Personal Stories: The Jesus Prayer (Part 2 of “I submitted myself to God, and now I am happy...")

Father, can you tell us about the Jesus prayer? Have you had experience with it?

Hieromonk Eustathius: Of course, I have! I have had very rich experience... «I have reached great grace...» (laughs).

No, I mean, really... Hardly anyone speaks about it openly. Can you tell us anything about it?

Hieromonk Eustathius: Speaking frankly, without showing off or making myself look humble... The Jesus prayer is essential for a monastic. First of all, one has to carry out his or her daily prayer rule - this is obvious. In fact, if a person does not perform his daily prayer rule, he will never learn to pray the Jesus prayer. The details of the daily prayer rule are to be discussed with one’s spiritual counselor; however, there are certain guidelines. For instance, a Stavrophore monk in our Zhirovichi monastery must say five hundred Jesus prayers daily, a Rassaphore monk must say three hundred daily, while a novice has a rule of one hundred Jesus prayers every single day.

In our Convent, a Rassaphore nun has a rule of five hundred Jesus prayers daily, whereas a Stavrophore nun must say this prayer 1,000 or 1,500 times.

Hieromonk Eustathius: Sounds like a lot... Sure, the numbers aren’t what matters most. The essence of the prayer of the heart is standing before God. Why is the rule, which is done when a person is alone in his cell (or in any other isolated place where no one can see you), so important? It is through this rule that a person learns to stay focused on prayer. I often use the following example when speaking with novices and with the sisters from the Slonim convent, and I believe this example may adequately show the importance of the cell rule for a monastic. When a person begins to practice sports, his coach tells him: First, it is very important that you do your exercises every day. Second, you must do the exercises properly. Some athletes even stand in front of a mirror in order to move properly. An athlete practices every day without hurry, one exercise after another. If the athlete misses one workout, he will immediately feel it. The exercises may be very strenuous, especially in the beginning, but gradually an athlete begins to love these exercises even though they are tough. The person begins to enjoy the process.
A musician is another example of a person who has to play boring drills every day... A person who studies a foreign language also has to practice with attention and commitment every day. Gradually, one develops a taste for the process itself.
When a monk begins to perform his daily prayer rule, it is like a lesson where not a single prayer, not a single word must be missed. Every single prayer, every single word must hit the target. What is the target? The main purpose of the Jesus prayer is unity with God. So when you say the Jesus prayer, you should read each word consciously, as a basic requirement. In other words, you must understand what you are saying.
Furthermore, one has to cast away doubts and distracting thoughts, which will inevitably impede one’s prayer. The more attentive a person is, the more furious the bad thoughts are. Of course, God’s grace sometimes gives us an opportunity to pray without this struggle but in fact, it only happens in the beginning of our spiritual life (or as an exception), and is rarely found later. This is the Lord Himself praying with us, and there is nothing we can boast of. Then the Lord allows the person to do something independently, and bad thoughts begin fighting against the believer... There are three types of such thoughts, as a rule. Either you begin to remember how someone else hurt you, and begin to feel angry... or you are tempted with vain pride (like when you have said one hundred Jesus prayers without distraction and begin to think you are a better person than you were yesterday, and you are becoming a great ascetic), or you are tempted with lustful thoughts (scenes and images, often from one’s sinful past)... The enemy seduces one’s soul with something that devastates her spiritually and keeps God’s grace away from her. I am not going to say that when you say the Jesus prayer you must be filled with grace. However, you still need some grace in order to be attentive. It is very hard to be attentive but it is the primary task for the person on the first stage of the Jesus prayer practice. The feeling of repentance that the Holy Fathers (St Ignatius Bryanchaninov, for instance) are speaking of is a gift from above and a result of attentive prayer. This is how God answers to the work a person does in order to learn to pray without distraction.
A person needs years, or even decades, to learn to pray without distraction. Many people are looking for the deep prayer of the heart and jump the stairs...and fail. You know, they are like amateur musicians who are sometimes able to play the guitar like a virtuoso, but if you ask them to play C major scale slowly and accurately they refuse.
When a person practices Jesus prayer daily and properly, he will soon be able to use this prayer like a sword in extreme circumstances. If you learn how to use this sword, it will be an ideal emergency kit in case of temptations. When you are tempted or upset, you just say a Jesus prayer and restore the peaceful mood. Ideally, one should pray without ceasing but the daily prayer rule is the first step to it. Later, one should remember to pray during the day but it is another story.
You know, we can talk endlessly about it. This topic itself may have so many issues to be resolved depending on the person’s level of spiritual prowess. Speaking from the practical point of view, almost all of us are absolute beginners. We all are newbies because there are hardly any teachers of Jesus prayer nowadays. At least, I have never met one. This is why we have to go this road alone, like a mine-picker through a minefield (laughs). Certainly, I ask advice of some priests - one or two of them. Father Andrew used to correct me when I was in St Elisabeth Convent because I was really going astray at that time...
This is why I do not feel it is wrong to speak about Jesus prayer and I will be happy if you give me some advice. I believe we should help one another and share our experience. I do not think one should conceal his spiritual practice. Secrecy is okay if one has anything to hide but we all are beginners... The Jesus prayer is just a regular prayer, like all the rest. It is just the most effective and the easiest method of fighting one’s sinful thoughts, and that is enough.
Father Eustathius, what spiritual books are you reading now? When a person grows spiritually, he goes step by step and each time his tastes are determined by his current spiritual needs. What do you like to read now?

Hieromonk Eustathius: Oh, you know, it is hard to say... I have to read a lot of scholarly books on the subject I teach in the seminary - the New Testament for the third and the fourth years. Certainly, I read works by the Holy Fathers from time to time, in particular, St Ignatius (Bryanchaninov), St Theophan the Recluse, the ancient Fathers: Abba Dorotheos, Barsanuphios the Great and John the Prophet, St Isaac the Syrian... When you read the ancient (and not so ancient) Holy Fathers, you come to realise how far you are from holiness because you have a chance to compare yourself not with brothers from your monastery but with the Holy Fathers. You suddenly realise that you cannot even understand what the Fathers aim at sometimes, let alone catch up with their spiritual practice. This is what gives you a proper view on yourself and humbles you down... It is no revelation, perhaps, if I say that monasticism of our time is very weak, to be sincere. I saw it more clearly when I became a spiritual father myself, however hard this fact is to bear...

As far as modern authors are concerned, I like sermons and talks of Schema-Archimandrite Abraham (Reidmann), the spiritual father of the New Tikhvin Convent in Yekaterinburg. This author speaks about the key issues of monastic life from his own experience. He does not only state the problem, like Archimandrite Lazarus (Abashidze), for instance, but also gives useful advice. In particular, I like what he writes about the Jesus prayer. I have bought a three-volume set of his talks called “The Better Part” and I would recommend these books to monastics. There is another good book dedicated to the practice of the Jesus prayer in three volumes called “The Jesus Prayer: the Experience of Two Millenia”, where the third volume is the most interesting... A book by Archbishop Anthony (Golynsky-Mikhailovsky) “On Jesus Prayer” is also a must read for everyone.
And finally, books by Archimandrite Sophronios (Sakharov). When Fr Andrew recommended them to me for the first time, I could not understand anything. However, when I was in the seminary I developed taste for these books... It was thanks to them that I was able to pull through. I liked Archimandrite Sophronios so much that I devoted my diploma and later my thesis research to his works. Archimandrite Emilian of Simonopetra called his works “The Philokalia of our time”.
The Holy Fathers say that monasticism is a great science. A science that is greater than any other science and an art that is greater than any other art. This is why learning is so essential. When one has a good teacher like your Father Andrew, a remarkable spiritual counselor, it is wonderful. Well, he is my teacher as well because I do not separate myself from the community of St Elisabeth. Unfortunately, I do not have an opportunity to talk with him often, to seek his detailed advice with regard to many issues, for instance, certain issues of the Jesus prayer... I wish I could discuss the most strategic issues of my spiritual life with him. Whether I like it or not, I have to go my own way, sometimes the trial-and-error way, however hard it may be. One cannot be guided solely by books. A live advice and relationship is needed so badly nowadays.
Father, you have told us that you are the spiritual father of a Convent. What difficulties do you have to face in this field?

Hieromonk Eustathius: You know, when I was a writer, I was sure I know much about female mentality. Take, for instance, my aforementioned novel where there are two main characters: He and She. When I gave this novel to my friends, including females, they said that the female character was brilliantly caught. However, when I became the spiritual father of the convent, I came to realize that I did not know anything about women and that the only thing left for me to say was, Lord have mercy! The nuns are so very different from the brothers at the Zhirovichi monastery, and it is much easier to deal with the brothers.

There is a number of factors which explain why it is harder to counsel a convent than a monastery. First, as I have already said, a soul of a female is much more complex than a soul of a male, and this is not meant to praise the soul of a female. I wish it were simpler... Second, it depends on whether a monastic community is built around a spiritual father, like it is the case in St Elisabeth Convent where all the nuns are spiritual children of Father Andrew. When I came to the Slonim convent, I discovered that some sisters had their own spiritual counselors and thus their own understanding of the spiritual life... Unintentionally, they start to compare me with other priests. “His Grace Benjamen wouldn’t do so and so, he wouldn’t say this or that...” (His Grace Benjamen was the spiritual father of the convent in Slonim before). In fact, I can understand how the sisters feel. They did not want me to come but I came to teach and to guide them.
The truth is that such perception of a spiritual father is harmful for their own growth, for the most part. I attempt to act politely, I do not teach them how to live, I never offer my advice, I just listen to their confessions and nothing more. I give my advice only if the sister asks for it herself. Still, it is very difficult to explain anything to them... Generally, the most difficult thing of all is to tell someone the truth. It is practically impossible because either you become an enemy of that person or, at the very least, they think you are tactless and rude... A person would think you mock at her, you try to execute your power and “humble” that person down (in the worst sense of this word) so she immediately starts to defend herself. It is hard to speak of spiritual work in such a situation. Today I see only one solution to it - humbling myself down before the sisters and giving them spiritual pills and vitamins.
Why do they perceive your critical remarks as mockery? Is it because they understand that you are right and it is painful for them to acknowledge it?

Hieromonk Eustathius: No, in fact, they cannot see that, as a rule. Even if a sister guessed that the problem I was talking about was real, she is often afraid to acknowledge that.

How does this go with humility?

Hieromonk Eustathius: What is humility? Do you know? (laughs). Sure, if a person lives in a monastery, he begins to look at humility and obedience in a different way than when he was a layman. I remember how humble I was at St Elisabeth Convent, oh, what an ascetic I was! I remember coming to the church at 4 am with enthusiasm and seeing tired monastic sisters sleeping in the corners... Come on, had they ever heard that we were called to “Lift up our hearts!”?I was also tired but I was a lay person and was still doing something!..
Now I look at these sisters with different eyes. I have started to understand them, of course, because now I am similar to them. Sometimes I find myself walking to my cell after the service staggering, especially if I had listened to confessions throughout the service... Some pilgrims stare at me in surprise, and I am afraid they think I am drunk... Because I stagger, my legs are swelling because my weak heart won’t let me stand in one place without a single movement... I look at Fr Andrew and come to realise that when I am his age, they will drive me around in a cart, perhaps...
What is humility and obedience then?

Hieromonk Eustathius: Well, I can put it this way... For a monastic, the easiest way to learn humility is his or her obedience. Obedience means turning down one’s will. Three simple words: abandon thy will. Yet it is SO difficult! Generally, one can understand how difficult it is only if he ever tried to refuse to act according to his desires. It is not so hard to refuse your wishes and desires for what your spiritual father tells you to do because you love your spiritual father and trust him but it is much more difficult to subdue your will before someone who is put in charge of what you are doing especially if she is younger or less experienced as a monastic, or if you are a nun already (just listen how it sounds: I am a nun already!), and she is just a novice... Is it easy? What about abandoning your will for a sister you share your cell with if she always opens up (or closes) the window or snores all night... Or if she sniffles all the time, or if she covers all table with her books or papers, or... and you have to tolerate it for years! One Russian author once said that he loved the whole world but hated his roommate. Loving the entire world is much easier than loving that particular person! By the way, the Lord gives us the primary criterion to check if we have something in common with Christianity, and this criterion is how we love our neighbors, the people who life side by side with us: our family if we are lay people or our roommates and people we work with, if we are monastics... It is extremely painful to abandon our will before these people. Humility is impossible without this kind of obedience. These virtues are, in fact, one and the same thing for a monastic.

I understand that I do not understand anything.

Hieromonk Eustathius: This is what I am speaking about. Generally, I wish we had a chance to drink some tea together and have a friendly talk, not an interview. When I come to St Elisabeth Convent, all my friends - Fr Sergius, Matushka Larissa, Novice Dmitry - gather and spend time together. Last year when I was on a pilgrimage to the Holy Trinity-St Sergius Lavra, I met another of my friends - Novice Gennadius - and we spent a couple of hours in the monastery library where he is an assistant librarian just talking because we had not seen one another for a long time...

I am sorry for talking so much (laughs). I was very glad to talk with you.
Prayer Rope