Daily Meditations

Prayer of the Heart in an Age of Technology and Distraction, Part 13

January 22nd, 2020

By Fr. Maximos (Constas)

I’d like to say a few words about the breathing practices that are associated with the Jesus Prayer because I think this is one of the most misunderstood things. People sometimes warn people about this, which I don’t agree with. As we’ve said over and again, it’s not easy to free ourselves from distractions. One priest friend said we can’t even say one single Jesus Prayer without being distracted. How wretched are we? We know it’s hard to not be distracted. It’s difficult to find our center and enter the place of the heart and once we do enter it it’s very difficult to stay there because the cares of life distract us. This is why the teachers of the Jesus Prayer teach us to initially focus on the breath. If the mind focuses on the breath that means the wandering mind, which has been outside of the body, is now united to the body, and that’s a huge first step, because so often we’re absent from the present moment. You can live your whole life without actually having lived it. Focusing on the breath is important because it brings the mind back to the body, and also because the breath is the one thing that we have that is unambiguously in the present—right where and right now. If I can get my mind to focus on the breath I’m not only entering into my body but I’m also entering into the present. It is so tremendously powerful to be in the present. It can be frightening because it’s a place we’re not familiar with, and I think that’s one of the reasons we run from it. It can be overwhelming. We sense there are other things in the present too, namely the presence of God. And this reality is so big, awesome, and so mysterious that I can’t deal with it so I go back to my own little reality—my paper I’m working on, or the party I’m planning—the smaller reality that I can control and manipulate. In so many churches there are so many activities—even doubling their talks and programs during Lent. How about just stopping? What are we running away from?

As St. Niko demos says, breathing is respiration which involves the lungs and heart; and to follow the breath is not only to return to the body and to the present, but it’s to allow the mind to return to the place of the heart. People discourage this for different reasons, but breathing is something we do all the time; and if you’re saying the Jesus Prayer in a rhythm, to me it’s the most natural thing that this repetition will on its own very quickly unite itself to your breath. I don’t know how that can’t be. Many people will say the first half of the prayer on the inhale, and the second on the exhale, and this is what’s recommended in the Philokalia and elsewhere. While inhaling: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” and while exhaling: “have mercy on me a sinner.” The prayer becomes part of people’s breathing, and sometimes you just take a breath without intending to pray, and you find yourself saying the prayer because it unites itself to your breath. This should be basic.

We talked about the buried seed and the idea of actualizing the potential of the Holy Spirit, and the Jesus Prayer is precisely this cultivation. Why? 1 Cor. 12:3 says No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. It’s not a mantra, but the invocation of the Divine name; and like an icon, with the name comes the presence of Christ. How is the presence of Christ actualized in the world? Through the agency of the Holy Spirit, always. If Christ is present somewhere it’s due to the activity and agency of the Holy Spirit. Think about the Annunciation—the Archangel delivers the message and she asks, How can this be?” Well, simple—The power of the Most High will overshadow you. We say in the Creed “begotten of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.” The Second Person of the Trinity becomes a reality incarnate in her womb through the agency of the Holy Spirit. That’s how Luke begins his Gospel, and he begins the Book of Acts with the apostles gathered in Jerusalem, where Christ told them to stay, awaiting power from on high. The Spirit descends on them and transforms them from a ragtag group of blue-collar workers into the Body of Christ. We have two parallel moments in the works of Luke—the overshadowing power of the Holy Spirit that concretizes the presence of Christ, and the overshadowing at Pentecost which concretizes the mystical Body of Christ.

At every Liturgy, again the material of the Virgin’s womb is transformed, the material of the apostolic body, the material of the bread and wine that we place on the altar. In the epiclesis we invoke the Holy Spirit to transform the gifts and “make them the Body of Your Christ.” No one can say “Jesus” without the Holy Spirit. That’s just not a simple, sweet idea. There’s a profound depth of theological meaning here. This is why we have the image of the Spirit as the seal. When the seal comes and impresses itself into matter, it doesn’t leave an image of itself—you aren’t left with an image of a rubber stamp. You’re left with the image that the seal bears. And the image here is that of Christ. The Spirit is the seal but the image on the seal is Christ, which is why the sealing of Baptism transforms the baptized into a Christian—it’s a christification. The invocation of the name of Jesus in the Jesus Prayer and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the heart are intimately connected.

People often say, “Well, this sounds good, but I don’t have time for this. I’m a busy man!” I understand that we’re all very busy today, but let’s be careful that when we say “I don’t have time,” which was the mantra at Harvard, that we don’t really mean, “I don’t believe in the possibility of my own transformation.” I seem to never have time for certain things, but I find all the time in the world for the things I use to amuse myself.

~ “Prayer of the Heart in an Age of Technology and Distraction” delivered by Fr. Maximos (Constas) on Feb. 2014 to the clergy of diocese of LA and the West of Antiochian of N. America at the invitation of His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph. The audio version of this lecture first appeared on Patristic Nectar Publications, and is published here by permission.

Fr. Maximos is the presidential research scholar at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of theology in Brookline, MA. He is an Athonite monk, one-time professor at Harvard Divinity School, accomplished author and translator and lectures internationally in both academic and parochial venues.