Ilias the Presbyter, Philokalia, vol.3:  Discerning Degrees in Good and Evil

A Gnomic Anthology, Part 1, #23-39

Ilias returns to, and embellishes, the theme of discernment or “discrimination” he introduced earlier.

“Without discrimination,” Ilias told us, “neither practice nor spiritual knowledge can fulfill its purpose.”

Nothing is black or white, he reminds us in these few pages and introduces the concept of “degrees.”

Although moral judgment is by nature indivisible, there are none the less different degrees of it.

Though we are tempted by the senses the degree of our attachment varies:

For although all men are subject to the senses, not all pay them the same amount of tribute.

We cannot automatically condemn qualities such as ignorance, for example, without understanding its context and intentionality.

37. A haughty person is not aware of his faults, or a humble person of his good Qualities. An evil ignorance blinds the first, an ignorance pleasing to God blinds the second.

Ilias invites us to discern the depths of the soul and its subtle variations beyond appearance. Beyond apparent health, for example, may lie darkness of the soul.

From the outside a soul may appear to be healthy, while within, in the depths of consciousness, it may suffer from some hidden sickness.

Beneath acts of generosity may lie a desire to look good to others; or the goal of finding an easy act of grace that involves giving only what we do not need while zealously guarding what we perceive as necessary.

A truly merciful person is not one that deliberately gives away superfluous things, but one that forgives those who deprive him of what he needs.

In short, Ilias does not give us moral rules that we can follow mechanically. He asks for continuous watchfulness and engagement of the soul and heart as we constantly pierce appearance to uncover underlying truths and are able to see the degrees between opposites.


Lack of discernment doesn’t only prevent us from discovering nuanced degrees and the infirmity underneath apparent health. It can also prevent us from perceiving the glory of God’s nature, as our mind is focused on rules-keeping and “superfluous” things.  

Few are circumspect with regard to what is according to nature, but many with regard to what is contrary to nature. For having expended out of fear all their intrinsic quota of circumspection on what is contrary to nature, they have little left to exercise with regard to what is according to nature. Indeed, they expend most of it on superfluous things and what is by nature worthless.

For most of us the texture of daily life consists of things like “to do” lists, gratuitous and obsessive thoughts, anxiety over deadlines and appearances, efforts at controlling outcomes and other people. Our thoughts are racing, and our minds become cluttered. Only inner stillness–“an intelligent silence” — will allow us to fully discern the presence of God and be present ourselves at the “right moment.”

26. A sense of the right moment and a sense of proportion go hand in hand with an intelligent silence. Truth is the banquet of all the three together. Where there is such a banquet, the father of lies, confronting a soul as it departs from this life, will not find in it any of the things he looks for.


Discernment requires humility and openness to possibilities. Blame and criticism automatically engender flight or fight reactions in us. With discernment and the inner stillness that enables it, we remain dispassionate and open.

33. Do not shun the person who opportunely berates you; but go to him and he will show you how much evil lies hidden from your consciousness. Once you have swallowed the bitter and nauseous draught, you will taste the sweet nourishment of health.

In fact, we are asked to see pain and reproof the way Olympic athletes view the relentless training they undergo: the more of it, the highest their chances for success.

34. The greater the pain that you feel, the more you should welcome the person whose reproof makes you feel it. For he is bringing about within you that total purification without which your intellect cannot attain the pure state of prayer.

Just as discernment calls for the understanding of degrees and hidden truths, we are called by Ilias to go beyond the surface and mere reactions and discern the possibility of salvation behind pain.

39. Reproof strengthens the soul, whereas praise debilitates it and makes it even more sluggish in its spiritual struggle.

Ilias the Presbyter, Philokalia, vol.3: Becoming Spiritual Sprinters

A Gnomic Anthology, Part 1, #1-22


The fathers in Philokalia often talk about the necessity of manifesting faith through action. They show that neither faith nor action, neither intellect nor practice, are sufficient unto themselves, without each other.

Ilias delineates 4 types of practice. Practices concerning:

  • The body– fasting and vigil
  • The mouth– prayer and silence’
  • The soul–self-control and simplicity
  • The intellect–prayer and meditation


It is not enough, however, to practice virtues without maintaining the delicate spiritual ecology among all elements.

“Without discrimination,” Ilias tells us, “neither practice nor spiritual knowledge can fulfill its purpose. For practice uncontrolled by such knowledge strays here and there aimlessly, like a calf; while knowledge that refuses to clothe itself in the honorable vesture of practice lacks nobility, however much it may pretend to possess it.”

Without discrimination, virtues can become vices as they evolve into ends unto themselves, separated from their goal of uniting with God. In fact, the practice of virtues—fasting, simplicity, health and exercise, adherence to the commandments or working hard — can convert into addictions when, decoupled from restraint and love, become increasingly intense and extreme and serve to impress others rather than unite us with God. 

A courageous soul acts correctly when it is master of both practice and contemplation,


Beyond discrimination in the practice of virtues, Ilias points to a deeper orientation of our heart toward good or evil. He makes distinctions in the practice of good or evil that depend on this more nuanced and profound orientation. There is a difference, for example,  between those who are “essentially good” even if they occasionally commit evil acts, and those who are essentially evil.

Clearly, those who lapse, while they are essentially good, will sin less than those who intentionally commit evil.

12. The virtuous may appear to be bad, but essentially they are good; superficially the self-important and pleasure loving may appear to be good, but basically they are evil.

13. The person who hates evil commits it but seldom and then not intentionally. But the person attached to the causes of evil commits it frequently and deliberately.

Those aiming for good but unintentionally lapsing are capable of repentance and, thus, renewal and salvation.

14. Those who deliberately refuse to repent sin continually; those who sin without meaning to not only repent with all their heart, but also do not often have cause to repent.

If your heart is not fundamentally oriented toward good, if “you still look on vice with a feeling of pleasure,” it willbe difficult to remain virtuous, no matter how vigorous and extreme your practice. To balance practice with intellect you heart must “hunger for the taste of virtue” and you must be willing to “avert your gaze from every form of evil.”


Before starting the race, runners are mentally and physically already in the race. They crouch, ready to spring when the signal is given, fully committed and oriented toward the race. Every muscle of their body is taut and ready to pounce, their mind and heart are focused on reaching their destination.  

Christians must be spiritual runners, fully oriented toward God, equipped and ready to join the battle.   

No Christian believing rightly in God should ever be off his guard. He should always be on the look-out for temptation, so that when it comes he will not be surprised or disturbed, but will gladly endure the toil and affliction it causes, and so will understand what he is saying when he chants with the prophet: ‘Prove me, 0 Lord, and try me’(Ps. 26:2. LXX).

Their hearts and souls must be fully oriented toward their destination and practice must be coupled with discrimination.

Being Fully Present: St. Philotheos of Sinai, Philokalia, vol 3

Forty Texts on Watchfulness

Like scenes of epic battles unfolding before you on the movie screen, the demons in this chapter conduct a fierce but invisible warfare as they…

…wage war upon us through our thoughts and are full of anger against us

Using military terms throughout, he refers to them as “this whole detachment of the enemy” that must be “put out of action through prayer.”

Yet, the battle plan does not call for fighting fire by being inflamed ourselves. On the contrary, we deploy our only weapon that works against the devil, God, by entering a state of sobriety called nipsis or watchfulness.

It is through unceasing watchfulness that we can perceive what is entering into us and can to some extent close the door against it, calling upon our Lord Jesus Christ to repel our malevolent adversaries.

The opposite of watchfulness is forgetfulness. Philotheos quotes Christ’s words in the Gospel of Luke: keeping guard over the heart and mind.

‘Then comes the devil and snatches the word out of their hearts’ – that is to say, he steals it by inducing them to forget it – ‘lest they should believe and be saved’ (Luke 8:12).

Instead of the passive indulgence that forgetfulness enables, we are asked to deploy discipline by being watchful and drawing a very precise battle strategy:

Be extremely strict in guarding your intellect.


 In the Greek, the word for “strict” is akrivia which means precision.

Να φρουρείς το νου σου με πάρα πολύ μεγάλη ακρίβεια.

Philotheos employs another term for watchfulness: attentiveness—prosochi or προσοχή in Greek—that brings out the notion of precision and focus.

 Let us go forward with the heart completely attentive and the soul fully conscious. For if attentiveness and prayer are daily joined together, they become like Elijah’s fire-bearing chariot (cf. 2 Kgs. 2:11), raising us to heaven.

I believe that the concept of “attentiveness” highlights another side of watchfulness–the notion of complete presence at specific moments in time and, thus, readiness for action.  

Philotheos has already told us that in true prayer, we are no longer torn by conflict, no longer divided between the present and the past, God and the world. Instead, we bring all of ourselves to Him, not just the fragment that is convenient at that time. In attentiveness, we are made whole and fully present in God.  

An Orthodox blog discusses the concept of holistic presence implied by watchfulness:

Bishop Kallistos Ware tells us that ‘watchfulness means, among other things, to be present where we are – at this specific point in space, at this particular moment in time.  All too often we are scattered and dispersed, we are living, not with alertness in the present, but with nostalgia in the past, or with misgiving and wishful thinking in the future. . . The neptic man, then, is gathered into the here and now.  He is the one who seizes ‘kairos’, the decisive moment of opportunity.”

This complete presence in God allows us to hone and deploy our weapons against the devil with precision.

Attentiveness obstructs the demons by rebutting them; and Jesus, when invoked, disperses them together with all their fantasies.

In the Greek text the absence of fear and willingness to battle are a little more pronounced by employing “talking back” instead of “rebutting.” 

 Attentiveness (using the word for prayer here) prevents and talks back to them.

Η προσευχή πάλι εμποδίζει και αντιλέγει σ’ αυτούς,

 The steps are clear. First you discern and fight thoughts the moment they first enter your mind.

…when you perceive an evil thought rebut it (in the Greek: talk back to it) and immediately call upon Christ to defend you

Όταν λοιπόν αντιληφθείς κάποιο λογισμό, αντιμίλησε σ’ αυτόν, και αμέσως κάλεσε γρήγορα τον Χριστό να σε υπερασπιστεί.

You then pray to Christ with a heart that is completely open and present so that you transition from the fight mode to love and a relationship with God.

….and while you are still speaking, Jesus in His gentle love will say: ‘Behold, I am by your side ready to help you.’

Watchfulness, then, is not simply a defensive mechanism but a vessel for experiencing the constant presence of Christ within us, for enabling us to mystically unite with Him and  for preparing us for action:

Jesus draws near, He illumines the heart; for remembrance of Him confers on us or for a moment, glorify Him who has saved you, and meditate on death.

What do I mean? A spiritual heaven, with sun, moon and stars, is formed in the blessed heart of one who has reached a state of watchfulness, or who strives to attain it; for such a heart, as a result of mystical contemplation and ascent, is enabled to contain within itself the uncontainable God. If, then, you aspire to holiness, Cry with God’s help to invoke the Lord and wholeheartedly to turn words into actions.

Life from Death: St. Philotheos of Sinai, Philokalia, vol 3

Forty Texts on Watchfulness

Τhe need for constant awareness of death, preached by Philotheos and the other Fathers,  sounds macabre to the 21st century dwellers, driven by the pursuit of pleasure and happiness as  the ultimate goals in life. This ideal is supported by multi-billion-dollar industries and ever-growing relaxation/meditation practices. While depression is rampant, we may just have forgotten how to mourn.

When doing ethnographic research into Greek ritual laments for the dead near the border of Greece with Albania, I was shocked to see women lamenters completely surrender to the sorrow of their loss. Their songs faced death head-on, at times expressing anger and even describing the body’s slow process of physical decay in the grave. The lyrics use the same format and formulaic expressions as the lamentation of the Virgin in the Orthodox church, sung on Holy Friday.

As the hours and days pass by, the women weave into the collective lamentation verses about their own losses. Antiphonal singing, sharing of heart and the beauty of words and music transform individual grievance into a community of shared sorrow and comfort, enabling the living to go on living.

The idea of facing rather than hiding sorrow and traumatic experience has been embraced by modern psychology.  

While this is not an exact parallel to the patristic notion of constantly remembering death to gain perspective, there is a subtle psychological parallel. Remember and face death so that you can live.

Philotheos, like other Fathers of the Eastern church, calls on us to constantly remember death, not for an exercise in sorrow and despair but as a launching pad from darkness into life.

Watchfulness for Philotheos is not an act of suspicion or paranoia but a state of full discernment in which we recognize both good and evil and understand how human powers can be ordered and employed to guard one and defeat the other.

To heighten the urgency for watchfulness, he presents the demon as “a skilled commander,” whose attacks are often disguised and whose strategy is to confuse and obscure the intellect.

He does not attack us by exciting desire through an actual physical woman, but he operates inwardly by projecting into our intellect lascivious figures and images, and by insinuating words that rouse desire…

Again, the enemy – wanting to overpower the intelligence, a skilled commander – first addles its wits with gluttonous and promiscuous thoughts…dismissing it from its command as though it were a drunken general; then he uses anger and desire as servants of his own will.

If the devil is a skilled general, Philotheos wants us to become skilled and ferocious warriors.

To defend the fort, we must marshal our weapons. The most powerful among them is remembrance of death.

We must be constantly aware of our own mortality to maintain perspective on our lives and be kept humble. Whoever guards the intellect against passions…

…is in a far better position to discern the continual presence of demonic provocations than the man who chooses to live without being mindful of death.

Thinking of death is not a destination to dwell in but a gateway to light. Philotheos alternates the darkness of death with the light of salvation. The more watchful we are the more light and clarity increase.  

But he who all the day long is mindful of death discerns the assaults of the demons more keenly; and he counterattacks and repels them.

 Watchfulness cleanses the conscience and makes it lucid. Thus cleansed, it immediately shines out like a light that has been uncovered, banishing much darkness.

In our society, we avoid thinking of death and mourning. At many funerals, guests are admonished to “celebrate” the person’s life and not dwell on, or even acknowledge, death.

Philotheos’ watchfulness and constant awareness of death and the fragility of life…

…immediately shines out like a light that has been uncovered, banishing much darkness. Once this darkness has been banished through constant and genuine watchfulness, the conscience then reveals things hidden from us.

The demon as a “skilled general” clouds our mind and heart with destructive thoughts that confuse he intellect and render it subject to the senses. Watchfulness restores the intellect to its rightful position, above the senses, so that it can teach us…

…how to fight the unseen war and the mental battle by means of watchfulness, how we must throw spears when engaged in single combat and strike with well-aimed lances of thought, and how the intellect must escape being hit and’ avoid the noxious darkness by hiding itself in Christ, the tight for which it longs. He who has tasted this light will understand what I am talking about.

By facing the darkness of death, we emerge into light and are transformed into fierce warriors, more “skilled” than the devil.

Restraint and Humility, St. Philotheos of Sinai, Philokalia, vol 3

Forty Texts on Watchfulness, #9-16

Philotheos has already told us that he will be focusing on the toughest and most nuanced sins of all, those committed on the noetic plane. This enemy is so subtle and so formidable that combatting it, requires constant watchfulness.

What do we, as modern men and women, think of as “enemy?”

“Sin” is often an unfamiliar and even repellant concept to us in the 21st century. We may define it as equivalent to a social or legal transgression, like murder, or we may vaguely associate it with archaic offences that are no longer considered “sinful.”

Philotheos approaches this concept with great psychological subtlety:

But the enemy in his turn tries to subvert this commandment by stirring up strife and thoughts of rancor and envy within us.

Who cannot relate to inner turmoil and fear? How often do persistent thoughts of resentment, anger, envy, self-pity, arrogance, ambition, or desire for control clutter our minds and gain momentum until they become obsessive and explode in destructive action?


Philotheos attributes this state of spiritual defeat to the misuse of, and imbalance between, the powers of the soul. When the intellect (nous), the highest faculty in human person, cedes control to the incensive power–the irascible power that provokes passions and can be manifested in wrath—our souls die gradually.

The enemy that wants to overpower the intelligence is “a skilled commander.”

…and so, by bombarding the intelligence with evil thoughts-with thoughts of envy, strife, contention, guile, self-esteem-he persuades the intelligence to abandon its control, to hand the reins over to the-incensive power, and to let the latter go unchecked. And the incensive power, having so to speak unseated its rider, disgorges through the mouth in the form of words all those things stored up in the heart as a result of the devil’s wiles and the intellect’s negligence.

When we are in a state of watchfulness and attentiveness, we see clearly. We grasp the potential significance of actions and thoughts that may appear neutral or harmless to one lacking in watchfulness. For the fathers of the Eastern Church, for example, talking is evidence of lack of restraint, and can become means of control and gateway to evil:

It is as the Lord said: ‘The mouth expresses what fills the heart’ (Matt. 12:34). For if the devil can induce the person he has taken possession of to utter what is harbored within, then that person will not merely call his brother ‘dolt’ or ‘fool’ but may well pass from insulting words to murder… Thus the devil achieves his purpose when he makes us break God’s commandment by means of the thoughts that he insinuates into the heart.

…Untimely talk sometimes provokes hatred in those who listen, sometimes – when they note the folly of our words – abuse and derision. Sometimes it denies our conscience, or else brings upon us God’s condemnation and, worst of all, causes us to offend against the Holy Spirit.

Spiritual warfare, then, is not conducted with fanfare in glistening chariots and displays of subjugation of others, but through restraint.

St Paul says: ‘The person engaged in spiritual warfare exercises self-control in all things’ (1 Cor. 9:25). For, bound as we are to this wretched flesh, which always ‘desires in a way that opposes the Spirit’ (Gal. 5:17), we cannot


When we talk a great deal, we usually do so to impress others, win them over, get their admiration or sympathy, overshadow them, denigrate, flatter or persuade them. We may even talk because the anxiety within us makes us afraid of silence.  Our effort at filling any possible silent space is exhausting. Our hyper focus on our own “agenda” also blunts our ability to discern God’s will and be watchful. This is why, Theophilos speaks of the need for humility:

Guarding the intellect with the Lord’s help requires much humility, first in relation to God and then in relation to men. We ought to do all we can to crush and humble the heart.

To resist pride, Theophilos advises “perpetual and vivid mindfulness of death,” and “the detailed remembrance of our Lord’s Passion, the recollection of what He suffered.”  

Lives Transformed

Rather than use our weapons of humility, restraint, and remembrance of death opportunistically, Theophilos calls for integrating them into our everyday reality, in short, for transforming our lives. A life of watchfulness and restraint is attenable to all of us, not only monks. The secret is to be consistent and establish habits and routines:

Let us accustom our body to virtuous and orderly habits, nourishing it with moderation…

For those with experience regard virtue as consisting in an all-inclusive self-control, that is, in the avoidance of every kind of evil. For the pre-eminent source of purity is God, the source and giver of all blessings; but next comes self-control with regard to food, exercised in the same regular manner each day.

The result of restraint and watchfulness is the absence of sin and attainment of salvation. It will also grant you a different level of perception and understanding that you never thought possible and, hence, a renewed relationship with everything around you. With the Lord’s help you can:

…cleanse your heart and uproot sin – struggling for the knowledge that is more divine and seeing in your intellect things invisible to most people

Remembrance, the path to the kingdom

St. Philotheos of Sinai, Philokalia, vol 3

The righteous will be in everlasting remembrance. He will not be afraid of evil tidings.

Remembrance, watchfulness and spiritual sobriety are the keys to the kingdom according to St. Philotheos of Sinai in Forty Texts on Watchfulness. This is reminiscent of St. Hesychios. We are told, in fact in the introduction that, along with John Klimakos, these three can be seen as forming a distinctive Sinaite school of ascetic theology.

Philotheos identifies the realm in which the warfare he discusses is being fought — within us, on the noetic plane.

For since the soul is invisible, these malicious powers naturally attack it invisibly.

This is the toughest kind of warfare, “tougher than that on the plane of the senses,” he clarifies.

In the sphere of the senses, it is easier to identify the “enemy, but this noetic warfare lacks one feature possessed by visible warfare: declaration of hostilities.”

In noetic warfare the hidden enemy “kills the soul through sin,” which to our deluded mind is often perceived as virtue.

The fathers of the church constantly point out the difficulty of even discerning evil from good when we succumb to passions and justify our choices. All-consuming ambition, unrestraint passion, aggressiveness toward others, neglect of things that nourish one’s soul, for example, are often considered great assets in the professional world. Fantasy that blocks reality can be wrongly interpreted as creativity and an ecstatic state as spirituality.

The only remedy is remembrance of God, what John Chrysostom calls the noetic vision of God that “can by itself destroy the demonic spirits.”

There is, a warfare. The Spiritual worker has to press on with his intellect towards the goal (cf. Phil. 3:14), in order to enshrine perfectly the remembrance of God in his heart like some pearl or precious stone (cf. Matt.13:44-46)

Why is remembrance of God so important? Imagine a life without remembrance of what matters the most. We think of God at church but forget his existence in our “regular” life, thus failing to rely on him as our helper and dismissing the comfort of his presence. Our hearts are closed and unaware of the beauty of little miracles all around us when the world is inhabited by Him, unable to fully love and ignorant of the peace and stillness of the heart.

We technically “believe” in God in our intellect but not in our heart since we live as though He did not exist.

“It is very rare to find people whose intelligence is in a state of stillness,”  Philotheos tells us and advises us:  

From dawn we should stand bravely and unflinchingly at the gate of the heart, with true remembrance of God and unceasing prayer of Jesus Christ in the soul; and, keeping watch with the intellect, we should slaughter all the sinners of the land (cf. Ps. 101:8. LXX).

… When this pattern of spiritual practice is firmly established in us, it gives birth to the triad faith, hope and love.

Watchfulness is imperative to keep remembrance of God in our hearts. We start by exercising self-control with regard to the senses—eating, drinking, talking etc. When self-restraint becomes a habit, we are ready to begin “the noetic” work “by guarding our intellect and by inner watchfulness” and to begin the journey from passions to inner stillness. This, he tells us, “is the true philosophy in Christ.”

Humility is imperative for watchfulness and remembrance of God. There is no inner peace when we are busy imposing our agenda on others or seeking ways to demonstrate our superiority.

Where humility is combined with the remembrance of God that is established through watchfulness and attention, and also with recurrent prayer inflexible in its resistance to the enemy, there is the place of God, the heaven of the heart in which because of God’s presence no demonic army dares to make a stand.

Talkativeness, another manifestation of pride, is also an obstacle to inner stillness:

Nothing is more unsettling than talkativeness and more pernicious than an unbridled tongue, disruptive as it is of the soul’s proper state. For the soul’s chatter destroys what we build each day and scatters what we have laboriously gathered together.

Crucial to our capacity for watchfulness and remembrance is mindfulness of death which Philotheos wants to make his “life’s companion.” He goes beyond intellectual remembrance to talk about the meaning of remembrance in the heart:

It makes life-giving, healing tears flow from our bodily eyes, while from our noetic eyes rises a fount of wisdom that delights the mind.

Philotheos’ prose becomes lyrical as he describes this joy of such remembrance:

 I always longed, as I said, to have as my, companion, to sleep with, to talk with, and to enquire from her what will happen after the body has been discarded.

It is hard to imagine deriving joy by remembering death. We get a glimpse of Philotheos’ meaning when we contemplate the opposite—forgetfulness of death or, as he puts it, the devil’s murky daughter.

Just as with forgetfulness of God, forgetfulness of death locks us in a self-made fantasy world, unreconciled with God. Though we theoretically grasp the fact that we all die, we choose to live as if we will never die, inwardly believing that it will happen so far into the future we can ignore it or that, though it happens to others, we can’t visualize how it could possibly happen to us. 

Without imminent remembrance of death, our attachment to worldly things consumes us, our souls are in turmoil pursuing goals that deplete the soul, and we grow arrogant.

Watchfulness, Philotheos concludes, is our most powerful weapon. It will  “guard your intellect from error and observe the attacks of the demons and their snares woven of fantasy…”  

 Guard your heart with all diligence, for on this depends the outcome of life (Prov. 4:23).


From his book, His Life is Mine

In this final chapter of his book, Sophrony shows us how the Jesus prayer has implications far beyond the moment of recitation or the peace that emanates from it. This is because “prayer in the Name of Jesus gradually unites us with him” and “tidings of the salvation of the world are to be found in the Name Jesus.”

To realize the promise of salvation in the Jesus prayer, we must be fully present with all of our beings and not simply recite words.

Our prayer seems fruitless because the mind is not participating in the invocation of the Lord’s Name and only the lips continue mechanically to repeat the words

Sophrony also advises us to look at the Jesus prayer as continuous and pervasive rather than as a finite event in time. First, we must extricate ourselves from the exhaustion of our fast paced lives. “We must slow down mind and heart.”

Secondly, we must see its implications for salvation beyond the moment of prayer. The Jesus prayer “takes a long time to grasp the significance, the essential implications, of revelation.” It extends, thus, to our whole life. To achieve salvation through it, we must transform the very way we live by following the commandments and loving others. As Sophrony has taught us throughout this book, to truly pray, we must live our entire lives as prayer.

After long years of ascetic striving to follow the commandments of Christ, in the act of prayer mind and heart unite and jointly love the revelation granted by God.

Christian ascetic tradition calls for the acknowledgement of ourselves as sinners.  Without this recognition we cannot truly pray. Sophrony considers true repentance as a prerequisite for full revelation through the Jesus prayer.

But further progress depends on an ever-growing recognition of our sinfulness. And when we become so overwhelmingly sensible of the distance separating us from God that all is pain and despair—then do we begin in earnest to call upon the Name of God, our Savior: “Jesus save me’

Salvation begins with humility that allows us to see ourselves as the lowest among sinners.

Within the framework of our world today, calls for constant repentance and acknowledgment of ourselves as sinners seem incomprehensible and even unnecessary. We are not that bad after all, we think. Why do we need to beat ourselves all day about our sinfulness? After all, we care for our children, do charitable things, visit sick friends…There so many others who do harm to fellow human beings, torture their children and do unspeakable acts of evil. How can we be worse than them? Do asceticism and Orthodox spirituality call on us to be masochistic and lead lives of self-hatred?

In Christian thought, however, repentance is not meant as self-torture but as the means to inner freedom and, thus, joy.

 In Christ-like love there is no false humility; no inferiority complex. It is holy, perfect. The kingdom belongs to it. It is pure light in which there is no darkness. It embraces all created things in joy over their salvation

Why worry about your status at work, a perceived insult by a coworker or feelings of inferiority toward your neighbor if you believe that there is nothing more important in your life than knowledge of the true God and of the way of union with him? Why be distracted from this path through resentment, anger or fear if you have identified, confessed and repented for your vanity, attachment to your own story for yourself, need for praise or admiration as the sources of your misery?

On the contrary, if one is proud and in a state of “fault-finding,” will be remote from God and inner peace. Joy comes in the refusal to live in a state of derision and self-torture.

To unite with Christ through the Jesus prayer, you cannot be complacent. St. Sophrony talks about the need for alertness and a sense that we are “in mortal danger.

St. Sophrony and the fathers of the church constantly alert us to our own fragility, even, if we find momentary peace and have made progress toward our salvation. A single thought, unchecked, can spiral to darkness and despair. A moment of spiritual laziness can gradually return us to our default state of resentment, apathy, depression, anger and abandonment to passions.

We are told to remain always alert and live life as spiritual warriors rather than passengers on someone else’s journey. The sense of eminent danger keeps us humble and repentant.  

This is why Sophrony reminds us of St. SIlouan advice:

Keep your mind in hell and do not despair.

Don’t let yourself become complacent and distant to God. Be alert to the mortal dangers surrounding you yet, without allowing yourself to despair.

Humility and repentance are the opposite of self-torture or despair. They are testaments of hope and love.

In the Jesus prayer, when our focus is no longer on ourselves, and on manipulating others to see our superiority, our hearts become open to truly see and feel empathy for others and love for one’s fellow man

Love for God becomes love of all men.

Approaching the Jesus Prayer in repentance is the opposite or despair and resignation. It reflects our faith and hope for salvation. It is a commitment to spiritual battle and a process of constant spiritual growth and proximity to Christ. It is prayer for transcending our fallen nature and becoming sanctified before our death,

Our needs are no longer dictated by material desires but by the urgent desire for true life in Christ:

“Our urgent need is to conquer sin which strikes death into our hearts.”


From his book, His Life is Mine

In these pages, Sophrony delves more deeply into the nature and meaning of our union with God through the Jesus prayer.

In the first place, he reminds us, we utter the prayer with our whole being—not simply through only the senses or the intellect.

Knowledge which is imbued with life (as opposed to abstract knowledge) can in no wise be confined to the intellect: there must be a real union with the act of Being.

How is this possible and achievable? Sophrony has the answer. “This is achieved through love,” he explains. Love is the difference between uttering the words of the prayer and praying the prayer.

Love begins in the heart, and the mind is confronted with a new interior event and contemplates Being in the Light of the Divine love.

This is infinitely more difficult than merely saying the words or forgetting about the words all together to enter a state of engrossment as an end unto itself.  He admits:

There is no ascetic feat more difficult, more painful, than the effort to draw closer to God, who is Love

This is because

Love is not something given to us: it must be acquired by an effort made of our own free will.

Love requires a choice and a commitment to submit ourselves to others. It entails using our free will to accept Christ and practice his commandments in our daily lives. This means fighting pride which is considered the greatest obstacle to love. Sophrony reminds us how we spend most of our days criticizing others for not acting according to our script for the world, remembering insults and injustices to us, attempting to control, impress and garner praise from people.

Love for Christ means experiencing him in his fulness and not as solitary individual. Giving ourselves over to Christ in love is revelatory and transforming as “in him there is not only God but the whole human race.”  We connect with him as well as understand ourselves as inter-connected components in the larger composition of the universe and achieve harmony with it.

Praying the Jesus prayer in love, asks us to resist the spell of impersonal ecstasy that the repetition of the Jesus prayer might bring about, and to be conscious of the person of Christ and the fact that…

The name of Jesus speaks to us of the extreme manifestation of the Father’s love for us.

The Jesus prayer entails the discipline of praying to a personal God while forgetting the world and being aware of the meaning of the words that we repeat.

In the Jesus prayer, he says, we are driven, not only by the pursuit of peace and inner silence but by the quest to experience the beauty of the divine revealed to us by Christ. “The gospel for us is Divine Revelation.”

Sophrony thus, returns to a theme that concerns him—the perception that the Jesus prayer is a type of Christian Yoga—and points out the differences.

In the personal and revelatory relationship with God that we experience, our individuality is not obliterated.

Though prayer in the Name of Jesus in its ultimate realization unites man with Christ fully, the human hypostasis is not obliterated, is not lost in Divine Being like a drop of water in the ocean.

This is the difference between prayer and ecstatic experience as an end unto itself.

This brings about a true transformation in our perception of the world around us. As we repeat the prayer, conscious of our love for Christ, Jesus becomes even more sacred to us, and we no longer perceive the world through the senses or intellect alone but as unified, creative energy. Sophrony describes how a sense of peace flows unto us at this point and “a luminous aura envelops heart and head.” We have finally united the two through our choice of love in which we repeat the Jesus prayer.

To acquire prayer is to acquire eternity.


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.


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

The incarnation of Christ was the greatest revelation of the essence of God, as well as of our own essence. If God became flesh, then we also had the potential of becoming sons/daughters of God.  Yet it is through prayer that revelation takes place within our own hearts, as we move beyond the conceptual level to build a personal relationship with the person of Christ.  

Prayer warms and rejoices us. It is the channel through which we receive revelation from on high.

To grasp the power of the Jesus prayer, Sophrony fist talks about the meaning of names in the Orthodox tradition.

God, he tells us, “reveals himself to the reasonable beings created by him under a plurality of names…” He gives examples: Almighty, Righteous Savior, Redeemer, Light, Wisdom, Beauty…

Invoking his name isn’t simply a means for clarifying whom we are addressing or catching his attention. It is one of the manifestations of the essence of a person.

The Name of Jesus as his Proper Name is ontologically connected with him. For us it is the bridge between ourselves and him. It is the channel through which divine strength comes to us.

He reminds us that all the sacraments of the church are accomplished by calling on his name.  If you disregard “the ontological character of the Divine Names,” Sophrony writes, “…prayer and the sacraments themselves, lose their eternal reality.”

When I was a child, I wished that I had a magic bottle to rub to make the genie appear. It amused me to think of the 3 most important things I would ask from this genie. In the case of the Jesus prayer, we should be careful not to confuse the invocation of Jesus’ name with magic. Repetition of his name does not automatically bestow supernatural powers. Instead, it enables a mystical and personal union with Christ. when it is uttered “as a true confession of faith…with love, reverence, and fear.

Sophrony elucidates the mystical experience of the Jesus prayer, through the parallel of two people in love. Imagine yourself whispering the name of a beloved repeatedly or gently addressing the person by name. Each invocation, filled with love and tenderness, increases the feeling of intimacy and love in your heart and evokes fresh dimensions of the beloved person. This is the case with the Jesus prayer. Each time we invoke his name with love, we feel more deeply connected with him, “his likeliness becomes ever more precious, and happiness makes us notice new traits all the time.” 

The most important thing to ask in prayer,” Sophrony counsels, is the “the union of our whole being with God.”

This is why the Jesus prayer is called prayer of the heart.  It enables us to transfer the knowledge of Christ from the head to the heart and to connect with him on a personal, individual level, thus experiencing eternity. 

He reminds us again that there is nothing automatic or magic about the Jesus prayer. If we don’t keep the commandments, for example, our prayer is in vain. Most importantly we have to address the person of Christ and love him.

It is not enough to pronounce the sound of the human word, which alters with the language used. It is essential to love him whom we invoke.

Achieving this mystical union does not simply make us serene. It transforms us.

Love toward Christ filling the whole man, works a radical change in man

The character of Christ is revealed to us through the experience of intimacy with him. And through this intimate union we encounter the “perfect light in which there is no darkness.”