The desert fathers and the prayer of Jesus.

Part 3 by brother Yvan Jacques

The father or Abba is a spiritualised person who knows the soul of men by his own experience. He is not necessarily an elder. The Abba gives “the right word on the right moment”. Sometimes one had to wait three days before the Abba spoke but then his words were a “viaticum”, help and food for the man in affliction or at wit’s end.

The desert fathers didn’t use much words to explain how to pray. I still remember, when I was at the monastery of Saint Macary in Egypt and asked a question about the difference between the Greek way of praying the prayer of Jesus and the Egyptian way, the monk answered :
“You must do it … do it. A lot has been written about the prayer of Jesus, about ways of praying it, but you must do it”, he said.

Out of the 2000 to 3000 proverbs of the fathers only about 20 directly concern the prayer of the monks. For the fathers a prayer was a short request in the form of a short formula.

This prayer is called “monologistos”. This expression comes from Saint John Climacus ( 7th century ).

He emphasized that a prayer had to be short without many words and thoughts. Much words in the prayer divert the attention, he said.

Jesus too said in Matthew 6, 6 - 8 :

“But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

The fathers in the deserts of Egypt already used such a short prayer. It existed in pronouncing a verse of psalm 69 which says :

“Save me, o God” or “God, come and help me” or “God, help me quickly”. With this prayer the monks also start their religious services.

Abba Macary, founder of the monastery of Saint Macary in Egypt, answered the question how to pray as follows :

“One should not deliver long speeches to pray. It is sufficient to unfold the hands and to say : ‘Lord, as you see, as you know, have mercy on me’. And if the fight goes on, then say : ‘Lord, come and help me’.”

This proverb of a father is one of the first confirmations of the use of a short prayer. Another proverb says :

“Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances” ( Abba Benjamin )

In fact the prayer of Jesus looks for the inner peace of the monk or the practiser of the prayer. Inner peace is a characteristic of the really religious man or woman who feels the nearness of God.

Abba Poumen once answered a monk who asked him how to live in his hermitage as follows :
“At the place where you live, feel like a stranger, don’t be attached to anything, pray and you will find rest for your heart.”

To another monk who had lost the courage to pray in his hermitage, he said :

“Do not despise, do not judge, do not blame anybody and God will give you peace, and you will be able to meditate in all rest.”

In Ethiopian Monachism we find about the same formula.

Abba Paul said :

“If you live in community, do and learn, turn your heart slowly to heaven and say to the Lord in your heart : Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, Jesus come and help me, I bless you my God.”

We find this too in Arabian proverbs of fathers who exhort to continuous recollection and to invoke the name of Jesus. A desert father, Abba Anoub, in the 6th and 7th century spoke thus :

“There is no virtue bigger in comparison with the continuous invoking of the Holy Name of Jesus at all times, be praying lips in seclusion, be in your heart and without external intercourse.”

Abba Anoub confirms the power of the Holy Name of Christ. He says :

“Ever since the day that the Holy Name of Christ was invoked over me, not a single lie has passed my lips.”

During the office of the Coptic monks in the deserts of Egypt, the monks sing poetic compositions to the Holy Name of Jesus, as is clearly shown in the following text :

“Truly, I have lifted me up to something that is more important than all there is :

‘the Holy Name of Jesus’, our Lord Jesus has given a sign to his servants who fear Him, it is His Holy Name.

Our heart is joyful, our tongue is pleased, when we meditate about the Holy Name of Jesus.”

Invoking the Name calls the being that carries this name. When I call my mother or my father, I call the living being that carries this name. Then I see her or him as if she or he was standing in front of me. So it is with Jesus : when I invoke Him, He comes and helps us at all circumstances.”

Therefore, the holy Bernard says that invoking the Name is food, light and remedy.

But praying also means growing, deepening and descending in the depths of your heart. This growing in the invoking of the Holy Name was described by saint John Climacus. He has written an important work that is called : “The Holy Ladder”.

In this work three important terms are brought together for the first time.

Namely the recollection of Jesus, control of breathing and internal rest.

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