Thursday, May 23, 2013

Stump the Priest: The Prayer of the Heart

This is the first post in a new series I will be doing: Questions and answers about the Orthodox Faith. If you have a question, you can e-mail me.

Question: Often we read in the Fathers that, when we are practicing the Jesus Prayer, we should "let our mind descend into our heart." What does this mean and how do we do it? Maybe that's an easy one, but I've never understood it. 

Answer: I cannot speak to this question from personal experience, but I would recommend two books on the subject, and then will quote some excerpts from one of them, which in turn quotes from the other in answer to your question.

1. "On the Prayer of Jesus", by St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov).

2. "The Power of the Name", by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware).

Metropolitan Kallistos writes:

"The repeated Invocation of the Name, by making our prayer more unified, makes it at the same time more inward, more a part of ourselves — not something that we do at particular moments, but something that we are all the time; not an occasional act but a continuing state. Such praying becomes truly prayer of the whole person... In Orthodoxy, as in other traditions, prayer is commonly distinguished under three headings, which are to be regarded as interpenetrating levels rather than successive stages: prayer of the lips (oral prayer); prayer of the nous, the mind or intellect (mental prayer); prayer of the heart (or of the intellect in the heart). The Invocation of the Name begins, like any other prayer, as an oral prayer, in which words are spoken by the tongue through a deliberate effort of will. At the same time, once more by a deliberate effort, we concentrate our mind upon the meaning of what the tongue says. ...In more technical terms, this means that we are called to advance from the second level to the third: from "prayer of the intellect’ to ‘prayer of the intellect in heart’. ‘Heart’ in this context is to be understood in the Semitic and biblical rather than the modern Western sense, as signifying not just the emotions and affections but the totality of the human person. The heart is the primary organ of our identity, it is our innermost being, ‘the very deepest and truest self, not attained except through sacrifice, through death’. According to Boris Vysheslavtsev, it is ‘the centre not only of consciousness but of the unconscious, not only of the soul but of the spirit, not only of the spirit but of the body, not only of the comprehensible but of the incomprehensible; in one word, it is the absolute centre’. Interpreted in this way, the heart is far more a material organ in the body; the physical heart is an outward symbol of the boundless spiritual potentialities of the human creature, made in the image of God, called to attain his likeness.

To accomplish the journey inwards and to attain true prayer, it is required of us to enter into this ‘absolute centre’, that is ,to descend from the intellect into the heart. More exactly, we are called to descend not from but with the intellect. The aim is not just ‘prayer of the heart’ but ‘prayer of the intellect in the heart’, for our varied forms of understanding, including our reason, are a gift from God and are to be used in his service, not rejected. This ‘union of the intellect with the heart’ signifies the reintegration of our fallen and fragmented nature, our restoration to original wholeness. Prayer of the heart is a return to Paradise, a reversal of the Fall, a recovery of the status ante peccatum. This means that it is an eschatological reality, a pledge and anticipation of the Age to Come — something which, in this present age, is never fully and entirely realized.

... Orthodox writers in the last 150 years have in general laid little emphasis upon the physical techniques. The counsel given by Bishop Ignatii Brianchaninov (1807-67) is typical:

"We advise our beloved brethren not to try to establish this technique within them, if it does not reveal itself of its own accord. Many, wishing to learn it by experience, have damaged their lungs and gained nothing. The essence of the matter consists in the union of the mind with the heart during prayer, and this is achieved by the grace of God in its own time, determined by God. The breathing technique is fully replaced by the unhurried enunciation of the Prayer, by a short rest or pause at the end, each time it is said, by gentle and unhurried breathing, and by the enclosure of the mind in the words of the Prayer. By means of these aids we can easily attain to a certain degree of attention."

As regards the speed of recitation, Bishop Ignatii suggests:

"To say the Jesus Prayer a hundred time attentively and without haste, about half an hour is needed, but some ascetics require even longer. Do not say the prayers hurriedly, one immediately after another. Make a short pause after each prayer, and so help the mind to concentrate. Saying the Prayer without pauses distracts the mind. Breathe with care, gently and slowly.""