Travelers coming to a halt at the gate of the compound of the Prince of Chernigov on the Desna often glanced sharply at the young man who let them in. Even in rain and falling snow he greeted them warmly and seemed happy. “Who is that boy?” they would ask, feeling sorry for him with his poor clothes in the cold.
“That is Nikolai,” the stable servants would answer. “He lives and works with us. But. . . ” with a strange look on their faces they would add, “he is the prince’s son. ”
Travelers wondered and observed.
It began when Nikolai, as far back as he could remember, stood among crowds of worshipers in Chernigov’s cathedral of Christ the Redeemer in the centre of town. Above the rising incense, above the ikons, high above the people singing Slavonic hymns, he saw the calm, manly, face of Christ the King. It shone from the dome. Far above all else, it held Nikolai’s gaze through the service, but he wondered what the three strange letters beside it meant.
“Those letters,” his mother had told him, “are Greek. They spell the name of Christ.”
“But how can three letters spell Jesus?” Nikolai wanted to know. His mother was unable to answer and not until he became a teenager and studied Greek did he discover what they meant.
The three letters , stand for YHWH, the name God gave himself at Sinai. Greek Christians believed that was the same as Yah-Shua—the name they translated “Jesus”—and with the first Christians and Jews, they respected it deeply. They also believed that man’s salvation somehow depended on it.
“How does it work?” Nikolai would ask himself. “Does the word Jesus have magical power? Will anything happen by simply “calling on the name of the Lord?” But when his teacher, a staretz who lived a godly life, told him to try it even though he did not understand, he obeyed.
He began by saying “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” every once in a while, like the staretz had told him. By himself he said it out loud. In the company of others he said it silently, in his mind. At first it was almost embarrassing, knowing how well Christ heard him every time he said it. But he gradually became more confident. Saying the name, he knew, was to greet Christ, and he found that every time he did it the awareness of being in his presence jolted him.
At first he kept that awareness only for short times. But the oftener he said the name the more it grew on him, and within a few days his life began to change. A well-to-do and friendly boy, Nikolai had been popular among the teenagers of Chernigov. But now, conscious of being in Christ’s presence, their stories no longer amused him. Stylish clothes, and racing about on horseback so the girls would notice, suddenly seemed foolish.
Nikolai used to hate getting up in the morning and poked at his work. But now, waking up to “call on the name” he began each day with mounting excitement. It worked! Calling on the name of the Lord throughout the day—day after day—saved him!
When he felt guilty he called on the name and confessed.
When fear overtook him, or boredom, or embarrassment, or pride, or anger—every emotion came to heel when he called on the name of Christ. When bad thoughts popped up (as they often did) he called on the name and they left. So simple! It had to be too good for real. Yet it was real, and all who knew Nikolai Svyatosha, son of the prince of Chernigov, felt the shock of his transformation.
Nikolai moved from his father’s palace into the workers’ quarters. He gave his horse, his good clothes, and all his money away. Then, even though his parents were embarrassed to tears, he asked the head steward for a job in the kitchen and later on as a gatekeeper.
It worked strangely. His popularity among the well-to-do ended at once (people thought he had lost his mind), but the stable boys, the muzhiks, the beggars—vast numbers of people from the surrounding countryside heard of Nikolai and came to visit him. They held him in deep respect.
Nikolai had studied much. Now he taught those who came to see him. He learned how to make clothes and took care of sick people, taking every opportunity to lead Russian Christians from the painted “Christs” of their churches to the real Christ. “All it takes to be saved,” Nikolai told them, “is to become fully aware of him. Then all it takes to stay saved is to keep that awareness by calling on his name.”
Early Christian Teaching
It was not hard for the common people of Chernigov to accept what Nikolai Svyatosha told them. They had heard of “calling on the name of the Lord to be saved” ever since Byzantine Christianity came to Russia a hundred years earlier. Fyodosy Pechersky had spoken of it. So had Vladimir Monomakh and others who learned through John Chrysostom and Basil of Caesarea what the early Christians believed.
The early Christians, Russian believers discovered, took their teaching about the name of Christ from Joel’s prophecy. Immediately after Pentecost, when Peter spoke to the people he quoted Joel, “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” On another occasion he added: “For there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” Paul repeated that same prophecy in his letter to the Romans.
The early Christians, remembering what Christ said after his resurrection,1 associated repentance and forgiveness of sins with his name. They did not think of baptizing converts without calling on it. But “calling on the name of the Lord” was more to them than a one-time formality. They kept on doing it to be washed, sanctified, and justified.2 All this, especially for the Gentiles, became a fulfillment of Jewish predictions that many would trust in the Anointed One’s name. And it confirmed what the Old Testament said about finding salvation in it—especially the words of King David.
Like King David who called on the Lord in his temple, the early Christians called on him in their hearts and discovered a quiet place in his presence. It was their most holy place—out of reach of what went on the world and of what others did to them. And those who knew it discovered inner fellowship one with another.
We enter Christ’s presence, the early Christians believed, through constant inner prayer.3 For this reason we need no elaborate outer demonstrations. When we pray we do not need to shout, cry, or babble like the heathen.
Since we cannot put our deepest feelings to words and the Spirit of God must speak for us, our words may as well be few. Just being still and knowing that God is God, is also prayer. Basil of Caesarea, a church leader of the fourth century already counseled Christians to reduce all prayer to the words Nikolai Svyatosha learned: “Lord Jesus, have mercy!” This became known in the Greek church as the “Jesus Prayer.”
One could pray the Jesus Prayer in any circumstance. John Chrysostom wrote in the fourth century:
No one should say that a person too busy or unable to attend formal worship cannot pray all the time. You can set up an altar to God anywhere, in your mind. You can pray where you work, while traveling, standing behind a counter, or with your tools in hand. Everywhere, any time, you can pray. And to be sure, if people get serious they do pray!
If people believed that prayer is of all things the most important they would make sure they got it done. They would make necessary conversations with others shorter. They would spend more time in silence and not bother repeating things of no consequence. Neither would they waste time worrying.
If people would pray, their actions would show that power comes from calling on the Lord Jesus Christ. . . . They would discover how easy it is, calling on his name, to rise from vocal prayer to prayer of the mind, and from that to prayer of the heart which opens up the Kingdom of God within us.4
Greek Christian Teaching
Those who loved Christ and remained faithful to him, thousands of Greek Christians scattered through the Byzantine Empire, had kept beliefs and practices of the early church alive. It had not been easy. But among the things they remembered was the teaching on “perpetual prayer,” and after A.D. 988 they brought it to Russia.
Isaac, a Greek Christian in Jerusalem wrote in the 400’s:
The one who desires to see Christ purifies his heart by remembering him constantly. By doing this he discovers his spiritual country within. The sun that shines on that country is the light of the Holy Trinity. The air its inhabitants breathe is the All-holy Spirit. Its Life, joy and gladness is Christ. Its Light of Lights is the Father. This country is Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God within us, like Christ said.5
John, a Greek celibate of Sinai, wrote in the late 500’s:
When the spirit is darkened by unclean thoughts, put the enemy to flight by the name of Jesus, repeated frequently. A more powerful and effective weapon than this you will not find in heaven or on earth.6
Kallistos, a cook’s helper in Greece who learned the secret of the name and helped many to salvation wrote:
To pray without ceasing is to call without ceasing on the name of the Lord. Whether talking, sitting, walking, working with our hands, eating, or occupied in any other way, we should at all times and in every place call on the name of the Lord. . . . If we do this, Satan’s attempts on our life will fail.
We must pray with the heart. When we are alone it is also good to pray with the mouth. But when we are in the market or with others we should not pray with the lips, but only with the mind. We must keep our eyes in control, looking away from distraction and the enemy’s snares. Prayer reaches perfection when we offer it to God without our minds wandering away. It reaches perfection when all our thoughts and feelings are gathered into one prayer: “Lord Jesus, have mercy!”7
Barsanofius, another Greek Christian, wrote:
Watching, while spiritually awake, completely delivers us with God’s help from sinful actions, thoughts, and words. . . . Silence of heart, a guarding of the mind, it is to stand at attention, thinking of nothing else but to call on Jesus Christ, the Son of God.8
Gregory, a member of a Greek community at Sinai, wrote in the 1300’s:
None of us, to be sure, can control our minds by ourselves. When bad thoughts come it is only by calling often, at regular intervals, on the name of Jesus Christ that our minds quiet down and bad thoughts go away.
The secret of Salvation lies in unceasing prayer. Christian, if you feel unable to worship God in spirit and in truth, if nothing comes to you (no sensation of warmth or fulfillment) when you pray, then you must simply do what you can. You can call on the name of Jesus. You can do it frequently and keep it up. It takes little effort and anyone can do it.
To pray continually can certainly become a habit. It can become our second nature, bringing our minds and hearts continually back to the right place. If people obeyed God in this one area (to pray continually) they would obey him in everything, for those who keep calling in secret on Jesus’ name—even though they must force themselves to do it at first—have no time for foolish talking, for criticizing their neighbours, or for wasting their time in sinful entertainment. If people would remember Christ their sinful thoughts would diminish. Their sinful ideas (hatched in idleness) would not get carried out. Multitudes of unnecessary words would never get said, and for calling on his holy name, every sin would be washed from their souls.9
Niceforus, a Greek teacher of the later Byzantine period, summed up what those who still followed Christ believed. “Calling on the name of the Lord,” he said, “leads one to salvation without hard work and sweat.”
In Russia, Feodosy Pechersky may first have written about Christ awareness. But by his time the simple practice of “calling on the name of the Lord to be saved” had spread among the common people. To them it was “prayer”—living in the presence of God.
To pray is to open one’s soul to the light. . . . Do not neglect prayer, the soul’s nourishment. As a body deprived of food suffers and grows weak, so the soul deprived of prayer heads toward spiritual death.10
Centuries later the author of one of the “home wisdom” documents wrote:
My son, be low of head but high in spirit. Keep your eyes on the earth but let your soul rise up. Keep your lips closed but always cry in your heart to the Lord. Keep your feet walking humbly but race in the spirit to the gate of heaven.11
Vasily Polyanomerulsky, Serafim Sarovsky, Paisy Yaroslavov who translated Greek Christian documents into Slavonic, and other Russian believers wrote about the Jesus Prayer. But after Nikolai Svyatosha perhaps no one did more to teach it to the people than one of Paisy Yaroslavov’s students, a young man called Nil.
Nil (as a child they had called him Nikolai too) grew up in a peasant village fifty years before Columbus discovered America. His parents were poor people and could not read. But they believed and walked with Christ. They made it possible for Nil to learn how to read and he fulfilled their desires by studying Christian writings.
Nil read the Gospels and the first letters to the churches, then he discovered more. “Like a bee flitting from one beautiful flower to another,” he described his search among Greek Christian writings “to know the garden of life and Christian truth.” He discovered in them a treasurehouse of practical instructions and made it his life’s work to translate and copy them.
A number of Nil’s friends joined him at a small clearing beside the Sora River. They built log houses. They set up a chapel where—dressed like peasants in linen—they celebrated communion in crudely carved vessels. But these things did not matter. Their aim was to translate and copy by hand as carefully and as much as they could for the Russian people.
Nil also wrote. Aware of Christ and the value of standing in silence before him, he instructed the people:
Prayer of the heart is the source of all blessing. It waters the soul like rain does a garden.
Just as frost ruins a garden, so an excess of human conversation (even when it is good), destroys the tender flowers of virtue that come to bloom in an atmosphere of silence.12
Nil Sorsky, like the early Christians, taught against the foolishness of long, eloquent prayers. He believed in “calling on the name of the Lord,” but even in this he encouraged believers not to overdo themselves. Work and worship, if done in awareness of Christ are also “prayer.” He wrote:
Does calling on the Lord Jesus make you tired after a while? Do not worry. It is alright to just sing or work sometimes, as long as we keep returning to him.13
Calling on Christ is the surest and quickest access to umilenie and what Russian believers called the “love of beauty” (recognizing God in the beautiful). It enhanced their fascination with nature, music, and wholesome human relationships. But umilenie does not depend only on the senses. It also comes with recognizing Christ in the beauty of simply being aware of him. Believers discovered it even in appalling circumstances. Nil Sorsky wrote:
During prayer the mind rises above earthly things. Through it we become conscious of the unseen and what our senses cannot reach. Suddenly gladness fills the soul and we are struck speechless with incomparable joy. The heart overflows with umilenye and oblivious to all things sensual we enter a state of well-being our ordinary speech cannot describe.14
Timofey Sokolov, born in a peasant village at Korotzk near Novgorod in 1724, knew hunger and cold. His father died when he was little. His older brothers worked hard but they could not earn enough to feed the family. One day his mother, unable to see Timofey hungry any longer, decided to give him away. She found a coachman with money who would take him and thought she would quick get it over with before the other children caught on.
Her plan did not work.
One of the older boys, Yefim, saw her walking down the village street. She was crying and leading Timofey by the hand. Yefim dropped his work and came running to see what had happened. When he learned of his mother’s plans he begged and pled with her, falling on his knees in the middle of the street, to bring her to change her mind.
“But it is for the child’s good,” his mother insisted. “Shall we keep him at home only to watch him starve? I cannot do it any longer. . . ”
“Leave it to us, his brothers,” Yefim promised. “The Lord will give. We will teach him how to read and write and someday he may become the dyachok’s helper.”15
Yefim could not have imagined how his spur-of-the-moment idea would affect the Kingdom of Christ in Russia. But Timofey and his mother turned back. The older boys worked harder than ever. After a number of years, to keep their promise, they took Timofey to live with one of them (now married) in the city of Novgorod. There they sent him to school and he weeded vegetable gardens after class to help with expenses.
Timofey put his whole heart into his studies. He not only learned how to read but learned Greek as well and became a writer. After he became part of a religious community and people called him by a new name, Tikhon, he wrote:
Blessed are those who saw Christ in the flesh. . . . Still more blessed are we who see him through the teaching of the Gospels, who hear him speak through that teaching, who confess and call upon his name. In a way we cannot explain his perfectly pure body becomes ours and his blood becomes our life.
We meet Christ in the inner room of our souls. We meet him in prayer. We meet him in acts of love toward people—in everything on earth that gives us an idea of how life will be when Christ will rule over all. To know Christ is our only absolute necessity. Let our first and greatest effort, therefore, be to discover him. All else is nothing, even though the whole world lies at our feet. . . .
To pray is not to stand and bow with your body or to read written prayers. One can pray at all times, in all places, by the mind and spirit. One can lift up the mind and heart to Christ while walking, sitting, working, in a crowd or alone. Unlike ours, Christ’s door is always open. We can always say to him in our hearts: “Lord, have mercy!”16
Not many years after Tikhon (Timofey) died at Zadonsk, another boy who became a Christian writer was born in Russia. He also joined a religious community (an Orthodox community) and took the name Ignaty.
After moving to far southern Russia, into the Caucasus, Ignaty Bryanchaninov wrote, “In the name of Jesus the soul, killed by sin, comes back to life. The Lord Jesus is life! His name lives! It awakens and gives life to those who contact, through it, the source of life itself.” To this he added:
The one who desires to purify his heart should cleanse it continually with the fire of Christ awareness. He should make this his constant meditation and work. The one who desires to overcome his old nature must do more than pray sometimes and sometimes not. He must pray without ceasing with his mind awake, even when he is not in a house of prayer. Goldsmiths, if they let the fire in their furnaces burn low while purifying their metal, cause it to harden again. In the same way, the one who is sometimes mindful of God and sometimes not, ruins through carelessness what he hopes to gain. 17
The skhimnik18 in the story of the Pilgrim of Orel said:
No distraction can interrupt the one who seriously wants to pray. He frees his thoughts from what goes on around him and prays at all times. . . in the presence of many people and while working with his hands. Business cannot be so important nor conversation so interesting that it becomes impossible to call on the name of Christ.
If it were impossible to pray amid the noise and commotion of society, it would not be required of us.
To this, a listening Russian professor replied: “I agree that while working with our hands it is possible—even easy—to pray continuously. But how can I concentrate on reading, studying or writing and at the same time be conscious of Christ? I have only one mind. How can I focus on two things at the same time?”
The skhimnik answered:
It is easy. . . . Just think how you would feel if the tsar ordered you to write a complicated report in his presence, sitting on the steps of his throne. Even though your mind would be occupied, the presence of the tsar who holds your life in his hands would not allow you to forget for a moment that you are thinking and writing, not in solitude, but in a place that demands your highest reverence, respect, and proper behaviour. The acute awareness you would feel, so close to him, describes exactly what we mean by continual prayer.
Awareness and Holiness
Noise and activity cannot keep us from Christ awareness. Neither can strenuous mental effort. But self-indulgence and sin certainly can—and will. It does not work, Russian believers discovered, to pray the Jesus Prayer while hiding sin. Nil Sorsky drew up a list of things to get rid of:
1. Gluttony. We should eat when we need to and not just for pleasure.
2. Impurity. We dare not entertain wicked fantasies.
3. Greed. A desire to hoard things ruins our trust in God.
5. Sadness. To get discouraged is to lose our souls.
7. Vanity and pride.
Ignaty Bryanchaninov wrote:
“Let everyone who calls on the name of the Lord stop sinning” (2 Tim. 2:19). . . . The name of Christ cannot exist in the midst of impurity. For it to live within us, all impurities must go. Our souls must be clean. . . .
Let us stop overeating and doing things to feel good. Let us take moderation as our rule and cut back on tasty foods and drinks for pleasure. Let us sleep enough but not too much. Let us renounce idle talk, laughing, joking and making fun of others. Let us put a stop to unprofitable chatting done under the pretext of love because it leads to unnecessary words that devastate the soul. Let us renounce day-dreaming and vain thoughts. . . .
Hold back and keep all your impulses under control, the good ones as well as the bad. . . . Let the “old man” inside you shut up! Then let Christ do what he wants. If you live like this the Jesus Prayer will certainly blossom within you, quite independently of whether you dwell in the deepest solitude or amid the hustle and bustle of community.
Awareness Among the Common People
Russians who wrote about Christ Awareness and prayer (the men I quote in this chapter) were the professionals, the artists, who put this early Christian teaching to words. They stood closest to the Greek Christians through whom it came. But it was Russia’s common people—the muzhiks—who made of what they taught a way of life.
It was so simple. First thing in the morning, before the sun came up and they stepped out to milk the cow, they prayed the Jesus Prayer. All day long they prayed it—out loud or silently—however it suited or whenever necessary. “Calling on the name of the Lord,” they believed, “is to Christians what nursing is to an infant.”
Only a few Russian peasants could read. But the vast number who could not, found walking with Christ just as easy. Ignaty Bryanchaninov wrote:
Basil told those who could not read, and those not eloquent in prayer to simply call on Jesus’ name. With this he started nothing new. He merely confirmed a known practice. Since then, Basil’s suggestion has come with the other traditions of the church, from Greece to Russia. And many people with little education, even those who are totally illiterate have found salvation and eternal life through the Jesus Prayer.
The Lord Christ rejoices with incomprehensible joy at our success. He declares that the mysteries of the Christian faith are revealed not to the wise and exalted of the world, but to those who are children in worldly things. Of such were his disciples. He took them from among the simple, the unlearned and illiterate. To follow Christ we must become children and accept his teaching with childlike minds in simplicity and love. If we follow him like this, he explains his deepest teaching to us. He explains to us how the Son, even though he became human, remains above the grasp of human rationalists. His holy name also remains above their grasp. Only with the simplicity and trust of children can we receive the teaching of prayer in Jesus’ name. Let us practice it the same way.
What no one could have envisioned was what would come of this direct access to Christ. By calling on Christ the King, any man in rough linen, any woman in rags with a scarf tucked around her face, any boy or girl hoeing turnips or beating out the clothes could—and did—bypass the state church to get what they needed straight from heaven. Ignaty Bryanchaninov wrote:
Only the poor in spirit, only those constantly aware of their poverty and need, cling constantly to Christ in prayer. Only they are capable of discovering within themselves the greatness of his name. “The poor and needy will praise your name” (Psalm 73:21) “Blessed is the man who trusts in the name of the Lord” (Psalm 39:5).
Not the rich and powerful, not those smugly in charge of religious institutions, but great numbers of common people in Russia learned like Nikolai Svyatosha how to walk with Christ. With him they survived persecution and got ready for . . .
1 Luke 24:46-47
2 1 Corinthians 6:11
3 1 Thessalonians 5:17
4 quoted by Ignaty Bryanchaninov in his Ascetic Essays
5 From the Dobrotoliubie (Philokalia), a collection of early writings translated from Slavonic into Russian by Paisy Velichkovsky in the 1700’s.
6 From The Ladder to Paradise
11 Fedotov, The Russian Religious Mind
12 de Grünwald, Saints of Russia
15 The dyachok is a deacon who takes part in the Eastern Orthodox worship service.
16 Gorodetzky, Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk (remaining citations from this work)
17 Bryanchaninov, On the Prayer of Jesus (all remaining citations from this work)
18 an older, celibate, teacher