The Jesus Prayer

By Fr. David Hester

Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. These few simple words, known as the Jesus Prayer, are of great importance to the Christian East—so much so that they are often called the summation of all Orthodox spirituality. The prayer reflects so well the heart of Eastern Christian spirituality that its use is recommended for both the beginner and the proficient as the driving force in their life of prayer. But what is the origin of this most important prayer? How has this prayer come down to us from the earliest days of the Fathers?

The Early Centuries

From the time of Saint Antony in the third century, hermits, monks and monasteries have commanded the reverence and respect of all Christian people and exerted a particularly strong influence on the spirit and worship of Eastern Christianity. It is from well-respected monastic communities that certain practices and emphases gradually converged to form the Jesus Prayer as we know it. Two of these factors are of primary importance: the practice of frequent repetition of short prayers, and the great respect in which the Name of Jesus was held.

Among the desert monks, there are many references to the power of the Name of Jesus. There are accounts of exorcisms performed using the Name of Jesus, and a number of the Apothegmata (Sayings of the Desert Fathers) deal with the Name of Jesus. But even more significant for the later growth of the Jesus Prayer was the development in the desert of one-word or short-phrase prayers. In this early desert period there was a great variety of these short prayers. It took several centuries before they were combined with the invocation of the Name to form the Jesus Prayer.

Evagrios and Pseudo-Makarios

Among the early desert teachers, there are two who had an abiding influence on Orthodox spirituality, especially on the growth of the Jesus Prayer. These are Evagrios of Pontus (346-399) and Pseudo-Makarios. whose writings were thought to be those of Saint Makarios. (The real Saint Makarios of Egypt, c. 300-c. 390. was Evagrios’s master in the desert.)

The influences of the two were very different. Evagrios applied neoplatonism with its emphasis on the mind, to the desert spirituality, while Pseudo-Makarios, with a more biblical outlook, emphasized the totality of the person, represented in the heart. Pseudo-Macarios emphasizes the biblical union of mind and heart, of body and soul. He shows us that the whole man, body and soul, must be reintegrated through asceticism and purification, so as to gain self-control and be able to live in constant awareness of the presence of God. Evagrios, on the other hand, accents the intellect in prayer and has only a few scattered references to the Word and Trinity, and no reference to the Incarnation, the Church, or the sacraments. He conceives of prayer as an immaterial contact of the intellect with God.

Evagrios’s most enduring contribution was in his formation of expressions and vocabulary to describe the desert spirituality. His vocabulary continued to be used down through the centuries, and gradually there was a marriage between the Evagrian and Makarian understandings. Evagrios’s spiritual notions were subjected to a Christological corrective, and the Evagrian mind and the Makarian heart were united as the “mind in the heart.'”

Diadochos of Photike and Abba Philemon

In the mid-fifth century, Saint Diadochos. the Bishop of Photike of Epeiros, was one of the greatest popularizers of desert spirituality in the Byzantine world. In his One Hundred Chapters on Perfection, he recommends purification of the heart by calling to mind the “memory of Jesus.” Diadochos is the first writer to refer explicitly to the remembrance of the Name of Jesus, even though he does not offer any exact form for the invocation.

It is sometime in the sixth or seventh century that the full text of the Jesus Prayer is first found. This is in the Life of Abba Philemon, an Egyptian hermit. Philemon was once asked by a younger monk what he should do to keep his mind from being distracted. The young monk was told to keep watch in his heart and to repeat in his mind the words. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me.” Later, when this young monk spoke again with the elder, the elder told him to repeat the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me.” Thus from the sixth century on, this living tradition of the Jesus Prayer has continued uninterrupted within the Orthodox Church.

John Klimakos and Maximos the Confessor

The most outstanding of all the spiritual teachers of Mount Sinai was the Monk John (570-649), an abbot of Saint Katherine’s Monastery. John was given the name Klimakos (“Ladder”) due to the work that made him famous, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Some of his texts give evidence that he knew the practice of uniting the Jesus Prayer to breathing, a practice later widely adopted.

Living at the same time as Saint John Klimakos was Saint Maximos the Confessor, another monk who was to exert a great influence on the understanding of the place of the Jesus Prayer. Maximos describes the deified state as a total participation in Jesus Christ. For him, salvation consists in being conformed totally and freely to the divine energy or will. This understanding of the aim of the Christian life as the union of wills was to influence greatly the development of the hesychast tradition in its valuing of unceasing prayer as the way to accomplish this union. (Hesychasm, from the Greek word hesychia—”silence”—is the monastic emphasis on silence, asceticism, vigils, and obedience to a spiritual father, in order to develop a deep inner life of contemplative prayer. Hesychasm has been integral to the monastic tradition from its very beginnings.)

The Flowering on Mount Athos

The fourteenth century is the high point in the development of the Jesus Prayer. In fact, over the following five centuries, there were three periods of great intensity in the practice of the Jesus Prayer: the fourteenth century in Byzantium, the eighteenth century in Greece, and the nineteenth century in Russia. In the first of these periods there are four outstanding figures who greatly influenced the development of the prayer: Saint Gregory of Sinai; Saint Nikephoros the Hesychast; Saint Theoleptos, Archbishop of Philadelphia; and above all, Saint Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica.

Saint Gregory of Sinai (1255-1346) represents the end of the Sinaite phase and the beginning of the Athonite phase in the history of the Jesus Prayer. He was a monk from Sinai who learned of the Jesus Prayer while living in Crete. He later went to Mount Athos, where he found only three monks who were experts in the contemplative life. He instructed the monks there in prayer, and from that point on, Athos would give its own particular stamp to the Jesus Prayer, with a particular emphasis on its formula and on accompanying psychophysical techniques.

The writings of Saint Gregory have always been very popular among Orthodox monks. He was imbued with the precepts of The Ladder and presented prayer with a deep understanding of the psychology of monks. The Jesus Prayer is seen as the indispensable aid to growth in contemplation for the monk.

Nikephoros the Hesychast (c. 1300) is another important Athonite monk of the fourteenth century. In his works Nikephoros unites ideas from many earlier monastic authors. His most important original contribution comes in the conclusion of his work, On Guarding the Heart. Here he stresses that really to learn prayer, or to deal with any spiritual difficulties, a person needs an experienced spiritual father, as the only one who can properly instruct him or her in the spiritual life.

Saint Theoleptos of Philadelphia (d. 1320) is the next important figure of the fourteenth century. A disciple of Saint Nikephoros, he is considered to be one of the greatest theoreticians of hesychasm, especially its psychology. He analyzed the functions of the mind and applied to each of them a specific role in the practice of the Jesus Prayer. The purpose of the Jesus Prayer is to unite the different functions and focus them totally on the Trinity.

The importance of Saint Theoleptos, however, was overshadowed by that of one of his pupils whom he initiated into hesychasm, Saint Gregory Palamas (1296-1359).

Saint Gregory Palamas, Defender of Hesychasm

From the time that Barlaam, a Calabrian monk, arrived in Constantinople in 1338, until the final synodal condemnation of Barlaam’s followers in 1351, Saint Gregory Palamas took an active part in a controversy that struck at the very roots of Orthodox spirituality. Barlaam viewed humanity dualistically, seeing the spiritual life as a freeing from the body and holding that only the intellect is capable of contemplating God. He believed that all knowledge of God must be indirect, passing always through objects or beings perceptible to the senses. Therefore he stated that mystical knowledge can have only an apparent reality, existing in name only, but having no reality in itself.

In opposition to these ideas of Barlaam, Saint Gregory Palamas, a monk on Mount Athos, wrote the Hagiorite Tome, which was signed in 1340-41 by the abbots and monks of Mount Athos, and the Triads for the Defense of the Holy Hesychasts. Gregory gave an answer to each of Barlaam’s accusations, and in so doing presented a unified theology of hesychasm.

First of all, he defended the close link that exists among all the components of a human being, soul and body. For Palamas, the Jesus Prayer is the positive means to unite body and soul in prayer and to have a constant remembrance of God. Because of the need for giving full attention in prayer, Saint Gregory defends the psychophysical techniques connected to the Jesus Prayer. He did not see these techniques of breathing and posture as simply mechanical ways of obtaining peace, but rather as a practical way for beginners to avoid distraction and the wandering of the mind. He knew that it was of great importance to avoid distractions and to become as internally unified as possible during prayer, for, as the hesychasts knew, those who persevered in prayer could receive divine illumination. It is through the use of the Jesus Prayer that this illumination occurs.

Saint Gregory professed the reality of the union with God and of the illumination brought about through prayer. To explain how divine illumination was indeed a true union with God, Gregory made a distinction that became basic to Orthodox theology, the distinction between God’s essence and His energies. God’s essence is known to be absolutely above participation, but His energies, the way He makes Himself present to all things by His manifestations and by His creative energies, are the way one is illumined and has true union with God.

Saint Gregory’s syntheses, however, did not have a chronologically continuous influence, for, after 1453, the development of the Byzantine culture and intellectual tradition was interrupted by the Turkish conquest of Byzantium. It was not until the late eighteenth century that hesychasm was to have a revival.

The Age of the Philokalia

At the end of the eighteenth century. Mount Athos once again became the center for an intense diffusion of the Jesus Prayer. In 1782 Saint Nikodemos (1748-1809), a monk of Mount Athos, in collaboration with Saint Makarios (1731-1805). the Bishop of Corinth, published at Venice an anthology of patristic texts by authors from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries, which was called The Philokalia of Neptic Saints. The Philokalia (the Greek meaning “love of beauty”) deals chiefly with the theory and practice of prayer, especially the Jesus Prayer. This book became the source for a revival of hesychasm in the nineteenth century in both Greece and Russia.

The Philokalia was to have a special influence in Russia. In 1793. the renowned elder. Saint Paisius Velichkovsky (1722-1794), a Ukrainian, published at Saint Petersburg a Slavonic edition of the Philokalia. called the Dobrotolubiye (“The Love of the Good”). Saint Paisius was a monk of Mount Athos who later went to Romania, where he became Abbot of the Monastery of Niamets. In the Dobrotolubiye, Saint Paisius, who had already been translating Greek texts into Slavonic, did not merely translate the texts printed in the Greek Philokalia, but added other original texts as well. His completed work was widely circulated in Russia and was used by monks and lay people alike.

Nineteenth-Century Russia

Russia became a great center for the practice of the Jesus Prayer in the nineteenth century. This renewal had at its heart certain significant personalities, particularly the line ofstartzy (elders) at Optina Monastery and Saint Seraphim of Sarov.

At the end of the eighteenth century. Optina was nearly abandoned when the Metropolitan of Moscow asked a disciple of Saint Paisius, the Archimandrite Makarios, to send a small group of monks to reestablish the hermitage. They did this in 1821, and soon the elders of Optina acquired unique fame throughout all Russia, where they were sought after by people from all levels of society and all walks of life. The elders exercised a prophetic ministry, and to all who came, they taught the value of the Jesus Prayer.

Saint Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833) entered the monastery of Sarov at the age of nineteen, spending his first fifteen years in community life and then thirty years in seclusion. Finally in 1825 he opened the doors of his cell to all who would come to him. Saint Seraphim constantly prayed the Jesus Prayer, and came to be granted the vision of the Divine and Uncreated Light. In Saint Seraphim’s case the Divine Light actually took a visible form, outwardly transforming his body.

Other nineteenth-century Russian proponents of the Jesus Prayer include Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov (1807-1867), Bishop of Kostroma, who wrote on the value of the Jesus Prayer for all people and also published a more complete Slavonic edition of the Dobrotolubiye. Saint Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894), another important teacher of the Jesus Prayer, prepared a greatly expanded translation of the Philokalia in five volumes—not in Slavonic, but in the Russian vernacular.

In addition to these learned works, there appeared at the same time a simple story of a wanderer, called The Sincere Tales of a Pilgrim to his Spiritual Father, or The Way of the Pilgrim. It is the story of a simple Russian peasant who became a pilgrim, a wanderer traveling back and forth across Russia in search of a way to pray without ceasing, who discovers this in the Jesus Prayer.

It was during this nineteenth-century Russian revival of the Jesus Prayer that the words “a sinner” were first added to the end of the prayer, giving it the form that is familiar to most of us in the West today.

The Twentieth-Century West

In the present-day Western world the Jesus Prayer is becoming more widely known and practiced, as it has been for centuries in the Christian East. This is due in part to the immigration of Orthodox Christians to the West, particularly Russian and other Slavic immigrants. In addition, there are more and more Orthodox monasteries being established in Europe and North America where monks and nuns from Greek, Russian, and Romanian Orthodox traditions are teaching the importance of the Jesus Prayer. There have also been new editions and translations made of the Philokalia, as well as many other new writings on the Jesus Prayer. One need only look in any catalogue of Orthodox publications to see the works available.

Receiving the Gift

The Jesus Prayer is a great gift that comes to us from the Fathers throughout the centuries, but like any gift, it must be opened and used to be really appreciated. This gift is given not only to the Church as a whole, but to you personally, under the guidance of your spiritual father, to be used, to be prayed, to become a part of your life.

The prayer may be used at assigned times in the day, or it may be used in times of quiet, particularly when you are involved in some activity that frees you from talk. This may be some repetitive activity in the home or workplace, or it may be when you are driving, particularly when the traffic is not causing inner turmoil. The prayer can fill your heart when you are being kept on hold on the telephone, or while waiting in some office for an appointment. It may be prayed when you wake up in the morning, or before going to bed. You may even want to wake up in the night and pray it in the quiet of darkness. The Jesus Prayer can be a constant companion throughout the day.

The only way that this can happen is for you to take to heart the words of the Fathers and begin gradually to repeat the words of the Jesus Prayer to yourself, to let the prayer become a part of you, like the beating of your heart or the breath of your lungs. Then you can share in this gift, and with God’s help attain a more constant recollection of God and openness to His presence.

The Very Rev. Father David Hester is pastor of St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.