Russian Prayer

These extracts from the Philokalia (Love of the Lord) discuss traditional Russian prayer practices. The Philokalia is the "little book," which the pilgrim carries with him in The Way of the Pilgrim.

Abba Joseph of Panephysis said to Abba Lot, "You cannot be a monk unless you become like a consuming fire."

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, "Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?" Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, "If you will, you can become all flame."

Imagine a sheer, steep crag, with a projecting edge at the top. Now imagine what a person would probably feel if he put his foot on the edge of this precipice and, looking down into the chasm below, saw no solid footing nor anything to hold on to.  This is what I think the soul experiences when it goes beyond its footing in material things, in its quest for that which has no dimension and which exists from all eternity. For here there is nothing it can take hold of, neither place nor time, neither measure nor anything else; our minds cannot approach it.  And thus the soul, slipping at every point from what cannot be grasped, becomes dizzy and perplexed and returns once again to what is connatural to it, content now to know merely this about the Transcendent, that it is completely different from the nature of the things that the soul knows.

Gregory of Nyssa (d. about 395)

God became man so that men might become gods.

Athanasius (d. 373) 

Gregory of Nyssa and Athanasius are two of the four great Greek fathers of the Christian Church. Athanasius and his mentor Anthony were black men from the area that is now Ethiopia and the Sudan. Athanasius was the bishop of Alexandria. Alexandria was the city Alexander the Great founded to store all of the treasures and knowledge from all of the civilizations he had conquered including those of India. At the time of Jesus, there were more Jews living in Alexandria than in Palestine and the greatest of the neo-Platonic philosophers, Philo, was living in Alexandria. Philo was Jewish and wrote many brilliant explanations of the Jewish scriptures. Athanasius wrote On the Incarnation of the Word of God, which explains the Trinity to the extent that it can be explained. 

Speech is the organ of this present world. Silence is a mystery of the world to come.

Isaac the Syrian (d. about 700)

The brethren asked Abba Agathon, "Amongst all our different activities, Father, which is the virtue that requires the greatest effort?" He answered, "Forgive me, but I think there is no labor greater than praying to God. For every time a man wants to pray, his enemies, the demons, try to prevent him; for they know that nothing obstructs them so much as prayer to God. In everything else that a man undertakes, if he perseveres, he will attain rest. But in order to pray, a man must struggle to his last breath."

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (sixth century)

Think of a man standing at night inside his house, with all the doors closed; and then suppose that he opens a window just at the moment when there is a sudden flash of lightning. Unable to bear its brightness, at once he protects himself by closing his eyes and drawing back from the window.

So it is with the soul that is enclosed in the realm of the senses; if ever she peeps out through the window of the intellect, she is overwhelmed by the brightness, like lightning, of the pledge of the Holy Spirit that is within her. Unable to bear the splendor of unveiled light, at once she is bewildered in her intellect and she draws back entirely upon herself, taking refuge, as in a house, among sensory and human things.

Simeon the New Theologian (d. 1022)

Simeon created the Prayer of the Heart, which the Pilgrim practices.

The further the soul advances, the greater are the adversaries against which it must contend.

Blessed are you, if the struggle grows fierce against you at the time of prayer.

Do not allow your eyes to sleep or your eyelids to slumber until the hour of your death, but labor without ceasing that you may enjoy life without end.

Evagrius of Pontus (d. 399)

Let all multiplicity be absent from your prayer. A single word was enough for the publican and the prodigal son to receive God's pardon…. Do not try to find exactly the right words for your prayer: how many times does the simple and monotonous stuttering of children draw the attention of their father! Do not launch into long discourses, for if you do, your mind will be dissipated trying to find just the right words. The publican's short sentence moved God to mercy. A single word full of faith saved the thief.

John Climacus (d. 649)

Note that the above is very much like Russian Jewish spirituality.

The extracts above were collected by Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies, Pennsylvania State University.


In Eastern Christianity, Hesychasm is the type of monastic life in which practitioners seek divine quietness (Greek hesychia) through the contemplation of God in uninterrupted prayer. Such prayer, involving the entire human being—soul, mind, and body—is often called “pure,” or “intellectual,” prayer or the Jesus prayer. St. John Climacus, one of the greatest writers of the Hesychast tradition, wrote, “Let the remembrance of Jesus be present with each breath, and then you will know the value of the hesychia.” In the late 13th century, St. Nicephorus the Hesychast produced an even more precise “method of prayer,” advising novices to fix their eyes during prayer on the “middle of the body,” in order to achieve a more total attention, and to “attach the prayer to their breathing.” This practice was violently attacked in the first half of the 14th century by Barlaam the Calabrian, who called the Hesychasts omphalopsychoi, or people having their souls in their navels.

St. Gregory Palamas (1296–1359), a monk of Mt. Athos and later archbishop of Thessalonica, defended the Hesychast monks. In his view the human body, sanctified by the sacraments of the church, is able to participate in the prayer, and human eyes may become able to see the uncreated light that once appeared on Mt. Tabor on the day of Christ's transfiguration. The teachings of Palamas were confirmed by the Orthodox Church in a series of councils held in Constantinople (1341, 1347, 1351). Hesychast spirituality is still practiced by Eastern Christians and once had wide popularity in Russia through the publication of a collection of Hesychast writings, known as the Philokalia, in 1782.

"Hesychasm." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2004.  Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.
25 July 2004  <>.

This is similar to davening in Judaism and Yoga. This is what Clement of Alexandria said about Yoga, in the Second Century in his Stromata:

"Thus philosophy, a thing of the highest utility, flourished in antiquity among the barbarians, shedding its light over the nations. And afterwards it came to Greece. First in its ranks were the prophets of the Egyptians; and the Chaldeans among the Assyrians; and the Druids among the Gauls; and the Samanaeans among the Bactrians; and the philosophers of the Celts; and the Magi of the Persians, who foretold the Saviour's birth, and came into the land of Judaea guided by a star.

The Indian gymnosophists (yogis) are also in the number, and the other barbarian philosophers. And of these there are two classes, some of them called Sarmanae, and others Brahmins. And those of the Sarmanae who are called Hylobii neither inhabit cities, nor have roofs over them, but are clothed in the bark of trees, feed on nuts, and drink water in their hands. Like those called Encratites in the present day, they know not marriage nor begetting of children.

Some, too, of the Indians obey the precepts of Buddha; whom, on account of his extraordinary sanctity, they have raised to divine honours.

Clement also says this about the Jews and Philo of Alexandria:

Of all these, by far the oldest is the Jewish race; and that their philosophy committed to writing has the precedence of philosophy among the Greeks, the Pythagorean Philo shows at large; and, besides him, Aristobulus the Peripatetic, and several others, not to waste time, in going over them by name. Very clearly the author Megasthenes, the contemporary of Seleucus Nicanor, writes as follows in the third of his books, On Indian Affairs: "All that was said about nature by the ancients is said also by those who philosophise beyond Greece: some things by the Brahmins among the Indians, and others by those called Jews in Syria."

Copyright H. David Marshak, All Rights Reserved