JESUS PRAYER OF THE HEART
The following is an exerpt from the autobiography Memory Walk in the Light by Donald James Giacobbe:
It is fitting that if someone has extra food, he should share from his abundance. However, food is more than just physical. Although the physical needs must be met, it is spiritual food for which most people are hungry, whether they are aware of this need or have suppressed it. If a person has found a source of spiritual food that could feed those who are hungry, he is obligated to reveal such a source. Here, I would like to reveal a source of spiritual food that is not well known, but which is abundantly able to feed all those who partake of it. This spiritual food is referred to in the following quotation:
But little by little, after a fairly short time I was able to picture my heart and to note its movement, and further with the help of my breathing I could put into it and draw from it the Prayer of Jesus in the manner taught by the saints Gregory of Sinai, Callistus, and Ignatius. When drawing the air in I looked in spirit into my heart and said, “Lord Jesus Christ,” and when breathing out again, I said, “Have mercy on me.” I did this at first for an hour at a time, then for two hours, then for as long as I could, and in the end almost all day long….
When about three weeks had passed I felt a pain in my heart, and then a most delightful warmth, as well as consolation and peace. This aroused me still more and spurred me on more and more to give great care to the saying of the Prayer so that all my thoughts were taken up with it and I felt a very great joy. From this time I began to have, from time to time, a number of different feelings in my heart and mind. Sometimes my heart would feel as though it was bubbling with joy—such lightness, freedom and consolation was in it. Sometimes I felt a burning love for Jesus Christ and for all God’s creatures. Sometimes my eyes brimmed over with tears of thankfulness to God…1
This quotation comes from a book written many years ago by an unknown Christian author. Entitled The Way of a Pilgrim, it is a wonderfully simple and beautiful story of the adventures of a man who wandered through Russia in the nineteenth century. At a time when everything seemed to be going wrong for him in his life, he decided to become a spiritual seeker. He didn’t know how to pray effectively, so he went to an old monk and asked him. The wise monk gave him the Prayer of the Heart to repeat as his spiritual food. The long form of the prayer is, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The Jesus Prayer, as it is called, can be employed in any one of several shorter forms, such as:
Christ, have mercy on
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
I describe the Jesus Prayer as spiritual food because I was experiencing its nourishment within myself due to my own practice. I wanted to teach others how to open themselves up to this same divine blessing. There was a good turnout for these Jesus Prayer classes when I taught them at the Yoga Center. Many participants were more interested in yoga than Christianity and came out of curiosity more than anything else. Some had been turned off by traditional Christianity, but remained open to experiencing the Universal Christ that is not limited to any one religion. One time a student asked me, “Why do you personally use the Jesus Prayer?”
I answered with a question of my own, “If you were to go on a safari in Africa would you go alone?”
“No, I’d take a guide.”
“There’s your answer!” I said. “Yoga philosophy says that we can take four kinds of safaris into four states of consciousness. You and I are now on the safari into the conscious state in the world of form. Tonight when we go to bed, we will enter the second safari, which is dream state of sleep, and also the third safari, which is deep dreamless sleep. And finally there is the safari into superconsciousness. We call upon the Name of Jesus Christ in our conscious waking state, but in doing so we are inviting Him to come with us into all of our states of consciousness. Not only that, but with inviting Him we are also welcoming the Holy Spirit to be another safari guide, along with Jesus. However, you do not have to be convinced of the benefits of the Jesus Prayer before practicing it. You can simply repeat the Divine Name with an inner feeling of openness. The true value of the Jesus Prayer will be revealed to you as you use it.”
For inspirational purposes, I liked to quote passages from the Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, as for example this one:
And so every hour and every moment let us zealously guard our heart from thoughts obscuring the mirror of the soul, which should contain, drawn and imprinted on it, only the radiant image of Jesus Christ, Who is the wisdom and the power of God the Father. Let us constantly seek the kingdom of heaven in the heart, and we are sure mysteriously to find within ourselves the seed, the pearl, the drink and all else, if we cleanse the eye of the mind. This is why our Lord Jesus Christ said: “The kingdom of God is within you,” meaning by this the Deity dwelling in the heart.2
Although at the Yoga Center I was practicing the Jesus Prayer in the form of an unceasing prayer as much as possible throughout the day—as is advised in the quote above—in my teaching I advocated a more moderate approach to repeating the Divine Name because this is more appropriate for most seekers. Instead of constant prayer I suggested calling upon the Name of Jesus Christ as part of your daily routine or whenever you’re inspired to do so. For example, you can repeat the Jesus Prayer especially upon waking in the morning and just before going to sleep at night, or simply during mundane activities such as riding in a car, brushing your teeth, or even sitting on the toilet. It is especially suited to doing repetitive exercises or doing yoga postures and breathing practices. But to instill the Jesus Prayer within your mind at a deep level I recommended to my students the setting aside of regular meditation times every day.
Eastern methods of attunement include body awareness as a means of making meditation methods more effective. However, Western forms of attunement do not usually include focusing on body awareness, so today the West has made the Jesus Prayer into an entirely mental practice, eliminating the holding of the awareness in the heart. But it is the focusing on the heart that gives this method its ability to penetrate deep within and enkindle devotion. It has far less effect if performed only in the mind.
Focusing the mind is important, but meditation is not just a mental technique. It’s really about developing and deepening your relationship with God by opening to His presence within. During your conversations in close relationships, perhaps you have noticed that when you spoke from your heart, you were able to really connect with others in a more deep and meaningful way than if you had spoken just with your head. Similarly when you have communion with the divine within in meditation, you can connect best by including your heart in the process. Many spiritual traditions consider the heart to be the midpoint between heaven and earth where we in the human condition can most easily find a balance of body, mind, and spirit, bringing wholeness and healing. So in my teaching at the Yoga Center I explained the key factor of holding the awareness in the heart, thus returning to the version of the Prayer of the Heart that flourished in the Eastern Orthodox Churches of Greece and Russia.
St John Chrysostom described how a Christian should practice the Prayer of the Heart by saying: “He should always live with the name of the Lord Jesus, so that the heart absorbs the Lord and the Lord the heart, and the two become one.”3 He also said, “Do not estrange your heart from God, but abide in Him and always guard your heart by remembering our Lord Jesus Christ, until the name of the Lord becomes rooted in the heart and it ceases to think of anything else. May Christ be glorified in you.”4
Following the advice of the early Fathers of the Church, I provided instructions on how to hold the attention of the mind in the heart. Through yoga I was well aware of the benefits of learning to calm the breathing in order to calm the mind, which was well known by the early Christian monks. For example, St. John of the Ladder said, “May the memory of Jesus combine with your breathing; then will you understand the use of silence.”5 Hesychius said, “…let the Jesus prayer cleave to your breath—and in a few days you will see it in practice.”6 Monks Callistus and Ignatius together wrote instructions for monks on how to practice the Prayer of the Heart: “You know, brother, how we breathe: we breathe the air in and out. On this is based the life of the body and on this depends its warmth. So, sitting down in your cell, collect your mind, lead it into the path of the breath along which the air enters in, constrain it to enter the heart together with the inhaled air, and keep it there.”7 I recommended repeating the first half of the Jesus Prayer on the inhalation and the second half on the exhalation, while simply observing the breathing without manipulating it in any way. This will calm the breathing and result in calming the mind.
Of course, this would require an affirmation of at least two syllables. In terms of choosing the word or words to use, I recommended using a very short version of the Jesus Prayer because this helps to focus the mind. The most essential element is including the Divine Name of Jesus Christ in some form, and it is this that makes it the Jesus Prayer. Any of the examples of the wording of the Jesus Prayer mentioned above could be used, but I usually recommended repeating the Name of “Jesus” or “Jesus Christ” or “Christ” perhaps with another word, such as “love,” “light,” or “peace.” I did not recommend using the longest form of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I did not want to emphasize the idea of the seeker being an unworthy sinner. For this reason I did not encourage the repeating of the word “mercy,” unless there was an understanding that asking for mercy is just an invitation for becoming aware of God’s ever-abiding Love. However, instead of using the word “mercy,” I felt combining the Divine Name with the word “love” was a better way to open the heart to God’s Embrace.
In addition to focusing on the words in coordination with the breathing, it is recommended to maintain the awareness in the heart area. For most people the best way to do this is to just hold the attention of the mind in the location of the physical heart or in the middle of the chest, considered in yoga philosophy to be the heart center. Sometimes a meditator may feel a sensation of energy or a slight pressure without pain in the heart area, which is quite normal. However, in rare instances, when focusing on the physical heart, a meditator may experience a noticeable pain in the heart or the heart may beat faster than normal, and if this happens, discontinue your meditation session. As an alternative, you can meditate holding the awareness in the center of the chest, but if this problem recurs, discontinue focusing in the chest area altogether. Even without holding the attention in the heart area, just coordinating the Jesus Prayer with the natural breathing can be a very effective means of using body awareness to calm the mind for meditation.
Although I wanted to teach the techniques advocated by the early Christian monks, my primary purpose was to impart their overall attitude. Consequently, I emphasized that focusing on spiritual intent in the practice of the Jesus Prayer was much more important than mastering the correct techniques. Naturally a certain amount of effort would be required to make the Prayer of the Heart effective, but I taught that the real secret of this method is in opening up to receive the love and divine grace that God would so willingly give every seeker.
Perhaps you are an experienced meditator, but what if you haven’t meditated before and would like to give the Prayer of the Heart a try? Or what if you have already tried to meditate and didn’t feel you were well suited to this practice? Let’s compare learning how to meditate with learning how to swim in the ocean. The first time you try to swim you will splash around and struggle just to keep your head above water. You could give up right then, convinced that swimming is too difficult for you. However, if you persist with many more days of applying yourself, you will eventually find that you can swim. Then when you gain confidence in your ability to swim, you can even learn to let go and relax, becoming so calm in the water that you can float and become aware that the whole ocean is surrounding you, lifting you up, and sustaining you with its buoyancy.
Similarly after your initial attempt at meditation you will probably discover just how unruly the mind is. When you try to focus on the one thought of the Jesus Prayer in meditation, you will undoubtedly find that your peace of mind is drowned out by waves of distracting thoughts. You could give up after this first attempt, convinced that you don’t have the ability to meditate. But if you want to succeed, you will have to be persistent in your practice. The mind is accustomed to multiplying its thoughts, and it takes time to reorient the mind toward limiting thoughts in the direction of simplicity. It requires repeatedly redirecting the mind in daily meditation to achieve this simplicity of mind. If you are determined and consistent in your practice, you will learn how to calm the mind and open yourself to inner peace. With further practice eventually you can learn how to relax and to “float” in a spiritual sense—meaning rest in the Eternal Ocean of the divine presence that is always gracefully surrounding you, lifting you up, and sustaining you with light and love.
Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues his Way,
from the Russian by R.M. French, (New York: Seabury Press, 1972), pp. 40-41. Originally
published by the Seabury
Press; rights owned by Winston Press, Inc., Minneapolis, MN.
2. E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, translators, Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, translated from the Russian text, “Dobrotolubiye,” (London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1971, 1975) p. 333 (also reprinted in 1992).
3. Ibid, p. 194
7. Ibid, p. 192