Prayer of the Heart in an Age of Technology and Distraction, Part 12
By Fr. Maximos (Constas)
It seems clear that the very practice of the Jesus Prayer reflects the Biblical teaching of the nature of personal names, and especially of the Divine Name. We all know that the name is closely linked to the person that bears it so that to invoke the name is to invoke the person who bears it. So it’s logical that when there is a change of life there is also a change of name—Abram becomes Abraham, Simon becomes Peter, Saul becomes Paul, and monks and nuns receive new names in monastic tonsure, because the name is so deeply tied to personal identity. A name is not arbitrary or random but conveys the essence as it were of the thing or person. When Moses asks God, “What is your name,” he’s not asking God, “What should I call you,” but he’s asking, “Who are you?” If one profanes the name he’s not harming a word, but rather the person who is named by it, and we all know about the name that observant Jews have for the name of God. The other day I talked about St. Symeon the New Theologian pressing his eyes to the page of Scripture after the reading because of this devotion to the word, which is a verbal icon.
There was a senior seminarian quiz before graduation: “What is the difference between the Gospel on the altar and the icon of Christ in the dome?” and the answer is: “location.” St. Theodore the Studite says this in his own way. One is a verbal representation of Christ and the other is a visual representation of Christ. Word and image, and acts, and gestures of ritual are all modes of revelation. 1 Phil. 2:9-11 says, Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name—and in the Greek it even means that which transcends every name—so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
How to say the Jesus Prayer? We are encouraged to begin by saying the Jesus Prayer aloud. This is what is called the prayer of the lips. Even for those who have been saying it for years it can help with concentration, although at other times it hurts concentration—it all depends on where you are—but it’s not only for beginners to say it aloud. Anybody who’s done this and repeated it aloud knows that it gets tiring. Very quickly and naturally what began as a prayer of the lips will on its own begin to repeat itself inaudibly in our minds. I think that’s a natural, human transition but God is also active here. There are so many other things we can’t remember, but the Jesus Prayer attaches itself to us more quickly and deeper, and it goes from the lips to something internalized. By God’s grace and our effort, the prayer will enter more deeply so that the prayer of the lips and mind will become the prayer of the heart in the core of our being. Those who practice this will realize right away because we’re so used to the scattered, fragmented life we will easily float away from the prayer without even realizing it. That happens all the time, and when it happens don’t get upset or angry—just gently recall your attention to the heart and continue to say the prayer without even thinking about what happened. Expect that this will happen and know it’s not a huge problem. Just bring yourself back to the work you were doing.
The first thing we need to do is return the attention to yourself, first to the mind and then to the heart to unite these divided aspects of ourselves—a reintegration of the self, in its core, in its root. Once we have entered the place of the heart and found that place of silence within ourselves, the idea is not to sit there in Buddhist nothingness, but from that place of the heart to say the Jesus Prayer with gentle but unwavering concentration as much as we’re able. Don’t pressure yourself or have expectations of praying for hours. Start small and see what happens, ideally under the direction of someone who is more advanced who can encourage and guide you.
In the Orthodox spiritual tradition and in the Bible the heart is the center and core of our being, and there’s a lot of biological information that backs this up. In the human fetus the cardiovascular system is the first to form and there are beating cardiac cells within the fetus twenty-one days after conception. That is long before the brain and the nervous system are formed, and neurologists tell us that the brain does not complete its own formation until at least three years after birth. The brain is a latecomer to the anthropological landscape. And cardiac cells are the only cells that don’t divide, which means those that start beating on day twenty-one will continue to beat for your entire life. People ask where miracles are today, and to me this is astonishing! We’re talking about things so small that they can’t be seen. Where does that life come? It’s very remarkable.
It seems very clear that the heart is the center of the biological organism. It’s like the seed out of which the rest of the person grows. I mentioned chapter ten of St. Nikodemos of On Guarding the Mind and the Heart where he says that the mind is always active, and some people even define the mind as activity. Sometimes we can’t sleep at night because the mind is racing. He says all of that activity, which in Greek presupposes a source, has its root in the heart, and in the Gospel we hear about all the things that come out of the heart—lust and pride, etc. The mind is an externalization of the heart in a sense. Its root and potentiality is in the heart and the actualization of it is what we experience in the heart. When we talk about descending with the mind into the heart all that means is to relax that activity of the mind and allow this energy that has unfolded to be en-folded back into its source. This is what it means for the mind and heart to come back together again.
There’s a great Byzantine tradition of the memorial services concerning the third, ninth, and fortieth days, that as the body is formed in the womb, from seed to fully-formed body, so it is undone or dissolved in the opposite direction at the moment of death. They believed that the last thing to be formed in the body is the first thing to go, and that is the face. The fullness of the definition of the face is the last thing to be formed which means it’s the first thing to dissolve. At the moment of death, you immediately see the blood rush from the person’s face and his features change, and then the rest of the body subsequently. On the third, ninth, and fortieth days key parts of the body break down as if the soul is somehow uncoiling itself. On the fortieth day, the last thing to go is the heart. This is a pious tradition, but it’s not the reason for the memorial services, although it’s very intriguing and consistent with the other things I’ve been saying. Not only is the heart the natural core of the person, it’s also the super-natural center of the person. When I was a seminary student you couldn’t use the world “supernatural” because it’s “scholastic.” It’s like, if the Catholics say it then we can’t say it, but to define yourself in a negative dialectic is what the Protestants do. If you read the fathers of the Church and the Byzantine ecclesiastical writers, they use the words “physikon” and “hyperphysikon.” Maybe they mean something different by it but the words themselves are perfectly Orthodox.
So the heart is also a supernatural center, because that is where the seed of the Holy Spirit is implanted within us. Where else would it go? It’s also a kind of para-natural center, because the heart is also the place where all the negative things arise from, too. To discover one’s heart is an act of reintegration, and when the heart and mind are reunited it’s an experience of tremendous spiritual joy and delight. The image that St. John Climacus uses is that it’s like a man returning home after a long journey and embracing his wife and children. We see often on the news about soldiers returning home and embracing their wives and children and it’s so tremendously powerful to see. Imagine that as an image of what takes place when all your fragmented and dispersed thoughts and wandering mind are reconnected to the deeper part of yourself.
~ “Prayer of the Heart in an Age of Technology and Distraction” delivered by Fr. Maximos (Constas) on Feb. 2014 to the clergy of diocese of LA and the West of Antiochian of N. America at the invitation of His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph. The audio version of this lecture first appeared on Patristic Nectar Publications, and is published here by permission.
Fr. Maximos is the presidential research scholar at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of theology in Brookline, MA. He is an Athonite monk, one-time professor at Harvard Divinity School, accomplished author and translator and lectures internationally in both academic and parochial venues.