This is my final post of Kallistos Ware’s talk given on the Jesus Prayer. In my first post I shared his introductory meditation on Exodus 3. I my second post I shared his introduction to the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me) a particular praying tradition coming out of the Eastern Orthodox church.
In this post I want to post his material having to do with the two uses of the Jesus Prayer, what he calls “free” and “fixed.” I think both uses will lend itself well to those of us who are trying to practice the presence of God in our everyday (hopefully all my readers!).
First then, the free use: We can say the Jesus Prayer before we fall asleep, when we first wake up, while we are dressing, while we are tidying and cleaning our room, while we are washing up, while we are walking from place to place. . . . Now in this free use of the Jesus Prayer, its value is that it is on the one side powerful, and on the other side simple and direct. It is flexible and resilient. No special preparation is required in order to say the Jesus Prayer. We can simply begin. And in this way, it is a prayer for all seasons, a prayer that can be used in conditions of tension, distraction, when other more complex ways of praying are impossible. Hence, I see the Jesus Prayer as especially appropriate to our present age of anxiety. In fact, the Jesus Prayer is being used today, in all probability, by more people than ever before, both by Orthodox and by non-Orthodox. The rationale of this free use of the Jesus Prayer is that it unites our prayer time and our work time. It turns our work into prayer. It makes the secular sacred. It brings Christ into everything we do. It enables us to find Christ everywhere.
There is a poem by George Herbert, often used as a hymn, The Elixir:
Teach me, my God and King in all things thee to see
And what I do at anything, to do it as for thee.
Now let us turn to the fixed use of the Jesus Prayer, where we are trying to say the prayer and not doing anything else. . . . The inner aim of what I call the fixed use is, yes, to create silence, and here I think of the Greek word hesychia, a key word in The Philokalia: silence in the sense of stillness of the heart.
Baron Friedrich von Hugel, used to say, “Man is what he does with his silence.”
. . . The Jesus Prayer, then, is a way of entry into true silence, into inner stillness or hesychia. But what do we mean by silence? Is it merely outer, an absence of sound, a pause between words? Is it basically negative, or is it rather, inward and positive, not an absence, but a presence? Not a void, not emptiness, but fullness? Does not silence mean, in the true spiritual sense, awareness of the Other? In the words of Georges Bernanos, “Silence is a presence. At the heart of it is God.”
In the Psalms, Psalms 45, in the Hebrew numbering 46, we read, “Be still and know that I am God.” The psalm verse does not simply say, “Be still,” but it then goes on to speak of the presence of God. Know that God is. Stillness, silence is God awareness. True silence then, in prayer, understood in this positive sense, signifies not isolation but relationship. It signifies receptivity, openness, encounter. A losing and finding of oneself in the Other, through love.
Silence then, in prayer, means “being with,” in an alert, attentive manner. Silence is creative listening. . . . It’s a praying of listening, a prayer of simple gazing, a contemplative prayer.
Now the trouble is, if we try to be silent in prayer, if we just stand or sit saying nothing, we become victims of distracting thoughts. We cannot turn off the inner television set by a simple act of will. The thoughts keep coming—not necessarily bad thoughts, but irrelevant thoughts that have nothing to do with our prayer. . . . Now what are we to do about this endless flow of thoughts, pictures through our minds when we try to be silent, just to stand before God? Well, we can’t stop the flow of thoughts just by saying to ourselves, “Stop thinking.” We might as well say to ourself, “Stop breathing.” It can’t be done by a simple effort of will. But what we can do is give to our ever-active mind a very simple task: the repeated invocation of the Holy Name: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
So the Jesus Prayer is a prayer in words, but because the words are simple, frequently repeated, it is a prayer that leads through words into silence. We speak, but at the same time we listen.
Now, some of you may feel certain objections to this way of praying. The frequent repetition of a short formula of invocation. Did not our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount warn us against vain repetitions? To that I answer the Jesus Prayer is indeed a repetition, but if the Jesus Prayer is said with deep faith, with ardent love for the Savior, then it is not a vain repetition but a repetition full of meaning.
- Dag Hammarskjöld, said in Markings, “Understand through the stillness. Act out of the stillness. Conquer in the stillness.”
St. Ignatius of Antioch uses the memorable phrase “Jesus Christ, the Word that came out of stillness.” Because Christ’s words came out of stillness, they were words of fire and healing. Because Christ’s actions came out of stillness, they were acts of power and transfiguration. All too often, our words and actions are superficial and ineffective because they do not come out of stillness. But if only they had their source in prayer, in living, inner prayer, such as the Jesus Prayer, they would bear fruit in ways far beyond anything we imagine possible.
“Act out of the stillness.” The Jesus Prayer is a contemplative prayer but it’s a prayer that enables us to combine contemplation and action, prayer that makes our contemplation active and our action contemplative.
I’m glad Ware dealt with (or least attempted to deal with) the objection of “vain repetition,” because I’m sure that is what comes to many of our minds when we consider the discipline of praying this prayer. I have found such prayers useful to pray not for long stretches of time but to focus my gaze on Jesus and his mercy. It’s often helpful to take simple phrases like this and link them to our breathing as we calm ourselves before God.
I would love to hear how you, the reader, are processing what Ware is teaching and how it might help you walk with the Lord.