Word and Silence in the Philokalia
February 25, 2011 Length: 86:47A lecture delivered at North Park University in Chicago in February 2011. This excellent talk is primarily about the Jesus Prayer.
Bradley Nassif: Now for our keynote speaker, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. Metr. Kallistos comes to us this evening to celebrate the launch of the first collection of scholarly essays that has ever been written [on The Philokalia]. This book will be published by Oxford University Press later this year and it’s titled The Philokalia: Exploring a Classic Text in Orthodox Spirituality with the foreword by Kallistos Ware. It has been edited by Dr. Brock Bingaman and myself. You were given the table of contents when you came into the auditorium this evening, so if you have that, and you’d like to know what it looks like, you’re welcome to see the table of contents and all the different authors that we have that have contributed to this work.
As you will see, it has been written by a team of ecumenical scholars coming from Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions. That’s because The Philokalia is a book for all Christians, not just Orthodox ones. The book is tentatively scheduled for publication later this fall, hopefully in time for the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion. As so happens with collected essays, one contributor or another misses the deadline of the submission and that’s what delayed the book from being offered tonight to the Metropolitan. So, we have to celebrate it eschatalogically, if you please. It’s already fulfilled but not yet consummated.
Metr. Kallistos, you were not aware of this when you came here this evening but we are dedicating this book to you tonight. On behalf of all the Orthodox clergy who are here, the writers and editors of these essays, we honor you with this collection for all that you have done to promote the The Philokalia over the years. He has been one of the chief translators, along with G. E. Palmer and Philip Sherrard. So we hope that it is a fitting tribute to the man who is, in all likelihood, the most significant Eastern Orthodox theologian living in the 21st century. So the timing of this is fitting. In fact, the lead article that Metr. Kallistos has written for this book describes The Philokalia as “a time bomb, whose time has come. Not in the 18th century but in the modern world, 200 years later.” So it’s actually more influential now than when it first came out.
The topic of his lecture this evening is “Word and Silence in The Philokalia.” For those of you unfamiliar with him, you can read the back of this, and he has all the academic credentials that you can imagine. He’s a professor emeritus of Eastern Christian Studies at Oxford University; he had been there for many, many years. He is the author of a classic text called The Orthodox Church. This is a textbook which we are using in my class this semester on the Eastern theological tradition. And, as I say, the translator of The Philokalia and so much more.
But to simply talk about his academic credentials really doesn’t do the justice to this man. If I left you this evening with that kind of normal introduction, it doesn’t begin to get him. I am reminded of the story told in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers about St. Anthony the Great, the great patriarch of the desert in 4th-century Egypt, which reminds me of Metr. Kallistos. And the story of Anthony goes like this:
Three fathers used to go and visit Blessed Anthony every year and two of them used to discuss their thoughts and the salvation of their souls with him. But the third always remained silent and did not ask him anything. After a long time, Abba Anthony said to him, “You often come here to see me, but you never ask me anything.” And the other replied, “It is enough for me to see you, Abba.”
And that’s the way it is with Metr. Kallistos. His very presence is a transforming presence. He doesn’t have to say anything; just to be in his presence is to be changed. Welcome with me, please, Metr. Kallistos.
Metr. Kallistos: Professor Bradley Nassif has just spoken to us about the new book on The Philokalia, to be published this autumn. This is an exciting and important event, both for Orthodox and for Christians of other traditions. And I count it a privilege to be numbered among the contributors to this volume.
As Prof. Nassif has just told you, The Philokalia is a collection of spiritual and mystical texts by some 36 authors, dating from the fourth to the 15th century, all except one from the Christian East. And what do these 36 authors speak about? Many themes, but chiefly about inner prayer, about the quest for God in the secret kingdom of the heart, that kingdom of which Christ spoke when he said, “The Kingdom of God is within you.”
Now tonight I certainly will not attempt to summarize in detail the contents of The Philokalia, but using The Philokalia as my guide, let me speak to you about a particular form of inner prayer—the Jesus Prayer, or Invocation of the Holy Name. While The Philokalia is much more than a guide to the recitation of the Jesus Prayer, yet the Invocation of the Name forms a vital connecting thread, a leitmotif that draws the whole work into living unity.
Now, by way of introduction, let me set before you, as in an icon, a decisive moment in the Old Testament: Moses at the Burning Bush, as described in Exodus 3. As Moses stands before the bush in the desert, that burns but is not consumed, God says to him two things. And he says these same two things to you and me and to everyone who seeks to enter into the mystery of living prayer.
First of all, God says to Moses, “Take off your shoes.” Now, on the interpretation of the Greek Fathers, for example, St. Gregory of Nyssa, shoes, made from the skins of dead animals, signify the deadness of repetition, boredom, inattentiveness. “Take off your shoes” then, means, symbolically: “Free yourself from what is lifeless, from enslavement to the trivial, the mechanical, the repetitive. Shake off the deadness of boredom. Wake up. Come to yourself. Open your spiritual eyes. Cleanse the doors of your perception. Look and see! Listen!”
Now the term used in Orthodox ascetical and mystical theology for this experience of waking up in Greek is nepsis—N-E-P-S-I-S—which means sobriety, watchfulness, alertness. And this experience of nepsis in indicated in the original Greek title of The Philokalia. It is called “Philokalia ton Hieron ton Neptikon” which means “Philokalia of the Holy Neptic Fathers” or “The Fathers Who Taught Wakefulness.”
Wake up! That’s always been my problem. Ever since childhood, all too easily I’d drop off to sleep. Once I even fell asleep at one of my own lectures. I was unwise enough to give the lecture sitting down. As it continued, I grew more and more drowsy and as I drifted off into sleep I could hear a voice droning on and suddenly I realized it was my own voice. And I had no idea what I was saying.
Now, our problem is not primarily that we are malicious—although almost all of us are, some of the time. Our problem much more is that we are bored and so we grow fragmented and dispersed. We use only a very small part of our spiritual resources. We run our life at five percent of our full potential. We keep going in very low gear. We are not truly present where we are, gathered in the here and now, practicing what has been called “the sacrament of the present moment.”
So, returning to Moses, what happens next, after we have symbolically removed our shoes? God then says to Moses, “The place on which you are standing is holy ground.” What do we experience when we take off our shoes and begin to walk barefoot? We suddenly become sensitive, in a good way. Vulnerable, in a positive manner. The earth under our feet comes alive. We feel grains of dust between our soles. We feel the texture of the grass. So it is spiritually. Removing our shoes, freeing ourselves from inner deadness, we begin to realize that God is very close. The world around us is holy. We renew our sense of awe and wonder before each thing. Each thing, each person, becomes a sacrament of the Divine Presence, a means of communion with God.
So, let us apply the story in Exodus 3 to our prayer. To pray in spirit and in truth is to stand like Moses before the Burning Bush. To take off our shoes, to strip ourselves of deadness, to awaken, to experience all things as fresh and new, to recognize that we are standing on holy ground, to know that God is immediately present before us and within us.
Now at this point, some of you may well be prompted to ask, “How? How can I acquire this living prayer, this living sense of immediate holiness? Prayer, not just in words, but inner prayer, prayer of the deep self, prayer of the heart?”
I recall a story told of that great Victorian, Thomas Carlyle. Returning from church one Sunday morning, as he sat down to lunch, he said to his mother, in a bad temper, “I cannot think why they preach such long sermons. If I were a minister, I would go up into the pulpit and say no more than this: Good people, you know what you ought to do. Now go and do it!”
“Aye Thomas,” said his mother. “And would you tell them how?”
So, how are we to enter into living prayer? Now the answer offered by many Orthodox—offered, most specifically by The Philokalia—is: use the Jesus Prayer, the short invocation “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” In Greek, “Kyrie, Iisou Christe, Yie Theou, eleison me.” In Slavonic, “Gospodi Iisuse Khriste, Syne Bozhiy, pomiluy menya.” There are many variants. You could end, saying, “Have mercy on me, the sinner.” Or you might say, “Have mercy on us,” bringing in others, as well.
You may remember the story I told by Theodore Dostoevsky in his masterwork, The Brothers Karamazov, a story about an old woman and an onion. It’s one of my all-purpose anecdotes. It was not a story made up by Dostoevsky himself. He heard it recounted in a village and he inserted it into a novel:
Once there was an old woman and she died. And somewhat to her surprise, she woke to find herself in a lake of fire. Looking out she saw her guardian angel walking on the shore. And she called out, “There has been some mistake. I am a very respectable old lady and I should not be here in this lake of fire.”
“Oh,” said the guardian angel, “do you ever remember a time when you helped someone else?”
And the old woman thought for some time and she said, “Yes. Once I was gardening and a beggar came by and I gave her an onion.”
“Excellent,” said the angel, “I happen to have that very onion with me now.” And he reached into his robes and he produced it. And he said to her, “Let us see what the onion will do. You take the other end and I will pull.” Perhaps it was not an onion but a shallot.
Gradually then, the angel, with the help of the onion, began to pull the old woman out of the lake of fire. But she was not the only person there. When the others saw what was happening they crowded round her and hung on in the hope of being pulled out as well. This did not please the old woman at all. She began to kick and to cry out, “Let go! Let go! It’s not you who’s being pulled out it’s me! It’s not your onion, it’s mine!”
And when she said, “It’s mine!” the onion split in two and she fell back into the lake of fire and there, so I’m told, she still is.
Now that is Dostoevsky’s story, and I would add to it. What a pity that the old woman didn’t say, “It’s our onion.” But in saying “It’s my onion,” she was denying her essential humanity, because to be truly human is to be related to others, to love them and to cooperate with them. So, if you want to be faithful to the story of the old woman and the onion, you can say the Jesus Prayer: “Have mercy on us.”
Now, the Invocation of the Holy Name—the Jesus Prayer—is a way in, a prayer that can enable us to take off our shoes, to wake up, to realize that we are standing on holy ground, to be gathered into God’s presence here and now at this very moment. Notice I say that it is a way in. It is not the only way. Prayer is personal, a person-to-person conversation, a dialogue, between one specific subject—me—and another specific subject—God, the Holy Trinity.
Now persons are inexhaustibly varied. Each of us is unique, unrepeatable. In each of us is to be found a distinctive treasure, not to be found in anyone else. That is why, in Revelation 2:17, it is said that in the age to come, to each of the redeemed there will be given a white stone. And on the white stone will be written a new name that nobody knows except the one who receives it. There is in every human person hidden a unique mystery. Actually, when I was a child, I had a dream in which I was told what my name on the white stone was. But I’m not going to tell you. (laughter)
In The Tales of the Hasidim by Martin Buber, there is a saying by one Rabbi Zusia. He said, “In the age to come, at the Last Judgment, I shall not [be asked, ‘Why were you not] Moses? Why were you not Elijah?’ I shall be asked, ‘Why were you not Zusia?’ ” That’s what we shall all be asked at the Last Judgment. Why did we not become the unique person that God intended us to be?
Now since persons are inexhaustibly varied, and since prayer is personal, it follows that ways of prayer are also varied. There is no single form of inner prayer that is without exception appropriate for everyone, everywhere, always. Each, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, under the guidance of his or her spiritual father or mother, his or her abba or amma—and spiritual guidance is of extreme importance in Orthodoxy, as The Philokalia bears witness—each has to find her or his own way of praying. Allow always for freedom in prayer. As St. Barsanuphios of Gaza, writing in the sixth century, says, “I do not want you to be under the law but under grace.”
So we should not say of the Jesus Prayer it is the only way, or it is the best way. We should say merely, “It has helped many. It has helped me. It may help you.”
The center and heart of the Jesus Prayer is the holy name “Jesus” itself. The name given to the Son of God at his human birth in Bethlehem by Mary his virgin mother, by his foster father Joseph. So it is a name that sums up the double reality of Christ, that he is fully and truly God and fully and truly man. And the name “Jesus” means more particularly “Savior.” As the angel says to Joseph, Matthew 1:21, “You are to name him ‘Jesus’ for he will save his people from their sins.”
So meaning, as it does, “salvation,” the name “Jesus” speaks to us not only of our Lord’s incarnation but also of his death and resurrection. In the Old Testament, the divine name is felt as a source of grace and power. And so also it is with the name “Jesus” in the New Testament. Through the holy name, devils are cast out. Miracles are brought to pass. In the words of a second-century text, The Shepherd of Hermas, the name of the Son of God is great and boundless and it upholds the whole world.
So for us Orthodox, the Jesus Prayer, containing as it does this great and boundless holy name, is felt to transmit to us the grace and power of Jesus the Savior himself. It has a sacramental value. It is an outward and visible sign of an inner and spiritual grace.
There are two ways in which the Jesus Prayer can be used. First, what we may call the free use during all the passing moments of the day that might otherwise be wasted, once or several times as we are busy with our regular daily tasks we can recite the Jesus Prayer. And then there is what we may call the fixed use, when we say the Jesus Prayer as part of our regular prayer time in conditions of external quiet, when we are seeking solely to pray and are not engaged in any other activity. And it is possible to use the Jesus Prayer in the first way, in the free way, without necessarily using it as part of our regular prayer time in the fixed way. Now the aim of the free use of the Jesus Prayer can be summed up in the words “Find Christ everywhere.” And the aim of the fixed use could be summed up in the phrase “Create silence.”
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. I don’t drive a car so I say the Jesus Prayer when I’m waiting for the bus, and the Oxford bus system leaves many opportunities for prayer. But if you drive a car, well, you can say the Jesus Prayer when you are sitting in a traffic jam. When the lights go red in front of you, you can say, “Good! An opportunity for prayer.”
I find the Jesus Prayer is very useful at committee meetings. Yes, it’s helpful, too, when you’re counseling people. Often you feel, somehow, talking with the other, you haven’t broken through to the level of meaning. Neither of you has been able to say what you really want to say. And then I find it helpful to say the Jesus Prayer once or three times secretly in my heart and it will often transfigure the conversation, raise it to a new and creative level of meaning. The Jesus Prayer is helpful at times of temptation, when you feel anger arising within you. It’s useful at times of extreme physical and mental pain.
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.
The Jesus Prayer helps us to achieve that. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann has said in his admirable work For the Life of the World, a book that I give to enquirers who come to me to know about the Orthodox faith, “The Christian is the one who, wherever he or she looks sees everywhere Christ and rejoices in him.” That can be the effect of saying the Jesus Prayer in a free way—see Christ everywhere.
There is a saying attributed to Christ, though not actually to be found in the Gospels but circulating among the early Christians, an agraphon or unwritten saying: “Lift the stone and you will find me; cut the wood in two and there am I.”
So that is the purpose of the free use of the Jesus Prayer: find Christ everywhere. And the effect is that if we say the Jesus Prayer frequently, is that even while we are fully engaged in some demanding task, even when we are not actually saying the Jesus Prayer, yet on a profound level of our deep self, prayer still goes on. There is within us, deep down, a continuing awareness of God. Gregory of Nyssa uses the phrase “a sense of presence”—aisthesis tes parousias—and that is the effect of saying the Jesus Prayer frequently. This sense of presence will be there even though our conscience mind is fully absorbed in some difficult task. In this way we begin to fulfill St. Paul’s injunction in I Thessalonians 5:17: pray without ceasing. I do not think that the Apostle meant “say” prayers all the time. I understand him to mean “preserve deep within yourself an unceasing sense of the divine presence.”
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. Usually, so far as external conditions are concerned, the Jesus Prayer is said alone, though there are exceptions to this. The main Orthodox monastery in Great Britain [is] the Monastery of St. John the Baptist of Tolleshunt Knights, founded by the Russian Fr. Sophrony, disciple of the Athonite monk St. Silouan. At that monastery, except at the weekends, the divine office is replaced by the corporate recitation of the Jesus Prayer. They meet for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. And the pattern is that first the abbot perhaps will say the Jesus Prayer a hundred times, and then one of the other monastics will take up the prayer another hundred times, and so in turn each says it. They don’t all say it together. One says it aloud, the others in their heart.
But that is exceptional. Usually the Jesus Prayer is a prayer to be said in your own room alone. Usually it is said seated. The Byzantine texts say sit on a low stool about nine inches high, but I often suggest to people that they should sit simply on an upright chair with a back. It is said most often with the eyes closed. But if you grow sleepy you can stand up, and after each Jesus Prayer you can make a prostration to the ground and rise up again, and after you’ve done that about 20 times perhaps you’ll feel less sleepy. It’s usually said, not chanted, though in the Greek and Slavonic forms there is a definite rhythm, an inner music in the Jesus Prayer that’s less apparent in the English texts.
The speed with at which you can say it varies widely—more quickly among the Greeks, more slowly among the Russians. It need not necessarily be said outwardly by the voice; it may just be articulated inwardly. There are ways of linking it with the breathing, and often a prayer rope is used. Initially I suggest to people that if you’re saying the Jesus Prayer alone, ten to 15 minutes is quite sufficient, but with experience it may be said for longer periods.
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. As Søren Kierkegaard said, “If I were a doctor and I were asked for my advice, I should reply ‘Create silence.’ ” Surely the contemporary world is greatly in need of such a doctor.
The great Roman Catholic spiritual guide, Baron Friedrich von Hugel, used to say, “Man is what he does with his silence.” Silence, that is to say, is an essential component in our human personhood. Without silence we are not genuinely human. How much silence is there in your and my life? That is another way of asking, “How human are you and I?”
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. And as an image of what silence means, I would think of the figure you often see in the apse of Byzantine churches, the figure of the Mother of God with her hands raised in prayer, the figure of the Mother of God Platytera, “wider than the heavens,” or the Mother of God Orans, “in prayer.” To me this ancient gesture of raised hands in prayer signifies exactly silence as waiting upon God.
When I was about ten years old I heard a sermon about prayer in the Anglican church to which my family went, and I remember it very clearly. Those of you who have occasion to preach sermons, be careful what you say—children may be listening and they can be very exact listeners. On this occasion the preacher told a story which I think is associated with the Curé d’Ars but he didn’t mention him:
Once upon a time there was an old man in the village who used to go into the church each day and remained there for a long time. His friends said to him, “What are you doing all that time in church?”
And he said, “I’m praying.”
“Praying?” they said. “You must have a great many things to ask God for.”
He replied, with some warmth, “I’m not asking God for anything.”
“What are you doing then?” they said.
And he replied, “I just sit and look at God and God sits and looks at me.”
That seemed to me a very good definition of prayer when I was ten years old and so it does to me still. And this is what the Jesus Prayer aims to bring about. 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. As Bishop Theophan the Recluse said—Russian master of the 19th century—“Our distracting thoughts are like buzzing flies on a summer evening.” Rama Krishna said they are like monkeys jumping capriciously from branch to branch.
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.
Sometimes people make a rather different objection. What about our social responsibility? What about our concern for the suffering of the world? Are we not turning our backs on this when we pray in solitude with our eyes closed saying repeatedly, “Have mercy on me”? Is this not selfish, inward-looking, world denying? My answer is to think of two quotations. The first is from the great Russian saint of the 19th century, Seraphim of Sarov. He says, “Acquire inner peace and thousands around you will find salvation.” And then I think also of some words of the one-time secretary general of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld, in his remarkable book Markings. There he writes: “Understand through the stillness. Act out of the stillness. Conquer in the stillness.”
“Acquire inner peace and thousands around you will find salvation.” The aim of the Jesus Prayer is exactly to acquire inner peace. But this is not selfish, for it makes us by God’s grace and mercy an instrument of peace to others. Because we have prayed alone, in our Lord’s words, “with the door shut, in secret,” it may be for no more than ten of 15 minutes each day. Then, throughout all the other minutes and hours of the day we shall be available to others, open to their concerns, loving, Christ-like, in a way that otherwise would be impossible.
“Understand through the stillness. Act out of the stillness.” That exactly describes the aim of the Jesus Prayer. It helps us to understand in the stillness so that we can then act out of 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. Thank you.
Announcer: Thank you, Your Grace. And now is an opportunity for our students at North Park to ask Metr. Kallistos some questions. And since the Zarley Lectures are dedicated to our students particularly, as well as everyone who would like to come—you’re all welcome—I’d like to ask our students now if you have any questions. We have a few moments for you to ask him anything relevant to this.
Q1: Thank you. Metropolitan, what is mercy in the Jesus Prayer, when we pray this?
Metr. Kallistos: So the question is, “What is mercy, the word we use in the Jesus Prayer?”
In Greek, the word for mercy is eleos and that is very similar to another Greek word, elaion, meaning “olive oil.” Now in fact I think etymologically the two words are quite distinct but the Greek Fathers liked to use plays on words. They thought of the mercy of God as being God’s love poured out to heal, to forgive, to restore. And so, that is the way I understand the word eleos in the Jesus Prayer.
Some people think that to keep saying “have mercy” is a rather a rather gloomy, despondent thing to be doing. For me the Jesus Prayer is not gloomy at all. It is full of light because the word “mercy” to me speaks not so much of our sin, not so much of our alienation from God, but it speaks rather of our reconciliation with God. It speaks of the overcoming of sin through the love of God. So that is what I see in the word eleos.
Q2: Good evening. My question is do you think that creating silence is the most important contribution or lesson that we learn from The Philokalia, or could you give another example of a teaching that we can follow today?
Metr. Kallistos: I think the teaching about silence that I’ve been sharing with you—and it is inspired by The Philokalia—is a very practical teaching, and I hope at the end that I did suggest that is has practical consequences in the way that we live our daily life. And certainly the intention of the editors of The Philokalia was exactly to help people in their practical life. On the title page of The Philokalia it is said “For the common benefit of Christians,” so they made it quite clear that it was not a book simply for monks and nuns, even though most of the writers are monastics. But they believed that it was a book for those living actively in the world and therefore exactly the purpose of The Philokalia and the purpose of what I was trying to say to you tonight is to show how silence can transform our lives in the world.
St. Nicodemus in the introduction of The Philokalia is very definite. He says the Jesus Prayer, the inner prayer, is not just something for people living in deserts and caves of the earth, but it is a prayer for those who are married with families, who have commitments in the middle of society. It is a prayer for soldiers, for doctors, for civil servants in the Imperial Court. So he saw it very much as a prayer for all Christians and a prayer that can be used in our daily life in the world. And that was the underlying purpose of my talk tonight.
Announcer: I’d like to open up to anyone the audience that might have a question. You’re welcome to come.
Q3: Thank you so much for coming. I’m not exactly sure how to word this that’s proper but St. Ignatius said that Jesus came to us out of stillness. Is he talking about in the Incarnation, like Jesus coming as man, or was he talking about the lifestyle lived by Jesus was one of stillness and out of his stillness living here, he spoke?
Metr. Kallistos: I’m thinking about the statement which I gave from St. Ignatius about Jesus Christ as the Word that came out from silence, is that what you’re thinking of?
Metr. Kallistos: Right. Well, probably in the original use of that phrase by Ignatius he was referring to silence as the pre-incarnate state of Christ. So, yes, indeed, he meant that Jesus Christ comes forth from the Father from the heavenly regions into this world. So silence there denotes, yes, the pre-incarnate state of Christ, and then comes the Incarnation, his manifestation as Word. However, I extended that phrase and understood it in a rather broader sense: that Jesus Christ’s words and actions possessed power because they came from silence. And then I applied that to ourselves, that our words and actions can have power if they come from the depths of stillness. So, I was extending the phrase and understanding it in the symbolical sense.
Q4: Thank you so much for your words. My question might push a little bit into your lecture tomorrow, so if that’s the case, just say so, and I’ll come back tomorrow. I’m wondering: you spoke about the Jesus Prayer primarily in individual, contemplative prayer times. Do you think there’s a place for it in small groups or in our churches today?
Metr. Kallistos: Yes, as I mentioned in the traditional use of the Jesus Prayer, it is normally said alone, but I do certainly think there is a place for saying it in groups, rather as they do in the monastery that I mentioned that we have in England of St. John the Baptist. I do know of a number of parishes which use the Jesus Prayer in groups but they meet perhaps for half an hour, perhaps for longer, and they might follow the pattern as of Tolleshunt Knights, with one person saying it and then another and then another. Or they might simply sit together and all say the Jesus Prayer silently within themselves, but not aloud. The second way is often very effective.
You might say, “Well, why meet together if you don’t say anything?” but my answer is that there is enormous power in shared silence. And yet, your silence needs to have some focus, such as the Jesus Prayer. Otherwise if you’ll sit together and just say nothing, your mind wanders over all kinds of subjects. So there is, indeed, I believe, a place for saying the Jesus Prayer in small groups, and it has the great advantage then of being something that does not require the presence of the clergy, does not require a liturgical structure—though you probably do need to say a few prayers at the beginning and at the end so as to establish the identity of the group. But saying the Jesus Prayer together can be done in any room. It need not necessarily be done only in church. So it does offer a way of shared prayer but has great freedom about it.
Q5: Your Eminence, in these days it seems that both inside and outside of Christian traditions there’s an increasing interest in spirituality, in Eastern forms of meditation, and things that might be somewhat similar to the use of the Jesus Prayer but perhaps altogether different. I wonder if you could hypothesize what would the Fathers of The Philokalia say to those who might say, “Well, I choose to entertain some— engage in some yoga and instead of saying what they are asking me to chant I say the Jesus Prayer instead.”
Metr. Kallistos: Yes, first of all, you used the word “spirituality,” as people often do. On the whole, that is a word that I like to avoid because yes, the adjective “spiritual” is fine, and plenty of places in the Holy Scripture where it is used. But I don’t think you will find it anywhere in Holy Scripture that they use the abstract noun “spirituality.” And why—I’m not attacking you—I’m a little hesitant about talking about spirituality, as it suggests it is something separate in a compartment on its own, and I would always want to emphasize the essential link between prayer and theology, between spirituality and dogma. We are not to separate spirituality as certain devout exercises but we are to see it as an expression of what theology is all about, that there is to be a unity between theology and prayer.
I like very much the words of Evagrius of Pontus, Desert Father of the 4th century, who says the theologian is the one who prays. And if you pray in truth, you are a theologian. So in that way I would always want to link our prayer with the totality of our Christian life and Christian thinking and so I avoid “spirituality” in case it suggests a neat compartment. That’s just an aside.
Now to come to the main theme of your question, it is clear that there are similarities between the Jesus Prayer as found in the Eastern Christian tradition and the invocation of the name in yoga and in Islam. If you look at the breathing exercises connected with the use of the Jesus Prayer the parallels become much more striking and so when interest in the Jesus Prayer first arose during the early part of the 20th century there was a tendency to talk about Byzantine yogis and the like. Now these similarities do indeed exist and they may be due to some extent to direct influence, though it’s very difficult to tie down with specific evidence who was influencing whom, when and how.
But the important point to hold fast in regard to the Jesus Prayer is that the central element in it is not the breathing exercises. You can say the Jesus Prayer without any psychosomatic technique at all. The central part of the Jesus Prayer is the invocation of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is a Christ-centered prayer. It presupposes faith in Jesus Christ as Son of God and Savior. So that the similarities in outward form with non-Christian forms of meditation are not the heart of the matter. Most pictures have frames. And picture frames have similarities with one another. But what matters is not the frame but the picture inside the frame. Now in this case, with the Jesus Prayer—the outward technique of praying, repeating a formula, perhaps adopting a particular physical posture, relating the prayer to the rhythm of the breathing—that is all the frame of the picture. But what matters is what is inside the frame, the fact that we are calling on Jesus Christ as our personal God and Savior. And so the similarities are not nearly as important as the uniqueness of the Jesus Prayer.
Now, of course, many Western people have been fascinated by Eastern forms of meditation. The sad part is that if only they looked more deeply in their own Christian tradition, they would find what they needed there. They would not have to go far from home. Thank you.
Q5: Thank you.
Announcer: We have time for a few more questions, but not many, so if we could keep our questions short, and also maybe our answers, we’ll get more in, and have just maybe about five to eight minutes, okay?
Metr. Kallistos: So make it an easy question. (laughter)
Q6: Your Eminence, would you comment on the role of fasting with prayer and prayer with fasting?
Metr. Kallistos: Fasting, yes, that was the question, yes, good. Yes, it is significant that in the Gospels Jesus doesn’t just refer to fasting, but he says very often “prayer and fasting,” so that fasting alone as a matter of diet has only a limited spiritual value. For fasting to have real meaning, it needs to be joined with prayer. And fasting, as I see it, is one of the ways in which the body can be helped to share in the spiritual task. Fasting is a way of involving the whole person in the act of prayer. I am not just a disembodied mind. As a human person I’m a unity of body and soul. And it is our aim to pray with the whole person. And I think when fasting is linked with prayer, then it helps the prayer to be the prayer of the total person.
Q7: Than you, Your Eminence. Within many contemplative prayer traditions in the West there is not only an emphasis on stillness but also active imagination. I was wondering if you would care to comment on the Eastern perspective on the role of the imagination. Thank you.
Metr. Kallistos: So the question is about the use of the imagination in prayer. Yes, in the traditional teaching concerning the Jesus Prayer, we are told again and again—and you will find this in The Philokalia—that we are not to deliberately form images in our mind. We are not deliberately to think in discursive arguments. But we are, as far as possible, to strip images and thoughts from our mind. The Jesus Prayer is, in this sense, a non-iconic prayer, a prayer that does not rely on the use of the imagination.
There are certainly forms of meditation which do make active use of the imagination, forms of meditation that became particularly popular in the Counter-Reformation West, in the 16th and 17th century, methods of prayer such as those recommended by Ignatius of Loyola. Now, actually, the editor of The Philokalia, St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, was not opposed to those forms of discursive meditation because he translated from the original Italian or Latin Roman Catholic works of spirituality. He produced a Greek edition of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. He translated the work Unseen Warfare by Scupoli and other such Roman Catholic works. And he adapted them to some extent, but not very greatly. So evidently he thought there was a place for praying with the imagination, for discursive meditation such as is found in Roman Catholicism. In his translations he didn’t actually say that these are works by Roman Catholic authors, he just says at the beginning of one of such works that “this is by a certain wise man,” but he knew very well who the wise man was.
So, Nicodemus did use this imaginative prayer. But in The Philokalia and the teaching there and in the works that Nicodemus assembled for The Philokalia, this kind of prayer is not widely recommended, though you do find it in one of the works, for example, by Mark the Monk [in] his letter to Nicholas. He has a long passage of very vivid meditation on the passion of Christ. But the Jesus Prayer is not to be regarded as meditation on specific incidents in the life of Christ. In the Jesus Prayer we are taught, as far as possible, to put images and thoughts aside. The Jesus Prayer is a prayer of simple presence. We are to be aware of the presence of God, the presence of Christ, before us and within us. But so far as possible, this sense of presence is not to be accompanied by particular internal arguments or thoughts about the work of Christ. Just to be aware that Christ is with us and in us, a prayer of simple presence, that is the aim of the Jesus Prayer.
But when recommending the Jesus Prayer to people, I prefer not to concentrate on what they should get rid of. I don’t say, “Get rid of all pictures and images.” I would far emphasize, rather, what they should acquire. Gather the whole of your attention upon the person of Jesus. Do not be conscious that you are invoking Jesus. Be conscious simply of Jesus. Say his name with love, simply. That, as I would prefer to say, rather than get rid of images, get rid of thoughts. I would say, “Concentrate on the presence of Jesus.” It’s good to use a positive, not a negative, strategy. But certainly in the Jesus Prayer, it’s not a prayer of discursive meditation, not a prayer where we deliberately cultivate the imagination. Images will, of course, occur to us as we say the Jesus Prayer. Do not cling to them. Let them go. Return to a simple sense of the presence of Jesus.
Announcer: We have more people than we have time for, so I will let the last question—it was down here—so I’ll take it back up there and this will be the last one for the night.
Q8: Thank you, Your Eminence. I wanted to ask do you think that there are dangers in coming to worship the Jesus Prayer, that is to say, falling in love with the action rather than of that which it invokes?
Metr. Kallistos: Do I think that…
Announcer: Try it again.
Q8: Do you think there are dangers in coming to worship the Jesus Prayer, that is to say, falling in love with the action rather than that which it invokes?
Metr. Kallistos: There could be such a danger. That is why I said just now, “Do not think that you are saying the Jesus Prayer, think simply about Jesus himself.” And any prayer in words, any particular method or way of praying is only a means to an end. And certainly we should not become too attached to the means; we should always look beyond to the end. And the end is that we should be personally aware of the love and the saving grace of Jesus. What matters is not the words of prayer in themselves; what matters is the person to whom we are praying. So, there could be a danger of being too absorbed in the Jesus Prayer or any other way of praying, just as one might become unduly absorbed in the letter of Scripture instead of seeing Scripture as a means whereby we enter into personal communion with God. We are not to objectify the presence of God, either in the book of Scripture or in particular ways of praying, but we are always to think in terms of persons, not objects, the living communion with God that we have established through reading Scripture or through saying the Jesus Prayer, person to person. Personal encounter, that is the heart of the matter.
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