After reading the books by Anastasia Novykh, for two years I have been working on self-improvement. My progress is rather slow, but it is strongly felt. At that, you know, in the past I read many books on positive thinking and spiritual development, and thereafter I felt a desire to improve myself, too. However, my zeal lasted for just a couple weeks. Now I may conclude that only А. Novykh’s books have given me essential awareness that this life for us, humans, is the only chance to save ourselves, and another awareness I’ve got is that absolutely everyone can save oneself. I believe for the further spiritual development many Christians lack only this simple understanding.
Luckily, recently I have found a website http://nnproekt.ru where it is possible to freely download and read a marvellous book Jesus Prayer: The Experience of Two Millennia by Nikolai Novikov. This book can indeed help any Christian to realize that salvation of the Soul should be attained already in this life, but not after death, and that, let me repeat myself, absolutely everyone can save oneself. Moreover, the author pays great attention to Jesus Prayer itself, convincing readers that it is intended not just for monks, but for laymen as well. I will cite several extracts and quotations from the book with relevant page numbers, so that you could get your own impression.
If one fails to unite with Lord Jesus here on earth, he or she will never unite with Him.
Reverend Symeon the New Theologian
Gaining inner prayer is necessary. One cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven without it.
Reverend Varsonofy of Optina
What should one look for first and foremost? To be in incessant prayer... You may not approach God without the incessant prayer.
Reverend Isaac the Syrian
Everyone unwilling to be in unity with God through prayer is separated from God.
Reverend Nilus of Sinai
Corporal action (external prayer) is no more than a leaf, whereas internal action (mindful prayer) is a fruit. By the Lord’s order, any tree that brings no fruit, i.e. no mindful action, is to be cut and thrown into fire.
Reverend Agaphon the Hermit
Only external prayer is insufficient. God heeds mindfulness, therefore those monks who don’t combine external prayer with internal are not monks, but smouldering pieces of wood.
Reverend Seraphim of Sarov
If internal action towards God does not help a person, then he or she vainly works in the external.
Reverend Varsonofy the Great
Without active mindful prayer no one can avoid passions and perfidious thoughts for which they will be tortured at death and have to answer at the Last Judgement.
Reverend Paisios of Moldova
Without truly mindful action monkhood is like a body without soul. Whoever does not enter mysterious Jerusalem in spirit during the earthly life, when he or she gets out of the body he or she will not be allowed to enter Jerusalem of heaven.
Saint Ignatius of the Caucasus
Nobody is as dear to God as the one who duly practices the mind-and-heart prayer.
Saint Theophan the Recluse
“When you start asking for something be wise in your prayers, for when one asks the king for some manure, he not just makes himself of little importance and demonstrates his mindlessness, but also insults the king with such a request. The same is done by the one who in his prayers asks God for earthly blessings.”
“Who has not gained the Kingdom of Heaven within oneself conscientiously,” Reverend Symeon says, “does he really have a way to enter the Kingdom after death? ... If you want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, you should perceive it entirely already here on earth... Don’t be tempted by deceivers who say that life is gained not now, but only after death… Whoever does not try to reach the Kingdom of Heaven and enter it during this earthly life, once his soul leaves the body he will find himself beyond that Kingdom... Hence, here, in this life we are ordered to find and gain the Kingdom, knocking at its door with repentance... It is impossible to enter the Kingdom of Heaven for the one who has not gained Christ as God already in this life, who has not contemplated Him and ensured His residence within oneself.” (Symeon the New Theologian. http://pagez.ru)
Saint Nicholas Kabasilas, the prominent figure in late Hesychasm, said nothing about the advantages of monkhood, but asserted that “any layman, no matter what he or she does in one’s life, can always do one’s duty towards God”. In his opinion, no Christian evading the internal feat “can receive forgiveness”, no matter whether he or she refers to “age or occupation, accident or illness, desert or city, noise or any other excuse”. Anyone “who has chosen to live in Christ” should “unite in one’s heart with Him”, for all “the Saviour’s commandments include general duties of the faithful, and for those who want to fulfil them they are possible and necessary, and no one can pass them by on the way to Christ.” (Saint Nicholas Kabasilas. Saints Tell about Living in Christ. Moscow, 2006. p. 101-102)
The Good Nature contains a text with a distinctive title “About the Fact that All Christians Should Incessantly Pray”. The author of it is Patriarch Philopheus (Saint Nicholas Kabasilas, Saints Tell about Living in Christ. Moscow, 2006. p. 101-102). “May nobody think, my Christian brothers,” the patriarch writes, “that only priests or monks, but not laymen have the duty of incessant prayer. No! All Christians have the duty of incessant prayer!” At that, the incessant prayer may be achieved only through mindful and heartfelt action. The same thing was affirmed a millennium earlier by Saint Gregory the Theologian who wrote that “every Christian should pray for God’s name more often than inhale air”. “Following commandments of the saints, we should not only always pray ourselves, but also teach others to do the same,” the universal teacher urges. “We should teach everyone – monks and laymen, wise and simple, men, women and children, and urge them to pray incessantly.”
The truth of the aforesaid is “reaffirmed by Saint John Chrysostom, the great pillar and teacher of the Church (in the conversation where he interprets Psalm 50), who says that even the one who has a wife and children, slaves and numerous servants, great wealth and honours, and who is glorious by his earthly doings, can not only cry, pray and repent every day, but even achieve perfect virtue and gain the Holy Spirit, become God’s friend and be honoured with contemplation of Him”. There have been devotees of faith in the secular world before Christ and after His incarnation, “nobody can count all of them, for they are like sand in and around the sea. There have been many kings, princes and other sovereigns, not to mention all the poor”. Those were people who “made use of the world, as Apostle Paul said, but never abused it. Therefore, while living in the secular world they were glorious and famous, and in the life in the Kingdom of Heaven they will be glorious and serene for endless ages. In the same way we, should we not be negligent and careless violators of God’s commandments, but rather diligent, zealous and attentive executors of those, would not have to abandon our belongings, retire from the world and become monks”. (Reverend Symeon the New Theologian)
At that, here’s an opinion about pursuing laymen from Archimandrite, Elder Ephrem of Svyatogorsk, born in 1928. He’s a famous elder, former Father Superior Philopheus at an Athos cloister, founder and spiritual head of St. Antony’s Monastery (Arizona, USA): “I know thousands of souls in the secular world, I would say all over the planet, who compel themselves to pray, and that brings great fruits. Prayer strengthens them in their spiritual feat, it enlightens them inside, and they can no longer live without it... Many people in the secular world, mostly women, work in prayer despite their earthly cares, children, jobs and many other duties. Nonetheless, they find time to pray and mention God’s name... Much can be achieved through prayer, whether it be in the world or in the quiet of mountains.”(Archimandrite Ephrem of Svyatogorsk. The Pearls, 2001. p. 55, 64, 111)
Elder Nikolai was once asked to give his blessings to a seven-year-old girl who was going to a musical school. In response he ordered, having astonished everyone around: “Let her better perform Jesus Prayer.” He “gave such a blessing to a child who came from a village where nobody had any idea of the prayer!” Beyond all doubt, “the elder regarded Jesus Prayer as the first and main weapon in spiritual life, as given by the Church for all times, especially for nowadays”. Most probably, the elder’s firm precept to perform Jesus Prayer means he “left a spiritual testament to all those who care about their salvation and seek spiritual perfection in the modern world”. (Hieromonk Nestor Kumysh. Notes about Elder Nikolai. St. Petersburg, 2003. p. 54-58)
Saint Ignaty (Bryanchaninov) disapproved ignorant fears of temptation, felt by those who “mostly have only obscure and confused understanding of mindful action”. One may be tempted during any activity where pride attends. At that, rejection of mindful prayer due to groundless fears means already being tempted, the saint believed. (Saint Ignaty (Bryanchaninov) // Collection of Records about Jesus Prayer. Moscow, 1994. p. 333-365)
Mother Superior Taisia once had a noteworthy dialogue with Father John of Kronstadt. Having told him about her elevated prayer experience, the nun further shared her fears, “This takes place rarely, and sometimes I even don’t allow myself to feel anything like this for I’m afraid the enemy will tempt me with such a prayer because I cannot understand and bear its power yet. It is for those who stand higher than me in spiritual life. I have read nearly all ascetic books, and all ascetics warn the beginners such as myself. That is, this prayer should be attained carefully as God’s greatest gift.” Father John responded to her as follows, “I also say to you: be wise and careful. But you should not avoid the contemplative prayer. Such prayer means gaining God’s grace. Grace should be persistently asked for and valued, but not avoided for any reason. The enemy does not like such a prayer, so he frightens and deceives you.” (Talks between Saint John of Kronstadt and Mother Superior Taisia. 1909. p. 9)
“May none of you say you will pray only when there are relevant conditions. Can you be sure you’ll be alive tomorrow? You should not forget only this very day is given to you. You must never hope for tomorrow. Always remember: this very time is the best and most favourable, this very day is for salvation. So, save yourselves!” Another ascetic addressed his congregation in the 1940s, “Don’t lose heart, faith devotees of the 20th century, but in your workaday life, amidst the bustle of this world secretly abandon this world with your mind and heart. Be like everyone in outward appearance, but internally be different as seen only to God and your confessor.” (Father Superior Nikon (Vorobyev). Unpublished Letters // God-Given Fire, 2002. No 8. Here we quote newly discovered and first published letters by Father Superior Nikon, addressed to N.P. Yevdokimova in the 1940-50s.)
All human beings have a single goal “to love Christ the Lord and to be reconciled with God the Father by acceptance of the Holy Spirit, for this is how salvation of any soul is attained.” Hence, “just as those who live in the secular world and purify their feelings and hearts of any sins deserve praise, those who live in mountains and caves and still desire praise and recognition from people deserve reproach and rejection. In front of God who tests human hearts, the latter are equal to those who sin.” (Reverend Symeon the New Theologian, 1993. V. 2. p. 539, 540)
“When salvation in Christ is the only goal of our life, everything that we do may become an act of prayer. Our everyday life must be an incessant liturgy. Everyone should be working where God has placed him or her, for the sake of gaining the Holy Spirit, and God will complete everything else.” Moreover, to object to those who say that “if everyone becomes a monk the world will perish”, it is better to answer as Elder Sophrony answered: “No, in such case the world will not perish, but everyone will resurrect, and the history of the world will end not as a disaster, but as a joyful triumph and painless transition to eternal life.” (Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov). Spiritual Talks. Essex; St. Petersburg, 1997. p. 68, 84, 85)
Spirituality as life in Spirit may be tied neither to place nor to time, since the Spirit breathes where He wants. “Sitting at home,” he writes to Princess Irina, “remember God and, withdrawing your mind from all things, direct it totally to God. Pour out the entire inclination of your heart to Him and join Him through Love. To remember God means to contemplate God. By remembering Him we reach Him and get filled with His light.” (Archpriest John Meyendorff. Life and Labour of St. Gregory. St. Petersburg, 1997. p. 14, 43-45, 378, 379)
Since the earliest times “reclusion in Orthodox monkhood was understood more as inner estrangement from the environment rather than plain geographical retreat beyond the monastery fence to a desert.” (Archbishop Basil of Brussels (Krivoshein) // BT, 1997. No 33. p. 272)
Unfortunately, modern pastors preach Hesychasm too seldom, although sometimes they do say that “all holy fathers teach to strive for incessant Jesus Prayer, whereas people who are spiritually wrongly structured themselves forbid to practice it”. People should grasp “there is nothing in the world as important as Jesus Prayer, except the Holy Communion... Jesus Prayer is great for all people including little children. A child perceives spiritual reality intuitively and more artlessly than adults. The earlier children are taught Jesus Prayer the firmer will be the foundation of their further spiritual life. One can pray internally under any circumstances”. People often ask, “Can Jesus Prayer do you any harm?” You should answer as follows, “it can harm devil, not us, and he knows about this, thus he does his best to distract a person from the prayer”. Everyone “should strive for incessant Jesus Prayer. Not the prayer itself may be harmful, but rather one’s laudation of oneself praying, i.e. one’s own pride”. (Archimandrite Raphael (Karelin). Questions & Answers. http://karelin-r.ru/faq)
Elder Joseph the Hesychast gives special precepts for laymen in his letters, explaining that city dwellers must practice mindful prayer not less actively than hermits. A particularity is that in the secular world the prayer schedule is different: a layman takes his or her conditions into account and has to adhere to a “flexible” rule. The elder writes: “Since you reside in the secular world and have various cares, perform the prayer when you have time, but force yourself to do this on a permanent basis, so that you don’t go limp... The prayer is uttered everywhere, when you sit, lie in the bed or walk,” i.e. all the time during the day. As for the hermitage, “you need to fight there – standing, sitting. When you get tired, sit down and stand up again to avoid dropping-off to sleep. This is called the action. Thus you show your intention to God.” (Elder Joseph of the Athos. Description of Monastic Experience. http://hesychasm.ru) Let us note the same thing was once written by Reverend Ambrose of Optina in his letter to a layman, “It is inconvenient for you to pray by a certain order, so pray according to the time and convenience given by God.” (Reverend Ambrose of Optina. Letter Collection. Moscow, 1995. Part 3. p. 199) Elder Joseph advices his spiritual son (a priest) to involve laymen in mind-and-heart action, “Teach them to pray mindfully and to utter prayer incessantly, first with their mouth and mind, and then with their mind and heart. Thus they will soon find the way of life, the door of heaven.”
Trying to justify their spiritless and unrighteous life, laymen often say, “Yet, we have not repudiated the world!” We will respond, “This is total nonsense from the Orthodox point of view.” If you haven’t repudiated the secular world, this means you haven’t understood the difference between good and evil, between vice and virtue. Hence, you have rejected any fight against passions. However, passions are what makes this whole world which some have no desire to repudiate. “When a monk repudiates the world, he neither establishes new Christianity nor sets any special ideal for himself. Spiritual self-improvement is impossible without renunciation of the world, without fight against one's passions, and without asceticism.”
In letters to a saint we see the main question that expresses aspirations of most of his correspondents, “For mindful prayer one should have a mentor. Where can a layman take a mentor from?” The answer is quite to the point, “In the secular world, among holy fathers and even among laymen. Certainly, you can further more rarely find persons whom you could reliably address for an advice on spiritual life. But there are always such people, and they will always be there. Anyone who desires always finds them, thank God.” After all, “God takes particular care of those who seek Him. Only strive to find Him, and you will find everything necessary right beside you.” Then he sums up, “Hence, whether laymen want this or not, they have nothing to excuse themselves from mindful prayer. They should take it and learn it.” (Collection of Records about Jesus Prayer. Moscow, 1994. p. 421)
Some monks who pray by the Prayer Book regard those who practice mindful prayer as ignoramuses, although they are such themselves. They go not towards salvation, but in the opposite direction.
When you pray, the frequency of prayer and the permanent memory of the Lord are of major importance. Your attention will gradually become more focused, and this is the fruit of prayer. The further you focus attention the more evil you will see coming out of you as encouraged by the enemy in any way possible. Evil manifests itself in thoughts and desires, while a person striving for salvation must pay no attention to thoughts, but rather suppress them and listen to the prayer, as a result of which passions weaken. This is the fight. A penitent person does not notice the fruits of prayer. This is arranged by God secretly from the person for his or her own benefit, since humans have a weakness for self-conceit. It seems to the one who prays that he or she moves nowhere or becomes even worse. The person prays again and sees his or her seeming failure again. Thoughts are driven off by the prayer again and again, the mind faces more and more of them, and in such a battle the person begins to resign oneself to God’s will, while this is exactly what’s required.
Every time you detect and repulse an inimical thought, the devil has to invent further new traps for you, but at the same time the person who persistently performs prayer and rejects everything else is given a blissful gift of better distinction of devil’s attacks. This has to do with attention as well. If you keep focusing on the prayer after every elimination of an inimical thought, concentration on the prayer turns further stronger. This is how the fight goes. Your mind is tempted by a further subtler thought, but if you hold attention on the prayer you thus manifest your disregard of the devil and love for God, whereas every such little victory strengthens your attention and subtleness of your mind. An attentive mind is able to fight not just against evil thoughts. The devil often comes with thoughts that seem to be good, for this way it is easier to distract a person from the prayer which the devil hates the most. He gives people an opportunity to talk about theological issues, reveals certain secrets, and offers a likeness of high gifts or some other falsehood. A person who starts dreaming of gifts instead of praying for forgiveness, engages in theology and forgets about his or her virtue, who is keen on communicating with spirits instead of repentance to God, who accepts revelations from spirits or is inclined to something of that sort, has actually left God and become Satan’s assistant. Such person is severely tempted and takes no advice from anyone, remaining in his or her obscuration.
Not mindful action itself is important, but the way. This means there should be no statics, no attachment to anything once achieved. This is a way from sinful voidness and perishability to the heights of perfection, to reunification with God via the Holy Spirit. The concept of the way is based on the following pivotal idea: mindful prayer is not a collateral or separate activity in the life of a Christian; mindful action is neither a particular kind of asceticism, nor an “applied art” in Christianity, nor a branch or addition to the mainstream teaching. It’s a walk of life, a way of life. The mind-and-heart prayer is the soul and spirit of Christianity, a certain level of existence that distinguishes a Christian from all other human beings. The way of experiencing Jesus Prayer and the way of mind-and-heart action is described by Jesus Himself in the Gospel: “I am the way.” It was the Lord’s answer to a question asked by Apostle Thomas and repeated by many people nowadays: “How can we know the way?” (Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:5-6)) Then the Lord indicated the main thing, “No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6) “Except through Him” means though His cross and through His name called not in vain, but truly with one’s mind and heart. There is no way to Eternity other than through prayer. Such a prayerful way through Christ is exactly the genuine Christianity.
When we familiarize ourselves with the heritage of holy fathers not superficially and fragmentarily, we come to understand that Hesychasm is a preferential way granted to Christians. What is hidden behind the vague concept of Hesychasm? That what in the Russian and Byzantine traditions is called the sacred silence. It’s a teaching of inner silence, the silence of passions and thoughts. It’s a teaching of the practical way of self-implementation of Christians, of specific methods to fulfil God’s commandments in their entirety. It becomes clear that fulfilment of God’s commandments is a totally real goal for us, that our aspiration for God is our duty and mission. God said to all of us: you are gods (Psalm 81:6, John 10:34). An inner feat is achievable for every human being in any place. At that, the inner action is not a way of self-isolation and dissociation from reality. Retiring from the world, a monk does not disdain the world, but compassionates for it. Living in a desert, a hermit does not escape from this world; he is present in it more than actively, although at a totally different level, in a totally other – spiritual – space. The same thing happens to a layman who externally remains in the secular world, but is prayerfully secluded in oneself. Let’s recall what Hesychasts themselves regard as “dislike the world”, “abandon the world”, “repudiate the world” and “die for the world”. According to Reverend Isaac the Syrian, the world means “living in passions”, no matter whether a person resides in a megalopolis or in a desert, in the society or beyond it. There might be some chosen ones whom the Holy Spirit indeed summons to live in seclusion, but those are very few of the overall number of mindful doers, of those who practiced Hesychasm at different times under various external conditions. For mindful action no special selectness is relevant as many people erroneously believe, but on the contrary general availability and universality: “One can follow the way of unity with God under all and any conditions of human life, and surely beyond monasteries.” (V.N. Lossky)
Conscience of a heedful person cannot but feel a reproach and echo with anxiety when he or she begins to understand what holy fathers urge us to, what the Creator has intended us for, and what the Saviour expects from us. We are guilty of inertness, laziness and indulgence to our feebleness when we yield to temptation of self-justification and evade what the Gospel calls upon us for. Sometimes sincerely and sometimes cunningly we repeat devil’s ideas, “Who are we to think of mindful action? We are neither monks nor hermits!” Whereas monks lament in their turn, “We are not saints. We don’t live two centuries ago...” Very often we would like to forget that the commandment of incessant prayer and mind-and-heart action, the commandment of love for God with our entire heart and mind (Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27) is given to all Christians, and there are no exceptions in the New Testament.
Prepared by Yuri (Lviv, Ukraine)