Jesus Prayer - The Power of the Name

by Bishop Kallistos-Ware

 ‘The Name of the Son of God is great and boundless, and upholds the entire universe.’ So it is affirmed in The Shepherd of Hermas, nor shall we appreciate the role of the Jesus Prayer in Orthodox spirituality unless we feel some sense of the power and virtue of the divine Name. If the Jesus Prayer is more creative than other invocations, this is because it contains the Name of God.

In the Old Testament, as in other ancient cultures, there is a close connection between someone’s soul and his name. His personality, with its peculiarities and its energy, is in some sense present in his name. To know a person’s name is to gain an insight into his nature, and thereby to acquire a relationship with him — even, perhaps, a certain control over him. That is why the mysterious messenger who wrestles with Jacob at the ford Jabbok refuses to disclose his name (Gen. 32:29). The same attitude is reflected in the reply of the angel to Manoal, ‘Why askest thou thus after my name, seeing it is secret?’ (Judg.13:18). A change of name indicates a decisive change in a person’s life, as when Abram becomes Abraham (Gen. 17:5), or Jacob becomes Israel (Gen. 32:28). In the same way, Saul after his conversion becomes Paul (Acts 13:9); and a monk at his profession is given a new name, usually not of his own choosing, to indicate the radical renewal which he undergoes.

In the Hebrew tradition, to do a thing in the name of another, or to invoke and call upon his name, are acts of weight and potency. To invoke a person’s name is to make that person effectively present. ‘One makes a name alive by mentioning it. The name immediately calls forth the soul it designates; therefore there is such deep significance in the very mention of a name.’

Everything that is true of human names is true to an incomparably higher degree of the divine Name. The power and glory of God are present and active in his Name. The Name of God is numen preasens, God with us, Emmanuel. Attentively and deliberately to invoke God’s Names is to place oneself in his presence, to open oneself to his energy, to offer oneself as an instrument and a living sacrifice in his hands. So keen was the sense of the majesty of the divine Name in later Judaism that the tetragrammaton was not pronounced aloud in the worship of the synagogue: the Name of the Most High was considered too devastating to be spoken.

This Hebraic understanding of the name passes from the Old Testament into the New. Devils are cast out and men are healed through the Name of Jesus, for the Name is power. Once this potency of the Name is properly appreciated, many familiar passages acquire a fuller meaning and force: the clause in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Hallowed be thy Name’; Christ’s promise at the Last Supper, ‘Whatever you shall ask the Father in my Name, he will give it you’ (John 16:23); his final command to the apostles, ‘Go therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matt. 28:19); St Peter’s proclamation that there is salvation only in ‘the Name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth’ (Acts 4:10-12); the words of St Paul, ‘At the Name of Jesus every knee should bow’ (Phil. 2:10); the new and secret name written on the white stone which is given to us in the Age to Come (Rev. 2:17).

It is this biblical reverence for the Name that forms the basis and foundation of the Jesus Prayer. God’s Name is intimately linked with his Person, and so the Invocation of the divine Name possesses a sacramental character, serving as an efficacious sigh of his invisible presence and action. For the believing Christian of his invisible presence and action. For the believing Christian today, as in apostolic times, the Name of Jesus is power. In the words of the two Elders of Gaza, St Barsanuphius and St John (Sixth century), ‘The remembrance of the Name of God utterly destroys all that is evil.’ ‘Flog your enemies with the Name of Jesus’, urges St John Climacus, ‘for there is no weapon more powerful in heaven or on earth. … Let the remembrance of Jesus be united to your every breath, and then you will know the value of stillness.’

The Name is power, but a purely mechanical repetition will by itself achieve nothing. The Jesus Prayer is not a magic talisman. As in all sacramental operations, the human person is required to co-operate with God through active faith and ascetic effort. We are called to invoke the Name with recollection and inward vigilance, confining our minds within the words of the Prayer, conscious who it is that we are addressing and that responds to us in our heart. Such strenuous prayer is never easy in the initial stages, and is rightly described by the Fathers as a hidden martyrdom. St Gregory of Sinai speaks repeatedly of the ‘constraint and labour’ undertaken by those who follow the Way of the Name; a ‘continual effort’ is needed; they will be tempted to give up ‘because of the insistent pain that comes from the inward invocation of the intellect’. ‘Your shoulders will ache and you will often feel pain in your head,’ he warns, ‘but persevere persistently and with ardent longing, seeking the Lord in your heart.’ Only through such patient faithfulness shall we discover the true power of the Name.

This faithful perseverance takes the form, above all, of attentive and frequent repetition. Christ told his disciples not to use ‘vain repetitions’ (Matt. 6:7); but the repetition of the Jesus Prayer, when performed with inward sincerity and concentration, is most emphatically not ‘vain’. The act of repeatedly invoking the Name has a double effect: it makes our prayer more unified and at the same time more inward.

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