We have received a very charming email from a woman we will call Janice Gaines. She is considering becoming Orthodox and has some questions. Here is the anonymized email, slightly edited for style:
Dear Orthodox Monk:
Providence has been indeed Divine these past few months.
Long, super long, very long story short: Orthodox Christianity has this born and raised Roman Catholic, though lapsed for decades, seriously interested and in consideration of conversion.
My journey has been fortuitous as it has led me to on-line places and videos rich with information, tradition, music, and serenity.
Finding your blog, quite by accident, earlier this evening had me reading page after page after page and finding a treasure trove of answers, further reading materials, meticulous writing (style), and a sense of humour I very much appreciate.
I am considering you, and of course, your blog, my blessing for the day.
Dear Orthodox Monk, I do have a question regarding the Jesus Prayer: In my on-line travels, logging thousands of pages already, I recall an older, mentor monk speaking about the Jesus Prayer being ‘dangerous’ for a novice (monk).
How can a prayer, especially one so tender, offered by a sinner to the Lord Jesus Christ, and begging His mercy, be considered dangerous?
If the Prayer is ‘dangerous’ on the lips of a novice, am I ‘safe’ in its recitation?
My Russian pronunciation is improving by leaps and bounds and I have found the greatest comfort in chanting the Jesus Prayer along with the Valaam Monastery Choir's twenty-one minute video (YouTube)—switching the last syllable to the feminine of course.
Too, in the pages of your blog, a young man remarked that in Greek Orthodoxy, the Jesus Prayer, at least to him, was considered a great ‘secret’ he feared would become trademarked if the true power of the Prayer were known.
I am confounded, dear Orthodox Monk, and I hope you will illuminate.
With sincere appreciation for your learned responses and the time and effort you expend on your blog, I thank you for considering my question for a reply.
God bless you.
Let us take the questions about the Jesus Prayer first. There are a number of stages in the practice of the Jesus Prayer, from simple group recitation perhaps with a YouTube video 20 minutes once or twice a day, to 24-hour a day, 7-day a week recitation in solitude a cave. At the latter stage the recitation is automatic even in sleep; the Prayer is repeated with the mind in the heart; the practitioner may be practising breath control. It should be clear to Janice that this advanced form of the Jesus Prayer is dangerous for the novice monk—and perhaps even for the advanced monk. So there is a spectrum of practice of the Jesus Prayer and cautions have to be understood in the context of where on the spectrum of practice the cautioner is positioning the practitioner. Moreover, no one can say where precisely on the spectrum the Jesus Prayer ceases to be safe and becomes dangerous. Many factors concerning the person praying enter into question—their personal history, their ecclesiastical situation, their medical health, whether they have a guide, whether they are leading a moral life, whether they go regularly to confession and communion, their family and work and economic situation and so on. For a healthy individual, there is much less danger repeating the Jesus Prayer 20 minutes a day than repeating it all the time in solitude. Similarly, risk in practising the Jesus Prayer is reduced for a member of the Orthodox Church without mental health problems who is leading a moral life. Similarly for someone who is getting along with their family, has a job they like, is economically self-sufficient and is generally not under stress.
We might make some remarks on factors that enter into the question of dangers of the repetition of the Jesus Prayer. However, we can only issue general guidelines; Janice needs a personal guide if she wants personal guidance.
There are several reasons why the Jesus Prayer might become dangerous. First of all, it is the repetition of a short sentence. The repetition itself necessarily stresses the brain. If there are genetically-based mental illnesses involved that stress might precipitate a crisis. This should be clear. But risk is increased if the person is under stress. This should also be clear.
Moreover, the formula of the Jesus Prayer is a formula which in Roman Catholic parlance is an act of repentance or contrition. In the healthy individual, no problem. But in a person with emotional problems, such an emphasis on repentance and contrition might provoke an emotional crisis—or, more likely, exacerbate an existing emotional crisis or condition.
Next, the Jesus Prayer is a prayer that arises out of Orthodox Egypt in the 4th Century. It is very heavily contextualized by that fact in its historical development. Decontextualizing the Jesus Prayer—say by treating it one form among many of yoga—is fraught with spiritual and emotional and intellectual danger. It behoves Janice to make an effort to understand the Jesus Prayer from an Orthodox point of view, so that she prays it in an Orthodox way. This is indeed a general caution for all those practitioners, such as Eastern-Rite Catholics, Western-Rite Catholics, Protestants and others, who practise the Jesus Prayer ‘without the Orthodox mumbo-jumbo.’
And here we might remark on the trademarking of the Jesus Prayer that Janice alludes to. We don’t recall the passage in the blog she is referring to but the problem is that in America everyone wants the ‘quick fix,’ the easily used and marketed product. That seems to be what the person was referring to. However, the problem is that because of the contextualization of the Jesus Prayer in Orthodox tradition such a packaging is necessarily going to bastardize the practice of the Prayer. On the one hand, the purchaser gets watered-down adulterated goods; on the other hand the adulterated goods might be (spiritually) dangerous or even poisonous.
In this regard we might make a remark in passing that one ordinarily prays the Jesus Prayer in their native tongue. While we laud Janice on her studies of Russian and on her repeating the Jesus Prayer in Russian (necessary if she is going to be repeating it along with a video from Valaam Monastery), she should understand that in Elder Sophrony (Sakharov’s) monastery in Essex (Monastery of St John the Baptist, Tolleshunt Knights), the Prayer is repeated in a group setting in English even though Elder Sophrony was Russian, Athonite and a disciple of St Silouan the Athonite, also Russian.
Next, ultimately the practitioner of the Jesus Prayer is entering into conflict with the powers of darkness in a battle over their own soul. This is not the sort of language that is popular but it is the Orthodox tradition. Elder Sophrony’s book St Silouan the Athonite is good on this. The problem here is that the foolhardy practitioner might out of pride or conceit enter into battle without the support of the Great General, the Holy Spirit. Another metaphor might be that until you know how to swim, don’t jump in the deep end. So this is a caution saying that if you head for the more advanced end of the spectrum of practice before you are ready, you are in great danger: the downside risk is losing the battle and being possessed by a demon.
Next, because the advanced practitioner is entering into spiritual battle, their free will necessarily comes into play. An advanced practitioner of the Jesus Prayer is continually making choices as they deal with their ongoing thought processes in a conscious psychological state where they are faced with accepting or rejecting thoughts that come to them. They might make a mistake. Hence, before they enter into such an intense interior battle, they have to have their judgement trained.
Finally, advanced practitioners of the Jesus Prayer have visions. They might be real. So far so good. But they might be temptations. If the practitioner accepts the temptation, disaster. Again, St Silouan the Athonite is good on this. After an authentic vision of the risen Christ, St Silouan was over the years twice deceived by false visions while praying the Jesus Prayer in an advanced way.
Now let us turn to the broader issue of Janice’s possible conversion to Orthodoxy. First of all, a rule of thumb is that if she decides to remain Roman Catholic then she should practice a Roman Catholic form of spirituality. It simply doesn’t work to transplant an Orthodox tradition into Catholicism.
We would certainly encourage Janice to become Orthodox, but we would like to make the following remark. Orthodoxy, unless the person is drawn by the Holy Spirit, is a closed book. Even pious members of non-Orthodox Christian denominations can’t get past the surface of Orthodoxy, the ritual. They don’t see anything there beyond the ritual. Only from the inside of Orthodoxy is the mystagogy that is embedded in the ritual alive. And ultimately that is what Janice wants.
However, to make a genuine conversion to Orthodoxy, Janice must find Orthodoxy. This is not as easy as it might seem, there being in the United States a plethora of jurisdictions with all kinds of different issues—from rampant secularism to conservative ritualism and formalism. Janice has to pray for God to guide her steps.