You must realise the necessity of purification from passions. You should not only want to make others well but you should believe that you, too, like all of us, are full of passions. Each passion is a hell. You should also know that, according to what we have said, the Jesus prayer is a remedy which cures the soul and purifies it. That does not mean that the Jesus prayer is a panacea but rather it is the means by which man is united with God, who is the only one Who purifies and illumines the soul. He is the physician of our soul and body He is “the true light that enlightens every man who comes into the world” (John 1.9). As eye-salve cleanses the vision and enables already existing objects to be seen, similarly, each person must will to be purified and transformed and seek, through prayer, illumination which comes from God.
H: Do you believe that we, who work in the world, can do what the monks do concerning this divine work of prayer?
Even if you cannot do exactly what they do, still you can achieve many things. It must be made clear, however, that noetic prayer is one thing and praying the Jesus prayer another. Noetic prayer, as some hesychasts practise it, requires a life without distraction. It requires quietness and many other things, as we have already described. If you cannot practise noetic prayer in the world—and this is very difficult—you must pray with the Jesus prayer at set times or say it whenever you can. It will do you great good.
H: Can you suggest to me some useful and practical ways?
Apart from church services, you should also designate a certain hour for the practice of the Jesus prayer, for meditation on the name of Jesus. You should start the practice of the Jesus prayer gradually and proceed according to your thirst and the grace you feel. One can start by saying the prayer for half an hour in the morning before sunrise, and half an hour in the evening, after the compline, before sleep. It is necessary for there to be a fixed hour for prayer which should not be changed for any reason, not even for good works. It is possible, for example, that somebody may come for confession at that particular time. If he is not ill or if it is not very urgent you should not postpone the time you have set aside for the Jesus prayer. The same should happen concerning good works. A peaceful and quiet room where no noises are heard is also necessary for one to start the work of the Jesus prayer, in the way we mentioned before. That is, in the beginning we should warm our heart or read a book of the Fathers, which creates in us a feeling of compunction, and then we should say the Jesus prayer either with the lips, the mind or the heart, according to our spiritual progress. Little by little the time devoted to the Jesus prayer will increase and it will sweeten our hearts, and we shall long for it. But, I repeat, in the beginning we need to force ourselves to say the prayer even for a short time. It will do us great good.
H: Is it enough, this short period of time?
It is not enough but when there is a good disposition and humility, God fills up what is lacking in prayer. Since God is so sympathetic to our downfalls, won’t He be extremely merciful to us in the struggle for our transformation? He fills up whatever is lacking. He takes into account even the special circumstances of each one of us. It may be that one hour of your prayer will be more blessed than the many hours of a monk, because you are also busy with other works.
I admired the discretion of this Athonite monk, of this incarnate angel. He distinguishes all problems with admirable ability and puts everything in its proper perspective.
You should know, however, he went on, that the devil will expose you to many temptations during prayer, as I said previously. Many incidents will come up to make you stop praying. But you should also know that God is testing you through these trials to determine if you really want to practise the Jesus prayer. In such a case, if you persevere, God will come to your aid and drive away all difficulties.
H: But, Gerondas, if, while praying, thoughts come to my mind of preparing a speech or a sermon; of doing something for the love of my brother, must I abandon them?
Yes, you must abandon them. For, even when good thoughts come during prayer (I refer to the set times of prayer), the devil exploits them to obstruct us from prayer. If the devil realises that we are ready to give up the Jesus prayer for such things, he will send us many thoughts of the same kind even at the restored set time. But in this case, neither do we pray, nor are we purified nor have our brethren really benefited. For the preparation of a sermon, which has replaced prayer, is without fruit. It won’t benefit the brethren.
H: It happens sometimes that we return to our cell exhausted, after having spent a lot of our strength, and then we cannot pray our usual rule. What should we do in these cases?
We should not give up the Jesus prayer even then. St. Symeon recommends that serving our brothers should never be the cause for us to be deprived of the Jesus prayer, because we then lose many things. We should never find excuses to avoid prayer. “Labour in service according to your strength; and in your cell, persevere in prayer with contrition, vigilance and continuous tears; and do not have it in your mind; I have laboured exceedingly today, let me diminish the time of prayer because of physical tiredness. For, I tell you that no matter how much you work beyond your strength in serving others, if you deprive yourself of prayer, be sure that you have lost something very great”. Half an hour of the Jesus prayer is worth as much as three hours of deep sleep. The prolonged Jesus prayer rests and calms us. So, even from this point of view, it is an invigorating physiological remedy. My dear father, wrap up all your works in the golden mantle of the Jesus prayer. It is because they work much with their brain and not with their heart, that many of the brethren have tribulations and are in anguish in their spiritual endeavour. They become tired by thinking what to say, whereas when they live in grace, then the thoughts come, they literally spring forth like a rushing river. It is because they do not have a good link with the Jesus prayer that the brethren quarrel among themselves, do not have peace, are afflicted by unjust attacks and do not rejoice over them, according to the commandment of Christ. St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite, being guided by a long tradition of several centuries, suggests that the Bishop should be elected from the rank of the monks. Having monastic consciousness, he will not be troubled by persecutions, slander, accusations or the anger of men, since he himself is the first to recognise his own sinfulness and to accuse himself. Thus he acquires all the fruits we mentioned before—mainly love, which flows from much grace, and freedom from falling into sin, as the Fathers say.
H: What do you mean, father, by monastic consciousness?
I mean obedience, humility, self-condemnation and an insatiable thirst for the Jesus prayer—obedience to the Gerondas and the spiritual father. The monk should be humble toward all people and his humility should be connected with the struggle for purification from passions. We should not undertake many works, because, unfortunately, we are influenced in this matter by other heresies. The greatest work is to acquire humility and holiness. Then we are truly rich. The Church is not a ministry of social services, but it is the treasury of divine grace. Priests are not social workers but those who guide the people of God. And this cannot be done unless they have humility and holiness. Without holiness and humility the greatest social work is soon obliterated, whereas when we have humility and holiness of life, even the smallest social work acquires extraordinary dimensions. Humility should be connected with self-condemnation, too, that is with self-accusation. We should be the first to accuse ourselves. We should attach the respect that the others show us to our priesthood and not to ourselves. We should attribute the accusations of others to our own sinful state and not to our priesthood. We will experience then peace and much grace from God, and will drive out every cause which makes us hate our brother. There must also be insatiable thirst for the Jesus prayer. We should not consider the Jesus prayer an opportunity, but we should consider it as life itself. We should move within prayer. Our theology and our preaching should be born within its holy atmosphere. We should also have our rule and do it every day. When we live in this way the world is then benefited beyond measure. Whoever one may be, either priest or bishop, he should always have one concern: not to lose his monastic consciousness.
It is written in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers: “It was related of Abba Netras, the disciple of Abba Sylvanus, that when he dwelt in his cell on Mount Sinai, he treated himself prudently, with regard to the needs of his body, but when he became bishop at Pharan, he curbed himself with great austerities. His disciple said to him, “Abba, when we were in the desert, you did not practise such asceticism.” The old man said to him, “There in the desert I had interior peace and poverty and I wished to manage my body so as not to be ill and not to need what I did not have. But now I am in the world and among its cares, and even if I am ill here, there will be someone to look after me and so I do this in order not to destroy the monk in me.”
Those who have the consciousness of a monk feel the need to receive a blessing for whatever work they do. They entrust it to the Bishop and to an experienced spiritual father to check it and correct it during its course and at its end. They do not want praises for what they do, because he who is honoured or praised more than he deserves loses much. Wherever you are, in the street, in the car you should say the Jesus prayer; “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” and “Most Holy Mother of God save me”. We should often attend the Divine Liturgy with the proper preparation and participate in the undefiled Mysteries. All creation praises and glorifies God. A priest who does not offer the Divine Liturgy is in discord in this wonderful praise. It would be good to chant from time to time the Canon to our Lord Jesus Christ which is found in the Book of Hours. You should also chant the special prayers addressed to our Lord Jesus Christ and found at the end of the book: The Unseen Warfare, composed by St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite. He urges us to evoke often, the most sweet, joy-producing and the cause of all good, saving name of our Lord Jesus Christ, not only with our lips, but also with our heart and mind.