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Center for Action and Contemplation

Prayer of the Heart

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Search inside yourself with your intellect so as to find the place of the heart, where all the powers of the soul reside. —St. Symeon the New Theologian, The Three Methods of Prayer

Many of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, along with thinkers and mystics in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, have described prayer as bringing our thinking down into our heart. It is not the words themselves as much as the rhythmical repetition that localizes one in the heart. It is the same with the rosary. One cannot “think” Hail Mary 50 or 100 times. There is no content to “think” after a few recitations! Chants and repetitive prayers are, in fact, a technology to help you stop thinking! And it works. [1]

Greek Orthodox author Frederica Mathewes-Green describes the practice of the Jesus Prayer, which is the simple repetition of the phrase: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” She writes:

God doesn’t need [reminders from us] to be merciful; [God] is merciful all the time, even when we don’t ask. But unless we make a habit of asking for mercy, we forget that we need it. . . .

At first the Prayer is just a string of words repeated, perhaps mechanically, in your mind. But with time it may “descend into the heart,” and those who experience this will be attentive to maintain it, continually “bringing the mind” (the nous, that is) “into the heart.” . . . This “descent into the heart” does include reference to the physical heart (or the general region of the heart within the chest). This blending of matter and spirit can be surprising to Western Christians, but it came naturally to the earliest Christians, who inherited from ancient Judaism an expectation that God is present throughout Creation. “Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the LORD” (Jeremiah 23:24).

“Prayer of the heart” occurs when the Prayer moves from merely mental repetition, forced along by your own effort, to an effortless and spontaneous self-repetition of the Prayer that emanates from the core of your being, your heart. You discover that the Holy Spirit has been there, praying, all along. Then heart and soul, body and mind, memory and will, the very breath of life itself, everything that you have and are unites in gratitude and joy, tuned like a violin string to the name of Jesus.

The simplicity of the Jesus Prayer makes it available to anyone at any time. The more we commit to it, the greater our heart’s capacity for God grows. Mathewes-Green continues:

The practice of the Prayer will initially take some serious self-discipline, but it gradually grows sweet, and then irresistible. The hope of protection from your own vicious or self-hating thoughts is alone a strong impetus to persevere. Day by day the healing advances, and continual immersion in Christ’s presence becomes your goal. One day you will find that the Prayer is starting up within you on its own, like a dearly loved melody.

[1] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Following the Mystics through the Narrow Gate: Seeing God in All Things, disc 8 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2010), CD, DVD, MP3 download.

Frederica Mathewes-Green, The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer That Tunes the Heart to God (Paraclete Press: 2009), 9, 18–19, 45.

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Image credit: Nicholas Kramer, Untitled (detail), 2021, photograph, Seattle. Used with permission.
Image inspiration: The pattern of the leaves and colors of this succulent invite us inward to its center. We yield to the call of its presence—so also with God.
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