The Jesus Prayer – Hesychasm of the Greek Orthodox

Hesychasm and Pentecost realted

The Greek Orthodox Church is home to many traditions, and one distinct spiritual tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church is Hesychasm.

Hesychasm, as defined by Christopher Johnson in his work The Globalization of Hesychasm and the Jesus Prayer, is a body of traditional teachings, either written or oral, that developed around the Jesus Prayer and a wider tradition of inner prayer.[1]

The term itself literally means silent [2] but is considered by its practitioners to be an active inner searching for God.[3]

Hesychasm is a broad subject that can be widened to include all Greek Orthodox monastic practices. Even the Orthodox Church’s interactions with society can be called hesychasm.[4]

The primary aspects, however, which I focused on are:

  1. the Jesus Prayer
  2. the controversial psychosomatic prayer exercises
  3. the unique theology it spawned called Palamism.[5]

I went and gave it a try!

Head of a Eastern Roman Priest or Saint
Head of a Priest or Saint; Unknown; Asia Minor; 5th century; Courtesy Getty Open project

 

After describing these three various aspects of the movement, I will relate the experimental data that I gathered while attempting various Hesychastic methods.

I hope my review holds some descriptive quality towards the typical experience of one seeking to follow this path. Over all, my feeling is quite positive.

Reviewing the Greek Orthodox views, history, and attempting the Hesychastic method, left me feeling parts of the method can be a useful spiritual tool even to those who cannot accept its traditional theological moorings.

The Jesus Prayer

According to Greek Orthodox Church Bishop Kallistos Ware, the Jesus Prayer has two main variants.

  1. The first is a monologic or “one-word” prayer that is simply the name Jesus.[6] This form of the prayer is most associated with the mystic and monastic traditions of the Orthodox.[7]
  2. The second more popular form is a multiple word prayer that typically is formulated: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me (a sinner).

Ware states this form of the prayer is popular among Orthodox laity and non-Greek Orthodox Church  going Christians as well, and has a much wider range of applications.[8]

I was already familiar with both myself, and many Christians have some familiarity with the Jesus Prayer. You may have even prayed it yourself on occasion without even thinking to copy anything. In the Greek tradition this is not frowned upon, as they know the power of Jesus name. 

Still, in their context the usage of the prayer has been more rote than ejaculatory.

Greek Orthodox particular usage of the “Jesus Prayer”

Christ Descent into Limbo
The Descent into Limbo; Unknown; Nicaea, Turkey; 13th century, Image Courtesy of Getty Open Project

According to Orthodox Archpriest John Bockman the goal of the Jesus prayer is to pray it unceasingly.[9]

Motivation is to fulfill the command of Paul in Thessalonians 5:17. “Pray without Ceasing”[10]. The Orthodox practitioner of the Jesus Prayer, according to Bockman, even uses it to try and fulfill that command all day long even if they are watching TV or working, and is his given reason for the Orthodox preference for the monologic variant.[11]

One thing you may have noted is that Greek Orthodox believers sometimes carry a prayer rope or Kombiskini which is run through the fingers each time a Jesus Prayer is said not just to count but to make it a natural part of living.[12]

Still, this Kimbiskini practice is often counted and purposeful. It is not wrongly called the “Greek Rosary.”

Much like the catholic version, Bockman himself suggest improvements can be made by adding an Our Father, Trisagion, or prayer to Mary supplements the routine.

For obvious reasons I eschew the Mary suggestion. 

But, I would much prefer to see Protestants with a mostly Jesus-Centric Kimbiskini than a Dominican equivalent. Or the Buddhist prayer bowls or other things people pass around…

And I know half of the people who read this will now want one…

This is the one place I am at a pastoral toss up.

My own experience with sacramentals in a Western context has made me very weary. I am for all intents and purposes anti-hagiography and iconoclast.

Yet, at the same time they are a bit effective in implanting whatever you choose to use them for by psychosomatic mechanism. And a bit addictive if you’ve ever really serious used such a thing. 

This renders them “neutral” to me. I don’t like the rote aspect at all…

Yet if you really really want one, go here:

That’ll at least support the site so we can screw your head on straight if you get weird with it.

One last thing, Greek Orthodox don’t like it being “special”

In researching the subject, it is apparent to me that there are certain stresses within the Orthodox tradition.

Coptic text page
Decorated Text Page; Unknown; Fayum (possibly), Egypt; 10th century;

The subtext of Fr. Lev Gillet’s practical guide to the practice is that one should not think of it as replacement for other forms of prayer, should not think of it as a “mystical way to spare us ascetic purifications,” and he gives multiple exhortations to his reader that they do not vainly just repeat the words but pray from the heart. [13]

The Greek Orthodox also makes great pains to try and differentiate their prayer practices from other mantras and to try and maintain that the invocation of God’s name is not “magical” in motivation. [14]

There is also the issue of Matthew 6:7, “don’t use vain repetitions.”

The typical Orthodox parrying on this point is all very bad. They mostly try to do so by pointing to the fact you are breaking these commands in a “Christian context.”

A thin gloss.

Important Question: Psychosomatic Prayer Exercises?

Linked closely to the Hesychasm are the breathing exercises. Orthodox spiritual leaders have proscribed such mostly to aid the person praying to achieve greater awareness.

According to Johnson, the typical patterns are:

  1. say the first half of the prayer on inhalation
  2. the second on exhalation
  3. or say the entire prayer during both.[15]

There are even further instructions ranging from say the prayer as fast as possible all the way to try to synchronize the heartbeat to the prayer so that the body’s rhythms inhabit the practice.[16]

From the latter practice, the prayer has even gained the name The prayer of the Heart. 

These practitioners believe:

[…the words of the prayer will usually spontaneously conform to the body’s rhythms in a natural and unforced way. The aim of this is to bring the prayer from the mind into the heart with the breath and letting it stay there to work on the heart for a few seconds before exhaling. Eventually, the heart will begin to pray automatically, but only by the grace of God. Whereas there is much effort involved in the first two stages of prayer, prayer of the heart is said to be strictly a matter of grace.][17]

Still at least practical

Saint John Ethiopian icon
Saint John; Unknown; Ethiopia; about 1504 – 1505;

There are also recommendations given to neophytes about posture. Contrary to the traditional Greek Orthodox pattern of Praying/ Worshiping while standing, practitioners of Hesychasm prefer sitting.[18]

Johnson says some sources stress sitting in a low stool, legs straight, and head bowed forward. The place the head low on the chest so you look at your belly button.[19]

Fun fact: this strange posture led opponents of the movement to label the practitioners of this method with the epithet omphalopsychoi (Ones with their souls in the navels).[20]

Symeon’s method/ Palamas

The last physical-mystical aspect of Hesychasm is the practitioner’s goal of seeing the divine light.

This was first popularized by Symeon the New Theologians mystical writings in the eleventh century. But it was truly championed by a Monk named Palamas in the fourteenth. [21]

What they believed

Historians indicate that this theology grew around the use of the belly staring method. What changed was the motivation. Instead of being used to internalize the Jesus prayer, the new method said the posture was used to see the light which shone around Christ at his transfiguration.[22]

According to Greek Orthodox apologist Georges Florovsky, ‘Palamas believed this light is a visible sign of grace and action on God’s part, because God does not leave the phos aprosition or light inaccessible when he approaches a believer.’[23]

The light itself was not the final goal of these new Hesychasts. They saw the light as a sign of progress towards their ultimate goal of unity (by internalizing the prayer) with God inline with the Greek Orthodox understanding of Theosis.[24]

I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions here; it sounds to me like there were blood-preasure/ physical causes by such an uncomfortable pose.

The Historical Controversy from the West

The Transfiguration Orthodox Art
The Transfiguration; Unknown; Nicaea, Turkey; early 13th century, Courtesy Getty Open Project

In many works on Mysticism or Spirituality, even those that go into great detail, the Hesychastic movement within the eastern churches is bypassed.

Western Christian writings, if they mentioned it at all, mention it only in reference to the theological struggles it precipitated. In fact, the western definition of Hesychasm is so entangled with the notion of a minor theological conflict that the conflict bears direct consideration.

Latourette, a western scholar, states that the controversy about Hesychasm centered on the idea of viewing the divine light:

[In its defense it was urged that the light was not the divine essence, for God Himself could never be seen by man, but that it was an operation or agency of God, divine Grace. The critics contended that such a light could only be of the essence of God and that to separate the essence [of God] from the operation [of God] was to be guilty of falling into the error of believing in two Gods.][25]

The fight was especially nasty because of cultural differences. The opponent of Palamas was not a fellow Greek Orthodox monk, but a Catholic from Italy named Barlaam.[26] Because of that cultural difference, Latourette states that the Hesychasm debate became nothing but a staging ground for airing the widening hostilities between the fourteenth century churches. [27]


 

The Historical Controversy from the East

Reaching out beyond the west to the eastern voices, I found that they viewed the debate as far more concerning the core of Hesychasm, the Jesus Prayer included. They really were not worried about the “seeing the light/”

For example, as it concerns unceasing prayer, Greek Orthodox priest John Romanides believed the conflict lay between Barlaam’s scholastic contention it was physically impossible and Palamas’ mystical notion that held physicality was not a limit.[28]

He writes rather exhaustively on the subject, constantly citing how both Western Nominalism and Realism both do not fit Palamas’ eastern frame of reference. This may indeed be correct; not fitting  frame of reference does not totally remove the need to parry an argument that I feel in Greek Orthodox circles to this day remains on the back burner.

Here’s a good article on the Catholic Perspective on the topic.

Practical test and typical experience of beginning Hesychasit

Russian orthodox Church
royalty free as I know

I could only find anecdotal evidence of one of Barlaam’s main objections to Hesychasm; that the visions and physiological sensations felt by Hesychasit stem from psychosomatic effects of the prayer process. [29]

I couldn’t find a source which really gave a firm definition of what Barlaam found to make him lob the accusation, and scientific studies seem non-existent.[30] T

Therefore, I reached out/inquired of/found writings by, etc. Greek Orthodox Churce’s “hieromonks” and inquired into the methods. 

Before the practice of Hesychasm is formally pursued, most the experts advise at least begin a general regimen of general ascetic practices. This was in holding with the fact that the Greek Orthodox Church does not normally separate between general monastic behavior and the specific behavior of Hesychastic practices.[31]

This limits my data somewhat because the side effects of some practices such as sleep deprivation and fasting are generally common knowledge. Dizzyness, blurry vision, affected coordination; these are just a few of the purely physical side effects any aesthetic can run into.

Naturally, any altered state may be aggravated by the practices of Hesychasm and push someone over an edge. But I had neither the time nor desire to replicate this scenario.

Mental Methods of Hesychasm

Hesychasm and Pentecost realted
pentecost, courtesy Getty open project

The methods I found varied from mental techniques to physical. Among the mental techniques focused on removing thoughts of images from the mind what some called “guarding the mind.” These teachers proscribe some exercises towards this goal that consisted of alone time and finding “empty space” to be alone.

The second mental techniques was to ignore all other disciplines and try to actively cultivate a feeling of desire continually towards God over the course of three days, this took tremendous effort but the goal is reportedly to make temptations less tempting.

I had no noticeable results.

After these practices I tried some Greek orthodox contemplation material the focused on the power of Jesus’ name to digest over twelve days.

Physical Methods of Hesychasm

The physical methods  explained to me focuses almost exclusively on breathing. This agrees with what I have discussed above.

As regards posture, I was shown the sitting technique so I could try it at my leisure.

My first experiment focused only on the slow breathing techniques.

Given my medical history I run at a baseline heart rate of eighty beats per minute with blood pressure of one hundred forty over ninety taken as an average of readings every four hours over three days.

My first experiment was to practice the slow 5 seconds breathing while standing for twenty minutes with no mental or verbal dialogue for three days. This showed an average effect of a five point drop for all vitals.

The results where the same when sitting. I did a base line test of just relaxing and found no noticeable drop. These results were in line with a recent study on yoga breath techniques.[32]Both they and I found that adding an audible mantra made no noticeable difference. The health benefits and perceived relaxation are verifiable.

Sitting posture

My next experiments focused only on the sitting technique. My initial attempt lasted only twenty minutes before my legs fell asleep and I had to move. I could hold the position indefinitely as long as there was no neck pain once a better chair was found. Still, sitting in that position past fifteen minutes on two occasions caused me to be light headed. In every instance of assuming the posture the rush of blood to the face is apparent. There was no marked effect on my before or after vitals.

Finally, there was my spiritual experimentation which is admittedly fully subjective. The prayer rope is admittedly fun to play with and rather novel.

To see how my “regular religiosity was effected” I counted out the times I would pray in a normal fashion. After the exercises found that I was generally praying more.

When I attempted the constant Jesus prayer and monitoring my vitals at work, I found a greater reduction in blood pressure and stress then when I attempted simply breathing slowly. Lastly, I had the pleasant experience of finding myself praying subconsciously after I stopped my experimentation with the technique.

Ethiopian Floor
Image coutersy of the Yale Gallery

Conclusion

The Jesus prayer has a long history and much in its favor. It is simple and can be tailored to fit an individual’s needs or theology if one truly desired to do so. I found that it increased my “normal” prayer activity. This is enough for me to withhold my concerns about rote prayer.

If one wishes to go deeper into the tradition and attempt the breath exercises and postures, I found no verification for my hypothesis that it would cause side effects. There were no “negative hallucinatory side-effects” in a healthy adult as far as regards the methods I learned. In fact, quite the opposite is true if it is practiced in a general manner.

Putting Hesychasm in context

The Greek Orthodox Church’s ideals about a heart praying, and their incumbent theology, is spoken in a theological language that is distinctly foreign from our own. Thus the theological conflicts many westerners will have with the system are not likely to be resolvable.

That said, the study of Hesychasm is at the very least effective in broadening our horizons. Additionally, as regards the discipline the utter lack of critical scholarly material and interest I find to be characteristic of the Orthodox as a whole has left the field wide open for anyone who feels drawn move into this alien spiritual realm to make great changes to it.

 

Stuck Only in the East?

Orthodox saint
Royalty free as I know

 

 

I found in my studies that even the basics of Hesychasm are easily deciphered outside of the Orthodox community. Orthodox scholarship is comparatively old on the issue. Also, modern western logic has not yet been applied critically towards either dissecting or really contextualizing the system for us to draw firm conclusions.

For this study I had to pass over immense an wealth of information and traditions simply to draw here a basic outline of Hesychastic practice.

The theological constructions of the Orthodox are in no way cement. Therefore, I believe that in this tradition may lay more useful buried treasures for those who like myself look to recapture the monastic spirit free of Roman Catholic or even Greek Orthodox trappings. I am not the super liberal type; I say that with a very critical eye

 

 


Citations

[1] Christopher Johnson. The Globalization of Hesychasm and the Jesus Prayer: Contesting Contemplation (Bloomsbury Advances in Religious Studies)pp. 15

[2] Christopher Johnson. The Globalization of Hesychasm and the Jesus Prayer: Contesting Contemplation pp. 15

[3] Christopher Johnson. The Globalization of Hesychasm and the Jesus Prayer: Contesting Contemplation pp. 15

[4] Ibid. 17

[5] Ibid. 17

[6] Kallistos Ware Inner Kingdom by Kallistos Ware [Paperback] pp 80

[7] Timothy Ware The Art of Prayer 1966 – this is the same Man pp32

[8] Timothy Ware The Art of Prayer 1966 – this is the same Man pp33

[9] John Bockman. Using the Prayer Rope in The Struggler Feb-May2002

[10] John Bockman. Using the Prayer Rope in The Struggler Feb-May2002

[11] John Bockman. Using the Prayer Rope in The Struggler Feb-May2002

[12] John Bockman. Using the Prayer Rope in The Struggler Feb-May2002

[13] Lev Gillet. The Jesus Prayer https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=sites&srcid=ZGVmYXVsdGRvbWFpbnxwcmF5ZXJyb3BlfGd4OjMwZTEzYWNmODlhN2FhNDg

[14] Irenee Hausherr The Name of Jesus (Cistercian Studies) 1978 pp. 326

[15] Christopher Johnson The Globalization pp.27

[16] Christopher Johnson The Globalization pp.27

[17] Christopher Johnson The Globalization pp.27

[18] Christopher Johnson The Globalization pp.27

[19] Christopher Johnson The Globalization pp.27

[20] Christopher Johnson The Globalization pp.27

[21] Kenneth Latourette A History of Christianity 570

[22] Kenneth Latourette A History of Christianity 570

[23] Georges Florovsky The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. I, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View (Vaduz, Europa: Buchervertriebsanstalt, 1987), pp. 105-120 Internet: http://orthodoxinfo.com/phronema/florov_palamas.aspx accessed Dec. 6, 13.

[24] Georges Florovsky The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, Vol. I, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View (Vaduz, Europa: Buchervertriebsanstalt, 1987), pp. 105-120 Internet: http://orthodoxinfo.com/phronema/florov_palamas.aspx accessed Dec. 6, 13.

[25] Kenneth Latourette A History of Christianity 570

[26] Kenneth Latourette A History of Christianity 570

[27] Kenneth Latourette A History of Christianity 570

[28]Fr. John S. Romanides Notes on the Palamite controversy and Related Topics in The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, Volume IX, Number 2, Winter, 1963-64. Published by the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological School Press, Brookline, Massachusetts. Internet http://www.romanity.org/htm/rom.15.en.notes_on_the_palamite_controversy.02.htm accessed 12/6/2013

[29] Christopher Johnson The Globalization pg 27-37

[30] I found one example The Cult of the Seer in the Ancient Middle East –A contribution to Current Research on Hallucinations Drawn from Coptic and Other texts by a Violet MacDermont of dubious quality

[31] Christopher Johnson. The Globalization of Hesychasm and the Jesus Prayer: Contesting Contemplation pp. 17

[32]Tapas Pramanik Immediate effect of a slow pace breathing exercise Bhramari pranyana on blood pressure and heart rate. Nepal Med Coll J 2010; 12(3):154-7

Post Author

Paul is the founder of Religible.com and a life long Christian with a childhood interest in systematic theology. He holds an M.Div. from Fuller Theological seminary and hopes to use his education to better his fellow man. He also operates an automotive blog, has worked at Google, and has diverse life interest.

reformedmonk – who has written posts on Religible.


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