Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“The Prayer of the Publican” first appeared in the Fall 1996 issue of Touchstone.
The Prayer of the Publican
A Simple Parable Shows Us the Heart of the Gospel
by Patrick Henry Reardon
Virtually from the beginning, it would seem, Christians sensed that the Lord’s account of the two men who went up to the temple to pray contained some of the most important lessons they were obliged to learn. None of them would have disagreed with Gregory of Nyssa that the parable’s teaching about humility and contrition of heart embodied the major characteristic of a true disciple of Christ.1
This impression is confirmed by traditional Christian lectionaries. Though found in only one of the Gospels (Luke 18:9–14), the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican was a passage that believers read often, and traditionally they took care to see that it was proclaimed at the celebration of the Holy Eucharist on one Sunday each year. Among medieval Western Christians the two readings assigned for that Sunday appropriately juxtaposed the humility of the Publican with St. Paul’s statement that he was “the least of the Apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:9).2 The parable was further set in a context of other rich biblical passages on prayer, adorned in beautiful chant renditions.3
In the lectionary tradition of the East this parable is even more strategically structured into the format of the liturgical year. “The Sunday of the Pharisee and the Publican” has remained, for many centuries, the first day of three weeks especially designed to prepare Christians for the Lenten fast.4 The entire first week is known as the prophonisimon, or “herald,” because it functions as a general introduction to the whole paschal cycle.5 Even the usual fasting on Wednesday and Friday is prohibited during this week, as the Church soberly reflects on the Pharisee’s boast that he fasted twice a week. Thus, the emphasis in the Eastern lectionary choice is on simple faith, profound humility and utter dependence on God’s forgiving grace, the very heart of the Christian life. Even before the Lenten fast begins, Eastern Orthodox Christians are robustly reminded that salvation is rooted, not in human striving, but in the divine compassion for sinners. To imagine otherwise, they are warned, is to put themselves in the very precarious place of the proud Pharisee.6
The following reflections on the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican will examine some of the ways in which the story has functioned, over the centuries, in Christian teaching on prayer and the ascetical life, beginning with the Gospel of Luke itself.
The Context in Luke
The tone and sometimes even the structure of the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican bear striking affinities to other passages in Luke. For example, the parable’s closing statement, about the humbling of the self-exalting and the exalting of the humble, is identical with 14:11, the final verse of the Lord’s exhortation about seeking the lower place at table. In fact it is a theme that Luke establishes early, with the song of Mary in 1:52. Again, the differing features and fates of the two men in the temple remind the reader of the opposition between the Rich Man and Lazarus in 16:9–31; each story has to do with the divergence of the divine judgment from the human.7
Even clearer, perhaps, is our parable’s resemblance to the story of the Prodigal Son in 15:11–32. Both narratives elaborate differences between a self-righteous keeper of the Law and a miserable offender pleading for, and relying entirely upon, forgiveness and grace. Similarly, the humble contrition of the Publican resembles that of the repentant woman in 7:36–50,8 while his gentle confidence in the divine mercy is like that of the chronically bleeding woman in 8:43f.9 Most of all, however, the petition of the Publican in the temple closely resembles the prayer of the Thief on the Cross in 23:42; since neither man could bring to God anything but a plea for divine mercy, their cases are precisely parallel.10
This parable also is one of several specifically Lukan passages dealing with prayer. Luke is the only evangelist, for example, to picture Jesus at prayer during his baptism (3:21), at the transfiguration (9:28f.), in preparation for the calling of the Twelve (6:12), and just prior to the giving of the Lord’s Prayer (11:1). Luke’s Gospel begins (1:10) and ends (24:53) with prayer. Moreover, into her regular and standard formulations of worship the Church has, virtually from the beginning, incorporated certain specific prayers found only in Luke: the Magnificat (1:47–55), the Benedictus (1:68–79), the Gloria in Excelsis (2:14), and the Nunc Dimittis (2:29–32).11 In addition to Luke’s Gospel, his Acts of the Apostles speaks of prayer in 14 of its 28 chapters. Prayer is obviously a major preoccupation of Luke.
Within his Gospel, however, chapters 11 and 18 are concerned with prayer in a more concentrated way. Chapter 11 begins, once again, with Jesus at prayer, a scene that prompts the disciples to request that he teach them also the proper way to pray. Thus is introduced Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, which is promptly followed by two further dominical teachings on the subject. The first (11:5–8), specific to Luke, is the parable of the importunate seeker who comes and bothers his friend at midnight. The man’s request is granted because of his continued asking, seeking and knocking. This emphasis on repetition introduces the next dominical teaching on prayer (11:9–13), the famous “ask, seek, knock” sequence, found likewise in Matthew 7:7–11.
The teaching on prayer in Luke 18 pointedly resembles that in chapter 11, especially its accent on indefatigability and persistence. Beginning with the exhortation that Christians are to “pray always” (18:1), a principle earlier established in the Pauline writings (Roman 12:12; Ephesians 6:18; Colossians 4:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:17), this chapter gives three examples or models of persevering prayer: the two properly Lukan parables of the Widow and the Judge (vv.2–8), and the Pharisee and the Publican (vv. 9–14),12 and also the story of the blind man of Jericho (vv. 38f). Each is a case of sustained, relentless and repeated petition. The characters in each of these accounts pray without ceasing by making the same request over and over again.13 In the teaching of Luke 18, then, as in chapter 11, constant, uninterrupted prayer means ceaselessly repeated prayer.
The parable’s Publican is contrasted, of course, with the Pharisee who spent his time of prayer feeling very good about himself and superior to others. Throughout the history of Christian ascetical literature, in both the East14 and the West,15 the figure of this inwardly boasting Pharisee was to serve consistently as a favorite negative illustration. His internal swaggering was an example seriously to be avoided, and ancient texts from Byzantine16 and Ethiopian17 hymnography pray fervently to be delivered from his sort of pride.
In describing the sin of the braggart Pharisee, Christian Tradition especially draws on themes from both the Pauline and Johannine writings.
First, Paul. Emphatically, this Gospel parable is concerned with justification: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” Luke, long the missionary companion of the Apostle to the Gentiles, is certainly touching a powerful Pauline theme by his inclusion of this narrative. The Pharisee, vaunting his supposed superiority and proud of his religious observance, indulges in that “boasting” associated with justification by the works of the Law and thus repeatedly condemned in the Pauline Epistles.18
Later the “justification” aspect of this Lukan narrative came particularly to the fore of Christian thought in response to the Pelagian heresy in the early fifth century. Since Pelagius himself was a Westerner and wrote in Latin, the controversy surrounding him was especially fierce in the West, and from that point onwards we find Latin writers endlessly referring to our parabolic Pharisee as a symbol of those who endeavored to be righteous by their own merits.19
In addition to the Pauline theme of justification, the traditional ascetical literature calls further attention to two particular traits of our Pharisee that link him more closely to the Johannine corpus. The first of these has to do with his lack of spiritual vigilance, for this condemned boaster was a man seriously deceived about his state of soul. Imagining himself to be without sin, he exemplified that warning given in 1 John 1:8: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”20 Thus, the Syriac version of a text of Cyril of Alexandria observes that the Pharisee was guilty of concealing his sin, even from himself.21 Another Syriac source stresses that this deception was more than self-induced; it was ultimately demonic.22
Moreover, wrote Sahdona the Syrian, it was, ironically, in prayer that Satan took the Pharisee by surprise.23 His downfall was a failure of spiritual alertness during his devotions, for these two things, vigilance and prayer, must go together. Christian ascetical literature would find this Gospel story, then, an excellent illustration of the constant need for an inner watchfulness against the deceptions of Satan.24 The account of the Pharisee and the Publican is largely a lesson about maintaining the proper governance of one’s soul.25
A second feature of the Pharisee linking him particularly to a Johannine theme was his obvious lack of charity toward his neighbor. The First Epistle of John stresses that the ignorance of one’s own sinfulness is accompanied by scorn towards one’s brother, and such a trait is very discernible in the Pharisee of our parable. Thus, Andrew of Crete cited this Lukan pericope as a negative illustration of the principle enunciated in 1 John 4:16: “He that abides in love, abides in God.”26 The boastful Pharisee was not so much praying, said Augustine, as insulting a man who did.27 Like Satan as he appears in the books of Job and Zechariah, this braggart came into the presence of God as an accuser and a judge of his neighbor.28 Even more dramatically, an Ethiopian monastic apothegm, following a related and contextual image from that same Johannine Epistle (3:12–15), paralleled the Pharisee with Cain, the ancient slayer of his brother.29
The Contrite Heart
As he prayed, we are told, the Publican continued to beat his breast, as though attempting to break his very heart. Well he should, says the Tradition, for his heart was the source of all his sins,30 and a broken and contrite heart God will not despise.
In a certain sense, remarked Sahdona the Syrian, both men were telling the truth about themselves, the one bragging of his good points and the other confessing himself an offender. Thus, the irony was divine that caused each to receive what he did not have before, the one condemnation and other justification.31 Since repentance itself is a gift of God, the Publican thought “nothing of his own but his guilt,” said Peter of Celles.32 According to the Ukrainian “father of the Philokalia,” Paisy Velichkovsky, “it is better to be sinning and repenting than to have corrected oneself and be high-minded.”33 and with regard to our Publican it became standard for Christians to remark that a repentant consciousness of oneself as a sinner is preferable even to not being a sinner.34
Indeed, confessing himself such, wrote Gregory Nazianzen, the Publican would certainly have agreed with the Pharisee’s own assessment of him!35 Only in his humility, after all, did he surpass that Pharisee.36 Several Christian sources remark that his very lowering of his eyes was an exemplary sign of such humility and repentance of sin,37 and these latter qualities alone made his prayer acceptable to God.38 “Because he held out the emptier vessel,” said the Mellifluous Doctor, “he received the more ample grace.”39
Although two men went up to the temple in their bodies, said Andrew of Crete, only one went up in his soul.40 The humility of this Publican’s prayer was compared by some Christians to the almost silent prayer of Hannah the mother of Samuel.41 His heartfelt repentance was likened to that of Manasseh and the Ninevites.42 Since all of us, no matter what our accomplishments, are unprofitable servants (Luke 17:10), the Publican’s humility is a model for every Christian.43
Prayer of the Heart
Though he was justified by his attitude or disposition (diathesis) and not simply by his words,44 the very formula of the Publican’s prayer was to become important in traditional Christian ascetical sources. An Armenian version of Ephrem praises it for its sheer brevity;45 it became a favorite form of prayer.46 Asterios Sophistes called it a prayer of boldness (parresia),47 and Augustine showed how it was repeatedly reflected in the words of the Psalms.48
Combined with the usual bows of reverence, the words of the Publican came to form the very first prayer that an Eastern Christian says on entering the church nave and approaching the icons. In the Western Middle Ages, it was the prayer a Latin Christian recited when making the usual genuflection on entering church.49 Shortened to its elemental components, it is only the Kyrie Eleison, the “Lord, have mercy” that is the standard and constant response to the various petitions of the Church’s litanies.
More particularly, however, and in accord with its literary context in Luke, the Publican’s petition became a major feature in the Christian quest for steady, persistent and constant prayer. An anonymous source later attached to the name of Athanasius says that the Publican’s “Oh God, be merciful to me a sinner” is a petition to be made “in the heart,”50 and an ancient desert apothegm endorsed the formula as a rule: “Always have in your heart the word of the Publican, and you can be saved.”51
Over the years, and following a quiet development not fully documented in the sources, the prayer of the Publican was joined to the blind man’s prayer in Luke 18:38—“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me”—and augmented with more ample Christological affirmations. Thus it became “the Jesus Prayer,” the standard formula for constant prayer in the Eastern Orthodox Church for many centuries: “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Taking to themselves the humble attitude of the Publican, this is the prayer that believers are to say over and over again throughout the entire day, “placing the mind in the heart,” until it comes to transform the very texture of the soul.52
The Jesus Prayer eventually produced, of course, a literature of its own, and it is outside the interest of the present article to add to that literature. Nonetheless, since the image of the Publican at prayer in the temple lies at the historical base of that literature, it may not be inappropriate, as I finish, to comment briefly on the use of the Jesus Prayer in the light of that biblical image.
Let it be clear that we are talking about properly Christian prayer, an expression of the mediating grace of Jesus Christ poured out on a repentant sinner. For that reason I regard it as unfortunate that often this form of prayer is popularly discussed and even used apart from its Christological and soteriological reference. Indeed, among some western writers and lecturers the Jesus Prayer has come to be regarded and explained as a mantra, similar to those employed in the pagan religions of the Far East.
This misunderstanding, if one may be frank, is very deep. A mantra is not interpersonal and, strictly speaking, is not a prayer at all; it is a psychological device, a ritual incantation intended to encourage an impersonal, “non-dual” and transcendent state of non-reflective, non-discursive consciousness. As such, its intended goal is similar to that of a Chinese koan or the Japanese mondo.
Let it be said that Christian theology should regard all of these devices as pointing in a direction approximately 180 degrees at variance with the confessional intention of the Jesus Prayer to affirm the Lordship of Jesus, the primary of the divine mercy and the deep need to be delivered from one’s sins by the atoning blood shed on the cross. It is a very perilous thing to invoke the name of Jesus either on a magical impulse (cf. Acts 20:13–16) or as a psychological technique. When I am occasionally obliged to deal with this misunderstanding as I meet it in my pastoral responsibilities and among my college students, I confess to a certain measure of exasperation. One is at a loss to know how to answer those unable to perceive immediately the very substantial, manifest, multiple and radically incompatible differences between “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me” and “Om! The jewel is in the lotus.”
Even recourse to breathing techniques in the use of this prayer can be a great distraction, and the classical monastic traditions uniformly discourage that practice except in cases where an extraordinarily mature soul is under the expert direction of a recognized spiritual master. Indeed, Paisy Velichkovsky, certainly such a master, commented on the psychological dangers and even satanic attacks inflicted on those who, without such direction, undertake the Jesus Prayer rashly presuming that they have found some sort of “device” to replace repentance and humility in the quest for God.53
The Jesus Prayer is, above all, an affirmation of Christ’s redemptive Lordship as the defining revelation of God in history: “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the living God.” It is a proclamation of faith in the form of a direct address to the Savior of the world. Since only in the Holy Spirit can we proclaim that Jesus is Lord, it is a prayer permeated with the divinizing energies of that Holy Spirit.
Furthermore, it is a confession of sinfulness, crafted to place a broken and contrite heart continuously in the presence of the living Christ and under the bounteous mercy of his blood. One may think of it as the doctrine of “justification by faith” shaped into a petition, enshrined in the form of a prayer. By means of it, that dominating doctrine of the New Testament is gently but relentlessly kneaded, over and over throughout the day, into the very tissue of the Christian heart, until that heart beats only to its rhythm.
1. Gregory of Nyssa, De Instituto Christianity (Opera Ascetica [Opera 8,1], Leiden:Brill, 1952, p. 71).
2. Rupert of Deutz noted the propriety of this juxtaposition; cf. his De Divinis Officiis 12.11 (PL 170.320D).
3. Cf. Graduale Romanum, Paris: Desclee, 1945, pp. 344–347. Lines from the parable were also used in the lovely matutinal and vesperal antiphons assigned for that Sunday; cf. Antiphonale Monasticum, Paris: Desclee, 1939, p. 601.
4. The second of those Sundays is called “The Sunday of the Prodigal Son” because it is centered around that earlier parable from Luke. Presently I will indicate the affinities between these two pericopes in Lukan theology.
5. Cf. Seraphim Nassar, Divine Prayers and Services, Englewood, N.J.: Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, 1979 (hereafter Nassar with page numbers), p. 610.
6. This point of the lectionary selections was accented by Simeon of Thessaloniki, Ad Gabrielem 55 (PG 155.905A).
7. The affinity between these two pericopes was remarked by Gregory Nazianzen, Carmina 1.27 (PG 37.505); Aphraat the Syrian, Demonstrations 9.7 (Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientation [hereafter CSCO with volume and page number], 406.50).
8. This likeness was observed by Jerome, Epistolae 122.3 (PL 22.1044); Theodore of Egypt, II Catechesis (CSCO 160.48); Gregory Barhebraeus, Ethicon 4 (CSCO 535.27).
9. This resemblance appears in a traditional pre-Communion prayer of John Damascene still very popular among Eastern Orthodox Christians (cf. Service Book, Englewood, N.J.; Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, 1971, pp. 207f.) In the West it was noted by Bernard of Clairvaux, In Cantica 25.2 (PL 183.606).
10. The correspondence between them was perceived by John Climacus, Scala Paradisi 25 (PG 88.1000D); Gregory Barhebraeus, loc. cit.
11. To these must be added the initial components of the Ave Maria, one of which Luke specifically says was given by the Holy Spirit (1:42).
12. In these two stories, wrote Tertullian, we are taught the orandi disciplina; cf. Adversus Marcionem 4.36.1 (Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina [hereafter CCL with volume and page numbers] 1.643).
13. This emphasis on repetition in prayer is somewhat clearer in the original, which uses the Greek imperfect tense, denoting repeated action, in each instance (vv. 3, 13, 39).
14. Origen, Homiliae in Jeremiam 4.4 (BEP 11.30); 12.7 (80); Athanasius, Epistolae Heortasticae 1.4 (PG 26.1362D); Basil, Homilia in Psalmum VII 6 (PG 29.242); In Isaiam 1.36 (PG 30.189C-D); Gregory Nazianzen, Orationes 43.64 (PG 35.581A); Gregory of Nyssa, De Oratione Dominica 5 (PG 44.1184A); Cyril of Alexandria, In Lucam, ad hoc (PG 72.853); the Apostolic Constitutions 6.8.4 (BEP 2.121); Isidore of Pelusium, Epistolae 1.88 (PG 78.244B); Gregory Barhebraeus, Ethicon 4 (CSCO 535.27).
15. Baldwin of Canterbury, Tractatus IX (PL 204.503B); John of the Cross, Subida del Monte Carmelo 3.9.4 (Obras Completas, Madrid: BAC, 1991, p. 415); Noche Oscura 1.2.1. (p. 488).
16. Cf. Nassar, pp. 604, 607.
17. A Portrait of Saint Philip 4 (CSCO 185.225).
18. Romans 2:17, 23; 3:27; 4:2; 1 Corinthians 1:29; 3:21; 4:7; 2 Corinthians 5:12; Galatians 6:13; Ephesians 2:9.
19. Cf. Jerome, Adversus Pelagianos 3.16 (PL 23.586); Augustine, Sermones 115.2 (PL 38.655); Isidore of Seville, Allegoriae Quaedam 223 (PL 83.127); Venerable Bede, In Lucam 5 (PL 92.552–3); Homiliae Subdititiae 10 (PL 94.290); Smaragdus of Saint-Michel, Collectiones (PL 102.436): Rhabanus Maurus, Homiliae 141 (PL 110.436–7); De Universo 4 (PL 111.81–2); Bruno of Monte Cassino, In Lucam 43 (PL 165.431B-C); Hugh of St. Victor, Allegoriae in Novum Testamentum 27 (PL 175.824C-D); Baldwin of Canterbury, De Sacramento Altaris 2.4 (Sources Chrétiennes [hereafter SC, followed by volume and page numbers] 93.388. Prior to Pelagius, however, I know of no Latin Comments on Luke 18:9–14 weighted with this emphasis.
20. On the boastful Pharisee as illustrative of this Johannine text, see Rupert of Deutz, In Matthaeum 5 (Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Medievalis [hereafter CCM with volume and page numbers] 29.158f.).
21. Cyril of Alexandria, Homiliae in Lucam 76 (CSCO 140.211); see also Bernard of Clairvaux, De Gradibus Humilitatis et Superbiae 6.17 (PL 182.951A).
22. Abba Isaiah, Asceticon Syriacum 16.55 (CSCO 293.350f.).
23. Sahdona the Syrian, De Perfectione 22.214.171.124 (CSCO 201.134); also 2.8.78 (CSCO 293.350f.).
24. So say Basil, In Illud Attende Tibiipsi 5 (PG 31.209B-C); Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job 19.33 (PL 76.1119A); Homiliae in Ezechielem 1.7.6 (PL 76.842–3); and Herman of Rein, Sermones 87 (CCM 64.398).
25. Thus, the Pachomii Vita Prima 126 (BEP 40.180); Pachomii Vita Tertia 178 (BEP 41.68); Macarius of Egypt, Epistola Magna 16 (BEP 42.157); Gregory the Great, Regula Pastoralis 3.19 (PL 77.82A).
26. Andrew of Crete, Orationes 20 (PG 97.1257A).
27. Augustine, Sermones 115.2 (PL 38.656); likewise Pseudo-Chrysostom, In Publicanum et Pharisaeum (PG 62.725.6).
28. John Chrysostom, In Hebraeos 21.4 (PG 63.153.4); Sahdona the Syrian, De Perfectione 2.8.13 (CSCO 253.4); Euthymius Zigabenus, In Lucam 62 (PG 129.1052–3); Pope Innocent III, Sermones de Sanctis 6 (PL 217.473–5).
29. Asceticon 43 (CSCO 459.107).
30. Jerome, Adversus Pelagianos 1.17 (PL 23.511B); Theophylact of Ochrid, In Lucam 18 (PG 123.1005D); Dionysius Barsalibi, In Lucam (CSCO 98.314).
31. Sahdona the Syrian, De Perfectione 2.10.66 (CSCO 253.68); also his Epistolae 4.150 (CSCO 255.61). Compare Cyrus of Edessa, Explanation of the Pasch 7.5 (CSCO 356.56).
32. Peter of Celles, Tabernaculi Expositio 1 (PL 202.1073A).
33. Paisy Velichkovsky, Field Flowers 15 (Little Russian Philokalia [hereafter LRP with volume and page numbers], Platina, Calif.: St. Herman Press, 1994, Vol. 4, p. 79).
34. Origen, Contra Celsum 3.64 (BEP 9.221f.); Asterios Sophistes, In Psalmos 10.5 (BEP 37.204f.); Macarius of Egypt, Homiliae Alterae 6 (BEP 42.58); Gregory Nazianzen, Orationes 40.19 (PG 36.384); John Chrysostom, In Romanos 25.6 (PG 60.635); In Primam ad Corinthios 8.5 (PG 61.73; In Philemon 1.3 (PG 62.708); 2.3 (712); Jerome, Contra Pelagianos 3.15 (PL 23.614A); Augustine, Epistolae 126.96.36.199 (PL 33.139).
35. Gregory Nazianzen, Carmina 2.1.1 (PG 37.1000).
36. Ibidem, 1.17 (784); cf. also Pseudo-Ignatius, Magnesians 12 (BEP 2.297—This text is certainly a gloss; cf. critical edition in SC 10.90; Gregory Palamas, Homiliae 2 (PG 151.20B).
37. E.g., Tertullian, De Oratione 17.2 (CCL 1.266); Origen, In Joannem 26.4 (BEP 12.260f.); Cyprian, De Oratione Dominica 6 (PL 4.523); Pachomii Paraleipomena 10 (BEP 40.201); Pachomii Vita Altera 78 (BEP 40.273); Pachomii Vita Tertia 115 (BEP 41.39); Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos 67.28 (CCL 39.90); the Regula Magistri 10.86 (SC 105.436–8); Benedict of Nursia, Regula Monastica 7 (SC 181.488); Godfrey of Admont, Homiliae Dominicales Aestivales 78 (PL 174.552A); Bernard of Clairvaux, In Cantica 3.2 (PL 183.794B-C); Gregory Palamas, Homiliae 2 (PG 151.28B).
38. Ephrem, In Evangelium Concordans 15.24 (CSCO 145.158).
39. Bernard of Clairvaux, In Annuntiatione Beatae Mariae 9 (PL 183.398A-B).
40. Andrew of Crete, Orationes 20 (PG 97.1256–7).
41. Thus, John Chrysostom, In Actibus Apostolorum 15.4–5 (PG 60.125–6); also the text of Chrysostom published by I. Hausherr in Orientalia Christiana Periodica 26 (1960), p. 104; Venerable Bede, In Primam Samuelem 1 (PL 91.504–5).
42. Gregory Nazianzen, Orationes 39.17 (PG 36.356A); Carmina 2.23 (PG 37.1489); Jerome, Epistolae 16.1 (PL 22.358); 77.4 (693).
43. Cyril of Alexandria, In Lucam 18.10 (PG 72.853D).
44. Abba Nilus, Epistolae 2.325 (PG 79.360B).
45. Ephrem, In Evangelium Concordans 22.5 (CSCO 145.241).
46. Cf. the Nestorian Syrian, Dadiso Qatraya, Super Librum Abba Isaiae13.11 (CSCO 148f.); the Serb. Gabriel of Lesnovo, in Daniel Rogich, Serbian Patericon, Vol. 1 (Forestville, Calif.: St. Paisius Abbey Press, 1994), p. 108; the Italian, Rather of Verona, De Translatione Metronis 5 (PL 136.458B); and the Frenchman, Stephen of Grandemont, in Vita 57 (PL 204.1031D).
47. Asterios Sophistes, In Psalmos 4.4 (BEP 37.173).
48. Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos 39.27 (PL 36.450); 67.30 (831); 70.1.4 (878); 73.18 (940), 22 (942); 84.14 (PL 37.1079); 105.2 (1406); 110.3 (1464); 128.9 (1694).
49. John Beleth, De Ecclesiasticis Officiis 165 (CCM 41A.323).
50. Pseudo-Athanasius, Logos Parainetikos 2 (BEP 36.308).
51. Abba Ammonas, Apophthegmata 4 (BEP 40.45). The same apothegm is expanded somewhat in the Ethiopian Geronticon 165 (CSCO 477.98); cf. also John Chrysostom, In Hebraeos 27.10 (PG 63.190).
52. Since the Bible itself certainly encourages reiterated prayer and says nothing at all against the repetition of prayer formulas, one is in doubt how to account for that strange opposition to repeated prayer so noticeable among some Western Christians in recent centuries. It might seem that the difficulty stems from the King James’ mistranslation of polylogia (“wordiness”) as “vain repetitions,” but I suspect that this mistranslation is itself the result of some bias that I am unable to trace. At any rate, as the Jesus Prayer is a very simple and easily memorized formula, it is nearly the opposite of “wordy.” Besides, just how does one answer a Christian who would call the repeated confession of the Lordship of Jesus a “vain” exercise?
53. Paisy Velichkovsky, The Scroll 1 (LRP 4.26); Field Flowers 23 (ibid. 86f.). He likewise advises that the prayer be done in a low voice, something physically impossible while inhaling; cf. Field Flowers 24 (ibid. 88).
Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
“The Prayer of the Publican” first appeared in the Fall 1996 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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