Just in case you’re already confused, that’s Greek for “remembrance of God.” In the practice of prayer in the Byzantine tradition, remembrance of God is really the foundation of all prayer. Often the Jesus Prayer is the principal way to do this, but remembrance of God is more fundamental than any particular form of prayer. It is simply a conscious, attentive being in the presence of God.
I’m going to quote here from a certain author on this subject, though I can’t recommend the book without reservation (A Different Christianity, by Robin Amis). He knows well the Eastern tradition of prayer and repentance, and has made many trips to Mt Athos and learned the wisdom of some of the monks there. But he has the annoying habit of trying to work all this into a schema that includes far-eastern ideas and practices as well as the writings of certain authors on the outer fringes of Christianity. He keeps using “esotericism” as a way to describe the Eastern monastic tradition (I understand what he means, but many people wouldn’t, because of the common meaning of the term), and he has evident Gnostic leanings (though he is at pains to distinguish true gnosis from Gnosticism—but he still views this “esoteric” tradition as something that went underground in the early centuries of Christianity and remains basically unknown except to a few who form a kind of elite in this esoteric knowledge).
OK, I said all that. What follows is still solidly within the best traditions of Eastern Christian prayer and spiritual practice. Unlike many of today’s “spiritual” self-help gurus, Mr Amis is very serious about faith in God and Christian spiritual practices, and he does not shrink from their demands.
“On Athos the exercise of turning the heart to God is called by the name mneme Theou, which is both an exercise in its own right and something that occurs almost spontaneously whenever prayer goes into the heart. Prayer is still incomplete as long as it lacks this element of remembrance of God. Mneme Theou is thus an essential element in a life of metanoia [the “change of heart/mind” that characterizes repentance], and an essential part of the fullest experience of metanoia itself. The heart turned fully to God wishes to think of nothing else. It turns for the solution of its problems not to the world but to God. This is what Theophan [St Theophan the Recluse, 19th century Russian saint] called ‘magnetization to God.’ It was also Theophan who wrote about this in a letter: ‘Inner disorder you know from experience… The spirit has lost its natural support, which is God. The spirit recovers this through remembrance of God. Always be with the Lord whatever you are doing; always turn your mind to Him…’
“…mneme Theou, remembering God, means something that is more than merely a ‘subjective’ recollection. ‘Objectively,’ if one can say that, it means reconnecting oneself to God and His grace. The effort, the process involved, is very like that needed to remember a forgotten fact. It too sometimes succeeds and sometimes fails. It succeeds, paradoxically, when we ‘forget ourselves,’ forget our ordinary thoughts, our ordinary motives, our insistent but very personal hopes and fears. Then, when it fully succeeds, it connects us not only to something past… but connects us to something, to someone existing now… We must ‘Seek first God’s kingdom,’ and if we do this, He will do everything else that we need. What is involved, to put it another way, is to ‘remember with the heart’…
“The Jesus Prayer is essentially hesychast in nature, and hesychia, the deep stillness of the heart, is not compatible with the active, Western idea of control. Overactivity destroys or, to use a modern psychological concept, ‘masks’ it. Watchfulness—nepsis—protects it. More to the point, overactivity is a symptom of the absence of true prayer of the heart… A ‘doing’ attitude, an ‘atomist’ or anthropocentric attitude that ‘I am doing it,’ ‘I am praying,’ prevents this [prayer of the heart]. It has been suggested that it does so by importing inappropriate ‘active’ energies. Unlike these, the correct hesychastic energies… make us sensitive… They make us want to pray, and only when we want to pray can we give attention to our prayer throughout the time of prayer…
“Yet these energies, unlike the active energies, convey a certain stillness, and this paradoxical link of stillness and the will is an essential ingredient of prayer. This comes always with a sense of something greater than ourselves, of dependence on God and on His Holy Spirit.
“In simpler terms, one common result of our Western idea that we can ‘do’ almost anything is that normally we confuse control and attention. These are often seen as one and the same, but in fact they are different things, only linked by the fact that attention is needful before we can control something. In prayer, these two are no longer mutually supportive. Prayer requires attention without control.”
I think that last line deserves considerable reflection: “Prayer requires attention without control.” The remembrance of God is not something we can control or manipulate, for it is the action of his grace within us. But we will fail to experience or recognize it without full attention of “the mind in the heart,” as a classic description of prayer runs. Prayer isn’t something we “do,” but rather something that God does in us when we attend to the mneme Theou, when we consciously place ourselves in his presence with no agenda but to stand before Him with a humble, contrite, and loving heart. We must make the necessary efforts to help bring our inner chaos to stillness, but the grace is God’s, the outcome is God’s, the fruits are God’s. He is in control; we are not. We simply stand at inner attention and wait for the movement of his Spirit.
Metanoia, mneme Theou, and the “prayer of the heart” constitute the essential inner work of the spiritual life in the Byzantine tradition. Ascetical practices and liturgical prayer are not merely external elements but means toward (and sometimes fruits of) the great and complete turning of the whole person irrevocably to God, which is the meaning of the Christian life. If our “remembrance of God” becomes in us the powerful undercurrent of all we do in this life—like that hidden flowing inner stream St Ignatius Theophorus spoke of, which whispers, “Come to the Father”—then the Lord will remember us, like the Good Thief, in his Kingdom.