THE JESUS PRAYER AND ITS APPLICATION
Extract from the guide book by the Elder Arsenios Katerelos
consisting of his consecutive lectures to an audience
The single-minded Prayer – «Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me» –is the simplest, but also the most powerful «weapon» of prayer for the faithful – whether Monk or layperson. This brief prayer, which was delivered to us by our ancient, holy Fathers of the 6th century, is a condensed form of the entire confession of the Christological Faith of our Church, the complete dogma on the Incarnation of Christ and God, «in Whose name every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and below the earth» (Phil.2:10) and with Whose name the powers of perdition are «flogged» (Ladder of Divine Ascent, 21:7).
The book titled «The Jesus Prayer and its application», by the respected and beloved Elder Arsenios Katerelos – a very familiar Spiritual Father, Preacher and author in our Homeland – constitutes an invaluable aid for a Christian’s introduction to the art of the precious “Prayer”. The Archimandrite Elder Arsenios has deposited the sacred experiences and the teachings of the Elders, Saint Paisios the Hagiorite and Isaac the Lebanese, near whom he had learnt the monk’s way of life, enriched with the teaching of the holy Fathers, but also with the discretion that has been based on his own hesychastic experience.
It is with joy that we are delivering this extremely useful guide in the English language, with our prayers that «the most sweet Jesus Christ» will grant the readers of this edition the supernatural delightfulness and benefit of the incessant Prayer.
The Abbott of the Sacred Monastery “Pantokrator” of Melissohori
† Archimandrite Kyrillos
A FEW WORDS ABOUT ELDER ARSENIOS KATERELOS
Father Arsenios Katerelos had become acquainted with the Blessed Paisios the Hagiorite in the summer of 1979, at the age of 17. From then on he continued to have a close and frequent spiritual contact with him, through to the repose of the Saint in 1994.
When Fr. Arsenios was still a layperson, the Blessed Paisios had recommended Fr. Isaac the Lebanese as his Elder, who resided in the Hut of the Resurrection at Kapsala of the Holy Mountain (and reposed in 1998).
The Elder Isaac was a genuine and very close pupil of the Blessed Paisios, who had also given him the Grand Angelic Schema. The Elder Isaac had abandoned Lebanon for the Blessed Paisios’ sake, and had relocated permanently to the Holy Mountain.
During his time at the Holy Mountain (at Kapsala, Panagouda, etc.), Fr. Arsenios was given the opportunity – first as a layperson, later as a novice monk and eventually as a Hieromonk – to participate in many Services and Night-vigils with the Blessed Elder Paisios, along with certain other fathers.
Generally speaking, Fr. Arsenios was able to actually hear the teachings of the Blessed Paisios, and was frequently given the opportunity (with the blessing and the exhortation of his Elder, Isaac), to pose various questions to him, on a variety of spiritual topics, both personal and general.
The evangelical word of our Lord Jesus Christ which says “you must always pray and not despair” (Luke 18:1) – in other words, the fact that we must pray at all times and not give up and be discouraged – is the lifelong experience of our Church’s Saints. Furthermore, Saint Gregory the Theologian, who summarizes the value of prayer but also man’s stance in his communication with God, would proclaim it dynamically, with one phrase: “Remembrance of God is better than breathing”.
It was in the spirit of this instruction by the Lord, as well as the stance and guidance of the Fathers, that we organized a series of evening homilies regarding prayer - the general theme being “The Jesus Prayer”. These seven homilies took place in the year 1999 in the holy temple of the Most Holy Lady in the town of Lamia during synaxes of the faithful; they are self-inclusive and consecutive. They were delivered mostly to laypeople, which is why we adjusted the topic appropriately, to suit the spiritual capabilities of the audience. However, these homilies pertain to the entire pleroma – that is, including the clergy and monastics whose main opus is that of prayer. The chronologically last homily which is presented herein as first in line and titled “Elder Paisios and his teaching regarding prayer” took place during a solemn Vespers service in the sacred Metropolitan Temple of the Sacred Metropolis of Fthiotis in the year 2014; we have incorporated it herein, because it is directly linked to our aforementioned topic.
As our beloved readers will discern, we are embarking on a purely practical level as regards the Jesus Prayer, by conveying experiences and opinions mainly of contemporary, blessed Elders. Furthermore, apart from the homilies, we have also included concise replies to the queries of pious attendees. We would like to stress that, albeit a theoretical topic, what is basically presented is the practical consideration of this noble and absolutely necessary labour of prayer – that is, especially of the Noetic Prayer of: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, the sinner”, which is usually recited with the use of a sacred prayer-rope. This “Prayer” – as the specific method of praying is called – is, among other things, a weapon against our three merciless enemies: the Devil, the world afar from God, and -first and foremost- our own, evil self.
However this spiritual weapon is not for exclusive use by monastics, who must dutifully attend to it and apply it as a method and a way of life (as stressed by the Elder Ephraim of the Katounakia region of the Holy Mountain, that “a monk without the mental prayer is not a monk”), but is also at the disposal of all the faithful, according to the teaching of our Church, which is summarized by the herald of Grace, Saint Gregory Palamas. And it is all the more applicable in our day and age – an age of fatigue, confusion from every aspect, and most of all, of spiritual ignorance.
The Jesus Prayer - both brief and extremely succinct- can be applied, not only “in every place of his dominion” (Psalm 102:22), but also at any hour of the day or night that the faithful himself desires. As for the results: they are extremely beneficial, as each person who desires to savour that “Christ is virtuous” (Psalm 33:9) will see for himself. As we all know, the work of praying cannot be taught; it is revealed to us and is recognized as being “from the Father of lights” wherever there is the proper disposition for struggle, but moreso wherever there is humility, the mother of prayer. However, being humans, it is the teaching and the methodology of the Holy Fathers on the matter which comprise the blessed path that allows the praying person to enter his room and there converse “face to face” with Jesus Himself.
Of course we are not reassured that we have exhausted the overall topic of prayer with these homilies – especially on the noetic Prayer of the heart. On the contrary, we believe that by means of these homilies and these simplified texts we are giving every in-Christ brother who studies them “as a thirsting doe” the opportunity to hasten even more to the “springs of the waters” (Psalm 41/42:2), both for a theoretical instruction through the study of Patristic writings on the topic, as well as for the primarily practical application of the most holy and important labour on earth; that is, the work of sacred prayer, and especially of the noetic Prayer.
We are certain of this, not only because the Prayer cultivates and opens horizons within the realm of our mind, rendering our spiritual heart a temple of God, but also because it provides us with the reason to become wiser, in accordance with the quote “give a wise man a reason, and he will become wiser” (Prov.9:9).
Progress, therefore, in wisdom and in communication with God is attained through the Prayer.
As for us here, it is understood that we invoke the wishes and the prayers of all the readers, so that the Gospel words: “but whosoever does and teaches….” (Matthew 5:19) may apply to our unworthy person also. Amen.
On the 6th of June 2014
Archimandrite Arsenios Katerelos
2. THE ELDER PAISIOS AND HIS TEACHING REGARDING THE PRAYER
Reverend Father and Priest, we shall attempt, in the cadre of your paternal exhortation and with your blessings, to provide certain indications regarding the multi-faceted topic that you asked of our unworthiness. The topic is “The Elder Paisios and his teaching regarding the Prayer”.
As such, we shall mention –entirely epigrammatically- certain teachings and events that pertain to the blessed Elder and the topic in question, drawing mainly from personal notes that we had taken at the time, either from Elder Paisios’ replies and teachings, or from my Elder, Fr. Isaac the Lebanese Hagiorite… although, most of those notes are indelibly etched inside us.
The Elder frequently used to say that prayer is the soul’s oxygen; it is the life of the soul; it is the mirroring of man’s spiritual progress and condition. Progress in spiritual matters is unthinkable without a personal improvement in prayer, which is where our spiritual condition can be seen. He would stress selflessness in spiritual living; a thing that naturally reflects in prayer also. Being a true emulator of Christ, his prayer would extend even as far as enemies. He would say that a Christian has to also embrace those who hate him; to also pray for his crucifiers.
In fact, the Elder himself had at one time prayed with deep pain for God to be merciful even to demons. He pitied them, because he had discerned the demons’ “progress” in bestiality, in the host of evil things that they had been striving to outrightly and insidiously inflict on the Elder. In other words, he was pained by the increment of their personal damnation. However, during his prayer he had seen a demon that had transformed into a macabre, bloodthirsty dog’s head sarcastically poking its very long tongue out and cynically mocking him…
The Elder used to say that we must constantly be in contact and preparedness for the Celestial Headquarters, like good Army and Heavenly Communications Officers of the Lord. We need to maintain a clear and strong contact with the Heavenly Station. Permit us to call it “Heavenly Internet” or “Divine-net”. To achieve this, it is imperative – according to the Elder always – that the powers of our soul execute their “chores”, their “handiwork” diligently (these were the Elder’s words); in other words, their potentials – the ones given to us by God.
When the Elder was once asked: “Should we approach God using logic or the heart?” he replied with a simple, representative and wise word: “To locate and listen to a radio station we need to suitably adjust two buttons: the radio’s frequency and the volume. The volume is logic and the frequency is the heart.” In other words, both are necessary – at least at the beginning.
In another context, when the Elder had embarked on a deeper discussion, he told us among other things that: “The noblest thing that the good Lord gave man is the mind – the ‘nous’ – the ‘holy trinity of our soul’. Because God only reveals Himself to the nous, where God’s uncreated energy unites with the essence of our nous and obviously with the Prayer; after the solidified ‘spiritual lubricant’ has softened, then all of the above are activated, with everything that this entails. The practical consequence of the aforementioned is the fine-tuning of our ‘receiver’ towards humility.”
With these words, the Elder implied that this was the only way to attain an ontological, existential and live replenishment between us and God. The Elder never isolated the Prayer from the rest of his spiritual life. In certain cases, he would even stress that: “What we need here is more attention and less prayer.” He placed a huge importance on one’s humble mien and on proper thoughts. He would say: “A thought can ‘block’ or ‘unblock’ the Prayer; when we don’t forgive or ask for forgiveness, our prayer not only doesn’t fly up to Heaven, it doesn’t even rise above our own head.” He said this metaphorically of course…
He obviously didn’t regard the Prayer as an end in itself, but rather, a necessary and perpetual means – together with other forms of ascesis – for the discarding of the old self and for our union with God. He used to say something along the lines of: “We should be contemplating God’s infinite benefactions, and our innumerable –known and unknown– sins, our omissions etc. These will all generate humility inside us; a salvific cardiac pain, and thus, the Prayer will not be a conventional and tiresome thing, but will instead become a personal, natural need for the invocation of divine mercy, but also for glorification.”
He regarded this as far superior to the application of various praying techniques such as special breathing, or praying seated on stools, etc. He of course had respect for all these techniques, but regarded them as mere aids that would help the nous to concentrate on the Prayer. In parallel, he would not omit to point out various physical and spiritual dangers (such as imagining that we are doing something lofty), but would also point out the organic dangers that can arise, such as heart problems on account of the pressure exerted by the flesh.
He would often say that, before counting knots on our prayer ropes, we should instead count our innumerable sins or read a patristic text in order to attain awareness, thus escaping from mundane things and focusing only on the words of the Prayer; that we should also ignore all of our musings without exception – the personal ones, the impassioned ones, the demonic ones, those “from the left”, those “from the right”, the beneficial ones, the blasphemous ones etc…
He would stress the following: “We mustn’t be surprised (especially during prayers) that the enemy doesn’t rest. We can actually exploit him”, he used to say, “by making him an unpaid laborer who will actually prod us to persist in the incessant Prayer.” To clarify this comment, he told us of a spiritual struggler, who, when lying down to sleep would be besieged by demons that gave him unclean thoughts. To which he reacted by exclaiming: “It’s a good thing that you reminded me!” and would then get up and perform many prostrations… The Elder had commented that when we have a conscience like that man’s, then the little urchin isn’t a fool: when it scopes out (he would say this quite often) that it will lose the battle, it knows it is not to its advantage to persist (and thus work for free), because instead of causing us harm it is actually doing us good.
The Elder placed great importance on one’s thoughts and one’s proper, healthy conscience, as well as on our proper spiritual placement opposite God, our fellow-man, etc.. “This is where we have a serious ‘oil leakage’, he would say, “which is why unfortunately there are no spiritual fruits.”
He would stress that we should ask only for divine mercy in our prayers, in order to repent in a proper manner that is pleasing to God, and thus be forgiven so that we might see our wretched state, much more clearly and in depth. “Only thus,” he would say, “will God give you His grace, my blessed child, and whatever else is necessary for your salvation and your fellow man’s.” “Unless we come to abhor ourselves God-wise (without a trace of despair), we shall continue to tumble into new pitfalls - both latent and evident ones. This spiritual state naturally varies, from the novice to the perfected, given that it is a progress that never ends.
This contemporary holy father used to say: “I’m only a tin can; just because sunlight is reflected off it sometimes, you think that I am the sun.” Other times he would say (and mean it, 100%): “I am just an unpolished tin can”.
He would also say of a certain monk who was admittedly quite ascetic and of good repute: “All his prayer-ropes are useless…” The Elder must have “seen” something negative in him… which is why he often stressed that we shouldn’t perform a dry, tasteless ascesis, aspiring to (obviously or secretly) attain divine experiences, illumination, gifts, prophecies etc.. There are those, he would say, who increase their prayer-ropes while observing an external, formal precision in various rubrics (without the rubrics being to blame of course – quite the contrary), in their futile belief that they are faithfully observing the Philokalian texts. In a nutshell, they are only censing, projecting and sanctifying themselves. Should they encounter the praise of the faithful, the innocent, the naïve, the pseudo-pious, the inexperienced, the fanciful, the psychopaths, the cunning, the opportunist, the self-serving etc., then things become extremely dangerous from every aspect, as well as uncontrollable and unfortunately, most of the time almost incurable. This is because the “little urchin” exploits them, invisibly, with cunning mastery, and gives them what he called “urchinist” experiences, impressions and self-deceptions, supposed prophecies, coincidences, delusions upon delusions, of which there is no number…
He would say that in spite of its difficulties, a God-pleasing prayer relaxes and creates an ineffable peace inside us. It’s shameful - he used to say - when Christ Himself offers us the potential to communicate with Him, for us not to be willing to – or, not to have the analogous awareness during such a communication. On the one hand we envy and regard as blessed those who lived during Christ’s time and were able to speak to Him, instead of stopping to think that we are in a far more advantageous situation - inasmuch as we are able to be in a continuous contact with Him, spiritually… In Christ’s time, people weren’t able to secure His personal attention very easily (vying as to who could be first in line to preoccupy Him) etc..
The Elder not only stressed the quality of prayer, but also the quantity. When the latter is observed in the proper manner, the former is improved as well. He himself would naturally pray for hours on end, for endless nights and days. But what am I saying? The Elder obviously possessed the cardiac, effortless, self-acting noetic Prayer, during his sleep but also while awake, whether talking or whatever else he was preoccupied with. This of course was the fitting, God-sent fruit and gift that gave the Elder his many, personal spiritual parameters, struggles and “promotive” temptations.
He was so dedicated to praying that – for example – when living as an ascetic at Sinai, away from the Monastery, all alone, young at the time and relatively unknown and obscure, he would go to the Monastery every now and then – that is, every fifteen days – for the sole purpose of receiving Holy Communion, and no other reason. One time –and only that one time- he underwent inconceivable tortures by the cunning one. He used to say “I felt as though I was nailed to the Cross”. Of course one can comprehend this statement, not when simply hearing it, but only when it is actually experienced, and to the degree it was experienced.
Among other things, we humbly believe is it permissible for us to mention that the devil was the one prompting him to go to the Monastery – imagine, the devil prompting one to go to the monastery (!!) and attend services etc with the other fathers – in other words, in order to abandon his solitude. It was a move that the devil had preferred for a reason. At the time, Fr. Paisios had also braved various human pressures, even by spiritual persons… but let’s not say anything more on this. (After all, it wasn’t the sole instance at the time and only on that topic; there had been other instances and for other reasons, both earlier and later…) Anyway, the Elder had bravely resisted that will of the devil. But when he received Holy Communion at the Monastery after fifteen days, he savoured the Holy Communion as sweet-tasting meat – and not only that; he was filled with a divine sweetness: that of the Uncreated Light. Thus, with renewed spiritual powers and heavenly experiences, he would provoke (not the people of course - the Elder would never provoke people – only the devil) for the following fifteen days during his solitary ascesis, and would himself prod the devil, saying: “If you want, come on, let’s fight again!” Naturally, he was boasting in the Lord. And he was of course implying –among other things – that he wouldn’t allow anything to disturb his solitude, whatever that entailed. We need to make a necessary clarification here: What he did was possible, only thanks to the Elder’s spiritual measures. After all, he had also frequently stressed the value of common prayer. He used to say: “The temple is God’s house. Praying alone is one’s preparation for the common prayer.” To be sure, common prayer does have distractions etc., therefore at times it may be somewhat inferior; it is, however, more powerful – both because of the unity (very important, but we won’t analyze it here), as well as of the number of those praying.
Dear brethren, quite frequently, when one has been observing his penance properly in his cell, but without God giving him any tangible “taste” of Grace, he may sometimes in church –entirely effortlessly and easily – be actually unable to stop the excessively sensuous waves of Grace... the Uncreated “divine rain”… The instances are of course innumerable and the topic requires special examination.
It is needless to mention that the Elder placed the utmost significance in one’s participation in sacramental ecclesiastic life - its highlight of course being the proper reception of Holy Communion.
One time, when receiving Holy Communion in one of the cells on the Holy Mountain where the Elder felt cold on account of the lack of heating, his age, and the various ailments that he suffered from, he quite suddenly and entirely supernaturally felt warmed after Holy Communion, both spiritually and bodily – so much so, that on his return to his Cell, even the path he walked on had warmed up! Such a “squandering” of thermo-divine energy…
The Elder strongly believed in the power and the benefit of prayer, which is why he would often humbly and systematically avoid contact with people, even for long periods of time. When at Sinai, he would even put up “danger” signs painted with skulls; his intention was to make visitors think that the area was a minefield and therefore too dangerous to approach.
He was also very glib and witty, with an instinctive, beneficial sense of humour and a very dynamic and vivid character.
For example, a visitor to the Holy Mountain went to the Elder’s cottage and rang the bell for him to open. After a long wait, the Elder opened the door and said: “Hey there, what do you want, young man?” “I wanted to see you, Elder”, he replied. “Well, didn’t you just see me? Would you also like me to do an about-face so you can see me better?” The visitor was taken aback, then, with a certain dose of anxiety, he said: “I would like you to pray for me, Elder”. And the Elder replied jokingly: “Go away so I can pray. If you don’t leave, how am I going to pray?”
To another visitor who worried that war was going to break out, the Elder said: “Don’t be afraid, they haven’t recalled any ambassadors yet” (meaning the ambassadors of the countries involved). Then, jokingly, he continued: “If a recall of mediators does occur, only then should we say ‘With the mediations of the Theotokos, o Saviour, save us’.” The Elder was obviously utilizing a play on words wisely and beneficially, while also implying at the time that no war was imminent.
Needless to say that –especially at the Elder’s cottage at Panagouda- the crowds who went there for his counsel had greatly increased. Very often the Elder – with his truly God-given insight, which he never “gave away” unnecessarily – knew when to open or not, and when to speak extensively or succinctly, and he would naturally hide this gift very artfully. There have been very few instances whern he revealed it very faintly- and with a ready alibi. It would usually be because of his love, or if he was mainly “pressured” by God to reveal it.
One time, a pious lady who encountered him in “the world” said to him: “Elder, I constantly invoke you in your Cell on the Holy Mountain. Could you hear me?” To which he replied very plainly and with humour: “Why? Did you think I was deaf?”
Despite his strictly observed spiritual measures he was afraid (because of the multitudes of pilgrims) of losing the submersion of his nous in extended prayer, where time-space stands still and is lost.
As he used to say, “If the nous is dulcified inside the heart, it has no desire of departing from there.” In other words, to rephrase it more theologically, he meant the return of the nous’ energy to the nous’ essence. In this blissful state the nous stands still because of the tangible and excessive, hedonic divine Grace. At times, all contact with the environment is lost, and prayer essentially ceases. Divine Grace “transports” you wherever it wants, without asking you. Albeit a “divine constraint”, it is, nevertheless, the product of an ideal and proper, godly use of our self-government.
However, there were two celestial events that we know of, which exhorted the Elder to thereafter to receive pilgrims. The one time (the second one that we are aware of), his own blessed Elder, Father Tychon the Russian appeared to him from heaven, ringing his doorbell like a terrestrial visitor. He said in a heavenly voice: “I’m glad that you’re receiving people”. The first time that Father Tychon had appeared to him – always from heaven – was on the 10/9/1971. Of course there was another time too, but beware: that time it was the devil who took on the form of Father Tychon in order to mislead him, but the Elder Paisios had his wits about him…
The second event was when the Elder was instructed by the Holy Mother Herself to receive visitors…
As a basic prayer rule he proposed the prayer rope for monks in their cell, but not only for cell-dwellers and not only for monks. To get a small “taste”, we will mention certain related numbers per “usage”, as follows:
Initially, four “crossed” 300-knot prayer ropes, that is, with small prostrations – three to Christ, saying “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me” and the fourth to the Holy Mother, saying “Most holy Theotokos, save me”.
Additionally, four “free” prayer ropes, that is, with or without crossing, as above, for ourselves. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” and “Most holy Theotokos, save me”.
Also, four more “free” (always 300-knot) prayer ropes for the living, saying with the first three “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us” and one “Most holy Theotokos, save us”.
Then another four (300-knot) prayer ropes for the deceased, of which the first three with “Lord Jesus Christ, repose Thy servants” and the fourth to the Holy Mother, with “Most holy Theotokos, repose Thy servants”. Finally, a 300-knot prayer rope to the Saints of each day. “Saints of God, mediate for us”. In other words, 17 prayer ropes (of 300 knots) on a daily-nightly basis and many, many others, and other methods etc, which are not possible to mention at this time.
He was especially concerned about not saying the Prayer quickly, so that we might fully absorb it, and in general (a detail that concerns us) the analogy of time dedicated to Christ and the Theotokos, which, according to the Elder should always be three to one (3:1), without this being absolute or compulsory. He of course recommended many “deep” prostrations (head touching the floor). He also told us of a certain monk who sometimes actually saw the Saints of the day, both the familiar and the unfamiliar ones.
The chapter “Elder Paisios – the Prayer” is obviously an inexhaustible one. The Elder left behind a great many things; and yet, he took with him incomparably more, inasmuch as we would have been unable to interpret them – assuming he would have been more revealing…
Once, when someone asked him about the Uncreated Light, the Elder (albeit “swimming” in it very many times himself) replied: “How should I know what that is? The stove that I have in my cell is certainly a created item!” He was referring to the Rumanian/Russian stoves that were built with firebricks.
Finally, the Elder used to say: “When you feel grief, you’re lacking something”. That is why we beseech you, Reverend, who have so often in practice and over Time expressed your respect for the hallowed figure of Elder Paisios - as evident in the 2011 Calendar of the Sacred Metropolis of Fthiotis and in so many more ways – we beseech you to pray that this truly hallowed Elder bestows on each of us from the heavens the “spiritual vitamins” that we lack. That way, we shall all enter more and more deeply into a more Orthodox, personal spiritual orbit, which will stave off the sorrow of our sin and give us the peace of God, which are far above every nous.