THE JESUS PRAYER: St. Sophrony

From his book, His Life is Mine, chapter #14

In the last two chapters of his book, Sophrony focuses on the Jesus prayer.

The Jesus Prayer, also known as the prayer of the heart, is a short prayer that is repeated constantly in the course of the day: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Through repetition and contemplation, Christ descends from the theoretical level of our mind to our experience of him in our hearts.

Monks in the Hesychastic ascetic tradition repeat it constantly, even as they go about their day and performing menial tasks. It serves to cleanse the mind, remove us from earthly concerns and open the way to inner peace and likeness to God—first by opening the mind and then the heart.  

For many it is reminiscent of the mantras chanted in Hinduism and Buddhism. Yet, though all these meditative practices use repetition to help practitioners concentrate and facilitate meditation, and though they lay out a mystical path to inner stillness, the Jesus prayer is completely different than a mantra. Inner peace is not its sole objective, but its starting point for slowly building a personal relationship with a personal God.

Invoking the name of God has immeasurable power. Far from treating it as a formulaic exercise—a mere means to an end–Sophrony asks us to “approach the invocation of God’s name with awe,” and to understand God’s attributes and their significance.

Instead of just losing ourselves, we maintain personhood and actively develop a personal relationship with him. We use our intelligence to advance our knowledge of God and meditate on the meaning of God’s name which we invoke in prayer.

The practice itself does not confer instant bliss and illumination.

“The content or meaning of the Name of God,” Sophrony writes, “is imparted to us only gradually”

It takes a great deal of time for Christ to increasingly reveal his true character to us. Sophrony refers us to parallels in the Bible.

Thus, at first God revealed himself to Moses as the one true I AM, with attributes still unknown. The subsequent revelation disclosed the properties of this I AM—God gracious and merciful…forgiving but also punishing. But this too was vague, and Moses recognized that the knowledge given to him is incomplete.

Knowledge of God is neither emotional nor purely rational. We “know” God through prayer and meditation, most especially through the Jesus prayer. We know him holistically, with every component of ourselves, through reason and faith, intelligence and mystical experience, mind and body.

And within us the bliss in our heart is combined with the light of intelligence, then, and only then, do we approach perfection.

 The “fleeting invocation” of Christ’s name may give us a moment of joy, perspective but is not the end of our journey. The Jesus Prayer is not a task to be checked off a list but a constant state of our soul, an accompanying and constant drone behind every thought and action. The Jesus prayer is not an event in time but a gateway to knowledge of God to which we should devote every waking hour of the day. Yet the reward is great:

How radical the change when we decide to accept Christ’s summons! Every instant of our lives becomes valuable! Both suffering and joy are linked in a miraculous way with this new ascetic effort. The ladder to heaven is set up before us.

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