The Jesus Prayer (1987)

For us, the weak, the only way is to take refuge in the name of Jesus (38).

The Jesus Prayer by “A Monk of the Eastern Church” (who is identified by Kallistos Ware as Lev Gillet) is an excellent read, providing both a history of the Jesus Prayer as well as practical insights on reciting the prayer.

To begin with, Gillet surveys Scripture and the patristic tradition’s use of both the divine name (YHWH) and the Holy Name of Jesus. He makes one point that is important and that can be applied to the name of Jesus as well as to the name of God; he says,

On the one hand the name of Yahweh is a revelation of his person, an expression of the divine essence. On the other hand, this revelation, this new phase in the knowledge of the divinity, indicates man’s entry into a new, personal, practical relationship with God. To learn who and what he is, is to learn also how one must act (24, emphasis added).

Being on a first-name basis, so to speak, with Jesus causes us to conform ourselves to the character of Jesus. To invoke the name, then, reminds us to be so conformed while also re-forming us.

In the next two chapters, Gillet differentiates between an earlier “Sinaite” tradition and a later “Athonite” tradition; that is, between a tradition that emerged in the Sinai desert at St. Catherines and one that emerged on Mt. Athos. Kallistos Ware in his Foreword says that this distinction is “artificial and misleading” because “sources of the Jesus Prayer lie in the spirituality of the Desert Fathers of Egypt . . . while the earliest explicit witnesses are scattered over a wide area . . . ” (19). Nevertheless, this distinction is helpful to the extent that it shows a development in the rigidity with which the Jesus Prayer was prayed. Gillet says that freedom and “tenderness” (35). According to Gillet, though Ware casts doubt on this assertion, the earliest usage was simply the name of “Jesus” or of “Lord Jesus.” Only later, in what Gillet identifies as the Athonite period, did the Jesus Prayer become more or less standardized—”Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”

During the so-called Athonite period, one of the theologians writing about the Prayer was Theoleptus, Archbishop of Philadelphia (d. 1310–1320). Theoleptus gives us this beautiful passage, quoted by Gillet,

Pure prayer reunites in itself the nous, the logos and the pneuma. Through the logos it invokes God’s name. Through the nous it calmly fixes its gaze on the God whom it invokes. Through the pneuma it manifests compunction, humility and love. In this way it calls upon the eternal Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the one and only God (58).

In the eighteenth century, “the age of the Philokalia” began; the Philokalia is a collection of spiritual writings from very early Christianity to the late-medieval period. In this section Gillet discusses the prayer in its parts, observing, interestingly, that the word “mercy” (eleison) has sometimes been replaced with “propitiation” (hilaskomai). So the prayer could just as easily be recited as “. . . be propitious to me,” introducing “the notion of the mystery of redemption and of . . . Atonement” (71).

Chapter 5 discusses The Way of a Pilgrim and its influence, making the Jesus Prayer accessible and popular among the laity of many, many Christian traditions. Gillet quotes one of his contemporaries, saying, “Like every spiritual way, this one leads to fidelity, perseverance, courage. But this continual memory of Jesus Christ deepens in us and throws a new light on one’s whole life. . . . [W]e can apply this name to people, books, flowers, to all things we meet, see or think. The name of Jesus may become a mystical key to the world, an instrument of the hidden offering of everything and everyone, setting the divine seal on the world.” Additionally, Gillet includes a list of several things the recitation of the name of Jesus is: “(a) A call to meditation and intercession; (b) a realization of the Presence; (c) a sacrificial offering; (d) a sharing in the joy and strength of the Resurrection; (e) a coming of the Holy Spirit; (f) an instrument of transfiguration of men and things” (89–90).

Interestingly, Gillet also notes that saying the Jesus Prayer “could serve the cause of Christian unity, for the invocation of the name of Jesus was at the very beginning common to all, and it still remains acceptable and accessible to all” (91).

The final chapter is “On the Practical Use of the Jesus Prayer,” and is one of those this-chapter-is-worth-the-whole-price-of-the-book-type of chapters. Intersetingly, Ware, in his “Further Reading” section, says that the “Monk’s” book On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus expands on this chapter, so perhaps I will get to read it as well someday. At any rate, Gillet here discusses the form of the Prayer, saying, “It rests . . . with each individual to determine his or her own form of the invocation” (93). Gillet is not interested in rigid forms but only in making sure the name of Jesus is called upon because “the ‘Jesus Prayer’ . . . helps to simplify and unify our spiritual life” (96).

According to Gillet, the first step is adoration. Next, the Prayer “brings union” by causing us to contemplate the Incarnation. Third, the Prayer transfigures the world (96–100); in addition to bringing the recollection of the collective groaning for redemption in nature (cf. Rom 8) and the fact that the Father cares about the sparrows and all the natural world (cf. Matt 6), the Prayer “especially in relation to our fellow humans” creates transfiguration.

The name of Jesus is a concrete and powerful means of transfiguring [humans] into their most profound and divine reality. . . . Let us pronounce silently over them [Jesus’] name, which is their very own; let us call them by this name in a spirit of adoration and service. . . . If we see Jesus in everyone, if we say ‘Jesus’ over everyone, we will go through the world with a new vision and a new gift in our own heart. In this way, as far as lies in our power, we can transform the world and make our own words that Jacob spoke to his brother: ‘I have seen thy face, and it is as though I had seen the face of God’ (Gn 33:10)” (99–100).

Reciting the name of Jesus also allows us to ponder the relation of Jesus to the Father and of Jesus to the Holy Spirit. In the end,

The contemplation and invocation of the name of Jesus then becomes all-embracing. Every implication of the name becomes simultaneously, although obscurely, present to our mind. We say ‘Jesus,’ and we rest in a plentitude and totality that can no longer be taken from us. The name of Jesus then becomes a bearer of the whole Christ. It brings us into his total presence (106).

The depth of the Jesus Prayer, as Lev Gillet shows, is deeper than we can ever find. May we nevertheless dive ever deeper into the love of Jesus through meditation on his name.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

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One response to “The Jesus Prayer (1987)

  1. Pingback: Directions to Hesychasts, in a Hundred Chapters (late 14th cent.) | Three New, One Old·

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