St. Gregory of Palamas, a Christian mystic of the Byzantine era, would sit in his monk cell atop Mount Athos, Greece, with his “heart” in his navel, silently praying to Jesus Christ. And God’s uncreated light and energies were revealed to him as the light that shone on Mount Tabor at the Transfiguration of Christ.
And I’m lying in bed with my “heart” in my throat, asking Jesus Christ to help end my suffering. How can I make it through this night, reliving the horrific death of my husband in a shark attack in the Pacific Ocean off Maui, Hawaii? As I breathe, “Jesus” on the inhale, and “Christ” on the exhale, I find some relief. It’s a technique learned in books given to me by my friend, Rev. Canon Jim Thomas PhD, where I first read about St. Gregory, who practiced hesychasm, a Jesus-centered spirituality.
“Will I survive this night?” I cry out as tears roll down my face. According to St. Gregory, “yes,” all the elements are in place to have a mystical experience of God’s energies and Tabor Light as the result of ‘quality prayer.’ In fact, my tears and suffering while praying to Jesus Christ were sure to provide the ‘night of my life.’
St. Gregory was really into suffering and prayer. For instance, although the aim of hesychasm sounds idyllic – to behold the “uncreated divine light” that appeared to the disciples on Mount Tabor at the Transfiguration of Christ 1 (aka Tabor Light) – getting there is bound to ‘knock the wind out of your sails,’ or in theological terms, release the “spirit-breath” out of your “earthen vessel” (physical body).
In his tome, The Triads in Defence of Those Who Practice Sacred Quietude, when speaking of ‘prayer and transformation of the body,’ St. Gregory writes, “We certainly stand in need of… physical suffering… if we are to apply ourselves to prayer… Prayer without compunction has no quality.” 2 And, “If in your prayer you have obtained tears, then God has touched the eyes of your heart.” 3
So, why does this ‘quality prayer’ have to be so painful? And is it worth the suffering? Let me tell you about a Dark Night of Tabor Light. And you decide. But first, here’s a brief synopsis of the prayer and what to expect.
The main element is the unceasing repetition of the Jesus Prayer, which can be a phrase such as, “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,” or an invocation such as, “Lord Jesus.” 4
While praying, there must be an appeal for divine mercy, accompanied by a keen sense of compunction and inward grief (penthos). And one must seek inner silence or stillness (hēsychia). 5
The prayer recitation is synchronized with one’s breathing. For instance, “Lord” on the inhale, and “Jesus” on the exhale. 6 The idea is that by attaching Christ to one’s breath, one places Christ in one’s “heart,” which in the Greek tradition is not just the physical organ, but the spiritual center of one’s being, the inmost self, where the encounter with God takes place. 7 By doing so, one’s “heart” is filled with light 8 and one’s “being” becomes as “spirit.” 9 It is the “spirit” body which inhabits the heavens. In Greek tradition, the word for “spirit” is “pneuma,” which also means “breath” and “breath of life.” 10
The Prayer Expectations
St. Gregory writes that as “spirit,” one would see a vision of “uncreated divine light” with “graced mystical eyes” and participate in “uncreated divine energies.” 11 Also, one’s body, person and soul would be transfigured! 12
Even more surprising, he says that the above “treasure” is carried in one’s “earthen vessel.” 13 And – even after this experience – God’s “essence” (“isness”) would still remain a mystery! 14 All of this was beyond my comprehension. Yet I was an ‘easy sell.’ I would do anything to find peace and survive this dark night.
My Prayer Experience
I read that one could create their own Jesus Prayer.15 I liked that idea. I preferred to pray to Christ Consciousness, in tune with my personal cosmology. So, I made up my own version, “Jesus Christ,” and continued to breathe “Jesus” on the inhale and “Christ” on the exhale, as a mantra in sync with my breath. Although, the prayer could be recited aloud or mentally, I chose mentally. 16 With each breath, I am screaming out to Jesus Christ to help end my suffering. In time, the prayer must have become a part of me, as a self-activating, unceasing rhythm in my “heart,” as it was supposed to. 17
After six hours, I have a lucid dream where a man who looks like he may be one of my ancestors is falsely accusing me of a crime. I look him in the eye and repeatedly say, “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost,” while continuously making the sign of the cross.
Suddenly, I am ‘vacuumed’ out of body as a string of “spirit-breath” through the top of my head! I am transported through a tunnel of pearly, golden white light. At the end is a round portal where I see a beautiful place of light and color that transcends Earth.
Next to the portal is a place that looks like the Grand Canyon. Beyond is a golden mountain covered with tall, golden grasses. The mountain and grasses are composed solely of interwoven rays of light. Every color is unlike any seen on Gaia, as every color contains rays of every other color within. Yet, one color predominates. While I float above this holographic landscape as “spirit-breath,” I am aware that I do not have a body. Yet, I am part of every thing. Every thing is everything.
“This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” I say to myself. “This is what the ‘uncreated divine light’ that appeared to the disciples on Mount Tabor at the Transfiguration of Christ must have looked like.”
“Where IS God in all this?” I wonder. “Oh yes, God is supposed to remain a mystery. I am only participating in God’s ‘uncreated divine energies.’” 11No more time to ponder! Suddenly, an elastic umbilical cord of “spirit-breath” snaps me back into my “earthen vessel” in rubber-band fashion. Moments later, I am again ‘vacuumed’ out of body as a string of “spirit-breath,” through the top of my head and transported through the tunnel of pearly, golden white light. I see the land of light. This time I cannot enter! Again, my “spirit-breath” is quickly snapped back into my “earthen-vessel” through the top of my head.
I then wake up at peace and in awe of my experience of the “uncreated divine light and energies of God,” and what I consider to be a foretaste of heaven. 18 Being here in this physical realm, all the colors of everything seem so separate and bland. I want to go back!
Making Sense of It All
So, did the Jesus Prayer meet its expectations? Yes! My whole being became as “spirit.” I saw “uncreated divine light” with “graced mystical eyes,” which were not of my “earthen vessel.” And I participated in “uncreated divine energies.” And even though I had participated in God’s energies, the essence (“isness”) 14 of God still remains a mystery.
Also, a few days later I found that my entire being had been transfigured! I now had the ability to leave my “earthen-vessel” and commune with my late husband and our ‘soul pod’ in their realms of reality. This divinely-granted mystical gift provided great comfort throughout the grief process. The experience of the Jesus Prayer forever altered my concept of reality!
Are You “In” or “Out”?
You may find this experience of the Jesus Prayer a bit daunting. However, don’t let that impede you from trying the prayer. The experience is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ scenario. As St. Gregory says, “The human mind… will attain to that (divine) light and will become worthy of a supernatural vision of God, not seeing the divine essence, but seeing God by a revelation appropriate and analogous to Him (Her).” 19
And, you may not even leave your body! As St. Gregory writes, “Sometimes (the light) makes a man (woman) go out from the body, or else, without separating him (her) from the body, it elevates him (her) to an ineffable height.” 20 So, you may even ‘get high’!
Also, who really knows what being “in” or “out” of body means? If one is still connected to one’s “earthen vessel” by an umbilical cord “spirit-breath,” is one “in” or “out” ? It does not even sound as if St. Gregory knew for sure if he was “in” or “out.”
God forbid, should you experience a dark night where you ponder existence in this physical reality, perhaps you may like to try the Jesus Prayer, in earnest repetition, with a full dose of tears, suffering and compunction and see what happens?
Or, if you’re not up for the full experience, try pondering this quote from the existential novel, The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “It’s only with the heart that one can see rightly; what’s most important is invisible to the eye.” And take it all to “heart” – perhaps with a cup of chamomile tea and a croissant!
1 Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1993), 181-182.
2 Palamas, Gregory, The Triads, Edited by John Meyendorff. Translated by Nicholas Gendle (Ramsey, NJ: Paulist Press, 1983), 25.
3 Ibid. 2., 26.
4 Egan, Harvey D., An Anthology of Christian Mysticism Second Edition (Collegeville, MN: A Pueblo Book, The Liturgical Press, 1998), 311.
5 Bishop Kallistos Ware, “The Origins of the Jesus Prayer: Diadochus, Gaza, Sinai.” In The Study of Spirituality, edited by Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright and Edward Yarnold (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1986), 175-184. [As cited in: Congote, Gregory OSB, “Gregory Palamas and Hesychasm” (2009). College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, School of Theology and Seminary Graduate Papers/Theses. 739., 20.]
6 Ibid. 2., 22. Also: www.chalkidiki.com/athos/great_lavra.html [As cited in: Congote, Gregory OSB, “Gregory Palamas and Hesychasm” (2009). College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, School of Theology and Seminary Graduate Papers/Theses. 739., 30.]
7 Healey, Charles J., Christian Spirituality: An Introduction to the Heritage (Staten Island, New York: St Pauls, 1999), 226. [As cited in: Congote, Gregory OSB, “Gregory Palamas and Hesychasm” (2009). College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, School of Theology and Seminary Graduate Papers/Theses. 739., 29.]
8 Ibid. 5., 182. [Congote., 12.]
9 Ibid. 4., 319.
10 Fr. Seán ÓLaoire, PhD, “From Source to Soul, to Ego and Back – Essay #1.” www.patheos.com
11 Ibid. 2., xxxv, 81.
12 Egan, Harvey D., Soundings in the Christian Mystical Tradition (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010), 168. Also: Ibid. 2., 97.
13 Ibid. 2., 18.
14 Fr. Seán ÓLaoire, PhD., “Only God Exists.” www.SpiritsInSpacesuits.com/cosmology
15 Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Jesus Prayer (London, United Kingdom: The Incorporated Catholic Truth Society, 2017), 24-26.
16 Ibid. 15., 25.
17 Ibid. 6., [Congote., 31.]
18 Ibid 4., 312.
19 Ibid 2., 8.
20 Ibid 2., 33.