s.

The Lord, making acts of mercy, and judgement for all those who have been wronged,

Has made known his ways to Moses, his wishes to the sons of Israel.

The Lord is compassionate and merciful, long-suffering and most merciful; he will not be angry to the end, neither will he be wrathful to the Age.

Not according to our acts of lawlessness did he do to us, nor according to our sins did he reward us,

For according to the height of Heaven above the earth the Lord has held his mercy upon those who fear him.

As far as the east is from the west has he put away from us our acts of lawlessness.

Just as a father has compassion on his sons, the Lord has had compassion on those who fear him, for he has known our mould, he has remembered that we are dust.

Man, just as the herb are his days, just as the flower of the field will he bloom.

For the spirit has passed into him, and he will not be, and he will not know his place any more.

But the mercy of the Lord is from the Age and unto the Age on those who fear him.

And his justice is on sons of sons, on those who guard his covenant, and on those who have remembered his commandments to do them.

The Lord in Heaven has prepared his throne and his kingdom is the master of all.

Bless the Lord, all his angels, strong in strength, who do his word so as to obey the voice of his words.

Bless the Lord, all his powers, his ministers who do his will.

Bless the Lord, all his works, in every place of his mastery. Bless the Lord, my soul.

Saturday, 24 September 2005

An Offering for Sunday

Psalm 134


Praise the name of the Lord; praise, servants, the Lord,

Those who stand in the House of the Lord, in the courts of the House of our Lord.

Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good; chant psalms to his Name for it is good.

For the Lord chose Jacob for himself, Israel as a possession for himself.

For I have known that the Lord is great and that our Lord is beyond all gods.

All, as much as the Lord wanted, he did in Heaven and on the earth, in the seas and in all the abysses.

Leading clouds from the end of the earth, he made lightnings into rain; he who leads winds out of his treasure-houses,

He who struck the first-born of Egypt from man to beast.

He sent out signs and wonders into your midst, Egypt, into the midst of Pharaoh and into the midst of all his servants,

He who struck many nations and killed mighty kings—

Sion the King of the Amorites and Og King of the Land of Bashan, and all the kingdoms of Canaan

And gave their land as an inheritance, an inheritance for his people Israel.

Lord, may your name be to the Age and your memorial from generation to generation.

For the Lord will judge his people and will be refreshed upon his servants.

The idols of the nations are silver and gold, works of the hands of men.

They have a mouth and will not speak; they have eyes and will not see.

They have ears and will not hear, for neither is there spirit in their mouth.

May those who make these things become like them, and all who have put their trust in them.

House of Israel, you will bless the Lord; house of Aaron, you will bless the Lord; house of Levi, you will bless the Lord.

Those who fear the Lord, you will bless the Lord.

Blessed is the Lord from Sion, he who dwells in Jerusalem.

Eros and Spiritual Love and Sentimentality

Eros is the relationship of love between man and woman.

Spiritual love is the blooming of the Holy Spirit in the person.

Sentimentality is a superficial play on the emotions of the self and other.

The relationship of spiritual love between the monk and God consummated in mystical prayer is supported by the Eros that the monk feels for God.

The monk avoids all sentimental behaviour.

Friday, 23 September 2005

The Beginning

To be a monk is to live a life of prayer. Our ascesis is subordinated to the life of prayer. Orthodox monks pray the Jesus Prayer. We will say something about the Jesus Prayer.

The most important thing in the life of the Christian is spiritual love. This is not sentimentality but the Holy Spirit. Many people talk about the Holy Spirit, but how many people have it? ‘The wind (pneuma) blows wherever it will; and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes and whither it goes. So it is, everyone who is born of the Spirit (pneuma).’ (John 3, 8.)

Part of the nature of God--God is love--is the freedom associated with love: there is no spiritual love without freedom. Where you see compulsion, there is no true love; when you encounter spiritual love in a person, you find freedom in that person.

It is the same with God.

This spiritual love is different from Eros.

Christian prayer is a relationship between two persons: the monk and God. Eros can enter into this relationship. But the relationship of prayer between the monk and God is ideally a relationship of spiritual love supported by Eros.