THE JESUS PRAYER, METHOD #2: St. Sophrony

From his book, His Life is Mine

In describing the “method” of meditating on the Jesus prayer, Sophrony includes the use of technical methods, such as ways of breathing. He acknowledges that these exercises can be, occasionally, helpful but his conclusion is unequivocal.  “True prayer,” he tells us, “is not to be achieved thus…True prayer comes only through faith and repentance as the only foundation.”

To clarify his point, Sophrony brings up the example of monks’ prayer. Their focus, he notes, is not on technique or temporary relaxation. Instead, “… their attention is focused on harmonizing their life with the commandments of Christ.

In the ascetic tradition, he instructs us, mind and heart unite when a monk is engaged in ascetic practice of “obedience and abstinence” as he becomes free of the “dominion of sin.”

This has implications for our faith as well as the way we live our lives.

Is our conscious goal that of harmonizing our lives with God?  Are our thoughts and actions aligned with what we say we believe and long for, or do we lead inauthentic and fragmented lives whose words, thoughts and actions are out of sync with each other? Do we want immediate inner peace while still overwhelmed by the “dominion of sin?”

Focusing on technique, the letter rather than the spirit of the law, does not help us enter deep prayer.  A meditative practice remains a technical exercise if your life is not transformed and realigned with God.

Sophrony compares the hesychastic, meditative practice of the Jesus prayer to modern adaptations of meditative practices such as Transcendental Meditation and the myriads of practices that have evolved since.

Sophrony calls such practices “artificial” because of their emphasis on technique rather than on true spiritual transformation that requires time, sacrifice, realignment with God, obedience and repentance.  The Jesus prayer is not a mere relaxation exercise.

He acknowledges that such technical exercises may give glimpses of inner peace and a sense of what it is like “to go beyond boundaries of time and space.” Yet “the true God,” Sophrony says, “is not in any of these.”

There is in fact a danger in what he calls “psychotechnics” in that the emphasis shifts to the technique over substance.

Simplifying prayer and reducing it to an exercise can delude us into seeking “magic pills” for solving our problems and experience immediate unity with God, without the benefit of healing the real sources of emptiness and despair; of going beyond temporary relief by transforming our entire life.

Achieving unity with God through prayer takes time. A gradual ascent into prayer is the most trustworthy, Sophrony believes.

Fixing our attention on the name of the Lord and the meaning of the words, for example, is slower than a breathing or sitting technique but far more effective and conducive to inner healing.

He talks about gradual and increasingly deeper “stages” in our practice of the Jesus prayer as opposed to instantaneous results.   

It takes time to transition from a distracted frame of mind, for instance, to true self-reflection and repentance.

When contrition for sin reaches a certain level, the mind naturally heeds the heart.

It takes time and practice to enter progressively deeper levels in our relationship with God rather than an act of immediate theosis.

One begins with the verbal repetition of the prayer. At a later, more advanced stage, the repetition of just the name of Christ is sufficient because the rest has penetrated our hearts. Later yet, when we have reached a level of complete immersion, even words are no longer necessary. 

Sophrony also stresses the need for a personal relationship with God. “The true Creator, he writes, “disclosed himself to us as a personal absolute.”

Without a personal relationship, he believes, we engage in an impersonal form of ascesis in which, driven by our longing, mistake a mirage for the true thing. As we, alone, force and will an artificial form of spiritual ascension, we are in danger of self-deification.

Entering a vague sense of detachment and relaxation is not sufficient for re-orienting our entire lives toward God.

…He is deluded who endeavors to divest himself mentally of all that is transitory and relative in order to cross some invisible threshold, to realize his eternal origin, his identity with the Source of all the exists in order to return and merge with him, the Nameless trans-personal Absolute

Self-willing a mystical state of mind and entering a timeless space by practicing a technique may give us temporary relief.  It holds tremendous appeal for us.

It does not require sacrifice, the inconvenience of changing our lives or denying indulgences. We can experience timelessness without having to be held accountable. 

Spiritual growth through repentance, realignment, and a gradual, lifelong ladder of ascent, does. Yet it is this lifelong pursuit and growing personal relationship with God that renders the practice of the Jesus prayer life-altering and unites us with God.

The whole of our Christian life is based on knowledge of God, the First and the Last, whose Name is I Am. Our prayer must always be personal, face to Face.

In the Christian experience cosmic consciousness comes from prayer like Christ’s Gethsemane prayer, not as the result of abstract philosophical cogitations.

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