On the Prayer of Jesus. From the ascetic essays of Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov.
The Danger of Delusion
I offer fathers and brothers my poor advice, begging them not to reject my poor advice. Do not force yourself prematurely to the discovery within yourself of the action of the Prayer of the Heart. Prudent caution is most necessary, especially in our time when it is almost impossible to find a satisfactory guide in these matters, when the ascetic must himself force his way gropingly by the direction of the writings of the Holy Fathers to the treasury of spiritual knowledge, and also must gropingly select for himself what is suited to his needs. While living according to the commandments of the Gospel, attentively practice the Prayer of Jesus according to the method of St. John Climacus, combining prayer with weeping, having as the beginning and end of prayer repentance. In its own time, known to God, the action of the Prayer of the Heart will be revealed of itself. Such action, revealed by the touch of the finger of God, is more excellent than that which is acquired by vigorously forcing oneself by means of material aids. It is more excellent in many respects. It is far more extensive and voluminous, far more abundant. It is quite safe from delusion and other dangers. He who receives in this way sees in what he receives only the mercy of God, a gift of God, while he who attains by the vigorous use of material aids, though seeing the gift of God, cannot fail to see his own effort and labor, he cannot fail to see his own mechanical aid which he has used, he cannot fail to ascribe to it special importance. This in the subtle way of the spirit is a considerable defect, a considerable obstacle, a considerable hindrance to the development of spiritual proficiency. For the development of spiritual proficiency there is no end, no limit. An insignificant, unnoticed hope or trust in something outside God can stop the advance of progress and proficiency, in which faith in God is leader, guide, legs and wings. “Christ for the believer is all,” said St. Mark. (Mark the Ascetic, “On the Spiritual Law” 4, Philokalia 1, p. 110)
Of those who have used with special diligence the material aids very few have attained success, but very many have deranged and harmed themselves. With an experienced director the use of the material aids incurs little danger; but with the guidance of books it is very dangerous since it is so easy, through ignorance and imprudence, to fall into delusion and other kinds of spiritual and bodily disorder. Thus some, on seeing the harmful consequences of indiscreet labor and having only a superficial and confused idea of the Prayer of Jesus and the circumstances that accompany it, attributed these consequences not to ignorance and imprudence but to the most holy Prayer of Jesus itself. Can anything be sadder and more disastrous than this blasphemy, this delusion?
In teaching the Prayer of the Heart the Holy Fathers did not say exactly in which part of the heart it ought to be performed, probably because in those times there was no need for such instruction. St. Nicephorus says, as of something well known, that the power of speech is located in the breast and that when this faculty is aroused to participation in the prayer, the heart is also aroused to such participation. (“On Watchfulness,” Philokalia 4, p. 206.) It is difficult for those who know something thoroughly in all its details to foresee and anticipate with a solution all the questions and problems that may arise from complete ignorance. Where ignorance sees darkness, knowledge finds nothing obscure. In later times a vague reference to the heart in the patristic writings caused great perplexity and a wrong practice of prayer in those who without a director and without studying with due care the writings of the Fathers, on the basis of superficial ideas snatched from a hasty reading, decided to engage in the artistic Prayer of the Heart, putting all their hope and trust in the material aids to its practice. A definite explanation of this subject has therefore become indispensable.
The human heart has the shape of an oblong bag which widens upwards and narrows towards the base. It is fastened by its upper extremity which is opposite the left nipple of the breast, but its lower part which descends towards the end of the ribs is free; when shaken, this shaking is called the beating of the heart. Many, having no idea of the arrangement of the heart, think that their heart is where they feel its beating. In undertaking on their own the practice of the Prayer of the Heart and in trying to lead their breathing into their heart, they direct it to just that part of the heart and cause carnal excitement there. Then when this greatly increases the beating of the heart they invite it to themselves and thrust on themselves a wrong state and delusion. The monk Basil and the elder Paisii Velichkovsky say that many of their contemporaries harmed themselves by misusing material aids. And in later times cases of derangement caused in this way were frequently met. In fact they are met even now, although the disposition to practice the Prayer of Jesus has decreased almost to vanishing point. One is bound to meet them. They are the inevitable consequence of ignorant, self-directed, conceited, premature, and proud zeal, and finally of a complete lack of experienced directors. The monk Basil, referring to St. Theophylact and other Fathers, affirms that the three powers of the soul, the power of speech (or reason), the power of fervor, and the power of desire are disposed thus: the power of speech (reason), or the spirit of the man, is present in the breast and in the upper part of the heart; the power of fervor in the middle part; and the power of desire or natural cupidity in the lower part.(“Introduction to St. Gregory of Sinai” in Elder Basil of Poiana Marului (1692–1767), His Life and Writings, tr. A Monk of the Brotherhood of Prophet Elias Skete, Mount Athos (Liberty, Tenn.: St. John of Kronstadt Press, 1966), p. 50.) He who tries to set in motion and warm the lower part of the heart, sets in motion the power of cupidity which, on account of the nearness to it of the sexual parts and on account of their nature, sets in motion those parts. The most violent burning of carnal desire follows an ignorant use of a material aid. What a strange phenomenon! An ascetic apparently engages in prayer, but the occupation produces lust which it ought to mortify. And ignorance, having misused a material aid, ascribes to the Prayer of Jesus what it ought to ascribe to misuse.
The Prayer of the Heart springs from the union of the mind with the spirit which were separated by the fall and are united by the grace of redemption. In the human spirit are concentrated feelings of conscience, humility, meekness, love for God and one’s neighbor, and other similar properties. During prayer the action of these properties needs to be united with the action of the mind. All one’s attention should be directed to this end. This union is affected by the finger of God, Who alone can heal the wound of the fall. But the practicer of prayer shows the sincerity of his will to receive healing by his constant perseverance in prayer, by shutting his mind in the words of the prayer, and by exterior and interior activity according to the commandments of the Gospel, which render the spirit capable of union with the mind of the person praying. In addition to this, the artistic direction of the mind toward the seat of speech in the upper part of the heart helps to some extent. Generally speaking, excessive exertion in the use of this material aid is harmful as it arouses material warmth. Warmth of flesh and blood should have no place in prayer.
On account of its soul-saving effect upon us of prayer in general, and of the remembrance of God or the Prayer of Jesus in particular, as means to remaining in constant union with God and to constantly repulsing the attacks of the enemy, engagement in the Prayer of Jesus is especially hateful to the devil. Those who pray in the name of the Lord Jesus are liable to special persecution by the devil. “All the labor and all the care of our adversary,” says St. Macarius the Great, “consists in trying to divert our thought from the remembrance of God and from love for Him. To this end he uses the charm of the world, and draws us away from the true good to false, unreal goods.”(Cf. “Discourse 1,” Philokalia 3, pp. 289–90.) Therefore he who has consecrated himself to the true service of God must specially guard himself against letting his thoughts wander by the unceasing Prayer of Jesus and must on no account allow himself to be mentally idle. Without paying any attention to the thoughts and images that make their appearance, he must constantly return to prayer by the name of Jesus as to a harbor or haven, believing that Jesus indefatigably takes care of that servant of His who keeps near Him constantly by the unwearying remembrance of Him.
“The wicked demons,” says St. Nilus the Sinaite, “at night try to disturb the spiritual workers themselves, but during the day they do so through men by surrounding him with calumnies, adversities and mishaps.”(“On Prayer” 139, Philokalia 1, p. 70. The author is in fact Evagrius of Pontus (d. 399).) This order in the satanic struggle is soon observed in actual experience by every practicer of prayer. The demons tempt by thoughts, by mental images, by the remembrance of the most needed objects, by reflections on apparently spiritual subjects, by arousing anxiety and worry and various fears and apprehensions, and by other manifestations of unbelief. In all the varied conflicts of the demons, a sense of disturbance or agitation always serves as a true sign of the approach of fallen spirits, even though the action produced by them has an appearance of justice. To ascetics living in solitude and praying vigorously, devils appear in the form of monsters, in the form of tempting objects, sometimes in the form of radiant angels, martyrs, saints, and even Christ Himself. One should not fear the threats of the devils, and toward all apparitions in general one should maintain an attitude of extreme incredulity. In such cases, which however are rare, our foremost duty is to have recourse to God, to surrender ourselves wholly to His will, and to ask for His help. We should pay no attention to the apparitions and not enter into relations or conversation with them, regarding ourselves as unfit to deal with hostile spirits and unworthy to converse with holy spirits.