Becoming the Jesus Prayer

by Fr. Michael Plekon

The true aim of our Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done because of Christ, they are only means of acquiring the Holy Spirit… Of course, every good deed done because of Christ gives us the grace of the Holy Spirit, but prayer gives us it to us most of all, for it is always at hand, so to speak, as an instrument for acquiring the grace of the Spirit. For instance, you would like to go to church, but there is no church or the service is over; you would like to give alms to a beggar, but there isn’t one, or you have nothing to give… you would like to do some other good deed in Christ’s name, but either you have not the strength or the opportunity is lacking. This certainly does not apply to prayer. Prayer is always possible for everyone, rich and poor, noble and humble, strong and weak, healthy and sick, righteous and sinful.

— St. Seraphim of Sarov (Valentine Zander, St. Seraphim of Sarov)

For many, the “prayer of the heart” or the “Jesus prayer” is understood as a practice of personal devotion, a response to St. Paul’s admonition to “pray unceasingly,” a prayer said with the lips which descends from the head into the heart. Our prayer is to become eventually so much a part of us that our very breathing, our very living becomes prayer. However, the personal and interior aspects of this prayer are never separated from liturgical prayer or from our lives. Prayer of the heart should not be considered as an alternative preferable to the Hours or the Liturgy, just as the other elements of asceticism, such as fasting and the hermit life, are not in contradiction to receiving communion and communal liturgical prayer. Rather these forms of prayer complement and support each other. The Jesus prayer extends the Hours and the Liturgy through the rest of the day and night. The readings from scripture, the psalms and intercessions of the divine office, as well as the action of the Eucharistic Liturgy, nourish the rest of the life of prayer. There is no opposition between the prayer of the heart and liturgical prayer anymore than there is opposition between prayer and service, contemplation and action.

The lives and words of three holy people of our time show that the integration of prayer in our existence makes of life, in the phrase of St. John Chrysostom, a “Liturgy after the Liturgy.” These “living icons” bridge the time from the 19th century to our own: St. Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1831), Paul Evdokimov (1900-1969) and St. Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891-1945). These three do not dwell on the techniques of the Jesus prayer, but they all practiced it, along with liturgical worship and intense service to their neighbors.

Seraphim is certainly the most popular Russian saint. A monk and priest at Sarov, he was also hermit, for a time a recluse, and in the last years of his life an extraordinary elder. Able to read people’s hearts, his luminous face showed how the Spirit dwells in us. He was a gifted healer, an “icon” of the spiritual life, as Paul Evdokimov called him. Rooted in traditional Christian life, he was constantly moving beyond traditional ideas of status, beyond traditional activities and constrictions.

Seraphim of Sarov

In the 19th century, St. Seraphim of Sarov shines brightly, a true “seraph.” For him, the Spirit was warmth in a world grown cold. Looking back on him in historical context, despite the popular pictures of him feeding his black bear, hunchbacked, walking with an axe handle, and kneeling in prayer on the rock for a thousand days and nights, he refuses to be imprisoned by popular piety just as he refused to be captured by all the roles he filled in his life. He was a light in the midst of the forest, in a Church deeply in need of renewal, in a time of great cultural stirring, in a society of political questioning. Donald Nicholl recounts how a century after his death, around his feast day people would bring fir branches into the anti-religious museum set up in the Kazan Cathedral in Leningrad. They sensed his relics were there. When the end of the Soviet era finally came, those relics were rediscovered and returned to Sarov.

St. Seraphim seems to have embodied many traditional elements, not just of Church life and piety but of Russian culture. Yet Paul Evdokimov and other biographers observe that in his person, actions and words he steps out of the usual, expected forms, overturning stereotypes and myths that have accrued to “spirituality.” It is no surprise that he was so beloved to many of the leading Paris migrs. St. Seraphim surfaces in Sergius Bulgakov’s The Bride of the Lamb as an example of the divine humanity at work in a person. He plays a major role in Evdokimov’s Ages of the Spiritual Life, a study of holiness in the Eastern Church. Seraphim stands out by his willingness to follow the Spirit through regular cenobitic life to a hermit’s vocation, to years as a virtual recluse, to an intensely active ministry of healing the distressed and organizing the Diveyevo women’s communities.

There was persistent criticism of his character and activities by local bishops, by his abbot Niphon, and by other members of the Sarov monastic community. Metropolitan Filaret’s editing of Seraphim’s words, very likely the smoothing out of details of his life, suggest the unease with which Seraphim was regarded. Despite an overwhelming popular cult, many icons, pilgrimages to his tomb, healings and prayers, it took the pressure of the Romanovs, Nicholas and Alexandra, to push through the decision for Seraphim’s canonization in 1903.

Numerous events attest to his unusual personality and spiritual activity. His early invisibility in the Sarov community gave way to notoriety for his reclusive behavior, his unusual dress, his detailed instructions for the construction of churches, the mill and the Virgin’s walkway at Diveyevo, not to mention the healings of both Michael Manturov and Motovilov of clearly psychosomatic afflictions, and the subsequent relationship between him and these two associates. There is Seraphim’s warm – but to some, scandalous – relationship with the Diveyevo nuns, his direction of their physical and spiritual existence down to details of prayer, dress and work.

The famous incident, recorded by Motovilov, richly illustrates both Seraphim’s personality and position. On a snowy winter afternoon, in a field outside his hermitage in the Sarov forest, Seraphim allowed Motovilov not only to see the luminous results of being in the presence of God, in communion with Him, he also enabled Motovilov to share in this experience himself. Motovilov described an almost blinding light, the warmth he experienced despite the winter cold, the beautiful fragrance, and, above all, the indescribable joy and peace – exactly what the New Testament indicates the real presence of the Spirit to be.

The most unusual nature of this “encounter” and the even more radical content of what Seraphim had to say is often overlooked. Seraphim stressed the absolutely universal character of holiness. Everyone can acquire the Holy Spirit. This is not the result of saying many prayers, lighting candles, keeping the fasts, attending numerous services. All this activity has but one purpose – allowing the Spirit to make his dwelling in us. God deeply desires the holiness of every person. Whether one is a monastic, ordained, a lay person, rich or poor, single or married – none of this matters.

Healed miraculously by the Mother of God in his childhood as well as in later life after a brutal attack by robbers, the recipient of numerous visits by her and other saints who constantly said, “He is one of us,” the seer of visions of Christ at the Liturgy, Seraphim’s biography appears to be hagiography. To be sure, many details conform to the classical models of a monastic saint. But there are important differences.

Though a monk and priest, Seraphim chose to dress as the peasants of the surrounding area, in an unbleached smock, birch-bark sandals in summer, boots and coat in winter. To be sure, he would don the riassa, cowl, the stole and cuffs when going to communion at the Liturgy in the monastery church. He lit thousands of candles in his cell for those who came for healing, yet he also rubbed holy oil on their arms and legs, gave out bread, wine and water to everyone, an extension of the Eucharist, even an image of the feeding of the multitudes by Christ in the wilderness. He raised his own vegetables, cut wood, cleared the brush, just as local farmers and early monastics did. He kept a prayer rule, read the Hours, and almost literally lived in the pages of the Bible. Visitors – from small children to troubled young adults – were urged to read the Gospels along with him. Accounts tell of the monastic community’s resentment at the hundreds of visitors lined up daily to see him, crowding the corridor outside his cell. Memoirs report that all kinds of people came: not only Orthodox but Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims and nonbelievers.

In the end, he does not conform neatly to the category of monastic saint. In St. Seraphim the categories of priest, monastic ascetic, even of staretz, are never rejected, yet he transcends them all. He flees even from routine monastic life to his hermitage, and both there and back in his monastery cell, the door is shut to all, even his confreres. But then the door is opened to all, and never closes again. After “fleeing the world,” he embraced the world. Through him, very reluctantly at first, the monastery too was opened to the world, a prefiguring of the wonderful openness of the elders of Optina, of St. Elizabeth and the Mary-Martha monastery, of St. Maria of Paris, and of Paul Evdokimov.

St. Seraphim extends the possibility of life in the Spirit to every person, in every situation in society. Any prestige due to status, ordained or monastic, is obliterated. Gone too are any stereotypes of what holiness looks like, of what ascetic practices are necessary. He keeps all the monastic rules and churchly traditions, yet his life and his words make it clear that these are but means to an end and never an end in themselves. When one has recognized the Holy Spirit, prayers cease, for the Spirit takes over, praying in one’s life, making all of one’s life prayer. “Acquiring the Holy Spirit,” he said, “is the whole point of the Christian life.” Still better known is this related saying: “My joy, acquire the Spirit of Peace and thousands around you will be saved.” Each person was his “joy,” every person, no matter how desperate, was being illumined by the Spirit. No wonder his greeting all year round was “Christ is risen.”

Paul Evdokimov and St. Maria Skobtsova

Paul Evdokimov and Mother Maria were both part of the Russian emigration in France, members of the Exarchate of Metropolitan Evlogy. Evdokimov was in the first graduating class of the St. Sergius Institute, a student of Fr. Sergius Bulgakov. The future Mother Maria, Liza Pilenko, emigrated with her mother, second husband and three children. In addition to being a gifted writer and artist, as well as one of the first women to attend classes in the St. Petersburg Theological Academy, she was also active in political life, almost executed by both the Reds and the White Army. She was acting mayor of her home town of Anapa on the Black Sea, was a published poet in her early twenties and eventually immersed herself in social service to fellow migrs. With Metropolitan Evlogy’s encouragement, she was tonsured to monastic life “in the world,” much like the sisters of the Mary-Martha Convent in Moscow under St. Elizabeth Feoderovna. She set up houses of hospitality in Paris and its suburbs for the elderly, the homeless, unemployed and the distressed. At the heart of each was a chapel. She and Paul Evdokimov were among the founding members of the Russian Christian Students’ Movement, Evdokimov serving as its first secretary. In photographs of meetings and retreats of this and other groups, such as the fraternity of St. Sophia and Orthodox Action, Mother Maria is to be seen with Metropolitan Evlogy, Fr. Sergius Bulgakov (her spiritual father), and such other leading figures of the “Russian Paris” as Nicolas Berdiaev, Basil Zenkovsky, Nicolas Afanasiev, George Feodotov, and especially Constantine Mochulsky, Ilya Fundaminsky and Frs. Lev Gillet, Kyprian Kern and Dimitri Klepinin, her chaplains.

During the Nazi occupation, Mother Maria sheltered Jewish people as well as others who were being hunted by the Gestapo. Fr. Dimitri furnished many with baptismal certificates and enrolled them in the membership of the parish attached to the hostel at 77 rue de Lourmel. Eventually they were both arrested by the Gestapo, along with her colleague, Ilya Fundaminsky, and her son, Yuri. All four died in concentration camps, and were canonized this year by the Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and their own diocese in France.

Not only did Mother Maria scavenge food from the markets at Les Halles and collect contributions of bread and clothing, she obtained medical treatment, training and jobs, even government food subsidies for her dining room, to feed all hungry in the neighborhood during the occupation. In addition, she continued to live an active intellectual life, writing plays, poetry, and numerous articles.

During the Nazi occupation, Evdokimov also worked with the resistance to hide people pursued by the Gestapo. For almost a decade after the war he directed hostels for the care of the poor, refugees, distressed people. As a theologian with experience in pastoral and service work, he eventually taught at St. Sergius, L’Institut Catholique and the Ecumenical Center in Bossey. He was an observer at Vatican II and became an important voice for the Eastern Church in the West. He was one of the founders of the international Orthodox youth movement, Syndesmos. His research was wide ranging, including study of the historical contributions of Russian theologians, the Eastern Church’s understanding of the Mother of God and of the Holy Spirit, the theology of the icons, of prayer and the liturgical services, the significance of the fathers and monasticism for modern society, and most especially, the vocation of all the baptized and the ways in which holiness finds distinctive patterns and shape in modern life. The work of his teachers and friends Frs. Bulgakov and Afanasiev, Professors Kartashev, Olivier Clment and Nikos Nissiotis are all present in his writing along with his own singular sense of being a person of prayer, a “liturgical being,” a witness to Christ both in the world and the church.

Preaching at the funeral service for Paul Evdokimov, Fr. Lev Gillet said that he was one who “worshiped in spirit and truth.” Having known him for nearly forty years, Fr. Lev said he was more at ease in the invisible realities of the Kingdom, while at the same time diligent, effective, enormously solicitous for those around him. Prayer and life were a constant unity for him. In his Ages of the Spiritual Life, Evdokimov wrote:

In a special manner the invocation of the name of Jesus makes the grace of his Incarnation universal, allowing each of us our personal share and disposing our hearts to receive the Lord… When the divine Name is pronounced over a country or a person, these enter into an intimate relationship with God… The “prayer of the heart” frees and enlarges it and attracts Jesus to it … In this prayer … the whole Bible with its entire message is reduced to its essential simplicity… When Jesus is drawn into the heart, the liturgy becomes interiorized and the Kingdom is in the peaceful soul. The Name dwells in us as its temple and there the divine presence transmutes and Christifies us… (pp. 211-212)

Here, as with St. Seraphim, the prayer of the heart is much more than an arcane spiritual practice. Rather, its genius is that it summarizes all that the scriptures say, the whole of life is to be “in Christ” and the Spirit. Prayer does not drive us from the world or restrict our being, but on the contrary, it opens and widens our love, our service. Today, when the temptation for many is to make of the Church and the Liturgy an oasis apart from other believers and the world, Evdokimov argues precisely the opposite.

Liturgy… teaches the true relationship between myself and others and helps me understand the words, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”… Liturgical prayer makes the destiny of every person present to us. The liturgical litanies lead the individual beyond himself, toward the assembly, toward those who are absent, those who suffer and finally those who are in their agony. Liturgical prayer embraces the city, nations, humanity and asks for peace and unity of all… every soul knows by experience that one cannot stand alone before God and that, liturgically, one saves oneself with others. The pronoun in the liturgy is never in the singular. (Ages, pp. 215-216.)

Evdokimov put this into practice, whether bathing and feeding his young children while his wife was teaching, or working on his thesis as they slept. He did so in the years of lay pastoral ministry in the hostels, leading evening prayers, listening to the joys and miseries of those residing in them. Later he would also live out his prayer as a teacher and in his writings. Olivier Clment called him a “go-between” the Church and the world. In his essays one finds a critique of a Sartre, a De Beauvoir, a Camus, presented with respect and discernment. He proposed that a chair of atheism be set up in every theological school, so profound were the questions modern thinkers put to the community of faith. He listened to and used the insights of the leading thinkers of our time, as well as those of his teachers Berdiaev and Bulgakov, and a wide range of others including Nicolas Cabasilas, Therese of Lisieux, Simone Weil and Jung. No modern theologian has so deftly probed the problem of human evil despite a supposedly good and just God. His image of the God who suffers along with us, who empties himself in love to become one of us, who pursues us with an absurd or foolish love could only stem from prayer and loving service to the suffering, the pattern of his life.

Mother Maria described the integration of prayer, liturgical as well as of the heart, into the fabric of one’s life:

But if at the center of the Church’s life there is this sacrificial, self-giving eucharistic love, then where are the Church’s boundaries, where is the periphery of this center? Here it is possible to speak of the whole of Christianity as an eternal offering of the Divine Liturgy beyond church walls. What does this mean? It means that we must offer the bloodless sacrifice, the sacrifice of self-surrendering love not only in a specific place, upon the altar of a particular temple; the whole world becomes the single altar of a single temple, and for this universal Liturgy we must offer our hearts, like bread and wine, in order that they may be transubstantiated into Christ’s love, that he may be born in them, that they may become “Godmanhood” hearts, and that he may give these hearts of ours as food for the world, that he may bring the whole world into communion with these hearts of ours that have been offered up, so that in this way we may be one with him, not so that we should live anew but so that Christ should live in us, becoming incarnate in our flesh, offering our flesh upon the Cross of Golgotha, resurrecting our flesh, offering it as a sacrifice of love for the sins of the world, receiving it from us as a sacrifice of love to himself. Then truly in all ways Christ will be in all. (Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, p. 185)

St. Maria echoes St. John Chrysostom’s vision of the extension of prayer into the works of love, the “Liturgy after the Liturgy,” in which the heart of the brother or sister, the neighbor before us, becomes the altar. Hence we can speak of the Eucharistic Liturgy pervading all of our life, our everyday work becoming the “sacrament of the brother or sister.” Paul Evdokimov also spoke often in his writings of how the face of the person before us becomes an icon of Christ. His moving memoirs of the years he spent directing houses of hospitality capture this, as do the recollections of many who knew him, among them Fr. Lev Gillet, Olivier Clment, Christos Yannaras, Nikos Nissiotis and Elisabeth Behr-Sigel.

It is impossible not to see in St. Seraphim as well as in Paul Evdokimov and Mother Maria the amazing “evangelical inversion,” the turning upside down of things that Christ works in all human situations. Seraphim began life tall and strong, and was later shrunk by injury and age. But this little man, huge in holiness, is very accurately depicted in the last section of Mother Maria’s essay, “Types of Religious Lives.” The “evangelical” or radical life of the Gospel is described as giving away to others the love one receives in abundance from God. If we cannot love the neighbor whom we can see, it is impossible to love the God we cannot see. Seraphim, healed many times himself, made God’s healing available to thousands of others, in his time and down to our own.

Mother Maria followed a path in some ways similar to that of Seraphim. Her critics faulted her for not living the classical pattern of monastic life. It is true that while she was always present for the eucharistic Liturgy, she was more often absent from other daily services. But did not Seraphim offer a simpler cycle of prayers for his convents and was not a simpler prayer rule the one St. Elizabeth proposed for the Mary-Martha Convent? Evdokimov also stressed that it is not how many services we attend or how many prayers we recite that matters. The point is that we become our prayer, that all our life becomes prayer.

The perennial opposition of Mary and Martha, of contemplation versus action, of prayer versus work needs to be transcended. The idea that one could take preference over the other was abolished at rue de Lourmel and other Paris locations, the nursing home at Noisy-le-Grand, in the prison at Compigne and at the Ravensbruck camp. God’s humanity, his taking on of all that creaturely existence entails in the Incarnation, brings together the love of God and of the neighbor as the Gospel itself expressed it. As Mother Maria put it:

“Christification” is based on the words, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” The image of God, the icon of Christ which truly is my real and actual essence is the only measure of things, the only way given to me…Christ gave us two commandments: to love God and to love our fellow man. Everything else, even the Beatitudes, are merely elaborations of the two commandments which contain within themselves the totality of Christ’s Good News…It is remarkable that their truth is found only in their indissolubility. Love for man alone leads us to the blind alley of anti-Christian humanism and the only way out of it is, at times, to reject man and love for him in the name of all mankind. But love for God without love for man is condemned…These two commandments are two aspects of a single truth. Destroy either one and you destroy the whole truth. (Essential Writings, pp. 174-176)

Perhaps another way of putting this is to see prayer as the celebration of the sacrament of the present moment, as Fr. Alexander Schmemann put it, finding how, in the Incarnation, God, has come to fill all things.

Evdokimov’s words sum it all up:

It appears that a new spirituality is dawning. It aspires not to leave the world to evil, but to let the spiritual element in the creature come forth. A person who loves and is totally detached, naked to the touch of the eternal, escapes the contrived conflict between the spiritual and the material. His love of God is humanized and becomes love for all creatures in God. “Everything is grace,” Bernanos wrote, because God has condescended to the human and has carried it away into the abyss of the Trinity. The types of traditional holiness are characterized by the heroic style of the desert, the monastery. By taking a certain distance from the world, this holiness is stretched toward heaven, vertically, like the spire of a cathedral. Nowadays, the axis of holiness has moved, drawing nearer to the world. In all its appearances, its type is less striking, its achievement is hidden from the eyes of the world, but it is the result of a struggle that is no less real. Being faithful to the call of the Lord, in the conditions of this world, makes grace penetrate to its very root, where human life is lived. (Sacrament of Love, p. 92)

Fr. Michael Plekon is professor at Baruch College-City University of New York in the department of Sociology/Anthropology and the Program in Religion & Culture. He is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as the associate pastor at St. Gregory Orthodox Church, Wappingers Falls, NY, and is the author of Living Icons (University of Notre Dame Press) and editor of Tradition Alive (Rowman & Littlefield). His essay is based on a paper he presented at a recent conference on Prayer of the Heart at Bose Monastery in Italy.