Thursday, June 7, 2012
Blessed Elder Joseph The Hesychast: Letter To A Youth Inquiring About "The Prayer"
My beloved brother in CHRIST,
I pray that you are well. Today I received your letter and shall answer all your questions. The information you seek does not require time and effort for me to think and respond. For noetic prayer is to me as any other man's trade to him, because I have been working at it now for more than thirty-six years.
When I came to the Holy Mountain, I immediately sought out the hermits who practiced the prayer. Back then, forty years ago, there were many who had life in them -- men of virtue, elders of the past. We chose one of them as our elder and received guidance from several of them.
Now then, to start mastering noetic prayer you must constantly force yourself to say the prayer without ceasing. In the beginning quickly: the nous (intellect, mind) must not have time to form any distracting thoughts. Pay attention only to the words: "LORD JESUS CHRIST, have mercy on me." When the prayer is said orally for a long period of time, the nous becomes accustomed to it and eventually takes up saying it. Then it becomes sweet to you as if you had honey in your mouth, and you want to keep saying it all the time. If you stop it, you feel greatly distressed.
When the nous gets used to it and has taken its fill - when it has learned it well. Then it sends it to the heart. Since the nous supplies food for the soul, the task of the nous is to send whatever food or evil it sees or hears down to the heart, which is the center of man's spiritual and physical powers, the throne of the nous. So, when someone saying the prayer keeps his nous from imagining anything, and pays attention only to the words of the prayer, then breathing gently with a certain compulsion and volition of his own, he brings his nous down to his heart; he holds it within as if in confinement, rhythmically saying the prayer:
"LORD JESUS CHRIST, have mercy on me!"
In the beginning he says the prayer a few times and takes a breath. Later, when the nous has become accustomed to remaining in the heart, he says one prayer with each breath: "LORD JESUS CHRIST" breathing in, "have mercy on me" breathing out. This happens until grace overshadows the soul and begins to act within it. Beyond this is theoria.
So, the prayer is said everywhere: seated, in bed, walking and standing. "Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks," says the Apostle. However, it is not enough to pray only when you go to bed. It takes a struggle: standing and sitting. When you get tired, sit. Then stand up again so that you are not overcome with sleep.
This is called "praxis." You show your good intention to GOD, but everything depends on HIM, on whether or not HE gives to you. GOD is the beginning and the end. HIS grace is the driving force that activates all things.
As for how love is activated, you will realize how when you keep the commandments. When you get up at night and pray; when you see someone ill and sympathize with him; when you see a widow, orphan, or the elderly and you are charitable to them. Then GOD loves you. And you also love HIM. HE loves first and pours out HIS grace, and we return to HIM what is HIS: "THINE OWN of THINE OWN."
Well, if you seek to find HIM only through the prayer, do not let a single breath pass without it. Just be careful not to accept any fantasies. For the DIVINE is formless, unimaginable, and colorless. HE is supremely perfect, not subject to syllogisms. HE acts like a subtle breeze in our minds.
Compunction comes when you consider how much you have grieved GOD WHO is so good, so sweet, so merciful, so kind, and entirely full of love. WHO was crucified and suffered everything for us. When you meditate on these and other things the LORD has suffered, they bring compunction.
So, if you are able to say the prayer out loud without ceasing, in two or three months you can get used to it. Then grace overshadows you and refreshes you. Only say it out loud, without a break. When the nous takes it up, you stop saying it orally; and then when the nous loses grip of the prayer, let the tongue resume saying it out loud. All the forcefulness is needed with the tongue until you get used to it in the beginning. Afterwards, all the years of your life, your nous will say it without exertion.
When you come to the Holy Mountain, as you mentioned, come and see us. But then we shall talk about other things. You will not have time for the prayer. You will find the prayer wherever your mind is at rest. Here you will be visiting the monasteries and your mind will be distracted by the things you hear and see.
I am certain that you shall find "the prayer." Have no doubts. Only straightaway knock at the door of divine mercy. And surely CHRIST shall open unto you. It is impossible for HIM not to. The more you love HIM, the more you will receive. The size of HIS gift, be it great or small, depends on your love, whether it is great or small. --Blessed Elder Joseph the Hesychast