Meditation and the Jesus Prayer

by Dr. Albert S. Rossi

Father Aidan asked me to write an article on “The Jesus Prayer and contemplative prayer” that might help us get closer to Christ. Where to start? What would help you or me?

For me, the pursuit of Christ pivots on an inner relationship with Him, always within an Orthodox community. As I look at the Bible I see God’s word emphasizing “stillness.” In Exodus 14:14, Yahweh tells His people who are being stalked by the Egyptians, “The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. I will fight for you. You have only to be still.” And in Psalm 46, God says, “Be still and know that I am God.” The inverse is implied. If we are not still we may not know God. If we don’t know God we might not know ourselves because we are made in His Image and Likeness. If we don’t know ourselves, there can be tragic psychological/spiritual consequences. The theme of stillness runs through the Old and New Testament.

So, I’ll spend some time trying to expand that truth. How do we be still? How often? In the classical literature contemplation can be replaced by the word “meditation.”

Father Tom Hopko in his 55 Maxims, available on the Internet, suggests that every Christian spend 20 to 30 minutes a day doing meditation, that is being silent and trying to be still.

In short, I suggest that each of us commit to five or ten or twenty or thirty minutes of sitting in meditation, and doing this daily. We can set a timer, sit comfortably, and gently repeat a short prayer, in harmony with awareness with our breath.

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says that such meditation is transformative, changing us at a deep level. The theology that I was taught is that when we speak prayer interiorly, in that act we are listening to God. How that works is, of course, a mystery.

I am a man in 80s whose wife is dead. I live alone and love it. As part of my life I meditate 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening. Does my meditation make me a better man? That question has no answer since we are not to assess the effectiveness of our meditation. All we need to humbly know is that we are doing our best to have intimate time with Christ. And, yes, meditation is intimate time with Christ. During or after meditation we cannot assess our efforts. We can’t conclude that today was “better” than yesterday. We can’t conclude that distractions are necessarily a waste of time. Our meditation time is our attempt to put time aside to be present to Christ, to allow Him to speak to us.

The Jesus Prayer

Can the Jesus Prayer be the inner prayer of daily meditation? Yes. Can some other prayer, “Lord, have mercy,” or the single word, “Jesus,” serve as our mediation prayer? Yes.

Specifically, the Jesus Prayer is the classical prayer for Orthodoxy through fifteen centuries. Father Hopko spoke of the Jesus Prayer as a synthesis of the Nicene Creed. Here is a link from St. Vladimir’s Seminary for an article I wrote on the Jesus Prayer. For that article please click here.

In conclusion, we need to do what we can to allow Christ and His love into our lives. And, we need each other as we walk the walk of faith.

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Dr. Rossi teaches courses in pastoral theology at Saint Vladimir’s Seminary. He has written numerous articles on psychology and religion and published a book through Paulist Press entitled, Can I Make a Difference: Christian Family Life Today. After teaching at Pace University for 24 years, he retired as Associate Professor of Psychology. He is a licensed clinical psychologist in the state of New York. Dr. Rossi has a brief, bi–weekly podcast on Ancient Faith Radio titled Becoming a Healing Presence.

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6 Responses to Meditation and the Jesus Prayer

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Dr Rossi, do you have any thoughts on the differences between the Jesus Prayer and what is called Centering Prayer, as well as the differences between the Jesus Prayer and what is often called mindfulness meditation?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Dr Rossi asked me to post his reply to my query about centering prayer:

      There are many good things to say about mindfulness and centering
      prayer. For the Orthodox, I would simply emphasize the current teaching
      on meditation as I understand it, from Metropolitan Kallistos Ward and
      Father Tom Hopko. They suggest that we not use mental images, at all,
      but rather spend the time repeating a short prayer while attentive to our
      breathing. They say that mental images, that we make up, can detract
      from the stillness and openness to what the Lord might want to be saying
      to us.

      In Christ,
      Dr R

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      • Jonathan says:

        The idea of getting beyond images is very interesting. Images definitely don’t enter into ‘mindfulness.’ I would say that getting beyond images (which requires, I would say, going through them) is precisely what distinguishes prayer from literary art. It is not what distinguishes (much) philosophy or expository and argumentative writing from literary art, because those more discursive forms of language never arrive at images, nor are they meant to, their truths being of a fundamentally different order than the truths of images and of silence and stillness.

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  2. Ryan says:

    I would mention that meditation on particular subjects, e.g. the last judgment, death, the life of Christ, etc. is also something encouraged in patristic writings, including in the Philokalia. Our cycle of hymns, full of vivid imagery and sometimes startling poetic expressions, are also a form of meditation. In his book The Life in Christ, Saint Nicholas Cabasilas recommends a form of meditation on Christ, using the beatitudes as a guide. So there are other forms of meditation in Orthodoxy, even ones involving images, apart from the Jesus prayer and other short prayers like it. In the desert fathers literature, there appear to be at least three categories of practice- psalmody, meditation, and prayer. Psalmody refers to the daily office, including psalms, troparia, and other prayers. Meditation seems to refer to reflection on passages in scripture. Then there’s prayer. While the first two can be broadly considered prayer, usually when they say “prayer” they are referring more narrowly to the kind of intensive hesychastic practice popularized in the Jesus prayer. This seems to confuse a lot of people; they read that prayer should be entirely free of images, and then think this applies to the broad idea of prayer, including our liturgical services which are, of course, full of images which we are encouraged to reflect upon. And of course this imageless requirement is used as a stick to hit the Roman Catholics and their devotions, such as the rosary, which encourage visual meditations. But the rosary is meant to be a substitute for the office; comparing it to hesychastic prayer is wrong. The Jesus prayer and hesychasm are great gifts, but I think we spend so much time talking about them and related texts, outside of their proper context, that we get a little carried away and don’t really understand the other things we do as Christians.

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  3. Bob says:

    Isn’t the Jesus prayer or any other prayer word fill the mind with noise. Isn’t silence the absence of any words or thoughts. I don’t get the contradiction.

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