The Search for the ‘Place of the Heart’: A Life-Giving Discipline
Our whole spiritual progress is a ‘search for the place of the heart’. Little by little, the conscious self frees itself from idols, strips away the dead layers and illusions, and ‘descends’, like Psyche holding a lighted lamp, into the dark crypt of the heart. Sanctuary, crypt and tomb become the bridal chamber; the ‘heart-spirit’ is remade in the fire of grace, it trembles with joy, it bursts into flames, the world and humanity are in it, and already Christ comes again in glory.
This life-giving discipline is that of the Beatitudes: self-denial, love in action, tears of grief and wonderment dissolving the heart of stone. Eros is not quenched – St John Climacus says we must love God with all our eros – but becomes intelligent and voluntary, is transformed into awakening, adoration and acceptance.
This taking to flight is accomplished, as the Fathers say, with the two wings of free will and grace. But our will develops naturally in unison with our growth in Christ, and cooperates in freeing us from death in its manifold forms, and allowing the divine life to penetrate us and restore our true nature.
In the Eastern Church, not surprisingly, the commonest spiritual technique is the repetition of the Name of Jesus in time with the breathing. The Name itself is a quasi-sacrament of the presence, indicating both the Word by whom everything exists and the Risen Lord by whom creation can be restored to holiness.
As the Name is repeated, ‘custody of the heart’ becomes easier; when a ‘thought’, in the Gospel sense, arises from the subconscious, it is intercepted by the Name before it can become an obsession, and stripped of any demonic associations; the energy thus released is transformed into a ‘clothing’ of the same Name. As an angler studies the surface of the water, the spiritual person keeps watch in the silence of the night, detecting thoughts and catching them.
Thus ‘the discipline of the soul renders it humble and cleanses it of the movements of the passions, transforming them into movements of contemplation’ (St Isaac the Syrian). Little by little the invocation pervades the unconscious, and continues even during sleep. The sleeper is visited by luminous, sometimes prophetic, dreams. There is actually less need for sleep. Deep sleep, the paradoxical state in which we are unconscious and at the same time energetically dreaming, is, as we know, essential for our well-being. But the invocation somehow turns it into a conscious state, a true dream by which the perception of beings and things is freed from devilish hallucinations to reveal the ‘forms of light’ hidden beneath.
If prayer is ‘wholehearted’, the moment comes when by repetition of the Name the heart is thoroughly set alight, prayer enters the very pulsing of the blood. Then worship becomes spontaneous, truly corresponding to the nature of humanity (and of the universe); a person no longer prays, but is prayer. ‘He is drunk with love as with wine,’ says St Isaac.
~Adapted from Olivier Clement, On Human Being: A Spiritual Anthropology