(Source) Excerpts from Humble-Mindedness: The Doorway to Pure Prayer, An interview with Elder Dionysius (Ignat) of the St. George Kellion, Kolitsou Skete, Mt. Athos, Greece
(Translated from the Romanian by Gratia-Lavinia Constantinescu. From The Orthodox Word, Vol. 41, No. 1 (#240—Jan-Feb, 2005), pp. 5-26. Posted on 6 Dec, 2005 (n.s.).)
1. On the Jesus Prayer
Question: Most pious Elder, what is the purpose of our life in this temporal world?
Answer: The main purpose of our earthly life is to be saved, to arrive in the Kingdom of Heaven. Our Lord Jesus Christ teaches us: “Be holy, just as your Father in Heaven is holy!” (cf. Matt. 5:48). During this earthly life, with the help of Divine Grace and our good Christian deeds we can enter the ranks of the saints. And if, because of our lack of virtue, we cannot join the ranks of the saints, we should strive to inherit Paradise. By no means can you simultaneously be a good Christian and commit sin. If you commit sin, you depart from the Grace of God and unite yourself to the devil. Thus, you depart from the Church, from the Holy Mysteries and from the Divine teachings in order to satisfy your own passions, which the devil has settled in your soul. You should not obey your passions. That’s why the Church sings: “From my youth do many passions war against me …” (Hymns of Degrees, Tone 4). That’s why the Holy Scripture tells us: Seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; and have put on the new man (Col. 3:9–10). Because if we’re of the old man, we’re the slaves of passions and sins.
Question: After Baptism, is the devil expelled from the depth of our heart so that he now works from outside?
Answer: He works from outside the heart. But if we sin, we allow him to penetrate into the depths of the heart. This is what a passion is. From now on, this passion will lead us, but not even now does Divine Grace leave us. God gave man total freedom. The Grace of the Holy Spirit showed him the difference between right and wrong. It showed us the way to the Kingdom of Heaven, and the way which leads to perdition—hell. God tells us: I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life (Deut. 30:19). The Grace of the Holy Spirit could have made it impossible for man to ever fall. But in that case he would have had neither personality nor virtues, but would have been an animal or a robot. None of God’s creations has the freedom that man has. The Christian who fulfills God’s commandments with the help of Divine Grace may become a saint. And God is so good that even when we fall into sins and cry to Him in repentance, “Lord, forgive me! Lord, help me!” He comes to us and helps us to rise from our sins. That is why our Lord Jesus Christ told us, Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden with sins, and I will give you rest (Matt. 11:28)!
However, if the passions have settled in a man and have become like a new sinful nature, that man will say, “It’s impossible to cut off these passions!” This is especially so because we are in the last times, when mankind has become careless and insensible towards spiritual things. Whether one is a layman, a monk or a priest, one isn’t concerned over passions and sins. This a great danger because thereby we allow the demons to progress in controlling us.
2. On Humble-mindedness
Question: St. Silouan the Athonite says that the only thing a Christian should learn as long as he lives in this earthly life is humble-mindedness .
Answer: That’s true, father. The Christian should first learn what humility is in order to be able to humble himself afterwards, in every moment of his life, before people and the demons . In this way he will grow spiritually, and his heart will be filled with the Grace and fragrance of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Holy Trinity, the Mother of God, the Holy Angels and all the Saints will make their home in his heart. In short, his heart will become a spiritual Paradise. And if you have the Lord of Sabaoth, you will be happy wherever you are. Unfortunately, people today are educated in the spirit of self-love, pride, vainglory, dissoluteness, love of money, etc., and their heart becomes a hell, full of sins and unclean spirits. Thus, the proud man tortures himself and tortures others, too. Humble-mindedness is a Christian virtue which you should try to have every moment of your life.
Question: What is humility of heart?
Answer: Our Lord Jesus Christ teaches us: Learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls (Matt. 11:29). With the help of Divine Grace and our good Christian deeds, our stony hearts will change into spiritual hearts. That’s why God tells us, My son, give Me thine heart (Prov. 23:26). The eye of your heart should always be on God. Thus do we hope to be saved, and the Grace of the Holy Spirit will always help us.
3. The Means of Facilitating the Prayer
Question: The Athonite Fathers advise us to say the Jesus Prayer with repentance and not mechanically. What can you tell us about this?
Answer: The whole work of the Prayer of Jesus is for repentance! Because we pray: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” This means repentance. Because if you pray without repentance it means that you have high-mindedness and are on the wrong path. Why do we pray to our Lord Jesus Christ to have mercy on us? Because we’re sinners. So, we say this prayer only for repentance. If you have high-mindedness, no matter how little, God will not have mercy on you. The devil knows this, because he fell due to his high-mindedness. Because of this, the devil sows the passions in the heart of any man in the world, through his high-mindedness. The enemy whispers to us, “Glory to God! You’re a monk. You’re not like other people. You’re a sinner but you’re not like other people.” This is spiritual destruction for a Christian. The more important the gifts are that you have received from God—whether you are a bishop, priest, deacon, monk, doctor, professor, engineer, etc.—the more indebted to God you should consider yourself to be, and more sinful than other people. If the Holy Apostle Paul—who was raised up to the third heaven and who saw Mysteries which eye hath not seen … neither have entered into the heart of man (I Cor. 2:9), humbles himself, saying, Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief (I Tim. 1:15)—then what can we take pride in, who are full of passions and sins? Because the more you purify yourself of your sins and draw near to God, in the Divine Light you see your passions and sins in their true magnitude, and the darkness in your heart.
So, if you consider yourself to be more sinful than all people and even than the demons who enslave you in every bad thing, then the Holy Spirit will descend upon you. High-mindedness is very harmful for our spiritual life! That’s why St. John of Damascus says in the Canons to the Mother of God, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, by the prayers of Thine All-pure Mother, have mercy on me, a sinner, who am more sinful than any man in the world!” He did not say this out of formality, but thanks to his humble-mindedness he considered himself more sinful than any man in the world. Only in this way will the All-good God help us to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, because a humble sinner is better before God than a proud righteous man. He who has every good deed but is high-minded will be left by God to fall into sins and to be humbled in this way. That is why our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. The Pharisee had good deeds, but his mind became exalted, and he said, “I am not like everyone else and like that greedy Publican.” God did not bless him for this high-mindedness. And the Publican didn’t even dare look up to heaven and said, “Good Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!” And God, because of his humbleness, blessed him. Thus, he left the Temple justified and blessed by the Grace of the Holy Spirit.
Question: I am attacked by evil thoughts, blasphemous thoughts. Are they from the demons? They do not leave me alone in the Church either! What shall I do?
Answer: Pay no attention to them! Leave them alone. Let them howl in your mind. Pray to God with humility: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Thus, they’ll pass by themselves, naturally. Because if you stay and converse with them and the enemy sees this, they’ll give you trouble. You should say in your mind: “I’m a monk and I believe and do everything the Holy Orthodox Church teaches me!”
Question: I torture myself the most when I judge my neighbor!
Answer: Father, the greatest danger for each of us is when we judge others. Do you know why? When you judge your neighbor, and especially priests, your father confessor, or your elder, the first thing that will happen is that the bodily passions will fight you more than at other times. This is allowed by God because you did not pay attention to your own sins and judged others instead. But we should arm ourselves with the sharpest sword against the demons and their wiles, which is humble-mindedness. Thus, if you see a man committing a sin, say in your mind, “I’m much worse than he is.” But not only with your lips—you should be convinced that you really are worse than he is. Even if I didn’t commit that sin in deed, I did it by desire, by thought, or by agreeing to it. And I’m a monk (for a monk, a sin committed in thought is as severe as a sin committed in deed by a layman). Furthermore, we don’t have the right to judge anyone. Our Lord Jesus Christ tells us, Judge not, that ye be not judged (Matt. 7:1). Because if we judge, we’re proud and God will allow us to fall into great sins in order to humble us so we can see our sins. And if we humble ourselves, God will remove that passion and the warfare which comes upon us from the demons. Because humble-mindedness drives the devil away like fire. But we should be in a state of watchfulness and discernment in everything.
Question: How can we be united with God?
Answer: You should purify your soul and body from all the passions and, little by little, you’ll come to perfect love for God. But you should partake of the Grace of God in the Holy Mysteries, pray much, fast, keep vigil, and perform other good Christian works in order to establish humble-mindedness in your mind and heart. Being humble-minded, praying, and having discernment, a man draws near to God with spiritual joy. Thus, he will have many temptations, especially so as to be humbled. No matter what spiritual step you are on, if you are not humble-minded the enemies will knock you down in a moment. On the foundation of humble-mindedness you can build all good works: obedience, spiritual tears, Divine love….
Question: How can a Christian find quietness for praying, a Christian who lives in the tumult and noise of a city?
Answer: We should try to obtain as much as possible! We should not be negligent. Because negligence is the greatest danger for the soul of each man. It means you have no mercy for your own soul, and thus you’re in great spiritual danger. You didn’t do your [prayer] rule? Negligence tells you, “It doesn’t matter.” You didn’t fast? Negligence tells you, “It doesn’t matter.” Did you commit fornication? Negligence tells you, “It doesn’t matter.” We should strive as much as we can and God will help us to be saved. The greater the temptations are, the greater the Grace of God will be and the greater the crown. But God will not allow us to be tempted above our strength. If we have prayer and purity of soul and body, the Grace of the Holy Spirit will descend upon us and all great difficulties will easily be solved. These hard times for the salvation of our soul were prophesied by the Holy Fathers. A disciple asked his Elder, “Father, look, we’re powerless and the enemy fights us. If that’s the way it is as now, what will it be like in the last times?” The Elder responded, “Son, in the last times, the monks will be like laymen and the laymen will be like demons!” But I know people who live in the center of Bucharest and lead a pure and spiritual life.
4. On Gathering the Mind
Question: When we say the Jesus Prayer aloud, it can be spoken or chanted. Which way is the best?
Question: Owing to worldly worries and demonic and human temptations, our mind is scattered all the time. How can we gather our mind under such conditions?
Answer: The Holy Apostle Paul teaches us: Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks (I Thess. 5:17–18). We should pray with repentance and with humble-mindedness and have hope in the goodness of God, Who has helped us so many times in our prayers.
Question: When you pray reading the Psalter, Akathists, the Prayer Rule, or the Seven Praises , the heart warms up. Can this warmth of heart be used in order to concentrate ourselves when we say the Jesus Prayer?
Answer: Father, these are subtle things. But if you have spiritual joy and the peace of the Holy Spirit is within you, there’s no need to search whether it’s in the heart, the mind or the soul. Because if it’s in the mind it’s also in the heart, and if it’s in the heart it’s also in the mind and in the soul. If it’s in the mind, it’s also in the heart and if it’s in the heart it’s also in the mind, because that spiritual joy is a Divine work. It’s impossible for there to be gladness in one place and discontent in another. Because the gift of the Holy Spirit sanctifies a man entirely when it descends upon him. The man is all spiritual joy.
Question: While practicing the Jesus Prayer, there may occur a pain in the heart. Is it a good thing to concentrate on that place?
Answer: At such times you can’t say the prayer with the lips, but only with the mind. The heart is not in a state of illness, as some practitioners of the Jesus Prayer wrongly think. In those moments, the heart experiences spiritual joy and spiritual tears course down from the eyes.
Question: When the mind becomes tired from saying the Jesus Prayer, is it good to read the Psalter, Akathists, the writings of the Holy Fathers, or to sing troparia or the Doxology?
Answer: Until the Jesus Prayer is established perfectly within us, we will not be able to say it ceaselessly. It is good to alternate and say other prayers too, or to read or sing religious songs. However, blessed physical labor will also help us very much. Even if we have the Jesus Prayer, we should not give up the rule of prayers and prostrations which we have received from our father confessor.
5. Learning the Jesus Prayer
Question: Since nowadays we no longer have hesychia, stillness of mind, is it appropriate to take part in the liturgical life as often as possible (the Holy Liturgy, Confession, Holy Communion, Holy Unction) in order to purify ourselves from sins and to pray more easily?
Answer: The Fathers who teach such things take into account the weakness and the worries of modern-day people. That’s why, instead of staying at home and praying on a little stool, it’s better to take part in the Holy Liturgy, to confess and receive the Eucharist with the help of the Grace of the Holy Spirit present in the Holy Mysteries, to listen carefully to the prayers, chants and teachings of the Church so your heart can be purified by the Grace of the Holy Spirit. But preparation is necessary for Holy Communion, as the Holy Apostle Paul teaches us.
7. Mistakes in Practicing the Jesus Prayer
Question: What are the more serious mistakes made by those who practice the Jesus Prayer?
Answer: Pride of the mind is the greatest danger and few are delivered from it. You can defeat it only if you are humble-minded. But humble-mindedness should be firmly rooted in your soul, heart and thinking. Humble-mindedness is a virtue which is acquired through great efforts and spiritual struggles. We must fight, and the All-good God, seeing our pains, will not leave us to be defeated by the demons. We must be careful, especially with the sin of judging our neighbor. For instance, you see a man talking to a woman and start judging them, thinking that they’ll commit fornication. At that moment, the spirit of fornication will enter your soul, mind, and heart.
Question: But can the devil attack us with thoughts of anger, envy, hatred, fornication and other similar thoughts?
Answer: Yes. That’s why you should uproot your main passions from your heart—through Confession, penance, prayer, good deeds, and almsgiving.
Question: But the Holy Fathers say that the practice of the Jesus Prayer helps the most with the quelling of a man’s passions!
Answer: Of course! These must be done together: the Jesus Prayer along with the good Christian works which I mentioned before. The Jesus Prayer changes the old man into the new, spiritual, Divine man. When you establish Jesus Christ in your mind, soul and heart, you have become a throne of Divinity, a temple of the Holy Spirit. And Divine Grace brings purity and holiness to your mind, soul, and heart. But for this we must make an effort. Before receiving Communion of the Holy Mysteries, we should purify our soul and body, saying the Jesus Prayer. And when we want to sleep, we should say the Jesus Prayer. The Grace of the Holy Spirit and our guardian angel will be with us if we fall asleep having the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in our mind.
Question: If you pray while having bad thoughts (of pride, anger, fornication, etc.), can these irritate the other fathers and brothers in the monastery too?
Answer: If you have bad spirits in your heart while practicing the Prayer, they will fight against the other fathers and brothers in the monastery, too.
Question: How is it better to say the Prayer of Jesus, in the full or the short form? “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” or, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!” or, “Jesus, have mercy on me!” or, “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!”
Answer: It depends on one’s mind and on his spiritual state. It’s best to say it completely, because in this case we recognize the Divinity of our Savior Jesus Christ, we ask for His mercy and we acknowledge our sinfulness. But when there’s much disturbance within us and outside us and we can’t concentrate anymore, then we cry with repentance, “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” It’s important to cry out with repentance!
Question: What is good for a beginner to do in order to learn and practice the Jesus Prayer?
Answer: First of all, with the help of Divine Grace, a beginner should stop committing great sins. For this a beginner should look for a good spiritual father for Confession and in order to make a good Christian beginning. Then, he should regularly attend the Divine Liturgy, as often as possible; he should fulfill his daily rule of prayers and prostrations given by his spiritual father, and practice the Jesus Prayer twice a day for at least fifteen minutes, in a quiet place. He should learn and practice the foundation of all good works, the virtue of humble-mindedness, because if you do not humble yourself before God, men, and demons  you will lose everything. He should cut off his own will, live in obedience, and accept joyfully whatever happens to him. Failure to cut off one’s own will, contradicting others, and justifying oneself represent the beginning of high-mindedness.… That’s why you should humble yourself and be obedient. When you are sincere, not doubting, but have humble-mindedness, the Grace of the Holy Spirit will descend upon you. This is a good foundation and you will be able to grow spiritually, fighting against temptations, having the Jesus Prayer as an unconquerable weapon. If you have humble-mindedness, you can defeat the passions. This does not mean that you have become perfect; but when you have the Grace of humble-mindedness, with the help of God’s power you can struggle against the passions, sinful men, and the demons.
Question: How can we keep our mind purified from evil thoughts?
Answer: If you humble yourself, the Grace of the Holy Spirit will keep your mind pure. But if you do not obey, if you do not cut off your will, if you do not humble yourself, you distance yourself from God’s Grace and cannot resist unclean, demonic thoughts.
Question: Are there moments in which God’s Grace leaves us?
Answer: The moments in which God’s Grace leaves us are those in which we commit great sins. But he who has humble-mindedness is never abandoned by God.
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