H: I want to hear more. You said that the Jesus prayer is a science, a complete university. I want you to make me a scientist tonight.
You are asking too much. Nobody can become a scientist of the Jesus prayer unless he struggles personally, unless he himself starts this work. Whatever the others would say is simply an introduction, to give him a good spiritual appetite. However, in order to complete my thoughts about the Jesus prayer, I must, perhaps, say a few things about the dangers and the errors that may arise along the way.
H: Indeed, I said. You said something before, that the monks avoid the direct descent of the nous into the heart by the use of various means, in order to avoid dangers. What are these dangers and errors?
The error starts with the thought that we must acquire grace in a short period of time. There are many people who are practising the sacred work of the Jesus prayer and want to enter into the vision of Light in a short while. And they lose heart and get disappointed because this cannot happen immediately and to all. The athlete must accept that he must struggle many years. God does not force our will, because we are persons and have free will nor should we force God’s freedom, because He is a Person, too. We should let Him come, whenever He thinks, whenever He wants.
He stopped for a while.
Another error is to give great significance to psychotechnic methods. These methods (breathing in and out, beating of the heart) are simply helpful means so that we can concentrate our nous and free it from elements alien to its nature. These methods do not have a magical power, but they are useful to us in avoiding the distraction of the nous. When the nous is focused and maintained within itself easily, then all auxiliary means are unnecessary.
H: Are there other errors as well?
There are, indeed. When we move quickly during the course of prayer. We mentioned a little while ago that there are various stages of development in the practice of the Jesus prayer and we summed them up into five. The first stage is to recite the Jesus prayer with the lips. The second is to keep the remembrance of Jesus in the mind and it will descend by itself into the heart. Some people, however, skipping the first stage, start from the second and do not succeed in accomplishing very much. Others go straight from the first stage to the third and develop it mainly by breathing. This is dangerous, because, as I said before, the physical heart may suffer and this can cause the Jesus prayer to cease. There is no illness of course, but, nevertheless, it is possible that this sacred work may stop.
On the subject of tears, he went on, there are also certain problems.
H: What do you mean?
We said earlier that when the Jesus prayer stays in the nous the eyes shed abundant tears. However, this is not always indispensable. Prayer can go well even if there are no tears. So, we should not get disappointed in the absence of tears, because they will come when God allows it. And even if we are flooded by them, we should not pay attention to them, neither should we describe these states to others. The ascetic experience says that when we talk about these states, then they cease immediately, and it takes a long time for them to return. Needless to say, although we know the stages of noetic prayer, we should avoid thinking about which stage we are in. We must proceed in humility. Besides, I think I told you a short while ago, feeling pride in and during prayer is stupidity. It really is stupidity. Man is like a beggar who asks for a piece of bread and then he feels proud because he has obtained it. And this is stupidity and a sin!
H: I can see that humility plays an important part here.
Yes, it does—in all stages. St. Basil the Great says that humility is the treasury of all virtues. It conceals all virtues and finally it conceals itself. In general, we must diligently avoid pride in the spiritual life, especially when it comes as vainglory. And you know, of course, that vainglory appears in every virtue; when we talk, when we keep silent, when we fast, when we keep vigil and even when we say the Jesus prayer, in hesychia and in forbearance. The Fathers say that vainglory is like a traitor who secretly opens the gates of the city so that the enemy can enter. In such a case, no matter how strong the city is and how good its defences are, it is captured by the enemy. The same also happens in the spiritual life. No matter how many virtues we have and no matter how much strength we hold on to, vainglory hands us over to the devil. And the Fathers recommend that one must never undertake a work which will possibly lead him to vainglory.
H: I did not understand this. Can you explain it further?
Let me come to the subject of prayer. The faithful must not overdo it, as far as prayer is concerned, because it is certain, then, that he is being allured by the devil. In such a case, whatever, he might do—even things beyond his strength—is achieved by the power of the devil. So, dragged by the devil, he is later abandoned by him at some time, then pushed backwards, and impelled to fall very low. He is actually destroyed.
H: And how can one avoid this most heavy fall?
The saving path is mourning and obedience. Prayer is very closely connected with mourning. When the devil sees somebody living in mourning, he does not remain there but flees, because he is afraid of the humility which is engendered by mourning. St. Gregory of Sinai tells us that the best defence for the athlete of prayer is to be in a state of mourning, so that the joy which comes in prayer may not lead him into pride, for the bright sadness keeps his soul unharmed. Mourning and the awareness of our sinfulness are indispensable in the course of pure prayer. The athlete “should keep his nous in hell and despair not”. Moreover, the awareness of our sinfulness, of our nothingness, and the hope in the Merciful Jesus are characteristic of Orthodoxy and of all of our hymns. It should be stressed, though, that not all can live in deep mourning because great strength and an earlier taste of divine grace are needed so that they are not shaken. However, as far as it is possible, we should all live this blessed mourning. Indiscriminate obedience to a Gerondas is also necessary. Everything, even the smallest things, should be done with his blessing and his wise guidance; even in the case of the uncreated Light.
H: What does obedience to a Gerondas have to do with the vision of the uncreated Light? I asked astonished at what I had heard.
When man walks alone, without the indispensable blessing, then he is pursued by the devil, as we said before. He experiences within himself the dissatisfied desire to see the uncreated Light. He believes that this is perfection and he wants to reach there quickly.
H: Is this not right? I interrupted him.
No, it is not. St. Diadochos recommends that the ascetic should not practise his ascetic life with the hope of seeing the uncreated Light, “so that the devil will not find his soul ready on that account to be carried off”. One should start the work of the Jesus prayer with love towards God and obedience to His holy Will. For, it is possible for the devil—who can disguise himself as an “angel of light” (2 Cor. 11 . 14)—to take the form of an angel who will serve him. And, then, the poor man thinks that he has reached the height of perfection, since he lives with angels, without being aware that he is conversing with devils. It is also a temptation when the ascetic while praying accepts thoughts from the demons that he will soon see the uncreated Light. Much care is needed in this delicate and dangerous situation. He must stop praying and reprimand himself severely: “How dare you, so wretched and vile, desire to see the uncreated Light”. The greatest danger is to think oneself worthy of seeing the uncreated Light! He can even say: “Alas! the demons, my murderers are coming to destroy my soul!” Then, immediately, the enemy disappears. Many times the devil, in order to satisfy the ambition of the monk and captivate him even more, brings even light into his cell. It is not the uncreated Light, but the created one, that of the devil.