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The Jesus Prayer
Fr. Lev Gillet
Online book of “The Jesus Prayer”. A classic treatise on the Jesus Prayer written by Fr. Lev.Gillet,also known through many of his writings as “A Monk of the Eastern Church”.
1. THE SHAPE OF THE INVOCATION OF THE NAME
… And Jacob asked him and said: Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said: Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there. Genesis 32:29
The invocation of the Name of Jesus can be put into many frames. It is for each person to find the form which is the most appropriate to his or her own prayer. But, whatever formula maybe used, the heart and centre of the invocation must be the Holy Name itself, the word Jesus. There resides the whole strength of the invocation.
The Name of Jesus may either be used alone or be inserted in a more or less developed phrase. In the East the commonest form is: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” One might simply say: “Jesus Christ”, or “Lord Jesus”. The invocation may even be reduced to one single word “Jesus”.
This last form—the Name of Jesus only—is that most ancient mould of the invocation of the Name. It is the shortest, the simplest and, as we think, the easiest. Therefore, without depreciating the other formulas, we suggest that the word “Jesus” alone should be used.
Thus, when we speak of the invocation of the Name, we mean the devout and frequent repetition of the Name itself, of the word “Jesus” without additions. The Holy Name is the prayer.
The Name of Jesus maybe either pronounced or silently thought. In both cases there is a real invocation of the Name, verbal in the first case, and purely mental in the second. This prayer affords an easy transition from verbal to mental prayer. Even the verbal repetition of the Name, if it is slow and thoughtful, makes us pass to mental prayer and disposes the soul to contemplation.
2. THE PRACTICE OF THE INVOCATION OF THE NAME
… And I will wait on thy name. Psalm 52:9.
The invocation of the Name may be practiced anywhere and at any time. We can pronounce the Name of Jesus in the streets, in the place of our work, in our room, in church, etc. We can repeat the Name while we walk. Besides that “free” use of the Name, not determined or limited by any rule, it is good to set apart certain times and certain places for a “regular” invocation of the Name. One who is advanced in that way of prayer may dispense with such arrangements. But they are an almost necessary condition for beginners.
If we daily assign a certain time to the invocation of the Name (besides the “free” invocation which should be as frequent as possible), the invocation ought to be practiced—circumstances allowing—in a lonely and quiet place : “Thou, when thou prayest, enter into thine inner chamber, and, when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret” (Matthew 6:6). The bodily posture does not matter much. One may walk, or sit down, or lie, or kneel. The best posture is the one which affords most physical quiet and inner concentration. One may be helped by a physical attitude expressing humbleness and worship.
Before beginning to pronounce the Name of Jesus, establish peace and recollection within yourself and ask for the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Ghost. “No man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost” (Α Corinthians 12:3). The Name of Jesus cannot really enter a heart that is not being filled by the cleansing breath and the flame of the Spirit. The Spirit himself will breathe and light in us the Name of the Son.
Then simply begin. In order to walk one must take a first step; in order to swim one must throw oneself into the water. It is the same with the invocation of the Name. Begin to pronounce it with adoration and love. Cling to it. Repeat it. Do not think that you are invoking the Name; think only of Jesus himself. Say his Name slowly, softly and quietly.
A common mistake of beginners is to wish to associate the invocation of the Holy Name with inner intensity or emotion. They try to say it with great force. But the Name of Jesus is not to be shouted, or fashioned with violence, even inwardly. When Elijah was commanded to stand before the Lord, there was a great and strong wind, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire came a still small voice, “And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood…” (I Kings 19.13) Strenuous exertion and the search for intensity will be of no avail. As you repeat the Holy Name, gather quieti little by little, your thoughts and feelings and around it; gather-.around it your whole being. Let the name penetrate your soul as a drop of oil spreads out and impregnates a cloth. Let nothing of yourself escape. Surrender your whole self and enclose it within the Name.
Even in the act of invocation of the Name, its literal repetition ought not to be continuous. The Name pronounced maybe extended and prolonged in seconds or minutes of silent rest and attention. The repetition of the Name may be likened to the beating of wings by which a bird rises into the air. It must never be labored and forced, or hurried, or in the nature of a flapping. It must be gentle, easy and~ let us give to this word its deepest meaning-graceful. When the bird has reached the desired height it glides in its flight, and only beats its wing from time to time in order to stay in the air. So the soul, having attained to the thought of Jesus and filled herself with the memory of him, may discontinue the repetition of the Name and rest in Our Lord. The repetition will only be resumed when other thoughts threaten to crowd out the thought of Jesus. Then the invocation will start again in order to gain fresh impetus.
Continue this invocation for as long as you wish or as you can. The prayer is naturally interrupted by tiredness. Then do not insist. But resume it at any time and wherever you maybe, when you feel again so inclined. In time you will find that the name of Jesus will spontaneously come to your lips and almost continuously be present to your mind, though in a quiescent and latent manner. Even your sleep will be impregnated with the Name and memory of Jesus. “I sleep, but my heart waketh” (Song of Songs 5:2).
When we are engaged in the invocation of the Name, it is natural that we should hope and endeavor to reach some “positive” or “tangible” result, i.e., to feel that we have established a real contact with the person of Our Lord: “If I may but touch his garment, I shall be whole” (Matthew 9:21). This blissful experience is the desirable climax of the invocation of the Name : “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me” (Genesis 32:26). But we must avoid an overeager longing for such experiences; religious emotion may easily become a disguise for some dangerous kind of greed and sensuousness. Let us not think that, if we have spent a certain time in the invocation of the Name without “feeling” anything, our time has been wasted and our effort unfruitful. On the contrary this apparently barren prayer may be more pleasing to God than our moments of rapture, because it is pure from any selfish quest for spiritual delight. It is the prayer of the plain and naked will. We should therefore persevere in assigning every day some regular and fixed time to the invocation of the Name, even if it seems to us that this prayer leaves us cold and dry; and such an earnest exertion of the will, such a sober “waiting” on the Name cannot fail to bring us some blessing and strength.
Moreover, the invocation of the Name seldom leaves us in a state of dryness. Those who have some experience of it agree that it is very often accompanied by an inner feeling of joy, warmth and light. One has an impression of moving and walking in the light. There is in this prayer no heaviness, no languishing, no struggling. “Thy name is as ointment poured forth… Draw me; we will run after thee” (Song of Songs 1:3-4).
3. THE INVOCATION OF THE NAME AS A SPIRITUAL WAY
I will strengthen them in the Lord, and they shall walk tip and down in his name. Zechariah 10:22
The invocation of the Name of Jesus maybe simply an episode on our spiritual way (an episode is, etymologically, something that happens “on the way”). Or it may be for us a way, one spiritual way among others. Or it may be the way, the spiritual way which we definitely and predominantly (if not exclusively) choose. In other terms the invocation of the Name maybe for us either a transitory act, a prayer which we use for a time and leave it for others; or-more than an act-a method which we continuously use, but in addition to other forms and methods of prayer; or the method around which we ultimately build and organize our whole spiritual life. It all depends on our personal call, circumstances and possibilities. Here we are only concerned with “beginners”, with those who wish to acquire the first notions about that prayer and a first contact with the Holy Name, and also with those who, having had this first contact, wish to enter “the way of the Name”. As to those who are already able to use the invocation of the Name as a method or as the only method, they do not need our advice.
We must not come to the invocation of the Name through some whim or arbitrary decision of our own. We must be called to it, led to it by God. If we try to use the invocation of the Name as our main spiritual method, this choice ought to be made out of obedience to, a very special vocation. A spiritual practice and much more a spiritual system grounded on a mere caprice will miserably collapse. So we should be moved towards the Name of Jesus under the guidance of the Holy Spirit; then the invocation of the Name will be in us a fruit of the Spirit itself.
There is no infallible sign that we are called to the way of the Name. There may be, however, some indications of this call, which we ought to consider humbly and carefully. If we feel drawn towards the invocation of the Name, if this practice produces in us an increase of charity, purity, obedience and peace, if the use of other prayers even is becoming somewhat difficult, we may, not unreasonably, assume that the way of the Name is open to us.
Anyone who feels the attraction of the way of the Name ought to be careful not to depreciate other forms of prayer. Let us not say: “The invocation of the Name is the best prayer”. The best prayer is for everybody the prayer to which he or she is moved by the Holy Spirit, whatever prayer it may be. He who practices the invocation of the Name must also curb the temptation of an indiscreet and premature propaganda on behalf of this form of prayer. Let us not hasten to say to God: “I will declare thy name unto my brethren” (Psalm 22:22), if he is not especially entrusting us with this mission. We should rather humbly keep the secrets of the Lord.
What we may say with soberness and truth is this. The invocation of the Name of Jesus simplifies and unifies our spiritual life. No prayer is simpler than this “one-word prayer” in which the Holy Name becomes the only focus of the whole life.
Complicated methods often tire and dissipate thought. But the Name of Jesus easily gathers everything into itself. It has a power of unification and integration. The divided personality which could say: “My name is legion, for we are many” (Mark 5:6) will recover its wholeness in the sacred Name:
” Unite my heart to fear thy name” (Psalm 86:11).
The invocation of the Name of Jesus ought not to be understood as a “mystical way” which might spare us the ascetical purifications. There is no short cut in spiritual life. The way of the Name implies a constant watch over our souls. Sin has to be avoided. Only there are two possible attitudes in this respect. Some may guard their mind, memory and will in order to say the Holy Name with greater recollection and love. Others will say the Holy Name in order to be more recollected and wholehearted in their love. To our mind the latter is the better way. The Name itself is a means of purification and perfection, a touchstone, a filter through which our thoughts, words and deeds have to pass to be freed from their impurities. None of them ought to be admitted by us until we pass them through the Name, and the Name excludes all sinful elements. Only that will be received which is compatible with the Name of Jesus. We shall fill our hearts to the brim with the Name and thought of Jesus, holding it carefully, like a precious vessel, and defending it against all alien tampering and admixture. This is a severe asceticism. It requires a forgetfulness of self, a dying to self, as the Holy Name grows in our souls: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
We have to consider the invocation of the Holy Name in relation to other forms of prayer. Of liturgical prayer and of the prayers fixed by some Community rule we shall say nothing, as we are only concerned here with individual and private prayer. We do not disparage or undervalue in the least liturgical prayer and the prayers settled by obedience. Their corporate character and their very fixity render them extremely helpful. But it is for Churchmen and Community members to ascertain whether or how far the invocation of the Name of Jesus is compatible, in their own case, with the official formularies. Questions may be raised about some other forms of individual prayer. What about the “dialogue prayer”, in which we listen and speak to God at about the purely contemplative and wordless prayer, “prayer of quiet” and “prayer of union”? Must we leave these for the invocation of the Holy Name, or inversely. Or should we use both? The answer must be left for God to give in each individual case. In some rare cases the divine call to the invocation of the Name maybe exclusive of all other forms of prayer. But we think that, generally speaking, the way of the Name is broad and free; it is, in most cases, perfectly compatible with moments of listening to the inner Word and answering it and with intervals of complete inner silence. Besides, we must never forget that the best form of prayer which we can make at any given moment is that to which we are moved by the Holy Spirit.
The advice and discreet guidance of some spiritual “elder” who has a personal experience of the way of the Name may very often be found useful by the beginner. We personally would recommend resort to some such conductor. It is, however, not indispensable. “When the Spirit of truth is come, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13).
4. THE INVOCATION OF THE NAME AS WORSHIP
… I will glorify thy name for evermore. Psalm 86:12
We have considered until now the invocation of the Name of Jesus in a general manner. Now we must consider the diverse aspects of this invocation. The first aspect is adoration and worship.
Too often our prayers are limited to petition, intercession and repentance. As we shall see the Name of Jesus can be used in all these ways. But the disinterested prayer, the praise given to God because of His own excellency the regard directed towards Him with the utmost respect and affection, the exclamation of Thomas: “My Lord and my God! “–this ought to come first.
The invocation of the Name of Jesus must bring Jesus to our mind. The Name is the symbol and bearer of the Person of Christ. Otherwise the invocation of the Name would, be mere verbal idolatry. “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life” (II Corinthians 3:6). The presence of Jesus is the real content and the substance of the Holy Name. The Name both signifies Jesus’ presence and brings its reality.
This leads to pure adoration. As we pronounce the Name, we should respond to the presence of Our Lord. “They… fell down and worshipped him” (Matthew 2:11). To pronounce thoughtfully the Name of Jesus is to know the allness of Our Lord and our own nothingness. In this knowledge we shall adore and worship. “God also hath highly exalted him and given him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow” (Philippians 2:9-10).