“The Jesus prayer and the prayer of the heart”, by Archimandrite Placide Deseille – Part I

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On March 6, 2008, as part of the 6th year of Rencontres orthodoxes, in the Saint Seraphim of Sarov parish (Paris), Archimandrite Placide Deseille of Blessed Memory (1926-2018) spoke on the theme “The Jesus prayer and the prayer of the heart”.

Please find here the English translation of his lecture:

The Jesus prayer and the prayer of the heart

The expressions “The Jesus prayer” and “the prayer of the heart” are frequently used as if they were interchangeable. But if we consider their full meaning with the power of each word, we realize they are not equivalent. The Jesus prayer can be an “active” prayer or a prayer of the heart, depending on the degree of our spiritual maturity.

First of all, what is the Jesus prayer? Some prefer to call it the “Prayer to Jesus”. I think this is a misunderstanding of the expression “the Jesus prayer”. This prayer is not simply a prayer addressed to Christ. Many other prayers, in liturgical books or manuals of prayer, are addressed to Christ. But they are not “the Jesus Prayer”.

The Jesus prayer consists mainly in the name of Jesus. It is its substance and characteristic. That is precisely why it is called “the Jesus prayer”. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” the Greek monks simply repeat on Holy Mountain, untiringly.

The name of Jesus is like a “verbal icon”. Indeed, just as an icon represents the person of Christ, of the Mother of God or of a saint, it becomes like the relay of their presence, of their radiance, and of their intercession for us. The icon is actually only a wooden board, it has absolutely nothing divine in itself. But because it represents either Christ, His holy Mother, or a saint, through it we receive the benefit either of the spiritual radiance and energy of the risen Christ, or of the merciful presence of the saints who intercede for us in a special way when we venerate their image. Similarly, when we say the Jesus prayer, the name of Jesus that we utter is somehow an icon of Christ, and through this divine name, although it is only a human word in its substance, the deifying energy of the risen Christ reaches us. It is a kind of sacrament, of reality we can perceive with our senses while at the same time it is permeated with the active presence of Christ. Hence the strength and power of the invocation of that very sweet Name of Jesus.

But when can this prayer be called “prayer of the heart”? Some passages from the 19th Spiritual Homily by Saint Macarius of Egypt will help us to understand:

“It is necessary at first for one coming to the Lord to force himself to do good and, even he should not in his heart be so inclined, he must constantly await His mercy with unshakened faith and push himself to love, even if he does not have love. He ought to push himself to meekness, even if he has none, to mercy and to have a merciful heart. He must force himself to be disregarded, and when he is looked down upon by others, let him rejoice. When he is made light of or dishonored, let him not become angry according to the saying: ” Beloved, do not avenge yourselves” (Romans 12:19). Let him push himself to prayer even when he does not possess the prayer of the Spirit. And so, God, seeing him striving so and pushing himself by determination, even if the heart is unwilling, gives him the authentic prayer of the Spirit, gives him a true charity, true meekness, ” the bowels of mercies” (Colossians 3:12), true kindness, and, simply put, feels him with the fruits of the Spirit.”
(Homily 19:3, in Pseudo-Macarius, The Fifty Spiritual Homilies and The Great Letter, Paulist Press: New York, 1992, page 147).

This is all very enlightening. Saint Macarius teaches us that we must first practice the virtues and prayer, without feeling any desire for it, courageously, forcing ourselves, just because we are required to do it by the Word of God. This does not mean that the grace of God is absent. Without it, we would not be able to do anything. But its presence is not felt. We feel that everything depends on our effort, we have to row for our boat to get going. And we must repeat this labor and return to the words of our prayer whenever we realize, by an effort of our attention, that our mind got distracted.

That is the first phase of the Jesus prayer. We cannot yet call it the “prayer of the heart”. We must force ourselves to say it, by “enclosing our thought within the words of our prayer”, to use the expression by Saint John Climacus (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 28:17), that is to say, we have to talk to the Lord, thinking that He is present, that He hears us and is attentive to the words that we address to Him, but without reflecting on these words, without allowing our thought to dwell even on edifying topics.

Saint Macarius, in the rest of the text quoted above, insists that this effort must extend to everything, not just to prayer, which cannot be isolated from the rest of our spiritual life:

“If a person pushes himself to attend prayer alone, when he has none, in order to obtain its grace, without striving earnestly for meekness and humility and charity and all the other commandments of the Lord, neither taking pains nor struggling and battling to succeed in these, as far as his choice and free will go, she may at times be given a grace of prayer with some degree of repose and pleasure from the Spirit according as he asks. But he has the same traits he had before. He has no meekness, because he did not seek it with effort and he did not prepare himself beforehand to become meek. He has no humility, since he did not ask for it and did not push himself to have it. He has no charity toward old men, because he was not concerned with it and did not strive for it in his asking for the gift of prayer. And in doing his work, he has no faith or trust in God, since he did not know that he was without it. And he did not take the pains to seek from the Lord for himself to have a firm faith and an authentic trust.”
(Homily 19:4)

All these efforts constitute what, since Evagrius Ponticus, the Fathers have been calling praxis, i.e., the active phase of the spiritual life. When we are cleansed of our passions and vices, and have attained true humility, and when God judges appropriate, He will give us the gifts of his Holy Spirit. Then the second phase of this spiritual life will begin, theoria or contemplative phase. We will no longer have to row for our boat to get going, but we will have to tighten our sails, according to another expression by Saint John Climacus (op. cit., 26:5) in order to be led by the Holy Spirit, that is to say, by inner lights and divine instincts inspired by the Spirit in our consciousness to allow us to act spontaneously, with ease and joy:

“It is necessary that whoever wishes truly to please God and receive from him the heavenly grace of the Spirit and to grow and be perfected in the Holy Spirit should force himself to observe the commandments of God and to make his heart submissive, even if he is unwilling.
He thus asks and begs of the Lord always. And obtaining his request and receiving a taste for God and becoming a participator of the Holy Spirit, she makes the gift given to him to increase and to thrive as he rests in humility, in charity, and in meekness.
The Spirit himself graces him with all of these virtues and teaches him authentic prayer, authentic charity, authentic meekness, for which he pushed himself.
Let us pray that the Spirit may teach us true prayer which now we are unable to accomplish even through our earnest striving.”
(Homily 19:7-9)

Only then can we speak of the “prayer of the heart”, “spiritual prayer” or “acquisition of the Holy Spirit”. Of course, this phase of the spiritual life has various aspects and does not exclude moments when we are neglected and abandoned by the Lord for pedagogical reasons. The Jesus prayer still has its place in this phase, but other states of prayer can also be manifested under the guidance of the Spirit.

The second part of the conference is available here

Source in French

This post is also available in: Français (French)

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Emma Cazabonne was born and raised in France. She taught English before entering the Cistercian Order. She translated and published articles relevant to her interest in Cistercian spirituality, the Middle Ages, and Orthodoxy. She moved to the United States in 2001, converted to Orthodoxy in 2008, and married. Her husband is an Orthodox priest. She continued to publish articles, a Cistercian texts anthology, then finally launched her career in literary translation, while teaching French. If you are interested in having your book translated into French, she can be contacted here https://wordsandpeace.com/contact-me/