The prayer of Jesus

The Athos

Part 4 b by brother Yvan Jacques

Mount Athos too knows the emanation of the prayer of Jesus. This 50 km long peninsula is called “the garden of our Lady”.

The mountain has many monasteries and many hermits, some showing even more holiness than the others. As a legend tells, in the first century a friend of Jesus would have invited the Mother of God to visit the place. In a storm the boat would have landed on the peninsula. The presence of the Mother of God caused the surrender of the pagan population. Ever since no woman can be pure enough to set foot on the mountain !

In the middle of the 10th century the holy mountain – Hagion Oros – becomes a kind of capital for the eastern monasticism.

Remote from Constantinople ( Istanbul ) and the sorrows of the world, interference of state in church, the mountain becomes a refuge for all those who love the silence.

The first hermits settle there in the 5th and 6th century. Several forms of monasticism were practised. There were cenobites, some of them lived rhythmically at a monastery as do most of our monasteries, others lived idiorhythmically, i.e. at a monastery but everyone defines his own rhythm of life in dialogue with the abbot of the monastery. There were also hermits and pilgrims who travelled from one monastery to another and there are too little groups of about 5 or 6 monks lead by an abba.

This last way of living is applied in the monastery “Mariakluizen”. Each brother at the monastery has his hermitage but he also works for his income. He lives idiorhythmically in dialogue with the abba of the community.

Saint Anthony the Antonit built there in 963 the first big monastery, called “Megali Lavra” or “the big Laura”.

The monks there lived around a “hygoumene” or “abba”.

Out of the 25 monasteries that existed in the 14th century now about 20 still remain, one even more strict than the other.

South of the peninsula the desert monks live in caves and precipices, this is called “the upright desert”.

In the 13th century we find the first traces of the practise there of the prayer of Jesus by the hermit Nicephore. He practised the prayer of Jesus in combination with the breathing.
He says :

“that one should breath in the spirit through the nose and bring it to the heart. When the spirit has come in calmly into the heart, one should say internally : ‘Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me’.”

At the beginning of the 14th century, life at Mount Athos had weakened.

Gregory the Sinait ( 1255 – 1346 ) brought back the spirituality. From that moment on the Holy Mountain becomes the centre for the spread of the prayer of Jesus.

He recommends exercises to practise the prayer and says :

“From the morning on, sit down on a small bench, bring your spirit to your heart and bent forward practise the prayer, invoke persistently the prayer of Jesus.”

The struggle between Barlaam ( + 1348 ) and Gregory Palamas testifies of the fact that the exercise of the prayer of Jesus was criticized.

Barlaam of Calabria hang on to the Thomistic doctrine, as a man of the renascence and with his intellectual education he attacked this movement and called the monks navel watchers. He also accused them of heresy because they pretended to see the Divine Light. He attacked as well the method, for this method led to seeing the Uncreated Light.

The thought that the divine light could be seen with created eyes was for Barlaam a shameful misleading, an absurd doctrine, fruit of a misled belief and obscure imagination.

This attack disturbed the public opinion and even politics started to interfere. Finally, in 1341 a council was held in the Saint Sophia church in order to discuss this matter under the presidency of Basileus Andronie III. He declared that only bishops could fix dogmas and they claimed Barlaams apologises towards the monks. Barlaam was worsted and furiously returned to Italy where he died as bishop.

Thanks to Gregory Palamas the prayer of Jesus could remain at Mount Athos. Gregory defended the coupling together of the prayer of Jesus and the breathing, saying that Christ is the whole happiness of man, to wit soul, spirit and body. In baptism and Eucharist one can see this happiness fully. He also defended the point of view that one can see the bright light of God. Through a vision one can communicate with God for on Mount Thabor the transfigurated Christ appeared before his apostles. It was the deification of man, impregnated with the Uncreated Light. The apostles saw the God Man.

By this he also defended the deification of man following the beautiful utterance of Athanasios of Alexandria ( 295 – 373 ) who said :

“God has become man so that man could become God.”

The deification of man ( Theosis ) is our destiny.

To be continued.

Midi "Praying for Bree" is
used with permission 
and is copyright © 2001 
Bruce DeBoer