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The Teaching of Elder Joseph the Hesychast

The Elders letters were published posthumously and have been widely read in the old and new worlds. What follows is a thematically organized summary of the selections from the bookMonastic Wisdom. The Letters of Elder Joseph the Hesychast.

On Learning the Prayer

Beginnings: Engaging the Nous

To begin mastering noetic prayer one must constantly say The Prayer. At first we should say it quickly so that the nous doesn’t have time to form any distracting thoughts. Pay attention only to the words, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

After The Prayer has been said out loud for some time, the nous becomes accustomed to it and actually takes up saying it itself: “Then it becomes sweet to you as if you had honey in your mouth, and you want to keep saying it at all times. If you stop it, you feel greatly distressed.”

Next Steps: Bringing the Nous Down to the Heart

When the nous has become accustomed to it and has taken its fill – that, is, when it has learned it well – then it sends it to the heart. Since the nous supplies food for the soul, the task of the nous is to send whatever good or evil it sees or hears down into the heart. Thus, if a person is able to say The Prayer and at the same time keep his nous from imagining anything, that is, paying attention only to the words of The Prayer, then he actually brings his nous down to his heart, using the rhythm of his own breathing: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!” In the beginning one says The Prayer a few times and takes a breath. Later, when the nous has become accustomed to remaining in the heart, one says one Prayer with each breath, thus: “Lord Jesus Christ” (breathing in), “Have mercy on me,” (breathing out).

Continuing on to Theoria

As the recitation of The Prayer continues, grace comes to overshadow the soul, to act within it and move it on to theoria (the non-sensible operation of the Holy Spirit which opens the nous to heavenly mysteries). The Prayer should be said everywhere: while seated, in bed, while walking, and standing. It requires a struggle: standing and sitting. When one tires, then sit, but stand up again so as not to be overcome by sleep.


Taken as a whole, these activities are called praxis, putting theory into practice. Even though one demonstrates intention and discipline it must not be forgotten that everything depends on Him, on whether or not He gives it to you. God is the beginning and the end. His grace is the driving force that activates all things: love, the desire to find God, and compunction.

Keeping the commandments activates love. It is love that motivates one to arise at night and pray; when one sympathizes with the sick; when one is charitable to a widow, orphans, and the elderly. When we love God in these ways, He pours out His grace.

If a person wishes to find God only through The Prayer, he must not let a single breath pass without it and must be careful not to accept any fantasies because the Divine is formless, unimaginable, and colorless. He is supremely perfect, not subject to syllogisms. He acts as a subtle breeze in our minds.

Compunction – a sting of conscience, remorse, sorrow for our sins – comes when we consider how much we have grieved God, who is so good, so sweet, so merciful, so kind, and so entirely full of love; Who was crucified and suffered everything for us. When you meditate on this and other things the Lord has suffered, this brings compunction.

Finally, if one is able, say The Prayer out loud without ceasing until grace overshadows and refreshes one. Say it out loud, without a break, until the nous takes it up. Then one may stop saying it orally. But if the nous loses its grip on The Prayer, one can resume saying it out loud. The forcefulness of the tongue is needed until one gets used to it. Afterwards, all the years of one’s life, the nous will repeat it without exertion.

The Ascetic Struggle: On the Three States of Nature

Man’s Natural State

The natural state of man is the result of his having transgressed the commandments of the Lord and having fallen out of Paradise. Into this context the Divine Law is given to us in written form. It provides a practical help to every man desiring salvation and victory over the passions. This is achieved by struggling to stay within these Divine Laws. Elder Joseph described it this way: When we abide by the Divine Law given to us in the Bible – (i.e.,) we are not fornicators, murderers, thieves, liars, gossipers, and are not unjust, proud, vainglorious, gluttonous, greedy, avaricious, envious, taunting, blaspheming, irascible, peevish, complaining, hypocritical, and so on – then we are in the state natural for us after the Fall.”

The State Against Nature

The state contrary to or against nature is when one is outside of the Divine Law and behaves like irrational animals that do not have a law. The Prophet says, regarding such people, “Man, being in honor, did not understand; he is compared to the mindless cattle, and is like them.” So, whoever lives like this, outside of the Divine law, wallowing in the sins we have mentioned, is in the state contrary to nature.

The State Above Nature

The state above nature is that of dispassion, which is what Adam possessed before he transgressed the commandment of God and fell out of divine grace and innocence.

The following is a paraphrase of the original text and is the Elder’s explanation of the three states of nature:

“So these, my child, are the three states through which, if we make progress, we ascend from the contra-natural to the supernatural state. To put it another way, the three modes of divine grace that the nature of man is likely to receive when he has good intentions and exerts himself are: purifying, illuminating, and perfecting.

“Once a man comes to repentance, he forces himself to stay within the Divine Law, yet, due to his passionate habits, he undergoes great struggles and suffers sharp pains. Then divine grace secretly gives him comfort and joy, mourning, delight, and sweetness from the divine words he reads, as well as strength and boldness in his spiritual struggle. This is called purifying grace, which mystically helps the struggling penitent to be purified from sins and to remain in the state according to nature.”

“If he remains in the state according to nature and does not stop struggling, does not turn back, is not negligent, and does not fall from his post, but endures and forces himself to bear good fruits, being patient and accepting the continuous changes of nature, and awaiting the mercy of God, then his nous receives divine illumination and becomes entirely divine light, by which he noetically perceives the truth and discerns how he must proceed until he reaches love, which is our sweet Jesus.”

“Here, too, one must be very cautious, for there are any number of delusions. When you hear me saying light1, do not think that it is fire or light from a lamp or lightning or some other kind of colors. Away with such absurdity! For there were many who did not understand and accepted some kind of lightning as something divine, and thus were deluded and miserably ruined. But the noetic light of divine grace is immaterial, formless, colorless, gladsome, and peaceful. This is, and is called illuminating grace, which illuminates the nous and knows the safe roads of the spiritual journey, so that the traveler will not get lost and fall.”

“But this light comes and goes, since the body changes. Light is followed by darkness, and then darkness is followed by light.”

“Now listen carefully and understand: our natural state is darkness in comparison to divine grace. How much more so when the gloomy demons approach us, which are dark by nature! So when the light of grace comes, everything evil disappears – just as when the sun rises the darkness leaves and we can clearly see even the smallest details that escaped notice before dawn. But once the sun sets, the darkness overtakes us naturally once more, and whoever walks in the darkness suffers great damage and grievous incidents.”

“Likewise, the same thing happens to us in our spiritual journey. When we have divine light, we can see everything clearly, and the demons flee far away, as they are unable to stand before divine grace. But once divine grace leaves again, the darkness remains, that is, our natural sate. Then the thieving demons come and fight us. And so, since our nature is subject to so many changes, and since, in a time of darkness, we, without the discernment of divine grace, work many deeds that harm us, we are mortally wounded by our enemies, because it is dark and we cannot see the enemies that are hiding.”

“If, then, we remain in this state and are not harmed by the continuous wars and turmoil from the passions, then we are given the gift of God, perfecting grace, which perfects us. It is called supernatural because he who has it walks above nature. In the first two stages of grace, a person forces himself with good thoughts and spiritual recollections to keep the virtues: love, humility, abstinence, and so on. Thus, by thinking pious thoughts and by opposing demonic thoughts, he destroys the passions’ malice and keeps the virtues. But when the perfecting, supernatural grace comes, all the passions are wiped out Then all the virtues are kept as though they belonged to his own nature, without needing to use his own devices and methods, because he has been given that dispassionate state that existed before the Fall. For the passions entered the nature of man after Adam’s disobedience, whereas the natural state in which man was created by God was passionless. For this reason, when the nous is freed from the passions, it walks above nature like a king by means of divine knowledge.”

There are those who have soft souls and are easily convinced. There are also those who have hard souls and don’t yield easily. The difference is as great as that between cotton and iron. The cotton requires only an anointing with words. The iron requires fire and a furnace of temptation to be worked. The man who has a hard character needs to be patient in enduring temptations for there to be a cleansing. When he isn’t patient he is like a lamp without oil, which quickly goes out, and is lost.

Elder Joseph the Hesychast (1898-1959)

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(Source — Two Elders on the Jesus Prayer)