H
ESYCHASM:
PHYSICAL TECHNIQUES;
SUBSTITUTION
  

The Death of St. Jerome,
Belles Heures of the Duke of Berry
. 191, v 3.

From:Prayer: The Spirituality of the Christian East Volume 2 by Tomas Spidlik SJ Tr. A. P. Gythiel, CS 206, (Cist. Publ. 2005)

 

DOES [THE JESUS PRAYER] REPLACE OTHER PRAYERS?
 Spidlik, pp. 338-339

 

THE question arises as to whether this formula should dominate prayer life to the extent of being substituted for all other prayers, particularly the Divine Office. According to Theophan the Recluse, the Jesus Prayer should be viewed as a complement: it does not replace other prayers, even private, fixed by the Rule. [126Letters (Moscow, 1898) 372. Spidlik, Theophane le Reclus, 284ff] ‘Certainly, it is possible to replace meditation by the Jesus Prayer, but what need is there to do so?’ he replied to a nun under his direction who practised mental prayer.[127 Sobraniepisem [Collection of Letters] (Moscow, 1898-ff.), vol. 1:114] On the other hand, however, illness, lassitude, or weariness encourage this substitution.[128 Letters, 342]  Theophan holds that it is worthwhile to replace a recitation of something which is not understood and which leaves the heart unmoved with ‘bows and the Jesus Prayer or some other short prayer’. [129Ibid., 33ff.]

There is another reason that argues in favor of this invocation, the same which in the West lies behind praying the rosary. Joseph of Volokolamsk prescribed the Jesus Prayer for uneducated monks unable to recite psalms when they moved from the church to the refectory.[130. Monastic Rule, in Makarij, Velikija Minei Cetii, Sept. vol. (St Petersburg, 1869) 593; tr. David M. Goldfrank, The Monastic Rule of Iosif Volotsky, ed. & tr. David M. Goldfrank, CS 36 (Rev., 2nd ed., Kalamazoo: Cist. Publ., 2000) 276.]

All such recommendations are but particular applications of general principles of prayer. The question to be resolved hinges on canon law: can a monk or priest who is obligated by the Rule to recite the Office substitute the Jesus Prayer for it? Theophan approved of the possibility: ‘It has been admitted from ancient times that all other prayers maybe replaced by this one’.[131.On Ps. 118 (Moscow, 1891) 167]. One fact is clear: even the Sluzebnik, edited in 1942 in Rome, [p. 689]. foresees that[:]

[1] Vespers may be replaced by one hundred Jesus prayers and twenty-five metanias (profound bows);

[2] Nocturns (Vigils) by one hundred Jesus prayers and twenty-five metanias;

[3] Compline by twenty-five prayers and twelve metanias;

[4] Matins (Lauds) by three hundred prayers and fifty metanias;

[5] the [Little] Hours by fifty prayers and seven metanias,

[6] and the Typika by one hundred prayers and ten metanias.

For Ignatii Brianchaninov, replacement of the canonical Office by the Jesus Prayer is `incomprehensible for beginners, and cannot be explained to them in a satisfactory manner’

‘We must first acquire an experience of the prayer of the heart: `A beginner can learn the prayer of Jesus with special ease during the long monastic services. When present at them, what is the use of fruitlessly and harmfully allowing one’s thoughts to wander everywhere? . . . Busy yourself with the prayer of Jesus. It will prevent the mind from wandering. [134On the Prayer of  Jesus, 58; Approches,155 (316)].

In other words, we should grow used to reciting this ejaculatory prayer during the Offices, not in place of them.

 

 

THE PYCHOSOMATIC METHOD
Spidlik, pp. 339-339

 

THE psychosomatic technique is described in Nicephorus the Hesychast (the Solitary), Gregory of Sinai, and Pseudo-Symeon, the oldest known theoreticians. Pseudo-Symeon may have been a contemporary of the fourteenth-century Nicephorus, if not Nicephorus himself. Here is a translation of the famous passage:

Then, sitting in a quiet cell, apart in a corner, do what I tell you: close the door, and raise your mind above every vain and transitory object. Then, pressing your beard against your chest, and turning your bodily eye and with it your entire mind upon the center of your belly-also called the navel-compress the inhalation of air passing through the nostrils so that you do not breathe easily; and mentally explore the insides of your bowels in search of the heart, where all the powers of the soul like to gather. In the beginning, you will find darkness, a stubborn opaqueness, but if you persevere, and perform this exercise day and night, you will experience - O wonder!- a boundless bliss.

Indeed, as soon as the mind finds the place where the heart is, it perceives the air at the heart’s center, and it perceives itself as being entirely flooded with light and filled with discernment.

And from then on, as soon as a thought arises, even before such a thought takes on a form, the mind chases it away and destroys it by invoking the name of Jesus Christ. From that moment on, the mind, in its hatred of demons awakens the anger that is in its nature,’ and hunts down these spiritual enemies. With God’s help, you will learn the rest, by keeping your mind attentive and in your heart holding Jesus. Indeed, as has been said, “sit down in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything”.

There are variants to the method, and if we look at certain descriptions,137 the practice of it seems to become increasingly complex. But sometimes, with one stroke, the procedure is simplified. Several elements come into play. What is needed, first, is a quiet, closed cell and a specific bodily position: sitting on a low seat, a footstool. One’s beard is to be pressed against the chest, `turning the bodily eye and with it the entire mind upon the center of the belly’. A regulated slowing down of breathing is required, as well as a mental exploration of the visceral `self’ in search of `the place of the heart’; the unification of the human faculties and the repeated, persevering invocation of the name of Jesus. The early theoreticians do not say, at least not explicitly, that the repetition of the formula should be synchronized with the slower breathing rhythm or with the beating of the heart, as is described in The Way of A Pilgrim.”‘ Several hesychasts had a vision of the light.”‘ Ignatii Brianchaninov, who tried to collect the elements of this exercise, speaks of seven material aids `for the assistance of beginners in the practice of the prayer of Jesus’

1) a chaplet or lestovka;

2) great or little prostrations and bows (metanias);

3) keeping the eyes closed;

4) holding the left hand on the chest;

5) a dark cell;

6) sitting on a low stool;

7) cooling oneself with water or applying ‘towels soaked in water to the places where there is blood-congestion’.”

 

A Darkened Cell

 

Monastic literature praises the cell.”‘ It is a happy `desert’, even in the midst of town. In order to avoid `images’, the Fathers recommended to the hesychasts a somewhat dark cell, `with curtained windows, to keep the mind from distraction and to help it descend from the head to the heart’.’’’

 

A Low Chair

 

For the ancient Fathers, sitting down during prayer was a concession in cases of illness or for another serious reason.”‘ In hesychasm, by contrast, it was the favored position, and was part of the `physical method’.

Hesychasts are advised to sit on a low stool, firstly because attentive prayer requires a restful position, and secondly after the example of the blind beggar mentioned in the Gospel who sat on the roadside and cried to the Lord, `Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me’ (Mk 10:47), and was heard and healed. Also this stool represents the dunghill on which Job sat Qb 2:8). . . . A monk should see himself crippled, deformed, torn by sinfulness, . . .14i

 

Breathing

 

`One must breathe very slowly. In general all stirrings of flesh and blood must be restrained, and both body and soul must be held in a restful position, in a state of calm. . . . Experience will soon teach that checking the breathing (that is, an infrequent and gentle inhalation of breath) greatly assists the recollection of the mind from wandering.’i”

The breathing technique of the athonite hesychasts has been compared to the respiration rhythm of a hindu yoga, the pranayama, who seeks to `unify’ the awareness and prepares for meditation. If there has been an influence of indian yoga on the hesychasts’ method, it can only be indirect; by contrast, it is said that there are striking parallels between the Muslim dhikr and the method of Nicephorus.74C

But such resemblances can also be explained through common experience. In this sense, Vladimir Solovyov writes:

Breathing is the fundamental condition of life and the constant means of communication between our body and its environment. For the power of the spirit over the body it is desirable that this fundamental function should be under the control of the human will. Consequently there arose long ago and everywhere different ascetic practices with regard to breathing. 117

 

Localizing Attentiveness in the Upper Part of the Heart

 

Let us leave it to physicians and psychologists to evaluate what is produced in our feelings by an attentiveness that is focused on certain `centers’ of the body.”‘ Let us merely convey the experience (sometimes associated with questionable theories) that has traditionally been repeated by spiritual authors.

We should try to ensure that the prayer acts in the very summit of the heart where the power of speech resides according to the teaching of the Fathers, and where divine worship should therefore be performed. “‘

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 power of speech (reason), or the spirit of the human person 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.”‘

It is also helpful to hold the left hand on the chest, over the left nipple of the breast, a little above it. This technique helps one to feel the power of speech which is in the breast.”‘

 

 

 


126. Letters (Moscow, 1898) 372. Spidlik, Theophane le Reclus, 284ff.

127. Sobraniepisem [Collection of Letters] (Moscow, 1898-ff.), vol. 1:114.

128. Letters, 342.

129. Ibid., 33ff.

130. Monastic Rule, in Makarij, Velikija Minei Cetii, September volume (St Petersburg, 1869) 593; translated David M. Goldfrank, The Monastic Rule of Iosif Volotsky, edited and translated by David M. Goldfrank, CS 36 (Revised, second edition, Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 2000) 276.

131. On Psalm 118 (Moscow, 1891) 167.

 

132. Page 689.

133. Approches de la Piiere de Jesus, 50 (Russian, 207).

134. On the Prayer of  Jesus, 58; Approches,155 (316).

135. In the Scholia to Scala paradisi, gradus 24; PG 88:985B, John Climacus states that `it is the nature of the irascible power to fight against the demons'; Handbook, 251.

136. La methode d'oraison hesychaste, ed. by Irenee Hausherr, Orientalia Christiana 9:2 (Rome, 1927) 164ff. See `Three Methods of Attention and Prayer', Writings From the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart (London: Faber and Faber, 1979) 158-159.

137. Pierre Adnes, `Jesus (priere a)', DSp (1974) 1135ff

138. Seep. 343.

139. See DSp 12/1 (1984) 96.

140. On the Prayer of Jesus 88-90; Approches, 187ff; (Russian, 346ff.).

141. Louis Gougaud, 'Cellule', DSp 2/1 (1953) 396-400.

142. Brianchaninov [Briancaninov], On the Prayer ofjesus; Approches, 188 (Russian, 374).

143. Origen, Libellus de oratione, 31.1; PG 1 1:552A; translated Rowan A. Greer, Origen: An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer, CWS (New York: Paulist Press, 1974) 165.

144. Brianchaninov, On the Prayer ofJesus, 89.

145. Ibid., 71; Approches, 169ff (Russian, 3).

146. Pierre Adnes, `Jesus (priere a)', DSp 8 (1974) 1

147ff. 147. La justification du bien, 1.2.6 (Paris, 1933) translated Natalie A. Duddington, The Justification of the Good: An Essay in Moral Philosophy (New York: Macmillan, 1918) 49.

148. Anthony Bloom, `Contemplation et ascese: contribution orthodoxe', Technique et contemplation, Etudes Carmelitaines (1949) 55.

149. Brianchaninov, On the Prayer ofJesus, 92; Approches, 191 (Russian, 350).

150. Ibid., 95; Approches, 193 (353).

151. Ibid.

152. Ibid., 89; Approches, 188 (347).

153. Defense des saints hesychastes, critical edition by Jean Meyendorff (Louvain, 1959; 2nd ed., 1974). Major extracts may be found, translated Nicholas Gendle, in Gregory Palamas. The Triads, CWS series, (New York: Paulist Press, 1983).

154. Defense 1.2.8; 89-91. See Triads, CWS 46. Jean Meyendorff, `Le theme du "retour en soi" Bans la doctrine palamite du XIV' siecle', Revue d'Histoire des religions 145 (1954) 188-206. Meyendorff, Introduction k /'etude de Gregoire Palamas (Paris, 1959) 195-200; translated George Lawrence, A Study of Gregory Palamas (London: Faith Press, 1964) 134-156. Meyendorff, `Palamas (Gregoire)', DSp 12 (1984) 81-107. 155. Put ko spaseniju [The Way to Salvation] (Moscow, 1908) 206. 156. Seep. 243.

157. Seep. 361.

158. Among available translations are The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way, translated by Helen Bacovcin (New York: Doubleday, Image Books, 1992), and The Pilgrim's Tale, translated T. Allan Smith, CWS (New York: Paulist Press, 1999). 159. Ibid., 13.

 

 

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