The convincing factor that led me to join the Orthodox Church was not the theology or the worship services, it was prayer. In only a few months, through the teachings of the fathers, I learned more about developing prayer than I had heard in my entire life. And I saw the fruit of it too.
My last blog focused on short prayers that one can say throughout the day. The most important of all of these is the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.” As St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain teaches, “Preeminence belongs to the Jesus Prayer because it unites the soul with our Lord Jesus, and the Lord Jesus is the only door to union with God, which is the aim of prayer.”
My goal for these next two articles is to provide several aids, or tips, on developing the habit of the Jesus Prayer as taught by St Nicodemus in Unseen Warfare, chapters 51-52. Doing so, helps one to train the mind to be less chaotic. We can then fully engage in prayer times and church services without growing restless or bored.
To begin, he advises that “your first task is to repeat the Jesus Prayer as often as you can, until you acquire the habit of repeating it unceasingly.” In this way one begins to live in obedience to the command of the Apostle Paul to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thes 5:17)
Below are practical steps that St Nicodemus provides. In addition to what I have below, I would also recommend purchasing a prayer rope if you do not already have one.
- Create time during your morning and evening prayer rules for the Jesus Prayer. A good starting place may be saying it several times at the beginning and end. I find it useful also to pray it in between prayers when my mind begins to wander restlessly.
- There’s no set number of times you need to repeat the Prayer. Decide for yourself what you can handle without burning yourself out. Pick a number that doesn’t strain you, but also doesn’t feel lazy. It is better to say it three times with feeling and attention than 100 times with your lips only. If at some moment you happen to feel zealous and want to repeat the Prayer many times, then go for it. But don’t feel pressured to make this a normal part of your prayer routine.
- Do not hurry. This is where I have fallen often. I look at my prayer rule and the time that I have before needing to go to work or bed and begin to pray faster. But prayer is measured in quality and not quantity. If you must rush to get through your prayers, then you probably need to shorten your rule so that you can go slower. As St Nicodemus says, “Take care not only of the words, but rather that your mind should abide in the heart, standing there before the Lord, as though He were present,” for He is present and He desires to commune with you through prayer.
- When you have free time, get away for a few minutes and say the Prayer in your icon corner. At other times, say the Prayer inwardly, especially if the task at hand does not require full attention.
- Bows and prostrations are valuable assets to prayer. Humans are not spirits entrapped in bodies, rather we are the unification of matter and spirit. We pray best when we do so with both body and soul. The number of bows or prostrations can vary depending on one’s health and physical abilities.
- Deeper reading on developing inner prayer, with detailed instructions and warnings can be found in the Philokalia, particularly the writings of Symeon the New Theologian, Gregory of Sinai, Nicephore the monk, Callistus and Ignatius. There are directions on how to sit, breathe, etc, but St Nicodemus recommends simply to “keep your attention in the heart, before the face of the Lord and to send Him this short Prayer with reverence and humility.”
- I will directly quote St Nicodemus for this one: “Attention should be in the heart, or inside the breast, as some fathers say, namely, a little above the left nipple, – and there the Jesus prayer should be repeated. When the heart begins to ache with tension…leave that place and establish yourself with your attention and with the words of the prayer…under the Adam’s apple in the upper part of the chest. Later again descend over the left nipple. – Do no disdain this remark, however simple and unspiritual it may seem to you.” These things can be understood through experience. Until such experience is obtained, it is best to heed the instruction of the fathers.
- There are some spiritual dangers that come about when one begins to develop inner prayer. The greatest dangers of all are the siblings Pride, Vainglory, and Delusion. There is an easy tendency for a man to feel he is more enlightened or spiritual than those around him because of this inner prayer. We must have either a spiritual father or a seasoned spiritual counselor in whom we can confide. We need to confess our thoughts and experiences during prayer to this person so that we do not fall into the trap of delusion. It should be someone who is not afraid to lovingly break our pride and set us straight.
- As mentioned in the last post, developing inner Prayer takes time. It will likely be several months or years before you see any permanent results such as warm feelings or your mind automatically turning to the Prayer when your concentration is not needed for other tasks. If one excels more quickly than that, they should be especially wary of vainglory and pride. Sometimes, if the enemy sees that someone is an easy target for delusion, he will allow such a soul to excel without any impediment in order to completely crush him with pride and delusion later.