PRAYER OF THE HEART

Jesus prayerprayer of the heartThe “Jesus Prayer”, also known as the “Prayer of the Heart” dates from the earliest centuries of Christian history. However, it was little known in the West until the publication around 1925 of The Way of a Pilgrim. The nineteenth century Russian pilgrim who authored this book wrote about his discovery of the secret of uninterrupted prayer. As he wandered on his pilgrim route, he recited a form of the “Jesus Prayer” in his heart many thousands of times each day. The words he used were: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”.

 

Other ancient versions of the Jesus Prayer include, “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me”, or simply the name “Jesus”. Commenting on the Jesus Prayer, The 19th - century Russian Orthodox saint, Theophan the Recluse (1815  - 1894) recommends that, while praying it, one should bring one's attention into the heart: “In order to keep the mind on one thing by means of a short prayer, it is necessary to preserve attention and so lead it into the heart; for so long as the mind remains in the head, where thoughts jostle one another, it has no time to concentrate on one thing. But when attention descends into the heart, it attracts all the powers of the soul and body into one point there.”

 

Bringing your attention into the heart means focusing on the heart centre. This is not the heart organ itself, but the small zone in the centre of the chest towards which you instinctively point when you say “me”. This “me” centre becomes the focus of attention in the “prayer of the heart”. In this form of prayer you keep your attention on your prayer word within the heart (or “me”) centre. Then you will discover a new sensation in this centre. As Theophan puts it: “This concentration of all human life in one place is immediately reflected in the heart by a special sensation that is the beginning of future warmth.” Paying attention to the varying moods of this sensation will help you bring your awareness out of your head and into your body.  It will also facilitate perseverance with your prayer word.

The exercise that follows puts the above into practice. However, it has an additional feature in that it also focuses on the breath as it moves through the heart centre.

PRAYER WORD, BREATH AND HEART CENTRE

1. Sit comfortably with your back upright. Become aware of your body and of being breathed.

2. Bring your awareness to your heart centre, that small zone in the centre of your chest that you instinctively point to when you say “me”.

3. Become aware of the sensations in the heart centre. What word might you use to describe them: “soft”, “hard”, “warm”, “cold”, “tender”, “ticklish”, or what?

4. Notice how the breath, as it comes in and goes out, always passes through the heart centre. As it does so, take note of any changes of feeling in the heart centre. What word would best describe the new feeling?

5. Keep your awareness on the breath as it flows through the heart centre. Hear it gently murmur your prayer word.

6. For the remainder of your meditation just keep your awareness within the heart centre, on the flowing breath there, and on your prayer word.

7. Each time you find your mind wandering, gently bring it back to the heart centre, the breath and the prayer word - again and again, right to the end of your meditation. 

Those who practise this exercise find that they are less prone to being distracted. It tends to bring about a sense of peace and joy in the heart. As one person put it: “I had been feeling a heaviness in my centre and focusing on it during that exercise really helped me”

The more you practice meditation with your prayer word, the more it will become part of you. Your word will arise in your consciousness, not just at the times of meditation, but at quiet moments during the day. At times of intense busy-ness and pressure you can turn to it as an antidote to information overload. As you continue to meditate faithfully with your prayer word, the word will be your constant companion and friend. You will begin to have the sense that it is not so much that you are carrying it, but that it is the prayer word, or rather, the One you invoke through the prayer word, who carries you.