Prayer of the Heart by Henri Nouwen
The following passages are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Reaching Out,” published in 1975:
1. Prayer is often considered a weakness, a support system, which is used when we can no longer help ourselves. But this is only true when the God of our prayer is created in our own image and adapted to our own needs and concerns. When, however, prayer makes us reach out to God, not on our own but on His terms, then prayer pulls us away from self-preoccupations, encourages us to leave familiar ground, and challenges us to enter into a new world which cannot be contained within the narrow boundaries of our mind or heart. Prayer, therefore, is a great adventure because the God with whom we enter into a new relationship is greater than we are and defies all our calculations and predictions. The movement from illusion to prayer is hard to make since it leads us from false certainties to true uncertainties, from an easy support system to a risky surrender, and from the many “safe” gods to the God whose love has no limits. (pg 126)
2. The Search for the Fitting Way
Just as there are many ways to be hospitable, there are many ways to pray. When we are serious about prayer and no longer consider it one of the many things people do in their life but, rather, the basic receptive attitude out of which all of life can receive new vitality, we will, sooner or later, raise the question: “What is my way to pray, what is prayer of the heart?” Just as artists search for the style that is most their own, so people who pray search for the prayer of their heart. What is most profound in life, and therefore most dear to us, always needs to be properly protected as well as expressed. It, therefore, is not surprising that prayer is often surrounded by carefully prescribed gestures and words, by detailed rituals and elaborate ceremonies.
A visit to a Trappist monastery can help us realise how those who have made themselves free for a life exclusively dedicated to prayer subject themselves to a very strict discipline. The Trappist monk lives his whole life, day and night, in obedience to St. Benedict’s rule, the holy rule, which is safe-guarded and interpreted with utmost consideration and discretion by the Abbot, the spiritual ruler of the community. The holy rule is for the prayer life of a Trappist monk like a golden setting for a precious stone. The rule makes the real beauty of prayer visible and allows it to be fully enjoyed. Neglect of the rule means neglect of prayer. The monk who wants to make his whole life, whatever he does, a continuing prayer knows that this is only possible in the context of a very concrete daily schedule that supports him in the realisation of his goal. Therefore, we find that in a Trappist monastery, the celebration of the Eucharist, the communal psalmody, the individual meditation, study and manual work, eating and sleeping are all subject to careful regulation and conscientious observance. Anyone who participates in such a life, if only for a few days, can sense the great mystery of prayer that is hidden, as well as visible, in the deep rhythm of the contemplative day.
This little excursion to the Trappists serves to illustrate the fact that no one who seriously wants to live a life of prayer can persevere in that desire and realise it to some degree without a very concrete way. It may be necessary to make many changes in direction and to explore new ways as life develops, but without any way we won’t arrive anywhere.
To come to an answer to the personal question: “What is the prayer of the heart?” we first of all have to know how to find this most personal prayer. Where do we look, what do we do, to whom do we go in order to discover how we as individual human beings—with our own history, our own milieu, our own character, our own insights and our own freedom to act—are called to enter into intimacy with God? The question about the prayer of our heart is, in fact, the question about our own most personal vocation.
Words, Silence and a Guide
It seems possible to establish a few guidelines. A careful look at the lives of people for whom prayer was indeed “the only thing needed” (see Luke 10:42) shows that three “rules” are always observed:
a contemplative reading of the word of God,
a silence listening to the voice of God,
and a trusting obedience to a spiritual guide.
Without the Bible, without silence time and without someone to direct us, finding our own way to God is very hard and practically impossible.
In the first place, we have to pay careful attention to the word of God as it is written in the Holy Scriptures. St Augustine was converted when he responded to the words of a child saying: “take and read, take and read.” When he took the Bible and started reading the pages on which he opened it, he felt that the words he read were directly spoken to him.
To take the Holy Scriptures and read them is the first thing we have to do to open ourselves to God’s call. Reading the Scriptures is not as easy as it seems since in our academic world we tend to make anything and everything we read subject to analysis and discussion. But the word of God should lead us first of all to contemplation and meditation. Instead of taking the words apart, we should bring them together in our innermost being; instead of wondering if we agree or disagree, we should wonder which words are directly spoken to us and connect directly with our most personal story. Instead of thinking about the words as potential subjects for an interesting dialogue or paper, we should be willing to let them penetrate into the most hidden corner of our heart, even to those places where no other word has yet found entrance. Then and only then can the word bear fruit as seed sown in rich soil. Only then can we really “hear and understand” (Matthew 13:23).
Secondly, we simply need quiet time in the presence of God. Although we want to make all our time, time for God, we will never succeed if we do not reserve a minute, an hour, a morning, a day, a week, a month, or whatever period of time for God and Him alone. This ask for much discipline and risk taking because we always seem to have something more urgent to do and “just sitting there” and “doing nothing” often disturbs us more than it helps. But there is no way around this. Being useless and silent in the presence of our God belongs to the core of all prayer. In the beginning we often hear our own unruly inner noises more loudly than God’s voice. This is at times very hard to tolerate. But slowly, very slowly, we discover that the silent time makes us quiet and deepens our awareness of ourselves and God. Then, very soon, we start missing these moments when we are deprived of them, and before we are fully aware of it an inner momentum has developed that draws us more and more into silence and closer to that still point where God speaks to us.
Contemplative reading of the Holy Scriptures and silent time in the presence of God belong closely together. The word of God draws us into silence; silence makes us attentive to God’s word. The word of God penetrates through the thick of human verbosity to the silent center of our heart; silence opens in us the space where the word can be heard. Without reading the word, silence becomes stale, and without silence, the word loses its re-creative power. The word leads to silence and silence to the word. The word is born in silence, and silence is the deepest response to the word.
But word and silence both need guidance. How do we know that we are not deluding ourselves, that we are not selecting those words that best fit our passions, that we are not just listening to the voice of our own imagination? Many have quoted the scriptures and many have heard voices and seen visions in silence, but only few have found their way to God. Who can be the judge in his own case? Who can determine if his feelings and insights are leading him in the right direction? Our God is greater than our own heart and mind, and too easily we are tempted to make our heart’s desires and our mind’s speculations into the will of God. Therefore, we need a guide, a director, a counsellor, who helps us to distinguish between the voice of God and all the other voices coming from our own confusion or from the dark powers far beyond our control. We need someone who encourages us when we are tempted to give it all up, to forget it all, to just walk away in despair. We need someone who discourages us when we move too rashly in unclear directions or hurry proudly to a nebulous goal. We need someone who can suggest to us when to read and when to be silent, which words to reflect upon and what to do when silence creates much fear and little peace.
The first and nearly spontaneous reaction to the idea of a spiritual guide is: ”Spiritual guides are hard to find.” This might be true, but at least part of the reason for this lack of spiritual guides is that we ourselves do not appeal to our fellow human beings in such a way as to invite them to become our spiritual leaders. If there were no students constantly asking for good teachers, there would be no good teachers. The same is true for spiritual guides. There are many men and women with great spiritual sensitivity whose talents remain dormant because we do not make an appeal to them. Many would, in fact, become wise and holy for our sake if we would invite them to assist us in our search for the prayer of our heart. A spiritual director does not necessary have to be more intelligent or more experienced than we are. It is important that he or she accepts our invitation to lead us closer to God and enters with us into the scriptures and the silence where God speaks to both of us. When we really want to live a life of prayer and seriously ask ourselves what the prayer of our heart may be, we also will be able to express the type of guidance we need and find that someone is waiting to be asked. Often we will discover that those whom we ask for help will indeed receive the gift to help us and grow with us toward prayer.
Thus, the Bible, silence and a spiritual director are three important guides in our search for our most personal way to enter into an intimate relationship with God. When we contemplate the scriptures continuously, set some time aside to be silent in the presence of our God and are willing to submit our experiences with word and silence to a spiritual guide, we can keep ourselves from developing new illusions and open the way to the prayer of our heart.
The Wisdom of History
Although practically all Christians who want to reach out to their God with faithful perseverance will look at some point in their life for someone who can be their guide, spiritual guidance is not limited to the one-to-one relationship. The spiritual wisdom of many Christians, who in the course of history have dedicated their lives to prayer, is preserved and relived in the different traditions, life styles or spiritualities that remain visible in contemporary Christianity. In fact, our first and most influential guides are often the prayer customs, styles of worship and modes of speaking about God that pervade our different milieux. Each spiritual milieu has its own emphasis. Here silence is stressed, there study of the scriptures; here individual meditation is central, there communal worship; here poverty is the unifying concept, there it is obedience; here the great mystical experiences are suggested as the way to perfection, there the little way of common daily life. Much of the emphasis depends on the time in which a new spirituality found its beginning, on the personal character of the man or woman who was or is its main inspiration and on the particular needs to which it responds.
The fact that these spiritualities are mostly related to influential historical personalities with great visibility helps us to use them as real guides in the search for our own personal way. Benedict, Francis, Dominic, Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, Jacob Boehme, Francis de Sales, George Fox, John Wesley, Henry Martyn, John Henry Newman, Soren Kiekegaard, Charles de Foucauld, Dag Hammarskjold, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton and many, many others offer us, by their own lives and the lives of their disciples and faithful students, a frame of reference and a point of orientation in our attempts to find the prayer of our heart.
I remember meeting one day a very shy, somewhat withdrawn man. Although he was very intelligent, it seemed as if the world was just too big for him. Any suggestion that he do something outstanding or special scared him. For him, the little way, the conscientious living of the small realities of everyday life was the way of prayer. When he spoke about the little Therese of Lisieux, his spiritual guide, his eyes lit up and he looked full of joy. But his more passionate neighbour needed the example of Anthony of the Desert or Bernard of Clairvaux and other great spiritual athletes to help him in his search for an authentic spiritual life.
Without such inspiring guides, it is very difficult to remain faithful to the desire to find our own way. It is a hard and often lonely search and we constantly need new insights, support and comfort to persevere. The really great saints of history don’t ask for imitation. Their way was unique and cannot be repeated. But they invite us into their lives and offer a hospitable space for our own search. Some turn us off and make us feel uneasy; others even irritate us, but among the many great spiritual men and women in history we may find a few, or maybe just one or two, who speak the language of our heart and give us courage. These are our guides. Not to be imitated but to help us live our lives just as authentically as they lived theirs. When we have found such guides we have good reason to be grateful and even better reasons to listen attentively to what they have to say.
The Way of a Pilgrim
Among the many spiritualities, style of prayer and ways to God, there is one way that is relatively unknown but might prove to have special relevance in our contemporary spiritual climate. That is the spirituality of Hesychasm, one of the oldest spiritual traditions in the Eastern Orthodox Church, which lately received new attention in the West through the publication of an English edition of The Way of a Pilgrim. Rather than giving short descriptions of different spiritual ways, it seems more valuable to discuss in some detail just one way: the way of the Hesychasts. This is valuable not only because Hesychasm illustrates much that has been said but also because what it says has a remarkably modern ring to it.
While all of us are called to search with diligence and perseverance for the prayer of our own heart—ie, the prayer that is most our own and that forms our unique way of reaching out to our God—Hesychasm makes the prayer of the heart its central concept, gives it a very concrete content and offers explicit guidelines to realise it.
What, then is Hesychasm? Hesychasm (from the Greek word hesychia=repose) is a spiritual tradition that found its beginnings in the fifth century, developed in the monasteries on Mount Sinai and later on Mount Athos, was found very much alive during the spiritual renewal in nineteenth-century Russia, and is gradually being discovered by the West as one of the most valuable “schools” of prayer. The prayer in which the hesychastic tradition finds its deepest expression is the Jesus prayer consisting of the simple words: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me.” Timothy Ware says concerning the Jesus prayer:
. . . around these few words many Orthodox over the centuries have built their spiritual life and through this one prayer have entered into the deepest mysteries of Christians knowledge.
There is probably no simpler nor livelier way to understand the richness of Hesychasm and the Jesus prayer than by listening to the remarkable story of an anonymous Russian peasant who wandered through his vast country discovering with growing amazement and inner joy the marvellous fruits of the Jesus prayer. In The Way of a Pilgrim his story is written down, most probably by a Russian monk whom he met on his journey.
A few years ago I spent three days in retreat with two close friends. Most of the time we kept silence but after dinner we read to each other the story of the pilgrim. To our own surprise this pleasant and charming spiritual book had a profound influence on us and opened for us a new and very simple way to prayer in the midst of our very restless and hectic lives. We still talk about those days as “the days with the pilgrim.”
In The Way of a Pilgrim the Russian peasant tells us how he goes from town to town, church to church and monk to monk to find out how to pray without ceasing (see 1 Thessalonians 5:17). After having heard many sermons and consulted many people in vain, he finds a holy starets (monk) who teaches him the Jesus prayer. The starets first reads to him the following words of Simeon the New Theologian:
Sit down alone and in silence. Lower your head, shut your eyes, breathe out gently and imagine yourself looking into your own heart. Carry your mind, ie, your thoughts, from your head to your heart. As you breathe out say: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Say it moving your lips gently, or say it in your mind. Try to put all other thoughts aside. Be calm, be patient and repeat the process very frequently.
After having read this to his visitor, the starets instruct him to say the Jesus prayer three thousand times each day, then six thousand times, then twelve thousand times and finally— as often as he wants. The pilgrim is very happy to have found a master and follows carefully his instructions. He says:
Under this guidance I spent the whole summer in ceaseless oral prayer to Jesus Christ, and I felt absolute peace in my soul. During sleep I often dreamed that I was saying the Prayer. And during the day, if I happened to meet anyone, all men without exception were as dear to me as if they had been my nearest relations.. . . I thought of nothing whatever but my Prayer, my mind tended to listen to it, and my heart began of itself to feel at times a certain warmth and pleasure.
After the death of his holy starets, the peasant wanders from town to town with his prayer. The prayer has given him new strength to deal with all the adversities of the pilgrim life and turn all pains into joy:
At times I do as much as forty-three or –four miles a day, and do not feel that I am walking at all. I am aware only of the fact that I am saying my Prayer. When the bitter cold pierces me, I begin to say my Prayer more earnestly and I quickly get warm all over. When hunger begins to overcome me, I call more often on the Name of Jesus and I forget my wish for food. When I fall ill and get rheumatism in my back and legs, I fix my thoughts on the Prayer and do not notice the pain. If anyone harms me, I have only to think, “How sweet is the Prayer of Jesus!” and the injury and the anger alike pass away and I forget it all.
The pilgrim, however, has no illusions. He realises that, notwithstanding these events, his prayer had not yet become the prayer of the heart in the fullest sense. The starets had told him that all these experiences are part of “an artificial state which follows quite naturally upon routine.” For the prayer of the heart, he says, “I await God’s time.” After many unsuccessful attempts to find word and a place to stay, he decides to go to the tomb of St. Innocent of Irkutsk in Siberia.
My idea was that in the forests and steppes of Siberia I should travel in greater silence and therefore in a way that was better for prayer and reading. And this journey I undertook, all the while saying my oral Prayer without stopping.
It is on this journey that the pilgrim experiences the prayer of the heart for the first time. In very lively, simple and direct words he tells us how it came about and how it led him into the most intimate relationship with Jesus.
After no great lapse of time I had the feeling that the Prayer had, so to speak, by its own action passed from my lips to my heart. That is to say, it seemed as though my heart in its ordinary beating began to say the words of the Prayer within at each beat. . . I gave up saying the Prayer with my lips. I simply listened carefully to what my heart was saying. It seemed as though my eyes looked right down into it; . . Then I felt something like a pain in my heart, and in my thoughts so great a love for Jesus Christ that I pictured myself, if only I could see Him, throwing myself at His feet and not letting them go from my embrace, kissing them tenderly, and thanking Him with tears for having of His love and grace allowed me to find so great a consolation in His Name, me, His unworthy and sinful creature! Further there came into my heart a gracious warmth which spread through my whole breast.
The prayer of the heart gives the pilgrim an immense joy and an unspeakable experience of God’s presence. Wherever he goes and with whomever he speaks from here on, he cannot resist speaking about God who dwells in him. Although he never tries to convert people or change their behaviour but always looks for silence and solitude, he nevertheless finds that the people he meets respond deeply to him and his words and rediscover God in their own lives. Thus, the pilgrim, who by his confession of sin and unceasing supplication for mercy, recognises his distance from God, finds himself travelling through the world in his most intimate company and inviting others to share in it.
With the Mind in the Heart
If we should not move beyond the charming story if the Russian peasant and are only enamoured by the appeal of its nineteenth-century romanticism, it might lead us no further than it did Franny and Zooey in J.D. Salinger’s novel, that is, to mental confusion.
The pilgrim’s story, however, is just one ripple of the deep mystical stream of Russian Hesychasm in the nineteenth century. How deep and powerful this stream really was is revealed in The Art of Prayer. This book, which was one of Thomas Merton’s favourite books, is an orthodox anthology on the prayer of the heart, collected by Chariton of Valams, and contains excerpts of the works of nineteen-century Russian spiritual writers, in particular, Bishop Theophan the Recluse. It is a rich record of mystical prayer and shows us one of the most concrete ways to reach out to God from the center of our innermost self. There we hear Theophan the Recluse say to one of the many who asked his guidance:
I will remind you of only one thing: one must descend with the mind into the heart, and there stand before the face of the Lord, ever present, all seeing within you. The prayer takes a firm and steadfast hold, when a small fire begins to burn in the heart. Try not to quench this fire, and it will become established in such a way that the prayer repeats itself; and then you will have within you a small murmuring stream.
To stand in the present of God with our mind in our heart, that is the essence of the prayer of the heart. Theophan expresses in a very succinct way that the prayer of the heart unifies our whole person and places us without any reservation, mind in heart, in the awesome and loving presence of God.
If prayer were just an intelligent exercise of our mind, we would soon become stranded in fruitless and trivial inner debates with God. If, on the hand, prayer would involve only our heart, we might soon think that good prayer consist in good feeling. But prayer of the heart in the most profound sense unites mind and heart in the intimacy of the divine love.
It is about this prayer that the pilgrim speaks, thereby expressing in his own charming naïve style the profound wisdom of the spiritual fathers of his time. In the expression “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me,” we find a powerful summary of all prayer:
a. It directs itself to Jesus, the Son of God, who lived, died and was raised for us;
b. It declares Him to be Christ, the anointed One, the Messiah, the One we have been waiting for;
c. It calls Him our Lord of our whole being: body, mind, and spirit, thought, emotions and actions;
d. And it professes our deepest relationship to Him by a confession of our sinfulness and by a humble plea for His forgiveness, mercy, compassion, love and tenderness.
The prayer of the heart can be a special guide to the present-day Christian searching for his own personal way to an intimate relationship to God. More than ever we feel like wandering strangers in a fast-changing world. But we do not want to escape this world. Instead, we want to be fully part of it without drowning in its stormy waters. We want to be alert and receptive to all that happens around us without being paralysed by inner fragmentation. We want to travel with open eyes through this valley of tears without losing contact with Him who calls us to a new land. We want to respond with compassion to all those whom we meet on our way and ask for a hospitable place to stay while remaining solidly rooted in the intimate love of our God.
The prayer of the heart shows us one possible way. It is indeed like a murmuring stream that continues underneath the many waves of every day and opens the possibility of living in the world without being of it and of reaching out to our God from the center of our solitude.
At Home while still on the Way
The prayer of the heart requires first of all that we make God our only thought. That means that we must dispel all distractions, concerns, worries and preoccupations, and fill the mind with God alone. The Jesus prayer, or any other prayer form, is meant to be a help to gently empty our minds from all that is not God, and offer all the room to Him and Him alone. But that is not all. Our prayer becomes a prayer of the heart when we have localised in the center of our inner being the empty space in which our God-filled mind can descend and vanish, and where the distinctions between thinking and feeling, knowing and experiencing, ideas and emotions are transcended, and where God can become our host. “The Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21), Jesus said. The prayer of the heart takes these words seriously. When we empty our mind from all thoughts and our heart from all experiences, we can prepare in the center of our innermost being the home for the God who wants to dwell in us. Then we can say with St. Paul, “I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20) Then we can affirm Luther’s words, “Grace is the experience of being delivered from experience.” And then we can realise that it is not we who pray, but the Spirit of God who prays in us.
One of the early Fathers said: “When thieves approach a house in order to creep up to it and steal, and hear someone inside talking, they do not dare to climb in; in the same way, when our enemies try to steal into the soul and take possession of it they creep all round but fear to enter when they hear that . . . prayer welling out.
When our heart belongs to God, the world and its powers cannot steal it from us. When God has become the Lord of our heart, our basic alienation is overcome and we can pray with the psalmist:
It was You who created my inmost self,
And put me together in my mother’s womb;
For all these mysteries I thank you:
For the wonder of myself, for the wonder of your works (Psalms 139:13-14)
When God has become our shepherd, our refuge, our fortress, then we can reach out to Him in the midst of a broken world and feel at home while still on the way. When God dwells in us, we can enter in a wordless dialogue with Him while still waiting on the day that He will lead us into the house where he has prepared a place for us (John 14:2). Then we can wait while we have already arrived and ask while we have already received. Then, indeed, we can comfort each other with the words of Paul:
There is no need to worry; but if there is anything you need, pray for it, asking God for it with prayer and with thanksgiving, and that peace of God, which is so much greater than we can understand, will guard your hearts and your thoughts, in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)