On Prayer of the Heart
Excerpts from Exploring the Inner Universe
by Fr. Roman Braga
[Interviewer] Father, you said earlier that Father Theodosius practiced
hesychasm. Did you learn the Jesus Prayer from him?
No. He never talked with me about the Jesus Prayer. I learned the formula from the director
of the seminary, Archimandrite Chezarie Paunescu, who later became bishop of
Galatsi. Another great monk, he was a professor of Latin and Greek languages and
culture. He was very stern and correct, almost legalistic. You had to execute
your obligations and read your prayers even if you did not understand anything.
He used to say, "Asceticism is something to be practiced. Prayer is very
important even if you say it mechanically because the understanding comes later.
The Holy Spirit works later in you after you are well established in your
ascetic endeavors." This was his method. He told me to say the Jesus Prayer
if I did not feel the presence of God. In my opinion he was a great pedagogue
without being pedantic.
But you did not learn from him the Prayer of the Heart?
Yes and no. We used to ask him about the Jesus Prayer, and he said, "Do not test me. For a
while it is enough to say it as often as you can." This is all I got from
him. I did not know anything concerning the methods of saying the Prayer until
much later when I read the Holy Fathers, and I found out that this simple prayer
is not so simple; you need a special method, and there is whole theology in it
based on the existence of God in your heart. Later from my reading at the
Theological Institute I found out what the interior Holy Liturgy is. From the
monks, I learned that it is a prayer like any other. I used to see them walking
and moving their lips.
Father, do you think that the ascetic effort associated with the Prayer of the Heart should
be the same for monks and for lay people?
The first step should be the Prayer, I mean the formula. If you repeatedly recite the Jesus
Prayer, the rest comes naturally. Man cannot become dispassionate without
falling on his knees and asking God for this grace, because everything comes by
the grace of God. Attaining dispassion is not the result of personal effort, but
it comes by the grace of God; so you must fall on your knees, see yourself as a
sinner, and ask for God's help. Prayer and the purification of passions happen
at the same time. I think that priority must be given to prayer. It is said that
there is no pure prayer without first attaining dispassion. But I say that
whether pure prayer or forced prayer, prayer must be the beginning of any
Father, let us resume the thread of your biography where we began to digress. So your life
was divided between the Theological Institute and the Burning Bush Movement?
To be sincere, my life was somewhere else. I was not yet a monk, but I was attracted by the
sweetness of a simple life.
However, did you develop a new understanding of monasticism when you learned more things about the Prayer of
Yes, now the prayer stool that Father Theodosius of Cernica Monastery used, the reading from
those big volumes from the library and the droning of the monks walking on the
monastery's paths made more sense to me. Now I knew what they were doing.
Because they did not walk in the refined heights of St. Gregory of Sinai, they
could not express what they were doing. You know, many times there is a need for
others to interpret you.
I am one of those who received a special blessing by Father John Kulegian. There is a
special ritual to begin the Prayer of the Heart; it is like a little ordination.
He laid his hand on my head and gave me the blessing to practice the Jesus
Prayer. At the Burning Bush, we used to speak about breathing techniques when
saying the Prayer, but I do not / think this has too much importance. Neither
the blessing nor the breathing works magic. I rejected the methods because I
found them to be too technical; they did not produce any results. So I started
to pray as the Russian pilgrimmechanicallybecause The Way of the
Pilgrim was in vogue. At that time it was translated only into French, which
was very accessible to Romanians. There was no consistency in my prayer; I did
not have the patience. I did it when I could and when I had time What I found
out is that if you are too preoccupied with methods, the Spirit disappears. It
might be that I was too much influenced by my monks at Cernica. When Father
Dionysius and Father Theodosius the hesychast learned of what The Burning Bush
was doing at Antim Monastery, they smiled indulgently, saying "Mind you, they
lecture about the Prayer of the Heart!" It was something new for them. How
can you deliver lectures about prayer? Prayer is something to be practiced; you
do not speak about it. It works mysteriously. And from them I know that a true
spiritual father does not entrust to all his disciples this kind of prayer. It
should be carefully controlled. So I was caught between two worlds: one was the
world of the Burning Bush with the Russian method of St. Paisius Velichkovsky, a
kind of democratization of hesychasm which said this Prayer should be for all;
and the other world, less spectacular, but I think more profoundthe attitude
of the Cernica monks.
Nevertheless, Father, the Burning Bush
constituted a great spiritual revival in the rigid intellectual Romanian
society. I would say that hesychasm was extricated from the secrecy of
monasteries and given to society in general; everyone needs salvation, everyone
should put forth the effort of doing this Prayer.
First of all, there are people who save themselves without knowing anything about the Jesus
Prayer. What was good about the Burning Bush was the fact that lay people, and
especially university intellectuals, started to understand that spiritual life
goes beyond the limits of culture. Even today if you go to Romania, you will
find a second generation practicing the Jesus Prayer; but everything started
under the influence of the Burning Bush Movement. I do not deny the legitimacy
of lay people who practice hesychasm; however, I personally am more attached to
the Greek fathers' way of thinking for the need of at least a little initiation,
a mysterious discipline.
Father, if this work is restricted to only a select group, how can an entire nation become spiritual
if only certain hermits know about this special grace of God? Is it not proper
that the mystery of spirituality should descend from the monasteries, from the
caves where those who live in Christ are hidden, into the middle of everyday
society? I think they should be a living example; even if we lay people cannot
reach their level we should taste at least a little bit of this special grace of
God. Did not God call all of us to perfection, saying: Be perfect as your
Father in heaven is perfect. (Mt. 5:48)?
Do you know what the monks implied when they asked for more supervision in the practice of
hesychasm? They did not say that we should not recite the Jesus Prayer; all the
prayer books printed in Romania have it on the first page: O Lord Jesus
Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." And there is a note there
saying that this prayer can replace any other prayer. So the monks recommended
it and the Church recommended it. What the monks could not accept was too much
intellectualization; a whole theology has been created around this Prayertoo
much discussion instead of simply practicing it. They were for simplicity;
prayer is life, not theory.
It is true that it is a temptation to theologize the Sacraments too much. Almost all those
who live the Prayer say that you cannot acquire the spirit of prayer if you do
not empty your mind of concepts, of ideas, of thoughts.
And this takes extraordinary effort.
It is true that you cannot reach that simplicity you are speaking about other than with the
help of the Holy Spirit. But the mind does not let itself be convinced to only ceaselessly recite this Prayer.
The mind is inclined to search like a spy and must be kept in rein. Without
prayer the mind goes too far and you cannot keep it under control. In addition,
the Prayer of the Heart is a work of the Holy Spirit made within the intellect;
it is like a sanctification of the intellect.
I think that the Burning Bush dealt too much in theory, but there was no other way for them
because those people were intellectuals. They wanted to understand God before
loving Him, before asking Him something in prayer. Monks in the monastery are
not intellectuals. Even if some of them are, they left their minds at the gate
of the monastery; they understand God because they love Him and in turn their
understanding is enhanced by this love. The intellectuals of the Burning Bush
started to develop a whole theology around the Prayer of the Heart, which
without doubt has its own place; otherwise The Philokalia would not have
been written, nor would any writings of the Holy Fathers have been left to us in
this generation. But monks in the monastery are practical people; they condensed
the whole theology into the practice of prayer.
Father, I see here that we are speaking about two ways of achieving the knowledge of
And I think we should accept both of them.
Each one leads to a different result. You cannot uproot from an intellectual the
inclination to think; you cannot change the structure of his mind.
When St. Nichephorus the Ascetic says, "First of all, brothers, let us turn to
ourselves," for the simple monk this is something practical but for an
intellectual it is a complicated thing, because he is complicated.
For an intellectual, this means self-denialto give up everything you have done and
thought until then and to become naked; only then can you begin your journey
This is why the intellectuals, the university professors who came to the Burning Bush, broke
totally with the idolatry of their personal creations. They had to reconsider
human culture from a spiritual perspective....
Father [Dimitru] Staniloae confessed that his time in prison was the first time he could pray without
ceasing, with the mind in the heart.
I cannot say that I experienced prayer as Father Staniloae, but what I do know is that we
will never reach the same spiritual level of life as in Communist imprisonment.
There was no pencil, no paper, no T.V., nothing; especially in solitary
confinement, you could not even look through a window. There was no exterior
horizon, nothing but the four walls of your cell. You had to go somewhere; you
had to find an inner perspective, because otherwise you would truly go j crazy.
I'm ashamed to say that I was forced to find myself in prison. I had some
ideas about prayer because I came from the Burning Bush Movement, but it was
mostly theory about what prayer is; but there in those difficult moments I
confess that I started to recite the Jesus Prayer and practiced it intensely.
Only then was I able to discover how beautiful the interior life of man is. I
liked it very much. A couple of months before I discovered this, I thought that
I would go crazy because the solitude was a total break from the world with
which I had been so much involved. And you know that our culture is oriented
outside ourselves; it is a cosmological knowledge directed toward existence
outside ourselves. Now I needed a method to find myself, to liberate myself from
the slavery of the books, because there were no books there. It is not an
exaggeration to say that in freedom we become slaves of the books; we do not
have time even to know who we are because we are made out of quotations....
What was your spiritual life there like?
I told you I did not reach the level of St. Paul, to say that Jesus is my personality, He is
in the center of my heart, He is the seal of my authentic personalityI could
not say that. However, I reached the level of feeling the presence of God in a
vivid way; that is, since that time, I never saw or imagined God in my prayers
outside of myself, and I hope I will never see him in a "vision" outside myself
while I am in this world. I hope to remain with the true understanding of God,
not with illusions. But I have the feeling of His presence. When God speaks to
you He does not use material words but brings you joy. I experienced such joys
in prison, I could not detach myself from them. I was never interested when they
brought me food or water...
In any case, the fact that these men [of the Burning Bush movement] strove to find the
Romanian formula of hesychasm is important for us. They studied intensely the
Paisian manuscripts from Neamt, the testament of Elder Gheorghe of Cernica, and
the chapters from The Philokaia written by Elder Vasile of Poiana
Marului. They emphasized in their studies the character integral to and harmonic
with Romanian hesychasm. In the tradition of Carpathian asceticism, there is no
place for self-mortification, belts with nails, self-flagellation, not even the
obligation of celibacy. There are very many married people in Romania practicing
the Prayer of the Heart. The exercise is purely spiritual.
Today, when our country wants to follow the way of Democratic reform, what if we leave aside
all arguments, all accusations, all desire for revenge and all the demagogic
discourses which, in fact, are nothing else than our own weaknesses and
inability to enter within the inner temple of the Holy Spirit which is in us? We
can defeat Satan only with God, Who is within us. Let us follow the way of the
great ascetics of our people in these moments of crisis, because only from this
will our salvation come.
From Exploring the Inner Universe, by Fr. Roman Braga,
pp. 26-27, 31-37, 40, 42, 125. Reprinted with the kind permission of Mother Gabriella,
Abbess of the Dormition of the Mother
of God Orthodox Monastery, which publishes Fr. Roman's books.