Friday, 30 November 2012

Praying the Jesus Prayer from and with the heart

It was the great Puritan divine John Bunyan who once said "Better your heart without words than your words without heart". I have often thought about those words as I pray because they remind me that I need to pray the prayers from my heart rather than merely recite them or treat them as hurdles to jump in order to complete the race.Which is why I think one of the hidden dangers in repetitive prayer like the Jesus Prayer is the danger of disconnection. saying the words without owning them or making them yours. There is the need to take them down into your heart so that they become the heart's prayer rather than merely the head's or rather the mouth's.

I don't know if this is what the Fathers mean in their teaching about keeping the mind in the heart at all times? Here is what St. Ignatius Brianchaninov writes:  “The words of the prayer ought to be said without the least hurry, even lingering, so that the mind can lock itself into each word…”

Here is what one person teaches about saying - or rather - praying the prayer:
Slowly say,
Lord …. Jesus Christ …. Son of God …. Have Mercy …. on Me …. a Sinner.
Try to keep your mind from escaping from its total concentration on the words. It will try just like a cornered or caged wild animal continually seeks to find a way out. The body is not accustomed to be under the control of the soul. When you reach the end of the prayer immediately begin to say it again. Make it like a continuous chain. The spacing of the words must fit your own make-up. Some will want to go very slow and others a little faster. The aim, with awe of God and contrition, is to concentrate your mind on the words and let them drop into your heart like drops of water slowly dripping from a leaky faucet.. Let the prayer resonate in your ears and in the area of your heart, savor each word with love, becoming totally absorbed in the words. You need to feel the words being absorbed within. Feel a contriteness in your heart because of your missing the make that God has set for you by creating you in His image. Feel the unconditional love of His unlimited mercy. If you go too fast you lose this feeling. If you go too slow you lose the content of the prayer. Say it slowly and deliberately. You do not want to rush as you are engaged in something important and potentially dangerous. You need to harness the wildness of your biological brain. Its like an automobile racing down the road at 80 miles per hour and is much more difficult to control than one cruising at twenty-five. Slow it down. Operate at the twenty-five miles per hour speed when you start - take it slow and deliberately finding the pace that bests suits you so the prayer can penetrate the inner depths of your heart in silence.

Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov says, “at first, the words should be pronounced with extreme unhurriedness so that the mind may have time to enter the words as forms… One must train oneself to it as if one were reading syllables” (On the Prayer of Jesus, p 56). St. John of the Ladder counsels that the mind should be locked into the words of the prayer and should be forced back each time it departs from it (Step XXVIII, ch. 17). Do not be disturbed if the words do not drop smoothly and are interrupted by thoughts, images, and feelings in the beginning. It takes some effort to tame the mind that is controlled by the brain. Eventually, the words will drop effortlessly into your heart. You need to focus intently and concentrate on the prayer. Much effort is required in the beginning.
(See here at

The above website continues:
Avoid any association with words of the prayer. Don’t try to visualize the human person of Jesus or any other image. Don’t try and take a diversionary path by letting your mind go into the life of Jesus or any theological questions. Don’t reflect on the details of your sinfulness or try to solve any of your problems. Simply hold in your heart, with total humility, the awe of God and a feeling of contriteness. Keeping focused on the words of the prayer is very important because the mind can very quickly diverge from them to mundane day-to-day activities and when this happens you have lost your focus on God. If this happens, you are back in your own sea of worldly cares and distracted from your prayer. You will most assuredly be distracted this way during prayer. Concentrate on God who lives in the depths of your heart as Saint Theophan says,

“The essential part is to dwell in God, and this walking before God means that you live with the conviction ever before your consciousness that God is in you, as He is in everything: you live in the firm assurance that He sees all that is within you, knowing you better than you know yourself. This awareness of the eye of God looking at your inner being must not be accompanied by any visual concept, but must be confined to a simple conviction or feeling.” (Art of Prayer, p 100)

After commenting about the danger of distractions and how to deal with them the writer continues:
Our attention must be concentrated on the heart and not on the brain. You should feel the action of the Jesus Prayer on your heart. You will feel a warmth. It is important to realize that we love God first with our hearts and then with our mind. Our present condition has this reversed. This is what we are trying to correct through our practice of the prayer. We aim to open our heart and feel the sting of our repentance. You may feel some soreness initially around the heart. Don’t mind this just keep your attention focused on the prayer. There are some people who have thought they have been afflicted with heart disease and go visit doctors who can find nothing wrong. It is a pain similar to those you have when exercising after a period of no exercise. It is the pain of grace you are feeling. (A Night in the Desert of the Holy Mountain, pp 84-86)

All this takes time and so much patience is called for. You don't rush building a wall otherwise it will not bear the weight of the roof. With prayer it is no different. This is what the above writer says:
Remember, this is a process and you will go through stages. Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov reminds us that our simple attentive beginnings lead us to the temple of the heart.

It is one thing to pray with attention with the participation of the heart; it is another thing to descend with the mind into the temple of the heart and from there to offer mystical prayer filled with divine grace and power. The second is a result of the first. The attention of the mind during prayer draws the heart into sympathy. With the strengthening of the attention, sympathy of heart and mind is turned into union of heart and mind. Finally, when the attention makes the prayer its own, the mind descends into the heart for the most profound and sacred service of prayer. All this is accomplished under the guidance of the grace of God. It is harmful to strive for the second before acquiring the first. (On the Prayer of Jesus, p 48)

He ends by offering counsel on how long to pray
Be sure to consult your spiritual Father on the amount of time you should devote to the Jesus prayer. As a general rule you should repeat it for a minimum of 15 minutes at any one prayer session. Any less will not help you develop the attention needed for prayer of the heart. You should then fairly quickly work up to a period of thirty minutes. You will need to measure your time to make sure you fulfill your desired time. One way is with a clock. Another way is to use a prayer rope. A prayer rope has 50 or 100 knots typically. Holding it between your thumb and index finger you can index one knot at a time each time you complete one complete recitation of the Jesus prayer.

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