John McGuckin on the Jesus Prayer  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Fr John Anthony McGuckin (b 1952) has joint professorial appointments at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University.  A native of England, he was raised Roman Catholic and was a member of the Passionist religious order.  He converted to Orthodoxy in 1989 and was ordained a priest in the Romanian Orthodox Church.  He is a specialist in Patristic theology and history with about 100 scholarly publications to his credit.  One of these, "Eastern Orthodox Prayer:  the Rasskaz strannika" is a detailed study of the editorial history and underlying theology and spirituality of The Way of a Pilgrim.  It is chapter 8 of Contemplative Literature: A Comparative Sourcebook on Meditation and Contemplative Prayer, Louis Komjathy ed, SUNY Press 2015.  The excerpt below is found on p 380.


The tradition of the Pilgrim is rooted, of course, in the Eastern Orthodox Church.  That pathway of the Jesus Prayer is rooted in the larger scheme of what is known as the Hesychast movement.  This extends back to classical Christian antiquity, but came to a refined restatement from the thirteenth century onward and began a new wave of monastic revivals.  In the instance of the Pilgrim, this Hesychastic school was breaking out of the monastery and trying to make its way into ordinary, "secular" life.  Hesychasm derives from the Greek word for "quietness" (hesychia).  It sketches out a state of spiritual awareness where the body is first stilled by simple repetitive stances or actions (standing still, moving a prayer rope, and such), and the mind is given simple tasks of repetitive short phrases or words (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy--in the case of the Jesus Prayer) in order that the heart (by which the Hesychast school means the spiritual soul-awareness of a person [aisthesis noetikos], one's sense of God's presence to one and the world) may stand before God in a continuous awareness "beyond the range of words."  This stasis (the Greek word means a drawn-out condition, a stable state) is barely possible given the fragmented nature of human psychical awareness.  In prayer that is silent, imageless, and wordless, it takes only a matter of seconds before the normal freewheeling nature of the human imagination "fills the gaps" with psychic junk:  daydreams, distractions, thoughts of a hundred different things.  The Jesus Prayer that the Pilgrim uses, therefore, was meant as a mountaineer's rope--a way of ascending a difficult peak, a tool to rise out of normal states of ragged and dissipated consciousness into a sustained concentration on the awareness of God's immanent presence.  The physical posture of the prayer, the mental fixation on a few simple words, and the ultimate release of the heart's deeper awareness to be focused on God:  this is all the fabric of the structure of a system of prayer that is meant to be an aid to radical concentration, but concentration that is free, relaxed, nonideational.  And that is the point;  so that prayer might rise from being a matter of what we have to say to God into being enabled to hear what God might actually be saying to us.