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Humble-Mindedness: The Doorway to Pure Prayer

An interview with Elder Dionysius (Ignat) of the St. George Kellion, Kolitsou Skete, Mount Athos, Greece

Over the past ten years it has become a common occurrence for pilgrims on Mount Athos to make the one-hour trek from Vatopedi Monastery to the Kellion of St. George. The long and dusty uphill trail passes by monastery fields and within sight of the place where St. Gregory Palamas labored. After several steep ascents, the trail branches off onto a winding path that cuts across the verdant mountainside. In springtime, the thick foliage threatens to choke the passageway, while a myriad of wildflowers paints a dazzling landscape—a fitting offering to the mountain’s protectress, the Theotokos. Proceeding past the ruins of centuries-old monastic dwellings, the pilgrim arrives at a terraced plot of land overlooking the Aegean Sea. There, amidst well-tended gardens and enclosed by a rustic, tree-limb railing, stand a few whitewashed stone buildings adorned with blue trim: the Kellion of St. George. Outside, sitting on benches, one would find a few pilgrims waiting in hope of receiving a few profitable words from the humble Elder, Hieroschemamonk Dionysius (Ignat).

Four years ago in these pages we presented the life story of Elder Dionysius [1] in a three-part article on the Elders of Kolitsou Skete, a Romanian dependency of Vatopedi Monastery, Mount Athos, Greece. On April 28/May 11, 2004, this righteous Romanian Elder reposed in the Lord after a long, God-pleasing life of ninety-five years. Elder Dionysius had been a monk for eighty-two years, seventy-seven of which were spent on Mount Athos, and sixty-six of which were spent in the same kellion. He was a wonderful, loving monk and spiritual father, well known by his fellow Athonite monks but largely unknown to those outside the Holy Mountain until the last fifteen years or so.

Elder Dionysius was born in Romania in 1909, the youngest son of eight children, and was baptized with the name Dimitry. He was always close to his older brother George (later the Monk Gymnasius), and followed him into the monastic life—first in Romania in 1922 and then on Mount Athos in 1926. After ten years of extreme physical hardship and struggle on the Holy Mountain, the two brothers came under the spiritual direction of Elder Gideon (Chelaru). They were also able to obtain (and restore, both physically and spiritually) a kellion of their own, dedicated to the Great Martyr George, in Kolitsou Skete. Fr. Gymnasius attained great holiness before his repose in 1965, and Elder Gideon died a righteous death in 1979 [2]. For almost ten years Elder Dionysius’ only constant co-struggler in the St. George Kellion was Schemamonk John (Shova) [3]. There were, however, a small number of spiritually experienced monks nearby to whom he could go for spiritual advice, including Elder John (Goutsou) (†1996) [4], Elder Dometian (Trihena) of the St. Hypatius Kellion (†1984) [5], and more recently Elder Joseph the New of Vatopedi Monastery.

Elder Dionysius was one of the last living links to the holy ascetics who lived on Mount Athos during the first part of the twentieth century. He was a man of deep spiritual prayer, who engaged in the noetic activity spoken of in The Philokalia. Many who have benefitted from his counsel commented that the most common theme of his encouragement to his fellow strugglers was “patience, patience, and more patience.”

Although the Elder had been born of simple farmers and had spent most of his life in obscurity, his renown drew a constant stream of pilgrims seeking a spiritual word. Toward the end of his life the fathers of the kellion would have to lock the gates so that the Elder could rest his body, which was exhausted by strict ascesis and illness. Even then people would scale the gates just to talk to Fr. Dionysius. Students and world leaders, Greeks and Americans, all flocked to receive a blessing from the rough and weathered hands of the ascetic. Even the heir to the British throne, Prince Charles, was at the Elder’s funeral, paying his respects along with two hundred monks from all over the Holy Mountain.

In memory of this holy Elder, we are presenting an interview with him containing much profitable counsel. The interview was conducted in May 2001 by Hierodeacon Cleopa Paraschiv, author of the Romanian book The Prayer of Jesus: The Way of Uniting the Mind with the Heart [6]. At that time the Elder was ninety-two years old, blind and physically infirm, but rich in the spiritual wisdom that is born of long and unremitting labor.

1. On the Jesus Prayer

Question: Most pious Elder, what is the purpose of our life in this temporal world?

Answer: The main purpose of our earthly life is to be saved, to arrive in the Kingdom of Heaven. Our Lord Jesus Christ teaches us: “Be holy, just as your Father in Heaven is holy!” (cf. Matt. 5:48). During this earthly life, with the help of Divine Grace and our good Christian deeds we can enter the ranks of the saints. And if, because of our lack of virtue, we cannot join the ranks of the saints, we should strive to inherit Paradise. By no means can you simultaneously be a good Christian and commit sin. If you commit sin, you depart from the Grace of God and unite yourself to the devil. Thus, you depart from the Church, from the Holy Mysteries and from the Divine teachings in order to satisfy your own passions, which the devil has settled in your soul. You should not obey your passions. That’s why the Church sings: “From my youth do many passions war against me …” (Hymns of Degrees, Tone 4). That’s why the Holy Scripture tells us: Seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; and have put on the new man (Col. 3:9–10). Because if we’re of the old man, we’re the slaves of passions and sins.

Question: What is the teaching of the Holy Fathers about the human spirit and the demonic spirit?

Answer: The human spirit becomes a demonic spirit through sin. The devil sows the seeds of bad deeds in our heart through the working of our energy and thoughts. If you accept the bad seeds into your heart, they’ll start sprouting. And if you’re not careful to throw them away and purify your heart with the Grace of the Holy Spirit and good Christian works (prayer, fasting, Confession, Holy Communion, etc.) they’ll take root and grow. And from that moment on, the devil will go away from you, because from that moment on he’s sure that you’ll follow your passions to every bad thing.

Question: So, if you’re dissolute, does Divine Grace depart from you and does the spirit of fornication lead you to all kinds of depraved sins and unnatural sins?

Answer: Of course. But it’s more serious, in that they become like natural deeds. You think and say that in no way can you leave these sins. That’s why, from the beginning, we should observe bodily and spiritual purity. We will have great help in our spiritual warfare if we observe bodily and spiritual purity, as is the case with monastic life. And the lay people should have marital relations with restraint, on the days permitted by the Church, and only after an Orthodox marriage ceremony. The devil knows this and that’s why he tries so hard to cast people into the sins of fornication. These many evils of our days are from the demons, who want in this way to defile the temple of the Holy Spirit, which is a Christian’s body, and afterwards to lead it into every evil thing. Once you’ve committed sins of dissoluteness you can’t pray any more; you cease participating in the Holy Liturgy, you stop confessing, and you can’t perform other good Christian deeds anymore.

Owing to this worldly spirit—which forms from childhood around the heart through poor education, pornographic movies, advertising, desires, sins, etc.—the Christian can no longer pray, nor can he do a good, salvific deed. But even those who have fallen into great sins can correct themselves, with the help of Divine Grace. This struggle and deliverance from sins and from the demons will be counted unto them as martyrdom.

Question: After Baptism, is the devil expelled from the depth of our heart so that he now works from outside?

Answer: He works from outside the heart. But if we sin, we allow him to penetrate into the depths of the heart. This is what a passion is. From now on, this passion will lead us, but not even now does Divine Grace leave us. God gave man total freedom. The Grace of the Holy Spirit showed him the difference between right and wrong. It showed us the way to the Kingdom of Heaven, and the way which leads to perdition—hell. God tells us: I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life (Deut. 30:19). The Grace of the Holy Spirit could have made it impossible for man to ever fall. But in that case he would have had neither personality nor virtues, but would have been an animal or a robot. None of God’s creations has the freedom that man has. The Christian who fulfills God’s commandments with the help of Divine Grace may become a saint. And God is so good that even when we fall into sins and cry to Him in repentance, “Lord, forgive me! Lord, help me!” He comes to us and helps us to rise from our sins. That is why our Lord Jesus Christ told us, Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden with sins, and I will give you rest (Matt. 11:28)!

However, if the passions have settled in a man and have become like a new sinful nature, that man will say, “It’s impossible to cut off these passions!” This is especially so because we are in the last times, when mankind has become careless and insensible towards spiritual things. Whether one is a layman, a monk or a priest, one isn’t concerned over passions and sins. This a great danger because thereby we allow the demons to progress in controlling us.

Question: Where does our pride come from?

Answer: Pride is only from the demons. Through Holy Baptism, God has forgiven the ancestral sin and personal sins committed before Baptism, and has given us the Grace of the Holy Spirit of perfection, telling us, Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect (Matt. 5:48).

Question: But the effects remain!

Answer: We should cut them off through the Grace of God, which will always help us on our way to perfection. But since we have been created with freedom, we must fight in order to defeat the passions and the sins. For example, if you smoke you have the power to say, “I’ve confessed, and with God’s help I will smoke no more from now on!” But the old man within you will say, “You’ve smoked for so many years! You won’t be able to! You’ll get sick and die!” But if you have faith, strengthened by the Grace of the Holy Spirit, you’ll respond, “I’ve made my decision, and with God’s help I’ll quit smoking no matter what!” And then the Grace of the Holy Spirit will descend upon you and will help you in every way. But if you think like this: “I’ll give up smoking, but I’ll smoke for one or two more weeks and after that I’ll quit, no matter what,” then you’re not decided, you don’t have your will strengthened by the Grace of the Holy Spirit, and you won’t give up smoking.

Question: May parents’ sins be transmitted to their children?

Answer: To parents who have great sins and vices (profligates, alcoholics, drug users, smokers, etc.) there may be born children with physical and mental illnesses. This is confirmed by medical studies as well. But here intervenes the Divine Grace present in the Holy Mysteries—Baptism, Chrismation, Holy Confession, Holy Communion, Holy Unction, and Marriage—which will help the child be saved. For example, a child who is born blind has other Divine gifts compared to a child who is born healthy, in order to live in this life and be saved. But the sins which parents commit after the child’s birth may also have negative repercussions on the spiritual and bodily state of the child. Moreover, through the poor education they give to a child, parents can instill passions in his heart which are destructive to the soul. We have examples in the Holy Scripture and in Holy Tradition that from pure and righteous parents there have been born children who became saints, such as the Mother of God, St. John the Baptist, etc.

2. On Humble-mindedness

Question: St. Silouan the Athonite says that the only thing a Christian should learn as long as he lives in this earthly life is humble-mindedness [7].

Answer: That’s true, father. The Christian should first learn what humility is in order to be able to humble himself afterwards, in every moment of his life, before people and the demons [8]. In this way he will grow spiritually, and his heart will be filled with the Grace and fragrance of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Holy Trinity, the Mother of God, the Holy Angels and all the Saints will make their home in his heart. In short, his heart will become a spiritual Paradise. And if you have the Lord of Sabaoth, you will be happy wherever you are. Unfortunately, people today are educated in the spirit of self-love, pride, vainglory, dissoluteness, love of money, etc., and their heart becomes a hell, full of sins and unclean spirits. Thus, the proud man tortures himself and tortures others, too. Humble-mindedness is a Christian virtue which you should try to have every moment of your life.

Question: What is humility of heart?

Answer: Our Lord Jesus Christ teaches us: Learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls (Matt. 11:29). With the help of Divine Grace and our good Christian deeds, our stony hearts will change into spiritual hearts. That’s why God tells us, My son, give Me thine heart (Prov. 23:26). The eye of your heart should always be on God. Thus do we hope to be saved, and the Grace of the Holy Spirit will always help us.

3. The Means of Facilitating the Prayer

Question: The Athonite Fathers advise us to say the Jesus Prayer with repentance and not mechanically. What can you tell us about this?

Answer: The whole work of the Prayer of Jesus is for repentance! Because we pray: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” This means repentance. Because if you pray without repentance it means that you have high-mindedness and are on the wrong path. Why do we pray to our Lord Jesus Christ to have mercy on us? Because we’re sinners. So, we say this prayer only for repentance. If you have high-mindedness, no matter how little, God will not have mercy on you. The devil knows this, because he fell due to his high-mindedness. Because of this, the devil sows the passions in the heart of any man in the world, through his high-mindedness. The enemy whispers to us, “Glory to God! You’re a monk. You’re not like other people. You’re a sinner but you’re not like other people.” This is spiritual destruction for a Christian. The more important the gifts are that you have received from God—whether you are a bishop, priest, deacon, monk, doctor, professor, engineer, etc.—the more indebted to God you should consider yourself to be, and more sinful than other people. If the Holy Apostle Paul—who was raised up to the third heaven and who saw Mysteries which eye hath not seen … neither have entered into the heart of man (I Cor. 2:9), humbles himself, saying, Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief (I Tim. 1:15)—then what can we take pride in, who are full of passions and sins? Because the more you purify yourself of your sins and draw near to God, in the Divine Light you see your passions and sins in their true magnitude, and the darkness in your heart.

So, if you consider yourself to be more sinful than all people and even than the demons who enslave you in every bad thing, then the Holy Spirit will descend upon you. High-mindedness is very harmful for our spiritual life! That’s why St. John of Damascus says in the Canons to the Mother of God, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, by the prayers of Thine All-pure Mother, have mercy on me, a sinner, who am more sinful than any man in the world!” He did not say this out of formality, but thanks to his humble-mindedness he considered himself more sinful than any man in the world. Only in this way will the All-good God help us to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, because a humble sinner is better before God than a proud righteous man. He who has every good deed but is high-minded will be left by God to fall into sins and to be humbled in this way. That is why our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. The Pharisee had good deeds, but his mind became exalted, and he said, “I am not like everyone else and like that greedy Publican.” God did not bless him for this high-mindedness. And the Publican didn’t even dare look up to heaven and said, “Good Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!” And God, because of his humbleness, blessed him. Thus, he left the Temple justified and blessed by the Grace of the Holy Spirit.

Question: How can we defeat a powerful angry thought?

Answer: This spirit of anger comes because you do not have humble-mindedness. But you should struggle, because in a moment of rage your mind and reason darken and you can do many evils. You should humble yourself, ask for forgiveness and pray to God to help you, because our Lord Jesus Christ told us, Without Me ye can do nothing (John 15:5). That’s why we become angry: because we’re proud, we pretend that we’re someone important and that we’re right.

Question: It often happens that we have many obediences within the community life of the monastery, and I’m saddened because I don’t have time enough for prayer and reading.

Answer: Father, if you endure obedience without murmuring, God will send down upon you the Grace of the Holy Spirit, and the humble prayers which you also make are received by Divine Goodness. When you do your obedience without murmuring, you have peace of soul. You should do your obedience as a son of God by Grace and not as a slave or an animal. If you’re taken and given another obedience, you should not murmur, but say, “This was God’s will! I’ll do it with all my love.” And God will bless you with His Grace.

Question: However, I have this spiritual dissatisfaction because I can’t pray, I can’t fulfill my rule of prayers and prostrations!

Answer: It doesn’t matter! Be at peace! God will give you what you could not fulfill because of the blessed reasons. Be patient! All will pass—may the Good Lord grant you patience! Remember that patience is baked at midnight (prayer) and is eaten in the daytime. If you did not pray at midnight, you will not be patient in the daytime. The Holy Apostles were unable to keep vigil together with the Savior Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, and that’s why they did not have the Divine power to resist the temptations of the next day. A little patience! In your patience possess ye your souls (Luke 21:19).

Question: I am attacked by evil thoughts, blasphemous thoughts. Are they from the demons? They do not leave me alone in the Church either! What shall I do?

Answer: Pay no attention to them! Leave them alone. Let them howl in your mind. Pray to God with humility: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Thus, they’ll pass by themselves, naturally. Because if you stay and converse with them and the enemy sees this, they’ll give you trouble. You should say in your mind: “I’m a monk and I believe and do everything the Holy Orthodox Church teaches me!”

Question: I torture myself the most when I judge my neighbor!

Answer: Father, the greatest danger for each of us is when we judge others. Do you know why? When you judge your neighbor, and especially priests, your father confessor, or your elder, the first thing that will happen is that the bodily passions will fight you more than at other times. This is allowed by God because you did not pay attention to your own sins and judged others instead. But we should arm ourselves with the sharpest sword against the demons and their wiles, which is humble-mindedness. Thus, if you see a man committing a sin, say in your mind, “I’m much worse than he is.” But not only with your lips—you should be convinced that you really are worse than he is. Even if I didn’t commit that sin in deed, I did it by desire, by thought, or by agreeing to it. And I’m a monk (for a monk, a sin committed in thought is as severe as a sin committed in deed by a layman). Furthermore, we don’t have the right to judge anyone. Our Lord Jesus Christ tells us, Judge not, that ye be not judged (Matt. 7:1). Because if we judge, we’re proud and God will allow us to fall into great sins in order to humble us so we can see our sins. And if we humble ourselves, God will remove that passion and the warfare which comes upon us from the demons. Because humble-mindedness drives the devil away like fire. But we should be in a state of watchfulness and discernment in everything.

Question: How can we be united with God?

Answer: You should purify your soul and body from all the passions and, little by little, you’ll come to perfect love for God. But you should partake of the Grace of God in the Holy Mysteries, pray much, fast, keep vigil, and perform other good Christian works in order to establish humble-mindedness in your mind and heart. Being humble-minded, praying, and having discernment, a man draws near to God with spiritual joy. Thus, he will have many temptations, especially so as to be humbled. No matter what spiritual step you are on, if you are not humble-minded the enemies will knock you down in a moment. On the foundation of humble-mindedness you can build all good works: obedience, spiritual tears, Divine love….

Question: How can a Christian find quietness for praying, a Christian who lives in the tumult and noise of a city?

Answer: We should try to obtain as much as possible! We should not be negligent. Because negligence is the greatest danger for the soul of each man. It means you have no mercy for your own soul, and thus you’re in great spiritual danger. You didn’t do your [prayer] rule? Negligence tells you, “It doesn’t matter.” You didn’t fast? Negligence tells you, “It doesn’t matter.” Did you commit fornication? Negligence tells you, “It doesn’t matter.” We should strive as much as we can and God will help us to be saved. The greater the temptations are, the greater the Grace of God will be and the greater the crown. But God will not allow us to be tempted above our strength. If we have prayer and purity of soul and body, the Grace of the Holy Spirit will descend upon us and all great difficulties will easily be solved. These hard times for the salvation of our soul were prophesied by the Holy Fathers. A disciple asked his Elder, “Father, look, we’re powerless and the enemy fights us. If that’s the way it is as now, what will it be like in the last times?” The Elder responded, “Son, in the last times, the monks will be like laymen and the laymen will be like demons!” But I know people who live in the center of Bucharest and lead a pure and spiritual life.

Question: Christianity is the religion of love. But there are Christians who say that they can’t love their neighbor even with a natural, human love. What shall we say about Divine, holy love?

Answer: This happens because their heart is full of desires and sins. But man is not born with passions. He’s born pure. With the passage of years, through everything he does, he acquires his passions. Sin enters your nature after you start embracing and loving it. Man is not created by God to be bad. By no means! Man is good, but his education and society corrupt him. But let us strive for salvation of soul and God will help us.

Question: This year, when I drew near the Holy Mountain by ship, a bad spirit was fighting me to go back. Was it a demonic or worldly spirit?

Answer: Father, the demonic and worldly spirit are one and the same! The worldly spirit is a demonic work. The Holy Apostle John said almost two thousand years ago, The whole world lieth in wickedness (I John 5:19). This means that the world is led by and works with the spirit of pride, love of money, vainglory, profligacy, theft, lying, etc.

5. On Gathering the Mind*

Question: When we say the Jesus Prayer aloud, it can be spoken or chanted. Which way is the best?

Answer: Spoken.

Question: I have read in the writings of the Holy Fathers that if we speak the Prayer, demonic thoughts can enter into the pauses between the words.

Answer: Demonic thoughts can come in if you chant it, too. The most important thing is to be humble-minded, and for your mind to be attentive to the words of the Prayer and not wander about everywhere. Your mind, spirit, and heart should be directed towards our Lord Jesus Christ. We should make an effort, and the Grace of the Holy Spirit will help us pray.

Question: Owing to worldly worries and demonic and human temptations, our mind is scattered all the time. How can we gather our mind under such conditions?

Answer: The Holy Apostle Paul teaches us: Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks (I Thess. 5:17–18). We should pray with repentance and with humble-mindedness and have hope in the goodness of God, Who has helped us so many times in our prayers.

Question: When you pray reading the Psalter, Akathists, the Prayer Rule, or the Seven Praises [9], the heart warms up. Can this warmth of heart be used in order to concentrate ourselves when we say the Jesus Prayer?

Answer: Father, these are subtle things. But if you have spiritual joy and the peace of the Holy Spirit is within you, there’s no need to search whether it’s in the heart, the mind or the soul. Because if it’s in the mind it’s also in the heart, and if it’s in the heart it’s also in the mind and in the soul. If it’s in the mind, it’s also in the heart and if it’s in the heart it’s also in the mind, because that spiritual joy is a Divine work. It’s impossible for there to be gladness in one place and discontent in another. Because the gift of the Holy Spirit sanctifies a man entirely when it descends upon him. The man is all spiritual joy.

Question: While practicing the Jesus Prayer, there may occur a pain in the heart. Is it a good thing to concentrate on that place?

Answer: At such times you can’t say the prayer with the lips, but only with the mind. The heart is not in a state of illness, as some practitioners of the Jesus Prayer wrongly think. In those moments, the heart experiences spiritual joy and spiritual tears course down from the eyes.

Question: If you say the Jesus Prayer for a long time, does the mind get tired?

Answer: Of course. It’s very important that the mind be pure and peaceful, because if it’s occupied with thoughts it gets tired more rapidly. And if the devil also meddles with his temptations, the mind becomes darkened and scattered and will have to labor spiritually for a longer time. That’s why the Holy Fathers left all worldly worries and went to the desert or to the heart of the mountains, so as not to see or hear anything, and they would eat a little piece of dried bread every few days. Living this way they would purify their minds perfectly and draw them closer to the good Heavenly Father. But we have testimony from the Holy Fathers that there were people even in royal palaces who had the Jesus Prayer. At that time there were more pure people who were more pleasing to God than there are nowadays.

Question: When the mind becomes tired from saying the Jesus Prayer, is it good to read the Psalter, Akathists, the writings of the Holy Fathers, or to sing troparia or the Doxology?

Answer: Until the Jesus Prayer is established perfectly within us, we will not be able to say it ceaselessly. It is good to alternate and say other prayers too, or to read or sing religious songs. However, blessed physical labor will also help us very much. Even if we have the Jesus Prayer, we should not give up the rule of prayers and prostrations which we have received from our father confessor.

Question: On Holy Mount Athos, I saw that there are cells in which the Athonite Fathers do their [prayer] rule and the Seven Praises saying the Jesus Prayer.

Answer: It’s true. But our father confessors advise us that the rule should not be omitted for any reason. In church, in some sketes and cells they replace the Seven Praises with the Jesus Prayer. One of the Fathers comes to the kliros [10] and utters aloud one hundred times: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Then another father takes his place and so on, for a time equivalent to the Seven Praises. The other fathers who are in the church listen attentively and repentantly. The old fathers said that while they were practicing the Seven Praises in this way in the church of the St. Anne Skete, an Elder saw the Savior Jesus Christ coming down in the midst of them.

6. Learning the Jesus Prayer

Question: How is it better to learn the Jesus Prayer: synchronized with your breathing or synchronized with your heartbeat?

Answer: I believe it’s easier to learn the Jesus Prayer with the breathing. St. John Climacus says that your prayer should be united with your breathing. Just as you breathe in order to be able to live, so should you pray in order to feed your soul with the Grace of the Holy Spirit. When you breathe in, say, “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God,” and when you breathe out, say, “have mercy on me, a sinner!” Since you’re a sinner, you should cast the passions and sins out of your heart and introduce our Lord Jesus Christ into your heart. Because you direct all the passions and sins into your heart with your thinking. Through the Jesus Prayer we aim at drawing Jesus Christ into our heart when we say, “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God”; and when we say, “have mercy on me, a sinner!” we drive out the passions and sins which are there in our heart. Calling upon the name of Jesus Christ ceaselessly, a Christian becomes deified. But care, perseverance, and quietness of mind are needed. That’s why the Fathers left for the desert, for remote places, in order to have quietness and to be able to concentrate their mind. With much speaking, even if it’s beneficial, you can fail. St. Arsenius the Great said, “I have regretted speaking, but I have never regretted being silent.” But we who talk all the time and waste our time uselessly—how can we say, “Lord Jesus Christ?” Regarding the learning of the Jesus Prayer, whether based on breathing or on the heartbeat, every Christian should conclude, from his own experience, which method is more useful.

Question: Since nowadays we no longer have hesychia, stillness of mind, is it appropriate to take part in the liturgical life as often as possible (the Holy Liturgy, Confession, Holy Communion, Holy Unction) in order to purify ourselves from sins and to pray more easily?

Answer: The Fathers who teach such things take into account the weakness and the worries of modern-day people. That’s why, instead of staying at home and praying on a little stool, it’s better to take part in the Holy Liturgy, to confess and receive the Eucharist with the help of the Grace of the Holy Spirit present in the Holy Mysteries, to listen carefully to the prayers, chants and teachings of the Church so your heart can be purified by the Grace of the Holy Spirit. But preparation is necessary for Holy Communion, as the Holy Apostle Paul teaches us.

Question: The Jesus Prayer may be uttered with pain of heart. How do you recommend our Christians to practice it?

Answer: One must say the Jesus Prayer with a heart broken through suffering, so that spiritual tears will course down from your eyes. This is a Divine gift which very few acquire. So, we should say the prayer calmly, with discernment—because if you do not have discernment, other temptations may occur, such as damage to the heart, mental illnesses, etc. Our tempter has a treasury of evils and has grown old in evil. He even dared to tempt our Lord Jesus Christ.

Question: Is the sensing of God in our heart a prayer too?

Answer: Yes, it is. The feeling of God in your heart is also a prayer. But this is a great Divine gift. When you have the presence of God in your heart you don’t use words anymore, so as to keep the spiritual joy in your heart as long as possible. If you have fear of God in your heart, everything you do will draw you near to God, everything will purify you of sin and you will feel the presence of God in your heart as spiritual joy, peace, Divine love.… Because we learn from the Holy Gospels that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Ps. 110:9). There’s a great deal of human wisdom now. So many things have been discovered and invented. But very few of the wise men of this world give glory to God, Who gave them the mind, wisdom and power to discover and create these things. Most of them say, “I did it!” But there is no passion worse than egotism before God. No action, no deed that is done egotistically, is accepted by God. Thus, the proud man, no matter what he does, descends moment by moment, hour by hour, into the depths of hell.

7. Mistakes in Practicing the Jesus Prayer

Question: What are the more serious mistakes made by those who practice the Jesus Prayer?

Answer: Pride of the mind is the greatest danger and few are delivered from it. You can defeat it only if you are humble-minded. But humble-mindedness should be firmly rooted in your soul, heart and thinking. Humble-mindedness is a virtue which is acquired through great efforts and spiritual struggles. We must fight, and the All-good God, seeing our pains, will not leave us to be defeated by the demons. We must be careful, especially with the sin of judging our neighbor. For instance, you see a man talking to a woman and start judging them, thinking that they’ll commit fornication. At that moment, the spirit of fornication will enter your soul, mind, and heart.

Question: While practicing the Jesus Prayer, there may occur in our heart a warmth which is from the spirit of fornication. How can we be delivered from this temptation?

Answer: Father, this is the biggest problem! If you do not have humility, then, no matter what you do, delusion and demonic temptation will appear. That’s why the Holy Prophet David tells us, I was brought low and He saved me (Ps. 114:6)! We can be delivered from all the temptations you enumerated in your book The Prayer of Jesus: The Way of Uniting the Mind with the Heart, and from others which you did not enumerate, if we have humble-mindedness. The devil can’t enter the heart of a man who has humble-mindedness. The most powerful weapon against the demons that each of us has is humble-mindedness. It’s not prostrations or fasting or all-night vigils, because if you don’t have humble-mindedness, at the first demonic attack your soul will be defiled by the wicked spirits of fornication, vainglory, anger, etc. So, if you don’t have humble-mindedness, salvation is difficult and full of temptations. These temptations are allowed by God so that you can see your infirmities and humble yourself. See what the Holy Apostle Paul tells us: We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against … spiritual wickedness in high places (Eph. 6:12). But we cannot conquer unless we have humble-mindedness! If you say with humble-mindedness: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” the hostile devil will not be able to draw near us with his temptations. The tempter, the devil, draws near when we become high-minded or accept thoughts and words of pride and vainglory from people or demons; for instance: “See how much you’ve advanced in praying!” or, “You can see that you’re not like others!” In fact, this is the goal toward which the devil strives in order to make us high-minded, and in this way to deprive us of prayer.

Question: But can the devil attack us with thoughts of anger, envy, hatred, fornication and other similar thoughts?

Answer: Yes. That’s why you should uproot your main passions from your heart—through Confession, penance, prayer, good deeds, and almsgiving.

Question: But the Holy Fathers say that the practice of the Jesus Prayer helps the most with the quelling of a man’s passions!

Answer: Of course! These must be done together: the Jesus Prayer along with the good Christian works which I mentioned before. The Jesus Prayer changes the old man into the new, spiritual, Divine man. When you establish Jesus Christ in your mind, soul and heart, you have become a throne of Divinity, a temple of the Holy Spirit. And Divine Grace brings purity and holiness to your mind, soul, and heart. But for this we must make an effort. Before receiving Communion of the Holy Mysteries, we should purify our soul and body, saying the Jesus Prayer. And when we want to sleep, we should say the Jesus Prayer. The Grace of the Holy Spirit and our guardian angel will be with us if we fall asleep having the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in our mind.

Question: What can you tell us about warmth of the kidneys, which is natural, and which can occur during the practice of the Jesus Prayer?

Answer: The Holy Neptic [11] Saints teach us that this warmth which comes from the kidneys is a natural warmth, which is born of the work of the will. This warmth brings harshness, agitation and coldness into the soul. One who prays should avoid this warmth while practicing this prayer. He should pay no attention to it, and should not concentrate on it. It’s good to do physical work, which will lead to the disappearance of this warmth. It’s not an easy thing to reach perfection by means of the Jesus Prayer, but we should labor and fight spiritually, because God does not ask anything of us that is beyond our strength.

Question: If you pray while having bad thoughts (of pride, anger, fornication, etc.), can these irritate the other fathers and brothers in the monastery too?

Answer: If you have bad spirits in your heart while practicing the Prayer, they will fight against the other fathers and brothers in the monastery, too.

Question: How is it better to say the Prayer of Jesus, in the full or the short form? “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” or, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!” or, “Jesus, have mercy on me!” or, “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!”

Answer: It depends on one’s mind and on his spiritual state. It’s best to say it completely, because in this case we recognize the Divinity of our Savior Jesus Christ, we ask for His mercy and we acknowledge our sinfulness. But when there’s much disturbance within us and outside us and we can’t concentrate anymore, then we cry with repentance, “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” It’s important to cry out with repentance!

Question: What is good for a beginner to do in order to learn and practice the Jesus Prayer?

Answer: First of all, with the help of Divine Grace, a beginner should stop committing great sins. For this a beginner should look for a good spiritual father for Confession and in order to make a good Christian beginning. Then, he should regularly attend the Divine Liturgy, as often as possible; he should fulfill his daily rule of prayers and prostrations given by his spiritual father, and practice the Jesus Prayer twice a day for at least fifteen minutes, in a quiet place. He should learn and practice the foundation of all good works, the virtue of humble-mindedness, because if you do not humble yourself before God, men, and demons [12] you will lose everything. He should cut off his own will, live in obedience, and accept joyfully whatever happens to him. Failure to cut off one’s own will, contradicting others, and justifying oneself represent the beginning of high-mindedness.… That’s why you should humble yourself and be obedient. When you are sincere, not doubting, but have humble-mindedness, the Grace of the Holy Spirit will descend upon you. This is a good foundation and you will be able to grow spiritually, fighting against temptations, having the Jesus Prayer as an unconquerable weapon. If you have humble-mindedness, you can defeat the passions. This does not mean that you have become perfect; but when you have the Grace of humble-mindedness, with the help of God’s power you can struggle against the passions, sinful men, and the demons.

Question: How can we keep our mind purified from evil thoughts?

Answer: If you humble yourself, the Grace of the Holy Spirit will keep your mind pure. But if you do not obey, if you do not cut off your will, if you do not humble yourself, you distance yourself from God’s Grace and cannot resist unclean, demonic thoughts.

Question: Are there moments in which God’s Grace leaves us?

Answer: The moments in which God’s Grace leaves us are those in which we commit great sins. But he who has humble-mindedness is never abandoned by God.

Endnotes

* Webmaster Note: The original article sections were misnumbered. There was no part 4.

  1. The Othodox Word, no. 217 (2001), pp. 85–101.
  2. See The Othodox Word, no. 216 (2001), pp. 19–25; and no. 217, pp. 94–95.
  3. See The Othodox Word, no. 220 (2001), pp. 228–40.
  4. See The Othodox Word, no. 216 (2001), pp. 13–19.
  5. See ibid.
  6. Not yet translated into English.—Ed.
  7. The Romanian phrase smerita cugetare, literally “humble thinking,” is translated here as “humble-mindedness.” This is distinct from smerenie, humility.—Ed.
  8. In saying that we should humble ourselves before demons, the Elder is obviously not saying that we should acquiesce to them. Rather, we should repel their attempts to sow the seeds of pride in us, and at the same time we should not pridefully think we can overcome their temptations on our own, without God’s help.—Ed.
  9. Another name given to the daily cycle of Church services.—Ed.
  10. Kliros: the place in church where the services are read and sung.—Ed.
  11. Neptic: from the Greek word nepsis, meaning spiritual watchfulness and sobriety.
  12. See note 2 on p. 11 above.

Translated from the Romanian by Gratia-Lavinia Constantinescu. From The Orthodox Word, Vol. 41, No. 1 (#240—Jan-Feb, 2005), pp. 5-26. Posted on 6 Dec, 2005 (n.s.).