Prayer of the Heart
This post first appeared at Contemplative Journal in April 2015.
Why don’t Christians talk more about “enlightenment”? It’s not a bad question, and the easy answer might be to think that Christianity is simply an incomplete path, not pointing its followers to the highest heights or deepest depths of spiritual practice and realization. And for much of the contemporary, fragmented Christian landscape this might be true. But having spent a number of years exploring and working in the contours of the Christian mystical tradition, I suspect there’s actually a different answer.
The early desert Christians—the first to wander off into the wilderness to form alternative communities of spiritual practice—spoke not so much about “enlightenment” as they did “drawing the mind into the heart” or “seeing with the eye of the heart.” It’s a way of talking about spiritual awakening that conveys a slightly different feeling tone from what we’re accustomed to in paths oriented around “enlightenment” and “mindfulness.” The difference is perhaps best captured in the growing use of the term “heartfulness” to describe what folks are actually up to in Christian contemplative practice. Christianity cultivates, first and foremost, a heart-centered awakening. Of course, this isn’t to say that a path like Buddhism is “without heart”—far from it. But it does note an important difference in the initial framing that leads to a different way of working the path’s unfolding.
Another keyword to take note of in the Christian journey of awakening is humility, and you’ll encounter it again and again in the writings of the early Christian contemplatives and the lineages that flow to us from them. And here, most of all, I think we begin to find the reason (we might even say the “skillful means”) for not orienting Christian awakening around a goal of “enlightenment.” The risk is named in the phrasing—enlightenment is all too easily imagined as a goal or a possession to be obtained. And so the ingenious move of the Christian path was to focus on cultivating the qualities of the heart that allow for a stable awakening, and not on the awakening itself.
A model focused on “becoming enlightened” runs the risk of sending the practitioner off on high-state chases, running after “experiences” of oneness. As Ken Wilber has helpfully pointed out, an experience or glimpse of a high spiritual state is not the same thing as a grounded, spiritual stage, more-or-less stabilized and constant in one’s being. If the heart has not been gradually prepared to hold, ground, and stabilize these experiences, they do little good, and can in fact be harmful. The ego is all too ready to latch onto them as possessions, and develop a spiritual arrogance in relation to “its” enlightenment. The Christian way, on the other hand, tends to focus not so much on the goal as it does the process, leading one quietly and almost unexpectedly into awakening.
St. Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894), a Russian Orthodox monk in this particular lineage of transformation, writes in words typical of the tradition: “What you must seek in prayer is to establish in the heart a quiet but warm and constant feeling towards God, not expecting ecstasy or any extraordinary state.” These states may come, he goes on to say, and when they do should be accepted with gratitude—but the practitioner is “always to descend from these heights to humility and quietness of feeling towards the Lord.” The goal is not a high-state realization, but rather the cultivation of a simple and steady warmth and attentiveness in the heart; tended well, this gentle fire will do the necessary work of awakening for you. The mantra becomes: always descend.
As a practitioner daily strives to draw the mind into the heart, slowly, slowly the eye of the heart begins to open, moving one into the place of unitive seeing. The energies of humility, gentleness, mercy, and love, subtly, slowly, and almost unknowingly rework the perceptual field, moving you out of the dualistic mind and into the oneness of the awakened heart. The brilliance of this approach is precisely in its relational, rather than goal-oriented, process. As one “gets to know” the qualities of the heart by repeatedly drawing the mind into their energy and influence, they gradually become your primary vibration. As the heart is readied by these energies, it becomes capable of quietly stabilizing higher and higher states of spiritual realization, without the seeker ever having to go looking for them.
Without fail, the Christians who write about the “prayer of the heart” speak of warmth, quiet, and sweetness as its signature essence. To get to know it, you simply turn in its direction. You might try touching this dimension of yourself right now by imagining breathing through your heart. Use your breath as an anchor to hold your awareness in the center of your chest, rather than in the busy mental faculties where we usually stake our sense of self. Sit with this for a few minutes. Do you begin to feel the warmth and quiet that Christianity has traditionally associated with this center? St. Theophan writes: “When attention descends into the heart, it attracts all the powers of the soul and body into one point there. 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. This sensation, faint at the beginning, becomes gradually stronger, firmer, deeper.”
Traditionally, the phrase “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” (commonly known as “the Jesus Prayer”) is used as an anchor for this work. You may want to experiment with adding the first half of the phrase to your in-breath and the second to your out-breath. You might also experiment with other traditional phrases or lines from Scripture (“Hail Mary, full of grace” or “Be still and know that I am God” are among the many possibilities). The important thing is your intention: the phrase is used to anchor your awareness in the heart. Significantly, the devotional edge a prayer phrase may bring to this practice can help keep the quality of humility in play. Nevertheless, as the prayer deepens, words may fall away entirely. Words or no words, if your intention is pure, the prayer will do its work.
This type of prayer beautifully links the devotional and the unitive, working right at the threshold where lover and Beloved dance between twoness and oneness. There’s not an either/or here: no need to fear losing your individuality in oneness, and no need to cling to your individuality. The infinite tenderness you meet in the heart is at the same time the infinite Love that moment to moment holds you into being—and your own infinite love and tenderness. As you get to know this love by repeatedly drawing your mind into the vibration of the heart, you also—slowly, slowly—get to become it. This is the way Christians have walked the path of human maturing for two millennia.
At the same time, the Christian spiritual landscape has in many ways devolved in recent centuries. We’ve forgotten that we ever walked a path of awakening. The encounter in recent years with other contemplative traditions, however, has helped Christianity begin to rediscover and recover its own unique contributions to the paths of human maturing. This simple “prayer of the heart” is one such contribution. The fruit of this process is often those quiet, unassuming saints whose own heart-perception is quietly reading and living from the oneness behind the surface of experience. They’ve walked their way there slowly, and likely won’t speak to you about enlightenment—but you’ll know them by the quality of love and sweetness with which they meet you, and the gentle fire that burns in their heart and eyes.
Igumen Chariton of Valamo,The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology (New York: Faber & Faber, Inc., 1966), 131.
Igumen Chariton of Valamo,The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology (New York: Faber & Faber, Inc., 1966), 94.