The Jesus Prayer: How Fast? What Form? The Imagination?

A Hymn to the Theotokos

In the Red Sea of old, the unwedded Bride was prefigured: There Moses divided the water, here Gabriel was a minister to the miracle.  Then Israel passed through the deep without getting wet, now Christ is born without seed from the Virgin.  After Israel’s passing the Sea remain impassible, after the birth of Immanuel the immaculate One remained undefiled.  O God Who doth exist and hath always existed, and revealed Thyself as man, have mercy on us. (Dogmatic at Great Vespers, Tone 5)    

The Jesus Prayer: How fast? What Form? The Imagination?

I will begin this post by saying something about the speed at which we recite the Jesus Prayer.  In reading about the Jesus Prayer we find that various authors suggest different rates at which one should say the Jesus Prayer.  For example, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov says that 100 prayers should take about half an hour.  Bishop Kallistos Ware also says the same in his introductioin to the book, The Art of Prayer. They suggest a slight pause after each prayer before going on to the next repetition.  But if we look at the book, The Way of a Pilgrim, we see something quite different.  In the beginning the pilgrim was instructed by his elder to say the prayer at first 3,000 times in a day; shortly afterwards this was increased to 6,000 and then 12,000 ties in a day.  This, of course, is a much faster rate than that advised by St. Ignatius or Bishop Kallistos.

So let me give an explanation by referring to conversations with some contemporary fathers.  During a conversation with the Elder Ephraim of Arizona he suggested a number of Jesus Prayers for a daily rule.   When I replied that the number he mentioned would be very difficult because I say the Prayer very slowly, he simply said, “Why do you say it so slow?  Say it faster”.  I had been influenced by reading St. Ignatius and Bishop Kallistos but I discovered that among the Greeks a much quicker rate was the norm.  For instance, a monk of Dochiariou Monastery told me that, as a normal rule, they say the Jesus Prayer 600 times in half an hour.  Some time later when I was speaking with a hieromonk of Philotheou on this subject I brought up what the aforementioned said.  This father told me, 600 times in a half hour is actually slow.  As we continued I told him that when I had visited the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in England where the JP is recited orally during the community services there was one old monk from Greece who said the Prayer very slowly while all the others said it at a much quicker rate.  In response this father commented: “When we are young and the passions are strong, they rage within us like a storm. And thoughts also, at times, will fly through our minds like a tornado. We are attacked fast and we must fight back fast. If we recite the Jesus Prayer too slow 500 thoughts can go through our minds before we pass from one word to the next.  But, as in the case of the old monk, when we advance in the spiritual life the passions are lulled, and there is a great calm within, the movement of thoughts is stilled and one can recite the Prayer very slowly. I once read in a book that Archimandrite Sophrony would spend all night in prayer and during that time he would spend 6 hours saying the Lord’s Prayer only once!  He would be wrapped in contemplation over every syllable.”

Why then did St. Ignatius suggest such a slow rate?  Because he was speaking out of his own experience and that was the way for him.  Archimandrite Sophrony once stated that Bishop Ignatius had the gift of tears and he prayed fervently with many tears.  St. Ignatius must have had a great capacity for prayer—a capacity that most of us do not have.  Inner fervent prayer must have come natural to him, and so he prayed very slow, with a pause between each prayer, and so, he suggested for others what came natural to him.

The way for St. Ignatius is not the way for everyone and I do not believe it is best for most of us.  Besides if we say the Prayer too slow we can have a tendency to think about Jesus rather than praying to Him.  We might be thinking about Jesus as Lord, Jesus as Savior, Jesus as the Christ and the Son of God.  Although this is not bad it is thinking about God rather than entering into communion with Him.  On the contrary, St. Seraphim advises, “In prayer take heed to yourself—that is, gather your mind and unite it with the subject of the prayer, and do not let it turn to any other thing.” (In the Footsteps of a Saint, p. 34) In this way each prayer consists of a single thought and so it can be repeated very quickly.

Next we should consider what form of the prayer to use. St. Ignatius in The Arena suggests the form, “ Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”.  This longer form seems to be prominent among the Russians, and the humble confession in the words, “a sinner”, may or may not be employed.  In his writings, Archimandrite Sophrony, also suggests this form and feels that this form contains a full dogmatic confession.  However, he does not demand that his monastics must use this form.  Again others prefer the short form: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”.  This form is commonly used among the Athonite fathers.  The Elder Ephraim uses the shorter form and he has said that for himself this contains everything and the longer form was not necessary.  His spiritual child, Abbot Paisius believes that one should start with the short form and move on to the longer form if one was moved to do so.  Therefore what should each of us do?  We pray the form that we are moved to use and practice obedience.  In conclusion the Elder Ephraim has said, “The form of the Prayer is not essential, there must be purity in the disposition of the heart in which the prayer is offered”.

One last point to consider is the use of the imagination.  So let me pose a question: Is it possible to use the imagination during prayer?  And if so how? To begin with something should be said about the  imagination and its use. The imagination is from God for constructive use in this life and creative.  It is the ability of the mind to form a mental picture.  It has constructive use in this life, for instance, an architect uses his imagination in drawing up blueprints for a church building.  On the other hand a person may day dream about things unrealistic, and so, the imagination becomes damaging.  In addition the demonic powers can use our imagination to introduce fantasies of sinful things into our minds which are soul-destroying. 

Now back to the question at hand.  To respond to this I will refer to conversations I had with several elders.  I told the Elder Joseph the Younger of Vatopedi Monastery that during the Liturgy I like to picture in my mind the event of the Mystical Supper and I asked if this was wrong.  He answered, “Beginners in prayer can use different methods and even the imagination in order to help the attention.  But for those who have attained pure prayer it is a distraction.  During reading the Scriptures, chanting and at Liturgy, it is allowable to use the imagination; but when we are praying in our cells we must keep our minds free from all images”.

At another time I questioned the Elder Ephraim of Arizona as to what is meant by guarding the mind and he replied, “To help guard the mind you can think of the Crucifixion, the blessings of heaven or the torments of hell”.  And when I asked Archimandrite Sophrony if it were necessary to have thought while saying the Jesus Prayer he said, “Of course you must have thought; man is a reasonable creature.  You can’t just sit back and say Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”.  He repeated the prayer several times and as he did this he sat up erect as though imitating a robot.  Then he continued; “Think of your sins and say the Jesus Prayer”.

The imagination, then, can be used, but only like a spark to ignite a flame.  It can be used to arouse inner attentiveness and feeling.  We can picture momentarily in our minds the Lord, saints or things such as were mentioned by the elders just quoted when we begin a prayer or from time to time when we use short intercessions such as the Jesus Prayer.  But to dwell on these things is wrong, for it can be a distraction if we are praying as we should.  Because when we use the imagination the attention is in the head, but we are called to stand before God with the mind in the heart—the meeting place between God and man.